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Nujiang Grand Canyon

The Nujiang (Nu River) Great Canyon is a spectacular 315 kilometre long marvel of nature in northwest Yunnan province in southwest China. The Chinese call it the Grand Canyon of the East: a direct comparison with the more famous Grand Canyon in the USA.

There is only one way into this beautiful part of China. It is difficult to get to, and is not on the way to anywhere else. A visitor must retrace his/her steps. This inconvenience however, is the reason why the Canyon remains untouched by the excesses of tourism.

The road in follows an old caravan route into Tibet. It’s a two lane bitumen secondary road which generally follows the riverbank as it winds its way north, every turn offering another aspect of this incredibly beautiful part of China. Sometimes it rises above a narrow gorge via a road cut into the cliff-face high above the rapids below. In other places it narrows suddenly into a single lane. This can be dangerous.*

Steel-cabled suspension bridges traverse the gorge and connect small communities with the main road and the larger villages. Local people depend on these unstable constructions because river transport is impossible. Too many rapids.

The scenery is magnificent. Almost too good to be true. But there it is before your eyes: overwhelming memories of other beautiful places you have seen with its colour, scale and grandeur. Farms and villages mottling this riverine wonderland which is home to Nu, Lisu, Drung, and Tibetan minority people. Forests, streams and waterfalls adding their particular features to the bigger picture. Now I understand why one quarter of China’s flora and fauna species thrive here in this unique environment.

This wild river has its source in the Tangalla Mountains on the Tibet-Qinghai Plateau to the north. From there it flows southeast through a dry Tibetan gorge before tumbling south from the Plateau into a lush green Yunnan. The Gaoligong mountains (average height 4000m) then form its west bank and demarcate the border with Burma/Myanmar. The towering Biluo Mountains buttress the east bank and separate the Nujiang from its sister river, the Lancangjiang. Both ranges have snow-capped peaks which touch the stratosphere.

This is the World Heritage listed Three Rivers area where the Nujiang, Lancangjiang, and the Jinshajiang run parallel to each other for approximately 170 kilometres. Further downstream these watercourses diverge and become the Salween, Mekong, and Yangtze Rivers which empty into the sea in Burma, Vietnam, and Shanghai in China. At one point these three mighty rivers are only 70 kilometres apart.

Most people dwell in old wooden or new concrete block houses in small villages along the narrow riverbanks. However, some communities live in small clusters of thatch-roofed dwellings which cling perilously to the ridge-lines and slopes of the high canyon walls. People from these communities often use flying-foxes to cross the river in its more isolated reaches.

I travelled to the Nujiang from my Chinese home in Chongqing. A flight to Dali, the ancient independent Bai capital which was subdued by Kublai Khan in the 13th century, and then by road to Liuku the administrative centre on the southern end of the canyon.

Reading history along the way, I learned that the first Europeans to enter this part of China were French missionaries who arrived in the mid 19th century. These intrepid men built Christian communities and churches in the upper reaches of the Nujiang and Lancangjiang, close to the Tibetan border. Some of them were murdered and their churches burned by gangs of Tibetan youth directed by Lamas who resented what they regarded as a religio-political incursion into their area of influence.

The missionaries were followed by English and French explorers (a reversal of the usual pattern) who aimed to make a name for themselves by filling in the blank areas of existing maps. Some of them hoped to enter Tibet, but were forbidden to do so. So they contented themselves with identifying the higher mountains and discovering the sources and courses of the rivers they encountered. The botanists among them collected hundreds of new plant species. This was in the latter part of the 19th century.

As you can imagine, both groups of people endured extreme hardship as they followed their own stars. Today however, it is the missionaries and their efforts which have had the greatest influence on the local people. These men sought something other than personal fame, and the results of their altruistic labour can be seen today in the many active Christian communities and their churches which thrive in the canyon today (despite the efforts of the Cultural Revolution to erase culture and religion and recreate a ‘New Socialist Man’).

There are two largish townships north of Liuku: Fugong and Gongshan. You can find a three star Chinese hotel in all three locations. Cheaper varieties also if you are game. Finding a reasonable restaurant for an evening meal is difficult however. Isolated pristine locations such as Nujiang Canyon can lack tourist services. You need Chinese language to find and order a Chinese meal and negotiate the cost.

The head of the canyon is the best place to visit. North of Gongshan and just before you enter the village of Bingzhongluo, is the must-see ‘First Turn’ of the Nujiang where the flow of the green Nujiang waters is interrupted and redirected around ‘The First Toe’ of the Biluo Mountains opposite and below. Way below. The view from the road carved into the cliff-face of the Gaoligong Mountains on your side of the river will take your breath away. It will exceed your expectations.

And the first view of Bingzhongluo is spectacular also. Dramatic mountain ranges and jutting peaks surround this large village containing Tibetan, Lisu, Nu, and Drung communities. It spreads over a small fertile plateau which gradually descends to the river valley below.

A non-descript main street full of naughty Tibetan boys in the late afternoon, one hotel, and one backpacker-style guesthouse (The Lonely Planet’s description of accommodation is out of date: e.g., the Tea Horse Inn is out of business). And again, finding a place to eat is difficult if you don’t speak Chinese or a local language.

Despite the periodic burning of Christian churches by the Tibetans (this place is adjacent to the border) some Tibetans converted and now have their own church. You can also find a European style twin-towered Sacred Heart Catholic church in the nearby village of Zhongding. A single gravestone bearing brief testimony to the life and death of French priest Annet Genastier (1856-1937). I wonder if his life story is recorded somewhere.

Bingzhongluo: such a beautiful place with such a long history of inter-cultural and inter-religious violence, now living at peace with itself. Maybe the Chinese administrative presence helps to keep these old rivalries in check, eh?

The Nujiang Canyon: go and see it before it is dammed. This is on the cards, although plans have been suspended following a threat from the World Heritage organisation to de-list this site if the Chinese government goes ahead with this environmental outrage. At the moment, all that has happened is that the number of proposed dams has been lowered from 13 to 8. Preliminary drilling continues.

The Lancangjiang is already dammed. So is the Yangtze. Will this national treasure experience the same fate?