Saturday, September 24, 2011

Riding the Dragon's Back

Simon Winchester, in his book about the Yangtze River, River at the Center of the World, has a section at the end giving his "Suggestions for Further Reading." Winchester has glowing praise for one book, in particular:

Tiger Leaping Gorge is one of the most spectacular places I ever went in China. Winchester's description of a book about adventurers going to Yunnan and Tibet to get to the Yangtze's source really got my attention. I ran to my computer to get Riding the Dragon's Back off of Amazon (where I was able to purchase the book for $.01 plus shipping).

Riding the Dragon's Back: The Race to Raft the Upper Yangtze by Richard Bangs and Christian Kallen is a unique China book. Neither Bangs nor Christian are China experts or scholars. Instead, they are adventurers. Specifically, world-class white water rafting guides. Their perspective - one that comes from having rafted the greatest rivers in North America, Africa, and Asia - makes for a wonderful reading experience.

The book is broken into a few different sections:

The first section is a general history of the Yangtze. The second is the history of the first Chinese expedition to tackle the river. The third is the narrative about the cocky American explorer, Ken Warren's, expedition. And the fourth is the story of the two author's attempt at conquering the Yangtze at the Tiger Leaping Gorge section of the river.

Trying to raft the upper reaches of the Yangtze is crazy. There is a reason no human had ever done it up until the mid-1980s; Tibet, Yunnan, and Sichuan Provinces, where the Yangtze's waters begin to flow, are some of the most dangerous and formidable places on earth.

The Yangtze's source begins in the Himalayas of Tibet, the roof of the world. Altitude sickness ravages humans who are strong enough to reach such heights. The world's deepest gorge and countless impassable rapids have been carved into the earth by the river over the course of millenia. Adding onto all of these natural difficulties, the lack of economic development and medical infrastructure on these upper reaches make the Upper Yangtze one of the most inhospitable places on the planet.

With China's "reform and opening" in the post-Mao era came a desire from both explorers abroad and those within China to conquer the river from its untamed source.

The man most obsessed with floating the Yangtze was Ken Warren. Warren, an adventurer from the United States, tried for years to get the Chinese authorities to allow him into the country to raft the Yangtze. By the mid-1980s he finally started making some headway.

As word got out about foreigners planning on being the first to raft the Yangtze, a nationalist fervor swept over China. Several teams of young Chinese men volunteered, for the sake of China's pride, to be the first to raft the mighty river.

This race to be the first down the Yangtze is a major part of Bangs and Kallen's book. The drive to "win" was intense. The Chinese, given a head-start from governmental bureaucratic red tape keeping the foreigners out, were the first to push off from the source down the river. What the Chinese team lacked in rafting experience, it made up for with sheer courage.

Or maybe stupidity is a more appropriate word. As the Chinese team approached the most trying parts of the river, it resorted to pure ridiculousness. Check out this raft that some of the team attempted to ride down the rapids:

Photo from

The team members are in the middle of all that UFO-looking contraption! The men inside the boat were not steering the raft in any sense. They were simply going down blind, much like going over the Niagara Falls in a barrel.

Unfortunately, three Chinese team members died riding that death-trap through Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Undeterred by death, the collection of Chinese teams continued to push on. Stuck at the furious rapids of Tiger Leaping Gorge not sure how to continue, the following passage from page 139 really shows the determination of the Chinese teams going down on these expeditions:
Two weeks slowly passed. Nearly every member of the two teams hiked down the high, narrow trail, viewed the rapids, and returned to Qiaotou discouraged. Fifteen percent, or at most twenty, were the estimated chances for success. One in five was not good odds, and some rafters considered the effort suicidal. But several of the Chinese argued that they must go through Tiger's Leap Gorge - to do otherwise would be fraud, for to run the Yangtze one must run Hutiaoxia. Some pointed out that the Americans led by Ken Warren were coming down the river after them; they would surely run the narrow gorge even if the Chinese did not - and they were getting closer every day.

On September 3, a new enclosed capsule arrived for the Luoyang team, a smaller but hopefully more secure model, just seven feet in diameter and four feet high. It was only big enough for two people, lying on their sides, but it was equipped with an air-filled pillar to allow the passengers to breathe in the raging waters. The team immediately took it to the first drop, Upper Hutiao Shoal, with its huge pyramid rock fronting a sixty-foot drop in two main pitches. The next day, to test the capsule, they put a dog inside, attached an oxygen mask to the animal's muzzle, lashed the capsule shut, and sent it over the falls. The capsule bobbed in the quickening water, then accelerated and careened over the white chasm into the maelstrom below. A few minutes later it flushed into an eddy, and the rafters eagerly clambered over the rocks to fish it out of the water.

The craft had been badly damaged in the falls; the door had been wrenched open, and the dog was gone. No one had thought to put a life jacket on the animal, and it was never seen again. Surprisingly, when the rafters reviewed the videotape of the run, they perceived good news: the drop had only taken a few seconds, the boat had floated through it all, had not even been caught in any of the several large reversals. Perhaps if one made sure the door was secure, and tucked oneself in the the corner of the capsule and held on tight - the dog did not have the benefit of two hands and the awareness of what lay ahead - the odds of survival might rise to a more reasonable 50 percent. The seriousness of purpose the Chinese had for their effort is measured by the incident: their experiment had killed their involuntary subject, yet they regarded it as a success and decided to try again - with humans this time.
You'll have to get this book to find out what happens next as the capsule is loaded with humans.

As great as the section on the Chinese teams was, the highlights of the book are the accounts of the American teams.

The leader of the first US team, Ken Warren, is half John Wayne, half Leslie Nielsen from Naked Gun movies. He's a brave buffoon. Reading about Warren's exploits - such as overriding doctors who deemed his crew members too sick to raft and bringing multiple cans of hair mousse with him on the death-defying expedition - is just awesome.

The authors - Bangs and Kallen - portray Warren as a real mad man. They used extensive interviews with the American team to research what they wrote. Warren refused to speak with the authors, so the only perspective is that from the team he led. The caricature that makes it onto the page is unforgettable. Reading about Warren in Riding the Dragon's Back is one of the most fascinating character studies in failed leadership I've ever seen. Warren's tales alone make this book worth reading.

Shifting away from piecing together stories from the accounts of others, the two authors for the last section of the book tell of their own expedition that they went on to raft the Yangtze.

It is great to finish the book on their own first-hand experiences from the river. Some truly beautiful passages fill the pages of this last section. In addition to painting beautiful landscapes for the reader, the authors share the gambit of emotions that overcame them as they experience the thrill of a lifetime: rafting the Yangtze River at Tiger Leaping Gorge. The stories of testosterone-fueled butting of heads, interacting with local communities, and real fears of death make this a delightful read.

Riding the Dragon's Back was even better than what I was expecting. Winchester was spot on with his recommendation of this book. I haven't read any other books like it. Its mix of adventure with a commendable attempt at bringing the reader into Chinese history and culture make it a book I highly recommend picking up yourself.


Ramesh said...

Anothr nice book review. Another book for me to pick up after recommendation from you. Haven't been to Tiger Leaping Gorge, but can imagine it from the description.

Can't fathom where Chinese pride got in. Surely some Chinese had rafted it in history, so the prize has already been "taken" :)

Mark said...

Thanks for the kind words, Ramesh! You're going to enjoy this one.

Anonymous said...

The race China vs US was all over the news those days in China when I was a young boy living in Shanghai. Sure will be interesting to read that story from a different perspective