Zip-lines slide into history in southwest China
Jiang Shixue's phone used to ring all the time, with villagers calling on him to operate the local zip-line. These days, however, his phone has largely fallen silent.
"We have a bridge now. Who would ever again choose to cross the river by the zip-line?" said Jiang, 75, a resident of Yingge Village, Qiaojia County, in southwest China's Yunnan Province.
Jiang has lived in the lush green mountains of Yunnan his whole life, and he made a career of operating the zip-line that helped villagers cross the Jinsha River. But a few years ago, the authorities built a bridge across the river, and Jiang waved goodbye to the old way of life.
According to figures released this week by the provincial department of transport, Yunnan authorities have completed 199 projects to replace zip-lines with bridges, with an investment of more than 2 billion yuan (308 million U.S. dollars).
Historical records show that, since ancient times, Chinese people have used zip-lines -- traditionally known as "zhuang" -- to cross rivers. This ancient technology sees people strapped into a belt and then launched along a cable, sliding above roaring rivers and deep valleys.
Until the eve of the founding of the People's Republic of China, people in southwest China used machetes to navigate the terrain, with its many mountains and winding rivers. Locals were forced to hack their way through foliage, climb vines and slide along cables if they wanted to travel any distance.
The issue of traversing such terrain has had a big impact on Jiang's life over the years. His home village of Yingge is separated by the Jinsha River from the village of Fengjiaping in Butuo County, in southwest China's Sichuan Province. In the past, to get to Fengjiaping, villagers in Yingge had to trek through the mountains and then take a small boat across the river -- a journey of several hours.
In 1999, Jiang and several other villagers pooled their money to install a steel cable across the river, greatly slashing travel time. Jiang then launched into his career as a zip-line operator.
"I was quite busy, and I enjoyed being busy," Jiang said. "I thought I was going to be dealing with the steel cable my whole life."
The county of Qiaojia, where Jiang's hometown is situated, is administered by Yunnan's Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture. More than 98 percent of the prefecture is mountainous, with four major mountains and three main rivers forming a distinctive landscape.
In the past, the prefecture's zip-lines were made of bamboo rope. It was not until 1957 that the first steel cable appeared, with the bamboo ones gradually replaced. The zipline lifestyle certainly made travel more convenient, but it was also a scary experience for many.
Doctor Deng Qiandui from Nujiang's Lamadi Village often used zip-lines to visit patients.
"The village is separated into two parts by the Nujiang River, and villagers on both banks needed to ride the zip-line to visit their relatives and do shopping," Deng said. "I also depended on the cable to see my patients."
In 2011, Deng's story caused a whirlwind in the media, prompting authorities to replace the zip-lines with bridges over the Nujiang and Lancang rivers. Later that year, two bridges connected Lamadi with the outside world.
"Since the bridges were built, I have been able to visit my patients by riding my motorcycle over the bridges," Deng said.
In 2013, authorities decided to build 309 bridges to help people end the cable-sliding way of life in the remote, mountainous areas of the western part of China.
And so the zip-line in Jiang Shixue's home village of Yingge was replaced with a bridge measuring 9 meters wide and more than 380 meters long. The bridge was completed in June 2019.
In the following days, locals turned a new page of their lives, with many buying motorcycles and cars.
"With the bridge, we can cross the river in a few minutes," said villager Legu Ercong. "We can go to the marketplaces, visit relatives and do shopping easily. You just need to put a foot on the accelerator."
Gone are the days when villagers had to make the nerve-racking journey along the cable. However, locals in Yingge decided to keep the zip-line as a tourist attraction. Spanning a gap of about 470 meters, and hanging 260 meters above the river, the cable has attracted many curious tourists. Maintenance staff conduct safety inspections on fixed dates.
The practical function of zip-lines may have passed into history, but they will always provide evidence of the country's path to development, said Jiang Shixue.