In China's Yunnan province, the Salween River is known as the Nujiang (怒江). It gives its name to the province's westernmost prefecture and derives from the name of the earliest inhabitants of the valley — the Nu minority. In their own language nu means 'dark'.
So it's the dark people and the dark river. But the Chinese character used to represent nu is the word for 'angry'. It may be the wrong choice for designating the people, for they are a small, placid and easy-going ethnic group, much outnumbered by the Black Lisu, who make up the majority of the prefecture's population. But it seems quite appropriate to call the river 'angry', especially during the rainy months of spring and summer, when it roars through the 300 kilometer-long Nujiang canyon at seven meters per second, creating long stretches of class four and five waves.
After the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, one of the first things the government did was to construct bridges to span the river at the major towns and market venues in the three counties that make up the canyon. Until then, the only way to cross almost anywhere was by rope-bridges called liusuo (溜索). Mountains cresting 4,000 meters rise sharply from both sides of the valley, sometimes meeting the water with a perpendicular wall of rock and cutting settlements off from each other. It would be too expensive to build suspension bridges everywhere people have to cross the river, so 28 of these rope-bridges survived until very recently, all but a few in regular use, mostly between the towns of Fugong (福贡) and Gongshan (贡山). Rope-bridges usually come in pairs, with the take-off point of each always higher than the landing point.
In the old days the bridges were made of twisted strips of split bamboo and changed every few years when they began to sag. The traveler sat in thongs strapped to a wooden slider that was mounted on the rope. Animals and packages were conveyed across the river the same way. But often the momentum gives out before the passenger reaches the other side. Riders then pull themselves across the cable the remaining distance, much like climbing a rope in a gymnasium. When that happened with packages or animals, though, locals had to slide back down the rope from the other bank, grab the package with their legs, or the animal by its straps, and pull their way back to the bank.
Nowadays the rope-bridges are made of wound steel cables and don't have to be changed every few years. They are also unbreakable, though the old split bamboo ones never broke, either. But still, the idea that they might scares off most visitors from trying. On the web you can find accounts that speak of "hurtling to the other side at heart-stopping speed," followed by the usual speculations on how fast you would drown in the torrents below if the cable broke. One traveler wrote that the only thing that would persuade him to ride the rope-bridge would be the possibility of facing certain death if he did not ride it.
When I finally began exploring the northern part of the Nujiang a few summers ago, I saw my first rope-bridge crossing at Lishadi (利沙底), north of Fugong. The first obvious fact was that the web writers hadn't actually witnessed the event themselves. The speed of the passengers I saw was only about 15 kilometer per hour — not exactly "heart-stopping".
Shortly afterwards I sat by the landing point and watched two Lisu girls, aged about twelve, roped together on the same cable hook, ride across the river several times, just for their own amusement. I drew two conclusions from this — it can't be too dangerous and it must be fun. Back in Lishadi I discovered that everyone who lives in villages accessed by rope-bridge had their own harnesses and cable hooks.
My excursion then came to an end, but on my next trip to Fugong in the autumn, I purchased a strong rope and the modern equivalent of the old sliders. I called on a local Lisu acquaintance for assistance and he took me on market day to the rope-bridge at Damedi (大么地), about 12 kilometers south of town. On our side of the river was a tall cliff, about 30 meters above the rapids, and at the starting point I followed my friend's instructions on how to use my new gear. I looped the rope around my body, one side in the small of my back and the other side under the thighs. The modern slider is an iron housing with a pulley wheel inside and two big hooks underneath. The slider goes on the cable and hooks facing the riverbank. I crossed the rope loop ends and slung them onto the hooks. Now I was ready.
With one hand on the top of the housing — not on the cable itself, which would burn the hand from the friction — and the other holding my harness ropes, I simply lifted my feet off the boulder and away I went. It took about 15 seconds to reach the other side, with the movement of the pulley wheel against the cable sounding like a purring kitten. The sensation was both wonderful and not what I expected. I thought my heart would beat faster, my blood rush, my skin tingle, but, on the contrary, I felt an enormous sense of serenity, rather like the high one is supposed to get from meditation exercises. The excuse I had given for wanting to do this was to drink in the spirit of the Nujiang Lisu people's lifestyle. I was certainly doing that now.
After taking photos of other riders, with their crossbows on their backs or a sack of grain on one of the hooks, I found on my return crossing that my own momentum gave out some 30 meters from the shore. Pulling myself the remainder of the way was rather difficult, but with Lisu watching me I couldn't very well give up and wait for one of them to come and fetch me like they would do for one of their ponies.
So I made it to the other side, albeit breathless upon arrival, and returned to Fugong with my Lisu friend. He promptly spread the word of my feat and I was the subject of awe by all those local Lisu who have only used suspension bridges all their lives. Wasn't I afraid? they wondered. Not at all, said I. I'd watched the children do it at Lishadi.
In my later journeys to the Nujiang, riding rope-bridges in the northern part of the canyon, I found that since I have my own harness and cable-hook, my crossings don't make any special impression on the Lisu villagers who also travel this way. They are kind and hospitable but assume I live in the area, or else why have the gear? Only when I return to the towns and word has spread do I meet many Lisu who confess they have never done a crossing because they are too afraid.
So I have developed a new ambition in Nujiang. I want to persuade one of those beautiful Black Lisu girls in town, who has been walking on suspension bridges across the river all her life, to hitch up with me on the same cable hook and go for her first ride ever together with an outsider as guide. Having conquered my own qualms about riding rope-bridges I am flush with confidence that I can do anything locals anywhere do. That's the major influence the experience has had on me.
But it has also reshaped my own ideas, previously fuzzy anyway, about what might make a good death. For when that time eventually comes, if I can slide out of this life as easily as I slid across the Angry River on a rope-bridge, and touch down in eternity as comfortably as I landed on the opposite bank, that would definitely make for a smooth, contented exit.
Editor's note: This article by author Jim Goodman was originally published on his website Black Eagle Flights (requires proxy). There you can find accounts and photos of Goodman's 40 years in China and Southeast Asia. Collections of his works — many of them about Yunnan — can be purchased on Amazon and Lulu. Goodman has also recently founded Delta Tours, where he guides cultural and historical journeys through Vietnam, and soon, through Yunnan as well.
Top three images: Jim Goodman
Bottom two images: Yereth Jansen