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True Grit
A man leads his hometown and his ethnic group to better lives
By Yuan Yuan  ·  2019-05-06  ·   Source: Web Exclusive

Gao Derong, former head of Dulongjiang Township, southwest China’s Yunnan Province, works on an amomum tsao-ko farm on March 18, 2013 (XINHUA)

With a machete in a scabbard slung over his right shoulder and a pair of galoshes on his feet, Gao Derong is a regular and leader at a farm growing amomum tsao-ko, a spice and medicinal herb, in a township bordering Myanmar in southwest China's Yunnan Province.

The dark tanned 65-year-old is very versatile, chopping branches or checking the fruit that grows on tree roots. He knows every inch of the farm as well as he knows every corner of the township. The locals all know him since he's always seen striding in town, most of the time with a bamboo basket on his back.

He used to be the head of the township, later promoted to higher positions in the county and the prefecture, but he refused to leave.

The township, if it has something special, is that it was one of the few isolated areas in China that remained a long-neglected primitive society until 1949 when the People's Republic of China (PRC) was founded, with the distinction of being the last township in the country to get access to a road. Gao was born here.

Drastic changes

Dulongjiang Township, named after the river that winds through it, is inhabited by one of China's smallest ethnic groups, the Derung, or Dulong. In Gongshan County of Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan, the township is flanked by snow-capped mountains and nestled in narrow valleys.

Roaring rivers, waterfalls, deep valleys, and mountains haunted with moving clouds can be snapped in one frame and greet the visitor from all sides.

"Derung people used to live by hunting and slash-and-burn agriculture," Gao said. "Before the founding of the PRC, we used blankets to cover ourselves; we didn't have clothes, shoes or houses. We had our own oral language but no written language and we still used knot-tying to keep records."

His relative, Kong Zhiqing, was the first from the Derung group to learn Mandarin and go to school. In 1952, Kong, as the head of Gongshan, went to Beijing to attend a conference. There, Kong met Premier Zhou Enlai, who decided to abolish discriminatory misnomers and make Derung the official name of the ethnic group based on his suggestions.

Gao, as one of the few from the township that got an education, followed Kong's footsteps. After graduating from a normal school in Nujiang, Gao returned to Dulongjiang, first as the township's head and then the head of Gongshan, aiming to improve the livelihood of the locals.

There were no roads, no school and no businesses in the township. The rolling hills and harsh climate magnified the difficulties of paving a road. In addition, the only access to the township was blocked by heavy snow for almost six months of the year. School-age children would have to slide along a steel wire above the roaring Dulong River to get to county schools. Landslides, avalanches, wild animal attacks and traffic accidents made life extremely harsh.

For a township like this, poverty alleviation seemed to be impossible; but Gao didn't have time to be pessimistic and spared no efforts in making changes.

With financial support from the government and after overcoming many technical issues, road construction was finally put on the agenda. Although unpaved, it has put the township on the road to a new era.

In the early 2000s, a school covering nine years of elementary and three years of secondary education was set up in the township. Children don't have to slide along the wire anymore. Many new houses were erected along the road, with residents living in uninhabitable conditions relocated to new houses.

In 2014, a tunnel through Gaoligong Mountain was completed, ending the curse of the snow blocking the township for half the year.

All this has brought tourists and some townspeople have renovated their houses into restaurants and inns to increase their income. But for Gao, to shake off poverty, more ways had to be explored.

Amomum tsao-ko is very suitable for planting in the township, as Gao found out, and the economic benefits are also ideal. In addition, it fell in line with Gao's love of nature as it is environmentally friendly.

To encourage more residents to take part in the business, Gao set up a training area beside the farm to show his fellow townspeople how to plant the herb. It is free and open to everyone and includes free accommodations and meals. Hundreds of locals have been trained so far, and the farm now covers more than 4,000 hectares in the township.

Retired life

Gao is still a regular at the training site; he gets up before 6 a.m. and picks up his tools there.

At the entrance there are two wood stoves with two pots of boiling water at all times. Guests are welcomed with fried potatoes and boiled eggs, the local custom for greeting.

Gao is not an active talker unless he's telling stories of Dulongjiang. His eyes and face, lit up by the fire, glitter while he talks. Like many other locals, he loves inviting friends to sit around the stoves, chatting over tea, drinks or chicken soup. It is then that he shares his anecdotes.

From 1979 to 1990, every time when the access to the township was blocked by snow, Gao used radios to receive news of the outside and gathered locals to listen to the radio together. He even held exams among the officials in the township to check whether they learned carefully. Twenty-eight radios were worn out during those 11 years.

He also tells of the watch he bought in 1987 and has worn ever since, which cost more than 200 yuan ($29). It is a domestic brand and still works well. The price at that time was a total of six-month wages.

With the ticking of the watch, Gao has witnessed the township taking a great leap forward from a longtime poverty-stricken area. He said there were three major phases that were crucial for the township. The first was the founding of the PRC in 1949, which led the township from a primitive to socialist society. The second was when the road to the township was constructed in 1999 and the latest phase began after 2010, when the government of Yunnan Province launched the project aiming at lifting Durong people out of poverty. The three steps successively connected the township to the rest of the country and the world.

Now, an asphalt road linking Lushui, capital city of Nujiang, to Dulongjiang is under construction and is expected to be finished by the end of the year. The unpaved one used by locals for almost two decades will be replaced.

But when he heard others discussing the idea that a high-speed rail could boost tourism, Gao firmly said that one good road is quite enough for the township. "There is no need to have trains here," he said. "The construction of a railway will cause harm to the environment. It is not worth it."

Copyedited by Rebeca Toledo

Comments to yuanyuan@bjreview.com

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