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Dulong Valley: looking for the last tattooed women

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.

Dulong woman with tattoos on her face

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 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 its unique climatic conditions allow a complete transition from temperate to tropical forest, which is extremely rare worldwide.

Dulongjiang sunrise

But besides the gorgeous landscapes, Dulong is interesting because of the people living there: the Dulong ethnic group, one of the smallest and least studied in China. According to the latest information, 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. Only a handful of these women are still alive; talking to them and getting to know their stories has been a fantastic 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

Dulongjiang sunrise

As I was slowly getting closer to the first village, early in the morning, I still couldn’t believe I was about to see these women in real life. I’ve seen pictures and documentaries about them; finally, meeting them was a strange feeling.

Jiang Linqing 江林凊

Dulong woman with tattoos on her face

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.

The Dulong Valley has been the main focus of the poverty alleviation program, and every family, including Linqing, has been assigned a new home (for free). She was sitting on a small couch with some portraits of her hanging above it.

Dulongjiang village closeup
One of the villages with new houses built by the government

She didn’t seem particularly happy with all of this attention, and I only then realized the implication of being one of the few people still alive subjected to this practice.

Dulong woman with tattoos on her face

Imagine all the attention you would get if something like this happened. Now, coupled with the fact that she’s very old and most people who visit her are tourists who don’t have much empathy or respect for her feelings, I started feeling sad.

fabio nodari with Dulong woman

I patiently waited for the small crowd to leave and politely asked if I could 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 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; I was glad 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

Dulong woman with tattoos on her face

Mindful of this first meeting, I was ready to meet the second woman. I had no idea I would see Li Wenshi, the celebrity of the whole Dulong Valley.

Born in 1947, Wenshi was thrilled to meet a foreigner, and she looked extremely interested in how tall I was and how white my skin was. Chinese people, just like most Asians, associate whiter skin with beauty and darker/tanned skin with poverty because historically (just like it happened in Europe in the past), only people who 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 hearing about her life…

She must have met quite a few other foreigners since you can find many of her pictures all over the internet, but in recent years, the valley was closed again due to COVID-19, 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.

While we were talking, her husband returned from a morning in the fields and didn’t seem to care 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

Dulong woman with tattoos on her face

My guide spotted her while doing some laundry in her backyard and asked if I could take 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 who could translate.

fabio nodari with Dulong woman

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to find people who are able to understand and speak the Dulong language. It’s a shame to see most of the Dulong culture disappear due to the inevitable progress reaching even this long-forgotten valley.

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 can speak the local dialect.

Zixian was born in 1943 and got her tattoos when she was 23, relatively late compared to when the other Dulong girls would generally get them. She was also very happy to talk to me, and despite the language barrier, we 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 argue that tattoos are an artistic representation of butterflies, but all experts disagree with this explanation. If you want to know more about Dulong tattooed women, check out this interesting research paper.

How to get to Dulongjiang 独龙江乡

Dulongjiang village

The Dulongjiang village is the only place where you can find accommodation, and it’s the starting point to explore the few villages where you can find tattooed women. This is the only option available on

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 Baoshan 保山. Both cities are connected by high-speed trains to Kunming, Yunnan’s capital.

I travelled 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 is 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 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 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.

dulongjiang river

Expect to spend at least 800RMB daily for the driver, NOT including his food and accommodation. You’ll probably need three days for the trip: one day to get to Dulong, one day to explore the villages, and one to return to Baoshan or Dali.

Until 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 cut short.

When is the best time to visit Dulong Valley?

Dulongjiang village

Planning this trip carefully is essential because 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 important thing to remember 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 tattoos live.

Finally, only about 200 people per day can access the valley, and you must 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-19, and they needed tourists.

Dulong women and where to find them: essential tips

Dulongjiang village aerial

According to my sources, in 2023, only about 12 women with tattoos were still alive in the villages around Dulong. I found 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 unsure if they are nearby 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 it is essential 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 lovely ladies. This is a real possibility: on the way back, I found a few Chinese tourists who didn’t meet any tattooed women because they were not at home.

Thinking about my trip, I only now realize that I was pretty 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 arrangement, I managed to photograph them. Sometimes, being lucky is essential.

Final thoughts

I feel incredibly blessed to have had the chance to meet these women. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and hearing about their experiences directly from them was truly incredible.

This experience makes China, particularly Yunnan, such a fantastic place, and I’ll never tire of exploring its remotest corners.

It can be challenging sometimes to deal with the language barrier since no one speaks English, and most 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 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.

Check out my China travel guide and some helpful information on visiting Tibet. Here, you can read my travel guide to Yubeng, a beautiful area near Shangri-La.

4 thoughts on “Dulong Valley: looking for the last tattooed women”

  1. Grazie!

    Very insightful, thanks for sharing! It’s a bit sad that these traditions are dying out but it’s probably for the better in a way, these are actually harmful/painful experiences

    1. Hi Laura. Yes this was really cool to see but it was 100% bad for the girls who got tattooed. They couldn’t refuse it.

  2. Ling

    Wow I am so excited and surprised to read Du Long Jiang information while searching article of Laos!
    I have been to Du Long Jiang and stayed there three days in Dec, 2020. It was a memorable trip in my life and couldn’t forget the views on the way and out of Du Long Jiang. Amazing.
    When I was in Du Long Jiang, I didnt visit tattooed women although I could have chance to see them. My driver even asked me twice. I felt sad that many people went to see them just for taking photos and laughed.
    There is another good route that visit Du Long Jiang and Gong Shan. I flew to Shangri-La from Kunming, stayed over De Qing to see Meili snow mountain. Then my driver picked me up at De Qing then drove to Bing Zhong Luo. Views during that road trip was astonishing. I stayed in Bing Zhong Luo 3 days then headed to Du Long Jiang, then to Lao Mu Deng where you can see crown mountain. Then back to Liu Ku and ended Trip in Bao Shan.

    1. Hi Ling. Yes I’ve heard that some people chose the route from Bing Zhong Lu and I’ve also seen pictures of that area and looks like a beautiful places. About the tattoed women, yes it’s a bit sad but at the same time you can be respectful like we did, ask them if they feel like to be photographed and we also always offered some money in exchange for their time. So it’s not really that bad.

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