Rafting the Hong Kou near Chengdu, Sichuan

Posted by Kristen McDonald on Fri, 07/09/2010 - 14:26

Hong KouHong KouThe 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.

But some of the charm of the place could be impacted by the sight of so many condos and new guest houses, which sprout up in pinks and oranges and reds, contrasting sharply with the emerald green valley. It seems like an unlikely place for urban sprawl, particularly given that the whole valley is supposed to be part of a nature reserve. But then again, we are only an hour and a half’s drive or so (in a private car of course, and assuming no traffic) from Chengdu, Sichuan Province, which has grown so fast that I can hardly recognize it anymore.The temperature is easily 10 degrees cooler up here.

Another reason why the building craze in the Hong Kou River valley stands out is its all quite new and expensive looking. No bathroom tiled exterior walls! And there are dozens of helpful and tasteful wooden, multilingual signs marking the various waypoints: youth inns, ‘auberges des montagnes es du eaux,” scenic overlooks, outdoor sports clubs . The government has invested a lot in redeveloping this place after the Wenchuan earthquake struck, and there's much pride manifest in the so called "art deco" architectural stlye. I am reminded of the fanciness of the Three Gorge Dam area and the wealth it exuded. That’s the scale of the investment going on here, much of it coming from the central government, and it seems to be working, at least for some.

I am here with three colleagues from SW China Forestry University, an instructor I met two years ago on a raft trip and two masters' students. We are investigating south China’s raft industry. My first night at Hongkou, I wandered off the beaten path.  I wanted to get down to the river and I eventually succeeded, but not before ambling through a cluster of abandoned homes which the lush, bamboo-filled forest had almost overtaken and which had mostly been flattened by the Wenchaun earthquake.I walked amidst the rubble, while butterflies danced in the fading light. These structures, at least, were left very much as they appeared after the morning of May 12, 2008.

Over the next few days we will delve more deeply into the secrets of this place: how it developed so quickly as a raft destination, and where all this money is coming from. Tomorrow morning starts with some participant observation of the rafting products on offer here. For safety reasons, we are told, guests are not given paddles. It will be interesting to see how that feels for a bit of a boat-control freak like me when we test out the run tomorrow.