Walking Condemned Paths
By : Ben Shane
The river flows from the Tibetan Plateau through China's Yunnan province and south through Myanmar into the Andaman Sea. At its mouth it is called the Salween, but in China it is the Nujiang, named after the Nu people who were the first to settle in the remote valley over a thousand years ago. Many more of China's ethnic minorities live on this river that flows free of dams for its entire 1,750-mile course-by far the longest river to escape such development in Asia. The people depending on the Nujiang's natural course may not be lucky for long.

In the farthest corner of northwestern Yunnan, just kilometers from the borders with Tibet and Myanmar, villages in the Nujiang valley are mainly Tibetan-villages sometimes so small as to cease being even that. Flat dirt paths are trodden up and down and across the steep slopes, connecting families and grazing pastures and farming terraces. These are local paths, free of any trailheads, markers, or trash bins. Each one of them will leads to a different place worth visiting, such as a village or overlook or bamboo grove. But traveling here with local Tibetan guide Aluo will ensure you delicious food, homey accommodations, and pleasant company.

The only hint that Aluo's age is near fifty rather than thirty is how quickly and comfortably his face becomes nothing but deep wrinkles when he smiles, as he often does. His home in Dimaluo, a village on the Nujiang tributary of the same name, is also a guesthouse for travelers and the common starting point for treks with the Tibetan entrepreneur. A few days' leisurely hike will take you to Bingzhongluo, where Aluo's second guesthouse is located. This hike may not be
possible in just a couple of years if the Chinese government realizes plans to construct massive hydroelectric dams on the Nujiang. The structures will flood many areas, turning villages and fields and paths into nondescript reservoirs. The paths Aluo follows to visit family members and to make a living as a guide will be gone.


Dimaluo, in fact, has an even more imminent fate than areas along the main Nujiang. A small hydropower dam is being constructed that has forced the relocation of some of Dimaluo's residents. On Sundays the inhabitants of Dimaluo wait for Catholic Mass to begin in their wooden church, with construction equipment all around. Plans are in place to build a new house of worship soon. If they are relocated to a government-built village, their church will likely be a squat, concrete building, if they are given one at all.

Dimaluo Church

Aluo is one of very few residents in the area who doesn't farm for his livelihood. He lives relatively well on his income earned by guiding visitors through the mountains he knows so well. A trek with Aluo begins in his kitchen in Dimaluo over a delicious meal of Tibetan hotpot prepared by Aluo and his wife. Foraged mushrooms, home-raised pork, hand-picked rapeseed, and many more ingredients taken from the surrounding area are boiled together and eaten communally from the uniquely shaped pot-a donut-shaped bowl wrapped around a tall chimney full of hot coals.

Aluo offers many different hikes in the area, but once one is decided he seems to follow the correct paths without even looking, choosing one fork over another, climbing or descending for no apparent reason, and passing by other locals, all of whom are either a relative or friend of Aluo's. On the path north from Dimaluo, a cluster of homes comes into view, and a man plows a steep field with two oxen leading the effort against the dry dirt. The man takes a hand from his wooden plow to wave and shouts a greeting in Tibetan to Aluo. He jokes to Aluo for always being seen with foreigners, and then returns his focus and strength to plowing.

Farmer on the slope with oxen

Farming in the Nujiang Valley must not be romanticized. It is all too common and simple for outsiders to stumble upon a rustic way of life and declare it the panacea to society's ills. But the life of a Chinese peasant, such as the life of this man plowing his field along the Dimaluo River, is not free from the difficulties that led humans to modernize and urbanize in the first place. The travesty of forced relocation stems not from an objective superiority of rural life over city life; rather, it stems from the destruction of a familiar way of life and the eradication of culture.
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