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Stepping Towards the Present

Photo story - Dulongjiang, Yunnan province, China

"You're foreigners, we're Chinese! You're foreigners, we're Chinese!" He screamed at me repeatedly, using very broken Chinese, while we were sitting in his small house. I'm sure he didn't mean to scream, but I really couldn't blame him, given the amount of alcohol that he had drunk by that time. "Yes, you're right" I responded, trying to understand why me being a foreigner was such a big deal. His name is Di Zhonghua (迪忠华), who belongs to the Dulong ethnic minority of southwestern China, and kindly invited me to stay at his house, saving me from another night in my tent. Looking back at this conversation, I think I had interpreted it all wrong. It really wasn't about me being a foreigner, but rather about him being a Chinese.

Di Zhonghua

The Dulong ethnic group are one of the smallest recognized minorities in China, their number estimated at about 5,000 – 6,000 people in China, and about the same number in northeastern Myanmar (Burma). They reside mainly in the Dulong valley (独龙江 - hence the minority's name), and some at the northern part of the nearby Nu vally (怒江). Both the Nu and the Dulong rivers flow down from Tibet, all the way into Myanmar. Prior to 1997 there had been no road that leads to the Dulong valley, resulting in that the only way in had been days of crossing the mountains by foot. A road was built in 1997, but due the heavy snowfall, it had been, for years, closed during winter. Thanks to a tunnel built in recent years, however, it is now possible to get there all year round.

In the photo: To the right: The new village of Bapo. Before the road was built in 1997, Bapo (the old version ot it) had been the central village in the valley, being the starting and ending point of the trail leading up the mountains and over to the Nu valley in the east. To the left: The Dulong river.

In the photo: Dulongjiang township, located right next to the village of Kongdang. This is now the center of the valley, geographically and administratively. It was built in recent years, at the same time as the tunnel. It is the only place in the valley that offers the tourists places to sleep, as well as a couple of restaurants.

The fact that the Dulong valley has been such an isolated place for so long helped me understand why saying "I'm Chinese" can, actually, mean a great deal to some of the people there. Whilst the younger generation gets "Chinese" education starting from the age of 6; the older generation, such as Di Zhonghua, has never had it. I would dare assume that even the major events that took place in China during the 20th century, have had little effect on remote places such as the Dulong valley, meaning that creating an identity as a "Chinese" was different for them as well.

During the last 4-5 years, the valley has gone through a great deal of development, particularly because of the growing numbers of (mainly local) tourists. New villages were built by the government for the local people to live in, and the road now runs throughout almost the entire length of the valley. For most of the people, the recent years have been the first time they've had any access to electricity. However, apart from the new villages and the new televisions in some of the houses, the locals are still maintaining most of their traditional life style, at least for now. Thanks to the new developments, it is now far more convenient to move around, getting to the markets, schools, as well as in and out of the valley, a fact which opens new opportunities for the people.

That is not the case, however, for everyone.

In the photo: Inside the new village of Longyuan (龙元). The new villages are much denser and more organized than the old ones. The houses were all built in the exact same manner, and the national flag can be found all around the village.

The northern part of the valley is actually made up of two rivers, both flow down from Tibet to form the Dulong river. Mudang village (木当村) and Nandai village (南代村) are the northernmost, still populated, villages in the valley, located to the northeast and northwest respectively. Despite the fact that there are new houses waiting for them at the new village of Xiongdang (雄当), The people of these two villages decided not to leave their homes and not move out to the new village, mainly because it is too far away from their lands, where they work and grow their food. The outcome of such a decision, which was clearly made due to lack of other options, is being unable to create a significant change in their life conditions, inevitably resulting in harming the future generation – their children. Had it been their choice to maintain the same life style, it wouldn't have been a problem at all. However, although the older generation have never taken part in any type of formal education, most of them are aware of the importance in sending their children to school, and the effect it has on their future. They thus support the children in going to school and pursuing their own future. In school the kids learn what is perhaps the most important skill for any kind of a better future in China – The Chinese language (Mandarin).

In the photo: Mudang village

In the photo: The children of Mudang village

In the photo: Nandai village

In the photo: Some of the children of Nandai village

There can be difficulties, and an example of such difficulty is Si Lixue, a 7 year old girl from Nandai village, who lives together with her two younger brothers, her parents and her uncle. Though already at the age of 7, Lixue has not yet started school, due to the fact that she wasn't registered at birth and wasn't given a Hukou. Hukou is a household registration record required by law in China, which identifies a person's name, family, date and place of birth, and more. Since the people of both Nandai and Mudang were all born at home, rather than at a hospital, it is required that the parents would actively go and register their children after birth. Lixue's parents didn't do it, and claimed it had been due to money problems. Since, however, the entire process is free, it's more likely to had been due to misunderstanding, as well as lack of awareness to the consequences. Luckily a Chinese man from Shanghai, who was staying at the village as well at that time, helped the family take care of the formalities, and Lixue will be able to start attending school next year.

In the photo: Si Lixue (斯丽雪 - in the middle) with her parents, her two youger brothers and her uncle (on the right) at the entrance to their house.

To say that it is impossible for the younger generation to pursue a different future would be untrue, and they can indeed do it should they choose to. An example for that would be one of the young people of Mudang village (whose name I regrettably didn't write down), who is actually studying for a bachelor's degree at the city of Kunming. However, university students are still a very rare phenomenon in this area, as most teenagers go back home to their village after graduating from high school.

In the photo: Si Jinhua (斯金华 - 18 years old, on the right) with his mother and grandmother, working in the field. Jinhua, like others in the village, and many throughout the entire valley, decided to go back home and not attempt to leave the valley for study or work. He said that he had considered it in the past, and that his parents would probably support him, but as of now, he has not yet decided.

Since the other parts of the valley are going through a rapid process of development and modernization, staying at the two villages of Nandai and Mudang feels like travelling back in time. With no phone signal, while living their traditional life style in their wooden houses, the only thing that might give away the fact that we are still in the 21st century, is the limited electricity supply, powering one or two television sets and several small lamps.

Getting to the villages has its difficulties as well. The only way to get in and out of Mudang village is on foot, which makes it hard, sometimes impossible for the older people to leave the village, and also poses a challenge for the children who go to school. Getting to Nandai village does not require a long walk, thanks to a new, but yet unfinished road. Crossing the river, however, is the challenge, since there is no bridge at that part of the river. In the past, they used to slide on a rope, which was tied to trees on both banks of the river. Today they use the same technique, but instead use a metal cable.

In the photo: Yang Lin (杨林), 10 years old from the village of Nandai, demonstrates how he crosses the river when going to school or coming back home. His father would help him tie the rope and watch him until he finishes the cross, but while crossing the river, he is on his own.

There are three main ways through which the villagers make a living: Agriculture, hunting and fishing, and annual government subsidies of 1,000 Chinese Yuan per person. In Mudang, hunting is now prohibited by the government due to environment conservation reasons, making agriculture their main source of income. In Nandai, hunting basically means catching and eating anything possible, by means of active hunting, as well as setting traps. They hunt small animals such as birds, squirrels and mice, as well as bigger animals up on the mountains.

In the photo: Yang Xin (杨新) scouting for small birds, while prepering the wooden crossbow.

In the photo: Yang Xin, arming the crossbow with a wooden dart. These darts are ment for hunting small animals, such as birds and squirrels.

In the photo: Si Wenming (斯文明) before heading up the mountains for several days. He is carrying food and supplies, which he would then stash in the ground next to the hunting trails on the mountains. When one of the villagers will go for a hunting trip, he won't need to carry any supplies with him.

In the photo: Yang Lin setting a mouse trap. There are a few dozen traps around the village, all of which are being checked by Yang Lin several times a week, fixed or replaced if necessary. If a mouse had been caught, he would take it back home, where they roast the mouse and eat it.

I was born into the modern world, and have never had to think about things like hunting or growing my own food, crossing a river by sliding on a metal cable in order to get to school, or being sealed away from the outer world during winter months. Staying with these people, though for a short period of time, has been an eye opening experience, as well as a lesson in perspective and modesty. Right next to their struggle to make a living, I've felt a great sense of togetherness and simplicity. While sitting together next to the fire every night, it felt as if nothing else mattered, apart from the people around us.

As a traveler, visiting remote villages, and meeting people who have received little influence from our modern world is a mesmerizing experience. But as a human being, I hope that they, too, could have the future they desire for themselves, regardless of what it is, rather than a future that was decided for them.

In the photo: Sitting by the fire, while the village outside is covered with snow

In the photo: The children of Mudang village cuddling together behind the fire. On left - Their great-great-grandmother, one of the oldest women in the valley, at over a 100 years old.

More photos from the Dulong valley can be found on the gallery page, including photos of the tattooed women of the Dulong ethnic group.

*Some of the technical details were taken from a book, called: 文面密码:寻访最后的独龙族文面女 ('Searching for the last tattooed women of the Dulong ethnic group').

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