Saying Goodbye to a Chinese Treasure

(Editor’s note: Charles Bedford, the state director for The Nature Conservancy in Colorado, is living and working in China for the next year and will be writing about conservation issues there. Read all his posts.)

There’s not much of an adventure- or eco-tourism infrastructure in China. Most foreign and Chinese visitors visit the Great Wall, Forbidden City and a handful of other cultural heritage sites. And they do so in familiar style: tour bus, big parking lot, crowds, back to the hotel.

There are a few companies that are trying to develop eco-tourism. The demand will be there soon. As millions of young Chinese move into the middle class, there will likely be a desire for a more diverse and meaningful set of experiences.

This trend comes with challenges and opportunities for those of us working on nature conservation. Too many people in fragile natural areas will destroy them. But if too few people understand and experience nature, we won’t have a political constituency that will value and protect these places.

So the need for responsible, educational-based experiences for people to experience rivers, grasslands, forests, etc, is high here. And with rafting, the challenges are exacerbated by the pace of dam building here.

I had the chance to go along with a rafting company by the poetic (and rather sad) name of Last Descents Expeditions down the Yangtze River gorge through the Great Bend area. Travis Winn, a Colorado native who grew up with a river-crazy father, has partnered with a Chinese woman, Li Wei Yi, and a host of other interested Chinese and American partners to try to bring and educate Chinese and foreign adventure travelers through Last Descents.

His seems to be the only company offering trips through incredible wild landscape of 10,000 ft deep canyons, terraced agriculture and ancient villages. And Last Descents will probably be the last company to offer trips in this canyon; we rafted through one dam site and pulled out just above another. It was truly heartbreaking to see the massive construction site and think about the paradise that we had spent 5 days floating through.

Winn is a passionate riverman, and fortunately for us, and for China’s rivers, he has scouted the headwaters of the Irrawaddy, Mekong, Salween, Brahmaputra and Yellow rivers for their scenic beauty, conservation value and potential for rafting tourism.

I am hopeful that he can establish the beginnings of a rafting industry here. Many of the rivers of the United States have benefited from the activism of raft guides, passionate about the beauty of the rivers and the linkage to their livelihoods.

There are 30,000 dams on the tributaries of the Yangtze River, many put up in small tributaries in the 60’s and 70’s by local government officials trying to curry favor with their supervisors in the wake of one of Mao’s pronouncements about the virtue of dam-building.

Most of them provide little function, and are prime candidates for dam removal. Until recently there was really only one dam on the mainstem of the Yangtze — the famous Three Gorges Dam — put up after over 60 years of dreaming, engineering, relocation of hundreds of thousands of people, debate, loss of historical and cultural sites and controversy both inside the Chinese government and abroad.  It is the largest single hydropower facility in the world.

But there are now several other dams completed on the Yangtze, and many more planned. Our trip was on a section of the Yangtze that will soon be flooded — pulling out at the Ahai Dam construction site.

The canyons we floated down were spectacular gems — surpassing my experience on rivers in the American West in beauty, solitude, culture, adventure and more.

While the Grand Canyon is about 1,600 meters (5,000 feet) deep, the Yangtze cuts between two 5,000 meter peaks to form one of the deepest canyons on earth. We floated past small rivers that emerged from cliff side to form hanging gardens sustained by water that fell and percolated through rock millenia ago.

We stayed the night in Baoshan, a stunning village built vertically onto and into a huge rock for security, surrounded by terraced agriculture that extended from river-level upward for 1,000 meters. The next day, we floated past Goat Balloon Crossing, where Kublai Khan’s army camped for months until they had accumulated enough goat skins to make rafts to float across the Yangtze on their march south into Yunnan.

Some of Khan’s descendants are likely our neighbors for the night; they will be moving soon.  They don’t yet know where, or what their compensation will be, but their way of life is done.  They seem philosophical–maybe there is no better feeling that they can have.

And, though we romanticize their lives as subsistence farmers on a picturesque plot of land perched on the canyon high above the river, it is a hard life and one that many of their kids have left in order to go to the city.  Maybe what comes next for them will be better.  Maybe not.

And then we came around the corner to the largest construction site I have ever seen — really a city constructed in the wilderness to build the Ahai dam and generate the electricity to power the Chinese economy.

The river no longer runs in its bed there, but flows through a tunnelled diversion. A concrete crane operates from a set of cables suspended 400 meters above the river, filling the huge hole in the ground with reinforced concrete. Huge trucks are dwarfed by the site; people are ants.

After 5 days in the peace and quiet of China’s Grand Canyon, our group of Chinese conservationists and businesspeople and American adventure tourists is shocked into silence. It’s a tough way to come off a river, but truly exemplifies so much of what China is today.

30 years ago, this country of incredible natural beauty made the choice to raise its citizens out of poverty, to develop economically. It’s done so — bringing over 200 million people out of poverty and into a middle class in that short time — like no other transformation ever to occur on the planet. But the costs of this transformation can be heartbreaking.

(Image: Farmer, Baoshan Village, Jinsha (upper Yangtze) River, China. Image credit: International Rivers/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.


  1. Excellent article Sir! Looking forward to crossing paths with you in China in 2011. Sign me up I’m ready to help. I was in Chengdu this fall building trails for mountain bikers to promote sustainable, adventure recreation tourism and non-consumptive, rural economic development. Needless to say the potential in China is mind-boggling, and I feel a deep sense of duty to Mother Earth to help, just as I have in Colorado the past 25 years. More soon.

  2. I knew this was going on but I did not realize the scale and the damage being done to human kinds ecosystem and cultural heritage. Sign me up, this has to stop. This needs to be broadcast to the world.

  3. That’s the price of development… It very difficult to ask the Chinese to have a proper sustainable development or growth.

    We (the rest of the world…) can’t give the example. So, do we have the right to ask them not to build dams? To not buy cars? Not to have the comfort we have?

    I’m not saying that I agree with it. I don’t. I think we all have an obligation to preserve Earth.

    Do you know which country produces more carbon dioxide emissions? Yes, you’re right. It’s China. And which country is second? The United States.

    Pos Country
    1 China[10] 7,031,916(*)
    2 United States 5,461,014(*)

    (*) Annual CO2 emissions (in thousands of metric tonnes)

    So, China produces more 28% of CO2 than the US, but… it has 4X the population. So, the US isn’t an example!

Add a Comment