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The Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areas

Written by Chris Quan Updated Dec. 24, 2020

The Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areas is the place where the headwaters of the Salween (Nu River), the Mekong (Lancang River), and the Yangtze (Jinsha River) flow in parallel for more than 170 kilometers (110 miles) from north to south in Yunnan Province.

This is the region with the greatest biodiversity in China. In July 2003, UNESCO inscribed the Three Parallel Rivers area on the World Natural Heritage List.

  • Chinese: 云南三江并流 Yúnnān Sānjiāngbìngliú /ywnn-nan san-jyang-bing-lyoh/ 'Yunnan Three Rivers Parallel Flow'
  • Location: northwest Yunnan Province in southern China, between Myanmar and Lijiang
  • Altitude: from 760 m to 6,740m (Kawagarbo in the Meili Snow Mountains); 118 peaks over 5,000 m, many glaciated
  • Area: about 40,000 sq km. (15,000 sq mi.)
  • Popular activities: Ecotourism tours, hiking, sightseeing, river boating, wildlife appreciation
  • Typically visit time: a day or two, more to acclimate for mountain hiking

The Three Major Asian Rivers

The Mekong runs through a gorge 310 km long in China. It crosses Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam and is the source of much of the food supply in those countries.

The Yangtze River is China's longest river and the world's third longest. It stretches from Tibet, flows through Chongqing and Wuhan, and ends at Shanghai. The river is China's favorite place to enjoy a cruise boat tour.

The Salween is important for the livelihood of the ethnic people in Burma and Thailand. The river valley in Burma is known for its beauty, and it flows into the Indian Ocean.

Seventy kilometers away on the west side of the reserve in Burma, there is a fourth parallel river called the Dulongjiang that runs through Burma where it joins a large river called the Irrawaddy. So, the area could be called the "Four Parallel Rivers Region"!

The Yangtze River The Yangtze River

Natural Highlights

On this land, there are high mountains, deep valleys, snow-capped peaks, large glaciers, lakes with potable water, wild forest, marshy grassland, rare animals, and precious plants. In a word, there is lots to see there.

This is a biodiversity hotspot mostly covered with temperate coniferous and broadleaf forests. Tropical plants grow in the deepest valleys.

There are 6,000 species of plants, and many species are endemic to the region. There are 200 varieties of rhododendron and more than 100 species of gentian (bitterwort) and primulas. There are 173 species of mammals, of which 81 are endemic, and 417 species of birds, of which 22 are endemic.

The rare mammals inhabiting this region include the black snub-nosed monkey, Indian leopard, snow leopard, Gongshan muntjac, Chinese shrew mole, stump-tailed macaque, Asiatic wild dog, black musk deer, takin (gnu goat), hoolock gibbon, Asian black bear, and red panda.

Culture Highlights

The nature reserve has within it parts of three prefectures and eight counties including Lijiang Prefecture, Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (governed from the city of Shangri-La named after the fictitious novel Lost Horizon), and Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture.

This is a rare region in the world where multiple ethnicities, languages, religious beliefs, and customs coexist. The isolated valleys have sixteen different ethnic groups with different languages, religions, and customs. We can help you visit them.

Recommended Places to Visit

The Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areas consists of 15 protected areas with 60 scenic spots. These scenic spots are mainly in Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (where Shangri-La is located) and Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture.

The First Bend of the Nu River

The First Bend of the Nu RiverThe First Bend of the Nu River

When the Nu River (Nujiang) flows south through Ridan Village, it is blocked by a large overhanging cliff, and flows west for more than 300 meters, where it is blocked by Danla Mountain, and so it has to make a sharp turn again from west to east, forming a big loop there.

There is a mountainside viewing platform where you could overlook the spectacular panorama.

The Meili Snow Mountains

The Meili Snow MountainsThe Meili Snow Mountains

The Meili Snow Mountains lie on the border of Xizang (Tibet) and Yunnan. The area is a land of pilgrimage for Tibetan Buddhists. In the 1930s, they were praised by American scholars as "the most beautiful mountains in the world".

Haba Snow Mountain

Haba in the Naxi language means 'golden flower'. In local folklore, Haba Snow Mountain and Jade Dragon Snow Mountain are considered to be brothers.

The views of the snow-covered peaks change with the seasons and weather. Sometimes they are partly hidden in clouds and mist and the crown becomes dimly visible; sometimes they are totally lost. There are also numerous alpine glacial lakes and glaciers.

Tiger Leaping Gorge

Tiger Leaping GorgeTiger Leaping Gorge

After flowing through the First Bend of the Yangtze River, the Jinsha River suddenly turns north and squeezes through the crevice between Haba Snow Mountain and Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, which forms a spectacular gorge. The narrowest part of the gorge is Tiger Leaping Gorge — home to one of China's best hiking trails.

Recommended tour: 5-Day Lijiang and Tiger Leaping Gorge Hiking

Isolated Villages

There are many ethnic minorities living in this area — the Nu, Lisu, Dulong... These ethnic villages are nestled in the mountains and valleys.

Liuku, Laomudeng, and Bingzhongluo are the most recommended towns and villages where you can learn about the lifestyle of ethnic minorities in Yunnan, feel their respect for nature, their love of their homeland, and their optimism towards life.

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