economist – GUO, the driver, pulls his car to a merciful halt high above a crevasse: time for a cigarette, and after seven hours of shuddering along narrow, twisting roads, time for his passengers to check that their fillings remain in place. Lighting up, he steps out of the car and dons a cloth cap and jacket: sunny, early-summer days are still brisk 3,500 metres above sea level. Mr Guo is an impish little dumpling of a man, bald, brown-toothed and jolly. He is also an anomaly: a Shanghainese in northern Yunnan who opted to stay with his local bride rather than return to his booming hometown.
The ribbon of brown water cutting swiftly through the gorge below is rich with snowmelt. With few cars passing, its echoing sound fills the air. In the distance, the Hengduan mountains slump under their snowpack as if crumpled beneath its weight. Mr Guo recalls the drivers who have taken a switchback too quickly and fallen to their deaths in the valley below. He tells of workers who lost their footing or whose harnesses failed while building a bridge near his home town of Cizhong, 20 or 30 kilometres south. He pulls hard on his cigarette. “This river”, he says, “has taken so many lives.”