Thursday, Apr. 23, 2009

Running Its Course

Best Place to Visit Before It's Gone
Nu River Valley, China

Visitors to China are often awed by mighty works — the Great Wall, the Grand Canal, the Three Gorges Dam — that reveal just how radically and emphatically its people can alter their landscape, affecting the lives of millions in the process. But in the southwest corner of the country is a place that is amazing for the fact that it has hardly changed at all — at least not yet.

The 1,700-mile (2,800 km) Nu River flows from the Tibetan highlands through western Yunnan province into Burma. There it becomes the Salween and runs south into the Andaman Sea. It is the longest free-flowing river in Southeast Asia, and one of only two major rivers in China not to have its main stem blocked by a dam. The Nu — its name means "angry" in Chinese, a reference to the surge of water that follows the spring snowmelt — supports a diverse ecosystem (including several species that exist nowhere else) and a fascinating culture. More than 20 ethnic groups live here, and Mandarin is usually the second or even third language of the valley residents. The food — a mishmash of Chinese and Southeast Asian flavors — is the best I've had in China. Even plain rice tastes better, something locals invariably attribute to the clean waters of the Nu.

Yet the region is also very poor, and the government believes that dams and hydropower will provide an economic boost. Some residents fear that any benefits will go to outside developers while destroying the unique environment that could make the region, which is a World Heritage Site, a tourist destination.

Chinese environmentalists have protested a plan to build 13 dams on the river, which Premier Wen Jiabao ordered postponed in 2004 pending further review. But the prognosis is not good. Preparatory work continues, and activists believe it is only a matter of time before one or more dams will block the Nu's course to the sea. In other words, see the river now, before it too becomes another geographical feature tamed and subordinated to the relentless demands of China's infrastructure.