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

Posted by Kristen McDonald on Sun, 06/20/2010 - 10:47

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.


The race began with dragon boat-style drumming, a series of speeches, and a presentation of the teams. About 200 people had been recruited – from the tourism company perhaps – to watch the start. While milling about, the representative from the International Rafting Federation, a striking Indonesian woman told me the organizers were trying to find someone to paddle with her down the race course. “I’ll go with you!” I instantly offered.

Moments later, “Ana” and I we were pushing off the bank, twelfth in line after the eleven expert teams. We were determined to enjoy ourselves, and not to race. We used the thin, neon orange tourist life jackets and rough wooden paddles with tiny blades. The creek was running about 200 cfs, and the high cliffs and twisting rock faces were startlingly green and lush.

Soon, we could see my co-researcher’s boat bumping into rocks up ahead. At first I thought they were just goofing off, and then I realized they were trying hard, but were simply unable to get the boat moving downstream any faster. I coached them a bit, but seeing their frustration I eventually offered that they forget about the race and just enjoy themselves. After a series of long, steep chutes Ana and I stopped for a sip of ginger tea at one of the local stands on the bank, but my co-researcher’s boat had fallen far behind.

To actually race the course did seem challenging, as much of it was composed of steep, dynamited chutes best approached with a firm grip on each handle of the little two-person rafts. We filled up water at every drop, and stopped three or four times to empty ourselves with the help of local folks stationed on the banks for safety. At the longest drop, the bottom wave flipped us into shallow water. We were thankful for the quick-reacting safety guards, who caught us with bamboo hooks before we careened, boat-less, down the next cheese-grater chute.

Overall it was a lovely run; with wild scenery, exciting rapids, and hundreds of safety guards and tea vendors helping to make it all seem, well, safe enough. After about an hour we hit the finish line, which also marked the start of the Three Gorges Dam reservoir. We could see dying trees slumped along the muddy banks, and a silty pathway took us to motorized dragon boats waiting to ferry us downstream to the bus stop.

As we were watching the amateur racers come in, someone radioed the finish line officials that boat number ten (my co-researcher’s boat) had given up and its paddlers had climbed up to the road. I smiled sheepishly at Watersports Bureau Director Li who was already probably questioning the qualifications of our “expert” team.

“Well, at least they are safe,” I said.

Other teams had struggled too – there were several bruised elbows and broken carbon paddles, and almost everyone had flipped at least once. The winning team – the Norwegians – hadn’t flipped, but one of their paddlers had fallen out of the boat. Boat ten had flipped three times. On the third time they lost their boat downstream, as well as both of the nice paddles we had brought from Kunming. That is when they decided to hike out. The paddles were eventually recovered, but not, I am afraid, the pride of the paddlers.

That night after the banquet, the international teams took to the hotel bar, and one of the Norwegians began plying everyone with shots of bai jiu (China’s rotgut) out of the handle of his carbon blade. When he started shouting, “We’re the winners, and you all are a bunch of wankers!” his team-mate thoughtfully took him to his room.

One persistent Chinese lady was trying to flirt with the 19-year old Australian team member, but even the Extreme Sports Bureau lady, Ms. Na of the drinking competition earlier that night, seemed reluctant to join us. “I have a 7 and a half-month old at home,” she cried. The party ended with karaoke and dancing in a dark and empty hall, where we belted classics such as, “Addicted to Love,” “Careless Whisper,” and “House of the Rising Sun.”

Our final day at the Three Gorges Dam site, the heat beat down oppressively and we waited for our afternoon train in the air conditioned comfort of the Three Gorges Project hotel. The sky had cleared a bit and we could see the tops of the gorges from our hotel room window. Thousands of kilometers upstream, the Jinsha River looks much the same, only narrower. While various engineers and consultants resumed their normal business in the hotel lobby, I started thinking about my coming week in Beijing and the meetings I planned to attend to strategize on how to keep parts of this river free flowing. But now I had seen and, alas, partaken of the riches proferred by the biggest hydropower project in the world.