The preservation of an abandoned village has created a living museum of decades past

A corner of Zhiziluo Village in Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan Province

Time froze in Zhiziluo Village, Yunnan Province, in 1986. Painted slogans of late Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong, along with his portrait, are still visible on the mottled walls. Vines, after creeping over some houses, stopped growing but remained in place, withered. A basketball court at the center of the village is empty and quiet. It’s like a frozen frame from an old movie, as though the press of a button might bring players running and jumping back across the court, and bring back the bustling scene of the village in the old days.

In 1986, residents of Zhiziluo Village, which at the time was the seat of the county, were evacuated, almost overnight, after geologists warned that it was in danger of being swallowed by a large landslide. A minor landslide previously occurred in 1983 added credibility to the warning, and residents quickly fled and settled in nearby towns.

An aerial view of Zhiziluo Village, Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan Province 

A landmark octagonal building, completed for use as a library, was abandoned before it housed a single book. A cinema, with over 1,000 seats, showed films for just three days before closing.

Located on the side of Biluo Snow Mountain, right on the border between China and Myanmar, the village is situated more than 2,000 meters above sea level. For hundreds of years, it was a key hub of the ancient Tea Horse Road, creating one of the few traditional markets in Yunnan’s Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture. In fact, the village name, Zhiziluo, means “good place” in the Lisu language, suggesting its splendorous history. Most villagers are members of China’s Lisu and Nu ethnic groups.

This status as a market town led to Zhiziluo being named the seat of the prefecture. However, as highways constructed throughout the 1960s and early 1970s increasingly drew merchants away from the ancient mountain roads, the market became increasingly isolated. The town was downgraded to the status of county-level seat in 1974. After the exodus, Zhiziluo was further downgraded to the title of village.

Silent revival 

The predicted landslide still hasn’t occurred, and some of the original residents have returned to Zhiziluo. Additionally, some residents living in the surrounding mountains have moved to the village. With no uniform plan for resettlement, returnees and new residents alike have settled where they wish—the military barracks, school classrooms and even the bookstore.

The drifting smoke from cooking fires has brought the village back to life. And its exotic appearance has attracted tourists and filmmakers. Chic travelers regard the town as a rare find and post pictures of their visit, which they call a time-machine experience. Newly-married couples posing for pictures in their wedding suits and dresses are also being found more frequently in the village. Over the years, a number of directors and scouts have shown enthusiasm for filming in the village.

A 60-year-old man, surnamed Zhao from Lijiang, Yunnan Province, told Beijing Review that the last time he visited the town was in 1979. “Nothing has changed here since then,” he said.

The local government has begun to realize the potential of the area and a plan to develop tourism in the village is in the pipeline. The landmark octagonal building is now a museum displaying the culture and history of the Nu ethnic group. With more new highways stretching through the prefecture, more tourists are expected to come.

Many of the residents who had previously returned to the village have moved to newly-built housing as part of a poverty-alleviation relocation project. Their new homes, modern apartment buildings with better facilities, are just a few kilometers away, higher up the mountain.

“No one knows when the landslide will come or whether it will come at all,” Zhao said. “Among all the places in Yunnan that boast beautiful natural scenery, this town is unique.”

Source: Beijing Review, 2021-06-22