This story appears in the February 2021 issue of National Geographic magazine.
The Salween River, known as the Nu in China, is one of the last great free-flowing rivers in Asia. Nearly two decades ago China announced it would dam the Nu. Multiple ethnic groups live in this part of southwestern China, which is called Three Parallel Rivers for the Nu, the Jinsha (Yangtze), and the Lancang (Mekong) Rivers that flow through it and has been named a UNESCO World Heritage site for its rich biodiversity. In 2008 I traveled there to tell the story of this remote region before it was permanently altered.
I found that there was very little bottomland along the Nu. Villages hid high above the steep walls of the river’s gorge; a road clung to one side. Few bridges spanned the river. I saw locals crossing by zip line, thick steel cables attached to the sides of the ravine, one for each direction. People carried a rope and pulley looped to their belt or slung over their shoulder, ready to hitch to the cables and zip across.
While photographing the area, I mapped the locations of all the cable crossings and observed the landscape and the light. The gorge, narrow and deep, was often in dark shadows. I studied people zipping across, flying over the churning waters of the Nu (the word means “angry” in Chinese). They did it alone, in pairs, and with animals. I saw chickens, pigs, a goat.
I located the zip line closest to a town and headed there on market day with my assistant, Chuan Jianhua, and our driver, Zhu Linwen (both members of the Lisu minority). A steady stream of people were already making the crossing. I rented a harness and pulley from one of them. With a camera around my neck and film in my pocket, I hooked the pulley onto the return cable and eased forward until I reached midway above the river.
The waters did look angry. Dangling over the Nu, I photographed people crossing until those waiting to return home became impatient with me. I pulled myself back to the roadside to let them pass, then hooked onto the cable again for another try. After a morning hanging from the cable and making pictures from the riverbank, I decided to wrap it up.
As we loaded the car, we scanned the high ridges opposite us. A group of people were heading down the steep trail. Jianhua called out, “They have a cow!” I dug out a seldom used telephoto lens and looked to the ridgetop. Indeed, there was a cow (and a goat as well). The path split in two directions. I held my breath as we watched the group descend. Linwen thumbed prayer beads. Jianhua recited a prayer in the Lisu dialect. When the people with the cow chose the path toward the cable crossing, a shot of adrenaline made my toes tingle.
What’s the angle? I asked myself, as I raced along the riverbank. I needed the river waters in the composition but that was tough to do. Before I could check all the possibilities, the group was at the cable and Nan Boyi zipped across confidently.
His family tied a rope sling around the cow, hooked it on the pulley, and gave the animal a push toward us. Flailing its legs as it became airborne, the cow zipped down the steep angle of the cable but lost momentum where the line flattened out. It dangled there kicking, its lows of distress audible above the river’s roar.
Boyi pulled himself hand over hand back to the cow. Once there the Lisu villager spun himself around, locked his ankles around the cow’s harness, and began hauling himself and the cow back up to the road.
I reached the cable’s end just as Boyi and the cow closed in. For a fraction of a second, my camera was in Boyi’s face. The view was immediate and intimate—completed by the angry river below.
Many years later, the dams have not yet been built, but this zip line has been replaced by a bridge.
Fritz Hoffmann began photographing China in 1994. He has photographed many feature stories for the magazine, including the January 2019 story on Chinese medicine.