River Rafting with Chinese Characteristics

Doing something with “Chinese characteristics” is one of my favorite ways to describe most daily occurrences here in the Middle Kingdom. Shopping, even at western stores like IKEA, comes with a uniquely Chinese feel. It is absolutely appropriate to curl up with your entire family and take a little afternoon xiuxi in the air conditioned store; those beds are fully made up, after all. Heck, I even saw a guy using the model kitchen to prepare his lunch! And a night out at a restaurant has a distinctly Sichuanese flavor that isn’t just attributed to the mouth numbing huajiao seeds that garnish nearly every dish. A traditional Chinese restaurant is loud and hot and meals are meant to last for hours. This definitely isn’t the culture for someone who prefers to eat and run.

With three years and change under my Chinese belt, I’m not sure why I expected anything less when I headed out for a weekend trip to QingCheng Shan. Having heard rumor of river rafting, my Idaho genes went on high alert. Floating on water is what we do, whether it be in a twelve-man raft doing down the world-famous Salmon River white water or a more leisurely trip in a tube through the middle of the capital city on the Boise River; when the mercury spikes, Idahoans take to the rivers! It has been a hot, humid summer in Chengdu, so a trip to the mountains and a river sounded like a perfect August weekend adventure.

And what an adventure it turned out to be!

Along with a dozen other members of the consulate community, I headed up to the mountain on Saturday morning. While I didn’t do a headcount, I’m pretty sure our little baker’s dozen was joined by nearly everyone else in the Chengdu basin that day! Who can resist the pull of a cool mountain stream when triple digits are the daily norm?

After stopping at the first rental shack to get pay our rafting fee, we headed down a flight of stairs to where we’d pick up our life jackets and oars. It took over half an hour to gather these river necessities, as the returning line was sparse and the borrowing “line” grew by the minute. (“Necessities” is a bit of an overstatement. Since the river was rarely more than five feet deep, and usually about two feet deep, there was little chance of drowning. The oar, on the other hand, when not being used to dislodge our raft from rocks, came in handy as a defensive weapon, so it turns out the wait was crucial.)

Finally, fully outfitted in bright orange life jackets (because the group of foreigners didn’t stand out enough to begin with!) we headed down the final flight of stairs, to await a raft that seemingly fell from the heavens. (Okay, it really came flying down a chute from the road above, but the crashing and violence of the arrival made it seem much more supernatural.)  With two to three people in each raft, off the foreign crew headed, six boats strong. (Columbus’ conquering fleet had nothing on us!)

We weren’t ten yards down the river before we realized this would be no normal afternoon of rafting. You see, because the river was so shallow, it was really easy for a group to pull their raft over to the side of the water and then set up camp, or more appropriately, set up an ambush! Chinese (we were the only non-Chinese in sight) people lined the sides of the river with water guns and buckets, just awaiting each raft to enter their claimed territory. Upon arrival, the rafts and rowers were drenched in water from all directions. Our leisurely day on the river turned into a three-mile water fight.

And it was awesome!

Who knew river rafting could be so interactive?

Not to be outdone, we decided to set up Foreigner Camp at a bend in the river, pulling our rafts onto a sandbar and spacing ourselves to take on the next set of rafters headed down the river. Again, it was awesome! Everyone on/near the river was fair game. I had old women drench me with buckets, only to watch them get the same treatment from one of our crew.

The long awaited oars spent much less time paddling than they did serving as water scoops, defending us from our river-borne enemies. Thad even had a little girl nemesis the entire length of the trip; her raft would periodically pull alongside our and she would hose him off with her water gun.

The day may not have turned out to be the lackadaisical float down a quiet mountain river that I had imagined, but was still a fantastic way to spend a hot Sichuan afternoon. Rafting, along with most things about this country, takes on a unique hue, best described by the phrase “with Chinese characteristics.”

(If you’re in the Chengdu area and looking for a tour company, check out Windhorse Tours!)

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4 thoughts on “River Rafting with Chinese Characteristics

  1. I lived in Riggins before Council, got my canoeing badge in the Salmon, was scared to death the whole time, but that particular river had you paying attention to your lessons like never before. My Council life did not have a lot of water activity outside of the Starky pool. Here in California I became a river rat, which meant I spent my weekends boating and skiing on the Colorado, so I can see why you wanted to go, how different it might have been from you initial expectations, but as usual you managed to find all the fun and wring it out thoroughly, good for you!


    • We did have a great time! It was really such a ridiculous adventure that I couldn’t do anything but laugh all the way down the river.

      The only bad part of the whole experiece popped up later, when I realized that somewhere along the line, I had been eaten alive by mosquitos. I got home to Chengdu on Sunday night and was covered in giant welts from the bites. They are still itching and driving me crazy, but getting better each day.


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