Last January, I met up with a long-lost college friend for lunch in Kunming, China. Over a bowl of dumplings, we poured through pictures of his bicycle trips around the Yunnan province where he’d spent the last several years. One set stood out, and my boyfriend and I decided to rent a motorcycle and set out for the region of the map labeled Nujiang.
A smooth, new road took us alongside the Nu River for the four days of our trip; in the gorge below, whitewater boiled over boulders, and alluvial fans spread out at the base of snow-melt channels, planted with terraces of rice and green and yellow winter vegetables. We stayed in minority villages and towns, where Christianity and Islam were practiced and Mandarin was not the first language.
Along with its better-known neighbors, the Mekong and the Yangtze, the Nu River—also called the Salween, or the Angry River—is a centerpiece of the UNESCO-recognized Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areas. The region is crisscrossed with tributaries to the three rivers, running down from snow-capped peaks. The UNESCO site’s boundaries include tourist hot spots such as Tiger Leaping Gorge and Shangri-La.
But while the Yangtze and the Mekong have succumbed to Asia’s accelerating demand for electricity, their powerful, wild waters pressed into the service of major dams, the Nu is the last free-flowing river in Southeast Asia. How long that claim can stand remains to be seen.
Over the last decade, a full 20 dams have been planned along the Nu—13 have been proposed in its upper regions in China, and seven more are pending in Myanmar (map). Protests came from all corners—foreign embassies, local conservation groups, and grassroots groups—and in late 2004, Premier Wen Jiabao put development of the 13 Chinese dams on hold for further environmental review. After the suspension was upheld in 2009, the plans were revived in mid-2011. In Myanmar, plans also seem to be back on track.
One of the many people hoping to stop—or at least help change the shape of those plans—is Travis Winn, a 29-year-old river guide based in Kunming. His company, Last Descents, is focused on bringing people from China’s growing cities out to see the last remaining wild rivers in Western China and, in doing so, martial their support for protecting them.
Winn has been a fixture of China’s emerging river running scene for about a decade, following in the footsteps of his father, a geologist who began doing fieldwork on rivers in the western part of China in the early 1990s.
Both of Winn’s parents are river runners—his mother was a hydrologist for the U.S. Geographical Survey—and they introduced Travis and his sister to their love of rivers at a young age. At nine years old, Travis was already hooked on kayaking, and by his teen years, he was working as a river guide in the Grand Canyon.
That experience demonstrated that river recreation can play an important role in conservation. “In the U.S., in the 1970s, the people who became engaged in river conservation efforts weren’t necessarily people who paddled their own rafts or kayaks,” Winn says. “They were people who floated down as a commercial passenger and then went back and wrote a letter to their local Congressman. Once they learned that this was there, they wanted to have the opportunity to interact with a natural river.”
It’s a model Winn hopes can help save Chinese rivers, too. The guiding principle behind Last Descents, as well as his work with the China Rivers Project (which he co-founded with Kristin McDonald, backed by the Earth Island Institute) and other conservation efforts in China, seems to be based on an unshakeable belief that seeing is believing.
“As a river guide, one of the biggest attractions for me is watching someone who’s never had the opportunity to interact with a river or had that kind of extended period of time outdoors, camping and living along the river,” says Winn. “They’re away from their cell phones and computers, out of their comfort zone, and for me, seeing how they react to that—it’s incredibly rewarding.”
The experience may transform individuals, but can it transform national policy—especially in China?
WINN, HIS COLLEAGUES, AND his early customers set their sights on the fast-disappearing Yangtze, which had attracted commercial rafting since the beginning of the 1990s. They started with organized trips on the Great Bend of the Yangtze with international rafting enthusiasts. Fees from those individuals helped subsidize participation from specific, invited Chinese who were, at least in theory, in a position to influence policy. Conservation organizations, local officials, journalists, and academics made up the list of invitees.
The trips were popular, and there were some successes; in 2009, a Yangtze expedition brought together influencers from Beijing University, conservation groups, and public officials. A resulting research paper, which outlined significant ecological, seismic, and cultural risks associated with overdevelopment of the Yangtze, was circulated among government channels. They were optimistic.
But in 2012, the Great Bend of the Yangtze was lost to rafters, as access was shut down and key rapids were flooded by reservoirs. The Yangtze still has other raftable runs, but none is as iconic as that one. “It was an incredibly heartbreaking experience,” Winn says.
Now, Last Descents is going back to basics: “We’re trying to think more about how to create a business where we’re creating meaning in the lives of these up-and-coming Chinese, who probably haven’t connected with nature before,” Winn says. “If we can create a sustainable business model doing that, we’ll eventually have an impact on conservation.”
This time, they’re focusing their efforts on the Nu.
At its source in the Tibetan Plateau, the Nu is a shallow, warm stream, snaking through grasslands and full of sediment that turn the waters red. Downstream, the river carves out a canyon, amid juniper and pine forest. Monasteries with gold roofs peek out from behind the trees. “The sections of the river in Tibet are some of the most magical places I’ve been,” Winn says.
From there, the river passes through the rain shadow of the East Tibetan Alps, an arid area where the river becomes very narrow—and very deep. In one place, the whole river flows through a single, meter-wide gap, a discovery Winn and his partners made on a first descent a few years ago.
Down in Yunnan, the river becomes “a kayaking playground, with tremendous surfing waves and really fun rapids that are—for the most part—low consequence,” as Winn describes it. This section is also home to an outsize number of China’s minority communities—Tibetans, Lisu, Nu, Bai, and Dulong are among the ethnic groups that make their homes there.
It’s this unique blend of wild nature, cultural diversity, and easy access that have made the Nu River the perpetual “next big thing” in Chinese tourism. Two years ago, that new, paved road made the Nu a destination to “see before the crowds come.” There are airports in several nearby towns, and guesthouses in the villages along the river. But while these benefits haven’t (yet) brought tourists in the hordes seen elsewhere in China, it has brought other benefits.
“My guess is that the reason the Nu has been protected so long is because it does have a road along it,” Winn says. “A lot of people can see it, at a lot of times of the year. Chinese conservationists have been able to mount their case here, because they can show people this place.”
Consumer pressure would certainly help provide leverage for conservationists working on the river, especially if added to complaints from China’s southern neighbors on the river and local conservationists. But it’s not clear that the industry can grow fast enough. Two of the Nu’s 13 planned dams appear to be preparing for further construction with new equipment and preliminary infrastructure.
That said, Winn is optimistic that the Chinese rafters will come, and with their presence will come more visibility for alternatives to big dam development. And in China, the potential size of the outdoor industry makes it a force to be reckoned with.
Ski resorts, recreational cycling, and climbing have all emerged alongside the country’s rapid economic development. A recent industry report (PDF) estimates that there are now five million Chinese skiers, up sharply from just 10,000 in 1996. Rafting and kayaking are more recent additions, with real growth starting in just the past three to five years.
Shorter trips on accessible stretches of the Nu River may be ideal for this emerging, urban market. The roads are good, but perhaps more importantly, there’s consistent cell phone and 3G wireless data coverage along most of the gorge. And, as elsewhere in the world, with mobile data comes social media. If letter-writing campaigns could protect American rivers in the past century, maybe newbie rafters posting on Weibo and Twitter will protect Chinese rivers in this one.
TO SEE THE NU: Last Descents plans to run trips on the Nu in November and March to May. The river levels are safe through the winter months, but low temperatures recommend spring, before the full snowmelt arrives. A six-day trip, roundtrip from Beijing, runs $2,800-4,000. Contact Travis Winn at email@example.com.
Celeste LeCompte is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco and Guangzhou, China. She writes about innovation and the environment.