In the 1980s, an expert at the United Nations found a marvelous natural scene on a satellite map of the Northern Hemisphere. In the northwest area of Yunnan Province, there are three rivers flowing parallel from the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau to the south, but never converge. This is the 29th project of the World's Cultural and Natural Heritage in China, Three Parallel Rivers in Yunnan Protected Areas.
The Three Parallel Rivers, namely the Jinsha, Lancang, and Nujiang, form together in an unmatched natural miracle, a geographical accident of the Himalayan orogeny that began 40 million years ago. Originating on China's Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, the three rivers are the upper reaches of the well-known Yangtze, Mekong, and Salween rivers. They flow 170 kilometers from north to south, through the high mountains and ranges of Yunnan Province-the Dandanglika, the Gaoligong, the Nushan, and the Yunling-side by side by side without converging. The shortest distance between the Lancang and Jinsha rivers is 66 kilometers; the Lancang and Nujiang rivers come to about 19 kilometers of one another. In the 1980s, an official from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) found the three rivers running in parallel on a satellite map around 98o-100o30' east longitude and 25o30'-29o north latitude. The Three Parallel Rivers area covers a total of 1.7 million hectares, comprising nine nature reserves and ten scenic resorts in Yunnan's Lijiang City, the Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, and Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture's. Located where East Asia, South Asia and, the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau meet, the area features unique alpine landforms and some of the richest biodiversity in the world.
In the arid, hot Nujiang River Valley, 760 meters at its base and 6,740 meters at Kawagebo Peak, there are snow-capped mountains, glaciers, valleys, alpine wetlands, forests, meadows, freshwater lakes, and rare animals and plants. The area has 118 snow-covered mountains in various shapes that are 5,000 meters or more. Scattered around these mountains are virgin forests and hundreds of glacial lakes. Crystal-like glaciers extend from the top of the Kawagebo Peak, the main peak of Meili Mountain, to the forests at an elevation of 2,700 meters. These are reputed to be the rarest of monsoon oceanic glaciers. Monsoon Tibetan people regard Meili Mountain as scared, and no climbers are permitted on its face.
For a long time, local people have suffered hardships and inconveniences caused by the area's secluded geographical conditions. But this isolation has created distinctive religions, customs, and cultures among local ethnic groups, including the Han. Here, Tibetan Buddhists, who mainly live on animal husbandry, inhabit the plateaus. The Naxi, mainly farmers, inhabit the Jinsha River Valley and the Lijiang Basin. Though influenced by the Han people, they have preserved their own primitive but brilliant Dongba region and culture. The Yi and Primi mainly live on the slopes between valleys and plateaus. The Lisu, Nu, and Derung mainly live in the valleys and mountainous areas in the south. The plains and mountainous areas in the southeast are mainly inhabited by the Bai, who boast advanced agriculture and handicrafts and a complex history and culture. Wars and conflicts have occasionally occurred among these groups, as well as a few foreign missionaries, due to differences in religion, customs, and cultures, but for most of history they have coexisted in harmony, composing a big family with combined cultures.
The Three Parallel Rivers area is reputed to be the "Biological Gene Bank of the World." Because it was not covered by the Quaternary glaciers and most mountains lie from north to south, the area has become a main passage and sanctuary for biological species of the Eurasian Continent. Although the area covers no more than 0.4 percent of Chinese territory, it contains more than 20 percent of higher plants and 25 percent of animal species of the country, including 77 species of endangered animals like the Yunnan golden monkey, the antelope, the snow leopard, the Bengali tiger, and the black-necked crane . There are 34 species of rare plants under state-class protection, including the Chinese fir, the spinulose tree fern, and the yew. Every spring, wild flowers bloom on carpet-like meadows, amid tranquil forests, and near clear lakes. People can find more than 200 species of rhododendrons and nearly 100 species of rough gentians, as well as other wild flowers such as the primrose, the pedicularis resupinata, and the lily. Therefore, botanists call the area "a natural alpine garden." On July 2, 2003, the Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areas were put on the World Heritage List at UNESCO's 27th World Heritage Conference.
The whole spot is divided into eight major areas: Gaoligongshan Mountain area, Baimang and Meili Snow Mountain area, Haba Snow Mountain area, Laojunshan area, Yunling Mountain area, Hongshan Mountain area, Laos city and Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture and Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture area. Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areas is a “Geological Museum” with the richest resources. High mountains and snow capped peaks covering densely in the area and the altitudes distributing vertically, there appear diversified landforms like high mountains and gorges, snowy peaks and glaciers, plateau wetlands, forest meadows, freshwater lakes, etc.
The Three Parallel Rivers in Yunnan Protected Areas in Lijiang covers Nu Jiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture, Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture and Lijiang District. This protected area is endowed with several panoramic vistas and breathtaking sceneries. This area abounds in many gurgling rivers, majestic mountains, deep gorges, rare species of flora and fauna and is home to 16 ethnic groups. You can see various snow capped mountains in the Three Parallel Rivers in Yunnan Protected Area in Lijiang. The height of these mountains varies from 2,000 meters (about 6562 feet) to 6,000 meters (over 19,600 feet), and there are more than 100 snow covered mountains higher than 5, 000 meters (over 16, 400 feet) in this area.
The protected area of the Three Parallel Rivers is also a region inhabited by 16 different ethnic groups. It is a peculiar place where multi-ethnic groups, different languages, various religions, cultures and manners and customs co-exist. The place where the Naxi Dongba Religion culture originated, Baishui Tableland and the Lijiang Old Town , as well as the Mosuo People which has the characteristic of a matriarchal society attract numerous visitors from all over the world.
The protected area of the Three Parallel Rivers has great value in science, aesthetics and a unique culture of ethnic groups. It is a stirring attraction for scientists, explorers and visitors world wide.