Paddling on the Salween River, China



Paddling in China is a relatively new and under developed. With little documentation, ever-changing legal restrictions, and the rapid construction of dams across china, who knows to what extent the paddle sports will ever be allowed to develop.

With three of the worlds biggest rivers being/or due to be dammed in China we set out to paddle One, The Salween River

Our journey took us from Yangshuo, our home for a year to Kunming, Yunnan. A short (5 hr) bus ride west took to the backpacker mecca of Old Town or QuiXiang in Dali.  Here we set up a temporary base whilst we waited for the kayaks…and Paul to arrive. Dali is with out doubt of the the most culturally rich towns in China. Offering weeks of activities and culture (it can be hard to leave).

The Salween River sits on the border of China with Myanmar a short stones throw over the valley. It’s located in the Nujiang Valley. Luckily due to the mountainous nature of Yunnan there aren’t many opportunities for roads, so roads tend to run along side rivers. This means the Salween river in China is accessible via road almost right up to the Tibetan border.

Getting There/Accommodation

Fly into Kunming for an affordable flight. Use public transport like buses to travel to Dali. From Dali I travel to the town of Liukuzhen (六库镇), not a looker, you might even IMG_1573say a eye saw. However, this is the gateway to the Nujiang valley; with country busses running up and down in what seems to be a perpetual loop. A country bus in China is a paddlers best friend. The driver will not only allow kayaks but often help secure them. This is an area of China where white people are only seen on TV.


Taking a picture at a check point.. not a good idea, I almost lost my GoPro

This means expect crowds and help wherever you go, even more so with bright kayaks. Expect to hit a road block or tow along the way. Being this close to the border does mean that you attract a lot of attention. Hide all cameras and boats. When asked just say you’re a tourist.

When you enter the valley you’re struck buy what appears to be The Lord of the Rings concept art;  breathtaking mountains with waterfalls bursting out of them, but cast your eyes down the valley floor and the bright blue colours of the Salween are interrupted by towers of cascading  whitewater.


The town of Chengganxiang (称杆乡) is a great place to base yourself. It has cheap accommodation around 50RMB a night. You can rent a driver for around 80RMB a day (with some negotiation).

Level of Experience

The characteristics of the river are large grade 4-5 rapids followed by large calm sections. This river offers some of the most technical large volume whitewater I’ve ever seen. When scouting from the road rapids seem deceptively manageable, have a closer look.

Time needed

I only had a week in the Valley, but could have spent a month. This could be a kayaking mecca offering cheap everything and accessible big volume high grade whitewater.


Very wet in the summer, dry in the winter (Northern Hemisphere). You can get away with a dry top and wetsuit all year round. You will feel the altitude on the water.

When to go? Anytime- Winter low flow, Summer High flow/pumping. All photos are from my winter visit.


A big worry for many people when going to China is the environment, and rightly so. The level of destruction and pollution is unprecedented on terrifying scales. However, Yunnan, comparatively, remains untouched. The altitude means the pollution levels are lower than many wester countries. Lucky the three PDSC_8871arallel rivers that run through Yunnan come from the North, meaning, low levels of populations. While these people will still dump everything in the river, it isn’t yet enough to significantly change the quality of water. As you paddle past small villages they are often marked from the river by a landslide of plastic.

Damning is a real problem for Asian rivers. I don’t suppose this amazing river with go untouched before China comes to it’s senses. The size of the Mega damns in Yunnan so something that has to be seen to be believed, and they just pass under the radar somehow. With this in mind anyone thinking of visiting should do so sooner rather than later.


I recommend traveling around with as small a kayak as possible. Play boats work on the Salween although there are a few rapids that do call of a bigger boat. We used a Ty Warp split shaft paddle with a crank for easy transport. However, we were surprised with how well it held up, not just on the river, but from the brutal Chinese postal system.

The Salween it suitable for just about all whitewater sports from rafting to SUP.


Not the easiest place to get to, but once you’re there, some world class paddling. Each trip will be unique and a lifetime memory. This is an area of untapped outdoor potential.

If you’re keen to go paddling in China drop us an email; we’re happy to help in whatever way we can.


Video documenting the trip:


A personal blog of my trip: http:


Jackson Kayak blog on the Salween:

Playboating the Salween River- China

Ben Baber

Ben Baber

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