Racing Rafts at the Three Gorges Dam – Part 2/3

Posted by Kristen McDonald on Sat, 06/19/2010 - 08:59

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.

The banquet following the race illustrated the odd coupling of China’s two rafting cultures. The most important table, front and center, seated local and provincial government tourism officials and the Three Gorges Tourism Company directors, and only a smattering of the most senior of the Watersports officials, eager to ensure that the local company and tourism officials had a good time. Most of the athletes were off to the side. I overheard one of the Australian paddlers comment on this arrangement: “Now I get it – this race isn’t about us at all!”

After about an hour Ms. Na from the Extreme Sports Association initiated an international chug-a-lug competition among the competitors. In fairness, the drinking games were more entertaining for everyone than the glitzy singers who had kicked off the banquet with syrupy numbers extolling the fragrant Yangtze. But the shameless orchestration enhanced the perception that we foreigners were more or less on display.

During the banquet I approached the Jiuwanxi raft company boss about participating in my study. He seemed much more interested in how I might help him stave off potential competitors, possibly through creating standards for business licenses, than getting to know his clients better. “A lot of places are getting crowded with operators and standards can go down,” he lamented, his face red with the evening’s toasts. He offered to look at our research proposal and handed me his business card.

Another reason I wanted to attend the race was to connect with a Watersports vice director whom I had met years ago at Panzhihua. I believed he would be able to help with data and connections with raft company bosses. Disappointingly, to him as much as to us, Director “Li” had few numbers to share.

“It would be great if you could find out how many raft companies there are in China,” he responded. I got the feeling he wished he had more authority over these rafting operations and the tourism bureaus they are licensed under. And yet, without the expanding number of raft companies and their successful business efforts, these international competitions would be much harder for Director Li to put together.

Promptly at seven, with most of the fancy, meat-heavy dinner left untouched, the banquet ended. Folks teetered back home, or to their rooms in the hotel, to watch TV, and the Watersports officials gave a sigh of relief. As Director Li had told me the day before, as we sat near the finish line amidst limestone cliffs and vine-heavy trees, “You have to understand, in China, for most of us this is just a job.”

“Really?” I asked, “Not a pastime?”

He and some of his colleagues nearby laughed. “Well, maybe it is a little bit of a pastime.”