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Northwest Yunnan's rope bridges to come down

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Joseph Rock and his caravan used the rope crossings in the early 20th century
Joseph Rock and his caravan used the rope crossings in the early 20th century

Northwestern Yunnan will soon lose a symbol of its historical isolation from the rest of the province.

The Yunnan government has decided to demolish century-old rope and cable river crossings in an effort to improve transportation in the Three Parallel Rivers Protected Areas.

The rope bridges, called liusuo (溜索) in Chinese, criss-cross the Nu, Lancang and Jinsha rivers in places where the rapids are too dangerous for boats. Further downstream, these three rivers become the Salween, Mekong and Yangtze, respectively.

These simple bridges are often the only way for locals to cross the area's river valleys, and are also used to transport cargo and livestock.

Thirty-six ropeways are slated for destruction, with another six preserved as tourist attractions, China Daily is reporting. Sixteen new concrete and steel bridges are planned to replace the existing ropeways.

The rope bridges are crossed by using a bamboo slider connected to a harness. Yak butter is the traditional lubricant applied to the slider before the person, animal or cargo in the harness begins sliding down toward the other side.

One of the outside world's first glimpses of Yunnan's rope bridges was provided by botanist and explorer Joseph Rock. While exploring Yunnan in the 1920s, Rock used the ropeways to cross the Lancang River. His diary account of the crossing is intense:

"...there was a yell of "Let go!" and off I shot, far into space, at the rate of 20 miles an hour. A glimpse of the roaring river far below me, a smell as of burning wood, caused by the friction of the slider, which raced over the unevenly braided, bumpy rope, and I landed, like a heavy mule, on the rocky west bank of the river."

The following video is of a cable bridge we saw in use by locals while cycling along the Nu River in April 2011.

Yunnan has allocated 196 million yuan (US$31 million) for road and bridge construction projects in an effort to link isolated and poor areas in the northwest with the rest of the province. Details on when the bridges are expected to be completed have not been made public.

Yunnan Governor Li Jiheng (李纪恒) said that more than 80.9 billion yuan will be invested in the province's remote border areas during the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-15), with the aim of bringing residents' living standards on par with the rest of the province.

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This is very disappointing news, as these ropeways could have been updated and used as shining examples of sustainable transport systems.
Gravity powered aerial ropeways have been shown to be a perfect fit for mountainous regions in Nepal and cost just a tiny fraction of the amount needed to construct roads and bridges.
Here is a look at the basic technical requirements of such a scheme.


In addition, gravity fed aerial ropeways are an excellent way of generating free electricity for remote communities, saving the high costs of connecting them to the grid.


There are already some experienced American ropeway engineers working in Yunnan on a number of projects, and this would have been an excellent opportunity to leverage their skills and expertise.

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