As dawn rises at Shuiyinkou, perched high above the Jinsha, the early morning light reveals four parallel cables strung across the gorge, as if for a high-wire circus act. The day's performers are Xiao and Xiong, and they offer a heart- stopping ride to Butuo and back. An open, metal "cable-car" - about five feet by three feet - is attached to the cables by eight pulley wheels. Into this squeeze up to 10 mountain villagers, or perhaps a farmer and his buffalo, or box-loads of fruit, vegetables and fertiliser. When the load is ready, the day's work begins.
Balanced on the 4cm-wide cables, and with no safety ropes, Xiao and Xiong perch precariously behind the cable-car - and start pushing. It takes up to 30 minutes to make the crossing, their hands gripping the metal frame and their feet, clad in cheap shoes, feeling their way along the tightrope. The view is spectacular; high mountains and the gorge's cliffs on either side, and the turbulent waters below. But Xiao and Xiong concentrate on staying alive; this is not a country where peasants have the luxury of life insurance - or even the right to free medical care, should the worst happen.
According to the Qiaojia County Transportation Bureau, over the past 10 years two or three such cable-car links have been set up along the Jinsha river. One official warned: "Before you take the cable-car, you must check first if it is solid or not, because the investment comes from individuals, and sometimes the cable is built by an unqualified construction team." Huang Jiaqiang, editor of a local newspaper, Transportation News, remembered how in June 1990 the cables broke at Shuiyinkou. "About a dozen people fell into the river. Some were rescued, but others died," he said.
For Xiao and Xiong the risks must be weighed against the potential profits. Xiao's family of three earns only about pounds 15 a year surplus from its farmland. So on working days, Xiao happily leaves home at 4.30am for the 90-minute hike to the cable-car, where passengers are charged 1.5 yuan (11p) - or up to pounds 1 for a buffalo - for a single crossing. Xiong's family, in contrast, breeds silkworms and earns more than 10,000 yuan (pounds 770) a year, but he needs the crossing to ferry his goods to market - so his family have invested in a 25 per cent holding in the cable-car enterprise (the business runs according to modern financial principles, with 12 shareholders owning a total of eight 800-yuan shares).
Today, when Xiao arrives, it is raining steadily, which is bad for business since the cable-car cannot run until the weather clears up. By the end of the day, just three passengers have crossed, netting Xiao and Xiong a meagre 4.5 yuan. The next morning, the weather is better and it is market day on the Qiaojia side, so many passengers come from Butuo. Xiao and Xiong, on shift together again, earn a lucrative 41 yuan, despite letting a number of their friends travel for free.
Apart from the threat to life and limb, Xiao's biggest worry is the new bridge and highway 12 miles upstream, which threatens to divert some of his customers. But 12 miles is a long way for a mountain peasant with no transport and a buffalo to sell. "It is far upstream, and the cable-car is more convenient and cheaper," said Huang. With any luck, Xiao and Xiong will be performing their commercial balancing act for some time to come. !