This story first appeared in the August 2014 issue of Canoe & Kayak.

Photos and Story by Will Stauffer-Norris

This is the fourth pig carcass that has washed up in Dead Pig Eddy. The bloated creature rocks gently up and down against the beach about 10 feet away from our brewing morning coffee. The pig must go, it’s decided, so Lao Tang and Bob tie a piece of p-cord to a stiff leg and offer the other end to me. Just tie a quick-release knot to your kayak they say. No problem.

I paddle out into the current, towing the leaden weight of the sow. Everything is fine until I hit the eddyline, the big water powerful and shifting against my hull. In the boils, the tension disappears and the pig sinks out of sight. A tense moment follows: Where will it surface? Suddenly there is an eruption of dead pig right next to my boat. I squeal and take few quick paddle strokes. The line goes taut again, jerking me to the side, and for a moment I have horrible visions of flipping headfirst into a mass of decomposing pork. A few more frantic pulls, the knot finally gives way, and the pig heads downstream to Burma.

This is the Salween, one of the most beautiful and magical rivers in China.

I lived in the rugged Salween valley for two months, working for Last Descents River Expeditions, a company founded by American Travis Winn. His mission is to bring Chinese to see their rivers before dams and development irrevocably change these wild places.

But wild is a relative term on the lower Salween River. People live and farm everywhere along the river, and only the rockiest and steepest sections are left untouched. Travis insists that we always wear shoes on the beaches. I’m skeptical of this rule until I nearly step on a hypodermic needle, a common sight among the ubiquitous scraps of plastic and discarded fishing line. Some days, smoke from burning sugarcane fields fills the valley, making it difficult to breathe. Most of the clients don’t realize that this isn’t wilderness as we Americans think of it. To them, the air is fresh, much cleaner than it is in Beijing.

Despite the air and water pollution endemic to China, the Salween remains one of the longest undammed rivers in the world. China and Burma both aim to change that. China alone has proposed as many as 13 dams on the Salween, which carves the 13,000-foot-deep “Grand Canyon of the East” through western Yunnan province. The country has been on a dam-building tear for the last 60 years, constructing half of the world’s total dams. The Salween River so far has been spared by its remote location, but the central government has drawn up plans to turn this isolated river valley into a series of stair-stepping reservoirs.

This is part of the reason we’re here: to show influential Chinese these rivers before it’s too late. Our guests are the new rich of China, products of the economic boom that has brought China through leaps and bounds into the modern world. We have a car company executive, a fashion store mogul, the owner of a wedding dress conglomerate, and a foot massage magnate who calls at the last minute asking to bring a friend. The plus-one turns out to be a former Miss China, beauty pageant representative of 1.3 billion people. She’s quiet and friendly and about two feet taller than every other Chinese woman. We are sufficiently impressed to ask her to sign our drybags.

On the river, these high-powered business people turn back into kids, throwing buckets of water at each other, falling into the river and laughing. They photograph themselves in ridiculous poses holding rafting paraphernalia. Miss China curls up on the boat and hands her boyfriend cigarettes. “Time is for the wasting,” says the wise leader of these entrepreneurs. “The important thing is who you waste it with.” Our journey proves once again that the river, any river, is a place for people to become human again.

But in a country where river-running is still in its infancy, our attempts to introduce river culture seem dwarfed by the almost incomprehensible scale of the proposed hydropower projects.

In addition to taking guests down the rafting run, I came to China to kayak. Upstream of the rafting section, the canyon is dramatically narrower, the whitewater powerful and more technical. Between raft trips, a few of us guides would stuff playboats in the back of whatever van we could hail on the road, occasionally barreling by the broken hulks of vehicles that had been clobbered by random rock fall. I learn to reset my sense of scale on the river, best known to whitewater paddlers for a five-minute segment in the kayaking film Frontier, in which Rush Sturges and company throw massive freestyle airs on pulsating river-wide features. Seen from the seat of my own playboat, the Salween’s sheer size is intimidating, even if the waves and sucking holes tend to flush boaters rather than hold them. I gradually learn to relax, following as Kira and Travis punch holes, roll, grin, and generally treat the Salween river as more of a playground than a chaotic maelstrom of melted Tibetan snow—the Angry River, as it’s called in Chinese.

We stay in a clean 10-dollar-a-night hotel at the takeout to the kayak section, run by a charming young mother who cooks us delectable fried peppers, mushrooms, and pork. Then one day we discover a black bear cub on the roof of the hotel, confined to a tiny rusted cage. We don’t change hotels, but a shadow has fallen over our gracious host. This is business as usual in the Salween valley, where every restaurant seems to have a freezer full of endangered species, served up with a wink to government officials.

Downstream, on the rafting section, the Wild West vibe of the Salween is contagious. “Do you really think we should light fireworks off the Ming Dynasty bridge?” we ask each other. Marco Polo had crossed it once, we heard. It seems like a good idea after a few beers, and pretty soon the Salween is lit up by surprisingly large explosions. The guests cheer. Sometimes it’s nice to be unencumbered by regulation and law enforcement.

The entrepreneurs raved about their experience on the Salween, and to them we are exotic westerners rather than kayaking dirtbags. A few weeks after the trip, they invited us to a party in Shanghai, all expenses paid. After a 30-plus-hour train ride through endless rice fields, we arrive at our five-star hotel and proceed to down ungodly portions of most of the plant and animal species of China. This is actually the first time I have ever eaten sea cucumber off a plate specifically designed for that purpose. We visit a Monet exhibit and the Wild Animal Park and drink expensive rice whiskey. Over the fourth course one night, delectable fungus or raw salmon or something, an excited conference is held, none of which I understand until Travis asked me: Are you free next year?

I think I will be.

Back in the Salween valley, after a week of torrential rain and getting stuck on a high mountain pass between a rockslide and a waterfall, the weather finally clears. We hike up a creek that has just wiped out several houses and a road. People are out in the bright sunny day, sawing flood debris for firewood, constructing makeshift bridges, and picking through the wreckage. Travis stops and examines something in the creek bed. It’s a fresh pile of human feces, plainly laid out on the clean scoured cobbles, with a dozen or so stunningly vibrant blue butterflies resting on top. It strikes me that more than anything, the shit and the butterflies sum up the extremes of China: disgusting and beautiful; raw and delicate, like yin and yang, inseparable.

Check out Staffer-Norris’ video from the trip and meet the entrepreneurs on the Salween River:

See more videos and photography from Will Stauffer-Norris

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