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Nujiang: Lisu & Pumi Minorities


14:13, August 01, 2011

Nujiang is an ancient and mysterious land. It's a land that no one can fail to admire. Nature, the great creator, was a particularly kind of this ancient land. It’s a home of multi minority groups in China.

A variety of China’s landscape, a diversity of its people. Welcome to Travelogue. Welcome to our minority special. We’re here at the Nujiang province and we’re going to walk a long this river. We’re going travel village to village, to a township. Visit and show you the beauty of China and to explore the greatest Canyon in China.

The canyon – otherwise known as the ‘Nu River Gorge’ – is a real natural wonder. The popular wisdom is that this is the second grandest canyon in the world, after the Grand Canyon itself in Colorado in the United States. But I have my doubts. Many of the cliffs here rise to well over 3,000 meters – and that’s higher than anything the Grand Canyon can boast. As for the river, she earns her name, Nu: meaning, “rage”, for her roaring rapids and thundering waves. From her source among the snow-capped peaks of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, she winds for 1,500 kilometers across Southwest China before making her way into Myanmar. As for the many tall mountains that stand in her way – well, the Nu simply cuts through them, hence the canyon.

Another wonder of the canyon is its ethnic minorities. It’s hard to imagine anywhere else in the world with such a huge diversity of dialects, costumes, customs, and faiths. The only thing the people seem to have in common here is, a shared belief in living in peace.

The town of Liuku lies at the southern end of the Nu River Gorge, from where my expedition will take me way up north.

We’re here at the one of largest stations. It’s a transportation centre. We can take the bus, taxi – all kinds of transportation you can find in Liuku, this city. And this can take you all the way to the city we’re going to. The Bingzhongluo, which takes about 6 hours. If you have the money, you can take a taxi, which will costs you around 600rmb or you can take a bus, which is a lot cheaper. Or you can go down the other ways, to go to Baoshan, which is close to the airport. It’s cheaper and it’s a shorter distance, it’s only 2,5 hours.

So I’m in the middle, to decide, which way I’m going to take. So I’m going to ask up all the prices and compare it, to find out.

As the capital of the Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture, Liuku enjoys good transport links, so you can get to pretty well all of the prefecture’s many townships and villages from it. I’ve already discovered the names of the four counties that make up the prefecture: they’re Lushui, Fugong, Lanping and Gongshan. Clearly, though, I’ve got a lot more to learn about what seems to me a truly charming area.

There’s one thing I got to tell you. Count in, that you’re going to be prepared for a long traveling plan. This is because, each location to one another, takes about 5 to 6 hours. Just don’t fall a sleep, stay a wake, watch around. While you’re driving, there are so many beautiful scenes around the road. It is going to be a long road, because it’s all the way up in the mountain. You are circling one mountain after another. Take a day or two and then you want to enjoy. So you need a traveling plan, got it?

My first stop is Dayangchang, a vast meadow, about 4,000 meters above sea level, up in the mountains, where three counties, Lanping, Lijiang and Weixi meet. Dayangchang is famous for its natural beauty and for the remarkable people who live here. They are the Pumi – fewer than 30,000 of them living along the canyon and in Lijiang, to the east. At one time the Pumi were herders, roaming the high grasslands of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. But over centuries they’ve been settling down as farmers and craftsmen.

Pumi, I’ve been told, means ‘white’. I guess the name was chosen because of its association with purity. I, for one, can’t remember hearing songs and seeing dances that conveyed such a sense of pure enjoyment. But then, singing and dancing have been an important part of Pumi life for as long as anyone can remember.

The Kouxian is an icon of Pumi tradition; which makes it more a narrator of history than a vehicle of love. In times gone by, the Pumi were a nomadic folk, roaming the grasslands up north on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. When powerful invaders came from the North, the Pumi declined to fight and instead they moved further south. Apparently, much of their wandering was done to the accompaniment of the Kouxian.

Nujiang is one of the well knows rivers in China. Also known as the “Nu” river and lately it’s being developed as a tourist attraction. And driving along, there is a big canyon. Along the canyon you can see all the sceneries, but one thing is the season. The summer times are good, but in many seasons it’s not good to drive here, because there are rocks and stones. I can even feel it and touch it. They are very near by these narrow streets, but you are able to enjoy river and the canyon. It’s so deep. I would say around 2000m deep. So it’s a quiet tremendous view, every angle you turn, especially when you turn around. One scene in the front is looking very good, but I want to look back. Even better… all these sceneries!

I’m now on my way to a village called Baihualing, which means ‘Floral Ridge’. A small place hidden in the canyon, it was barely known to the outside world. That was until a century or so ago. When the village had some visitors, who left it a legacy that is making it known today.

Like any other new arrival, I’m given a traditional Lisu welcome.

The Lisu, perhaps more than any other ethnic group in these parts, are well known for their singing and dancing. And they certainly start young. However, the songs the children are singing today are no ordinary Lisu folk songs – and that’s because the place I’m visiting is no ordinary Lisu place. It has a secret – and just like me, a lot of people come here to investigate.

The secret is connected to religion. Although most Lisu people believe in the gods of Nature, there are some who don’t – especially those living in the canyon’s remotest mountains. Now, the reason for this religious divergence is all to do with the visitors I mentioned – the ones who came here a century ago.

They were missionaries, who came from Britain and the United States to preach Christianity to the villagers. And it’s Christianity the villagers are practicing now, but with some subtle differences. Take Christmas or Thanksgiving, for example. Yes, they celebrate it, but not on a fixed date like the rest of the world. They prefer to fit it in between 24 and 26 December.

Here is the bible, created in the local language. The language is pretty much the same as the English alphabet, but the order they put it in is differently and of course the pronunciation. The bible starts from 1928, when a British priest came in town and taught them how to create words and a language. In 1945 they started their bible. Now, in my hand, the whole bible, the entire story, is written in their local language. And all these people can sing a song in their Lisu language.

It’s time to say farewell. But here, there’s no waving good-bye. The villagers see me off with songs. I don’t understand a single word of it, but I can’t help thinking that in their singing, there is something of the purity of their hearts.

My next stop is Fugong County, east of Lanping. The biggest ethnic group here is, again, the Lisu. Christianity is the dominant religion among them. All together, the Lisu people number over 600,000 people, mainly living in Yunnan.

Traveling on a bumpy road can be pretty uncomfortable, especially at a moment like this.

Okay, we have a problem. The car rolled over a big stone. It broke and now we’re doomed. As you can see the trail, there is no more gas or oil left. So we’re either going hiking or get a car in de middle of nowhere.

Well, as you can see, I’m pretty lucky. Even so, there’s no avoiding some footwork from time to time in the canyon. It’s common to see people walking in these parts, where the mountains are so steep and the currents run so fast. But there are times when two legs simply aren’t up to the task.

In the olden days, cables were the key means of transport in the canyon. Everything, from goods to humans, was transported via cable.

I love Nujiang. Actually I love every part of this journey. Every time when we go somewhere, I can find interesting things, exciting things. Look what we have here, a cable car. Look at that beautiful girl, just like her, all locals, do this every time. Now I’m going to cross this river. I’m pretty excited because it’s my first time. You know what, I’m not even scared to be honest with you.

But times change. Unless, of course, you’re getting married, Lisu-style. There are the traditional songs and dances and ceremonies – it all seems just like a regular wedding. Until I notice something rather strange, there’s no sign of the bride and bridegroom. So, what’s going on? It turns out its all part of the unique Lisu wedding tradition.

Drinking is a must at a Lisu wedding, just like at any other wedding. But here the tradition is for all the guests to drink from one barrel of wine. The idea is that by sharing the wine, everyone will share good fortune and happiness with the new couple.

Sand baron lovers, this is a tradition. All of this is a tradition. It’s all about love and mystery. The tradition in this minority is that they bare the two couples. If you want to bear with these couple, it means, that you are lovers. Who are the lovers?

Usually, this strange custom is something Lisu youngsters do at festivals or in spring, just before the fieldwork starts. But occasionally they make an exception, such as when they want to trap an unsuspecting visitor, like me.

What a great tradition. Man, woman, boys and girl, they were all digging a hole. And they start finding their loves. It’ll happen all of the sudden. The boys, who find the girl they love, grab her and bear that hole. These are called lovers.

So nobody knows who the boy is and who the girl is.

This tradition makes me very happy. But it’s a painful tradition. Someday lovers will bare each other, and whatever happens, we’re going to dig ourselves out. I’ll dig her out and make sure she can get out of it.

I’m now on my way up north, to Gongshan Autonomous County, from where the canyon extends into Tibet. The way the mountains are arranged here forces three major rivers, the Jinsha, the Nu and the Lancang, to flow very close together from north to south. So hereabouts, they’re known as the ‘three rivers in parallel’.

The town used to serve as a major stop on the famous ‘Tea and Horse Caravan Trail’. With all the goods and traffic that passed through the town en route between Yunnan and Tibet, it became home to different ethnic minorities who, in return, give the town its unique cultural mix.

The road leads to another rather mysterious village. I just can’t wait.

We’re here at this village called Bingzhongluo. In Bingzhongluo village, locals believe that these mountains are God Mountains. There are in total 10 God Mountains. Not only that. This community is a mixture of all religions and all different minority groups. As I walk down this trail, I can see a Christian Church, Tibetan Buddhism and all the families who live around here, have their own religion and living happy together.

Everybody stopped, so I’m going to find out what’s going on. This road breaks every day, so I’m going to check out what’s going on.

The village is called ‘Wuli’, which means ‘in the mist’. So, if you hadn’t already guessed it, now you know – the village: lies deep in the mountains. There’s no road to it, which can make things rather inconvenient. The advantage is that Wuli remains unaffected by modern civilization, the original un-spoilt paradise, in fact.

The village is home to the Nu – one of the oldest ethnic peoples in Yunnan, who live mostly in the four counties of the prefecture. With a tiny population of less than 30,000, they are farmers who cultivate their fields and grow corn in the mountains.

All these houses are made out of local material. On top of this house, you see the platforms are cut from a rock. Piece by piece it’s cut out and now it’s lying there to protect the water. It’s waterproof. The woods are all trees from the local mountains. So they cut it and strip the skin.

Actually from here you can see a little difference as the time passes. They didn’t have a lot of tools to work with, so all you see is an entire tree, layer by layer, add together.

With the newer ones, they had the right tools so they could cut piece by piece. So it’s all material from the local area. The families, who live here, enjoy their lives and live from everything they are surrounded with. They make their own food; houses are made from their own sources. It’s an independent world over here.

A little away from the village, there is a rough road – the only route from Yunnan to Tibet in the canyon. For those traveling on foot, it presents quite a challenge.

From here, the canyon and the Nu River continue on into Tibet. There was a time when the river served as a transport link between Tibet and the rest of the world, away to the southeast. Owing to the roughness of the canyon, a road was eventually carved out of the cliffs in the canyon. Merchants’ caravans started making the journey backwards and forwards between Tibet and Yunnan, carrying goods such as tea, ghee, salt and grain on their horses. And so the road became known as the ‘Tea and Horse Caravan Trail’, which at one time was the only transport link between Tibet and southwest China.

Still today, there is some traffic along the road. But it’s nothing like the days when it was crowded with horses and merchants, with the sound of the horses’ bells echoing through the valley. The carved rocks bear testimony to the locals’ eagerness to make contact with the outside world in those days.

It’s time to bid farewell to the canyon, and to its charm and beauty. From here, our journey will continue on the famous road. The plan is to travel with the caravans of the past, in anticipation of discovering and experiencing all the wonders and mysteries that waits on the road ahead. Our journey will take us on into the great and mysterious highland of Tibet. So stay tuned for more of Travelogue’s Ethnic Odyssey.


“Nu River Gorge” is the second grandest canyon in Zhe world, and many of the cliffs here rise to well over 3000 meters, and that’s higher than anything the Grad Canyon can boast.

Another wonder of the canyon is its people. It is hard to imagine anywhere else in the world with such a huge diversity of dialects, costumes, customs and faiths.


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