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Sheepskin Rafting in China 2024

Chinese invented inflatable rafts long before the modern civilization—sheep were of a great use

Best time: May–October

Sheepskin Rafting
Sheepskin Rafting

The ancient Chinese were probably the first rafters in the world. Their sheepskin rafts have been ferrying people and goods along the Yellow River for thousands of years. Sheepskin is not a metaphor, the rafts were literally made of inflated skin bags tied to a wooden frame.

In fact, back 2500 years ago it was the only way to cross the treacherous river. Believe it or not, the biggest raft could consist of as many as 600 sheep skins, it was 22 meters long, and 7 meters wide, and it was able to carry the weight of up to 30 tonnes.

Sheepskin rafting wasn't popular along the entire basin of the river, but mainly in three provinces: Qinghai, Gansu and Ningxia, but particularly around Lanzhou. In this area, the tradition has survived through ages. However today the sheepskin rafts are mainly used for the amusement of tourists, rather than a means of transportation.

The process of sheep skins preparation remains quite the same as it used to be in ancient times. It starts in November when sheep are fatter, and their skins are hence thicker. Carcases are cured and the smell of rotten meat spreads around. The next step is shearing, which requires particular caution, as the tiniest hole can become a problem. Afterwards, the skins are moistured with oils, it makes them water-repellent and easier to inflate. In spring the skins are dried until they are yellow in colour—it means at last they can be inflated.

It's essential that the skins are blown up by mouth, as it's also believed that moisture in human breath makes them more lasting. Yes, they aren't everlasting, on average a sheepskin bag is to be used for up to 4 or 5 years, but only on condition that it's properly cared after—every day they have to be dried, and once a month the keeper has to moisture it in salty water and oils.

Modern rafts consist of 12 to 15 skin bags, which is not as impressive as 600 items, of course. However, rafting on sheepskins is like living through the ancient history, a unique experience available only on the banks of Yellow River. In Lanzhou, the season starts in May when all the ice has melted and continues until October.

Practical info

When is the best season for sheepskin rafting in China?

Sheepskin rafting is best experienced in China between May and October, uncovering an exhilarating journey in the Yellow River 's steely currents. The winter season, between November and April, is not ideal for rafting because the river freezes, making it impassable. These seasons have been observed due to tradition and ease of rafting. Show more

How are sheepskin rafts prepared for the ride?

Sheepskin rafts are designed to be sturdy and last for years. Slaughtering is usually done in November when sheep are fatter and their skin thicker. The tanning process involves curing, shearing, and moisturizing the hides. The oils help to make the rafts more water-resistant and protect their durability. The skin bags are then left to dry until they turn yellow. Finally, the bags are inflated by mouth for proper usage. Consistent maintenance through hydration and drying is also vital. Show more

Where is sheepskin rafting practiced in China?

Sheepskin rafting is a traditional practice attributed to the Yellow River, located in the northwestern provinces of China. The provinces that mainly spearhead the practice include Qinghai, Ningxia, and Gansu. Although no longer serving as the primary source of transport, the rafts are now mostly used for touristic purposes, preserving the regional tradition and bringing more people to experience the thrilling activity. Show more

Why were sheepskin rafts significant in ancient China?

During ancient China, sheepskin rafts played a significant role in transportation as the Yellow River posed a considerable challenge rafting. They were fundamental in trade and formed the backbone of the region's economy. Additionally, preserving sheep hides was another economic benefit, essential for China's textile industry. Sheepskin rafting has become a valuable cultural inheritance in China, teaching us the country's historical past and how it has advanced in transportation over the years. Show more

How long do sheepskin bags last and how are they maintained?

Provided with good care and maintenance, sheepskin bags last for up to 4 to 5 years. Proper conservation means drying the bags every day to avoid mould. Monthly hydration with salty water and oils is vital in maintaining the bags' durability. Shepherd's breath during inflation plays a significant role in maintaining the bags in good shape. Neglecting maintenance means that skin bags may deteriorate quickly due to the harsh sun and water exposure. Show more

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