Break­ing the si­lence on a tale of dreams

Key mem­ber of the bi­lat­eral raft­ing ex­cur­sion in 1986 gives a first-hand ac­count of the in­ci­dent in her book and hopes to pro­mote the sport to more Chi­nese

China Daily (Canada) - - SHANGHAI - By XU XIAOMIN in Shang­hai


It has been 30 years since the Sino-US Up­per Yangtze River ex­pe­di­tion and most peo­ple would’ve al­ready for­got­ten the event which made head­lines around the world.

The in­ci­dent, how­ever, is still firmly etched in the mind of Jan War­ren, who was a mem­ber of that fate­ful ex­pe­di­tion.

War­ren, now 69, was re­cently in Shang­hai to pro­mote the pub­li­ca­tion of the Chi­nese ver­sion of her book about the event. Ti­tled When Dreams and Fear Col­lide: The true story of the 1986 Up­per Yangtze River Ex­pe­di­tion, the book hails all those on the ex­pe­di­tion as “peo­ple who were chas­ing their dreams” and re­counts the in­ci­dents that took place dur­ing and after the in­ci­dent.

“We ad­mire all these rafters, al­ways, as they are dream­ers. There is noth­ing wrong with dreams,” said War­ren.

“The Chi­nese ver­sion of the book is still in the pre­lim­i­nary stages but I have had pro­duc­tive meet­ings with pub­lish­ers in China. Hope­fully the Chi­nese ver­sion will be­come a re­al­ity.”

If War­ren’s pre­vi­ous dis­play of tenac­ity was any­thing to go by, a Chi­nese ver­sion will surely be pub­lished. A few years ago, pub­lish­ing com­pa­nies in New York had de­clined to print the English ver­sion, ar­gu­ing that the in­ci­dent took place too long ago and would not in­ter­est any­one. War­ren then pub­lished the book in the US by her­self.

The book is also a trib­ute to her late hus­band Ken War­ren — he died after a heart at­tack in 1991 — who never got to ful­fill his dream of com­plet­ing a raft­ing ex­pe­di­tion in the Yangtze, the long­est river in China and the third in the world.

“I have kept all the let­ters and tapes he left be­hind. He taped to me ev­ery­day on the river, it is like I was there,” said War­ren who worked as a sup­porter from the bank dur­ing the joint ex­pe­di­tion. “They are all men­tioned in the book.”

The con­tent in the book in­cludes a let­ter con­tain­ing the well wishes and thoughts of 37 chil­dren from a pri­mary school in Tian­jin. They heard about the Yangtze river ex­pe­di­tion from lo­cal me­dia and wrote a let­ter in English with the help of a teacher.

“How we de­sire to go with you to ex­plore the river. How we de­sire to raft down there with all of you, arm in arm, and share in the hap­pi­ness of vic­tory and your strug­gles,” read a part of the let­ter.

“We cried when we read the let­ter. We were stand­ing there on the bank, ready to raft down the river,” re­called War­ren.

The ex­pe­di­tion, which was ap­proved by the high­est sports author­ity in China, was her­alded as the first joint sport­ing ven­ture on the Yangtze river be­tween the two coun­tries that would in­tro­duce the sport of white­wa­ter raft­ing to China.

How­ever, due to their ea­ger­ness to best the West­ern vis­i­tors to the fin­ish, the Chi­nese hastily put to­gether sev­eral teams that com­prised mem­bers who had lit­tle ex­pe­ri­ence in raft­ing. Eleven peo­ple, in­clud­ing one US team mem­ber, died dur­ing the ex­pe­di­tions.

After months of plan­ning for the epic two-and-a-half-month jour­ney, the teams had de­cided to set off in late July in 1986 from the start­ing point in Qing­hai prov­ince to Yibin of Sichuan prov­ince. But de­spite the metic­u­lous plan­ning by the ex­pe­ri­enced US rafters and the Chi­nese green hands, no one had ex­pected the rapids to be so pow­er­ful.

All the teams on the ex­pe­di­tion failed to clear the Jin­sha­jiang sec­tion of the course, where the river dropped more than 3,000 me­ters in al­ti­tude and where the rapids were es­pe­cially vi­cious. Ac­cord­ing to an ex­cerpt in Ken War­ren’s di­ary, his 10.8-me­ter-long boat, the most ad­vanced raft­ing ves­sel dur­ing that time, was tossed around like “a toy in the wa­ter”. He also said that the power of the Yangtze River was sim­ply in­de­scrib­able even for a vet­eran like him­self.

Fol­low­ing the end of the failed ex­pe­di­tion, the War­rens re­turned to the US and faced not one but six law­suits from some of their Amer­i­can team mem­bers in­clud­ing one for wrong­ful death. There was also much nega­tive me­dia ex­po­sure about the ex­pe­di­tion and Ken War­ren him­self.

In June 1990, the cou­ple won all the six law­suits but were left with a huge fi­nan­cial debt as their at­tor­ney fees had amounted to over $180,000. Ken War­ren died early the next year.

“I sim­ply couldn’t han­dle all the loss at that point in time. I was an­gry and I had to spend a lot of ef­fort to heal the mind and sup­port my then 13-yearold son,” said War­ren, who ad­mit­ted that she re­fused to talk about the in­ci­dent for sev­eral years after it ended.

War­ren said that she felt com­pelled to write about the tale after she, on be­half of her late hus­band, re­ceived a life­time achieve­ment award in Bei­jing in 2008.

“I just cried when I saw the tro­phy. It is beau­ti­ful. That is why I de­cided to tell my story, to write my book and tell the truth of the Sino-US ex­pe­di­tion,” said War­ren.

There is also a big chap­ter in her book about Yao Maoshu, a Sichuan na­tive who was hailed as a hero in China for his raft­ing ex­ploits in the Yangtze River a year be­fore the 1986 tragedy. His­tor­i­cal records state that Yao had de­cided to em­bark on his own ex­pe­di­tion in 1985 be­cause he be­lieved that a Chi­nese should be the first to com­plete such an achieve­ment. He died in July that year when he drowned after his raft over­turned.

How­ever, Yao has also been crit­i­cized for be­ing brash, es­pe­cially since white­wa­ter raft­ing was an un­fa­mil­iar sport dur­ing his time. “We will al­ways ad­mire Yao,” said War­ren, who added that she was sur­prised that he was even be­ing crit­i­cized for his am­bi­tion.

“After we re­ceived a per­mit from the sports au­thor­i­ties, the gov­ern­ment se­lected three Chi­nese boys to go with us and we trained them to raft. Yao wanted to beat us to the achieve­ment after he was re­fused en­try to the ex­pe­di­tion by the sports au­thor­i­ties. If I had known just how much he had de­sired to be on the ex­pe­di­tion, I would’ve loved to have him on the team.”

War­ren was also in Shang­hai to ex­plore the pos­si­bil­i­ties of or­ga­niz­ing raft­ing tours in the US for Chi­nese tourists.

“This is one of the things I still want to do even though I am so old. This is be­cause lots of Chi­nese tourists come to the US and I want to give them an ex­cit­ing but care­fully planned travel ex­pe­ri­ence. That’s what we were do­ing 30 years ago,” said War­ren.

“Just as Mr War­ren once said, raft­ing is fun, but also a crazy kind of fun,” she laughed.

We ad­mire all these rafters, al­ways, as they are dream­ers. There is noth­ing wrong with dreams.”


The Jin­sha­jiang sec­tion of the raft­ing course. All the teams of the Yangtze River ex­pe­di­tion found it hard to con­quer this sec­tion due to the pow­er­ful rapids.

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