Follow me on this journey as I explore one of the remotest corners of China where the last Dulong women with tattooed faces tell me their incredible stories.
What makes Yunnan my favorite Chinese province is its diversity both in terms of landscapes and culture. I’m always amazed at how much there is to discover and explore.
One of the places I really wanted to visit for a long time, even before coming to China, was Dulong: a remote valley nested in the Gaoligongshan national park. This park is one of the most beautiful places in all of China. It’s also incredibly important from a conservation standpoint because of its unique climatic conditions that allow a complete transition from temperate to tropical forest, which is extremely rare worldwide.
But besides the gorgeous landscapes, Dulong is interesting because of the people living there: the Dulong ethnic group, one of the smallest and less studied in China. According to the latest info available, there are no more than 10.000 left.
What makes this ethnic group particularly fascinating is the now-forbidden tradition of tattooing the faces of young women. There are only a handful of these women still alive and having the chance of talking to them and getting to know their stories has been an amazing experience.
I had a similar opportunity in Yunnan when I photographed the last women still alive with Lotus feet. You can read my story here.
Meeting the last Dulong Tattooed Women
As I was slowly getting closer to the first village, early in the morning, I still couldn’t believe that I was about to see these women in real life. I’ve seen pictures and documentaries about them, and finally meeting them was a really strange feeling.
Jiang Linqing 江林凊
I met Jiang Linqing (born in 1942) just outside of her new house with a small group of Chinese tourists taking some pictures of her.
All of the Dulong Valley has been the main focus of the poverty alleviation program and every family has been assigned a new home (for free) including Linqing. She was sitting on a small couch, with some portraits of her hanging above it.
She didn’t really seem to be particularly happy with all of this attention and I only then started to realize the implication of being one of the few people still alive that were subjected to this practice.
Imagine all the attention that you would get if something like this happened to you. Now couple that with the fact that she’s very old and most of the people that go to visit her are tourists that have basically not much empathy or respect for her feeling and I started to feel a bit sad. That’s why I patiently waited for the small crowd to leave and I politely asked if she was ok for me to take some pictures.
She nodded and I gave her some money as it’s often the custom when you photograph people in remote areas in China to show appreciation for their time.
I tried to talk to her with the help of a local interpreter since most of the older people in the area don’t really speak Chinese, but she didn’t seem to enjoy talking too much. Maybe she wasn’t in the mood or maybe that was just her personality, regardless I was glad that I had the chance to meet her.
After taking a few pictures together I greeted her and left ready to find the next woman in another village nearby.
Li Wenshi 李文仕
Mindful of this first meeting I was ready to meet the second woman. I had no idea that I was going to see Li Wenshi, the celebrity of the whole Dulong Valley.
Born in 1947, Wenshi was absolutely thrilled to meet a foreigner and she looked extremely interested in how tall I am and how white is my skin. Chinese people, just like most Asian, associate whiter skin with beauty and darker/tanned skin with poverty because historically (just like it happened in Europe in the past) only people that worked in the fields had to spend long hours under the sun. Little did she know how much people spend in the West to get tanned…
With the help of her daughter, I had the chance to ask a few questions that I had on my mind for a long time.
“I was 13 years old when I got tattooed and it was extremely painful. My face was burning and was all swollen for three days!” Wenshi told me with a big smile on her face.
“I’m so happy to meet a foreigner”, she interrupted the interview as it looked like she was more interested in asking me a few questions than me hearing about her life…
She must have met quite a few other foreigners since you can find a lot of her pictures all over the internet, but in recent years the valley was basically closed again due to covid so I was probably the first “Laowai” she saw in a long time.
These women are classified, weirdly enough, as “living fossils” by the local government, and their health is constantly monitored.
“I once went to Kunming!”, Yunnan’s capital “and also to Beijing to meet Xi Jinping!” as I was trying to imagine what it was like to be born in an incredibly beautiful and secluded valley and see a big city for the first time.
“Did you like Kunming?” – “Yes, but I like my village much more” she replied with a big smirk on her face.
While we were talking, her husband came back from a morning in the fields and didn’t really seem to care at all about all the attention and fame his wife was enjoying.
“Everyone in the village makes fun of him”, explained Wenshi’s daughter, “because he has a tall nose and people here joke about it: they say he looks like a foreigner.”
We all laughed and after taking a couple of pictures together I greeted her and left for the next, and last, household to meet another Dulong woman.
Lian Zixian 莲自仙
My guide spotted her while she was doing some laundry in her backyard and asked if I could take some pictures. She didn’t speak a word of Chinese and unlike the other two women, she couldn’t even understand basic Chinese expressions, so the guide quickly found a local boy in the village that could translate.
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to find people able to understand and speak the Dulong language. It’s such a shame to see most of the Dulong culture disappear due to the inevitable progress that is reaching even this long-forgotten valley.
To be honest it’s the same story in most of the world. I can see this even in my small hometown in Piemonte, Italy, where fewer and fewer people are able to speak the local dialect.
Zixian was born in 1943 and got her tattoos when she was 23, quite late compared to when the other Dulong girls would normally get them. She was very happy as well to talk to me and despite the language barrier, we really had a great time.
Unfortunately, it was time for me to go back and leave this incredible place and the beautiful people of this remote valley.
What is the origin of the tattooed faces?
Long story short, not all anthropologists agree 100% but the most widely accepted explanation is that the tradition of tattooing young girls was to protect them from the incursion of enemy tribes that kidnapped young Dulong women. Having a tattoo was a sort of mark to make it impossible to sell these girls as slaves or marry them outside of the valley because it was obvious that they had been kidnapped. According to some accounts, the enemy tribes were Tibetan and according to others, they were Lisu.
Some people argue that tattoos are an artistic representation of butterflies but basically, all experts disagree with this explanation. If you are interested in knowing more about Dulong tattooed women check out this very interesting research paper.
How to get to Dulongjiang 独龙江乡
The Dulongjiang village is the only place where you can find accommodation and it’s the starting point to explore the few villages in the area where you can find tattooed women. This is the only option available on Trip.com.
Getting to this village is the hardest part and it involves hiring a local driver unless you have a driving license and feel comfortable driving for many hours. There are two possible starting points for this long journey. You can start from Dali 大理 or from Baoshan 保山. Both cities are connected by high-speed trains to Kunming, Yunnan’s capital.
I traveled from Kunming to Baoshan and then from Baoshan to Liuku 六库 a smaller but really beautiful town built on the banks of the Nujiang River. Getting to Liuku it’s easy since there are regular buses from Baoshan.
You can then get your driver in Liuku and it will take you to Dulongjiang passing through the cities of Fugong 福贡 and Gongshan 贡山. The trip from Liuku to Gongshan (the last town before heading deep into the Dulong Valley) takes about 6 hours and it’s all along the Nujiang River. It’s absolutely impressive to see the scale of the Nujiang Valley: you’ll drive for all 6 hours along the river and the landscape is really beautiful. It might be a good idea to spend a night in Gongshan if you don’t want to spend too much time on the road or if it’s getting late already. This is a good option in Gongshan. The final part of the trip which takes about 2 hours is even more beautiful and will take you deep into the Dulong Valley, a river that runs parallel to Nujiang.
Expect to spend at least 800RMB per day for the driver NOT including his food and accommodation. You’ll probably need three days in total for the trip: one day to get to Dulong, one day to explore the villages, and one day to go back to Baoshan or Dali.
Up until the year 2000, Dulong was virtually closed and it took several days to get to the valley. In recent years it has gotten easier to drive there and with the construction of a new tunnel, the trip was further cut short.
When is the best time to visit Dulong Valley?
It’s particularly important to plan this trip carefully keeping in mind that the final part of the road, from Gongshan to the Dulong Village, is often closed due to construction work, landslides, and heavy snow. I’d avoid winter and the rainy season (basically from May to the end of August). The two best months are April and September, with April having the advantage of being just before the rainy season begins so the water in most of the Dulong River is crystal clear.
Another very important thing to keep in mind is that you should look for a driver who is very familiar with the area, otherwise, it will be very difficult to find where exactly the Dulong women with the tattoos live.
Finally, only about 200 people per day are allowed to access the valley and you have to register a few days in advance. You can ask your driver to help you. There was NO fee to pay to enter the valley but it was maybe because the area had just been reopened after being closed for a very long time due to covid and they were in need of tourists.
Dulong women and where to find them: important tips
According to my sources, in 2023 there were only about 12 women with tattoos in the villages around Dulong still alive. I was able to find three, one of them (Li Wenshi) being the most famous: you can see her in pretty much all the promotional material in the area, including some gigantic poster of her with Xi Jinping.
When I visited the area one woman lived in the Longyuan Village 龙元村 and three others in the Xiongdang 雄当 village. They are both located close to Dulong Village. I didn’t have time to find the other 9 women so I’m not sure if they are close by or if it takes a long time to get to wherever they live. Regardless, by the time you are reading this guide, they might have moved to a different place or some of them might have already passed away due to their old age, so that’s why is very important to rely on your driver to have accurate and up to date information about the area.
The last thing you want is to get all the way there only to find out that for some reason it’s not possible to meet these nice ladies. This is actually a real possibility: on the way back I found a few Chinese tourists that didn’t meet any tattooed women because they were not at home.
Thinking about my trip I only now realize that I was quite lucky because I didn’t have any of this info (mine is one of the few guides you’ll find about the area) and despite the lack of any sort of arrangement I managed to photograph them. Sometimes being lucky is really important.
I feel incredibly blessed for having had the chance of getting to meet these women. It’s really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and hearing about their experiences directly from them was truly incredible.
This sort of experience is what makes China, particularly Yunnan, such an amazing place and I’ll never get tired of exploring its remotest corners.
It can be challenging sometimes to deal with the language barrier since no one speaks English and most of the people in remote areas don’t even speak Mandarin. Logistics is also a challenge in China since as soon as you get out off-the-beaten-path there really is a lack of information in English to help you arrange your trip. Finding info about public transportation (if there is any) is also a problem. On top of that sometimes hotels refuse to host foreigners (just because).
But if you dare to venture into these incredible places you’ll be rewarded by welcoming people, incredible landscapes, and experiences that you will cherish forever and that very few other people (especially foreigners) have ever had.