Sunday, January 20, 2019

The Last Wild River in China

                                                                              by Jim Goodman

the Nu River in upper Gongshan County
       Even in Yunnan, a province famous for its different landscapes, biodiversity and ethnic variety, Nujiang, its westernmost prefecture, stands out as something special.  Three of its four counties straddle the Nu River, one of East Asia's mightiest, 2020 km long from the Tibet-Qinghai border to the Gulf of Martaban (a.k.a. Moktaba) in Myanmar.  And throughout the river's 315 km-long run in Nujiang Prefecture towering mountains flank it on both sides. It is the longest stretch of sustained great scenery in the entire province, looking ever better the further north you go or the higher you climb up the slopes on either bank.
Liuku, Nujiang Prefecture administrative capital
       The Chinese have dubbed Nujiang theGrand Canyon of the East, in conscious reference to the Grand Canyon in southwestern United States.  The latter, though, is very different.  The Colorado River cuts through a flat tableland, with mountains far away, and its main feature is the stunning and picturesque erosion of the canyon wall.  It is also uninhabited.
       In the Grand Canyon of the East, by contrast, mountains flank the river, sometimes rising near vertically from the banks.  Villages and their farms mottle the slopes, in between forests that swathe two-thirds of them.  The people are mostly of the Lisu minority nationality, with smaller numbers of Nu and TIbetan in the north, Yi and Bai communities in the south and Han in the cities.
the Nu River near Chenggan
waterfall just south of Fugong
       The river runs at an average altitude of 800-900 meters.  The mountains, the Biluoshan range east of the river and the Gaoligongshan range to the west, rise an average 4000 meters on either side. The forests vary with the altitude.  Nearer the river grow bamboo, teak, kapok, fig, banyan and tung, an oil-bearing species.  From 1600-2800 meters are bald pine, cypress, yew, chestnut, leach, walnut, magnolia, camellia and Yunnan cherry. Up to 4000 meters, the dominant species are fir, rhododendron, hemlock, dragon spruce, Yunnan pine and dwarf bamboo.
riverside rice fields in summer
       The forests also contain all eight of Yunnan’s famous flowers (azalea, camellia, rough gentian, primrose, orchid, lily, magnolia and meconopsis) and 6000 species of plants, including 370 recognized medicinal plants.  Around 1600 species of insects peculiar to Nujiang live in the canyon, as well as 280 kinds of birds and 70 different mammals. 
       The name of the river is taken from the name of the indigenous Nu nationality in the northern part of the canyon.  (The Lisu didn’t move in until the 17th century.)  In their language nu means dark; hence, the dark people and the dark river.  In Tibet, the Nu River is Heishui (Black River).  But for nu, the Chinese use the ideograph for ‘angry’, which certainly doesn’t characterize the temperament of the people.  But it does seem appropriate for the river. 
plowing a field next to the river
      Rapids make up much of the river’s course.  Its rate of flow can be up to seven meters per second, slightly increased in the summer from rain-fed tributary streams.  In spite of carrying this extra volume of water, the Nu River never floods.  It is safe to plant crops on land just a few meters above the water.
It does change color with the rains, becoming a dull medium brown.  When the rains cease and good weather prevails again, the river turns blue-green.  The water level is lower and at some points, especially in Gongshan County, patches of white sand appear along the banks.  In between the long stretches of rapids, where the river runs relatively smoothly, people use rafts or canoes to cross to the other side or to cast fishnets.  They also fish from the shore with poles or use a net stretched between two curved bamboo rods.
crossing the river by rope-bridge
fishing from the bank, Nujiang-style
     Nujiang was one of the last places modernized in Yunnan.  Not until the 1950s did the government begin constructing a good road from Liuku to Bingzhongluo to replace the caravan trails.  They also built suspension bridges to cross the river, replacing the previous rope-bridges, though in 2000 about two dozen rope-bridges were still in place.  By the turn of the century electricity had been extended to the highest villages. People’s lives had marginally improved, but a large portion was still mired in poverty.
Fugong city
       In 1999 the government banned logging throughout the province.  This was Nujiang’s biggest earner and in attempting to replace it, the local government the following year proposed a hydropower development project involving the building of 13 dams at various points on the river, including a 300-meter-plus behemoth at Maji, and two large reservoirs.  This would result in a power generation of 21 million kilowatts, 3 million more than the one at the Three Gorges in Sichuan, which would be exported to southeast China.      
       The proposal also claimed that as a result of switching to cleaner hydropower the nation could use some of the profits from the dams project to spend on environmental protection.  That point provoked opponents of the dams to launch a campaign against the project.  They wanted to extend the idea of environmental protection to the whole canyon, citing its ecological diversity. Though it comprised but 0.4% of the country’s total area, the canyon was home to over 20% of China’s plants and flowers and 25% of the earth’s animal species (over half of China’s).
rafts used on the river
      The dams would also kill off Nuiang’s 48 species of fish, 36 of them unique to this part of the river, by preventing them from spawning upstream.  Changes in the river’s current would lead to greater contamination, while the putrefying flooded plants would cause a greater emission of greenhouse gases than coal-fired industrial plants. Besides the ecological destruction, the dams would displace 10% of the valley’s half million residents, including the entire population of Gongshan city, saddling the government with the messy problems of resettlement and compensation.
      Though the central government approved the project in the summer of 2003, eco-activists and other opponents kept up their campaign.  By the end of the year they had persuaded Premier Wen Jibao, who called a ‘temporary’ halt to the project.  It was not part of the next five-year plan, nor any since.  In China, the Nu River still runs free.
on the trail to Lumadeng
Gaoligong Mountains at Lumadeng
      It’s possible to explore the Nujiang canyon starting in the far north.  But that involves trekking from Cizhong, on the Lancangjiang, and over the Biluo Mountains to Dimaluo in Gongshan County and then down to the road along the river.  The usual way in is from southwestern Dali Prefecture to Liuku in the south, from where a good road now runs all the way to Qiunatong at the top of the canyon.
suspension bridge below the Stone Moon
      The road into Liuku follows a stream until its confluence with the Nu River.  Liuku, Nujiang’s largest city and administrative capital, straddles the river at the confluence and mountains of 2500-3000 meters flank the river north and south of the city.  Turning south at Liuku, the road continues along the river through the same kind of landscape until Shangjiang.  Then it passes into Baoshan Prefecture, where the mountains are suddenly further away and the river’s current less hurried.
      Though it’s the capital of a Lisu Autonomous Prefecture, Liuku doesn’t have much of an ethnic flavor.  Minorities here and in nearby villages dress in modern styles.  The city has a scenic location, with good views from the bridges and the riverside park on the eastern bank.  As for social scenes, the most interesting takes place at the eastern gate of one of the pedestrian suspension bridges, where a few White Lisu women gather towards evening to sell rice liquor and sing old Lisu songs.
the Nu River near Lishadi
      The road north through Lushui County keeps to the west bank.  Gradually the mountains rise higher, steeper and closer to the river, though still without any snow at their peaks.  At Chenggan, in northern Lushui County, cliffs plunge vertically at the river’s edge.  Continuing north, the road crosses a bridge to the eastern bank just as it passes into Fugong County.  It will stay on this bank all the way to Gongshan city.
       From Pihe, sited opposite a steep sheer cliff and the first town inside the county, the scenery keeps improving.  Mountains are higher, steeper, closer and craggier.  Waterfalls plunge from the sides more frequently.  Terraced fields rise higher on the slopes and several rope-bridges are installed along the river.  Most of residential Fugong city, the county capital, lies on a slope adjacent to the narrow strip of land beside the river. 
Maji village, northern Fugong County
      A few mountains in the vicinity crest at over 4000 meters, permanently mantled with snow. The city has the canyon’s biggest and liveliest market day, held every five days, with the greatest variety of products on sale. Most of the Lisu women from nearby villages wear their traditional clothing while in the city, especially market day.  Crossing the bridge to the west bank leads to a path south to villages and their farms beside the river, a walk especially rewarding during planting time or the early autumn harvest.
      Continuing north, the Gaoligongshan mountains creep closer to the river.  To attend Lumadeng’s Wednesday market day, villagers on that side have to make a long descent and then walk on a narrow path on a steep slope just above the roaring river rapids.  Or they could come down north of the town and use one of the rope-bridges to get to the road into Lumadeng. 
Gongshan city
      Between here and Lishadi, the next town north, stands Nujiang’s most famous mountain—the Stone Moon.  Though not one of the highest Gaoligongshan peaks, it is unique for its huge oval hole, 80 meters wide, just beneath one of the peaks. On the approach to the Stone Moon the road climbs higher than usual above the river, thus affording a great view of the phenomenon from a point above the gorge just south of it. Further on, around Lishadi, too, the mountains take on attractive shapes, with fluted cliffs near the summits.  One right beside the road is peaked like a perfect isosceles triangle.
      Continuing north, the road follows the river past the same kind of mountain scenery into Gongshan County.  Here mountains of 4000-meter peaks are more common, their slopes more forested.  The main road crosses the river before entering Gongshan city and then continues on the west bank of the Nu all the way to Tibet.  For the most part it stays just above the river, but nearing Bingzhongluo is rises a couple hundred meters above the river level, thus affording a wonderful view of the First Turn of the Nu River.
First Turn of the Nu River
      Here the Nu River swirls very dramatically around the ’toes of Biluoshan’—two protrusions of land at the bottom of steep cliffs, each one hosting a village.  Bingzhongluo, on a high plateau above the river, is just around the corner.  From this town Kawagapo Mountain, 5173 meters high, is visible.  Most of the villages in northern Gongshan County are of the Nu ethnic minority, but there a few Lisu and Tibetan settlements as well as Dulong on the other side of Gaoligongshan.
      Going upstream, the new road passes through the Stone Gate, a pair of sheer vertical cliffs flanking the river.  Road engineers had to blast a tunnel through the cliff on the western bank to clear passage for the road.  Continuing north, just short of Qiunatong, a sheer cliff on the eastern bank features a long tunnel through it to allow for local and caravan traffic connecting Qiunatong and the Biluoshan side villages.
the southern 'toe' of Biluoshan
      Travelers cross a suspension bridge to enter Qiunatong.  A mixed Christian Nu and Tibetan village, this is the last major settlement in Nujiang Prefecture.  The boundary of Tibet Province is just a little further.  But across the boundary the landscape changes abruptly, as it did south of Shangjiang.  The mountains are still high, but lie further away from the river, with very little forest cover. 
      The termination of the dams project did not halt development in Nujiang.  The government has continued to renovate and improve the main highway, extend it north into Tibet, construct roads up the slopes of the more densely inhabited mountains and build more suspension bridges spanning the river, designed for motor vehicle traffic as well as pedestrian. 
      With more tourists coming to Nujiang, the canyon now has more hotels and restaurants, the inevitable minority song-and-dance shows and even an established spot just beyond Lumadeng where visitors can experience riding a rope-bridge.  In northern Gongshan County near Shuangla, a pair of Nu villages, Christian on the east bank, Protestant on the west bank, a toll gate in place for over a decade charges non-locals a fee to enter Bingzhongluo Scenic Area.
Stone Gate cliff on the western bank
the river on the way to Qiunatong
      These additions may slightly augment Nujiang’s tourism income, but do not alter what is really the main attraction of the canyon—its pristine natural scenery.  Residents may eventually cease wearing their ethnic garments and suspension bridges may one day replace the last of the rope-bridges.  But the mountains, waterfalls, tributary streams, flora and fauna of the last wild river in China will continue to enchant visitors for many generations to come.

the Stone Moon, Fugong County
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