To The Valley's End (Part 2)
Bingzhongluo, Yunnan, China
Even at the valley's end, Modern China has landed.
Escape from Gongshan
I woke in Gongshan with no objective other than to keep moving north.
The towns get smaller the further north into the Nujiang you travel. Gongshan, somehow, has all the amenities of a bigger city - a market, restaurants, dozens of hotels - all squeezed into an area no larger than a few hundred square meters.
I left the hotel and walked up the road to meet the fleet of vehicles who offer lifts from Gongshan to the remainder of the valley’s towns and villages.
Having studied the Chinese characters for ‘Bingzhongluo’, I found a vehicle with the right characters emblazoned on the windscreen, and stepped in. The buses don’t go until they’re sufficiently full, so I saved my seat and went hunting for breakfast.
The best thing about Gongshan is the prevalence of freshly made Tibetan bread, sold at street stalls all over town. There are tonnes of flavours - all savoury - and the price is a welcome 1 yuan - about 20 cents. I bought a few, and gorged as I waited to the bus to continue north.
Soon, it inched onwards, past a series of small mountain villages, along dirt roads, frequently interrupted by lengthy traffic stops.
At times in the previous two days, I’d wondered why I bothered to come to this valley. Its beauty had yet to shine, I’d seen nothing but the back seat of buses, and was tiring of the endless delays.
Not far from Gongshan, my doubts faded.
From there, the valley begins its most breathtaking formation. The mountains grow taller, the river more violent and turquoise. The villages become more quaint and less spoiled. Even the weather, stubbornly grey and stodgy for the previous days, had cleared.
Now, the frequent stops became opportunities to disembark the small bus, take a look at the views, and feel the warm sunshine on my back.
We passed the famous Bend in The Nujiang, and by 2 pm, had made it to Bingzhongluo.
I will always vividly remember the first glimpses of Bingzhongluo. Rounding a bend, the valley opened up. Sprawling green fields surrounded a quaint, colourful township, cradled by insurmountable walls. There were snow capped peaks and verdant green hillsides harbouring the most arable soils I’d seen in the valley. It was the most dramatic, uncompromising natural beauty I’d seen since leaving Australia.
The bus driver kicked me off at the edge of town, and I walked in to search for a room. With just one main street, Bingzhongluo is an easy place to navigate. In the sunshine, I walked passed flowering Cherry Blossom trees and quickly dumped my pack in an empty dorm, before setting off to explore the hills.
To the Heart of Zomia
Change is coming to Bingzhongluo, like everywhere in China. But the development that is emerging in this small town and throughout the valley is still only in its earliest days. Soon, a major road will dissect Bingzhongluo, providing a final link between Yunnan and Tibet. For now, that road remains incomplete, and the traffic subdued.
As I walked the hills that afternoon, I was struck by the absurdity that I was still in China. The people of the Nujiang were never Chinese. Even the Tibetans only came in its recent history. The indigenous Nu, Lisu and Drugong people who have always occupied this valley had successfully extricated themselves from foreign state structures for countless generations. That it now sits in a state with a power center 3000 kilometers away felt odd and artificial.
The Nujiang Valley - with its difficult access, inhospitable geography, and cultural distinctions - typifies a community inhabiting the trans-national geographic entity James Scott, an anthropologist at Yale University, calls ‘Zomia'.
Zomia is a modern term that describes the massive expanse of highlands stretching from central Vietnam towards Northeast India, and covering much in between - including Western Yunnan.
Scott argues that the people inhabiting this broad geographic region are linked by one historic commonality: their wilful, strategic abstention from nation-states, a habit that stretches millennia.
Highland peoples in South and South East Asia were often pilloried as barbaric, underdeveloped, backwards. This is evident even today. But Scott argues that historically, the mountain peoples of Asia are more often than not wilful exiles from states they never sought to participate in:
"Hill peoples are best understood as runaway, fugitive, maroon communities who have, over the course of two millennia, been fleeing the oppressions of state-making projects in the valleys—slavery, conscription, taxes, corvée labor, epidemics, and warfare." -- John C. Scott. 'The Art of Not Being Governed'.
Rather than being unconsciously 'backwards', these exiles actively sought sanctuary from lowland empires in South, South East and East Asia. The cost of their isolation was, of course, slower economic and technological development. The reward, however, was autonomy.
Today, in the Nujiang at least, that is changing: there is just no stopping the forward momentum of the Chinese state. Its vision of a culturally and economically homogenised society is seeping into every corner of its territory in a way no Zomian mountain tribe would have ever imagined.
Walking the hills, I could sense that conflicted story of development. There’s still relative isolation here, but it's fading. My very presence demonstrated that. The unique cultural aspects of these once hidden communities now run into direct conflict with the Chinese state: Tibetan prayer flags fly alongside the Chinese flag. Depictions of Jesus — the valley is devoutly Catholic after intrepid French missionaries converted many in the 1840s —sit side by side with those of Xi Jinping. The door to the outside world, only ever slightly ajar, is now fixed open.
I settled into my hostel that first night. Heading downstairs to work, I was quickly interrupted by a local - Li - who came over to me excitedly speaking French. Much to his disappointment, my horrible language skills extend to Français. But I gathered from the odd word I picked up that he was inviting me over for tea.
Li had spent three years in Paris. He was fluent in French and impatient at my inability to speak it. Though using Google Translate, I was able to converse much more freely than at any other time in China. We ceremonially drank tea in elegant crockery. Tres sophistique.
Li had moved to the valley to pursue his two passions: hiking, and Catholicism. He was my only real company in those few days in Bingzhongluo, though we barely spoke. The language barrier was one thing, but I also felt Li was uncomfortable with my lines of questioning.
I was always interested in the encroachment of the state here in the valley. Li was Han Chinese, and was perhaps insulted by my insinuations that residents like him were moving in to the valley and changing its composition. But Li’s expert hiking advice was still on offer, and I spent the following two days headed to the hills as per his advice.
Clinging on to History
The paths are empty in the Nujiang. The only company occurs when you pass through tiny villages that cling precariously to the steep, forested hillsides.
I crossed back and forth over the river on old suspension bridges lined with Tibetan prayer flags. I hiked into the clouds through farmland and reached heights from which the Tibetan frontier became visible.
Outside of the ‘urban center’ of Bingzonghluo (there’s only a few hundred people there), many people of the Nujiang — particularly those at higher altitude — still retain a traditional lifestyle. Some don’t have electricity and tend to small crops on hillsides. Horses help carry goods from these tiny hill villages to town. For those without animals, weighty loads are carried on hunched backs.
Some wore traditional clothes. All seemed weathered.
I never know what to think when I stumble across those still living these traditional lifestyles. Their lives are contradictions: while they maintain an enviable sense of autonomy, the cost is eternal physical strain. It’s hard to tell on a fleeting visit whether they're happy or not. But I can see though why young people leave this valley. Teased by alternatives at the bottom of the hills, its only human nature to be seek to emulate the lives being lived below.
The traditional life here is worthy of admiration, but it is hard and lonely and within sight of an alternative. As a visitor, its a treat to see. But strains line the faces of those labouring up and down the hills. For me, the difficulty and hardship diminishes any sense of romance in the lifestyle.
In the Nujiang, some of the last traces of those hermetic Zomian hill tribes Scott describes remain. But, at least in Bingzhongluo and its surrounds, it feels like those days are almost gone. Even here, at the valley's furthest end, modern China has arrived.