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Earth Island News

China Rivers Project

Rafting Through Heaven

photo of a raft on a swift river China Rivers has organized several trips down the Upper Yangtze,
including the 2008 expedition pictured here. The group is trying to
halt several proposed dams along the river.

The Upper Yangtze River in China’s Qinghai province is known as the Tongtian River – the “River that Flows through Heaven.” It is a fitting name for a river valley surrounded by peaks topping 18,000 feet, with 5,000-foot cliff walls and narrow canyons. Fewer than 100 people have navigated this portion of the Yangtze. And even fewer may have the chance to do so in the future if the Chinese government constructs a series of large dams as part of its massive project to divert water from the south to the country’s north.

In September 2009, Travis Winn of Earth Island Institute’s China Rivers Project led a 10-member team on a 200-mile descent of the Tongtian River. Due to an extended monsoon season, the river had a much greater water volume than expected. Estimated water flows were nearing 40,000 cubic feet per second, and in many places the rapids were of an expert-only class.

The Yangtze Descent expedition was conducted for a number of reasons: to collect research on wildlife, weather patterns, and local inhabitants, as there is little information about the isolated region; to engage Chinese and Tibetan locals in a rafting experience to boost awareness of recreational opportunities on the river; and to draw attention to possible damming and diversion projects on the Upper Yangtze. “We collected more information from villagers on flows, wildlife, weather patterns, and local livelihoods than [we have] collected on any trip, and I think we did a tremendous job as a group confronting challenges associated with the high water,” Winn says.

For example, the Upper Yangtze expedition team documented multiple sections where the river narrowed to a mere 30 to 75 yards, creating intense hydraulics.

“The expedition truly felt like a first descent due to the high water volume,” trip participant Eric Ladd says. “You never knew what was around the corner.”

The Qinghai Provincial Government and China’s state-owned Sinohydro Corporation will complete a hydropower-potential assessment by 2011. Depending on the study’s conclusions, the 200-mile section of the river that the expedition team navigated could vanish. Winn compares the development stage of the Yangtze to that of the Colorado River in the 1930s to 1960s – after the creation of Hoover Dam but before the construction of Glen Canyon Dam. The lower region of the Yangtze is dotted with dams and diversion projects, but the upper section is still relatively untouched.

“Uniquely,” Travis says, “we have a head start on whatever plans are held for the Upper Yangtze. The combination of paddling some of the world’s largest whitewater on a river and through canyons few have ever seen makes this expedition even more remarkable.”

Megan Paulson

Take Action:
China Rivers Project is seeking donations of materials and services to help with our programs. If you have a spare HD camcorder; whitewater kayaks, rafts and accessories; satellite phone; rafting dry tops, dry pants, dry suits; wetshoes and wetsuits; rafting helmets and type III or IV rafting helmets, we could use them. We are also in need of frequent flyer miles, printing services, and Web and graphic design services. To make a donation, contact kristen at


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