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At the top of the Nujiang Canyon: Life in Bingzhongluo

This article was posted by in Travel and published

The second 'toe' of Biluoshan
The second 'toe' of Biluoshan

The usual way to enter the Nujiang Canyon (怒江峡谷) in far northwestern Yunnan is by the road to Liuku (六库), the prefectural capital. Already the scenery typical of Nujiang is apparent. High mountains topping 3,000 meters flank both sides of the river. Going north to the top end of the canyon, the mountains just keep getting higher and often stand very close to the river.

By Fugong (福贡) the peaks are over 4,000 meters tall, swathed in snow and by northern Gongshan County — visible from Bingzhongluo (丙中洛) — crest at 5,000 meters. But it's not only the mountains that make Bingzhongluo an officially designated scenic area. The district is also blessed with some of the best river scenery in the province, and home to an ethnic mix of Nu, Lisu and Tibetan communities, attractions that can be savored even when clouds obscure the snow-mantled peaks.

From Gongshan, Bingzhongluo is 43 kilometers north. The ticket booth for entry is just before the town of Shuangla (双拉村). From here the road rises gradually until it is about two hundred meters above the river, passing what is called the 'First Turn of the Nu River'. The river loops a plot of land backed by high cliffs that forms one of the 'toes' of Biluo Snow Mountain (碧落雪山), the range on the eastern side of the river. The road opposite is an outstanding engineering feat, cut from steep mountain cliffs. In the beginning of this century it was still a little hazardous of a drive, subject to sudden landslides. Passengers once had to disembark and walk a kilometer or so around the loop. But after another kilometer, one rounds the cliff and gets a first glimpse of both Bingzhongluo and the other 'toe' of Biluo.

The first turn of the Nu River
The first turn of the Nu River

Like the First Turn Village, this one, slightly larger, lays on a spur of land backed by steep cliffs, but is also connected to the other side by a suspension bridge. The village, Zhalatong (扎拉桶), is Nu, the farms spread out in front of the houses, with walnut groves at the lower end. It's about a thirty-minute walk up a gradual slope past Lisu farms from here to the town. Bingzhongluo lies on a long, plateau-like spur as high above the river as the road at the First Turn. It's basically a one-street town, with a couple of hotels and a few restaurants, which are only lively on Tuesday market days. Never mind the town, though. The natural beauty of the place simply demands exploration.

To the northwest rises Kawagarbo (卡瓦格博), 5,173 meters high and the tallest peak in all of Yunnan. The best view is from the top of the mountain beside the road entering Bingzhongluo. A dirt track zigzags up the side, but I used goat path shortcuts to ascend in an hour. From cabins at the end of the road it's a short walk to the platform enabling a bird's-eye view of the First Turn of the Nu River. Returning to descend affords an even greater appreciation of Kawagarbo and the Bingzhongluo setting, as well as other snow mountains of well over 4,000 meters.

From Bingzhongluo it's a two-hour hike north to the Stone Gate (石门), a pair of high boulders with sheer cliffs flanking the riverbanks. A road was cut through the cliff on the western side, which continues another ten kilometers to Qiunatong (秋那桶), just beyond Wuli Village (霧裡村). Cut off by a sheer cliff from Qiunatong, people centuries ago hollowed out a stunning trail in the cliff through which residents and caravans could pass.

When I first visited the area in the early 2000s, caravans were still a part of life in Bingzhongluo — one of the last places in Yunnan, transporting goods from Yunnan to Tibet. The journey back and forth took 15 days and could include up to forty animals. A new paved road past Qiunatong opened a few years later, putting a virtual end to that tradition. Caravans just couldn't compete with trucks.

The ancient trail to Wuli
The ancient trail to Wuli

Depending on the season, the scenery along the Nu River will vary greatly. It's always a swift river, full of rapids, moving at a rate of up to seven meters per second in some places, but the color and volume changes. In the summer it is brown and full, though it never floods its banks. In the winter it is blue-green, running at a lower level, sometimes exposing little beach-like slivers of white sand, such as at the 'toes' of Biluoshan and villages just south of the First Turn. Likewise, the land scenery will vary with the seasons. Autumn features patches of red and gold in the forested hills, while spring sees the blooming of umpteen different kinds of wildflowers.

The villages adjacent to Bingzhongluo are Lisu, but most settlements in the district are Nu — the aboriginals of the district — who migrated here a thousand years ago from the Lancang River Valley (澜沧江) over the Biluo Mountains to the east. They settled near and above the river, built wooden houses with slate tile roofs, plowed fields with two bulls yoked together and used heated stones as one of their cooking tools. The other major community in the area is Tibetan, particularly in Puhua Village (普华) on the tableland just north of Bingzhongluo.

Nu houses with a passing caravan behind them
Nu houses with a passing caravan behind them

The first Tibetan into the area was a monk of the Karmapa sect, whose mission was to convert the animist Nu to the Tibetan brand of Buddhism. He made Puhua his base and was soon joined by other Tibetan settlers. The move was part of an expansionist campaign by lamas and officials in Diqing (迪庆) and Kangpu (康普), to extend not only their religion, but also political control over frontier areas beyond the direct reach of the Qing dynasty government.

Both conversion and Tibetan immigration were slow but steady. In 1782 a temple and monastery went up in Puhua, and from there, Tibetans administered the entire district. But they were not very kind to the Nu converts, looked down on them as inferiors and forced them to pay a land-use tax under the claim that all the district's lands — which the Nu had been cultivating for centuries — actually belonged to the monastery. Finding life as Buddhists was not improving their lives, the Nu began converting to Christianity when the first French Catholic priests started proselytizing in Gongshan County in the late nineteenth century.

The Tibetan monastery at Puhua
The Tibetan monastery at Puhua

Finding the new religion encouraged Nu insubordination, the Puhua lamas organized attacks on the churches in the early twentieth century. This provoked Chinese military intervention, the destruction of the monastery — rebuilt afterwards — and the incorporation of Bingzhongluo District into Yunnan provincial administration. A century later, ethnic and religious animosities have long been extinguished, and Nu and Tibetans now intermarry freely. Some Tibetans are now Christian, while some Nu are still Buddhist, including a few of the monks at Puhua.

When the Tibetans first brought Buddhism to Bingzhongluo, the Nu discovered an interpretation of the world that was far more complex, organized and encompassing than their own animist concepts. As a people who'd been beyond the perimeter of Chinese culture, the Nu also felt the Tibetan religion to be the product of a society more powerful, advanced, sophisticated and prestigious than anything they had hitherto encountered.

Young Nu woman in traditional dress
Young Nu woman in traditional dress

For the Nu, proof of Tibetan cultural superiority was in the latter's ability to establish political control over people who greatly outnumbered them. Besides Buddhism, the Tibetans also had a martial tradition. The Nu did not. Tibetans used better tools and were better farmers, passing on their knowledge to local Nu, which enabled everyone to increase agricultural production. Tibetan influence on the Nu persisted even after the Nu adopted Christianity, and Tibetan chortens stand in the fields of Christian Nu villages, while strings of Buddhist prayer flags flutter across the canyon next to the Christian Nu village of Jiasheng (甲生村). Many Nu women today dress in the Tibetan style, with long-sleeved blouses and colorful, horizontally striped aprons.

The Nu have their own traditional style of clothing featuring a vertically striped wraparound skirt with a distinctive, subtle arrangement of subdued colors. Women weave the cloth on a back-strap loom, which can be hooked up to a house post, tree trunk, or even the back of a tractor-trailer. The cloth is also used for blankets, headscarves, shoulder bags and vests worn by both men and women.

This unique colored-stripe pattern Nu people attribute to their ancient culture-bearing heroine A-Rong. She created the design after watching a sunset. The Nu also credit her with inventing the rope-bridge, supposedly because she was enamored of a young man on the other side of the river. With a giant crossbow she fired a line fixed to an arrow to the other shore, fastened her end to a tree and scampered across. She also introduced irrigation canals and other agricultural methods and was renowned for both her beauty and her intelligence.

These qualities aroused the ardor of a local bandit chief who tried repeatedly to woo her. Meeting constant rebuffs, he then seized her and sealed her in a cave near Bingzhongluo, where she died and turned to stone. Time passed and eventually the Nu built a shrine to her in this cave and instituted an annual festival in her honor on the fifteenth day of the third lunar month. Nowadays it is the biggest event of the year in the Bingzhongluo area, celebrated by the Nu from all the district villages. The A-Rong story is one every Nu knows, so whether they are Christian, Buddhist, animist or atheist, they come to her cave-shrine on this day because it's kind of Nu National Day.

Tibetan hosts welcome devotees
Tibetan hosts welcome devotees

The Nu call it Xiannüjie (仙女节) — or Fairy Maiden Festival — but it is also known as the Festival of Fresh Flowers because of the many wildflowers blooming at the time that are also part of the offerings made at A-Rong's shrine. In its contemporary version the event includes a stage show of Nu, Tibetan, Lisu and Dulong dances in the town and a lively market scene with merchants hawking goods ranging from cheap manufactured items brought up from Gongshan to ethnic minority handicrafts, Tibetan antiques and paraphernalia, fruits, kebabs, snacks, rice spirits and beer.

The main event, though, is a visit to A-Rong's cave shrine, where the host for the day is not Nu, but the Tibetan village of Puhua. Devotees begin the one-hour hike there from Bingzhongluo early in the morning. The route bends around and behind Puhua, affording a fine view of that village and Stone Gate rising beyond it. Halfway to the cave, devotees pass through an entrance gate erected by the Puhua hosts, where four beautifully dressed Tibetan women offer people welcoming cups of refreshments — water first, then rice beer, and finally rice liquor. From there it's still a long walk to the cave, but the spot is soon visible thanks to the many lines of prayer flags strung from the trees above.

Inside the cave, flower offerings — especially azaleas and ears of corn representing the agricultural knowledge A-Rong introduced — surround A-Rong's shrine. Overhead droop two long stalactites said to be A-Rong's breasts. Water slowly drips off the ends of these and some devotees collect the drops in glass jars, each of which takes several minutes to fill. People then smear it on their heads and faces, drink it or take it home for private ritual use. Others prostrate before the shrine or circumambulate it a few times and kowtow afterwards.

Circumambulating A-Rong's shrine
Circumambulating A-Rong's shrine

On a slope below the cave devotees next stop at a tent erected for a group of Puhua lamas conducting prayers with the aid of old books and the occasional addition of flute, drum and violin accompaniment. One monk offers rice-beer to anyone who comes inside to pray or listen. The scene around the cave stays active until late afternoon, for Han and Lisu from further down the canyon, as well as Nu from more distant villages, continue to arrive.

Back in Bingzhongluo the returning crowds explore the markets, sample the snacks, watch the dances, get drunk and hop buses going south. By ten at night the shows are over and only the die-hard revelers remain around the few drink and food stalls still operating. The next day, city cleaners dismantle the stage and sweep the streets. The Nu put away their ethnic clothing until the next excuse. Color and excitement concluded, the town reverts to its usual level of minimal activity. All that's left to enjoy on a normal day again in Bingzhongluo is, well, the utterly magnificent scenery.

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.

Nu woman collects water from the 'breast' of A-Rong
Nu woman collects water from the 'breast' of A-Rong

Images: Jim Goodman

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Yet another good one from Jim.

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