Saturday, February 23, 2013

Crossing the Angry River--the Old Way

                                                                  by Jim Goodman

over the rapids at Lishadi
     In China’s Yunnan Province the Salween River is known as the Nu River (Nujiang in Chinese). It gives its name to the province’s westernmost prefecture and derives from the name of the earliest inhabitants of the valley—the Nu minority nationality. In their own language nu means dark. So it’s the dark people and the dark river. But the Chinese character used to represent nu is the word for angry. It may be the wrong choice for designating the people, for they are a small, placid, easy-going ethnic group, much outnumbered by the Black Lisu, who make up the majority of the prefecture’s population. But it seems quite appropriate to call the river angry, especially during the rainy months of spring and summer, when it roars through the 300 km-long Nujiang canyon at seven meters per second, creating long stretches of Class 4 and 5 waves.
old-style rope-bridge, 1895
     After the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949 one of the first things the government did was to construct bridges to span the river at the major towns and market venues in the three counties that make up the canyon. Until then the only way to cross the river anywhere was by rope-bridge. Mountains cresting 4000 meters rise sharply from both sides of the river valley, sometimes meeting the water with a perpendicular wall of rock, cutting settlements off from each other. It would be too expensive to build suspension bridges everywhere people have to cross the river, so 28 of these rope-bridges survive today, all but a few in regular use, mostly between the towns of Fugong and Gongshan. Rope-bridges usually come in pairs, with the take-off point of each always higher than the landing point.
     In the old days the bridges were made of twisted strips of split bamboo and changed every few years when they began to sag. The traveler sat in thongs strapped to a wooden slider that was mounted on the rope. Animals and packages were conveyed across the river the same way. But often the momentum gives out before the passenger reaches the other side. Riders then pull themselves across the cable the remaining distance, much like climbing a rope in a gymnasium. When that happened with packages or animals, though, locals had to slide back down the rope from the other bank, grab the package with the legs, or the animal by the straps, and pull their way back to the bank.
hooking up
crossing with a rice bag
     Nowadays the rope-bridges are made of wound steel cables and don’t have to be changed every few years. They are also unbreakable, though the old split bamboo ones never broke, either, but still, the idea that they might scares off most visitors from trying. On the web you can find accounts that write of “hurtling to the other side at heart-stopping speed,” followed by the usual speculations on how fast you would drown in the torrents below if the cable broke. One traveler wrote that the only thing that would persuade him to ride the rope-bridge would be the possibility of facing certain death if he did not ride it
with mountains always in view
     When I finally began exploring the northern part of Nujiang a few summers ago, I saw my first rope-bridge crossing at Lishadi, north of Fugong. The first obvious fact was that the web writers hadn’t actually witnessed the event themselves. The speed of the passengers I saw was closer to about 15 kph—not exactly “heart-stopping.”
     Shortly afterwards I sat by the landing point and watched two Lisu girls, aged about 10-12, roped together on the same cable hook, ride across the river several times, just for their own amusement. I drew two conclusions from this: it can’t be dangerous and it must be fun Back in Lishadi I discovered that everyone who lived in villages accessed by rope-bridge had their own rope harnesses and cable hooks.
starting point
Two can ride as easily as one.
     My excursion time then was at an end, but on my next rip to Fugong in the autumn I purchased a strong rope and the modern equivalent of the old sliders. I called on a local Lisu acquaintance for assistance and he took me on market day to the rope-bridge at Damedi, about 12 km south of the town. On our side of the river was a tall cliff, about 30 meters above the rapids, and at the starting point I followed his instructions on how to use my new gear. I looped the rope around my body, one side in the small of my back and the other side under the thighs. The modern slider is an iron housing with a pulley wheel inside and two big hooks underneath. The slider goes on the cable, hooks facing the riverbank, and then I crossed the rope loop ends and slung them onto the hooks. Now I was ready.
crossing the river near Lumadeng
      With one hand on the top of the housing (not on the cable itself, which will burn the hand from the friction), and the other holding my harness ropes, I simply lifted my feet off the boulder and away I went. It took about 15 seconds to reach the other side, with the movement of the pulley wheel against the cable sounding like a purring kitten. The sensation was both wonderful and not what I expected. I thought my heart would beat faster, my blood rush, my skin tingle, etc, but, on the contrary, I felt an enormous sense of serenity, rather like the high one is supposed to get from meditation exercises. The excuse I had given for wanting to do this was to drink the spirit of the Nujiang Lisu people’s life style. I was certainly doing that now.
children at play on the Nu River
     After taking photos of other riders, with their crossbows on their backs or a sack of grain on one of the hooks, I found on my return crossing that my own momentum gave out some 30 meters from the shore. Pulling myself the remainder of the way was rather difficult, but with Lisus watching me I couldn’t very well give up and wait for one of them to come and fetch me like they would do for one of their ponies.
So I made it to the other side, albeit breathless upon arrival, and returned to Fugong with my Lisu friend. He promptly spread the word of my feat and I was the subject of awe by all those local Lisu who have only used suspension bridges all their lives. Wasn’t I afraid? they wondered. Not at all, said I. I’d watched the children do it at Lishadi.
In my later journeys to Nujiang, riding rope-bridges in the northern part of the canyon, I found that, since I have my own harness and cable-hook, my crossings don’t make any special impression on the Lisu villagers who also ride rope-bridges. They are kind and hospitable but assume I live in Nujiang, or else why have the gear? Only when I return to the towns and the word has spread do I meet many Lisus who confess they have never done that because they are too afraid.
pulling oneself the last few meters
     So I have developed a new ambition in Nujiang. I want to persuade one of those beautiful Black Lisu girls in the towns, who has been walking on suspension bridges across the river all her life, to hitch up with me on the same cable hook and go for her first ride ever together with her outsider guide. Having conquered my own qualms about riding rope-bridges I am flush with confidence that I can do anything locals anywhere do. That’s the major influence the experience has had on me.
But it has also reshaped my own ideas, previously fuzzy anyway, about what might make a good death. For when that time eventually comes, if I can slide out of this life as easily as I slid across the Angry River on a rope-bridge, and touch down in eternity as comfortably as I landed on the opposite bank, that would definitely make for a smooth, contented exit.
ancient adventures in Nujiang
                                                                      * * * 

No comments:

Post a Comment