The majestic black walls of the canyon soared above us, almost closing out the sky. We were just about to enter the Great Bend of the Yangtze, our rafts slipping along on the great green swell of the river. There was an awed hush about the place, as if we were entering a great stone cathedral. Our motley crew of adventurers fell silent as we slowly gathered speed, the only sound the subdued roar of the Yangtze as it tumbled toward Judgement Day.
It was hard to believe that it had been barely a month since I had been casting about for an appropriate whitewater trip to celebrate my milestone 50th birthday back in Delhi. I had tossed around some plans to do the Zanskar with my good friend Vaibhav Kala of Aquaterra Adventures. And then like a bolt from the blue came the call from Jed Weingarten, the American river guide who had been with us on the first commercial descent of the Siang in 2002. After the Siang, Jed had gone to China and pioneered commercial rafting on the Yangtze and several other major rivers along with some other buddies.
The Yangtze, river of my dreams. I remembered studying about China’s greatest river in school and the romance of the ‘Son of the Ocean’ had stayed with me ever since. At 6,300km, it is the third longest river in the world, flowing from its source on the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau in Qinghai province, eastwards across the vast breadth of China before spending itself in the East China Sea at Shanghai. Truly it is the cradle of China’s civilisation and the call to raft it through the amazing Great Bend canyon was an irresistible one.
What lent the trip added poignancy was the fact that it was the last time that this section of the Yangtze would be rafted. China’s gargantuan hunger for energy to feed its headlong growth has led to plans for a dozen mega hydro-projects in the middle and upper reaches of the Yangtze basin. Already one of these, the Ahai project, being constructed several miles downstream of the Great Bend canyon had caused our original trip to be shortened by a few days. And once the project was complete, it would flood the spectacular canyon, submerging its wild beauty forever.
An added bonus to the trip was the chance to visit Yunnan, a province bordering Burma, Lao and Vietnam. And so it was that Vaibhav and I found ourselves winging our way to Lijiang by way of Bangkok and Kunming, the provincial capital of Yunnan. As the plane descended over green paddy fields and the verdant foothills of the lower Tibetan plateau, we could see the snowy heights of Yulong Xue Shan (Jade Dragon Snow Mountain) whose sheer rocky slopes formed the eastern wall of the Tiger Leaping Gorge. My quickening pulse told me that our adventure had begun!
Our companions on the trip were all American, and all but a couple had extensive whitewater experience. Our upbeat and friendly guides — Jed, Willie, Jim, Ben and the two Tibetan trainees Yeshi and Tashi — quickly set us at ease with their assured and confident demeanour. After lunch we wandered around the Lijiang Old Town (a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1997) and were instantly charmed by its picturesque cobbled pathways and the icy river channels that ran between the stone houses.
The next morning we drive 60km to the north to our next stop, Sean’s Guest House right in the heart of Tiger Leaping Gorge. The gorge is a truly awe-inspiring sight with its sheer rock walls towering for thousands of feet above us. Craning our necks, we can see that the rocky crags that form the flank of the invisible Jade Dragon peak are covered with a dusting of snow. On our side, the slopes leading down from Haba Xue Shan (Haba Snow Mountain) are more gradual and a few isolated houses cling to the mountainside as the road winds its way through. And far below us the Jinsha Jiang (River of Golden Sand) as the Yangtze is called in these parts, slithers its way through the gorge like an emerald snake, hissing and boiling through the foaming rapids.
In the afternoon, we scramble hundreds of feet down a trail which leads us to the very edge of the river and come face to face with the mother of all rapids. This is the narrowest point of the river, 25m across, where legend has it that a tiger leapt across to escape a pursuing hunter. The entire mass of the Yangtze is funnelled through this gap in a boiling mass of foam. To rafters, it is a blood-chilling sight, the ultimate Grade VI rapid. I think about the foolhardy Chinese team of rafters which, in an attempt to be the first to raft the Yangtze in the mid-80s, lost so many lives trying to run this stretch. Our motley team of adventurers clamber out of the gorge, subdued by this vision of nature at its most formidable.
Finally the day that we are to get on to the river — we just can’t wait! We arrive at the put-in point at Daju just as the first light seeps into the gorge. An hour later we are off — the paddle boat with the rafters and three oar boats carrying all the supplies and equipment comprise the core of our little flotilla — with the kayakers leading the way and Tashi on the cataraft bringing up the rear. Vaibhav and I grin foolishly at each other — the first Indians ever to raft the Yangtze — and in all probability the last! It is an indescribably exhilarating moment. The strong flow of the river carries us along between the canyon walls and soon we encounter our first rapid, appropriately enough called Baptism. It is an impressive Class III+ but with a fairly straightforward line through it and we clear it comfortably. Jed says that the river is lower than he has seen it in five years of running it, so the rapids are impressive though not awesome — still enough to give you a thrilling few moments! As we float down a calm section, our resident troubadour, a chiropractor from Vermont called John, brings out his guitar and regales us with a series of old cowboy love songs. The strains of the haunting melodies fill the silence of the canyon.
After negotiating our second rapid of the day, we pull over to the left and make camp on a sandy shelf next to a muddy tributary which winds its way to the main flow. After dinner — an appetising mix of noodles, fresh vegetable and yak meat — Vaibhav and I opt to forgo the Eureka tents, sleeping out in the open under a rocky overhang hollowed out by the river. I awake at night to be awed by the spectacle of a blanket of myriad stars spangled across the black vault of the heavens.
The canyon reveals more of its pristine beauty over the next two days. I gaze up in awe at its soaring purple walls streaked with russet red where the rich seams of iron have been oxidised by the impact of eons of rain and wind. And so we find ourselves inexorably drawn towards the Judgement Day rapid that guards the entrance to the Great Bend. It’s actually named for an American judge who almost drowned here when a raft flipped on a previous trip but given its majestic surroundings, the name seems particularly apt.
We find a precarious foothold on a jumble of rocks on the right bank from which to scout the rapid. And then we are back in the boats and off, racing over the foaming green ledge until we are caught up in the powerful waves. They seem much bigger than they looked from the shore but we battle on, adrenaline surging, the raft bucking like a bronco and the water slapping its icy fingers at us. And almost before we know it, we are through into the tail stream — out of breath, soaked to the bone but all still safely in the raft. We let out a loud cheer and pull hard for our sandy campsite on the left bank.
That night the celebrations go on till late round the campfire. As always, on these multi-day trips, the sense of bonding takes a while to kick in but it is a powerful emotion when it happens — fuelled by large quantities of whisky, rum and the lethal ‘baijou’ — Chinese rice wine.
Sunrise comes slowly to this narrow canyon. The warmth of the sun lifts our spirits and renews us to face another day. Back on the river, we see the topography changing dramatically as we wind our way out of the Bend. The forbidding walls of the canyon give way to gentler slopes and more vegetation. Scattered signs of civilisation emerge — a few mountain homes, some power lines, and terraced fields.
The sense of the trip beginning to wind down is palpable and parallels the changing landscape. Over the next couple of days, we float through several Class III rapids before rounding the last bend and pulling out below the mountain village of Baoshan (literally translating as ‘Guard Mountain’). It makes a pretty picture in the bright sunlight, clinging precariously to an outcrop of limestone several hundred feet above the Yangtze. Historically it had an important role as an outpost of the Han Chinese empire, watching for the Mongol invaders from the north — Kublai Khan is supposed to have crossed the river a few miles upstream. We hike up the hill to Baoshan and through its narrow stone streets to the Mu Guest House where we are welcomed by a delicious Chinese meal and plenty of Dali beer!
Finally, we are at the end of a momentous trip. The next morning we hike up to the roadhead where the buses await to drive us back to Lijiang. I turn for a last look at the Yangtze, now just a shining green sliver at the bottom of the verdant mountain valley. I have been lucky enough to raft the river of my dreams in my 50th year and it will now always be a part of me. l
Getting there: China Eastern Airlines flies Kolkata-Kunming three times a week (frequency to increase from June). The economy return airfare including taxes is Rs 23,000. You can also fly Delhi-Kunming (via Shanghai) for Rs 58,500. See http://www.flychinaeastern.com/ or call 011-43513166. From Kunming you can either fly to Lijiang or take a bus.
What to see & do: While whitewater rafting along the Tiger Leaping Gorge is no longer possible, the area still offers some spectacular trekking. The 16km-long Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of the deepest in the world, rising 3,900m from the waters of the Jinsha Jiang (as the Yangtze is known here) to the snowcapped peaks of the Haba Shan and Yulong Xue Shan mountains. There are two trails, the higher, older route and the lower, new one. The higher is the one to take and the trail is littered with guesthouses. Sean’s Spring Guesthouse (www.tigerleapinggorge.com), one of the first guesthouses to come up on the trail, can organise camping and provide guides. The Old Town of Lijiang is a Unesco World Heritage Site, and home to the ethnic Naxi community. If you’d like to go on a leisurely cruise on the Yangtze, see www.discoveryangtze.com for options.
Rafting: If you’re keen on rafting, you can do so on the nearby Mekong and Salween rivers. Jim Norton (greatbend@ gmail.com) can organise the trip for you, which will cost in the range of $2,500-3,000. To learn more about the various pioneer attempts to raft the Yangtze in the mid-1980s by competing Chinese and American teams, a fascinating read is Riding the Dragon’s Back: The Race to Raft the Upper Yangtze by Richard Bangs and Christian Kallen.