Yangbi River Tour China: Earth Science Expeditions

Yangbi River Tour China: Earth Science Expeditions

The Yangbi River is a major tributary of the Mekong River, known in China as the Lancang Jiang. The Yangbi flows from the mountains north of Dali in Yunnan Province, southwestern China, through a relatively inaccessible area inhabited principally by the people of Bai and Yi ethnic origin rather than the majority Han Chinese.

Yangbi River Tour China: Earth Science Expeditions
Yangbi River Tour China

It enters the Mekong from its eastern side, in a section of the Mekong currently subject to massive dam construction for hydroelectric power development. The upper catchment near Dali has been subject to large-scale industrial logging. Except for one medium-scale mine, the lower gorges are apparently occupied only by villagers who practice a local subsistence farming lifestyle. At least, this was the situation when we visited in the mid-1990s.

Operator  Yangbi River Tour China

Earth Science Expeditions (ESE) is a small US-based company that specializes in river-based exploratory trips and expeditions in remote areas of China and Tibet. Its directors combine expertise in exploration geology and prospecting with expertise in remote-area travel, river running and commercial tourism. Their primary focus is on first descents of large remote rivers draining the major catchments of the Himalayas. Many of these rivers run through areas occupied by minority peoples, and in some cases disputed territories. In these areas, maps and aerial photographs are still treated as military intelligence, and there is little or no up-to-date scientific information on the geology or ecology, at least in the international English-language scientific literature.

These expeditions have been run effectively as commercial tours, advertised in whitewater circles and open to anyone with relevant interests. The first descent of the Yangbi River was ESE’s first such adventure tour, and entailed very considerable organizational effort and expense by the company’s directors, not least because the period whilst the trip was being planned was interrupted by the Tiananmen Square massacre in China, which severed diplomatic relations between China and the USA for several years. Following the successful first descent of the Yangbi, ESE and its subsidiary Shangri-La River Expeditions have carried out a number of similar trips and explorations.

I have taken part in three of these: the 1994 Yangbi trip described here (Buckley,1995); a 1997 trip on a section of the Lancang Jiang (Mekong) in Yunnan, China(Earth Science Expeditions, 2005); and a 2004 trip in the Qamdo Gorge in the Tibetan section of the Mekong, described in the next case study.

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Activity : Take Me to Your Yangbi River Tours

Best of Yangbi County, River China Tourism
Best of Yangbi County, River China Tourism

As with ESE’s other first descents in China, the group used a combination of kayaks and catarafts. The catarafts carry the food, camping and cooking equipment so that the kayakers can paddle their boats empty for maximum manoeuvrability. The kayakers paddle ahead and check whether each rapid is runnable or needs to be scouted and perhaps portaged, and signal back to the rafts. Catarafts, which are essentially twin inflatable pontoons held together with a rowing and equipment frame, cannot carry as many passengers as a conventional floored oval raft of similar dimensions, but are much more manoeuvrable.

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Participants brought their own camping equipment, and the kayakers brought their own kayaks and all associated gear. ESE does keep some whitewater kayaks in China, available for use by its kayakers, but most expedition members bring their own boats specifically for the trip, taking them home again afterwards. The dismantled rafts, rigging, oars and accessories are stored in China between trips, along with tents, cooking gear and other camping equipment. For the Yangbi trip, the participants brought their own camping equipment, but ESE now has tents and sleeping bags available for loan if required. ESE provides river gear for rafters, but kayakers bring their own personal gear such as helmets, lifejackets, sprayskirts and paddles.

Accommodation Yangbi River Tour China

All accommodation on the river itself was in tents, camped on gravel bars, riverbanks or wherever else was possible. On the road trips between the river and the gateway city of Kunming, accommodation was in local hotels or guesthouses, as available. Each cataraft had two large plastic cooler boxes that were continually splashed or partially immersed in the river, and at that time of the year the air was also cool, so it was possible to bring fresh vegetables as well as dry and packaged foods.

Statistics Yangbi River Tour China

The Yangbi descent is not run as a routine tour, and indeed, since the ESE descent, the river has been largely dammed and heavily polluted and has, apparently, never been run again. There are therefore no up-to-date statistics on price, duration and group size. For the 1994 descent we had three kayakers, including the expedition leader; two catarafts; and eight participants in total. Including travel, the entire trip took about 3 weeks, of which 10 days were spent on the river itself. The total cost was several thousand US dollars per participant, plus international airfares. A significant proportion of this represented a permit and in-country logistics fee paid to the Chinese Academy of Science, as outlined below.

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Access Yangbi River Tour China

Mekong Rive (Lancang Jiang) in Western China (Shangri Ra River Expedition)
Mekong Rive (Lancang Jiang) in Western China (Shangri Ra River Expedition)

Access was by air to Kunming and by road to the river via Dali. Much of this road is now a large modern highway, but at the time it was a narrow dirt road used by livestock, horse-drawn and motorized carts and other contrivances, and aging trucks and buses, all driven furiously with little regard to life or limb. The road was heavily potholed and its verges were littered with the remains of road accidents. Our put-in and take-out points were at road bridges and there was no other road access to the river.

There is apparently no routine process to obtain river-running permits in China. Currently, it requires negotiation with local and provincial authorities. Various individuals and organizations, with differing degrees of influence and credibility, have set themselves up as permit brokers. At the time of the Yangbi Expedition, however, ESE was able to deal directly with the Yunnan provincial branch of the

Chinese Academy of Science, which is a national government organization. They charged a significant fee, amounting to about US$1000 per participant, but this was still far less expensive than other permit options, and significantly less than fees charged by provincial government authorities for later ESE expeditions.

Nominally, these fees are not permit fees as such, but payments for in-country logistic costs such as local transport and accommodation. It is not difficult to ascertain these individual cost components, however, and it certainly appears that they add up to considerably less than the total fees paid. The remainder effectively constitutes a payment for permission to run the river, levied by persons who have the power to deny or enforce such permission. Whether or not this should be described as a permit fee is perhaps a question of semantics or political perception.

Community Yangbi River Tour China

Local residents along the Yangbi River were largely Bai and Yi peoples, rather than Han Chinese. Each has its own traditional building styles, recognizable in villages beside the river. The houses are well-made, from hand-hewn rock and timber. Livelihood is largely by subsistence farming, with houses built from locally quarried stone and locally logged timber. In calm sections of the river, locals cross using bamboo rafts. There are mines near the riverbank and locals have the habit, dis- concerting to passing river runners, of fishing with dynamite.

We were visited by villagers at a number of our riverbank campsites and were able to communicate since several of the rafters spoke Chinese. At one village there was one young girl who was learning English at her school 30 km away, walking there and back each week to study.

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At two sites the villagers were hunting birds and small mammals with shotguns, and at least one of these guns was a muzzle-loader using the hard spherical fruit of a local plant as shot. When they saw we had empty glass jars and bottles that we were carrying out for disposal they were very keen to take them from us, and gave us local pickles in return. In the calmer stretches of the river, they crossed using long bamboo rafts propelled by a kind of wooden hoe, where the blade is mounted per- pendicular to the shaft rather than parallel to it as for a conventional oar or paddle.

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Since the ESE group was continually proceeding downstream, our encounters with local communities were necessarily brief, but cordial within the limits of com- munication. We had a limited opportunity for conversation when one group visited our evening campfire, and on our one lay-over day at the junction of the Yangbi and Mekong, we climbed up to a small village set high on the steep valley slopes.

Experience Yangbi River Tour China

Dali Yangbi Stone Gate Pas - River Tour China
Dali Yangbi Stone Gate Pas – River Tour China

This was ESE’s first river trip in China and, for essentially political reasons, took many years of planning and preparation. It was therefore somewhat disconcerting, not to say disappointing, to discover that during this period of planning a pulp mill had been constructed on the Yangbi, immediately upstream of our proposed put-in point, and the river was severely polluted with its effluents. Indeed, when we first saw the river we debated seriously whether we would have to abort the entire river trip. Fortunately, we went ahead and were indeed able to make the first descent of the Yangbi.

Most of the group had already travelled previously in China, but there were new experiences none the less. Some of these were positive, such as finding probable tracks of a red panda on an isolated beach. Others were negative, such as finding a red panda skin hanging on a post. From a whitewater perspective, a first descent of an effectively unmapped river is always a memorable experience, particularly for the lead kayaker or ‘probe’.

Environment Yangbi River Tour China

The directors of Earth Science Expeditions are experienced river runners, and one is a long-term former ranger from Grand Canyon National Park in the USA, so they are very familiar with minimal-impact environmental practices whilst on the river and in camp.

The environmental impacts of a raft trip, however, are insignificant in comparison with those of a pulp mill, or even those of local villagers and agriculture. On all of ESE’s first descents in China, glass containers, which elsewhere would be considered recyclable garbage, were in demand for immediate reuse by local residents. All the villages in the areas concerned use fuel wood for cooking, and there is abundant dead driftwood on the riverine gravel bars which are reworked and flooded during the wet season every year, so campfires provide the best minimal- impact option for expedition cooking. Self-contained pump-out toilets, such as used on the Grand Canyon, would be pointless in China where human waste is collected for agricultural fertilizer. Accordingly, the group used pit toilets. All litter, however, including cigarette butts and similar small items, was collected and carried out.

The Yangbi area receives so few visitors that there are no artefacts or other items manufactured for sale to tourists, and hence no concern over possible secondary impacts on endangered species which might be used in such artefacts.

One of the major aims of the trip was to demonstrate the commercial viability of river tourism as an economical alternative to industrial logging, paper production and large-scale dams. Whilst tourism has indeed played an economic and political role in conservation in some parts of the world, and this effort is now continuing in China through initiatives such as The Nature Conservancy’s Great Rivers Project, it was not successful in the case of the Yangbi. When we returned to the river in mid-2004 it was so severely dammed and polluted that no runnable whitewater remained.

Safety Yangbi River Tour China

For a first descent of an unknown river in a remote area, safety issues are con- siderably broader than for a routine tour on a well-known river. At its broadest level, safety depends on overall trip planning, including the best available knowledge of terrain, gradient, geology and seasonal rainfall patterns. Taken together these provide some prediction of the likely shape and severity of the rapids, the frequency of potential campsites, and the probable distance travelled per day. Information on air and water temperature is also needed to determine what clothing and camping equipment may be required.

Opportunities for access to the river and for emergency evacuation, if any, also need to be planned in advance. For this part of China, reliable maps are unobtainable and in any event are at such a small scale that they give only a broad indication of topography. Aerial photographs are treated as military intelligence, and likewise unavailable. International satellite imagery is very expensive and does not show individual rapids in enough detail to be much use. Local villages may be sparse and residents may speak only local dialects. They may or may not be friendly to river runners arriving unexpectedly. They may or may not be able to describe downstream river conditions in terms meaningful to rafters and kayakers.

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In such circumstances a river expedition must proceed with caution. Rapids that elsewhere would tempt kayakers to hours of play can only be run once. Rapids that elsewhere might be run by the most difficult route are instead run using easier lines. Rapids where all routes are difficult but not impossible may instead be portaged. All this is necessary to conserve equipment and energy for those rapids that are difficult but must be run none the less.

For first descents such as these, Earth Science Expeditions uses catarafts to carry gear and hardshell kayaks to scout ahead. The kayaking participants must be skilled paddlers. Their task is to run the river ahead of the rafts, signalling routes on easily runnable sections, and signalling a stop above more difficult rapids. With this advance warning, the rafts can pull safely to the riverbank when necessary, and wait for the much more manoeuvrable kayaks to scout a route through the next rapid.

For rapids that are long or have blind sections, kayakers can descend section by section and relay signals back to the rafters. If rapids cannot safely be ‘boat-scouted’ in this way, kayakers and rafters may have to scout the rapids from the shore. Once a rapid is scouted and the rafts start their run, the kayakers provide safety support in case any of the rafts capsize or anyone is thrown out. If this does happen, a kayaker will try to paddle to the swimmer as quickly as possible, and ferry them to safety. In a large, wide or violent rapid this is not always possible, but often kayaks can drag swimmers away from the more dangerous features of the rapid.

Safety kayakers are used routinely by many commercial whitewater rafting tour companies. The difference for a first descent is that neither the kayakers nor the rafters know what is coming downstream, so the kayakers must treat every new rapid as potentially unrunnable until proven otherwise, and the rafts must be alert and always ready to stop at a kayaker’s signal.

Access points to the river are limited for most first descents in remote areas, and expeditions can carry only limited food. The ability to cover distance each day can hence become critical. If the kayakers halt the rafts unnecessarily, too much time is lost. The skill, judgement and teamwork of the rafters and kayakers are vital for overall safety.

Safety practices on the river itself included measures such as maintaining visual contact from boat to boat; scouting rapids in advance in the case of any uncertainty; taking safe and conservative lines through rapids where possible, rather than the lines one might take if it were a well-known river; wearing lifejackets at all times except in camp; keeping throw-ropes ready on rafts as well as kayaks; setting up back-ups and rescue plans for major rapids; and positioning the kayaks so they could rescue rafters or each other if need be. All these measures were followed during the ESE Yangbi trip. The most risky parts of the expedition, almost certainly, were the road journeys to and from the river, where accidents were clearly frequent and safety was beyond our control.

Marketing Yangbi River Tour China

Marketing for a specialist one-off but relatively expensive trip such as this, especially by a newly formed company as ESE was then, presents particular difficulties. A company that already has a large repertoire of well-known routine tours and a heavily visited website can advertise a specialist one-off trip quite easily, relying on their existing customer base. Indeed, they may send direct mail or e-mail invitations to past clients who they think might be interested.

For a newly formed enterprise, however, there is no existing corporate customer base, and the trip leaders have to rely principally on personal contacts. If they can obtain sponsorship from any organization which publishes its own magazine or newsletter, that organization may also be prepared to provide publicity. Commercial advertising is generally not feasible, because the cost has to be spread across too few participants.

For a trip such as this, where costs have to be shared between all participants and most participants need to be skilled, there is a further difficulty: those with the necessary skills rarely have the necessary funds and vice versa. Many such proposed trips, in fact, do not succeed in attracting a sufficient number of skilled and paying participants to cover costs, and do not take place. It is a tribute to ESE’s skills in marketing, as well as politics, planning and logistics that this trip took place at all, especially after a 7-year lead time.


Adventure Tourism

Ralf Buckley

International Centre for Ecotourism Research, Griffith University, Gold Coast, Australia

With contributions by:

Carl Cater Ian Godwin Rob Hales Jerry, Johnson, Claudia Ollenburg, Julie Schaefers

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