A Return to the Nu River

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For TIME Asia’s recent Best of Asia issue, I wrote a short piece on the Nu River, which was subtitled the “Best Place to Visit Before It’s Gone.” When my mother visited last month, she said she wanted to visit a place off the tourist trail, so we went to northwest Yunnan province, near the Burmese border, to see the river.

By coincidence I had been there at exactly the same time a year ago, when members of the Dai ethnic group celebrate the Water Splashing Festival, just like people across Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. Just like before, the state of the proposed dam project for the Nu River was unclear, with locals wondering how long the river would continue its unobstructed run to the Indian Ocean. (See my previous story, and this short documentary on the Asia Society’s China Green site.)

But unlike before, I had time to travel all the way north to where the Nu enters Yunnan from Tibet. Cross one mountain range to the east and you’re in Shangri-la, the mountain town once known as Zhongdian that changed its name and became a tourist destination. (National Geographic has a nice new piece on the region.)

Bingzhonglou, a village along the stretch of the Nu just after it leaves Tibet, sits just below a snow-covered mountain range. Tibetan stupas, a Catholic church and a Protestant church are a testament to the religious and ethnic diversity in the region. Getting there takes a day or two of driving over steep, twisting roads. Unlike the Shangri-la side, there is no airport in the upper Nu valley. And there are few visitors, making it much more like Shangri-la than the town that bears the name.

Here are a few photos:

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Rapids just below a narrow gorge

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Goats scale a cliff above a bend in an upper section of the river

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Along the Nu, just south of the Tibetan border

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My mom, after tagging a village wall with graffiti that reads, "Long Live Freedom." Kidding! My mom would never do that. Now Jackie Chan...

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