by Jim Goodman
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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