China Rivers Project

Taking Brower’s Vision to the Grand Canyons of the East

Earth Island News

photo of a raft with people decending a blue fast rapid, rocks nearcourtesy of Kristen McDonald Eight planned dams will eventually flood the Great Bend of the Yangtze River.
A new Earth Island project is working to protect the river’s unique canyons.

The Great Bend of the Yangtze River carves a canyon plunging tens of thousands of feet deep through the tectonic crimps and folds of the Himalayan foothills. At times bucolic, at times roaring with world-class rapids, the Great Bend is formed where the “long river,” as Chinese call the Yangtze, juts north from the eastern terminus of the Tiger Leaping Gorge, then curves back south. After this 500-mile arc, the lifeblood of China’s rice bowl heads eastward again toward the Three Gorges Dam and the cities of central and eastern China.

In April 2008, just before the Sichuan earthquake struck to the northeast, 16 Americans, 11 Chinese, and one German embarked on what might have been the last rafting expedition down the Yangtze’s Great Bend. We joined the trip to document one of China’s grand canyons, soon to be impassable due to the construction of eight dams.

The eight Great Bend dams and others upstream of the famous Three Gorges Dam will produce about 200 gigawatts of power. That’s roughly 10 times the amount produced by the Three Gorges, which itself produces about the same amount of power as the 15 largest dams in the western US combined. Those of us lucky enough to see this canyon up close, possibly for the last time, came home with stories and images from a part of China that is dying. Our eight-day mission to the Great Bend also filled us with hope that by sharing this canyon with others, we might play a small part in seeing that some of China’s river canyons live on.

Doing is Itself Knowing

The Great Bend expedition came together through the vision of China Rivers Project, a recent addition to Earth Island Institute, comprised of myself and fellow co-founder Travis Winn. I had been finishing my PhD on the local politics of dams in western China when I met Winn, a river enthusiast with a passion for China. We founded China Rivers Project with the idea that to get folks to appreciate all that is valuable about China’s rivers – their recreational benefits, history, cultural value, ecological services, wildlife, and scenery – they need to experience these values in person.

One warm evening on our Great Bend trip, the western sky still flushed with pinks and blues, I spoke with Dr. Sandra Hyde, an American anthropologist, who reminded me how Chairman Mao once said, “Doing is itself knowing.”

Earth Island Institute’s founder, David Brower, understood the power of this concept and urged people to spend time in wilderness. His passion for the threatened canyons of the Colorado River led him to invite his nemesis, Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Floyd Dominy, to take a trip on the river. There, he confronted Glen Canyon, drowned by a reservoir, and the Grand Canyon, which Dominy almost submerged.

Much earlier, turn-of-the-20th century conservationists helped establish the American National Parks system. In the 1970s, kayakers from Colorado formed the American Rivers Conservation Council in an effort to protect their favorite spots from dams. Their small office grew to become the leading US river conservation organization, American Rivers. Ann Mills, the organization’s vice president, came to China with us.

“A lot of messages we’re trying to tell people in the US are the same as they are here in China,” Mills said as we floated through a wide, calm stretch. For her, seeing the Great Bend served as a reminder of the importance of her work back home. “By doing our work really well, we can model solutions that other countries can mimic. The more the Chinese get out and appreciate their rivers, the more they’ll be willing to protect them.”

But so far, not many Chinese are rafting. China Rivers Project hopes this will change, and that it’s just a matter of time and persistence. Trip co-organizer Pete Winn has been researching China’s river canyons for more than 10 years. He learned to guide on the rivers of the American Southwest. “When I started in the rafting industry, it was a garage business,” he recalled. “China now compares to the US rafting industry in the 1950s.”

The People of Golden Sands

Perhaps even more so than elsewhere, river canyons in China are time travel devices, revealing the passage of millennia of complex geologic change, as well as rich layers of human history. On the Great Bend, we saw Tibetan sheepherders in dark woven cloth bringing dusty flocks to the cobblestone beaches to drink, boys wading waist deep to catch fish in hand-woven nets, and farmers perfecting wheat terraces that had been lovingly sculpted from the steep hillsides by tens of generations of ancestors.

Around noon on day four, we passed the apex of the bend and moored our six rafts and four kayaks near Fengke Village, where a commemorative rock is carved with Chinese characters. One of our first-time rafters, a Naxi woman named He Xiaoxun, perched on the bank under a floppy hat and described to the group how Kublai Khan had led an army from Mongolia to this point on the Yangtze. They lived here for months before finally crossing, clinging to the inflated skins of animals, to reach Dali and conquer its rulers, uniting China for the second time.missing image file

He Xiaoxun has spent years studying the Naxi, who descended from the Tibetans. “Now that I have seen these places from the river’s viewpoint,” she said, “I have a sense of the route of the elders – this place has water, gold, and places to farm, so they chose to live here.”

The eight dams on the Great Bend will force about 50,000 of the descendants of those early settlers to move from their ancestral lands and confront an unknown future.

“Here our income is not so good, but it is good enough,” a young Pumi farmer living near the river told us. His small village of 100 or so households will be covered by the reservoir of the Li Yuan Dam within three years. “Now every person has 1 mu (about 1/6 an acre) of land,” he said. In their new village, over 100 miles away, they’ll have less than half that amount. He told us, “We are worried that we will not have enough to eat.”

Rafting Doomed Waters

On the fifth day, we slept in farmers’ homes in Baoshan, a 1,000-year-old Naxi village made almost entirely of hand-hewn stone and clinging to a steep canyon wall. From our perch high above the river, we awoke to skies that were unusually hazy. This was the first sign of the nearby the Ahai Dam site.

Later that morning, we approached the construction site and saw that the entire canyon for a length of at least a mile had been cleared of vegetation, leaving exposed bare earth that created huge clouds of dust when the wind blew. A band of color that caught our eye turned out to be a great assortment of trash, flung over the wall of a worker’s dormitory. A gargantuan cement factory appeared, nestled in the scraped-out fold of a major tributary creek. An army of dump trucks and construction machines stood out against the pale, exposed earth. A mass of concrete and rebar marked the location of the first diversion tunnel.

“It’s terrible,” said Zhu Tong, a writer from China National Geographic who had come on his first rafting trip to write a story about the geology of the Great Bend. “It really makes me feel, I don’t know… It’s terrible to see the river like this.”

Others felt the same. One of the trip participants, a Sichuan-based geologist, pointed out that the Ahai Dam still lacked the approval of the central government. In essence, it was an illegal dam. “This is a very sensitive issue,” he told us. “There is a lot of corruption, special interest groups within the government, and a lot of qian-quan [money-power] interactions. This has also influenced science. And the government does not understand science.”

The day before, we had been through a gorge section that caused us to gasp with joy. On either side of the river, soft, smooth rock cliffs rose up for thousands of feet, and on one side, an underwater river burst from the rock face, creating a lush habitat of gravity-defying trees and an array of fern and moss. As we rowed toward the hanging garden, some of the Chinese men on the trip lifted up baritone voices to offer the “Yangtze River Song.”

“You come from the high mountains and flow to the sea… beautiful mother Yangtze River.” The song echoed off the cliff walls – perhaps, we were keenly aware, for the last time.

To learn more, please visit

– Kristen McDonald

You Make Our Work Possible

You Make Our Work Possible

We don’t have a paywall because, as a nonprofit publication, our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action to protect our living world. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Subscribe Now

Get four issues of the magazine at the discounted rate of $20.