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The Salween River: Threatened Paddling Classics

#4: The Salween River

From the canyons of the Tibetan Plateau to the jungles of western China, the Salween is 'heaven for paddlers'

The Salween River begins in the highlands of Tibet and flows 1,700 miles through western China and Burma before reaching the Andaman Sea. It's the longest undammed river in Southeast Asia and supplies water to 10 million people. Also known as the Nù Jiāng River, the Salween is home to numerous stretches of world-class whitewater and deep canyons suitable for multiday rafting trips, though its river-running potential is only now being discovered.

"Heaven as a kayaker would be getting dropped off at the source of the Salween, having food along the way and getting picked up at the bottom. You could do that for eternity and never get bored." –Travis Winn

For over a decade, the Salween has been in the sites of a quickly-growing China, hungry for new sources of electricity. As many as 20 large dams have been proposed along its course.

We recently caught up with Travis Winn, co-founder of Last Descents River Expeditions, one of the few overnight rafting companies in China and the only one that caters to Chinese guests, to learn more about the Salween.

Salween-River Last-descents
Kayakers on the Salween River. Photo by Will Stauffer-Norris

CanoeKayak.com: How long have you been paddling in China?

Travis Winn: I first came to China 14 years ago to do a kayaking trip near the source of the Salween. In 2004, I started coming over for six months every year, and in 2008 I moved here full time. We now run overnight rafting trips with predominantly Chinese clients through the spring and summer. In the off-season, we lead youth kayaking camps in Beijing.

You've guided trips and done first descents all over western China. What makes the Salween so special?

Heaven as a kayaker would be getting dropped off at the source of the Salween, having food along the way and getting picked up at the bottom. You could do that for eternity and never get bored.

When you start up on the Tibetan Plateau, the river flows across the Tibetan grasslands. There are monasteries along the river and people herding yaks. It eventually flows up against the eastern Tibetan Alps where it flows into a deep canyon.

The Salween goes from grasslands to amazing pine forests to a wild desert with almost no vegetation. And then you go through a mountain range at the Yunnan-Tibetan border and you end up in this semi-tropical jungle. It is the most diverse river I've ever seen.

Salween-River Last-descents
Adam Elliott charging through the Tiger Jumping Rocks section of the Salween, which recently hosted a Red Bull China kayak competition. Photo by Will Stauffer-Norris

What's the paddling like in those different environments?

There's so much potential. Where the river cuts through the Tibetan Alps, there are two or three options for weeklong multiday raft trips that vary in difficulty from Class II-III to IV-V.

After a cruxy section that's only been run once, there's a 180-mile stretch that we did in 2007. I can't imagine a better river in the world. We only portaged a handful of times. There was an incredible variety of whitewater and an amazing diversity in the geology–all in one of the deepest, most remote canyons on the planet.

What we see in China today is an amazing natural environment, huge population pressure, and tons of capital all in one place. Basically, all of the elements of humanity that you would see anywhere in the world are magnified here.

Does that about cover all the sections you've run?

Actually, we're just getting started. Below the canyons, the river is roadside for a while. There is a 200-mile long section chock full of great Class III-IV big water play rapids. This is where Rush Sturges' movie Frontier was filmed and where World Class Kayak Academy takes their students. There is a public bus that runs up and down the river. You can put your playboat in the bus and get to these play runs, and you can stay in little guesthouses along the river.

[Watch a short video of a recent kayaking competition on this section of the Salween.]

Below there, it starts to flatten out and the valley gets wider. That's where I've been running multi-day trips with commercial rafting clients.

Further down, the valley widens and is full of water buffalo. Below that, I've yet to explore.

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Rafters on the Salween. Photo by Will Stauffer-Norris

Are there any government restrictions for running the Salween?

The Tibetan sections have been closed since 2008. There are checkpoints everywhere and it's impossible to get in. Tibet is complicated politically, and developing Tibet's hydropower resources is a national priority. Contention over hydropower development probably has something to do with the closures.

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You Haul: Man moves couch on trail high above the Salween. Photo by Will Stauffer-Norris

What's the latest with dams on the Salween?

There were originally thirteen dams proposed on the Salween in Yunnan with a handful more farther north. Now, that number has been reduced to five active proposals, but it's still unclear how soon those dams could be built. What we do know is that if they were built, they would take out every currently accessible section of whitewater on the Salween. The five under consideration are the tallest dams of the original thirteen.

Map of proposed dams in western China. Courtesy International Rivers
Map of proposed dams in western China. Courtesy International Rivers

Does the name of your company, Last Descents, still sum up how dire the situation is for rivers in China?

What we see in China today is an amazing natural environment, huge population pressure, and tons of capital all in one place. Basically, all of the elements of humanity that you would see anywhere in the world are magnified here. All these amazing rivers are taking the brunt of this combination with the growing demand for energy.

As a river runner, this is the nastiest reality you could ever deal with, and we're choosing to deal with it every day. When we take clients out on the river, they confront those realities as well. I don't know what the result of our work here will be, or if we'll impact the protection of any river. It is clear, however, that the changes that need to happen are going to take a long time. We're looking at the long-term goal of building a river industry and developing opportunities for river recreation over here. The goal is to create a group of paddler-activists that will be engaged in rivers in China for years to come.

Salween-River Last-descents
Perched thousands of feet above the Salween River, this tiny village has electricity but is a two hour walk to the nearest road. Photo by Will Stauffer-Norris

How's it working?

For our customers, our trips are the first time they've been out on a living, moving river. Even though most of the trips are just three days long, it fundamentally changes their perspective. Most of them even succeed in not looking at their phones.

If return clientele is the measurement of the quality of the river trips, we have some impressive results. This year, we have a 100 percent return rate. Everybody who went on the Salween in 2014, from the kayak club youth groups to city-born entrepreneurs, is coming back in 2015 to run a river with us somewhere in China.

There's just something about floating the river. Maybe the time has come. Maybe the moment has arrived for river recreation in China. There's this need to be out there, and that need is finally strong enough that river running could really take off.

–See more photos of the Salween and read about introducing China's new rich to paddling.

Kids on the Salween from Will Stauffer-Norris on Vimeo.

This story is part of a C&K series covering the world's ten most threatened paddling runs. Read about the other runs, and stay tuned as more are released:

#5 – The Yellowstone and Upper Missouri rivers: Two iconic, hard-working western rivers that have been repeatedly sullied by oil and gas spills

#6 – Alaska's Susitna River: World-class whitewater in the shadow of Denali

#7 – The Zambezi River: 'Arguably the finest one-day whitewater rafting trip on the planet'

#8 – Ecuador's Jondachi River: A whitewater paradise in the Amazon rainforest

#9 – Yukon's Peel Watershed: A canoe-tripping haven

#10 – Colorado's Yampa River: A desert rafting classic

Salween-River Last-descents
Fireworks above a Last Descents river camp on the Salween. Photo by Will Stauffer-Norris