Off the Map South of the Clouds: Two remote villages in Yunnan’s Nujiang River Valley are home to unlikely traditions

Map Magazine, October 2007

The Three Parallel Rivers area in Northwest Yunnan Province, any source will tell you, is a stunningly beautiful and rich place.  It’s so-named because of the nearly matching southward flows of the Nujiang, Mekong and Yangtze rivers through the province’s narrow, mountainous northwest corner.  Each forms in the plateaus of Tibet and Qinghai before making a near-convergence in Yunnan, violently carving through mountains and gorges.  The area is one epic range followed by major river and back again, a terrain responsible for the area’s lack of development and sparse population.  The region is host to more than 20 percent of the country’s plant species and 25 percent of its animal species.  UNESCO has deemed it a World Natural Heritage Site.

Its remoteness, however, means that much of the area is rarely seen by visitors.  The sites around the Nujiang river at the very edge of the province haven’t yet found mention in most travel books.  Looking at maps, I had assumed the region was inaccessible and largely vacant.  But a friend who visited a village near the river told me a different story about the people she met there.

“They’re Tibetan Catholics,” she said.  “And they love basketball.”  According to her, these villagers finished every Sunday sermon with a spirited game of round ball.  It had never occurred to me that Tibetan Catholics existed, and the thought of them dribbling, passing and dunking made my head spin.  I wasn’t even aware there was a road leading there, but a few weeks later I was on it, headed for the village of Dimaluo, hoping to see it all for myself.

A long journey

I soon understood why this area is so rarely seen.  Getting up there is a fantastic pain, typically taking two to three days of hard travel from Kunming.  By the time my overnight bus starts winding its way north along the Nujiang, however, the effort pays dividends.  The further north we travel, the more spectacular the scenery becomes.  The mountains rise in steep, lush angles along the highway, the river sitting in a gorge reaching depths of almost two miles.  The hard-running Nujiang – known as the “angry river” – turns from blue to jade as we head upstream.  Out of the bus window, I see the brightly-colored clothes of the minority people – including the Nu, Lisu and Dulong – who live in the towns and villages along the river.  I also see the occasional church, evidence of the Catholic and Prodestant missionaries who started coming here about 150 years ago. I follow the road north to its nearly furthest point, stopping at the town of Gongshan.  Traveling much further ahead would take me to Tibet.  Only a dozen miles to the west is the Myanmar border, while to the east, where I’m headed, lays the Baima Mountain Range.  I catch a ride into Dimaluo in the army supply truck of a friendly villager, traveling in the back with some farm equipment, meat, vegetables, beer and one enormous, ill-tempered hog.  A bumpy, dirty three hours later, we arrive in Dimaluo.  The village is small and simple, with about 1,000 residents.  It sits low in a valley alongside the Nujiang tributary that runs through it, both seeming swallowed up by the mountains rising fiercely from both sides.

The guide; yak kissing

I’m soon greeted by Aluo, a man who runs the town’s guesthouse and guides backpackers on multi-day treks through the Baima to Deqin.  He’s a friendly, athletic Tibetan with an intense stare.  He leads me up the hill to his lodge, a large and simple two-story home where he lives with his wife and two daughters.  Guests stay upstairs, above a large meeting hall in one of a dozen or so beds.

Aluo and I sit down to chat, and his wife pours me some yak butter tea.  Taking a sip, I remember just how much I dislike this local favorite.  Drinking yak butter tea, I imagine, is like licking an actual yak.  I’m asked to drink liters of it over the next week.  Aluo speaks little English but very good Mandarin.  We discuss the village and its history.  The first settlers here, he tells me, were the Nu, Lisu and Dulong, who arrived in the area about 500 years ago.  The Tibetans arrived later, about 300 years ago. The Jesuit missionaries who introduced Catholicism first came to Dimaluo from Deqin in the 1850s and 1860s.  People here are mostly farmers, growing cabbage and corn on the steep hillsides, and raising livestock like pigs, yaks and chickens.  Globalization has mostly ignored them so far, though some families, like Aluo’s, have TVs and wired computers that keep them in touch with a China and outside world they seem so disconnected from.  Because of their location and some chance encounters, their way of life has been just as informed by the cultures of other countries as it has been by that of their own nation. As a child, Aluo used to watch TV programs picked up by satellite from countries like the U.S., Russia, Germany and Thailand.  “I didn’t understand much of it,” he says, “but it shaped my views.”  He tells me that, slowly, Chinese cities and the lifestyle they promise are drawing local people away, literally or in spirit.  Interest in traditions, like Catholicism, has always been mixed among townspeople here, but what exists is waning with the widening appeal of modern life.  “You can see it at church,” he says.  “Many of the people’s hearts just aren’t in it.”  He says he likes talking to foreigners because, when it comes to his interests and perspectives, he has increasingly more in common with them than with his own people.

“That sounds a bit lonely,” I tell him.

“Yes,” he says.  “That’s the word.”

A walk; the keeper

The next day, I tell Aluo that I’d like to explore the area.  He suggests I see the village of Baihanluo, two-hours up the mountain to the west.  It has, he says, a lovely church.  I head up a steep, rough trail, hiking past evergreen and conifer trees under cloudy skies that seem to part just over the valley.  Approaching the village, I come across five or so locals heading down to Dimaluo, including an older man wearing wrap-around Terminator-style sunglasses, who bears a striking resemblance to Christopher Walken. When I tell them I’m headed for the church, Walken gets very excited.

“That’s my church,” he says proudly.  “I take care of it.  I have the key.  I can take you there, but not until tomorrow.” I accept and promise to meet him the next day. I reach the village and sit on the mountainside, staring out at the endless Myanmar and Tibetan Himalayas under the setting sun.  I take out my phone to tell a friend where I am, only to find that, not surprisingly, I’m out of range.

Compared with Dimaluo, Baihanluo is smaller and less developed.  It also seems empty.  I spot the town’s small but ornately designed Catholic church and, next to it, a basketball court, deserted except for a donkey standing forlornly at the three-point line.  I sit at the edge and eat some Oreos.  The donkey watches me, the rope around its neck fluttering in the late winter wind.

Wine; a shepard; the spirit

I’m invited by the town’s schoolteacher to spend the night at the tiny village schoolhouse, where he has an extra room and cot.  I ask the teacher about Walken, and he says his name is Amei.  The teacher gives me directions to Amei’s home and the next afternoon I set out to find him.  Amei greets me at his door with a warm smile.  After some tea together, he takes me to the church as promised. He’s in his mid-60s, he says, and Tibetan.  He too is a farmer, raising corn and livestock.  He tells me the church is 108 years old, and was built by three French and American missionaries.  He opens the padlock on the church’s outer gate and shows me inside the courtyard. We walk up the crumbling steps towards the church’s door and he points out the faded floral paintings on the outside.  He opens the front door and allows me inside, where it appears that nothing’s changed in those 108 years.  The ground is stone, and there are no pews.  On the walls are the 14 Stations of the Cross – paintings depicting the Passion, Death and Resurrection – and in front is a simple altar with a Virgin statue and pictures of Jesus behind. Amei says the church is waiting for a real priest, and in the meantime he is acting as reader.

Amei invites me to have lunch at his home with his sister and her daughter, as well as to a service that night.  After lunch, we sit by the fire as Amei keeps our tin cups full of baijiu.  He’s more optimistic than Aluo about the area’s future, believing its traditions will endure.  “Our ways of life have been around for too long,” he says.  “This is a Catholic village, and that won’t change.”

With some time before the evening’s mass, I decide to hike further up the mountain.  Hours later, high up at the snowline, I meet a shepherd.  He approaches me to take a closer look.  Seeing that I’m a foreigner, he starts to laugh.  He invites me into his cabin with a wave.  We chat and share more baijiu by the fire.   After an hour, I stumble down the mountain back towards Baihanluo.  It’s dark when I reach the church, where I find Amei welcoming the townspeople as they enter.  The church is, at most, half full, and lit only by a dim chandelier.  Amei begins by reading a hymn from the Bible in Mandarin that I don’t understand.  The parishioners follow this with a chanted “Amen.”  Amei then leads the church in identical incantations, one for each of the 14 Stations on the walls.  Each incantation lasts about three minutes, most of which is spent kneeling on church’s stone floor.  My head is still buzzing, and the eerily beautiful singing becomes trance-like in its repetition.  It is at once one of the most beautiful and painful experiences of my life.  After a while, I lose track of time.  In my memory, by the end of the service, the room has become terrifically bright.

A prayer before tip-off

That Sunday in Dimaluo I attend their town’s service.  As in Baihanluo there is a basketball court directly alongside the church, though here it seems that the entire town has come out for the morning’s service.  It’s so crowded that I stand outside with latecomers.  Three or four young people take turns reading from the Bible because, Aluo explains later, they’re some of the few people in town who can read Mandarin.

After service, there is indeed a basketball game.  Most of the town gathers to watch, and it’s no casual matter.  There are established teams (Dimaluo east and west sides), a referee and a scorekeeper.  And some of these guys can flat-out play.  The only miracles I saw at church that day were a no-look pass on a fast break, a fade-away jumper in double coverage and a perfectly timed give-and-go.  Granted, the customary one-beer-after-each-game rule did dilute the quality of play over time, but those first two games were truly something to behold.

One last visit with Amei

After church and before leaving the next day, I decide to visit Amei one last time to say thank you.  The only gifts I can find at the town’s store are beer, baijiu and cookies. I hope they will count as at least as well-intentioned if not especially unique.  I hike back up the mountain, only to find that Amei and his family aren’t home.  I find his neighbor and ask him to pass along my presents and thanks.

On my way back down the mountain, I stop for a moment to look one last time over the mountains to the west and the valley below.  What I’ve seen this week is evidence of a country far more complicated and rich than I knew.  I take out my camera, and find I can’t come close to fitting this scene in its frame.  So I focus on the brightest section, where the clouds part over the valley, and open the shutter.

Aluo’s Guesthouse:

General regional and travel information:

Travel tips:

Treks can only be taken between Dimaluo and Deqin between April and October

Allow two to three days for return trips from Dimaluo to Kunming


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