9 April 2011
Way up in the air, way way up, a droplet of water coalesces with another. This droplet tips the balance, gravity wins, and the raindrops falls. Far below, the drop splashes off a leaf, and sprays onto the already soaked ground. The land is mountainous, steep, and soil is sparse between hefty rocks.
The raindrop soaks into the soil, trickling deeper with thousands just like it. Here it dislodges a grain of sand, moving it just a fraction with its tiny momentum. Moving this grain weakens the edifice. A landslide begins: mud, stones, rocks tumble downward, the road is blocked, and thousands of people are cut off.
The road is the only supply line that runs into the Nujiang valley from industrial, developed Han China. Downstream, in the south, there are towns of tens of thousands of people. Upstream, in the north, tiny villages of fewer than a hundred are maintained by the daily efforts of their inhabitants against the elements.
This is farming country. Rain falls slowly and steadily, and all is green. If not trees, then ferns, grass, or moss. Sheer cliffs rise from the river. Where land is farmable, it is farmed. Often, when it seems beyond reach, high on the hillside, it has nonetheless been planted, and a homestead constructed to shelter its guardians.
Down in the valley, there are pigs, chickens, the occasional cow or horse, and an excess of guard dogs. Wood provides fuel. Wooden cabins with slate roofs are the prevalent dwellings. Fields are planted with perhaps barley, oilseed rape, beans or potatoes. The road dips and climbs along the river's path, narrowing on its way north, eventually becoming an unsurfaced mess of rocks and mud.
It's here on this man-made vein that another man-made line crosses: the border between Yunnan and Tibet. A sign makes it clear foreigners are not welcome beyond this point. A waterfall splashes down from on high, the rain ceases, and the sun breaks through.