FIRST DESCENT:

MEKHONG RIVER BELOW MAN WAN DAM

 

KUNMING CITY and YUNNAN PROVINCE, CHINA

APRIL 1997

 

Text and Photos Copyright ©2001 Mark E. Halliday

 

 

I knew that I would be working in China in the spring. I was looking for an adventure to add on to my business trip.

I searched on the web for "CHINA" and "MEKONG", hoping to find a commercial river trip.

What I found instead was a "First Descent" of a 100-mile stretch of the Mekong river in Southwest China, in the area just north of the border with Thailand. This was a cooperative expedition between a Earth Science Expeditions in Grand Junction, Colorado, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The expedition included both Chinese and foreign scientists, with experienced river runners from many countries.

Two 16-ft catarafts and four kayaks were our means of transport.

There was a cancellation spot open, and I put my money down.

 

Kunming is a delightful city compared to anything else I have seen in China.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Located on a high plateau, it has the strong sunlight of the tropics without the stifling humidity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I spent two enjoyable days riding a bicycle around the city and outskirts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The sight of a large foreigner on a bicycle so startled one local that he just fell right off his bike!

 

 

 

 

 

 

When the river expedition group was all in town, we had the customary "opening banquet" with colorful local dances and fiery hot spicy food.

 

For two days we prepared the catarafts and kayaks, and bought and packed about a ton of food.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 Cataraft and 2 Kayaks had been in storage here for more than a year.

 

 

Peter Wynn, the group leader,

is trying to figure out

where to pack the eggs!

 

 

 

 

Group Lunch in Kunming

 

 

 

 

 

 

These children were sure they could see

something in the camera lens

if only they could get a good look...

 

Spices in the market

 

 

 

 

 

Before dawn we start the grueling 14-hour drive to the put-in.

Just beyond this gas station there is a dead body just laying in the road. No one is stopping; we understand this is normal in China traffic accidents.

 

In late afternoon the countryside became more mountainous, with extensive terraces on the valley sides. Notice the lower terraces are no longer used due to erosion problems.

 

 

 

 

A very nasty windy mountain roads to the Mekong river put-in.

 

 

The first view of the Mekhong River.

 

 

 

 

Just 1/2 mile upstream is the Man Wan Dam, which we were prohibited from taking pictures of.

This entire part of China is closed to foreigners without the special permissions we had obtained.

 

 

Breakfast the next morning

 

 

 

 

 

 

Van and Truck go

to the put-in

 

 

 

The truck is unloaded

and the rafts assembled

 

 

 

Mike Wynn tidies up the cataraft

 

 

We started our 10-day trip, without much idea what was ahead.

Our limited information was based on old Russian maps, whcih indicated a gradient about equal to the Grand Canyon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

My tent site at first campsite.

 

 

 

 

Kim and Ralph cooking breakfast

 

 

 

 

First river morning, we usually got on the river by 11 a.m.

 

 

 

 

 

The first five days didn't produce big rapids,

although we got soaked by heavy rainstorms.

 

The Mekhong was saving everything for the second half!

 

 

 

 

 

Visiting with the local minority tribes along the river was great fun, and the scenery was great.

 

Pete gives kayak rides

to the local children.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bamboo Raft used by locals to cross the Mekhong.

 

 

On the fifth day we passed the construction site of the Big Dynasty Mountain Dam.

Giant granite boulders

choked the river just below the dam,

producing our first Class 10 run.

 

 

 

 

 

Below the dam-site, each day produced more exciting rapids.

The locals started talking about a 50-foot waterfall somewhere down river!

 

 

The finale came on Day 9 with a rapid

the group later named "NO EXIT".

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We spent the entire morning scouting it.

The consensus: unrunable.

We unloaded both rafts and portaged all the gear around.

Ralph made it through in his kayak, the three other kayakers walked around.

Dave then portaged the first cataraft around the top drop, and made it through the 12-15 foot waves below.

 

 

 

Mike Wynn, the oarsman of the second cataraft, kept pacing back and forth, checking out the run. He went around the corner for a minute and asked his river god if the raft would get through upright. Finally he said that he thought we could make it.

 

 

I thought we would flip right at the top.

However, the runout seemed like just big waves, with a good pool at the bottom.

Swimming was probably not going to be fatal, so I agreed to go along.

 

We were flipped within a few seconds.

This picture of my thumb is as the raft was going vertical.

This was the second time this trip that I was tossed out of the raft, but definitely the most exciting swim of my life!

 

 

Photo courtesy of Princess Photography

 

 

In a way, Mike the oarsman was granted his wish, because the raft flipped upright again in the waves below!

This unusual Double-Flip made it easier for Pete Wynn to rescue the boat from his kayak.

 

The take out, where our truck was waiting.

 

 

View back upriver from the bridge takeout

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I celebrated at the Bridge Restaurant

with some Pabst Blue Ribbon beer....

 

Pete Wynn enjoyed a bottle of

Mekhong Whiskey I brought from Thailand.

 

He is truly Mr. Mekhong...

 

 

 

It took another day and a half for the long scary ride back to town. We saw a truck wreck along the way with the dead driver just hanging out the front windshield..

Back in Kunming, on a downtown street corner,

blind masseuses set up chairs and offer a great head-to-foot massage for just $2.

They were definitely shocked at the SIZE of at least one of the customers that showed up this night!

 

 

 

 

We unpacked all the gear and re-stored it.

The last day we visited the Stone Forest outside of Kunming.

We had our final banquet with more folk dancing, rice wine, and great food as everyone relived the excitement of this true adventure.

 

 

"Minority Girl" in costume

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I then flew to Bangkok to pick up my business bags, and then back home via Portland, where I arrived in time to spend my 45th birthday with Mom and Dad.

 

 

In late June I flew to Oakland for a reunion party with friends from the Mekong River expedition.

We all enjoyed seing some

exciting video and photos,

and reliving our adventure.

 

 

 

 

Text and Photos Copyright ©2001 Mark E. Halliday