Sunday, December 26, 2021

Opening Up Dulongjiang—Yunnan’s Last Frontier


                                                              by Jim Goodman

       From the foundation of New China the government in Yunnan set out to improve or establish transportation links throughout the province.   It was not an easy task in a mountainous land, with many remote areas accessible only by narrow trails.  By the end of the century roads suitable for motor traffic connecting major cities and towns had been completed everywhere except the extreme northwest county of Gongshan, in Nujiang Prefecture.  A road existed along the Nu River as far north as Bingzhongluo, site of the First Turn of the Nu River.  Beyond that was just a riverside caravan trail that went into eastern Tibet.  But the route was open all year.

       The western district of the county, Dulongjiang, hanging like a hump over northeast Myanmar, was still only accessible by caravan trail and only for five to six months a year.  The Dulong River, after which the district is named, flows north to south in between the Gaoligongshan Mountains to its east and the Dandanglika Mountains to its west.  The old caravan trail began at Shuanglawa village, near Gongshan, and followed the Pula River up to Gaoligongshan, climbed up over the pass and descended into the valley of Dulongjiang and its main town.  The journey took three days.

       Because the mountain range is over 4000 meters altitude the pass was covered with snow half the year.  Dulongjiang was then cut off from the rest of Yunnan.  Nobody could get in or out.  Once the snow melted and the passes were clear the caravans resumed, mainly bringing in food supplies.  The district was home to a great variety of animals and plants and sometimes the caravans included professional specialists researching its wildlife, botanical features and the native Dulong people, or Drung as sometimes called.  And if they intended to observe the only major Dulong festival, which occurs at the beginning of winter, they had to stay until spring. 

       In 2001 the government announced it would build a road from Gongshan over the mountains to Dulongjiang.  This inspired my friend Xiao Wang, who ran an eco-tour company in Kunming, to organize a clean-up project along the first half of the old caravan trail.  Caravans had always had rubbish to dispose of and they did it by simply throwing it along the trail.  By then I had spent nine years exploring parts of Yunnan but had not yet visited Nujiang.  So I joined the group. 

        Our night bus from Kunming arrived in Liuku, at the south end of Nujiang Canyon, before sunrise, so our ride north gave us wonderful daylight scenery all the way.  We stayed two nights in Gongshan to arrange the permits and assemble all the participants, most of whom were local residents.  The city, attractively sited on a slope above the river, had just opened to foreigners.  No tour companies yet, but there was a nice bar, run by Tibetan girls from Bingzhongluo, decorated with artifacts and textiles of the Nu, Tibetan and Dulong communities.

       We set out in the morning from Shuanglawa.  The trail along the Pula began between two high cliffs and was relatively level all the way to the last post house before the ascent to the pass.  Sometimes it ran several dozen meters above the river, where the caravans often dumped their rubbish down the steep slope.   We passed occasional Nu hamlets, marked by wide log cabins with roofs of slate.  We made several stops for rubbish collection, stashing it in periodic separate heaps for eventual disposal. 

       Rain fell for most of the day.  Dulongjiang is the third wettest place in East Asia.  Even the Dulong people, used to this weather throughout their history, get fed up with too much rain.  They carry out a shamanic ritual involving thrusting consecrated spears into the gray skies to poke holes in the clouds to allow sunlight to pass through.  Next morning Xiao Wang took half the crew uphill while half, and all the photographers including me, stayed behind to work in this vicinity.  Two days later they returned and we all trekked back to Gongshan the following day.  The group then dispersed, while I stayed in the county a few more days and proceeded to stop at other Nujiang locations further south.

       Nujiang impressed me so much I made it a book project over the next few years.  The promised road to Dulongjiang took longer to construct than expected and it wasn’t until summer of 2005 that I was finally able to make the journey.  From Gongshan the distance is around 100 km, but the ride took over six hours.  Passengers crammed into two jeeps and two small trucks carrying market goods joined us.

       Near Shuanglawa the road immediately ascended over a thousand meters into the high mountains above a densely vegetated valley with very steep cliffs featuring long, ribbon-like waterfalls and towering trees on the slopes.  Among the species were pine, larch, oak, dwarf bamboo, rhododendron and other types, deciduous and evergreen.  The forest floor was lush with innumerable plant species.  The road passed a trio of hamlets 14 km from Shuanglawa, then just stray cabins the next 20 km and after that, until the final descent to the river, only occasional tents for road workers dealing with landslips.

       While the views were magnificent, the ride was often rough.  The road wasn’t paved, only flattened, with some parts overlaid with gravel.  It was rainy season, so we splashed through lots of puddles. It rained intermittently during the day, too.  At many points stone blocks or stacks of logs buttressed the road on the downward side of steep slopes.  Around 50 km from our start we crossed the watershed of the Gaoligong Mountains.  From here on all streams flowed into the Dulong River.  As the area was uninhabited there was no possibility of a lunch break.  In fact, we didn’t see any people at all until we were several km from the town. 

       As we came nearer the descent we spotted small herds of goats, unattended, and several Dulong cattle wandering freely.  The latter is a breed of livestock in the hills, half-bison and half-cattle, raised for its meat, not used for traction.  In Yunnan they are only native to Dulongjiang, but are also found in the highlands of northern Myanmar and Northeast India, known by the name of mithan.  It is the sacrificial animal during the Dulong New Year festival, when it is ceremonially speared and its meat distributed to all the villagers.

       At km 85 the road began its descent to the river.  Once we were below 2500 meters the Dulong cattle vanished from the landscape.  They do not live in the valley and I didn’t see them again until back on the high road returning to Gongshan.  (I didn’t find out who they belonged to.)  On the final descent the road crossed a well-made cement and stone bridge over a blue-green stream beside a bluff with a Dulong hamlet on top.  The road followed this stream 2 km to its confluence with the gray-brown waters of the Dulong River and along the river another 4 km to the town.

       Dulongjiang town was not very impressive.  Aside from the cell phone tower, fancy new police station and an apartment building for government workers, all other buildings were one-story wooden structures with tin roofs.  It had one basic inn and a few restaurants offering limited fare.  It had the feel of a remote mining town without the mines.  Market goods were largely limited to necessities and the town had no regular market day. 

       While some Han, Naxi and Nu lived in the town, most inhabitants were Dulong.  With a population of barely 5000, they are the smallest minority nationality in Yunnan.  They speak a Tibeto-Burman language close to Nu, but have no written system.  In their origin myth two brothers came to the Nu River, but only one of them managed to cross before a sudden flood wiped out the rope-bridge.  He settled in the canyon and became the Nu ancestor, while his stranded brother hiked west over Gaoligongshan and became the Dulong ancestor.

       Nu mythology has a similar tale to explain the division of the people into two branches, with separate dialects.  Dulong material culture shares features of their Nu cousins, though it’s difficult to determine who influenced whom.  Perhaps the terrain was the chief factor, with its steep slopes converted to temporary farms by slash-and-burn agriculture.  They raised maize, buckwheat, barley, beans and yams and only rarely rice.  They supplemented their diet with hunting, gathering and fishing.  Like other Nujiang people—Nu and Lisu—they hunted with crossbows and fished using nets stretched across two curved bamboo poles.

       They also wove their own cloth on back-strap looms, usually tied to a house post, designed in a striped pattern like that of the Nu, but with darker colors.  Traditionally they did not know about fitted garments and wore the cloth, a meter wide and over two meters long, around the body and under one arm.  At night it served as a blanket—two of them when it got cold.  They also wore hemp cloth wrappers around the lower legs.  That was in the past, but nowadays abandoned.  Contemporary Dulong dress modern-style, though the weaving tradition was still evident on my visit, the cloth mainly used to cut into sleeveless vests, worn by both sexes.
       They lived in elevated rectangular houses of wood and sometimes plaited split bamboo walls, similar to the Nu, but as slate is unavailable in Dulongjiang, they used thatch for the roofs.  Because of the heavy rainfall the thatch grows much thicker here and the use of it prevents leaks.  A single extended family occupied the house and when sons and grandsons married they added sections to the original, which became a longhouse, with separate family rooms and hearths.  In recent decades sons have opted to set up their own houses and the longhouse tradition has lapsed everywhere.

       The traditional house style still dominated the areas beyond the town, except for Bapo, 4 km away, a resettlement village for Dulong from landslide-affected villages or places where daily life was becoming too harsh.  It held about twenty houses in rows on a gentle slope, stilted wooden and plaited bamboo buildings, but with tin roofs, probably a harbinger for the future.

        The other Dulong tradition that has all but disappeared is facial tattooing.  The custom allegedly originated to protect women from marauding abductors by making them unattractive.  Girls used to undergo this procedure as a puberty rite of passage.  Older women applied the tattoos using indigo and splinters of wood.   Designs consisted of circles, dots and lozenges arranged in patterns.  Only slight variations existed within a clan, but the overall design differed from one clan to another.  Thus people could identify a female’s clan by the specific tattoos on her face.

       The only example I ever encountered was an old Dulong woman wearing Lisu clothing in Lishadi, Fugong County.  Local Dulong told me they heard, but could not confirm, old tattooed women still lived in the far north of the district, over two days walk.  I confined my excursions to both directions along the river.  People I met wore modern clothes and the only young woman on the trail had dyed her hair, an example of how the youth had already been under modern influence just because of the caravan goods.

       They were enjoyable hikes anyway just for the river scenery, waterfalls, dense forests, bird songs and the possibility of a tiger or takin crossing the trail in front of me.  The villages were empty in the day time and no house was locked.  A persistent Dulong custom is to regard stealing as the most heinous crime, so egregious that it never happens.  People are not entitled to something which does not belong to them.  Even if they find an object in the jungle, like a machete or shoulder bag, they place it on a big boulder or in tree branches on the trail so that the owner can retrieve it later. 

       Dulong people always lived in a harsh, isolated environment.  Maintaining survival depended on social cohesion, mutual aid and sharing resources.  No matter what diversity, they could always rely on each other.  Therefore stealing never arose as a temptation. 

       The new road enabled goods, especially construction materials, to reach Dulongjiang faster and in greater bulk.  Yet it was still closed half the year, like the caravan trail, when snow covered the pass.  In 2014 the government completed a long, high-altitude tunnel under the pass and now the road is open all year.  Dulongjiang town has grown and Bapo is over twice as big.  Government projects have included more hydroelectric stations, schools and rice farming in terraces.  Surely the place will evolve more quickly and material life will improve.  Yet I expect that the core elements of Dulong tradition will weather the changes.  It always was a unified cooperative society.   No reason to change that.


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