I am back from vacation and today I will be speaking about China Rivers Project at the biggest bookstore in Guangzhou, the giant city in southern China previously known to westerns as Canton. Smog clings to this city like a hungry ghost, green construction awnings claw at the sky, and there is the constant throb and clang of exploding growth. But here, there is also a current of intellectual freedom. The Scottish-Chinese couple graciously hosting me moved here three years ago because the schools are far better than those in western China. And people here are curious, cultured, and I hope, eager to expand their horizons.
Last night I got invited to a banquet by my host here in Kunming. I haven’t done a Chinese banquet in a while, and the evening served as a solid reminder of banquet etiquette, and how unnatural it comes to me. My host here in Kunming, Teacher Zhao, is a professor of cultural relics, which in his case means he is somewhere between an ethnologist and an antique dealer. At the Yunnan University research station at the northern end of the Nu River valley, where I met him in 2005, his research interests were antiquated household equipment like wooden churns and grindstones. He helped write the Nu Prefecture gazetteer on cultural relics, attends antique auctions on weekends, and likes to spout aphorisms about ethnic minorities that only I seem to question, such as, “For the Nu people, if you can walk, you can dance, if you can talk, you can sing, if you can drink, you can do anything.” (Banquet rule #5: it is best to smile politely at everything your table captain says.)
Our season on the Jinsha River is drawing to a close. With the tragic earthquake in Yushu, its unclear if we will run trips on the Tongtian River this summer. Possibly, Last Descents will be organizing a trip to benefit earthquake reconstruction. But we still have no idea if infrastructure will be able to support our ecotourism efforts. Stay tuned for more information on our summer plans...
Meanwhile, the Nu River continues to make headlines, as in today's article in the Global Post (with a nice quote from our China Program Manager, Travis Winn, who met with the reporter while traveling in the Nu River Valley over the Chinese Spring Holiday).
I am just back from our second trip on the Jinsha River this season. This time, all of our guests were Chinese, including a well to do Hong Kong businessman who is linked with The Nature Conservancy China, and his family. While quite new to wilderness travel, these folks were highly intelligent, eager to learn about the river, and quick to have fun rafting. As we shared our experiences around a campfire on the last night of the trip, it was gratifying to hear the young folks on the trip – age 13 to 19 – talk about how experienceing the Jinsha made them realize that they personally wanted to get more involved in conservation efforts.
While in China, I've been spending a lot of time working and playing with a remarkable team of river guides. These folks include Jane Chipman of Colorado, a skilled kayaker, cowgirl, and banjo player, who started learning Chinese last year while working for a water treatment company in Beijing. Also on board is Bob Wojtalik, a man of many talents including welding, rowing, fire fighting, with a seasoned poker face. Li Weiyi, from Guangzhou, is a former real estate company manager who completely changed her lifestyle to become, as she likes to call herself, "China river girl." Tan Jian Zhong is a logger turned rower and climbing guide from Kunming, who rocks a mean wok and enjoys rave reviews for his singing.
The leader of this odd little family, Travis Winn, is my partner on China Rivers Project, and also the owner of Last Descents River Expeditions, a whitewater rafting company registered here in China as of 2006.
Our recent trip on the Jinsha was a great success, though bittersweet due to the changes we witnessed on the river (see my last blog post). I've posted some pictures that Last Descent's guide-cook-truck packing mastermind-tenor Tan Jian Zhong took on the trip on my flickr account (with his permission of course.)
Yesterday, March 25, was the last day of our recent 10-day trip on the Jinsha River. In the morning, all 17 of us sat in a circle on a broad, sandy beach, sheltered from the wind by a giant chunk of limestone. We were about 5 kilometers from the Ahai Dam site, where our trip would end. Each trip participant said a few words about their experiences rafting the Jinsha, bringing smiles and laughter, and also some tears.
Li Weiyi, manager at Last Descents River Expeditions, told the group how last year she quit her high power job at Wangke, China’s largest real estate company, to join the Last Descents Team. At the time, she wondered how long she would enjoy roughing it on the river. This was her fourth trip, and with sudden emotion, she explained how this time, it felt like she was visiting a very close, dying friend.
The town of Lijiang, one of the most popular domestic tourism destinations in China, is also the staging grounds for the country’s premier whitewater rafting trip - the Great Bend of the Jinsha River. I write today from Lijiang, on the eve of departing for my first project in China, helping to coordinate a 10 day rafting trip on this section of the Jinsha. Known as China’s “Grand Canyon,” it is a stretch about 100 km long and featuring deep gorges, idyllic villages, and two major hydropower dam sites.
The video “A River’s Last Breath” by Epicocity introduces this section of river.
The coolers are stuffed with meat and vegetables, our company is assembled and debriefed, and the truck is packed for the four hour drive to Daju, our put in.
I leave Berkeley today to head to China for nine months, my heart holding hope that this trip will help bring closer, however minimally, the realization of permanent river protection for some of China’s wild western rivers – the far upper Yangtze, the Nu River, the upper Mekong. This trip has been a long time coming, and is only possible after I finally mustered the nerve to ask everyone I know to donate to China Rivers Project. It feels great to now be heading to China with not only the pull of opportunities and alliances that require action in China, but also the generous push from many folks back home. I am full of excitement, but also humility, as I know that my time there will only be productive if I work very hard, stay flexible, and absorb as much as I can.
In the San Francisco airport, I spot a computer kiosk tucked next to a couple of vending machines. The kiosk offers the purchase of carbon offsets for my flight, and since I have some time, I stop to give the calculator a try. I enter my flight destination - Lijiang, Yunnan - and the computer calculates my flight will contribute 5340 lbs of carbon to the atmosphere and will cost $32.70 to offset. That amount will purchase the equivalent of about an acre of healthy forest for a year, which will “absorb” my carbon footprint for the flight. Wow, 5340 lbs – about 3 metric tons – sure seems like a lot of carbon. Some quick google searching reveals that amount of carbon is about the equivalent of driving about 5000 miles, or by eating 4000 bowls of cereal with cow’s milk.