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March 1, 2010

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Following ancient copper trade routes in Yunnan Province

ONCE caravan routes, and copper merchants from throughout China converged in remote but bustling Nagu Town in Yunnan Province near misted mountains of rich copper mines.

Nagu means "black earth" in the language of the Yi ethnic group, indicating the richness of the Dongchuan (today's Huize County) mines and the town itself that stands at more than 1,900 meters.

Today it is called Baiwu Village, or White Fog Village, because the village is always shrouded in mist and fog in the early morning.

It is one of China's 40 "newly discovered" towns featured in an International Channel Shanghai (ICS) program to promote tourism in little-known, unspoiled places with great development potential.

In 2005 the town was recognized as a National Cultural and Historic Village, known for its ore transport network and gorgeous assembly halls built by copper merchants from different provinces. The halls display distinctive regional architecture. They were used for business, socializing and stage performances.

The town was the first stop for copper transport from the mines to Beijing where copper coins were minted since 1727 in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

More than 3 million kilograms of copper were transported annually from Yunnan to Beijing when the trade was at its peak, around 1738. The town became a commercial hub.

But after 1911, the trade came to an end when the Republic of China replaced copper coins with silver and paper currency.

Businessmen departed and their halls, considered architectural treasures today, were abandoned or turned into schools and farmhouses. The town fell silent.

Baiwu Village now has 6,000 residents. It covers around 9 square kilometers, including around 2 square kilometers of farmland.

In the 1950s, another Nagu Town was established nearby and today it serves as the town administrative center.

In the days of copper trade, a major transport network was set up around Dongchuan mining area. One set of routes was for transport from Dongchuan to Sichuan and other provinces. Another set of paths - often rugged and narrow for horses, mules and foot traffic - were for transport from mines into the town. Some were carved out of rock.

The copper from Dongchuan was usually first transported to Baiwu Village by land, then by Jinsha River to Sichuan Province, and finally over land to Beijing.

Song Mingrong, director of the Huize County Protection Office, describes the transport network.

Many ancient paths can still be hiked today and they appeal to adventurers, but hiring a local guide is recommended as some earth paths are overgrown and the way is precarious.

The busiest route for transport between Yunnan and Sichuan provinces was Shijiang Fang (Stonecutters' Room) post road, from the Xiaojiang River estuary northwest of Baiwu Village to Yanshuihe Valley in Tianba Village. Shijiang Fang post road is about 10 kilometers long and 2 meters wide on average.

It was part of the 55km transport line from the Xiaojiang River mouth to Dongchuan.

It was called Stonecutters' Room because the stonecutters who built the road and tunnels on cliffs also carved out rooms for themselves where they could shelter.

Rugged paths

We accompanied the ICS crew and started out by foot on the ancient path at 9am, finally covering 10km by 4pm.

We followed narrow, winding paths up and down the mountains. Most paths are on edges, providing wonderful views of valley and mountains. Sometimes the hike was precarious and a bit risky and we were level with the crowns of flowering trees that grew further down the mountain.

One of the best-preserved spots is the 500m tunnel - 2m high and 1.5m wide carved from cliff rock - at the northern end of Shijiang Fang post road.

The tunnel could accommodate a big mule team loaded with copper ore. Windows cut in the tunnel walls let in the sunlight and provide a spectacular view.

At one time a cable bridge linked the tunnel with a nearby mountain, but the bridge is long gone and at the end of the tunnel the path ends - there's a sheer, 10m drop to a mountain stream.

Construction of the post road began in 1787 and was completed in 1791, funded by a local merchant. The road shortened the original route (Yunfeng post road) by 32km, shortening the travel between Yunnan and Sichuan provinces.

Most of the old architecture, such as merchant halls, is still standing, though some were converted to farmhouses.

Repair and renovation are underway so the buildings were not open to tourists during our visit.

"All the provincial merchant assembly halls were built by merchants from the same province. Typical regional architecture styles can be found in almost every hall," says Chen Feicai, former president of the Culture Station of new Nagu Town.

In the center of the village stands San Sheng Gong (Three Saints Palace), a well-preserved Taoist temple built to honor Guan Yu, Guan Ping and Zhou Cang - all heroes in classic novel "Romance of the Three Kingdoms."

The temple was built in 1819, covering 1,550 square meters. It has a courtyard, main hall, side halls, wing rooms and gateways. The ceiling of the main hall is painted with a mural depicting legends, including those from "Romance of the Three Kingdoms."

The palace is now used by a primary school, and local performing troupes occasionally perform on weekends.


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