National Geographic : 1932 Jun
RAFT LIFE ON THE HWANG HO BY W. ROBERT MOORE AUTHOR OF "AMONG THE HILL TRIBES OF SUMATRA" AND "ALONG THE OLD MANDARIN ROAD IN INDO-CHINA," IN THE NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE With Illustrationsfrom Photographsby Leon Van Dyk T HE Hwang Ho, or Yellow River, in north China, is one of the most extraordinary rivers of the world. Its disastrous flooding has cost the Chinese millions of lives and millions in wealth through the destruction of homes and farm lands, and because of this it has earned such titles as "China's Sorrow," the "Un governable," and the "Scourge of the Sons of Han." At times it has changed its course over as much as 250 miles in a single flood ing season. To-day it empties into the Yel low Sea north of the Shantung Peninsula, but before 1852 it debouched its loess-laden waters through a channel south of that peninsula. It is the second largest river in China, yet in all its course, from its headwaters, high up in the Kunlun Range, in Tibet, all along its 2,500-mile path to the sea, it is not navigable for steamships or other deep draft craft. Its course is alternately either too swift and broken by turbulent rapids or widens and becomes too shallow and filled with sand bars to allow the use of large boats. But over some 700 miles of its course, as it winds through Kansu Province and along the edge of Inner Mongolia, from Sining to Paotow, plies an interesting raft traffic that has been carried on for cen turies. Chinese literature confirms the fact that here the earlier Sons of Han 2,000 years ago were using sheepskin and oxhide rafts identical with those which one finds in use to-day. INFLATED SHEEPSKINS AND STUFFED OX HIDES USED AS FLOATS There are two types of rafts, one using as buoys inflated sheepskins and the other large oxhides which are stuffed with wool and then tied up to keep them water-tight. The sheepskin rafts vary in size, according to the use for which they are intended, ranging from as few as 12 or 15 skins on the small one-man rafts to as many as 500 in the large freight rafts. For the large oxhide rafts some 120 hides are used. Before being used, the raw oxhides are treated on the inside with salt and oil to preserve and waterproof them as well as keep them flexible. Raw hides cost about $Io in the local currency ($2.50 gold) and are considered about twice as valuable after they have been properly prepared. Conse quently, the large freight rafts are often valued at as much as $600 gold, but the hides are useful as buoys for three years and are then sold in the Paotow market for shoe leather. Raft-making is a comparatively easy task. To a simple framework of poles lashed securely together are fastened the hides or sheepskins. Even the stuffing of the hides with Tibetan wool is a simple process, but when it comes to inflating 500 sheepskins on one raft before a voyage, that is a job! Without doubt, the in dustrious raftsmen can make strong claim for the record in the windiest of all ship launchings! MOSLEM CHINESE CONTROL THE RAFT TRAFFIC The navigation of the rafts in the down river trade is entirely in the hands of the Moslem Chinese, who form a considerable percentage of the population of the Kansu district. Life is not easy on the rafts, with all the contrasts of heat and cold and the strenuous labor involved in manipulating the clumsy transports through the rapids or in freeing them, once they have stranded on a sand bar; but these hardy raftsmen are a happy and friendly lot. The great, irregular, S-shaped portion of the course of the Hwang Ho through Kansu and Mongolia, over which the rafts operate, is carved for a large part of the way through the extensive loess-plain re gion.* Here and in the Wei Valley, whose tributary waters are gathered unto the Hwang Ho about 40 miles west of Lan chow, was the cradle of the Chinese race; but through the centuries great quantities of loess, or sandy loam, have been blown across these lands, submerging numerous cities and making desert many wide areas which were once fertile farming districts. * See "Where the Mountains Walked," in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE for May, 1922.