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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
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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