Sheepskin rafts, thousand-year-old ferry tools
The sheepskin raft, the oldest ferry tool along the Yellow River in Northwest China, boasts a history of nearly 2,000 years. The airbag of the raft is made of a whole sheepskin and undergoes meticulous processes that include heating to remove hair, soaking in salty oil, sewing, drying and blowing. Subsequently, the airbags are fastened to a rectangular wooden stand, enabling its use for transporting people and goods across the water.
It is said that the largest sheepskin raft in old times consisted of more than 600 sheepskin airbags, with an impressive length of 22 meters and a width of 7 meters. It was capable of carrying around 30 tons of goods and drifting over 200 kilometers in one day, making it as formidable as a steamship. No wonder that there was a local saying: "A sheepskin raft can rival a warship."
In the early 20th century, before the 1950s, when railways were not yet in operation and road traffic was inconvenient, the sheepskin raft served as the most important means of transportation for residents inhabiting along the Yellow River.
However, with the rapid development of society, the sheepskin raft has largely fulfilled its historical role in transporting people and goods. Nowadays, it can only be found along the banks of the Yellow River in cities such as Lanzhou and Baiyin in Gansu province, Zhongwei in Ningxia Hui autonomous region. It has become a tool for people to ferry on the Yellow River for sightseeing and leisure.
Today only some of the older generation of rafters still operate the traditional sheepskin rafts, who are inheritors and are helping to preserve the ancient craft. The younger generations are not willing to continue the operation and choosing to pursue other business opportunities on the riverbank.