Tibetan village on a mountain
Kham is the wild Tibetan area in Sichuan, Yunnan and Tibet that is very different from the dry and brown Tibetan plateau. A lush and green and well-watered place, Kham features old growth forests, rhododendron trees and spectacular mountains and Alpine scenery. Antelopes, golden eagles, packs of green parakeets, snow leopards, bears, monkeys and wolves and bandits still roam here. The roads here have only recently been opened to tourists and many places are still off limits.

Kham is different from Tibet in other ways. The Khampa Tibetans live wood or stone houses with brilliantly carved windows not concrete or mud brick houses or yak-hair tents as is the case on the Tibetan plateau. There is not a large Han Chinese presence here other than police and soldiers. Some Han Chinese here have even married Tibetans. There region has long had a reputation unruliness and independence. Tibetans here have been able to practice their religion and customs with relatively little interference from Beijing. Until the riots in 2008, monasteries openly displayed pictures of the Dalai Lama. In some villages you can still find people who practice polyandry. The area is also very poor. Many people are illiterate and infant mortality rates are high.

Scenerywise, Kham is stunning. There are mountains over 20,000 feet; red pandas and snow leopards, dense virgin forests and Tibetans, Naxi and Yi villages. The upper reaches of four of Asia's mightiest rivers---the Yangtze, Mekong, the Salween and Irrawaddy---flow parallel to one another within a 55 mile band, divided by high mountain ridges. The Yangtze river, known in this area as the Jinsha, marks the boundary between Tibet and Kham.

The relatively high rainfall and drastic elevation changes in Kham produce an explosion of biodiversity, which includes more than 10,000 plant species, 162 species of rhododendron and 120 species of primrose. The region is source of Asian medicines and herbs and matsutake and morel mushrooms. The Washington-based Nature Conservancy is active in the area, preserving plantlife and wildlife.

Late August and Early September is the best time to visit western Sichuan. The rainy season is June through August. Buses run in the area year-round but the roads are sometimes closed by snow or landslides. For a time foreign travelers in Western Sichuan were required to buy an insurance policy for around US$4, which could be obtained at the China Insurance Company next to the Holiday Inn in Chengdu, Sleeper buses (with bunks, not seats) and newer more comfortable buses bound for western Sichuan, leave from Xinnanmen bus station in Chengdu. The eight-hour trip from Chengdu to Kandling cost about US$15.

People in Kham

Kham tribesman
The Khampas, or Kham, are a Tibetan tribe of herders and farmers who live in eastern Tibet and Sichuan. Known for their fierceness and skill as horsemen, they are generally larger and tougher than other Tibetans. Men often wear red turbans or fox-fur hats and robes trimmed with leopard and otter skin and carried scimitars, decorated swords or daggers in their belts.

The Khampas still pride themselves on being horseback warriors. Khampa men and women have very long hair, often braided and worn in buns or pony tails adorned with turquoise, wrapped in a red sash, or worn with red or black tassels. It is a big deal for a Khampa man to cut his hair. Traditionally only a man can cut the hair and no scissors are allowed near the head.

Chloe Xin of Tibetravel.org wrote: The Kham “are tall and well built, fearless and open of countenance. The Kham men can be easily recognized in the crowd with gold or silver accessories, plaited hair and purple faces. They walk on the street like moving hills. The Kham women also like wearing some gold and silver accessories. Their bright laughter definitely draws your attention. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org]

Kham has a warrior tradition. Much of Kham was closed to foreigners until 2000 because if banditry and political resistance in the region by Khampa Tibetans, who led the resistance movement against the Chinese in the 1950s. According to legend the Kham are “the offspring of the god of war and the god of beauty. The women were born to be pretty and the men are born to be brave. The Kham people lived in a hostile environment for a long time, but they never gave up. Through brave fighting with the nature, they survived. In the Medicine King City, lived a medicine king. Impressed by the Kham's courage and charming points, he often gave them free medical treatment. At last, he even taught Kham what he had learned in his life time, including all the herbal medicine and disease treatment methods. Since then, the Kham had never fallen ill." It is also said that they are knowledgeable of medicine and other Tibetans and Chinese seek them all out to find out their secrets to good health.

Hengduan Mountains

Hengduan Mountains (occupying an area between Burma, Yunnan, Sichuan and Tibet) has been designated a biological hot spot because it is rich in unique wildlife---which includes red panda and snow leopards---and plant life and because its flora and fauna are threatened by the encroachment of people. In the mountains ate peaks over 20,000 feet, three of Asia's great rivers---the Mekong, the Irawaddy and the Salween---and villages occupied by Tibetans, Naxi and Yi.

Many common garden plants---such as the regal lily, golden-throated white trumpets, white mist poppies, various forsythia, bushes, clematis vines, rhododendrons, dogwoods, crab apples. and primroses---originated from here along with 50 species of conifers; 230 species of rhododendrons; and more than 30 species of plant in the rose family Botanist count more than 3,500 species of native plant in the Hengduan Mountains, the highest number of endemic species for an temperate area. The Hengduan mountains are so biologically rich for four main reasons: 1) the region encompasses huge variations in elevations with distinct ecosystems at each level: 2) the area escaped glaciation during the last series of ice ages that scoured the landscape in other mountainous areas; 3) the isolated tall peaks and deep valleys created biological islands where new species could spawn; and 4) the harsh geography created microclimates that allowed rain-drenched rain forest to exist just a few kilometers from desert-like highlands.

Hengduan vegetation zones include: 1) Alpine desert at16,000 to 17,500 feet, characterizes by rugged moraines and tiny-leaved herbs and cushion plants; 2) Alpine from 11,500 to 16,000 feet, with moorlands and grasslands, small-leaved rhododendrons. primroses and poppies; 3) subalpine, from 10,000 to 11,500 feet with dense coniferous forests, larch and spruce trees; 4) cool temperate from 5,000 to 10,000 feet with a mix of deciduous trees, conifers and rhododendrons and shrubs; 5) temperate from 2,000 to 5,000 feet with rain forest and evergreens; and warm temperate from 0 to 2,000, dominated by cultivated land for rice, wheat, oranges. palms, bamboo and cypress. Website: Travel China Guide UNESCO World Heritage Site Map: (click 1001wonders.org at the bottom): Three Parallel Rivers UNESCO Also try the UNESCO World Heritage Site Web site (click the site you want) World Heritage Site


Shangri-La (Zhongdian, 200 kilometers north of Lijiang) is a Tibetan village that once had a frontier atmosphere but recently has been developed for tourism. Located in a broad plain surrounded by snow-capped mountains, it was given permission by Beijing to be renamed Xianggelila (“Shangri-La” in Chinese) because, according to the Chinese government, it best fit the Lost Horizon description of “verdant valley crowned by a Tibetan Buddhist lamasery and encompassed by snow-capped mountains." Some thing Mount Jambeyang — an impressive peak in the area — was the inspiration for Mount Karakal.

Located at the junction of Tibet, Sichuan and Yunnan,, Xamgyi'nyilha County is an ethnic Tibetan township and county set high in Yunnan's northwestern mountains and is part of Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. According to Associated Press: “The county was once called Gyaitang Zong, but changed its name in 2001 to Shangri-La, hoping to draw tourists by the reference to the mythical Himalayan land described in James Hilton's 1933 novel. The county has since benefited from tourism revenue. Hundreds of other Chinese cities have also rebuilt their old streets to attract visitors.”

At the same time Zhongdian was given the Shangri-La name a greater Shangri-La area was created that embraces 50 counties in Yunnan, Sichuan and Tibet. There are plans to spend US$10 billion developing roads, building hotels and modernizing airports. A central part of the plan is to build a 1000-mile-long modern highway between Kunming and Zhongdian.

According to the Chinese government: Shangri-La was given its name because it “corresponds fairly closely to the description of Shangri-La in the popular British novel "Lost Horizon," a mystical, harmonious valley. Shangri-La means the "sun and moon in heart" in Tibetan. The azure sky, extensive fog-enveloped snowy mountains, steep grand gorges and a boundless stretch of grassland add to its breathtaking beauty and the stunning scenery. The multi-ethnic culture also makes the place very attractive. In addition, the area abounds in natural resources from valuable plants to mineral deposits and wildlife.”

Sumtsatlan monestary

Shangri-La Tourism

Situated on flat barren plateau with grazing yaks and Tibetan farms, Zhongdian is home to about 140,000 people. In the old days many of the visitors were backpackers who arrived by bus from Lijiang. Now many are Han Chinese who arrive on flights from Shanghai and Guangzhou at the new Shangri-La airport. Other towns had vied for the Shangri-La designation but only Zhongdian (also known as Gyakthang) received it. A new airport opened in Shangri La 1999 and the new road from Kunming opened a year later. After the town was renamed Shangri-La, the world's largest prayer wheel, the Fortunate Victory Prayer Wheel, was raised.

In recent years, the main roads have been paved and the run-down concrete buildings have been replaced by new concrete buildings---with Internet cafes and souvenir shops that sell yak-tail brooms and yak-butter lamps---that are set up on cobblestoned streets and are required to use traditional Tibetan-style architecture. The signs are written in Chinese, Tibetan and English. Yaks graze in open plains next the airport. To appeal to the Chinese tourists karaokes have been built and tours have been organized to local Tibetan homes.

Before 1994, access to Zhongdian was restricted. In the 1990s the bus ride from Lijiang took 16 hours and passed through steep mountains and pine forests, with isolated chortens indicating that visitors had left China behind and had entered Tibet. Zhongdian is a different place now. The number of visitors increased from 20,000 in 2000 to 2.6 million in 2006.

Web Sites: Travel China Guide Travel China Guide Lonely Planet Lonely Planet Budget Accommodation: Check Lonely Planet books; Getting There: Shangri-La is accessible by plane from major cities in China and by bus and minibus from Lijiang. Travel China Guide (click transportation) Travel China Guide Lonely Planet (click Getting There) Lonely Planet

Shangri-La Sights

North of Shangr-La town is Gyalthang Somzenling Lamasery (Ganden Sumtseling Gompa), the largest Tibetan monastery in Yunnan. Founded in the 17th century by the fifth Dalai Lama, the monastery is a groups of red-and-white mud building that have been restored after being damaged during the Cultural Revolution. More than 300 monks once lived here. Only a handful remain. Murals show the pantheon of Tibetan gods. The larger temples are surrounded by small dwellings once occupied by its monks. Many Han Chinese visit the site on tour buses. Tourists can wander among the buildings and check out prayer halls with monks reciting sutras.

Mount Jambeyang is a 5,958-meter-high peak described by Joseph Rock. It is another mountain suggested as a source for mythical Mount Karakal. It is located near Nyiden village in Dabpa county in the Gazne Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture along with Mount Chanadorge and 6,032-meter-high Mount Chenreisg. Treks on foot or the back so horses,or donkeys are offered in the area. All three mountains are regarded as holy to the local Tibetan people. In 2006, about 200,000 tourists showed up in the area.

Tibetan Villages in the Shangri-La Area on a mountain

White water terraces
Deqin (near Zhongdian) is another town that vied for the Shangri-La name. It is prettier than Zhongdian and has more impressive mountains and lays claim to the Shangri-la myth because of the presence of a Roman Catholic Church and a Tibetan monastery but ultimately it missed out because it lacked the infrastructure and airport that Zhongdian had. Most travelers to Deqin pass through Zhongdian first. In Deqin (also spelled Diquing) one can go on treks with the Shangri-La tour agency and sing at the Shangri-La karaoke parlor.

Web Sites: Lonely Planet (click Getting There) Lonely Planet Travel China Guide Travel China Guide Map: China Highlights China Highlights Budget Accommodation: Check Lonely Planet books; Getting There: Deqin is accessible by bus and minibus from Shangri-La. Lonely Planet (click Getting There) Lonely Planet

Cizhong (near the Tibetan border, three hours on a bad road from the nearest town) is a village of 1,000 in Yunnan trying to cash in on Shangri-La tourism. It claims to be the model for Shangri-La "because so many Tibetan Catholics live here." The leader of the lamasery in Lost Horizon was a Catholic priest. The town features a European-style Catholic church with tiles with ying and yang symbols built more than a century ago by missionaries. Around 600 of the village's 1,000 villagers are Tibetan Catholics. They go to church every Sunday, sing chants from, hymnal called Chants in Religeux Thibetan, and observe a mass that features a dance around a bonfire, presided over by a priest that comes to the village only two or three times annually. Web Site: China Trekking (click under Tibetan towns) China Trekking

Dukezong, has a Tibetan quarter which is more than 1,000 years old and is known for its preserved cobbled streets, ancient structures and Tibetan culture. It is part of the scenic Shangri-La county in Deqen prefecture and had been renovated to lure tourists. In 2014, it suffered a devastating fire that destroyed more than 100 traditional wooden homes. Associated Press reported: “An inferno that raged for 10 hours early Saturday razed an ancient Tibetan town in China's southwest Yunnan province that's popular with tourists. There was no immediate report of casualties, and the cause of the fire was unclear, although a provincial news site said it started in a guesthouse on an old street. The blaze broke out at 1:27am in the ancient part of town. Photos and video footage showed the ancient neighborhood of Dukezong and its labyrinth of houses engulfed in flames that turned the night sky red. [Source: Associated Press, January 11 2014]

“He Yu, a resident, said she woke to loud, explosion-like sounds to find the ancient neighborhood on fire. "The fire was huge. The wind was blowing hard, and the air was dry. I was scared because my home is a little distance away from the ancient town," she said. "It kept burning, and the firefighters were there, but there was little they could do because they could not get the fire engines onto the old town's narrow streets." More than 2,000 firefighters, soldiers, police, local officials and volunteers responded to the blaze and brought it under control around 11am, the Shangri-La county government said. More than 100 houses in the old Dukezong quarter were destroyed, local authorities said. Most structures were made of wood and the fire spread easily because of dry weather, state media said. Earlier this month, much of Shangri La’s old town in Yunnan was destroyed by a fire that had been caused by a faulty heater. A sad month for cultural heritage in China.


Meili Xueshan (Meili Snow Mountain), also known as Mount Kagpo,, is believed to be the model for mythical Mount Karakal in the novel Lost Horizon. It is 6,740 meter tall and described by the explorer Joseph Rock. Local Tibetan Buddhists worship it as a sacred mountain. About 30 Tibetans live in Miyon village, located at 2,350 metes above sea level. A steep four-kilometer hike from the village leads one to the top of a glacier that stretches along a deep valley for 11½ kilometers. Meili Snow-Capped Mountain located at Deqen Prefecture, has 13 mountain peaks with an elevation over 6,000 meters and ranks first among the eight holy mountains of the Tibetan area. Web Site: China Trekking (click Kawa Karpo) China Trekking

Kawagebo (White Snow Mountain) is the second holiest mountain in Tibetan Buddhism and the main peak of Meili Snow Mountain. The highest peak in Yunnan, it is 6,738 meters (22,107 feet) high. Tens of thousands of pilgrims circle it every year. Around the mountain are sacred forests and sacred waterfalls. In many places prayer flags flap in the wind. Website: China Trekking (click Kawa Karpo) China Trekking

Kawagebo has never been conquered, and locals believe its summit---and its glacier---should remain untouched. When a Sino-Japanese expedition tried to scale the peak in 1991, an avalanche near the top of the glacier killed all 17 climbers. Jia Son remains convinced the deaths were not an accident but an act of divine retribution. Could Mingyong's retreat be another sign of Kawagebo's displeasure?

Tens of thousands of pilgrims come from all over Tibet and the Tibet regions of China to circle Kawagebo (also known as Kawa Karpo). The main pilgrimage route takes about 10 days to complete. Some of the “pilgrims” are boisterous teenagers giggling and listening to MP3 players. “The inner circuit” is a shorter walk that many Chinese and foreign tourists do that goes from the valley of the Lancang (Mekong) River to the secluded Tibetan village of Lower Yubeng. Sacred sites include Mystic Waterfall and Mystic Lake.

Hiking Around Kawagebo

Yubeng (a six hour hike from the nearest dirt road) is a lovely village with about 130 residents situated below Kawagebo on a ridge between the Yangtze and Mekong Rivers. The main trailhead for the hikes is the village of Xidang, a two day drive from Zhongdian with a stop halfway in Deqin. Many stop to admire Kawa Karpo from the lookout point at Leilaisi. There is a sprawling glacier, the lowest in China, above the village of Mingyong. The rutted road from Mingyong to Xidang take in stunning scenery along the Mekong Valley. On the valley walls are villages with white Buddhist stupas.

At the trailhead to Yubeng horses can be hired to ride or carry stuff. Many Westerners do the hike on foot, some hiring horses to carry their gear, while Chinese prefer to ride horses. It is long slug through pine trees to 14,000-foot-high Nazongla Pass, where there are lots of Tibetan prayer flags and soda vendors but no real views.

For views you have to wait until you reach the villages of Upper Yubeng and Lower Yubeng, situated in a valley at the foot of Kawa Karpo. The area has recently become popular with Chinese backpackers, A number of guest houses are under construction but there are still no roads. From Lower Yubeng it is a three-hour hike to Mystic Waterfall, located in a cirque of mountains. Along the trail you are more likely to see pilgrims than tourists. Mystic lake is reached by a five hour hike that features stunning views of Kawa Karpo. Some are disappointed by the dull-water lake and the unimpressive landscape around it. Others are taken by its holiness.

Three Parallel Rivers in Yunnan

rice fields near Yangtze
Three Parallel Rivers in Yunnan was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003. Here the upper reaches of three of Asia's mightiest rivers — the Yangtze, Mekong, and the Salween — flow parallel to one another within a 90-kilometer (55-mile) band, divided by high mountain ridges. The Yangtze river, known in this area as the Jinsha, marks the boundary between Tibet and Kham. The Mekong is known as the Lancang. The Salween is called the Nujiang or Nu. “Jiang” is the Chinese word for river. The area is stunningly beautiful but rarely visited because the terrain carved by the rivers is so severe and rugged.

Fed by monsoon rains, the Yangtze, Mekong and Salween all sweep east of the Himalayas then drop due south, parallel to one another, before heading off in different directions. The gorges of the upper Yangtze, Mekong and Salween are among the deepest in the world, each twice the depth of the Grand Canyon, and reaching three kilometers in some places. Each gorge is separated from the others by towering mountains with more than a hundred peaks over 5,000 meters.

The half million or human inhabitants include more than a dozen ethnic groups and Han Chinese workers. Among these are Tibetans, Naxi, Lisu, Yi and Nu, divided by mountains and uncrushable rivers. The area was not explored by Westerners until the 1920s and 1930s. The first roads were gouged into the area to exploit the area's timber in the 1950s. Entire mountainsides of old growth forest were clear cut. By the mid 1990s 80 percent of the regions’ income came from timber. Logging was cut back in the late 1990s partly in response to flooding on the Yangtze---that killed 4,000 and left more than a million homeless---that was blamed on deforestation-caused erosion.

By the late 1990s tourism began making inroads into the region and quickly displaced logging as the main money earner. People also began making money from harvesting medicinal herbs and matsutake mushrooms to export to Japan. Now the biggest issue concerning the region is how extensively to dam to the Jinsha, Lancang and Nu. The Jinsha has four dams under construction as of 2009. The Lancang already has three. Two are under construction and nine more are proposed. There are two on the Nu and a plan put on the table in 2003 calls for 13 more.

According to UNESCO: Consisting of eight geographical clusters of protected areas within the boundaries of the Three Parallel Rivers National Park, in the mountainous northwest of Yunnan Province, the 1.7 million hectare site features sections of the upper reaches of three of the great rivers of Asia: the Yangtze (Jinsha), Mekong and Salween run roughly parallel, north to south, through steep gorges which, in places, are 3,000 meters deep and are bordered by glaciated peaks more than 6,000 meters high. The site is an epicentre of Chinese biodiversity. It is also one of the richest temperate regions of the world in terms of biodiversity. [Source: UNESCO]

“Located in the mountainous northwest of Yunnan Province in China, the Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areas is a natural serial property consisting of 15 protected areas, grouped into eight clusters. The Property contains an outstanding diversity of landscapes, such as deep-incised river gorges, luxuriant forests, towering snow-clad mountains, glaciers, and alpine karst, reddish sandstone landforms (Danxia, lakes and meadows over vast vistas. The 1.7 million hectare site features sections of the upper reaches of three of the great rivers of Asia: the Yangtze (Jinsha), Mekong and Salween which run approximately parallel, north to south, through steep gorges which, in places, are 3,000 meters deep and are bordered by glaciated peaks more than 6,000 meters high. The property spans a large portion of the Hengduan Mountains, which is the major arc curving into Indochina from the eastern end of the Himalayas. Being located in the convergent regions of the three world's major biogeographic realms, the property is in an epicentre of Chinese biodiversity. It may also harbour the richest biodiversity among the temperate areas of the world.” UNESCO World Heritage Site site: Three Parallel Rivers UNESCO

Three Parallel Rivers in Yunnan

Three Parallel Rivers Geology and Topography

According to UNESCO: The deep, parallel gorges of the Jinsha, Lancang and Nu Jiang are the outstanding natural feature of the property; while large sections of the three rivers lie just outside the property boundaries, the river gorges are nevertheless the dominant scenic element in the area. High mountains are everywhere, with the glaciated peaks of the Meili, Baima and Haba Snow Mountains providing a spectacular scenic skyline. The Mingyongqia Glacier is a notable natural phenomenon, descending to 2700 meters altitude from Mt Kawagebo (6740 meters), and is claimed to be the glacier descending to the lowest altitude for such a low latitude (28° N) in the northern hemisphere. Other outstanding scenic landforms are the alpine karst (especially the 'stone moon' in the Moon Mountain Scenic Area above the Nu Jiang Gorge) and the 'tortoise shell' weathering of the alpine Danxia. [Source: UNESCO]

“The property is of outstanding value for displaying the geological history of the last 50 million years associated with the collision of the Indian Plate with the Eurasian Plate, the closure of the ancient Tethys Sea, and the uplifting of the Himalaya Range and the Tibetan Plateau. These were major geological events in the evolution of the land surface of Asia and they are on-going. The diverse rock types within the property record this history and, in addition, the range of karst, granite monolith, and Danxia sandstone landforms in the alpine zone include some of the best of their type in the mountains of the world.

“The dramatic expression of ecological processes in the Three Parallel Rivers property has resulted from a mix of geological, climatic and topographical effects. First, the location of the area within an active orographic belt has resulted in a wide range of rock substrates from igneous (four types) through to various sedimentary types including limestones, sandstones and conglomerates. An exceptional range of topographical features-from gorges to karst to glaciated peaks--is associated with the property being at a "collision point" of tectonic plates. Add the fact that the area was a Pleistocene refugium and is located at a biogeographical convergence zone (i.e. with temperate and tropical elements) and the physical foundations for evolution of its high biodiversity are all present. Along with the landscape diversity with a steep gradient of almost 6000 meters vertical, a monsoon climate affects most of the area and provides another favourable ecological stimulus that has allowed the full range of temperate Palearctic biomes to develop.

Three Parallel Rivers Ecosystem and Biodiversity

Described by the United Nations as the “epicenter of Chinese biodiversity," the Three Parallel Rivers region is home to 6,000 vascular plant species, 30 species of timber trees, and 500 medicinal plants. Among the 173 species of mammal are clouded leopard and red gorel. More than 440 species of birds have been seen here.

According to UNESCO: Northwest Yunnan is the area of richest biodiversity in China and may be the most biologically diverse temperate region on earth. The property encompasses most of the natural habitats in the Hengduan Mountains, one of the world's most important remaining areas for the conservation of the earth's biodiversity. The outstanding topographic and climatic diversity of the property, coupled with its location at the juncture of the East Asia, Southeast Asia, and Tibetan Plateau, biogeographical realms and its function as a N-S corridor for the movement of plants and animals (especially during the ice ages), marks it as a truly unique landscape, which still retains a high degree of natural character despite thousands of years of human habitation. As the last remaining stronghold for an extensive suite of rare and endangered plants and animals, the property is of Outstanding Universal Value. [Source: UNESCO]

“The Three Parallel Rivers Property is composed of 15 different protected areas which have been grouped into eight clusters, each providing a representative sample of the full range of the biological and geological diversity of the Hengduan Mountains. Following boundary modifications accepted in 2010, the core areas cover an area of 960,084 hectares, and each cluster is surrounded by a buffer zone covering a further 816,413 hectares. The justification for inscribing a series of areas to represent this diversity is due to the fact that the area has been modified by human activities over thousands of years; note that in 2003 some 315,000 people lived inside the property, with 36,500 residing inside the core zone. However, much of the site is still relatively undisturbed and continues to perform its ecosystem functions. This is partially explained by the inaccessibility of the higher slopes and the relatively light impact of the subsistence activities of the resident populations.

“The boundary/area ratio for some of the components is extremely high, and connectivity between the component parts is also an issue. Some of the component parts are separated by precipitous river gorges, high mountain glacial divides and/or human settlement. Such a condition will result in a certain biological isolation, and options for linking the units via wildlife corridors would considerably help to enhance the integrity of the overall site.”

Three Parallel Rivers Area Conservation

According to UNESCO: The main challenges facing the property include tourism development within the property and other human activities in adjacent areas. The principal management requirements are to establish and maintain the management plans for all eight clusters of protected areas and scenic areas; regulate and control human activities in adjacent areas, including hydropower development and mining; assure effective on-site boundary demarcation; and to build management capacity, to protect and conserve the Outstanding Universal Value of the property. [Source: UNESCO]

“The 15 different protected areas that make up the property all have a range of different legal conservation designations, including national and provincial level nature reserves and national scenic areas, thus are subject to different national and provincial laws and regulations. The coordinating and management body for the Property is the Yunnan Three Parallel Rivers Management Bureau, which has offices in Diqing, Nujiang and Lijiang prefectures, as well as representation in offices and stations in more than 20 counties. This Management Bureau is responsible for the overall revision and improvement to the master plan of the entire property.

“Substantial funding is provided by the central government each year for the day-to-day management of the property, with a large special fund earmarked for formulating the master plans of the site. Central government has also provided special support to the conservation and management facilities for the property. Local government has provided funding for exhibition facilities, eco-environment protection and biodiversity conservation, funding which is growing steadily and proportionately with the overall funding. The government of Yunnan Province will continue to mobilize funding from various sources for environmental protection, environmental management, ecological compensation, use of new energy sources and research specially focusing on strengthening environmental protection, ecological construction and biodiversity conservation in northwest Yunnan. Management of the property will also benefit from provincial funding for biodiversity conservation targeted at capacity building, formulation of management plans, scientific research, demonstrations, publicity and awareness education.”

Dams in the Three Parallel Rivers Area

Now the biggest issue concerning the region is how extensively to dam to the Jinsha, Lancang and Nu. The Jinsha has four dams under construction as of 2009. The Lancang already has three. Two are under construction and nine more are proposed. There are two on the Nu and a plan put on the table in 2003 calls for 13 more.

There are plans to build 100 dams in Sichuan and Yunnan in the Three Parallel Rivers area, where three great rivers. The plan calls for more than a dozen dams larger than the Grand Coulee dam and one that will be the tallest in the world. Even though the dams are in remote mountainous areas they are set to displace 1 million people.

There are plan calls for major four dams along the Jinshajiang River, which would generate twice the power of the Three Gorges dam. The muddy Jinshajiang fills the Yangtze with half its silt. There are plans to build 13 dams on the Nu River, which flows into Thailand and Burma. The project would produce the largest cascade dam and generate more electricity than the Three Gorges Dam. Another proposed dam on the Yangtze will submerge Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Environmentalist oppose these projects because of the ecological impact they will have. Thailand and Burma oppose them too because they have their own plans to build dams on the river. The Nu River project is slated to be built through an area that has been declared a World Heritage Site UNESCO and biodiversity hot spot and has been described as “maybe the most biologically diverse temperate ecosystem in the world” because of the variety of unique flora and fauna found there. The Nu is one of only two free flowing rivers left in China.

Plans for the dams were suspended in 2004 but revived in 2005. The projects are widely seen as ground zero for conflict between development-minded officials and environment-minded ones. Surprisingly much of the discussion revolves around following the law. A Chinese government environmental review released in 2006 recommended that dam projects be reviewed and an effort made to limit their damage and decrease the number of people relocated.


Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture is named after the Nujiang River that flows southward through the region and the Lisu, who make up the majority of the local population. The prefecture is on the Myanmar border. Nujiang is also home to the second-largest gorge in the world, after the Grand Canyon. Picturesque lofty mountains, roaring rivers and virgin forests in the gorge encircled by snow peaks form a breathtaking and unearthly sight. It is a sanctuary for rare animals and plants. September is the best time to visit Nujiang; Getting There: Regular buses run from Kunming Passenger Transportation Bus Station directly to Liuku Town or Gongshan County of Nujiang.

According to the Chinese government: The Nujiang River valley is one of the regions which have the worst environment and living conditions. The social development of different nationalities in the region is very slow. Until at the beginning of the Liberation, the Nus' society still stayed at the level of the end of primitive society, and the level of productive forces was low. People in most of the region still used wooden pickaxe and wooden stick, and slash-and-burn was main method of cultivation. Gathering and hunting were main sources for living. They didn't have enough clothes to cover their body and enough food in their belly. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]

“After the establishment of the new China, the Communist Party and the government adopted a series of policies and measures, and helped the Nus, Drungs and Lisus in many aspects, such as politics, economy, culture and transportation. Now the old Nujiang River is still flowing with great waves and sound, but scenes on the sides of the river have had an enormous change. Changes of the Nujiang River can be vividly represented by the developing transportation facilities like bridges and roads. ~

“Nujiang was peacefully liberated in 1949. Before that year, there were only 500 kilometers of post roads in the mountains in Nujiang, and they were always destroyed by mountain torrents because the road was very narrow. Two persons couldn't walk abreast on some country roads, and two horses couldn't make way for each other. People climbed rattan, swung or walked on the single-plank high bridges. The transportation was very primitive and backward. After the setting up of the new China, transportation conditions have changed with each passing day. During the ten years from 1951-1961, post roads of Nujiang increased to 2000 kilometers. At the same time, transporting stations were set up, packhorses were increased, and animal-drawn carts were used. In 1956, the first road was constructed in Nujiang, and from then on, cars went into the region. By 1984, there were 58 roads and traffic mileage was 883.5 kilometers. Besides, a single-arched crossing bridge, 5 road suspension bridges, 26 temporary bridges, 23 suspension bridges for humans and horses, 48 steel overhead cables, and other 188 permanent bridges have been built by the government over Nujiang River, Lancangjiang River, and Drung River. The length of post road has been increased to 6389 kilometers. The natural moat of the Nujiang River today becomes a thoroughfare, road extends in all directions and vehicles are unblocked." ~

Sights in the Three Parallel Rivers Area

Shu Pass (near Kawa Karpo) divides Yunnan and Tibet and the Lacang (Mekong) watershed and the Nu (Salween) watershed. Reaching an elevation of 4,800 meters (16,000 feet), it is marked by prayer flags and often covered in deep snow, Although the Lacang and Nu are only 22 miles part as the crow flies, the gorges are so deep and steep it take two to hike up from the Lacang, which sits at 2,135 meters (7000 feet) and is so warm farmers grow grapes and cactuses thrive, to the pass. The climb up takes one past a new ecozone about every thousands feet or so, starting with deciduous forests, and then graduating to evergreen broadleaf forests to temperate coniferous forests, with trees with foot-long needles and dangling strands of lichen, to talus and finally to snow. One the decent the trail is so rutted in some places it is two feet deep and so steep there are switchbacks every 20 feet or so.

Lancang River Canyon (at the border of Yunnan and Tibet) is a 150 kilometer stretch of the river that cuts through the mountains from Foshan township to Yanmen township. On the left bank of the canyon lies Meili Snow Mountain, while on the right bank is the Baima Snow Mountain. The canyon is about 14 kilometers long.

Great Nujiang Gorge — with the Biluo Snowy Mountains one side and the towering Gaoligong Mountains on the other side — is one of the world's deepest and most dangerous gorges. Extending for 315 kilometers, it is sometimes called the Grand Canyon of China. Dangerous rocks tower emerge from the mountains and precipitous cliffs drop to the river. Water in the valley flows rapidly and tempestuously. Since ancient times traveling on the river or crossing it has been so perilous and difficult that was said, "blue sheep has no way out and monkeys worry, too". There are only several ferry crossings where the flow of water is a bit slow and wooden boats can cross the water. Except for these, there is no place for erecting bridges or wading across. For most The Nu people, there is only one way to cross the river—overhead cables.

Nu Minority

The Nu are an ethnic minority that live in northwestern Yunnan Province, primarily along the Nujiang River in the Nujian Lisu Autonomous Prefecture and the Deqen Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. Living among rugged mountains and primary rain forests, they have traditionally lived far from settled areas and hunted in the forest, herded animals and practiced slash and burn agriculture. The Nu are also known as A Long, Nu, A Yia, Nuso Rourou. They speak a Tibeto-Burman language and have adopted many words from neighboring tribes such as the Yi, Lisu and Bai. They have no written language. Some still kept records by cutting notches in sticks or tying knots.

The name of Nu is the generic denomination of four different groups—which some regard as separate ethnic groups, with different languages and well differentiated culture—1) the Anongs, 2) the Alongs, 3) the Ruorous and the 4) Nusus, with a total population of 30,000 people. All the Nus live along a 500-kilometers stretch of the Nu River, in the remote west of Yunnan Province. Their common name can be translated as "peoples of the Nu River". The region where they live is mountainous, with sharp gorges and virgin forests. Most Nu are farmers, with corn and buckwheat being their staple foods. They have traditionally also engaged in hunting and gathering. [Source: Ethnic China ethnic-china.com \*\]

The Nu are also known as Nu, Nuzu. Nusu, They call themselves "Nusu", "Anu", "Along", and "Nu people", "Nu people (different from the former one in Chinese written and pinyin forms)" and " Nuzi" in historical records. The Nu live mainly in Lushui, Fugong, Gongshan and Lanping counties of the Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan Province and in Weixi County in the Diqing Zang Autonomous Prefecture, and Chayu County in the Tibet Autonomous Region. They live together with the Lisus, the Drungs, the Tibetans, the Bais, the Hans and Naxis. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, kepu.net.cn ~]

The Nus are old residents living on either side of the Nujiang River (Salween River) and the Lancangjiang (Mekong River). This is an area of stunning mountains, steep ravines and gorges, clear streams and waterfalls, rare plants and animals, old trees and dragon bamboo. The famous Grand Nujiang Canyon, which is surrounded by 3000-meter-high mountains, is here. Dense virgin forests of pines and firs cover the mountain slopes that were once the habitat of tigers, leopards and bears, with deer and giant hawks still residing there. The area is rich in mineral deposits and valuable medicinal herbs, with a warm climate, plentiful rain, and great hydroelectric potential. But for the Nu and other people that live in area it also a difficult to eke out a living as the soils are poor, there is little flat land for farming and the mountains and rapids make both road and river travel problematic. The Chinese government is deeply involved in developing the Nu region, particularly with dams that proponents say will bring many benefits to local people but critics say will harm the environment and are built with the interests of the Han Chinese in mind not the Nu.

Bamboo and Sliding Cable Bridges

Bridges are vital to Lisu and Nu People living along treacherous rivers like the Nu and Lancang Rivers. According to a Lisu legend the idea of building a bamboo chain bridge came from a spider's web and for this reason they never kill a spider. The Lisus are good at shooting arrows. They cut the toughest and the most tensile rock-mulberry trees and made them into a huge bow which required several people to pull. They attached a long thin silk line at an arrow tail and shot the arrow to other side of the river. After the people on the other side got the thin silk lines, they dragged small ropes with the silk lines and then hauled the thick ropes with the help of the small ropes. Eventually, the first bamboo chain bridge was built. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]

Bamboos plays an important role in the economic and social life of the Nu. People live in bamboo houses, fetch water with thick bamboo tubes, carry things on their back with bamboo baskets, and store grains in bamboo baskets. People also use bamboo bowls, chopsticks, cups, and bamboo tobacco pipes (a small-bowled, long-stemmed tobacco pipe). Nu people sleep in bamboo beds, hunt with bamboo arrows and spears. In the ancient times, there were bamboo armor and leg wrappings. People use bamboo bridges, bamboo ladders, bamboo rafts and bamboo overhead cable (sliding bridges over high mountains and valleys) to cross the river. In their spare time, they play bamboo flutes, and they also play on bamboo swings. At the end of spring and the beginning of summer when vegetables are rare, they even eat dish of bamboo shoots. So the Nu culture can be called "bamboo culture". In the Nu society, a man is not a man if he doesn't know how to cut bamboos into thin strips and weave bamboo utensils.

Overhead cables are an indispensable means of transportation for the Nus. To make one: 1) First twist bamboo strips into large rope as thick as a a person's wrist. 2) Then draw the rope across the river and fix it on big trees, wood stakes or cliffs. 3) People use a sliding board (clipper) to slide along the bamboo rope. The sliding board is a hard wooden chute, which is 25 centimeters long and 12 centimeters cuns wide with two symmetrical holes on the back for tying the rope. When people use it, they put the groove of the board on the rope, cross flax rope or leather belt around the holes, fix the rope or belt on the waist, hold the sliding board while lying horizontally and slide down the rope. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]

There are two kinds of overhead cables: flat cables and steep cables. Flat cables have only one rope, which is horizontal and can be used when coming and going. But it's hard to cross the river by this method. Because the middle part of the rope hangs down naturally, when people reach the middle, they have to make use of the strength of the four limbs to climb up the rope hand over hand to the opposite bank. Steep cable needs two ropes---one for coming and one for going. One end of the rope is high and the other end is low, with a slope in the cable. This method is quick and saves effort, but is more dangerous and requires particular carefulness. ~

It's not only people that are carried by overhead cables, but also goods and domestic animals. It is said that the Nus' invention of overhead cable was inspired by a spider, which weaves webs and hangs lines among trees which it uses to climb back and forth. With the development of the society, several modern bridges have been built over the Nujiang River, but the overhead cables are still widely used and still favored by the Nus in some places. However, the dangerous and breakable bamboo has been replaced by a steel cable with a pulley.

Nu River Dam

Hydroelectric power company Huadian plans to build a cascade dams on the Nu River in the spectacular 'Grand Canyon of the Orient'. The plan envisages the construction of 13 dams on the middle and lower reaches of the Nu river, with a total generating capacity of 21.3GW, similar to that of the Three Gorges Dam. In 2013, Beijing decided to reopen controversial plans to dam the Nu River— eight years after Premier Wen Jiabao suspended the plans out of environmental concerns.

The Nu ("angry river" in Chinese) is better known outside of China as the Salween. It flows from its source in the Himalayas through the heart of a UNESCO world heritage site that has been called the "Grand Canyon of the Orient". It is home to more than 80 endangered species, including snow leopards and Yunnan snub-nosed monkeys. Downstream, it provides water for Burma and Thailand, whose governments have joined a coalition of conservation groups and scientists in expressing opposition to the dam plans.

The plan to halt the dam project was ordered in 2004 on environmental grounds and reconfirmed in 2009," Jonathan Watts wrote in The Guardian, “Back then, conservation groups hailed the reprieve as a rare victory against Big Hydro in an area of southwest Yunnan province that is of global importance for biodiversity. But Huadian - one of the country's five biggest utilities - and the provincial government have argued that more low-carbon energy is needed to meet the climate commitments of the fast-growing economy." [Source: Jonathan Watts The Guardian, February 1, 2011]

Rafting in the Three Parallel Rivers Area

The China Daily reported: “American Travis Winn believes western China's rivers are bridges-but ones in danger of being swept away by the currents of development in the region. The 24-year-old, who has undertaken 15 of China's 42 major documented "first descents" (initial river explorations) since exploration began in 1985, is now working to connect people with watercourses and one another. [Source: China Daily January 8, 2009, Last Descent rafting company lastdescents.info ]

“So in 2006, the Coloradan started Last Descent rafting company and in 2007 co-founded the nonprofit China Rivers Project to expose people to these waterways' wonders through rafting voyages. "We're also trying to build bridges between the people who are financially rich in eastern China, who have so much money and resources and are so well-educated, and the people who live in the river valleys of western China, who aren't well educated and aren't financially rich."The expeditions are mostly funded by Western tourists, who pay 3,000 yuan (US$440) to 5,000 yuan apiece, while only one Chinese person has paid for a rafting excursion-a voluntary 7,000-yuan contribution.

“He took his first rafting trip in the country in 2000, when he made the first-ever expedition down Tibet's Nujiang River with his father, who was conducting geological research. Winn led his first expedition in 2003 in Sichuan province. He recalls that when he was training kayakers in a swimming pool, they explained they loved many outdoor sports but didn't "know how to go out and enjoy rivers". "In China, it's as simple as walking into a village, making friends and asking a few questions."

“He says the inhabitants of remote riverside settlements where he has docked to chat have shared amazing stories that have given him insight into their cultures. One of his favorite folktales comes from a small settlement on a stretch of the Yangtze called Tongtianhe (The River That Floats Into Heaven). Villagers there told him about a nearby whirlpool they believe is a portal to another world. Long ago, they say, local monks announced a water buffalo with bejeweled horns ridden by a young boy planned to come to this world to visit some dragons dwelling in nearby hills. When villagers ignored warnings to avoid looking at the beast when it emerged from the eddy, it fearfully lunged back through the vortex into its world. This unhinged the equilibrium between the universes, gradually causing the local monastery to crumble into ruins.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: CNTO (China National Tourist Organization), China.org, UNESCO, reports submitted to UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, China Daily, Xinhua, Global Times, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2020

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