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Playboating on the Salween River

The Salween is one of the largest rivers in China, and one of the last free-flowing ones. I spent the spring living in the Salween Valley in Yunnan Province, China, working with Travis Winn and his company Last Descents River Expeditions.

We would raft the lower section with Chinese clients, but the best concentration of whitewater lies upstream of the rafting run near a town called Chonggan. The rapids look small from above, but they are definitely quite large. Even at the lowest flows, it’s definitely some big water!

Travis surfs the “top rapid.” Most of these rapids don’t have names and are fairly infrequently paddled. There is a small but growing group of Chinese paddlers; we ran into one group that had paddled and portaged their way down from the Tibetan border, but they were the only other paddlers I saw during the 2 months I was there.

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I switched off between the Super Star and the All Star on the Salween. The Super Star’s volume definitely helped in some of the big rapids, as I had more stability and wasn’t as prone to stern squirting as I was in the All Star. The All Star was definitely more nimble on the surf waves, though. These boats are holding up quite well despite several seasons of hard use on various rivers in China.

Travis was in his brand new 2014 Rockstar and tearing it up on the Zen Wave. This amazing wave was in for weeks, and luckily it was only a 15 minute ride up from where we were staying in Chonggan. It usually comes in around April. There’s no gauge so it’s hard to know until you get there what it will look like.

The canyon is very active geologically and rockfall is frequent. We found this van abandoned in the middle of the road after it had been smashed by a rock. It sure creates an amazing gorge and huge rapids, though!

And to finish it off, here’s some video from the Salween…