Survivor of rafting disaster on the Yangtze says he still loves China’s mightiest river

Eleven were killed in race by teams to raft its upper reaches 30 years ago, but Yang Yong says his fascination with the Yangtze remains, plus his commitment to protect its environment

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 September, 2016, 11:01am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 September, 2016, 11:01am

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the first full descents by raft down the upper reaches of the Yangtze River in China. That summer two teams of Chinese youths, one from Sichuan province and the other from Luoyang in Henan province, embarked on their adventure to raft through the most turbulent rapids on the river. Their aim was to beat another planned expedition led by the American Ken Warren so Chinese would be the first to descend the mighty Yangtze. Sparked by nationalist fervour, the rafting turned into a competition, with 11 people killed in the process. Yang Yong survived the expedition, though eight of his teammates on the Sichuan team died. Now 57, he has since embarked on a life of continuous expeditions in China’s wild west, the source of Asia’s great rivers. He spoke of his experiences with Li Jing.

How do you now look back at the Yangtze descents 30 years ago?

Some reports about the American expedition team have recently been circulating on Chinese media. It’s the first time that I have got to know what really went on with their team. I was a little shocked. Under that mounting nationalist atmosphere thanks to intensive media coverage, we were unconsciously driven into a competition with them. Personally, I joined the expedition team not simply out of patriotism, I was motivated by a curiosity about the Yangtze that started in my childhood. So when there was this chance to raft down this mystic river, I joined. Yet with the competitive atmosphere getting stronger, the nature of the descents deviated from what I had originally intended. Looking back I’d say it was a tragic ending with so many young people losing their lives.

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What made you curious about the Yangtze and what was your initial plan for the descents?

I was brought up on the cliffs of the Jinsha canyon in Sichuan province. Beyond the cliff runs the Jinsha River, on the upper reaches of Yangtze. My parents were always warning me not to get too close to the edge of the cliff, otherwise I could be sucked away by the mighty river below. In my childhood memory, the river was a scary but mystical being, but I didn’t have the chance to see what it was really like until I started work in the city of Panzhihua after finishing college where I majored in geology. In 1986, when I was about 26 years old, I joined the preparation work for the Yangtze descents, taking it as a precious opportunity to feed my childhood curiosity. But as I said, the expedition turned out to be a competition, instead of the research trip, I had hoped for. The pace was too fast for thorough research. I had to give up water samples and other materials collected along the way. Also, as we were divided into small teams so as to finish the expedition faster, I wasn’t able to go to all sections of the Yangtze. Soon after the expedition was completed, I decided I wanted to continue my research into the Jinsha River.

So completing the Yangtze descents safely was only the starting point of your explorations on the upper reaches of the river?

Yes, I did a walking expedition along the Jinsha River in 1988 and in 1991 I organised a rafting expedition along the Yalong River, a tributary of Yangtze in Sichuan province. In the following years, massive hydropower constructions started on the upper reaches of the Yangtze, taking a toll on the natural ecosystem in the area. That’s when I realised the understanding of the Yangtze ecology was still limited and I needed to devote myself to researching into it. So I left my work at a government agency and started to raise funds myself, through tourism, to carry out independent research. In 1998, I rafted down the Yarlung Zangbo, the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra, which originates in Tibet and runs through four countries - China, India, Bhutan and Bangladesh. In 2005, when China planned its western route for the South-North Water Diversion project, aiming to divert water from the upper reaches of Yangtze to the arid northwest, I found the plan failed to clarify the project’s impact on ecosystems, so I focused my exploration and research in the areas that would be affected. I found the Sanjiangyuan area in Qinghai, where the country’s three major rivers originate, were severely impacted by global climate change.

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Could you briefly outline your conclusion drawn from years of exploration trips?

I think the impact of climate change on the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau is underestimated and has yet to gain enough attention from governments and researchers. Over the years, I’ve witnessed the fast retreating of glaciers, the rapid degradation of water systems and the desertification of grasslands in the major river sources in the country’s southwest. It is particularly wrong to celebrate the brief water increase in rivers and lakes in these areas as it is a short-lived result from glaciers melting instead of man-made conservation work. It is very likely to be followed by the sudden drop of water resources. And the ecosystems on the major river sources will become increasingly threatened. Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s enough research and recognition of the problems. In fact, the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau is as much threatened by climate change as any low-lying islands elsewhere. Meanwhile, China really needs to reconsider its plans in building hydropower projects on rivers in the southwest, taking into account both geological safety risks and changing weather patterns due to climate change. It should also work more closely with other Asian nations as these projects are closely linked with the lives of people living in countries downstream.