River Update: Deep Moon Gorge of the Mekong, China
The Mekong River drops from the Tibetan Plateau and bends around the base of a 22,000 ft. peak called Meili Snow Mountain before disappearing between two vertical rock walls that form what river runners call the Deep Moon Gorge. On a sunny day, World Class Academy passed through Shangra-la and Benzylan and took the pass over the shoulder of these mighty mountains and dropped into this drainage that is the Chinese equivalent to the Futalefu. The pass was treacherous with ice and rock, but upon cresting the summit, all eyes became glued on the greenish-blue water of the Mekong that we could see 10,000 feet below us.
World Class based out of a small town called Xidong in an area that is culturally Tibetan. Here monasteries guard ancient cedars, prayer wheels await paddlers at the take-out, and hundreds of tattered prayer flags clean the air with their silent prayers. The whitewater is superb with big curling waves and boulder gardens with many lines to choose from.
While in Xidong, a strong storm blew through the area and the school awoke to frigid conditions and a low snow level. Up higher in the mountain passes locals reported over 2 ft. of snow fall. The wind became a serious factor for paddling, causing us to have early morning, dawn-patrol paddle sessions. But the beauty of the arid mountains dotted with cactus and the locals that cheered us from rooftops as we paddled by remote hamlets constantly reminded us of how unique of an environment this area is to paddle in.
It is a rugged, remote part of China with the tallest mountains we have seen yet. The agrarian-based culture of the local people makes visitors feel they have stepped back into time. Old women walk the gravel streets muttering Buddhist prayers under their breath while fingering their prayer beads. They stop and stare at us and break into smiles when we attempt to say “Tashee-da-ley”, which is hello in Tibetan. We hold classes on rooftops and eat in small circles of steaming vegetables, bowls of rice, fried bread, and fatty meats. Salted pork hangs from hooks on the ceilings and our bathroom is a concrete shoot that drops our waste into the field behind the house.
We travel great distances to paddle as each section is extremely remote. Soon we too become locals and our appearance is not so shocking in the town. After the first week we have wiped the small store out of orange juice, coke, and hot-chocolate. Our last day on the Mekong we run the longer Deep Moon Gorge section and from the take-out, continue on towards the Salween, a journey of 3 long days of driving. We put in under the shadow of a Tibetan monastery and before we can take off, there is a group of 25-30 people watching us from the rocks above our heads. They cheer and yell into the wind as we disappear into the canyon that they have grown up looking into, but have never seen.