We’re #1 or #4!
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.
On our first day in the area we opted out of the 20 story glass elevator ride, and instead walked four kilometers of stairs and paths along a scenic section into the gorge. A small scenic area concession sold us entry tickets at a price of about US $12 a head. As we entered the lush canyon, the temperature began to drop and the air filled with the mist of dozens of waterfalls careening off the canyon rim. I pretended not to know that most of these cascades were likely agricultural effluent from nearby fields of GMO corn and rice, growing lush and tall this time of year.
For our study of rafting resources in southern China, we are surveying customers after their trip. Here at the Maling River we wait around at the ticket concession for busloads of soggy boaters to return to the changing rooms, and the giant, freshly asphalted parking area at the put-in. While not as numerous as the floaters Hongkou, I would venture to say Maling River customers get more bang for their buck. We sampled the product yesterday, and enjoyed the ride very much. At a flow of roughly 4000 cfs, the current commercial stretch of the Maling River affords about three class four rapids, two of them quite technical, and a few fun and splashy class threes.
In between these narrow, twisty drops, calm water provides an excellent opportunity to admire the twisting spires of limestone and karst deposits along the banks. But like many rivers in China, the Maling River suffers from the widespread practice of depositing garbage into the closest stream which can conveniently carry it out of site, out of mind. The result in the fluxuating, heavily vegetated Maling River is that the banks are lined with ‘garbage trees.’ Standing 1-4 meters in height, their spiny branches catch all of the plastic bags, ratty tshirts, and plastic tarpaulins no longer needed by upstream residents. It would take hundreds of do-gooders weeks on end to remove all the offending fruits of this unfortunate life cycle.
“What do you think of the garbage trees?” I casually asked the forty-something woman from Guiyang who occupied the seat next to me in the raft. “Ugly, ugly,” she replied.
The Maling River, the local government boasts, was in 1996 somewhere between the 1st and 4th commercial rafting operation to open in China. Many of the guides here have been around ever since, and tell crusty tails of exploring other parts of the canyon. “Downstream from here there’s one rapid with a 20 meter drop!” One guide tells me. They ran it commercially for half a year, but shut it down due to a high customer injury rate.
None of the guides have boated other rivers, and the breed of rafting here is unique to the location: three long pontoons are laced together with webbing, and two ‘boatmen’ (of the forty on staff, none are women) use long bamboo poles to steer and punt from the rear while three in front push with heavy wooden paddles. The customers (up to ten at a time) straddle the pontoons, hanging on to webbing handholds between their legs.
Few words if any passed between the boatmen and us. “They are supposed to give a safety talk at the start of the trip,” the company manager explained, “but sometimes they forget, they have all run the trip so many times and they forget the customers are new every time.”
Observing the guides, I perceived a highly stratified fraternal organization, complete with its preferred fashions (marginal, neon orange life-vests worn backwards and often untied, and yellow plastic slip-on sandals) and its peer-pressure customs (cigarettes during the flat water, TV watching while at base). The guides make between US $60 and US $200 per month, depending on how busy they are, slightly above average income for working class China. Off season the guides farm, do carpentry, weld, fish, or harvest ornamental trees from the canyon.
Tomorrow we head to probably the most frequented rafting destination in China, a complex of reservoirs, designed channels, restaurants and who knows what else about an hour’s drive north of Guangzhou. I will miss the slow pace and mild breezes of the Guizhou mountains.