"You're foreigners, we're Chinese! You're foreigners, we're Chinese!" he screamed at me, using very broken Chinese while we were sitting in his small house. I'm sure he didn't mean to scream, but I really couldn't blame him, given the amount of alcohol that he had drunk by that time. "Yes, you're right," I responded, trying to understand why my being a foreigner was such a big deal.
His name is Di Zhonghua (迪忠华), who belongs to the Dulong ethnic minority of southwestern China. He had kindly invited me to stay at his house, saving me from another night in my tent. Looking back at this conversation, I think I interpreted it all wrong. It really wasn't about me being a foreigner, but rather about him being a Chinese.
The Dulong ethnic group are one of the smallest recognized minorities in China — their number estimated at about 5,000-6,000 people in China, and about the same number in northeastern Myanmar. They reside mainly in the Dulong Valley (独龙山谷)— hence the minority's name — and some in the northern part of the nearby Nu River Valley (怒江山谷). Both the Nu and the Dulong rivers flow down from Tibet and then all the way into Myanmar.
Prior to 1997 there had been no road leading into the valley, the result being that the only way in had been days of crossing the mountains on foot. A road was built in 20 years ago, but due heavy snowfall it had been closed during the winter months. Thanks to a tunnel built in recent it is now possible to get there all year around.
The fact that the Dulong Valley has been such an isolated place for so long helped me understand why saying "I'm Chinese" can actually mean a great deal to some of the people there. Whilst the younger generation gets a "Chinese" education starting from the age of six, the older generation — including Di Zhonghua — never had it. I would dare to assume that even the major events that took place in China during the twentieth century, have had little effect on remote places such as the Dulong Valley, meaning that creating an identity as a "Chinese" was different for them as well.
During the last four or five years, the valley has gone through a great deal of development, particularly because of the growing numbers of mainly local tourists. New villages were built by the government for the local people to live in, and the road now runs throughout almost the entire length of the canyon. For most of the people, the past few years have been the first time they've had any access to electricity.
However, apart from the new villages — and the new televisions in some of the houses — the locals still maintain most of their traditional lifestyle, at least for now. Thanks to all of these new developments, it is now far more convenient to move around and get to markets and schools. Leaving and returning to the valley is a fact which opens new opportunities for many of the people there. That is not the case, however, for everyone.
The northern part of the valley is actually made up of two rivers, both flowing down from Tibet to form the Dulong River. Mudang Village (木当村) and Nandai Village (南代村) are the northernmost, still-populated villages in the valley, located to the northeast and northwest respectively. Despite the fact that there are just-built houses waiting for them at the new village of Xiongdang (雄当).
The people of these two older villages decided not to leave their homes and not move out to the new one, mainly because it is too far away from their land where they work and grow food. The outcome of such a decision, which was clearly made due to lack of other options, is the inability to create significant changes in their lives. This inevitably results in harming the future generation — their children.
Had it been their choice to maintain the same lifestyle, it wouldn't have been a problem at all. However, although the older generation have never taken part in any type of formal education, most of them are aware of the importance in sending their children to school, and the effect it has on their future. They thus support the children in going to school and pursuing their own futures. In school the kids learn what is perhaps the most important skill for any kind of a better future in China — the Chinese language.
There can be difficulties, and an example is Si Lixue (斯丽雪), a girl from Nandai who lives together with her two younger brothers, her parents and her uncle. Though already at the age of seven, Lixue has not yet started school due to the fact that she wasn't registered at birth and wasn't given a hukou. Hukou are household registration records required by law in China, which identifies a person's name, family, date and place of birth, and more.
Since the people of both Nandai and Mudang were all born at home, rather than at a hospital, it is required that their parents would actively go and register their children after birth. Lixue's parents didn't do it, and claimed it had been due to money problems. Since, the entire process is free, it's more likely to had been due to misunderstanding, as well as lack of awareness as to the consequences. Luckily a Chinese man from Shanghai, who was staying at the village at the same time as me, helped the family take care of the formalities. Lixue will be able to start attending school next year.
To say that it is impossible for the younger generation to pursue a different future would be untrue, and they can indeed do it should they choose to. An example for that would be one of the young people of Mudang Village — whose name I regrettably didn't write down — who is studying for a bachelor's degree in Kunming. However, university students are still a very rare phenomenon in this area, as most teenagers go back home to their village after graduating from high school.
Since the other parts of the valley are going through a rapid process of development and modernization, staying at the two villages of Nandai and Mudang feels like traveling back in time. With no phone signals and living a traditional way of life in their wooden houses, the only thing that might give away the fact that we are still in 2017 is the limited electricity supply, which powers one or two television sets and several small lamps.
Getting to the villages has its difficulties as well. The only way to get in and out of Mudang is on foot, which makes it hard and sometimes impossible for the older people to leave. It also poses a challenge for the children who go to school. Getting to Nandai does not require a long walk, thanks to a new, but as yet unfinished road. Crossing the river, however, is the challenge, since there is no bridge anywhere nearby. In the past, they used to slide on a rope, which was tied to trees on both banks of the river. Today they employ the same technique, but instead use a metal cable.
There are three main ways through which the villagers make a living — agriculture, hunting and fishing, and annual government subsidies of 1,000 yuan per person. In Mudang, hunting is now prohibited by the government due to environment conservation efforts, making agriculture the major source of income. In Nandai, hunting basically means catching and eating anything possible, both by means of active hunting, as well as setting traps. They hunt small animals such as birds, squirrels and mice, as well as bigger game up in the mountains.
I was born into the modern world, and have never had to think about things like hunting or growing my own food, crossing a river by sliding on a metal cable in order to get to school, or being sealed away from the outer world during winter months. Staying with these people, though for only a short period of time, has been an eye-opening experience, as well as a lesson in perspective and modesty. Right next to their struggle to make a living, I felt a great sense of togetherness and simplicity. While sitting together next to the fire every night, it felt as if nothing else mattered apart from the people around us.
As a traveler, visiting remote villages, and meeting people who have received little influence from our modern world is a mesmerizing experience. But as a human being, I hope that the Dulong people can have the future they desire for themselves, regardless of what it is, rather than a future that is decided for them.
Editor's note: This article was authored by Ori Aviram, an amateur photographer from Israel. He enjoys documenting and taking pictures of our beautiful world — its nature, wildlife and, most of all its people. More of his work can be found at Ori Aviram Photography, as well as on Facebook and Instagram.
Images: Ori Aviram© Copyright 2005-2020 GoKunming.com all rights reserved. This material may not be republished, rewritten or redistributed without permission.