Visiting Christian Churches in Salween Basin

Yunnan Summer 2010

Tamotsu Nakamura

We planned two stages of journeys in the summer of 2010. The first stage was in Yunnan to gather and update information in a very isolated region of the upper Irrawaddy river, Chinese name Dulong Jiang, a country of the Dulong minority tribe, and then to visit Christian churches in the Salween river basin. The second stage was in Sichuan to explore the unknown Shaluli Shan – Litang Plateau. The latter stage is reported elsewhere.1

1. Dulong Jiang (upper Irrawaddy) and unknown Kawakabu
To Dulong Jiang (main stream of upper Irrawaddy river)

Dulong minority tribe’s population is 5700 – 5800. The same tribe called Taron inhabits in the upper Irrawaddy basin in North Myanmar. A noticeable custom among them was that women’s faces had tattoos. I left Tokyo on 6 July and joined my colleagues, Morita and Suzuki, at Kunming, Yunnan. On 12 July we headed for the Dulong Jiang from Gongshan and were soon stopped by officials at a check-post on the way to the Dulong Jiang. A vehicle road of 96 km to cross the Gaoligongshan range forming the Salween-Irrawaddy divide to Dulong Jiang from Gongshan town had opened a couple of years ago. Nevertheless the Gongshan County government ordered a traffic control between Gongshan and Dulong Jiang for two and half years from 1 June 2010 till 31 December 2012, for refurbishing and reconstructing the road damaged by floods and landslides caused by heavy rain fall.

In fact serious accidents had taken place. Two trucks fell into the Dulong Jiang and six persons had died. We had to give up our visit to Dulong Jiang.

Where is Gompa la? – hidden peak of Kawakabu (5128 m)

A plant hunter, Frank Kingdon-Ward was the third foreigner to have reached Putao (Fort Hertz) of North Burma from Yunnan. He had crossed over the Gaoligongshan to the Dolong Jiang from east in October 1922. The first to visit was Prince Henri d’Orlean in 1895 (From Tonkin to India – by the Sources of the Irrawadi, January ’95 - January ’96, by Prince Henri d’Orlean, London, 1898) and the second was a British explorer, E. C. Young in 1906. (‘A Journey from Yun-nun to Assam’, The Geographical Journal, August 1907 Vol. 30 No. 2) Presumably there were four routes to go across a watershed that shares the Nu Jiang (Salween) and Dolong Jiang (Irrawaddy). F. Kingdon-Ward described in his narratives of 1922 that he passed ‘Gompa la’, one of the four routes (From China to Khamti Long, by Kingdon-Ward Edward Arnold & Co., London, 1924). It has been difficult to locate it since he had not used the name of Gompa la in his previous journeys in 1911 (The Land of the Blue Poppy) and 1914 (Mystery Rivers of Tibet). Heinrich Handel-Mazzetti, an Austrian botanist, came here and soon after Kingdon-Ward in 1914 and recorded the highest peak of Gaoligongshan as ‘Gompa La’. A careful and repeated reading of the Kingdon-Ward’s 1922 journey convinced me that Gompa la must be unknown Kawakabu 5128 m. He did not stand atop of Gompa la (Kawakabu), but avoiding a route on a glacier he walked on steep rocky path to cross the watershed from east to west. In recent year a Scottish plant hunter, Michael Wickenden crossed Gompa la. (Exploring The Upper Dulong River – The KWL Expedition to North-West Yunnan, September – October 2008)

Missioanries' trail. (Tamotsu Nakamura)

Missioanries' trail. (Tamotsu Nakamura)

Unique 40 m window in the ridge, Yunnan. (Tamotsu Nakamura)

Unique 40 m window in the ridge, Yunnan. (Tamotsu Nakamura)

In my journey retracing missionaries’ trails from Mekong to Nujiang (Salween) in autumn of 2004, I could luckily take panoramic pictures of the east face of Kawakabu and neighbouring peaks ranging north to south on the Gaoligongshan.

I have called it ‘hidden mountain’ - however, it doesn’t mean that it is located in a far-flung place. Kawakabu is a lofty mountain with a glacier but soaring very close to a town of Bingzhongluo on the right bank of Nujiang (Salween). Bingzhongluo is the northernmost town in Gongshan Dolong Nu Minorities Autonomous County. In this remote corner of Northwest Yunnan there is rapid infrastructural development so the spectacular landscapes of Nujiang canyon with deep gorges will become important resources of tourism to allure and enchant visitors. In fact Kawakabu is almost always covered with cloud throughout the year except for late autumn. In spite of being only 5128 m in height, a glacier exists and high passes on the watershed are closed with snow till late May, as this area of the Gaoligongshan range has heaviest precipitation of snow fall in Yunnan. Topography and climatic conditions make Kawakabu a ‘hidden mountain’.

Kingdon-Ward gave a different name - Ke-ni-chun-pu (over 6000 m) on his map of the journey of 1911 (The Land of the Blue Poppy) but he assumed a height of Gompa la to be 5182 m which is almost the same as the height of Kawakabu. It was measured from a pass at 4000 m near Gompa la during the journey in 1922. Joseph Rock, an American plant hunter and geographer viewed Kawakabu in October, 1923 and recorded it as Kenychunpo, over 6000 m on his map.

2. Christianity in Nujiang (Salween) Basin
We visited many Christian churches in a week from 12 to 18 July and got to know the fact that the Catholic missions were rather on the decline whilst the Protestant missions were expanding in the Nujiang basin. This was a new discovery. On 12 July, we went to a church of the Lizu tribe, which was a centre of religious activity of the Protestants in Gongshan and adjacent villages. On 13 July, we moved from Gongshan to Bingzhongluo, and visited the historical Zhongding Catholic church where I met a Tibetan female believer who managed an entrance key to the cemetery of Father A. Genestier from the Missions etrangeres de Paris (MEP) who had advised Kingdon-Ward in 1922 on the best time to enter Dulong Jiang. The church was recently reconstructed and well maintained.

We paid a short visit to the Lamasery, Puhua Si, which was under refurbishing. A guide book published in the Gongshan County Tourist Bureau show a lookout point for Kawakabu on its map. With a great anticipation we headed to the point but no villager knew how to get there. Only one Tibetan provided us with the information that a return trip to terminus of the Kawakabu glacier would take one week on foot as the trail was too bad and steep for a horse.

Lazhu Protestant church. (Tamotsu Nakamura)

Lazhu Protestant church. (Tamotsu Nakamura)

On 14 July, we went up north along the Nujiang to near the border with Tibetan Autonomous Region. It was raining continuously from the previous night. ‘Stone Gate’ (Kindgon-Ward’s Marble Gorge) was spectacular. The water level was high so the river was raging.

After the gorge we visited Qiunadang in a valley on the left bank. The Catholic church looked dilapidated with no maintenance. A trail to the north from Qiunadang leads to Bongga and then to Aben of Tsawarong in eight hours on foot. We further went up to a Catholic church at Chugan, which was the last village in the valley. All 160 inhabitants of 24 families belonged to the Nu minority tribe and 80 % were Catholics. A 74 year old sexton of the church was a Tibetan from Deqen. His father used to serve for Father A. Genestier.

On 15 July, after heavy rain in the morning it became very hot in Bingzhongluo. We visited Demalo to meet Tibetan Catholic believers, who were our muleteers in the 2004 expedition. They accompanied us to retrace Catholic missionaries’ trails constructed in late 19th century from Tsekou of Mekong to Demalo in Nujiang (Salween) basin. Aluo, a chief of the muleteers welcomed me at his house. The intelligent and capable Tibetan was now the owner of a bar and guest house and working as a reliable guide in Gongshan and Bingzhongluo as well. To my surprise, meanwhile, the Catholic church of Demalo was also dilapidated.

Demalo (1870 m), has 12 villages with 3000 inhabitants, 80 % of whom are Catholics. They have three names - Tibetan, English and Chinese. After Demalo we went to a recently refurbished Catholic church of Yonglaga (1574 m) with 100 believers. The church in Gongshan was also dilapidated. Later in Baoshan we got to know the reasons why Protestant churches were increasing whilst Catholic churches were declining. Roughly classifying areas of distribution, Protestant churches are mainly located south of Gongshan town and Catholic churches are concentrated in the north of Gongshan town. Perhaps on account of the topography of the Nujiang basin south of Gongshan, Protestant churches are more on the right bank of Nujiang.

On 16 July, we moved from Gongshan to Liuku (680 m) along the Nujiang. It was hot and humid at 32°C. Liuke is a sub-tropical zone was developing tremendously fast. Streets were congested with new cars. Hotels were fully occupied. Another township was being constructed. We took many photos of Protestant churches on the way. The cross on the roof of a Protestant church is red whilst the cross on a Catholic church is white. The Nujiang grand canyon en route attracts tourists.

Yunnan Nujiang great bend. (Tamotsu Nakamura)

Yunnan Nujiang great bend. (Tamotsu Nakamura)

On 17 July, we visited Baihualing Protestant church on the right bank of Nujiang 30 minutes away from Like to south on the way to Baoshan so that we could meet the manager of the church.

We drove across the Mekong-Nujiang divide at 1960 m and entered the highway connecting Kunming and Luili, a border town to Myanmar. In the early afternoon we arrived at Baoshan City, a centre of traffic in west Yunnan. Baoshan is a wide and fertile basin and cultivation of coffee is now rapidly increasing in the Nujiang sub-tropical areas. In the near future Baoshan brand coffee will become popular in the world market. We soon visited the head-quarters of the Baoshan Protestant organisation which has a church and school.

3. Hengduan Mountains - Another Battlefield of World War II
You may see a display of photo panels of World War II at the waiting room of Baoshan airport. This gives a Chinese perspective of the history of resistance against the Japanese invasion during the war. C-6 aircraft of the allied air force and the famous Generals are shown. Baoshan was a bridgehead, an important front line of the allied force and Chinese army.

The allied forces supported China from India, by both roads and air routes. The Japanese army fiercely fought to cut off the Led Road, a terrestrial logistic route or the so-called ‘Chiang Kai-shek support route (to help the temporary Chinese government in Qongqing)’ in the battlefield of eastern Burma. After the terrestrial road was cut off, the allied force carried supplies to China by air planes for support. This was known as ‘Over the Hump’ operation which geographically meant that the Himalaya and Hengduan mountains had to be crossed. Bad weather led to many air planes crashing into the mountains in the deep gorge country of the Nujiang (Salween) basin. These accidents were talked about by an American missionary and witnessed by old local Tibetans as well.

Author’s visits to Christian churches of the Salween basin in Yunnan.


  1. Alpine Paradise – A Journey to West Sichuan 2010 in this volume (Ed).
Puhua Si, Yunnan. (Tamotsu Nakamura)

Puhua Si, Yunnan. (Tamotsu Nakamura)

Zhongding Catholic Church. (Tamotsu Nakamura)

Zhongding Catholic Church. (Tamotsu Nakamura)

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