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The Nu River in Yunnan, China

The Angry River Coursing Through Time

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The Beginning

Three rivers, their unassuming beginnings in the high plateau of Tibet fed by tributaries and divided by great masses of mountains pushed up over 5,000 m during the crush of the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plate millennia ago, rush through parallel canyons in northern Yunnan: the tamed Yangtze and Mekong Rivers, and the free running Nu River or Nu Jiang.

The Nu River, also known as the Salwen, Salween or Salwin River in China, originates in the glaciers of the Tanggula Mountains in Central Tibet and flows some 3,200 km through Yunnan Province into Myanmar until finally entering the Andaman Sea.

The river flows between two mountain ranges – the Gaoligong Mountains to the west and the Biluo Mountains to the east - coursing through hills so steep that the width of the river is only 100-150 metres wide. Nu translates to ‘angry’ in Chinese so it is also referred to as the Angry River. However, the name derives not from the nature of the river, but by the Nu minority, one of the oldest inhabitants of the canyon. The Nu call the river numigua – nu meaning ‘swarthy’ and migua meaning ‘river water’.

In 2016, I had retraced the path made by Edwin John Dingle from Shanghai to the border of Myanmar detailed in his book Across China on Foot (Edwin Dingle, 1911, J.W. Arrowsmith, Bristol). While crossing the bridge over the Nu Jiang on my way to Tengchong, my imagination soared like the mountains I could see in the distance and the waters swirling below me and decided that I needed to trek up the valley. Not only did I want to see the mountains, gorges and forests of the valley, I wanted to see the only major river in China that was still free flowing.

I had the opportunity to venture up the Nu River valley in November 2019. In trying to emulate the early explorers I decided to walk, starting from the township of Lujiangzhen in the southern reaches of the river where I had first crossed the river in 2016 ending in the far northern township of Bingzhongluo, a stones’ throw away from the Tibetan border.

Bingzhongluo - the end of the walk

Bingzhongluo - the end of the walk

A Bit of Background

‘As I lay in my draughty corner, my mind turned to what the next day would bring, for I was to go down to the Valley of the Shadow of Death – the dreaded Salwen. I had read of it as a veritable death-trap.’ (p 352 Across China on Foot, Edwin Dingle, 1911, J.W. Arrowsmith, Bristol)

This was how Edwin John Dingle described the Nu River during his trek across China in 1909-1910. His impression was not based on experience, but most probably through hearsay, rumour and books, passed on and written by previous travellers.

Very few westerners traveled up the Nu River Valley in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The general consensus of the explorers who did venture up the Nu River valley was that it was inhospitable, barbarous, and filled with vigorous, troublesome and venomous insects. And if the insects drifted by you, lianas and tree-roots would trip the unwary traveler and poisonous, stinging nettles would prick the unwary hand. It was a valley beset with tropical diseases, particularly malaria, causing the demise of many explorer and traveler. And those not struck down by insects, vegetation or disease, the adventurers often fell prey to the crossbows and poisonous arrows of the Black Liso, a fierce tribe controlling the upper reaches of the valley.

Route taken by George Forrest in 1905

Route taken by George Forrest in 1905

The Walk

The Nu River is located in the far west of China, in Yunnan province, virtually running parallel with the eastern border of Myanmar. Until recently, the valley was only accessible from the south via the capital Liuku via slippery, narrow and muddy tracks. Travel was mainly by foot and horse, and maybe a mule or two. Unfortunately, today no roads or tracks follow the routes taken by the early explorers and botanists. I had to content myself by walking along the windy paved road that now weaves along the side of the mountains from Liuku to Bingzhongluo. It may not have been a sodden, slick mud track but walking on the road is harrowing as it is chiselled into the hillside which drops precipitously to the river, there is no shoulder and the drivers are fearless. But ‘progress’ is reaching the valley in the form of a four lane expressway under construction in 2019, punching holes in the mountains and cutting a steel coloured ribbon into the steep, green slopes that once were once only accessible by a mud track.


Before modern suspension bridges were built, everything – food, horses, baggage, people, wood – had to be sent across the river along rope and cable ziplines. It must have been a heart-stopping experience. While exploring Yunnan in the 1920’s Joseph Rock (an American botanist) used a ropeway to ford the Mekong River and reported:

….there was a yell of “Let go!” and off I shot, far into space, at the rate of 20 miles an hour. A glimpse of the roaring river far below me, a smell of burning wood, caused by the friction of the slider, which raced over the unevenly braided, bumpy rope, and I landed, like a heavy mule, on the rocky west bank of the river.

In 2015, the Chinese government announced a bridge building initiative along the valley. The bridges now range from simple, single lane foot suspension bridges to bridges of wider and more robust construction which can support motorbikes, cars and loaded tracker-trailers.


Along the lower reaches of the river, I can see the low lying hills rise in the distance. The land from the river to the hills is used for agriculture – beans, coffee, peaches, banana, dragon fruit, corn, barley and assorted vegetables abound. Moving up river, the mountains became higher and steeper, some reaching as high as 5,000 feet, the valleys narrowed shrouded in shade, and villages hung suspended. The botanist Frank Kingdon Ward called it the ‘Land of Deep Corrosions’.

At the Jumping Tiger Scenic Area, the river passes through a narrow gorge, turbulent with strong currents and rapids. Dense, dark green forests of larch, pine, birch, bamboo and kapok cover the slopes. Snow covered crags start to peek out from behind the green hills the higher I walk up the river valley. On most days, there is no wind or rain, so I get no reprieve from the plague of midges that get into every crevasse on me and I suffer from a red, itchy rash.


Despite the beauty of the valley, I sometimes feel claustrophobic being so closed in by high mountains. I want to be able to see more into the distance than just a strip of river. The profile of the valley stays the same all the way from the start of my trek to to Bingzhongluo: sky – sometimes blue, sometimes with fluffy clouds, sometimes enshrouded by cloud and pouring with rain –meshes into dense green vegetation, the steep slope cut by the road continuing its fall to the brown, fast running river, steep slope rising to a minor road, road melding into deep green forests, and high mountains touch the sky. It made it hard to find a resting place and a spot to pee.

The Nu River is a biodiversity goldmine. In its valleys and peaks, a wealth of life prospers. It is one of the rivers included in the Three Parallel Rivers of the Yunnan Protected Area which UNSECO was designated as a World Heritage Site in 2003. Mammals, birds, amphibians, fish, insects galore are endemic to the forests, streams and river. Botanists such as Joseph Rock, George Forrest, Dejun Yu, Kingdon Ward and Reginald Farrer collected plants and seeds from the foothills and alpine regions of the upper Nu River, many that are commonly found in our gardens today: rhododendrons, azaleas, herbaria, euphorbia, primulas and clematis. Forrest called the pastures in the foothills ‘one huge flower garden’.


Roughly 4 million people live within the Nu River Basin which is home to some 22 distinct ethnic groups, many of which maintain their own language and cultural traditions. For the most part, the people wear western t-shirts and pants but accessorize with bright checkered scarves and handbags. As I move up-river, I start seeing traditional brightly coloured clothing – mainly worn by older women.


Most of the townships hold open markets at least once a week which are visited by the locals and people living in the hills. I was able to visit markets in Pihexiang and Fugong. They are busy, noisy, raucous and crowded – people jostling for access to day to day items, local products and plastic toys, produce was being weighed, teeth were getting pulled out, haggling was energetic. Most items I recognized, some I just didn’t want to know.


The valley seemed to be one huge construction project. The cities, townships and villages are being re-sculptured and the valley is being opened up to the rest of the country and Tibet with the building of the expressway with its cement pylons looming a hundred meters above the ground in places. The new houses and apartment buildings are made predominately from cement bessa blocks with a uniform design. Consequently there is minimal sense of culture or individuality.

It amazed me to see clusters of houses precariously perched high up the mountain. Most had some land cleared around them for agriculture – bananas and corn were the two most obvious crops. Larger towns line the river. However, the new houses have electricity and running water, a far cry from the drafty houses made of wood and bamboo.


The majority of the houses along the river are newly built, made of rendered brick, painted yellow with a row of black circles on the edges of the outside walls. Traditional houses are fast disappearing but I was able to see some when I was given permission to visit the Jin Man Ethnic Village which lies some six kilometres straight up into the mountains above Luobenzhuoxiang.

I walked up steep windy road Y010 that ran parallel to a small boulder creek, relishing the thick, lush forests, and the abandoned wire suspension bridge. It was hard going and I had to dodge a few trucks carrying construction materials. Jin Man village is tucked into the mountainside which opens into a bowl planted mainly with corn which extends from the village to the valley a good 300 m below. The traditional houses were made of wood with woven bamboo walls built on stilts and topped with a thatched roof.


Had I known how the world would change in late 2019, I probably would not have picked up this horseshoe nose bat I found dead on the road. And although depressing, the road kill gave me an indication of the range of fauna that lives in the surrounding forest: snakes, giant cicadas, even bigger snails, birds, butterflies.


The river continues its course through the valley with its reminders of a different time. The expressway will extend into Tibet and there is still a threat of dams being built hanging over the river's very existence. But until the dams are built and the expressway is opened, the Valley of Deep Corrosions, its remoteness, traditions and people will continue until they are irreversibly changed with the passage of time.




Posted by IvaS 08:28 Archived in China Comments (0)

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