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Gongshan, Nujiang, Yunnan, China
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The Lonely Dragon River Nujiang  China

The Lonely Dragon River

In the northwest corner of Yunnan Province, right up against the northeast corner of Myanmar and the southeast corner of Tibet, is one of the remotest places in China. It is the Dulong, or "Lonely Dragon" River 独龙江. The headwaters of Myanmar's Irawaddy River runs through a deep canyon, flanked by forests bursting with biodiversity. In just 90 km, the river drops 1000 meters, transitioning from alpine to subtropical climate zones.

The Dulong River Valley is home to one of China's smallest ethnic groups, the 5000-population Dulong, or Drung, people 独龙族. Until 1999, they were cut off from the rest of China except for a mule path open only half the year. Today there is a rough road, but it's still closed half the year when snows cover the pass over the Gaoligong Mountains 高黎贡山. They were until recently hunter-gatherers, and schoolchildren across China learn (in rather chauvinistic fashion) that they are the "most primitive people in China".

The valley is very difficult to access. It took us three days of travel from Kunming to reach Kongdang, the main town in the valley. A new paved road now runs up and down most of the valley, but at the far southern end it's possible to hike through the jungle to the Myanmar border. At the far northern end it's possible to hike to the Tibetan border. Trails continue across the borders. It's a four day walk to either the nearest Myanmar town or Tibetan town.