To many Chinese, the "Three Rivers Flowing Side by Side," a scenic area in Yunnan Province, presently under application for World Natural Heritage designation, is an obscure place. However, its mystery attracts numerous tourists and travelers from both China and abroad.
The three rivers referred to are the Jinsha (the upper reaches of the Yangtze River), the Lancang and Nujiang rivers. They originate on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, and flow torrentially from north to south along the Hengduan Mountains at the juncture of Yunnan and Tibet, separated by the Yunling, Nushan and Gaoligong mountains. The Jinsha River is to the east, the Lancang River in the middle and the Nujiang River to the west. Although separated by high mountains, there is no great distance between the three rivers, the shortest space between the Jinsha and Lancang being 66.3 km, and between the Lancang and Nujiang 18.6 km. The rivers begin to flow abreast in northwestern Yunnan, and continue this way for 170 km, passing through Deqen Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Lijiang Naxi Autonomous Prefecture and Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture.
The Jinsha River does a U-turn at Shigu Town and flows northward, before veering first to the south and then to the east. In Sichuan Province the river is known as the Yangtze, from where it flows eastward and empties into the East China Sea. Flowing through Shigu Town, the Jinsha River is flanked by the Yulong Snow Mountain to the east and the Haba Snow Mountain to the west. From the top of the Yulong Snow Mountain to the bottom of the gully is a drop of 3,700 meters, making it 1,800 meters deeper than the Colorado Grand Canyon, while the Haba Snow Mountain slopes gradually in its upper regions and is steeper further down. The mountain is 5,396 meters above sea level and the lowest point on the bank of the Jinsha River is 1,550 meters above sea level. The two mountains flanking the Jinsha River form a 15-km Gorge -- Tiger Leaping Gorge, further classified into the upper, middle and lower Tiger Leaping Gorge. The Upper Tiger Leaping Gorge is the narrowest section, and in the center of the river is a huge rock called Tiger Leaping Rock. It is said that a tiger once leapt from the east bank, clearing the rock, to land on the west bank, hence its name. The most perilous section is the Middle Tiger Leaping Gorge, which features a huge drop in water level. In one 100-meter section are numerous reefs, and the current is torrential. The gorge is rarely traversed by humans, but on the slope between the Middle and Lower Tiger Leaping Gorge there is a small village -- Hetaoyuan Village, which has little contact with the outside, and where villagers lead a simple and natural life, dwelling in stone-plate houses.
At the foot of the Haba Snow Mountain is the mysterious White Field, also called Baishui Terrace, birthplace of the Naxi ethnic minority Dongba Culture. Amid the mountains is a stretch of crystal terrace -- the largest area of sinter terrace in China. Spring water flows down from the mountain, leaving crystallized sodium carbonate along its slopes, giving the impression of a marble sculpture. Among the green mountains it forms a startling white contrast. A spring gushes down from the mountain summit, and flows downward, and local people call it "a field left by fairies." On the eighth day of the second lunar month, when the mountains surrounding Baishui Terrace are festooned with flower blossoms, the Naxi people come to worship this sacred site. Dressed in their holiday best, they sing and dance to celebrate this ethnic festival.
The Lancang River, flanked by the Yunling and Nushan Mountains, flows torrentially from north to south. Most people know this river from Xishuangbanna, where its course is wide and the current flows gently enough for the Dai people to cross or transport goods by boat. After entering Myanmar, the Lancang becomes known as the Mekong River, which also flows through Vietnam, Laos and Thailand before emptying into the Indian Ocean. River rafting in this "Three Rivers Flowing Side by Side" area, with its high mountains, deep gullies, great drops and torrential currents, is impossible. The Baimang Snow Mountain -- a transitional area between the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and the Hengduan Mountains separating the Jinsha and Lancang rivers -- has more than 20 snow-capped peaks, all more than 5,000 meters above sea level. The distance from the top of the mountain to the bottom of the valley is more than 3,500 meters, and its vertical distribution of vegetation coverage has given it the name "kingdom of alpine plants." The state has designated the area a national nature reserve. It is a sanctuary for 80 endangered species, such as the lesser panda, cinereous vulture, snow leopard, blood pheasant, Tibetan-eared pheasant, sunbird and Yunnan golden monkey.
Mount Kagebo, 6,740 meters above sea level, is the main peak of the Meili Snow Mountain at the northern tip of the Nushan Mountains. It is the highest point of the "Three Rivers Flowing Side by Side" area, called "Prince Snow Mountain" by local Tibetans. The Meili Snow Mountain is thought of as cold and merciless, as in recent years many mountaineering teams have tried to conquer it, but failed. On January 3, 1991, 17 members of a Sino-Japanese mountaineering team died in an avalanche. Although the Meili Snow Mountain is not the highest, it is the most difficult to climb, and up to now no one has reached its summit. Unexpectedly, at the foot of the snow mountain is a small Tibetan village. The villagers are unsophisticated and hospitable, and have few contacts with the outside. Ascending further from the village is a temple on the meadow at the foot of a glacier, where "Prince Snow Mountain" is worshipped. According to local Tibetans, no ordinary person can see the sacred mountain clearly, only those who are favored by Prince Snow Mountain, which brings them good luck. The Prince is said to be so handsome that when he lifts his veil, all the surrounding mountains pale into insignificance.
The Nujiang River originates on the southern slope of the Tanggula Mountains. Its upper reach is called "Nagqu," meaning Black Water River, and it flows on to Qinatong in Gongshan County, Yunnan Province, where it is called the Nujiang River. Flanked by the Biluo Snow Mountain (4,000 meters above sea level) and the Gaoligong Mountain (5,000 meters above sea level), the river passes through Gongshan, Fugong and Lushui, and crosses the Sino-Myanmar border in Luxi County. In Myanmar it is known as the Thanlwin River, where it flows southward to empty into the Indian Ocean. These two mountains form a 300-km V-shaped gully, at the bottom of which runs the Nujiang River. The distance from the bottom to the top is 2,800 meters to 3,800 meters. The mountain slopes are steep, giving rise to the sobriquet, "Oriental Grand Canyon" or "Mysterious Grand Canyon." In summer, going upstream from Liuku, the capital of Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture, one may witness the torrential current of the river, whose velocity reaches 6 meters per second. Melted snow flows down from the mountain and joins the Nujiang River.
In Bingzhongluo Township, the river bends several ways. At a place 4 kilometers south of the township government building is a bend, called the "First Bend on the Nujiang River," and a little further south is another horseshoe bend. The terrace is vast and smooth, 30 meters above the water surface, forming a small plain surrounded by water on three sides, emerging like an emerald within the gorge. In spring, luxuriant peach blossoms vie for beauty, and green pines along the river flourish. The scenery is breathtaking.
Rattan suspension bridges and overhead cables spanning the Nujiang River are a striking spectacle. These methods of transportation are a symbol of the wisdom and bravery of the ethnic minorities along the Nujiang River. A rattan suspension bridge is made by tying several rattan ropes to trees or stocks on either side of the river, and placing split bamboo over the ropes. The bridge is narrow, and allows only one person to cross at a time. Those crossing the bridge for the first time invariably sway the bridge, a thrilling experience. More exciting still is crossing the river by sliding from an overhead cable. The cable is tied to trees or stocks on either side of the river, and to cross, one is suspended from a rope tied to the waist to slide along the cable.
In the Nujiang River Canyon, forest coverage is 70 percent. The Gaoligong Mountain Nature Reserve is rich in tree species, and has been called a "genetic bank" by scientists. In the forest everywhere are rare plants such as Flous Taiwania, which is a grade-one protected tree species, the primitive Yunnan cherry, the primitive camellia, and a 500-year-old azalea tree. There are also many rare animals. Zoologists call it an animal corridor, and regard it as the birthplace of mammals.
In the deep valley live ethnic minorities such as the Lisu, the Nu and the Drung. The Nu is an ancient ethnic group. They call the Nujiang River "Anu Rimei," meaning "the river inhabited by the Nu people." In the 1950s the Nu people still preserved their clan totem system. On the 15th day of the third lunar month, the Nu people in Gongshan celebrate their Flower Festival, when they pray for a good harvest and a peaceful life. The area along the Nujiang River is also inhabited by the Lisu ethnic minority people. The Lisus are brave, and always carry with them knives, bows and arrows. During their traditional festival they perform the "broadsword ladder climbing" feat, when exponents climb barefoot up a ladder formed by broadsword blades, without injuring their hands or feet. They then dance on burning charcoal, a ritual known as "going down the sea of fire."
There is also a narrower and more perilous gorge in the "Three Rivers Flowing Side by Side" area -- the Drung River Gorge. From November one year to May the following, when snow blocks the mountain pass, it is almost impossible to enter the gorge. The Drung ethnic minority people that live there is one of the smallest ethnic minorities. The harsh natural environment has dictated the distinctive lifestyle of the Drung people, and to this day, the local people still practice certain of their ancient customs. For instance, the practice whereby women tattoo their faces originated in their ancient beliefs, but this custom has carried on to present day. During traditional festivals, sacrificing cattle to heaven is also a remnant of Drung folklore.
The "Three Rivers Flowing Side by Side" area is unpolluted. People from all over the world are welcome to explore and marvel at its fresh beauty, especially those who enjoy adventure.
(China Today 06/17/2001)