River Update: The Salween (Nu Jiang), Western Yunnan.
The road that follows the Salween River is one of the best drives in China. Rarely does it dip out of view of the river, giving travelers glimpses of the spectacular whitewater below, shadowed only by the muscled mountain range that spits granite boulders into the drainage below giving the rapids so much grit, character, and push. Take a deep breath… its Salween time.
The first section we run has some steep drops that are harder than anything we had paddled yet. Giant old growth trees, illegally cut and transported from Burma stand in stacks waiting to be milled. The locals gather and stare. Just behind them, a waterfall of trash and sewage spills into the river mixing with the green water and giving it a faint yellow tint. Over the river, clumps of bamboo bend into U-shapes from the constant wind, and terraced fields with traditional farmhouses stand protected beneath the red and yellow flags of the Chinese national and communist flag. We paddled while locals waved and screamed in delight.
It’s much warmer here than the Mekong and students and staff wear shorts and take in the sun when it appears. We post up on a lower section of the canyon and tap into surf waves and some of the biggest rapids on the river. Our guest coach Ben Marr, who joined us specifically for this section, shows us how the pros paddle, with style, class, and grace. It looks too easy when he is out there and his presence makes everyone step it up a notch.
We drive for five hours to the upper section of the Salween and stay at a grey town called Gongshan. The water is a bit lower here and it is colder. Rain hits us and our friend the wind pays us another visit. After one day of cold paddling, we celebrate with a traditional meal called a “hot-pot”, a boiling broth that is served with fresh ingredients that is added to the soup and cooked in front of you. The spicy broth causes your eyes to water and your sinuses to open. It is less pleasant on its way out. Our Shifus (drivers) challenge our students to a broth-drinking contest and they quickly begin to bet money on who can drink the largest quantity of this fiery concoction.
Our service-learning project takes place on the lower section of the Salween and is a huge success. Students and staff cook a meal for the local population in the valley and everyone enjoys the river with music and conversation. A large crowd assembles and basic kayak instruction is given + tours in the raft. For most of these people, this is the first time they have ever been able to enjoy their back-door river recreationally. It is a big step towards showing these people just how unique their home river is.
The Salween is a river you dream about. You can search the globe over, but there is no duplicate. What must we do to protect this gem…? Will this too succumb to the development experienced by other rivers in Yunnan? Will the same strength of the river that rolls boulders and shakes the ground be used to make money and electricity? How will this drama of the Salween in a remote part of Yunnan end?