In March of 2009, China Rivers Project had its first research-oriented river trip on the Great Bend of the Jinsha River, a stunning limestone canyon threatened by a cascade of large hydropower dams. Myself and two of the trip participants, a UC Santa Barbara professor and a Colorado water lawyer, shared a boat one day. We started brainstorming what has evolved into a collaborative research venture that brings us one step closer to realizing permanent river protection for some of China's rivers.
Over the summer, the whispers here in China have grown into media articles which have blossomed into reports of official policy. “China’s central government is warm to big dams again.” Projects on the Jinsha River that were put on hold, are free to continue, and big hydropower is the prominent answer to China’s promises about cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
While China has long been the country with the largest number of dams, it is now, reports suggest, the country with the largest installed hydropower capacity, and the government hopes to double this capacity by 2020. To meet this capacity, practically each and every planned dam on China’s major rivers and large tributaries will need to go forward, immediately (see maps on this site). While these projects may result in less carbon been poured into the atmosphere from China, they will also mean destruction of pristine western China plateau valleys, the drowning of China’s grand canyons, and wave after wave of forced displacement of poor and minority farmers and herders.
Qingyuan, an hour or so north of Guangzhou, is known at least by locals as China’s “First Great Travel County.” With fourteen different raft companies within 50 kilometer radius, we felt it imperative to come check out Qingyuan’s offerings as part of our current study of China’s raft industry. Sports bureau friends in Beijing claimed this area offered the most successful example of raft tourism in China, a model for the rest of the country to follow.
The Maling River runs a twisted path in western Guizhou, in the Buyi and Miao Ethnic Minority Autonomous Prefecture of Qin Xi Nan. In part because of the rush of summer holiday-goers buying up all the train tickets from Chengdu, it took us two and a half days to get here. The route involved three different buses, all equipped with monitors playing continuous, loud, violent movies. Upon arriving, I instantly started breathing much deeper. The Maling River gorge is a stunning geologic feature, and it would be foolhardy if not impossible to build along its brittle, karst-lined banks. So for now, it remains fairly unspoiled.
The thing that first stands out about this place is all the condominium development up and down the river valley. It is happening so fast even the rafting company boss is alarmed. There is only so much impact it can have on his business, given he has exclusive use rights of the 23 raft-able kilometers of the Hong Kou (虹口） river, plus significant space at both put in and take out for all the necessary facilities. It is an arrangement a day trip vendor in the states would dream of. Not only is there no competition, it is pretty much okay to manipulate the channel in the pursuit of a safe and smooth ride. Through various channel rearranging projects and a few supposedly fish-safe wiers, plus ample boats and lifejackets and a well-tuned people moving system, the company can handle up to 6000 guests in a day. That’s the ideal at least, and would mean each of the company’s 1000 crafts gets up and down the river three times.
We drove two hours to the race site. A microphone crackled to life as we took off, and a cute teenage tour guide launched into a script that began with a lengthy and convincing explanation of the necessity of remembering that we were on bus #6. Then she sang a song for us as we crossed the long suspension bridge downstream of the dam. We heard a bit about the dam and dam migrants (she was not one), and began winding our way through steep mountains to the Jiuwanxi put-in. Like the hotel area, and like Yichang downstream, the towns and villages we drove through looked rich, with broad manicured streets, neat public squares, and big new buildings.
Up to the last ten years, rafting in China has been the domain of professionals – young athletes prompted to attack rivers with speed and patriotism. The National Watersports Administration in Beijing, an office of the Sports Bureau, has in this spirit fostered international competitions in locations throughout China, in liaison with the International Rafting Federation.
But these events, with their pomp and playing of the Olympic theme song, have little in common with the culture of Chinese domestic rafting tourism as I am beginning to understand it. Indeed the weekend warriors who come to places like Jiuwanxi seem to have scant interest in developing skills, or proving anything at all. At least that’s what is implied by what we witnessed underneath the competition’s veneer. Jiuwanxi is essentially an extension of the popular Three Gorges Dam sightseeing trip which people do once, and only once. Though secondary to the dam, it is a “four star” tourist attraction, bringing hundreds of thousands of visitors every summer. The facilities are large and streamlined and can accommodate 5000 or more tourists in one day.
A couple weeks ago in Kunming I received an invitation to attend a raft race at Jiuwanxi (Nine Bend Brook), a small tributary to the Yangtze about 20 km from the Three Gorges Dam site. In 2006 I had attended one other international raft race upstream on the Yangtze, at the industrial city of Panzhihua. That one involved paddling heavy military rafts down 70km of flatwater with pool-toy type paddles. This one sounded more interesting – a 7 km long, narrow, fast moving stream in a two-person raft. With my new study on rafting resources in eastern China taking off, it seemed like a great opportunity to see one of our potential case study locations and start making some connections.
For the past three weeks or so I have been in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province, where I have been preparing China Rivers Project’s next research project: “China’s Rafting Industry: How far will it grow?” One of CRP’s objectives is to get more folks in China interested in rafting/kayaking, and simultaneously to increase their awareness of rivers and interest in protecting rivers. While there is a lot we can do with the trips we organize, in recent years we have heard rumors of hundreds of small rafting companies setting up operations on short stretches of river in eastern China.
Two nights ago I spoke at a bookstore in Guangzhou, an event sponsored by Guangzhou-based Zhi Tour which leads educational, enlightened tours here in China. Last Descents partners with Zhi Tour to book multi day river trips. It was my first time giving such a long, formal talk in Chinese, and I wrote out the whole talk （这里可以看中文）and nervously practiced it a few times in the days preceding. But at the event, which took place in a nice room in one of Guangzhou’s more well-known bookstores, I scarcely glanced at my notes. I have told my story many times in English, and it came out easily in Chinese as well.