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Life on the Dulong River: Stepping towards the present

By in Travel on

Sitting by the fire while the village outside is covered with snow.
Sitting by the fire while the village outside is covered with snow.

"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.

Di Zhonghua
Di Zhonghua

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.

The new village of Bapo.
The new village of Bapo.

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.

Dulongjiang Township is the center of the valley, both geographically and administratively.
Dulongjiang Township is the center of the valley, both geographically and administratively.

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.

Inside the new village of Longyuan. The new villages are much denser and more organized than the old ones.
Inside the new village of Longyuan. The new villages are much denser and more organized than the old ones.

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.

Mudang Village
Mudang Village

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 children of Mudang
The children of Mudang

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).

Nandai Village
Nandai Village

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.

Some of the children of Nandai
Some of the children of Nandai

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.

Si Lixue (middle) with her parents, her two younger brothers and her uncle (right), at the entrance to their house.
Si Lixue (middle) with her parents, her two younger brothers and her uncle (right), at the entrance to their house.

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.

Eighteen year-old Si Jinhua (斯金华) on the right, with his mother and grandmother, working in the fields.
Eighteen year-old Si Jinhua (斯金华) on the right, with his mother and grandmother, working in the fields.

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.

Ten year-old Yang Lin (杨林) from Nandai demonstrates how he crosses the river when going to and from school.
Ten year-old Yang Lin (杨林) from Nandai demonstrates how he crosses the river when going to and from 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.

Yang Xin (杨新) scouting for small birds while preparing a wooden crossbow.
Yang Xin (杨新) scouting for small birds while preparing a wooden crossbow.

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.

Si Wenming (斯文明) carrying food and supplies, which he will stash in the ground next to hunting trails in the mountains.
Si Wenming (斯文明) carrying food and supplies, which he will stash in the ground next to hunting trails 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.

Yang Lin setting a mouse trap. There are a few dozen traps around the village, all of which he checks several times a week.
Yang Lin setting a mouse trap. There are a few dozen traps around the village, all of which he checks several times a week.

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.

Cuddling together behind the fire. On left sits the great-great-grandmother, one of the oldest women in the valley at over a 100 years-old.
Cuddling together behind the fire. On left sits the great-great-grandmother, one of the oldest women in the valley at over a 100 years-old.

Images: Ori Aviram

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Comments

That thing about governments building houses for 'backward' people without sensible discussions with them first has led to the construction of houses that nobody wants to live in in other places, under different governments, too.
I agree with the final sentence.

I also agree Alien. Governments the world over seem to know what's best for people rather than asking them what they want.

In Gongshan in Jan 2018 I was told that all tourist access to the Dulong has been suspended for at least a year, until roads and infrastructure are fixed.

It seems this group of families lives in a remote enclave. I can understand that some of them prefer to stay in their ancestral homes where they grew up, where they spent their whole lives and where their loved ones were buried, especially people such as the lady who is over 100 years old and probably their relatives, who would hesitate taking her away from her place.

Still is commendable that their government would go to all the trouble of building new towns, schools, roads, tunnels, provides electricity and gives them a yearly stipend, considering that those small remote communities don't contribute taxes or integrate that much. In addition, that after all the trouble and investment, they would be allowed the choice of staying or moving.

I have seen and met many people relocated in different places in China, who did so happily and were thankful for the opportunities afforded to them and to their kids to live in houses they could have only dreamed of someday having. I wish more governments in this world would show such care and consideration for 'little' people who perhaps have contributed little to their government. I am sure many of the millions of homeless people from California to the fabelas of Rio, to Africa and the middle-east would be equally happy if their governments would provide such opportunities, whether they decide to take them or not.

OK, but my point is simply that when the government makes decisions according to their own plan, the results might not be what they could be - although the plan might be realized (might, because the carrying out of plans can be radically skewed by those, often local, that are supposed to carry them out - local interests may not be quite the same as those the plan is supposed to help, as local interests are full of power inequalities and are not exactly homogenous - there are structural problems.)
OK, I guess this is obvious, or ought to be.

Where student tells teacher the river ate his homework becomes credible excuse.

That's my caption for the Nandai kid crossing the river with his backpack hanging upside down:

www.gokunming.com/en/blog/image/small/11335.jpg

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Btw, great photography by Ori Aviram in capturing emotions & timeless moments.

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