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Sheepskin Rafts on the Yellow River
by courtesy of Mr. Qiu Huanxing and Mr. Lu Zhongmin,

the authors of Folk Customs Of China

Gansu Province in Northwest China, intersected by the Silk Road that linked Europe and Asia in ancient times, is a vital communication line connecting the interior with the northwestern border areas of China. Many interesting and unique customs can be seen in Gansu Province, some of which have been handed down from the time when the Silk Road was busting with travellers.
After having passed the provincial capital of the city of Lanzhou, the Yellow River runs through Gansu Province. The sheepskin raft, an ancient ferry, has a unique structure and is easily made. First make a sheepskin bag, which should be made with the whole skin from a sheep. The wool should be shaved from the skin. After the skin is dried, salt and sesame oil is spread on it and it is rubbed with both hands. Then it is scrubbed with tung oil. The skin is tied lightly into a bag with ropes, except the opening on the front leg, through which air will be blown in. Bind the blown-up sheepskin bags onto a wooden frame. Then the raft is ready.
Sheepskin rafts come in various sizes, some made of over a dozen sheepskin bags, some a few dozen bags, and others several hundred bags. A small raft can hold a few people and a big raft can transport several tons of goods and can sail at a daily speed of 200 kilometres with the curent. In the swiftly-running Yellow River, the raft can only move along with the current, but it can't go against the current. Therefore the boatman often walks for a while towards the upper reaches, carrying a sheepskin raft, before he puts it into the river and lets it float to the other side of the river.

Today though there are motor-driven boats on the Yellow River and bridges at important sites, the sheepskin rafts
Villagers who live by the Yellow River make rafts with sheepskin. They inflate sheepskins and then bind them to a wooden frame.
can still be seen on the river. Taking a raft is convenient, because the raft only weighs a bit more than 12 kilograms and can be carried on the shoulder to cross the river instead of taking a detour across a bridge. In addition, each household raises sheep. It does not require much money to construct a raft.

Though it can be tossed about by the waves of the Yellow River, the raft is safe. The Yellow River is full of swift currents and dangerous shoals. Because it has some elasticity, the raft will be bumped back when it runs into a reef. If one or two sheepskin bags on the raft bread, the raft will not sink.

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