10/08/2011 08:25 am ET | Updated Dec 08, 2011

Exploring The Yangtze: China's River Of Dreams (AUDIO)

"Let me journey down
On the great river...
'twixt gorges of the hills." -Yu-Pe-Ya's Lute

The Amazon and Nile are longer; the Congo carries more water. But somehow the Yangtze is the stream that has evoked more reverence among explorers, geologists, ethnologists, hydraulic engineers, and river runners. Rising from the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau, it careens and sweeps more than 3,900 miles, spinning through 12 of China's 29 provinces, falling 17,600 feet before spilling into the East China Sea near Shanghai.

It accepts over 700 major tributaries, drains a fifth of China's land area, supports a third of the country's population. Its lower half has seen the rise and fall and resurrection of kingdoms and dynasties for 23 centuries, and its gorges and basins have been among the major avenues of trade in Asia since the beginnings of the Roman Empire.

But the upper half of the Yangtze has been a cipher, an unknown land of myth and mystery, an enigma protected by the world's deepest canyons, cut by some of the world's biggest rapids. After all the other rivers had been run, all the other canyons penetrated and explored, the Yangtze remained agua incognita: the last emperor of wild rivers.

Beginning in the late 1960s, river rafting gave a new lease on life to the universal spirit of adventure. Inflatable rafts made of tough, abrasion-resistant synthetic materials, designed to ride the biggest waves, with storage space for a fortnight of food and a six-pack of people -- yet weighing just 100 pounds each -- became the Volkswagen of exploration. The biggest, smallest, most remote and the most glamorous rivers were navigated, the Blue Nile, the Euphrates, the Ganges, the Indus, the headwaters of the Amazon and the Zambezi.

The Yangtze was the brass ring, the prize that eluded even the most determined adventurers. For wildwater connoisseurs it seeped into conversations around campfires; it evoked images of liquid thunder, of secret lamaseries clinging to streaked limestone cliffs, or gorges thin as a glacier crevasse, of jade-laced mountains draped by eternal snows.

Jump to photos of the Yangtze

It was neither geography nor hydraulics that kept the Yangtze forbidden, but politics. The river was in the heart of perhaps the world's most xenophobic nation, the People's Republic of China. Since 1949, when the Communists under Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai had wrested power away from Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang, mainland China had become a land of riddles. First the influence of the Western democracies was cast off, then the advice of the only other major Communist country in the world, the Soviet Union, was banished from the ancient land. Finally, with the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, it seemed that China was excluding even its own history and traditions from its present, cutting itself off from its roots, and along the way enduring one of the greatest tragedies in human history, the death of over 45 million people. Until the Bamboo Curtain rose, there was little hope of ever seeing the Yangtze's wildest water.

In the end, it was not earnest negotiations or border wars that finally opened up China, but sports, specifically Ping-Pong. In 1972 the U.S. Table Tennis Association sponsored the visit of a team from the People's Republic, the first cultural exchange between the two countries since 1945. The "Red" Chinese responded to their warm welcome by extending an invitation for the American team to visit China, with the result that the first official American visitors to China in three decades were not diplomats but sportsmen.

Less than a year later, Richard Nixon was toasting Zhou Enlai in Beijing, and the slow progress toward official relations had begun. Finally, the Cultural Revolution -- the Ten Years of Chaos, as it is now known in China -- ended, and reason began to prevail. Official diplomatic relations were established between the United States and the People's Republic in 1979, but fully a year earlier the first group of American tourists was allowed to visit China.

The Chinese government, while keen to experiment with tourism and its attendant infusion of hard currency, wanted to dip a cautious toe in such capitalist-tinged waters and so looked to its ideological allies for support. Since Ethiopia had recently undergone a Chinese-style Communist revolution, and an air link was already established, China asked Ethiopian Airlines to help organize an initial tour of the Middle Kingdom.

By luck, SOBEK Expeditions, the adventure travel company I founded, had been running rafting tours to Ethiopia's Omo River since 1973, so the airline turned to us to recruit American tourists. I sent an invitation with a blazing banner on the envelope -- "Red Alert!" -- to our client list, and almost overnight we oversubscribed the tour. I led a group of 50 that started in California, winged to Rome, flew down to Addis Ababa, over to Bombay then across the great mountains and plains of China, all in the pitch of darkness: We were told the government wouldn't allow daylight flights for fear of spying through the windows.

It was a city tour, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Hangzhou and Beijing. In Beijing I left a museum tour early, got lost in the streets where no passersby spoke English and no sign was recognizable. Citizens were not allowed to touch or speak to foreigners, so every time I approached someone for help, he or she darted away. Finally, an elderly man took pity on me and pointed the way to the Tienanmen Square headquarters of CITA, China International Travel Service, our hosts. There I slapped down a stack of rafting brochures on the desk of the highest official I was allowed to see, Mrs. Hu Muying, properly dressed in gray Chinoiserie. I took a deep breath and asked the question, "How about the Yangtze?" I held on to the last sound as though I didn't want to ever let it go.

Her nod was vacant. There is rarely a no in China. Instead, they serve tea.

Looking at Mrs Hu Muying was like looking at the Chinese emperor in the Marguerite Yourcenar story: "beautiful, but blank, like a looking glass placed too high, reflecting nothing except the stars and the immutable heavens." It was clear rafting was something entirely new to my host, and she raised her thick eyebrows at the photographs of rubber boats pitching through haystacks of water. After much consideration, she suggested I put my request in the form of a written proposal and send it along after my return to the US.

Jump to photos of the Yangtze

So began an eight-year correspondence. I would pen eloquent entreaties and cite the lofty potential for furthering world peace through rafting. Silence was the usual response. It was maddening, as it seemed with each passing month new regions of China were opened to tourism and new activities allowed. By the dawn of the 1980s the news was thick of treks being offered, mountain climbing permits being issued -- yet nothing when it came to rafting. I thought perhaps they saw through my carefully crafted attempts at lifting the desire to dip oars in the river of dreams to a higher plane. But I kept trying.

Then, in early 1982, a telex clacked into the SOBEK offices in Angels Camp, California. It was from the Chinese Mountaineering Association, stating it now had the authority to issue a permit to raft the upper Yangtze. Might we be interested in accepting an invitation? Amidst the whoops and cries of self-congratulations, someone typed a telex back: "Yes, we would be only too happy to accept such an invitation and raft the upper Yangtze. Please send details and costs."

For days we heard nothing. I imagined a phalanx of abacuses spinning overtime, working out every last feng. Then, at last, a week after the first surprise telex, another pecked its way into our lives. "You may raft the upper Yangtze for a fee of one million dollars." It went on to explain the fee included several hotel nights and transportation to and from the river.

Communists, perhaps, but certainly the most audacious of profiteers.

Needless to say, it was a fee beyond SOBEK's resources. But not everyone's. ABC TV's long-running Sunday television series, "The American Sportsman," was stretching for more spectacular material, and the first descent of the upper Yangtze appealed to executive producer John Wilcox. The previous fall we had produced an episode featuring the first descent of the Zambezi with Wilcox, and our relations were good. So he contacted the Chinese directly and began negotiations.

In April Wilcox called me and said everything was a go, asking SOBEK to outfit the expedition. His plan was to take John Denver on the expedition as the star of his show; during a quiet stretch he would sing his then-current hit, "Shanghai Breezes." Wilcox asked if I would fly to China in August to nail down the arrangements.

Three weeks before my scheduled departure another telex arrived, this one announcing that our Yangtze expedition was canceled because of denials from provincial authorities. For the next four years we continued to negotiate with the Chinese, trying to convince them of the veracity of Laffer's Curve, the cornerstone of Reganomics: By lowering the price, more people would raft their river, and they would make more money. Perhaps, they seemed to acknowledge, but there would be only one "first descent," and as they had done well selling "first ascents" of their major mountain peaks to foreigners, they were going to hold out for a hefty fee for the Yangtze.

Ultimately a rival did the deal, Ken Warren of Tualatin, Oregon, but his expedition ended in death, mutiny and abandonment of the river. So, the price to SOBEK dropped to just over $100,000, with an additional $10,000 fee if we wanted to film. We accepted, and sold some seats to some of our veteran, well-heeled clients and friends. We were good to go.

We set our sights on a 300-mile section called The Great Bend in northwest Yunnan Province. Here, as the river pitches south towards Vietnam, it makes a sharp turn back on itself, pierces a range of mountains that reach towards 19,000 feet, arcs up to the Sichuan border, traces another hairpin turn and once more slides southward. Finally, it veers back in a last sharp curve to run almost due east on its long final march to the sea. At places its south-flowing waters are but 20 miles from its northwest currents, but the two are separated by massive glacial-sculpted peaks.

The Great Bend, in the "Forbidden Zone" and unvisited by Westerners since 1949, was legendary for its rugged beauty, steep canyons and soaring peaks. The Chinese had attempted descents, but failed, losing at least 14 explorers to the deadly waters. Ken Warren hiked out when the rapids became too big. Nobody had ever successfully negotiated the waters that run through the Great Bend.

Hear what happened in the accompanying audio: