Last January, I met up with a long-lost college friend for lunch in Kunming, China. Over a bowl of dumplings, we poured through pictures of his bicycle trips around the Yunnan province where he’d spent the last several years. One set stood out, and my boyfriend and I decided to rent a motorcycle and set out for the region of the map labeled Nujiang.
A smooth, new road took us alongside the Nu River for the four days of our trip; in the gorge below, whitewater boiled over boulders, and alluvial fans spread out at the base of snow-melt channels, planted with terraces of rice and green and yellow winter vegetables. We stayed in minority villages and towns, where Christianity and Islam were practiced and Mandarin was not the first language.
Along with its better-known neighbors, the Mekong and the Yangtze, the Nu River—also called the Salween, or the Angry River—is a centerpiece of the UNESCO-recognized Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areas. The region is crisscrossed with tributaries to the three rivers, running down from snow-capped peaks. The UNESCO site’s boundaries include tourist hot spots such as Tiger Leaping Gorge and Shangri-La.
But while the Yangtze and the Mekong have succumbed to Asia’saccelerating demand for electricity, their powerful, wild waters pressed into the service of major dams, the Nu is the last free-flowing river in Southeast Asia. How long that claim can stand remains to be seen.