rice fields near Yangtze
Three Parallel Rivers National Park comprises eight geographical clusters of protected areas in mountainous northwest of Yunnan Province and covers 17,000 square kilometers and contains sections of the upper reaches of three of the great rivers of Asia: the Yangtze (Jinsha), Mekong (Lancang) and Salween (Nu), which 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. [Source: UNESCO]

According to 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 may also harbour the richest biodiversity among the temperate areas of the world.” UNESCO World Heritage Site site: Three Parallel Rivers UNESCO

The half million or human inhabitants include more than a dozen ethnic groups and Han Chinese workers. Among these are Tibetans, Naxi, Derung, 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 (Yangtze), Lacang (Mekong) and Nu (Salween) Rivers 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.

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.

Three Parallel Rivers Geology and Topography

Location of the Three Parallel Rivers

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 (Upper Yangtze), Lancang (Mekong) and Nu (Salween). 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.

Nu River (Nujiang)

The Nu River is called Nujiang ("angry river" in Chinese) and better known outside of China as the Salween. One of the last large free-flowing river in China, 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 Myanmar and Thailand, whose governments have joined a coalition of conservation groups and scientists in expressing opposition to the dam plans.

Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times: From its crystalline beginnings as a rivulet seeping from a glacier on the Tibetan Himalayas to its broad, muddy amble through the jungles of Myanmar, the Nu River is one of Asia’s wildest waterways, its 1,700-mile course unimpeded as it rolls toward the Andaman Sea.[Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, May 4, 2013]

“But the Nu’s days as one of the region’s last free-flowing rivers are dwindling. The Chinese government stunned environmentalists in 2013 by reviving plans to build a series of hydropower dams on the upper reaches of the Nu, the heart of a UNESCO World Heritage site in China’s southwest Yunnan Province that ranks among the world’s most ecologically diverse and fragile places.

“Here in Bingzhongluo, a peaceful backpacker magnet, those who treasure the fast-moving, jade-green beauty of the Nu say the four proposed dams in Yunnan and the one already under construction in Tibet would irrevocably alter what guidebooks refer to as the Grand Canyon of the East. A soaring, 370-mile-long gorge carpeted with thick forests, the area is home to roughly half of China’s animal species, many of them endangered, including the snow leopard, the black snub-nosed monkey and the red panda.

“Clinging improbably to the alpine peaks are mist-shrouded villages whose residents are among the area’s dozen or so indigenous tribes, most with their own languages. “The project will be good for the local government, but it will be a disaster for the local residents,” said Wan Li, 42, who in 2003 left behind his big-city life as an accountant in the provincial capital, Kunming, to open a youth hostel here. “They will lose their culture, their traditions and their livelihood, and we will be left with a placid, lifeless reservoir.”

Nu River (Nujiang) Area

First Bend of the Nu River

Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture is named after the Nu 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, ~]

“After the establishment of the new China, the Communist Party and the government adopted a series of policies and measures, and helped the Nu, Derung (Dulong, Drung) and Lisu 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 Nu River (Nujiang), Lancang River (Lancangjiang), and Dulong 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

Nu River After it Becomes the Salween in Myanmar

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 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, Derung 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: \=/]

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, ~]

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.

Rafting in the Three Parallel Rivers Area

Lancang (Mekong) River near Deqin

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 ]

“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, UNESCO, Conservation Biogeography in China

Text Sources: CNTO (China National Tourist Organization),, 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 September 2022

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