WCKA Newsletter - February 2007

World 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 with weather.

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 China.

The Mekong River (Lancang Jiang)

After our 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.

The city 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.

The 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.
The Salween 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.

More wintry 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.

Students 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.

Thanks to Polk Deters, Aluo, Tashi, Travis Winn, Adam Elliott, Chen Hao, Kristin McDonald, and Last Descents River Tours. China is amazing.

The 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 Salween Valley.


A Cleaner Future for Dimaluo
By Elsa Schroeter

After 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 foreigners.

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.

Aluo’s 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.

The 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.

In 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 project’s momentum.


Ballin’ in Gongshang
By Matt Eddy

The 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.

The hoops 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.

Painted 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.

The 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.

Words 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.

Regardless, 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

After 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 awesome.

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.

The 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 paddle.

WCKA Newsletter - January 2007

WCKA in China
By Evan Garcia

Students 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.

We 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 weeks.

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

The 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 accomplished.

By Justin Patt

The 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. 
















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