In this remote corner of China, locals use zip lines to get around

When few bridges crossed the Nu River, locals found a creative way to transport themselves, their children, and their livestock over its rushing waters.

Nan Boyi hauls his cow to market along a zip line suspended above the Nu River in China.

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.

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