The Tao of Traveling and Paddling in China

Woman and perfume flower harvest, Baoshan, Yangtze, Yunnan


NRS ambassador Adam Mills Elliott shares the trials, triumphs and Tao of traveling and paddling in China with the young students of the international kayaking high school, World Class Academy.

At the Green Lake Hostel in Kunming, we managed to cram everyone into three Chinese taxis. After four weeks of traveling with an oversized crew of high school students, teachers and local hosts, we were well accustomed to logistical hurdles. Every transition presented a new challenge.

Nick Dancer obviously thinking about something pretty funny. ©Adam Elliott

“Women xiang, chu jerli,” I told the first driver in my broken Mandarin, pointing to some scribbled Chinese characters representing Kunming’s largest cineplex. I grinned and crossed my fingers as the cabs sped away into the late afternoon melee.

I spun off into a Taoist musing on how the river is the greatest teacher…yada, yada – your usual post-hippy, pop-philosophy B.S.

Soon we arrived at the biggest, most modern theater I’ve ever seen. It was time for the big white-people-do-crazy-stuff spectacle commemorating the end of World Class Academy’s third visit to the three great rivers of southwestern China. (I’ve been lucky enough to join in the adventure all three times.) We scampered up four flights of escalators, wide-eyed at the opulence that greeted us – a stark contrast from the rustic countryside where we’d been boating for the past two months. We snuck into the nearly packed theater, greeted by pounding dub step and a three-meter-wide screen of our guest teacher, renowned big-water freestyler Ben “Benny” Marr, throwing massive “bread and butters” on the Salween Special wave. Feeling sheepish for being late, we found our reserved front row seats and enjoyed the rest of Frontier, the epic 2011 paddling film from WCA grad Rush Sturges. While Kunmingers oohed and gasped from the seats behind us, I reflected on how fortunate we all were to be in China having this experience. Sometimes, I feel like I’m looking through someone else’s eyes, staring in awe at what’s going on around me. This was one of those times.

Kunming Cineplex, with World Class Academy and Last Descents River Expeditions. ©Adam Elliott

As the credits rolled, I jumped into my “document this” mode, threw a 50mm, 1.8 lens on my camera and started snapping away. Our big-screen, big-wave hero Benny, along with Travis Winn, our Chinese boating ambassador and translator, took the stage talk-show style to share their perspectives on river running. I had a great time darting around taking photos and watching the evening of interviews, slide shows and a Q&A session unfold. Three moments from that night will stick with me forever. First, while narrating a slideshow I was presenting, craning my neck to see the screen from my chair directly below it, I found myself contemplating the river life – how deeply ingrained in me it has become, how my family led me to it, how deeply satisfying paddling is, and how it has carried me and the rest of our group around the world. I spun off into a Taoist musing on how the river is the greatest teacher and how fitting it is for this traveling high school to choose the river as its classroom…yada, yada – your usual post-hippy, pop-philosophy B.S.

Left to right: Jesse Heinrichs, Teague Manley, Liam Fournier, Ben Kinsella watch “Frontier” at the theater in Kunming. ©Adam Elliott

And then, eight minutes into the Q&A session, a man named Dafeng (“Knife Wind”) stood up with a book in his hand announcing that he had a gift for Mizhe (“Rice Philosopher” – my name in Chinese). I looked up from my camera blankly, thinking I’d misunderstood, which happens frequently. The gift was a book – half Tao Te Ching, half journal. He had brought it specifically for me.  I was blown away. I had encountered this man before in my Chinese travels, but I couldn’t remember where or when. Still, he came down to the stage and thrust this heartfelt gift into my hands. Wow. Finally, at the end of the night, our friends and guides Travis and Wei Yi – the faces of Last Descents River Expeditions – gathered the crowd. They presented WCA with an ornate Naxi scroll depicting the Three Parallel Rivers, a rare and priceless treasure. Cultural symbols accompanied each flowing swath of river on the scroll: Golden sands and the goat bladder rafts of Mongol marauders for the Yangtze; horses carrying tea into Tibet for the Mekong; and tenuous cable crossings above angry torrents for the Salween.

Ben Marr and Travis Winn spittin’ the truth. ©Adam Elliott

It had been a challenging trip for everyone, complicated by difficult logistics and frequently conflicting needs. But on that last night in Kunming, a brief silence fell over the room as the beauty of the scroll and the majesty of its rivers seemed to validate our challenging two-month journey. That’s just what life is, right? We have expectations, and we’re let down. We struggle, then we’re rewarded. And that’s all I can say about this year’s China trip. It was two months of pure Life – the magical, and the mundane. Most of us got sick. We spent countless hours on a stinky bus, struggled to finish that Lit paper, dealt with broken cameras and crashed hard drives. But it’s not the inconveniences we’ll remember; it’s the beauty of the place and the impact of its rivers on our lives. Not to mention the big pan-ams and monster hole punching and swims and giant curler rides.

Yours truly, loving the Dredger Wave on the Salween. ©Nick Dancer


Today, I’m sitting in a western café in Kunming. I’m writing in my new Tao Te Ching journal and reflecting on all we’ve done and seen since arriving in China in January. The kids are home enjoying spring break and the teachers are busy writing lesson plans for spring quarter. I’ve spent the past few days editing photos and videos to share the story of our trip. Let’s set the stage. The Three Parallel Rivers start their journey high on the Tibetan Plateau, then funnel southeast through 18,000-foot peaks. At their closest point, the rivers come within 70 miles of one another. In the wintertime, the Yangtze, Mekong and Salween drop to 10,000, 6,000 and 12,000 cfs respectively. During the summer floods, flows multiply by 10 or 12. These are big rivers.

The bridge over the Mekong adorned with prayer flags. The trees near spiritual sites are spared from the ax. ©Adam Elliott

I get giddy just thinking about the big drops out there: Baptism, Judgement Day, Tiger Jumping Rock, the frothy squeeze of Deep Moon Gorge, and the poetically named Double Drop. And let’s not forget the freestyle playgrounds: Dredger Wave, Zen Wave, Salween Special, Happy Ending and Eagle’s Wings (or,  as Joel Kowalski dubbed it, Kim Jong – “cuz it’s the illest”).  Rapids are so numerous that many don’t have names yet. So we just say, “that long one,” or, “go right before the big-ass pour-over.” The WCA China trip has always begun in the small town of Lijiang, just south of the Great Bend of the Yangtze. Students and staff, jet lagged from days of travel, gawk and giggle with boats and luggage through the cobbled alleys of Old Town. We eat noodles, get acclimated, catch up on sleep, wait for a broken down rafting equipment truck and then we head to the river.

The eastern faces of Jade Dragon from the road to the Great Bend Yangtze. ©Adam Elliott

 I can’t believe how many snacks high school students can eat.

As the bus passes Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, the region’s staggering vertical relief explodes into view. And as the bus descends into Tiger Leaping Gorge, the topography shows its teeth again. Tiger Leaping Gorge is a geographic anomaly. The Yangtze flows south, then bends sharply east, slicing between Jade Dragon and Haba Snow mountains. The river flows north before doubling back to form the Great Bend. Our journey starts just downstream from Haba Snow and Jade Dragon’s towering walls. Today, the Great Bend is home to three dam construction projects in varying stages of completion. In 2007, WCA was able to run the entire Great Bend Stretch. In 2009, Jing An Dam lopped about 30 kilometers off our trip. This year, we planned to portage around the Li Yuan Dam site, then continue downstream to the middle dam, Ahai. But the water was backed up farther than we’d guessed, and our portage marked the end of our trip down the Yangtze. This was our first big lesson about the unpredictability of international travel – and expectations.

The drill rig next to the Dredger Wave, showing us just how dedicated and tenacious the dam survey crews are. ©Adam Elliott

And so, rolling with the punches, we traveled to a canyon-side village overlooking the rising waters. Baoshan has stood for over 700 years. Perched on a tall rock, its battlements guard a walled village core flanked by “newer” ancient alleys and houses. Wide skirts of terraced fields reach in every direction. From Baoshan,  we could literally watch the reservoir flood crops of barley and wheat. Instead of rafting and kayaking through the Canyon of Princes, we rode upstream on motorboats. We looked for the glittering spring-fed waterfall we recalled from past trips. It was underwater. I’ve now visited Baoshan five times. Each time, I’ve been reminded of how incredibly luxurious a bed and solar-heated showers can be. Not to mention how nice it is to have someone cook for me. Baoshan, to me, will always represent the end of a multi-day paddling trip on the Great Bend, a time to lounge in the sun, sip tea and take lazy photos of the village spread out below us.

Woman and perfume flower harvest, Baoshan, Yangtze, Yunnan. ©Adam Elliott


I had a blast rafting and kayaking with our hostel owners, the gas station owner, the kid who sold fireworks and the orange seller.

A two-day drive separates the Yangtze from the higher, colder Mekong’s wind, rain, snow, huge peaks and phenomenal boating. With two main sections relatively near our home base, we could mix school and paddling in a single day.  To avoid the afternoon winds, we paddled in the mornings before returning to town for classes, dinner and snack buying. I can’t believe how many snacks high school students can eat. There’s a rapid in Deep Moon Gorge that we dubbed The Dragon’s Back. A steep flume creates a curl of water lined up downstream like a dragon’s spine, tossing from right to left.  I’d flipped my raft earlier that day on what should have been an easy spin and punch. Even though our rescue went super smooth and we flipped the raft back up in a calm eddy, it was not an ordeal I was looking forward to again. I was terrified going into this drop.

I re-flip my boat with the help of WCA paddlers, smiling on the inside. ©Adam Elliott
I had a blast watching the kayakers either ride the lip or get stuffed, but when it came time for me to row the rapid, I felt like puking. The line was tricky: stay lined up on the right side of the tongue pushing hard downstream, then spin right and ride high along the crest of the wave, perpendicular to the wave itself. After sticking the line, I felt marginally better about flipping earlier.


The Salween, oh the Salween. It takes three full days of driving to cover the 40 miles separating the Salween from the Mekong on the map. East back to Shangri-la, south to Dali, west to Liuku, north to Chenggan, then farther north to Gongshan. This is a true test of patience and compassion. Can you sit in a bus full of stinky kayakers for three days? If you’re headed to the Salween, you betcha. Plus, there are snack stores along the way, so, whatever.

Ben Marr doing one of many airy something-or-others. ©Adam Elliott

Ben Marr joined us in Chenggan to coach for the rest of the trip. I wasn’t sure what this would mean for the group socially, athletically, etc. I knew his presence and awe-inspiring paddling would boost morale for students and staff, but after living with a core group 24/7, having a newbie drop in can be, well…you know…(awkward). But seriously, Benny was a fantastic addition and showed me just how professional scumbag kayakers can be. His athleticism and dedication to stretching and yoga opened lots of eyes. And who doesn’t like watching giant airscrews? The Salween was tougher than anything we’d seen so far in China, and by a good margin. The rapids were tougher, the run-outs more unpredictable. I saw so much progress in the students’ paddling during that month. The river was the lowest I’d seen it, which just made certain drops more dynamic, certain waves more stable. Some go-to features like Zen Wave and Salween Special were less than perfect, but the downriver runs and Dredger Wave were dialed. Double Drop was probably the biggest drop we ran, with a beatdown-dishing meaty vee wave leading into a big, stompy hole. If you surfed the bottom drop, you could bounce or cartwheel out to a corner, or go over the falls and sub out the bottom. It was great fun, but hard on the shoulders – most often a walker.

“Grams, can I have one of the new Titans?” ©Adam Elliott

One of my favorite times on the Salween was the WCA/NRS service learning project, which is really just a fancy way to say having fun on the river. I had a blast rafting and kayaking with our hostel owners, the gas station owner, the kid who sold fireworks and the orange seller from the weekly market. There was music, lots of people, frisbee and super good food. We ate french fries with real ketchup and fried doughnuts stuffed with chocolate and banana and covered with cinnamon and sugar. Wow, tasty. Now, at the end of all this, I’m sore and tired – as I should be, as I want to be. I’ve found that the more you travel, the easier it becomes to have patience with the little things. With the waiting. With the language barriers. But, still, it’s hard. I’m deeply impressed by how these teenagers held their own for two solid months of hard work and play. Many of us slumped before the final sprint. A few days of dreary weather, midterms, lack of internet and too much noodle soup got most of us down. Homesickness happens. I’m eager to return to Portland and Hood River, but I still feel blessed to be here right now.

A bit of pre-dawn class time along the banks of the Yangtze. ©Adam Elliott