WCKA Newsletter - February 2007World Class in China
Icy road conditions and heavy snowfall on a winding mountain pass
delayed our caravan on its way to the Mekong River. The early days of
February reminded us that it was winter in China, just like in Montana.
Geographically speaking, this is an obvious fact — China is in the
Northern Hemisphere and February = cold. Regardless of latitude,
elevations upwards of 10,000 feet are subject to cold weather in almost
any season. However, these are exceptional conditions for a WCKA
international trip. Winter in Montana usually means summer in Chile,
Ecuador, Mexico, or New Zealand — destinations selected for their
accessible whitewater and predictable warm weather. Students signed up
for the Spring 2007 semester with a desire to experience Eastern
culture and the big water of Asia that far exceeded any preoccupations
A kayaking trip to China is not just a paddling
vacation but an expedition. Dry suits and down jackets were required.
Trekking and mountaineering gear would have been helpful. The food was
delicious and the lodging comfortable, but we were dependent on our
translators, Travis Winn and Chen Hao, because we soon found that
phrase books are marginally useful for communication when the locals’
replies are unintelligible. Complicated permit systems, a paranoid
government, and oppressive private interests in the development of
commercial hydropower are also very intimidating and limiting factors
for the foreign river explorer in Yunnan. But, we went kayaking in
The Mekong River (Lancang Jiang)
extraordinary experiences on the Great Bend of the Yangtze and
sightseeing around Lijiang in January, we still weren’t sure what to
expect at the Mekong and the Salween. We accepted the reality of the
colder weather that waited for us on the other side of the 14,000-foot
Baima Pass, and we were excited about meeting more people from
different minority groups, but the uncertainty of water levels left
some of the group dubious of the rivers’ potential.
of Deqin sits high in an open valley of a Mekong tributary, on a corner
of the road to Tibet. The massive Kawa Karpo peak and the entire Meili
Snow Mountain range stand in formation, cold with snow and shaded by
the clouds, on the other side of the Mekong that is wedged tens of
thousands of feet below the horizon. On our first night in the valley
we drove past Deqin to Feili Si, a two-hotel stop on the rim of the
canyon, and home to the shrine for those who died trying to summit the
sacred Kawa Karpo peak in the early nineties. Giant Buddhist stupas and
tattered, colorful prayer flags added to the drama of the view.
descent to the river started near Feili Si as the road wound its way
down through switchbacks and around small plots of terraced farmland.
Our first sampling of the power of the Mekong was on the Moon Gorge.
This section begins in one of the few old growth tree groves to be
preserved in this area, and the path down to the water can be found
after a spin of the prayer wheels at the multicolored, Buddhist temple.
The day was long, but an estimated 15-20 miles of fun, Class III-IV
boulder gardens, and play waves crashing through such a stunning gorge,
gave peace of mind to those who had been concerned about the quality of
the Mekong’s whitewater.
We also kayaked a section above the
Moon Gorge. The rapids on this section were generally larger and more
technically difficult than those downstream. Sunnier weather and more
exciting whitewater left a positive impression with the students before
they began a 14-mile hike to the isolated village of Yubeng. The group
took out of the river about one mile into the Moon Gorge and stayed the
night in the village of Xidang in order to rest for their trek. The
trek took us over a ridge, through tunnels of prayer flags, and then
down into the Yubeng Valley that is surrounded by 270 degrees of some
of China’s tallest mountain peaks. While there, we hiked to the base of
the sacred peaks, played basketball with monks, and did our best to
hold on to that moment – 14 miles from the closest road and completely
detached from what we knew as “normal.”
Junior, Davis Gove,
broke his arm in an unfortunate accident while playing an after-school
game of hide-and-seek in Deqin. He will be sitting out the rest of the
semester in order to heal, but our thoughts are with him, and we can’t
wait to have him back with the World Class crew.
River (Nu Jiang) The Salween holds international clout as being one of
the greatest big water rivers in the world. An enigma in China for its
almost unlimited roadside access, it is featured in Scott Lindgren’s
Burning Time II. WCKA alum, Dan West, made a short film featuring the
massive play waves that can be found at higher flows. West’s film
inspired many of the students before our departure, and it was on this
trip that Director Scott Doherty confirmed the feasibility of such a
great adventure for the World Class Kayak Academy.
weather crushed our plans to hike over a pass through the Meili Snow
Mountains from the Mekong valley, so we were forced to make a three-day
drive down the Mekong and then back up the Salween to our first stop in
the city of Gongshang. We arrived in Gongshang just before the Chinese
New Year. During this time, most of China officially shuts down for a
week of rest and fireworks. The Nu and Lisu minority groups organized
traditional dance circles in the streets each night, and they
sacrificed a bull on New Year’s Day. In between times, children of all
ages and race took advantage of this celebratory environment to shock
each other with the crack and blast of “Sonic Booms” and the more
aesthetically pleasing shows of mortars and roman candles.
settled into a routine of morning workouts, classes, and afternoon
paddling sessions on the whitewater close to town. While based in
Gongshang, we had the option to paddle upstream of town, park and play,
or drive to a section in the town of Maji about one hour downstream.
Low water levels kept most of the known play waves hidden from our
group, but the steep gradient combined with the relatively large volume
made for big, fun rapids in all sections.
Here we were
fortunate enough to meet up with a UC Berkeley doctoral student,
Kristin McDonald, who is researching the effects of, and potential
alternatives to, large-scale hydropower projects on the Salween.
Private dam-building companies and the local government would like to
build more than ten dams there. They plan to build the world’s tallest,
at 1000 feet, in the town of Maji. This would completely flood the
valley (whitewater) even past Gongshang, including all of the smaller
villages and the city itself that currently sit near the valley floor,
on the most fertile land.
We finished our last week of
paddling and class in China on the “Zen Wave” section of the Salween,
hundreds of kilometers downstream of Gongshang. We stayed in a
riverfront hotel in the town of Chengan, and it was here that we
enjoyed the nicest weather (shorts and T-shirts!) and the most
challenging whitewater of the entire trip. Large holes gave paddlers
something to think about in the flat water, and beautiful park-
and-playable waves were scattered throughout the eight-mile run.
to Polk Deters, Aluo, Tashi, Travis Winn, Adam Elliott, Chen Hao,
Kristin McDonald, and Last Descents River Tours. China is amazing.
following is a collection of three descriptive essays from the American
Literature class. Elsa Schroeter shares her thoughts about the Third
Quarter service project. Matt Eddy takes a deeper look at rural China’s
favorite pastime, basketball. John O’Neill describes a jog in the
A Cleaner Future for Dimaluo
By Elsa Schroeter
satisfying our stomach’s morning hunger with noodle bowls and packing
our Bill’s Bags to their limits, we marched on to Mr. Li’s Dong Feng
cargo truck and Mr. Qi’s bus for another journey. We are now familiar
with the packing and loading of our combined one ton of gear into Li’s
truck. Our hired bus driver, Mr. Qi, has acquired the nickname of “The
General” because of his old, green military officer’s jacket. First
impressions and knowledge of his Kung-fu fighting skills led us all to
believe him to be a harsh and serious man. But, after many hours spent
traveling around in his Greyhound-style bus, we have begun to see the
lighter side of him. The General has led us through miles of Chinese
countryside, from one river to the next, on a quest for cultural
experiences, sweet whitewater, and hotels willing to accommodate 22
This journey brought us to Dimaluo, a small
village in the Nu Jiang (Salween) Valley, about two hours upstream of
our base for paddling in Gongshang. Here, we completed our semester
service project. The service project included a trash cleanup
throughout the village and along the beach of its water source, a
tributary to the Salween. After many years of carelessly throwing out
all kinds of garbage, from broken glass bottles and candy wrappers to
worn out shoes and broken dishes, the village of Dimaluo is beginning
to feel the environmental impacts and is looking for a change.
Progressive environmental activism is rare in rural China. Aluo, a
local mountain guide and entrepreneur, is the driving force behind this
new perspective on sustainable living in isolated villages.
Guesthouse caters mostly to trekkers planning to embark on the popular
three-day hike over the mountain pass that separates the Salween and
Mekong River valleys. At the moment there are no roads through this
area, making the trek the only route. We had hoped to complete this
trek from the Mekong to the Salween a week earlier, but we were forced
to make a three-day drive down the Mekong and then back up the Salween
because of questionable winter weather on the pass that reaches
elevations of 14,000-plus feet.
The bottom floor of the
guesthouse contains a small kitchen. I crowded into the room after an
afternoon spent cleaning the village with the locals and their
children. I noticed a large, flat wok filled with a lake of grease and
sizzling onions. The wok filled the air with popping sounds and thick,
oily smog. In the far corner of the kitchen was a table with a bowl of
chopped cabbage and a platter of undistinguishable meat. Under the
table sat two gallons of oil and a sack of rice. Aluo’s wife and two
other Chinese women were busy with the preparation of our dinner.
dining room of Aluo’s Guesthouse was the center of activity. Posters on
the wall caught my eye, with information in both English and Chinese
about Aluo’s guide service, the trekking routes to the Mekong valley
and back, culture and religion of the area, and efforts on trash
control. The worn out boards of the room’s wooden floor creaked with
every step. One corner of this room had a low-sitting, corner couch
covered with random pieces of hand woven, multi-colored fabrics of
bright red, orange, and shades of green and blue. Two square, knee-high
tables were placed in the middle of the room surrounded by squatty
wooden benches. This was the perfect place to relax after a long day’s
trek (or in our case, a long day of picking up trash) as you could sip
yak butter tea and snack on the deliciously flavorless, unleavened
“baba” bread, similar to a warm pita.
A set of steep, wooden
stairs with a sanded rail, grown soft with time and use, took me to the
top two rooms of the guesthouse. Each room had seven beds arranged
parallel on the floor. The whole bed package included a soft fleece
comforter placed over two inches of foam. Walls were made of thin
wooden siding that seemed to conduct noise from room to room rather
than contain it.
Life in Dimaluo had a sense of timelessness.
Cows and pigs and chickens and goats roamed the dirt roads and pathways
with the freedom of an established resident. Quality work was done
efficiently, and staying at the guesthouse was relaxing and pure.
many villages like this one, it would seem pointless to spend hours
bent over, picking up garbage and throwing it into the bamboo baskets
we carried on our backs. Most of Yunnan’s river communities are filled
with trash, and people continue to litter, but this was a different
case. With the support of the Paddle-A-Thon fundraiser, new efforts are
being made toward waste management education, and trash cans will now
be placed throughout the village. It was a rewarding experience to help
with the first stages of these changes and to see the enthusiasm in the
local residents, like Aluo and his family, who plan to sustain the
Ballin’ in Gongshang
By Matt Eddy
basketball courts of Gongshang are like many that exist throughout
China. They are concrete, solid and unyielding. Bleachers surround the
courts, and only one or two spectators fill them. These are locals
merely searching for a place to sit, who have happened upon the
manmade, stone steps. Lacking in both comfort and style, the seats
provide support for the sitter’s rest-hungry body.
look tired, with ragged nets, like a lonely flag on the field of
battle. Barely representing enough rivalry with the opposing basket to
constitute a game, their ball-beaten backboards look ready to be done.
lines fade into the cement. Three points may as well be two, and
calling fouls is a matter of science. The Shaq O’Neill’s of China would
only enter this court for money. It defiles the game it hosts, a relic
among the new shoed, NBA, televised form of basketball. Yet, at the
same time, all of the humanity of the sport is seen here, boxed in
between cement block apartment buildings, stuck between dinnertime and
work. It is hidden from a main street, yet obvious to the foreign
out-of-towner, forever bound by the phrase, “It’s just a game.” Loss or
victory will not end friendships here, but nobody wants to lose.
lines may have faded but the boundaries of the game are clear. The
rules go unspoken and the stake of the game is invested somewhere
inside. Ball handling skills compensate for less than ideal genetics.
Players jump as if leaping over the science that chains them to their
bodies. Maybe players, in fact, jump over the stereotypes formed by
ignorant, raw cynics such as me? The word “baller” is so rooted in
American street culture, is it possible for the Chinese to rip out this
weed of stereotype? These courts care nothing of heritage.
are created to encompass new concepts. “Sportsmanship.” Now, anyone is
liable to see this word on the motivational poster tacked just above
the rim of the cubicle wall. Where does the motivation come from to
play basketball here? Maybe it’s the bare, animalistic instinct of
competition, of one team versus another, the same motive that starts
wars and rivalries. Or maybe it’s just fun, requiring no further
explanation than the three-letter word can suffice.
the Chinese have chosen to partake. The best courts in the world could
not replace those of Gongshang in my mind. It could be the narrow
streets that wouldn’t allow them to fit into the city’s grid. Maybe it
is because my skill wouldn’t fit on the best courts in the world? Or
perhaps my Western, capitalist mind has already calculated the fact
that Gongshang couldn’t afford to fit nicer ones in the budget. The
game of basketball fits quite well within those stone bleachers.
Jogging in China
By John O’Neill
a two-month break from competitive running, it felt good to clear the
dust off of my Asics. I needed to escape from the honking horns and New
Year’s firecrackers in Gongshang. Adam told me about a trail, and he
said it would be a cool run, but I had no idea it was going to be this
My run started off down a dirt road headed upstream
in a deep valley carved by a Salween River tributary. I ran by a
burning trash dump where the smell was so putrid it stung my nostrils
with every breath. I upped the tempo and broke free from the smelly,
black smoke. The run continued down the same beaten, bumpy road. Soon I
came upon a rural village where chickens and pigs roamed freely. I had
to avoid a few barking dogs that nipped at my heels if I moved too
close. The road kept winding through the village, and I saw a young
lady giving an old man an I.V., or some type of medical treatment.
road curved about the hillside until it narrowed into a single-track
trail. The trail took off over a dam and up into the mountains as it
followed one of many crystal-clear creeks that contribute to the
Salween. This creek was full of runnable drops for kayakers, and a few
times I had to stop to take a closer look at its impressive gradient.
The lush vegetation that surrounded the trail was a breath of fresh air
compared to the concrete jungle of Gongshang and our long, stale bus
rides between river trips. I was constantly looking out for stumps,
roots, and rocks that always seemed to be grabbing at my feet. The
trail charged up and down hills, weaved in and around groves of trees,
and clung to a cliff’s edge. One wrong step could have meant a broken
ankle, or a scary fall into the creek below. That is when I started to
regret running alone. However, I was not alone.
I passed a few
locals carrying logs down the trail. Most villagers use wood for heat
and cooking. We exchanged a “ni hao” (hello) and funny glances. Another
three minutes went by before I came upon a rickety old bridge that
crossed an intersecting valley. The bridge was a little sketchy, and it
was missing boards every two steps. The rotting wood made it seem like
gravity could take over in an instant. After the wood bridge, I went
underneath a magnificent natural stone arch and decided that was far
enough. I turned around and headed toward town. Back through the arch,
over the bridge, by the log carriers, through the village, by the dump,
and finally I arrived at our hotel feeling refreshed and ready to
WCKA Newsletter - January 2007
WCKA in China
By Evan Garcia
arrived in Missoula on the afternoon of the 11th and proceeded to pack
their dry bags and boats to as close to 50 pounds as humanly possible.
After everyone had hit the mark and we divided the group gear, the
first group packed up WCKA van #1 and started the drive to Spokane,
enjoying our Taco del Sol “Mission Burritos” on the way. Four hours
later we stumbled into a hotel room in eastern Washington near the
Spokane international airport.
At 4:30 a.m. the next morning,
we once again stumbled outside the hotel and headed to the airport,
bound for LA. Getting boats checked for international flights can be a
quest of epic proportions, but this time it wasn’t too bad. We got
through security without conflict, then on to Seattle and one step
closer to LA where more students awaited our arrival. Arriving in the
land of movie stars, we met Billy Boylan and Justin Patt. We spent the
entire day in Los Angeles in a day-rate hotel until late evening when
we gathered at LAX to board the 747 that would take us half way across
the world to China.
Nothing had prepared us for what came
next. China was a new experience for everyone in the group except
program director Polk Deters. The food, the language, the cities, and
the sheer number of people were a shock to us all. After another entire
day in the airport, we finally arrived in Lijiang in the Yunnan
province, where our Chinese translators Travis Winn and Chen Hao met us
with mini vans.
The following day, Group 1 hung out in the
extremely popular tourist town of Lijiang, learning about the country
and hiking one of the numerous hills in the area. Group 2 followed the
exact same path 24 hours after Group 1, and we met up with them in a
friendly restaurant in old town Lijiang. The next two days went by fast
— a blur of shopping and sightseeing. Orientation went smoothly during
the morning of the second day and led to packing our 100 total pounds
of gear (a piece, including kayaks) for the trip to the Yangtze.
left Lijiang early in the morning to allow sufficient time at the Tiger
Leaping Gorge. The group split in two — Polk, Scott, Travis, Chen,
Tashi, and Adam went the long way to the put-in to get the rafts and
gear ready for the river trip. The students and the majority of the
staff headed to the TLG and enjoyed a day of hiking and hanging out in
one of the most visually spectacular places on earth. Later, everyone
met again on the banks of the Yangtze, all ready for the 14-day trip
down the Great Bend of he Yangtze.
A day of school and rigging
rafts later, we put in on the Great Bend with the excitement of kids in
a candy shop. The entire river is too long and beautiful to explain in
detail so I will give an abridged version. Everyday we camped on
beaches the size of football fields and enjoyed great eats prepared by
our master chef Tashi (a Tibetan cook who joined us for the 14 days).
The river was very similar to the Grand Canyon of the Colorado or the
Salmon River in Idaho. All the rapids were Class III big water fun, and
we found many good play spots along the way on our 120-mile trip.
Throughout the trip many members of the group experienced what I like
to call the wrath of Khan (a 24-hour stomach bug, which hit like a
freight train). For many, this was the first self-support trip on this
scale and many new things were tried and learned.
On Day 9 of
the trip we hiked 2-3 miles off the river to a small wilderness village
named Baoshan (“Rock City,” due to its old Chinese style construction).
We spent the night in beds and enjoyed the small pleasures of
civilization before once again setting off downstream toward the
takeout. The next days went by slowly due to the lake section of the
river, where we paddled miles of flat water with a vicious upstream
wind pounding in our faces. At the takeout we de-rigged the rafts,
cleaned all of our gear, and drove back to Lijiang with a slight sense
of confusion due to the lack of normal human contact for the past two
With the month of January now almost over, Scott left
us to attempt Haba Snow Mountain, the 17,700-foot massif forming the
western half of the TLG, before returning to his family in Montana.
Tashi also left us to go once again down the Great Bend with a raft
trip from the US, making it his eighth time down that section of river.
We headed to Dequin in the Mekong Valley, but falling snow stalled us
in the mountain city of Shangri La.
By Billy Boylan
first day of class also happened to fall on the initial day of the
river trip down the Great Bend of the Yangtze. This first day was an
orientation of each class and the teachers’ expectations, along with a
preview of what is to come throughout the semester. The next 14 days on
the river consisted of having class everyday before paddling
downstream. The average classroom was a nice sandy beach or rock next
to the river. Students and teachers alike were inspired by the pristine
beauty of the surrounding Yangtze River Valley. This helped the school
days go by rather quickly while anticipation grew for each new section
of whitewater. At night students were often seen completing their
homework in a studious fashion by the fire. The two weeks spent on the
river were certainly not a bad way to get some school work
By Justin Patt
month of January has provided some great cultural experiences for the
students here at World Class. It has been such a culture-rich trip thus
far that I really can’t do it justice here.
The first stop
along the way to the Great Bend was the Tiger Leaping Gorge. The people
at Chateau de Woody were very hospitable and made our stay quite
comfortable. We hiked down to the Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge and took
in the awe-inspiring view of the massive rapids. After a hike up a
“dangeroos” ladder — yes, “dangeroos”! — we headed to the put-in of the
Yangtze River. Whenever we encountered locals by the riverside, our
crew and gear were the subject of curious stares. Our hike to Baoshan
allowed us to see what life is like for those who live deep in a valley
of one of China’s three “Great Rivers.” Barley fields were terraced
nearly 1500 feet from town down to the river, and the old stone houses
were in stark contrast to the modern architecture we are used to seeing
in the States.
Several days later we made our way back to
Lijiang where, in addition to cruising the artisan markets, we were
treated to an amazing display of Naxi culture. The Naxi is a minority
culture that is slowly being revived in the Yunnan province. The Naxi
language is one of the last languages to use pictorial characters. We
watched as they made sandals, goat-skin capes, and rope out of palm
trees. The Naxi sang songs and danced for us. We then sang a cappella
for them “The Gambler” by Kenny Rogers. They loved it. After this
hideous rendition of a classic tune, some of our very own students and
teachers joined in the Naxi dancing. The next day we waited in the cold
Lijiang morning while our drivers, “The General and Komrade,” tried to
start our vehicles. After an hour of sanctioned hacky sack, we started
our journey to the Mekong River
As January came to a close, we
celebrated the birthdays of Kristi Murrin, Adam Elliott (one of our
fearless leaders), and me. Our dance party at the disco in Shangri La
was definitely a unique cultural experience. Euro and Asian techno
music moved all of us — Tibetan, Han Chinese, American, Canadian, and
Swedish. During our delayed stay in Shangri La, we were fortunate to
have the opportunity to visit one of the largest Tibetan Buddhist
monasteries in the region.
We are all looking forward to the adventures that await us in the Mekong and Salween Valleys.