The first eight pages of this document were written in 1995. We were much younger, there were still baiji swimming in the Yangtze River, and China was a different world. A lot has changed for all of us since then...


In August and September of 1995, we spent five weeks in central China, traveling up and down the Yangtze River under the auspices of an American/Chinese Adventure Capital Fellowship from the Durfee Foundation (later renamed the Avery China Adventure Program, the program is currently discontinued). The foundation provides grants to alumni, students, faculty, and staff of a number of southern California colleges and universities (including Donald's alma mater Harvey Mudd College) to travel to China and undertake an adventure that is totally unrelated to the award recipient's career or field of study. The underlying idea is to promote interaction with the people of China, and to experience the Chinese culture.

The Yangtze River is the longest river in Asia and the third longest in the world, at roughly 6000 km. It's proper name in Chinese is Chang Jiang, which literally means “Long River”; “Yangtze” is actually just a local name for the particular stretch of the river that runs through Jiangsu Province. We began our adventure in Shanghai, where the vast Yangtze delta merges into the East China Sea. Most of our traveling was done by means of the river ferries that transport people and goods along the Yangtze.

These domesticated water buffalo are enjoying a bit of relief from the incredible heat and humidity of the Yangtze River valley in summer.

The first half of our journey spanned the lower one-quarter of the Yangtze's length, from Shanghai at the river's mouth to Wanxian City at the upstream entrance to the spectacular Three Gorges. (In the late 1990s, Wanxian City was partially submerged due to completion of the Three Gorges Dam, and the remainder was absorbed into the mega-city of Chongqing). In the Three Gorges region, the river narrows and flows between high cliffs covered with forest and terraced rice paddies that stair-step to the tips of the peaks. From Wanxian, we then retraced our route back downstream to the shore of the China Sea. Along the way, we visited the major urban centers of Nanjing and Wuhan, as well as smaller cities such as Tongling and Yichang.

The main purpose of our trip to China was to learn about the Chinese freshwater dolphin (Lipotes vexillifer) that lives in the Yangtze River. Historically, this animal lived in the 1800 km long section of the Yangtze over which we traveled, from the Three Gorges to the sea. In recent times, however, its range and population have dwindled, principally due to human use (and misuse) of the river. Called baiji in Chinese, it is the most endangered species of marine mammal in the world – less than 100 (probably less than 50) now survive (see this update). Consequently, we also wanted to learn about the conservation measures that have been initiated by the Chinese government in a desperate attempt to save this little-known creature from extinction.

This document describes many of the highlights of our trip...

Dolphin Differences

The probably extinct baiji or “white fin” dolphin (Lipotes vexillifer – image [a] below) should not be confused with the endangered Chinese white dolphin (Sousa chinensis chinensis – image [b] below), which is a subspecies of the Indo-Pacific humpbacked dolphin. The Chinese white dolphin is primarily found in the Pearl River delta between Hong Kong and Macau. The adult Chinese white dolphin actually has pink (or mottled gray and pink) skin, caused by blood vessels that provide thermoregulation to prevent overheating during exertion. Nor should the baiji be confused with the Yangtze River finless porpoise (Neophocaena asiaeorientalis asiaeorientalis – image [c] below), the second species of large mammal that lives in the Yangtze River.