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Rivers less traveled

Updated: 2009-01-07 15:51

Rivers less traveled

American Travis Winn believes western China's rivers are bridges - but ones in danger of being swept away by the currents of development in the region.

The 24-year-old, who has undertaken 15 of China's 42 major documented "first descents" (initial river explorations) since exploration began in 1985, is now working to connect people with watercourses and one another.

"In the process of getting to know these rivers and getting to know Chinese people, one of the things you see really quickly is most of these rivers are being developed, mostly for hydropower projects. Plans have been drafted to build dams on all of these rivers, which would turn them into reservoirs," he says.

Rivers less traveled

"It was difficult to imagine a lot of these places we'd floated down were going to effectively disappear under hundreds of feet of water, and that was going to happen without all the new Chinese friends I'd made, this whole country, being able to see them by floating down these rivers in their natural states."

So in 2006, the Coloradan started Last Descent rafting company and in 2007 co-founded the nonprofit China Rivers Project to expose people to these waterways' wonders through rafting voyages.

"We're also trying to build bridges between the people who are financially rich in eastern China, who have so much money and resources and are so well-educated, and the people who live in the river valleys of western China, who aren't well educated and aren't financially rich."

Winn says one of the greatest features of rafting is that a variety of demographics can participate.

"It's really team-oriented. People get to cook together, sing songs together, play games together," Winn says.

"It's really a headache, making sure everyone from these different groups gets what they want out of the trips But it's such a fun puzzle and at the end of the day you realize they're all people, and despite their different backgrounds, a lot of values are shared by everyone."

Winn hopes that through these voyages river protection becomes one of these common concerns.

"In the process of creating that common ground in the context of experiencing the resource, they'll be able to create a balance of development and protection. It's up to them to make that decision; we just bring them together."

The expeditions are mostly funded by Western tourists, who pay 3,000 yuan ($440) to 5,000 yuan apiece, while only one Chinese person has paid for a rafting excursion - a voluntary 7,000-yuan contribution.

However, saddled with debt, Winn is now looking toward China's "new rich" as a potential revenue source.

"There are so many people in the cities with so many resources, and so many have more money than they know what to do with," Winn says.

Rivers less traveled

Travis Winn (center) from the United States has started Last Descent rafting company and hopes to arouse people's awareness of river protection through floating down the rivers in western China. Photos by Adam Mills Elliott

"They've done the KTV thing and gone out to eat in fancy restaurants, and now they want to do more, they want to go outside."

Winn had traveled between the United States and China for about eight years before expatriating to Yunnan province in August. He took his first rafting trip in the country in 2000, when he made the first-ever expedition down Tibet's Nujiang River with his father, who was conducting geological research.

Winn led his first expedition in 2003 in Sichuan province. He recalls that when he was training kayakers in a swimming pool, they explained they loved many outdoor sports but didn't "know how to go out and enjoy rivers".

"I said, 'Well, I've got a job to do', and I went back to school to learn Chinese," Winn says.

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