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Zhiziluo: Yunnan's mountaintop ghost town

By in Travel on

Present-day Zhiziluo Village (知子罗村) was once a redoubt on a minor branch of the Tea Horse Road — a mountain fortress nearly hidden amongst the crenelated slopes flanking the Nu River. GoKunming contributor and amateur photographer Tian Feng (田丰) recently visited the eerie town, which was almost completely abandoned in 1986 despite costly building projects that had only then been completed.

Bajiaoting (八角亭) was to be the main government building for Zhiziluo, which had been designated the Bijiang County Seat in 1986. Today it sits unused, its doors propped open so photographers and random tourists can climb the stairs to reach its wrap-around balconies.

The story of the town's decline begins with something seemingly innocuous — a rainstorm. In the fall of 1979, torrential rains began to pour down on Zhiziluo. Intense storms battered the area for two full weeks, marking the heaviest rains to hit the mountains in over half a century.

When the storm finally broke, much of the surrounding countryside was devastated. Fifty-meter mudslides were reported and after much digging out, it was discovered 23 people had died as a result of flooding and landslips.

The townspeople rebuilt their lives and eventually most things returned to normal. Then, in 1986, a full seven years after the deluge, a geological survey team arrived from Beijing to assess the safety of the mountaintop village.

What they found disturbed them — a variable and unstable terrain prone to minor earthquakes, mudslides and sinkholes. On the survey team's recommendation, government workers were relocated to Fugong (福贡) and other towns in the valley deemed more safe.

Without its cadres the town slowly began to disintegrate. Its only bank closed and other community services, such as the post office, packed up and left as well. Suddenly, the town that once had a few thousand residents was reduced largely to an afterthought.

People did remain however, despite official warnings and orders to evacuate. Most of those who stayed on were farmers who continued tilling their rocky, terraced fields during the day only to return to a hollowed out town at night.

Today, Zhiziluo has a small permanent population, possibly totaling as many as 300 when numbers are augmented by those living nearby in the countryside. Empty apartment blocks sit either entirely unoccupied or have been converted into pens for livestock. A school is still maintained and has new-looking basketball rims at either end of its otherwise abandoned square.

Much of the local populace are of the Lisu and Nu minorities and many of them practice Christianity. An old church is one of the few non-residential buildings put to use on a regular basis and is still a place of worship for those left in the village.

In the 1990s, Zhiziluo's population was briefly enlarged with the arrival of loggers from both Yunnan and Sichuan. For a few short years the town was revived. Shops and a hotel were put back into use, a KTV flourished at night and the streets were once again at least a little busy.

Strict laws against logging were enacted nationwide in the latter part of the decade and the loggers moved on to other businesses. Their departure left Zhiziluo to again slip back into its dreamy and hauntingly peaceful slumber.

For more on Zhiziluo and its few remaining Lisu and Nu residents, see GoKunming's interview with documentary director Zhao Dayong (赵大勇). In 2009, Zhao released a feature-length film about the village entitled Ghost Town (废城). The movie garnered international acclaim and was screened at the New York Film Festival. A theatrical trailer for Ghost Town can be viewed on Youtube (requires proxy).

Getting there

If leaving from Yunnan's capital, its is best to first set out for Lijiang, which can be reached from Kunming by plane, train and bus. Once in Lijiang, head to the main bus station and catch the 9am bus to Liuku (六库). Tickets should cost around 150 yuan for the 400-kilometer trip.

For the last leg of the journey you will need to arrange a ride in a minibus from one of the Liuku locals. Bargain hard, this should be very inexpensive. Keep in mind the final push from Liuku to Zhiziluo is another 108 kilometers and depending on road and weather conditions, can easily take four or more hours.

Images: Tian Feng

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Fascinating. Best GoK article for a while. Very evocative photos too.

Inspiring article!thanks! is accomodation available there?

Interesting story and great pictures. I'd be very happy to visit this place and find out more about it.

A few thoughts on the "getting there" advises, though. It would make sense to exchange Lijiang with Baoshan.

And in my opinion, a minivan up the mountain for 4-5 hours depending on weather and road conditions shouldn't necessarily be "very inexpensive". Instead, it would also make sense to find out who is the best driver with the safest car to get you there in a way that is as safe as possible. And offering a fair pay for that driver would be part of that. But this is of course up to yourself.

I was here in 2009. Actually the best way to get there is to go from Dali or Baoshan. When you arrive in Liuku you can take a bus to Pihe. In Pihe you can rent a minivan to take you up to the top of the hill. This will save you a lot of money because the distance from Pihe is much shorter then from Liuku.

Are there no more direct buses from KM to Liuku?

This is a great article and the photographs are amazing.

Yea a good story. I have to say again, there are so many good stories that could be made on Yunnan. And not only on the usual topics. (Not that I mean GKM would make bad stories). I wonder if there is some overall mentalinty surpressing courage for creativity, but rather not jump into philosophying this too much. One could see a lot more fresh art, creativity, and genuine stuff svereal years ago, and it is as if plenty turned into a bunch of sweet slimy syrup. Overall, I mean. Enough said.

Great article and great photos. Do you know if a foreigner would be allowe to live there?

Great story. A trip back in time.

Would like to go there one day.

I stumbled on this village last year - had heard that it had been built as or maintained as an "ideal/model communist village". It's an straightforward mini-bus ride from Liuke to Pihe. From there I walked out to the edge of town a few kms (the locals wanted too much to take me the 10kms up the mountain - btw it is a good sealed road) and hitched a ride up the mountainside to Luomudeng (varying pronunciations) where there is at least one small quite comfortable little guesthouse in the centre of the village. From this village, Zhiziluo is a short easy (20 minute-ish) walk along tracks above the village across the mountain face. It's a great place to visit for those who like to get out into the mountains and villages. When I left Luomudeng I walked the 10ks back down to the main road by the river to catch the next bus onwards along the Nujiang to Fugong and Gongshan etcetc. (For those less inclined to do the 10k walk, a lift on a bike or in a car can be arranged with one of the locals in Luomudeng).

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