Frontline World

About the Series


ANNOUNCER: Tonight on FRONTLINE/World, three Stories from a Small Planet.

ANNOUNCER: Tonight on Frontline/World, three stories from a small planet. In Zimbabwe, President Mugabe was once a national hero, but now his country is falling apart. Reporting undercover, Alexis Bloom tells the story that this brutal dictator doesn't want the world to know, of a country where people risk their lives to escape, only to be rounded up and herded back.

MAN ON TRAIN: We have just given up.

ANNOUNCER: Next in Mexico, a village mourns the death of a son. Reporter Claudine Lomonaco tells the harrowing story of a migrant worker's tragic journey across the border.

Matias' body was sent home. But his family believes that his spirit is still in the desert.

ANNOUNCER: Finally, in China, welcome to the Women's Kingdom. A place where women don't believe in traditional marriage.

Zimbabwe: Shadows and Lies

Reported by Alexis Bloom

ALEXIS BLOOM: We're riding a night train to the end of the line, the Zimbabwean border.

These men fled the regime in Zimbabwe. Up until a few days ago, they were living illegally in neighboring South Africa. But the South Africans don't want them. They're shipping them straight back.

MICHAEL: The situation in Zimbabwe is forcing us to be here. People are starving and people are suffering. They are starving. It's painful!

GUARD: "Down, down!"

ALEXIS BLOOM: The guards yell for "heads down!"

Hunched up like this, the guards told us, the men are less likely to jump. But that didn't stop over a dozen Zimbabweans from leaping off the train we were riding. They risk death rather than face the regime back home.

Morning and the border draws closer. People told us these were their last hours to speak freely.

MAN: You can't get the truth in Zimbabwe. Even if you meet me in Zimbabwe I can't tell you the truth because the time I tell you there are people always watching. And once you go, they will kill me.

By nightfall, these men will have been marched back into Zimbabwe. But we are not allowed to go with them.

The Zimbabwean government has banned all foreign journalists.

This great natural beauty is what Zimbabwe was once famous for. It's home to the Victoria Falls, one of the seven wonders of the world.

For us, the falls were our way in. We've come to Zimbabwe pretending to be tourists to see for ourselves an increasingly repressive and secret state.

This was once one of the most popular vacation spots in Africa.

But we find our hotel eerily empty.

Ten years ago, Zimbabwe was one of the richest countries in Africa, but now runaway inflation tops 1000% and this money isn't worth the ink on the bills.

[voice-over] We just changed our money and thankfully they've issued a new bill today, the 50,000 dollar bill. When I said to the lady in the bank, this is rather a lot of money to be carrying around she laughed and said this was nothing.

It takes stacks of money, just for the basic necessities here.

Once called Rhodesia, Zimbabwe was ruled by a white minority until 1980.

But after a fierce war of independence, Robert Mugabe rose to power.

A freedom fighter turned dictator, Mugabe has transformed Zimbabwe from the prize of Africa into a state of fear.

We set off for Mugabe's seat of power, Harare. If we were caught reporting, we'd be arrested.

We see a long line of cars at an empty gas station. People can wait here for weeks, we're told, for fuel that may never arrive.

Down the road, we find another sign of the hardships we'd heard about: a garbage dump where people scavenge for food alongside baboons.

These men told us they were surviving through luck alone.

I asked who was to blame.

CART DRIVER: You know. Everybody knows. We can shut our mouths, we can say anything, you know, but we know who's responsible. You even know who's responsible.

ALEXIS BLOOM: [voice-over] He was too scared to mention the name of President Mugabe.

[on camera] So you would say that it's not easy to talk about these things in Zimbabwe?

CART DRIVER: It's not easy. It's not easy. Because there are a handful of people who are enjoying the life but the rest are not enjoying anything. So it's very hard.

ALEXIS BLOOM: [voice-over] Harare, the capital. We were advised to film only through our car's tinted windows.

We immediately spotted more of what President Mugabe doesn't want thee world to see: long lines outside of a bank, shortages of everything.

This man was desperate to unload his Zimbabwean dollars.

ALEXIS BLOOM: How much have you got?

MAN: Twenty million.

ALEXIS BLOOM: More and more survival depends on a growing underground economy ...

But you won't find any of this in the daily newspapers. They've now been taken over by the ruling party.

This is journalist Dumisani Maleya. He shows us the site of Zimbabwe's last independent daily paper. Its clashes with the government made it vulnerable to attack.

DUMISANI MALEYA: So the Daily News was within this building.

ALEXIS BLOOM: Can we stop here? Would that be alright?

DUMISANI MALEYA: A bomb was dropped in this gallery there.


DUMISANI MALEYA: Yes, a bomb was dropped. Apparently it was dropped by a car that drove past this place by at breakneck speed. It dropped a bomb there, and it hit the gallery.

ALEXIS BLOOM: Dumisani would only speak to us in the backseat of our car. He told me he'd been imprisoned twice for his reporting.

DUMISANI MALEYA: The cells were packed. A cell designed for six people, you'd be packed like sardines. In there you'd be 35.

ALEXIS BLOOM: Journalists are routinely beaten and jailed. Dumisani is one of the few who will still tell the truth about Zimbabwe's epic collapse.

DUMISANI MALEYA: Zimbabwe is, without a doubt, the highest inflation in Africa, if not in the world. It has the weakest currency in Africa, if not even in the world. You know, those kind of things. Really, that's why it's become a big story. It has now become a monumental museum of failure. The air is fraught with frustration, with anger, with despair, and some people have just given up.

ALEXIS BLOOM: It wasn't supposed to be this way. Robert Mugabe was once a liberation hero, admired around the world. He ushered in prosperity, health care and a literacy rate of 85%, the highest in Africa.

ROBERT MUGABE: We are humanitarians we don't want to see people killed.

ALEXIS BLOOM: But politics turned into thuggery and holding onto power became Mugabe's top priority.

Intimidation was now his chief weapon. In TV ads, the ruling Zanu-PF Party openly threatened opponents.

ANNOUNCER: [1990 Zanu-PF campaign ads] This is one way to die. Don't commit suicide, don't be foolish! Vote Zanu-PF and live.

ALEXIS BLOOM: When the opposition nearly beat Mugabe in the 2000 elections, the president lashed back.

ROBERT MUGABE: Lies! Lies! And more lies!

ALEXIS BLOOM: Mugabe embarked on a radical land reform plan violently seizing Zimbabwe's biggest farms - owned by whites, many of whom had funded the opposition.

But instead of giving the farms to ordinary Zimbabweans, Mugabe handed them over to party loyalists and generals.

MARGARET DONGO: This sort of hypocrisy... they have no feelings for any other person, for any human beings anymore. What they want to make sure that how can they maintain their power base.

ALEXIS BLOOM: Margaret Dongo was a former ally of Mugabe and a famous freedom fighter. She was the first Member of Parliament to confront her colleagues in the ruling party ...

MARGARET DONGO: I meet them in banks, I meet them in street, and I say but guys, is this what we fought for? Honestly why are you burying us alive? And they'll say, "Margaret, you know it's not our fault. It's about the big man." And the next question you ask, "So why can't we have a change?" Then they will start stammering.

You look at the country going down the drain and you look at the time it took to build it up, and then one can just destroy it overnight, is something painful.

ALEXIS BLOOM: Margaret Dongo's high profile makes it possible for her to speak out, but we know many of Mugabe's political opponents have been scared into silence.

We drove south to the city of Bulawayo.

Opposition to the ruling party runs deep here. President Mugabe stands accused of massacring some 20,000 people in this area early in his rule.

Things looked worse in Bulawayo - long lines around the block for food.

We hid a camera in a backpack and went inside a supermarket to look around.

The rest of the country was poor but here, the mainstay of the local diet, maize (or cornmeal) was nowhere on the shelves.

Outside of town, we find fields lying fallow. Zimbabwe used to be the breadbasket of Africa but land looted by the government produces little food.

Now we've heard, there's a new policy. The government is forcing poor family farmers to make up the shortfall.

WOMAN: They destroyed everything of ours and ordered us to grow maize. They said they were going to take the maize themselves.

ALEXIS BLOOM: This woman told us the army had taken over her farm at gunpoint. She protested, and was punished by a soldier.

WOMAN: He beat me on the back and beat me on the leg. When he tried to hit me again I raised my arm like this to block him. That's how he injured my hand.

We relied on what we grew for everything. Now we have nothing.

ALEXIS BLOOM: President Mugabe claims this new policy of farm takeovers will provide for the people.

But on the outskirts of town, we discover bags of cornmeal being loaded onto government trucks.

Few here, it seems, will eat any of it.

The UN estimates nearly half the country - over five million Zimbabweans - will be in urgent need of food by the summer.

We were taken to see a shop owner who spoke to us at great personal risk. She says the ruling party is using food as a political weapon.

SIBONGILE: People are now saying we have been promised lies quite a long time. We had all the hope and trust that these people were driving us the right way. Now we've seen those people are playing foul out of us. Zanu-PF is just doing some havoc to the people.

ALEXIS BLOOM: Far removed from the suffering on the ground, President Mugabe recently celebrated his 82nd birthday.

ZBC REPORTER: Welcome to this program, Reflections at 82.

ALEXIS BLOOM: He used state television to answer his critics.

ZBC REPORTER: Over 25 years of independence have brought your excellency more vilification and demonization from the West. Is there anything wrong with the man, Robert Mugabe?

ROBERT MUGABE: I don't know. The judgment is that of others. The judgment is that of my people. My people say I am right in the things that I do, and that's what I listen to. Those who say I am wrong, I am dictator, if you look at them. I don't look nice to them. But I look nice and handsome to my people, isn't it??

ALEXIS BLOOM: But for most Zimbabweans, especially here in the South, President Mugabe's words ring hollow.

ARCHBISHOP PIUS NCUBE: We are being muzzled by a government that has become hostile to its own people.

ALEXIS BLOOM: Archbishop Pius Ncube has become President Mugabe's most outspoken critic.

ARCHBISHOP PIUS NCUBE: I've refused to be intimidated. I know many families sustaining 4 and 5 days without food. I parted with a lot of money, people coming here, women coming, and crying before me, "We haven't eaten for all these days." To look around and see so many deaths, and wanting to help these people.

ALEXIS BLOOM: The archbishop's sermons are monitored by government agents ... and he's received death threats.

But he hasn't softened his attack on President Mugabe.

ARCHBISHOP PIUS NCUBE: He's a heartless person. How many people are suffering for this man? Hasn't he had enough power after 26 years? He should be ashamed enough to say I've stayed long enough. I should get out and let other younger people come in who can do a better job than me.

ALEXIS BLOOM: What the archbishop would tell us before we left, would get less prominent Zimbabweans jailed.

ARCHBISHOP PIUS NCUBE: What I pray for is that people become so restless and angry and to get the army to their side, and police to their side and police to their side, and to stand up against him and bring him down.

ZIMBABWE TV ANNOUNCER: Good evening. Fourteen men are arrested in connection with the murder of Cain Nkala.

ALEXIS BLOOM: This is what happened to some men inspired by Archbishop Ncube, who became active in the opposition.

In this extraordinary footage from Zimbabwean state television, the men are marched to an open grave and local police force them to admit them to the assassination of a ruling party member.

A few days later, President Mugabe used the man's funeral to denounce the opposition before the nation.

ROBERT MUGABE: The murder of Cain Nkala was a bloody outcome, of an orchestrated and much wider and carefully planned terrorist plot.

ALEXIS BLOOM: One of the accused opposition members, Khethani Sibanda, was arrested and imprisoned for three years without trial. We tracked him down in exile, and he told us his side of the story.

KHETANI SIBANDA: I was taken before cameras to make indications on a grave where there was a man buried there, a man that I never killed there, and I was made to proclaim before the nation that I was the murderer of that person.

ALEXIS BLOOM: Tortured into confessing, Khethani says his case was a classic example of what happens to those who oppose Robert Mugabe.

KHETANI SIBANDA: I was at one time raped by prisoners while prison officers watched, and this was done by senior-ranking prisons officers. All these as acts of, you know, intimidation and human degrading and, just, you know, tearing away the moral fiber within me that holds me together.

ALEXIS BLOOM: Khethani fled to safety in South Africa, along with his fellow accused, Sazini Mpofu, seen here handcuffed to him on the right. But last year Sazini made a bold move, he returned to Zimbabwe.

ALEXIS BLOOM: We promised Khethani that we would try to find his friend Sazini.

And with leads from the opposition network, we finally tracked him down.

He agreed to meet us at a safe location. We asked him why he risked his life to return home.

SAZINI MPOFU: I came back because I felt I had to look after my younger sisters and brothers. And I felt that if I was to stay out of the country it would be like abandoning them.

ALEXIS BLOOM: Since Sazini was set up on this murder charge five years ago, the opposition has splintered.

Now, Sazini says, the government remains largely unchallenged.

SAZINI MPOFU: I think people, you know, are no longer willing to fight because of what they have seen happening to other people and us. I think from Mugabe's point, from the whole Zanu-PF's point, I think they're telling themselves that they have won.

ALEXIS BLOOM: While Sazini was in prison, his house was burnt down by thugs loyal to the government - he's begun cautiously rebuilding it.

SAZINI MPOFU: I might finish the place and then they come and burn it down again ... so, I'm still trying to see whether it's safe for everyone to come back home or if it's not then, we have to abandon the place.

ALEXIS BLOOM: As most of the country struggles to survive, leaders of Zimbabwe's ruling party live in splendor behind high walls.

And behind the biggest wall of all lies President Mugabe's newest palace, rumored to be the largest private residence in Africa... three acres of floor space, 25 bedrooms, marble from Italy, and roof tiles from Shanghai.

Just down the road, we see unrelenting poverty. According to the World Health Organization, Zimbabwean women have the lowest lie expectancy in the world - 34 years.

About a year ago, Mugabe launched a campaign that he claimed would beautify the poor urban areas.

But many say his real aim was to wipe out a breeding ground for opposition. Mugabe called this campaign "Operation Murambatsvina" or "Operation Clear out the Filth."

Footage of it was smuggled out of the country.

MAN: When the police came we were just forced to push out. They said you must take all of your belongings within thirty minutes time.

ALEXIS BLOOM: Police burnt and bulldozed thousands of homes and market stalls in towns around the country - up to 700,000 people were made homeless, and millions lost their livelihood overnight.

A year later, traces of these people remain but no sign of the new homes Mugabe promised he'd build them and more than a third of Zimbabwe's population has fled the country.

In the last few years, Zimbabwe's troubles have spilled into neighboring South Africa. Here in the capital, Johannesburg, we witnessed the local police trying to control this desperate scene.

These Zimbabweans escaped President Mugabe's rule and they don't want to go back. They will wait here all night to apply for political asylum.

An exiled Zimbabwean journalist took cover behind our car.

JOURNALIST: There's pandemonium, pushing and shoving because people are looking for asylum papers. But there's no system, or there's no mechanism in place. They are rubber bullets but they're shooting, I mean, those sounds are actually gunshots.

ALEXIS BLOOM: For these Zimbabweans, a place in line represents survival. They know only a handful will ever be allowed to stay.

In the last five years, over two million Zimbabweans have fled their homes for South Africa.

Here, they've become a shadow population eking out an existence in some of the poorest parts of the cities.

The exiles look to the South African government to denounce President Mugabe and help bring about the end of his regime.

But newspaper publisher Trevor Ncube tells me this isn't likely.

TREVOR NCUBE: South Africans don't know what to do with Robert Mugabe. The American's don't have a clue how to deal with this man apart from going in and bombing him, which is not an option. They would want regime change yesterday but how do you do it?

How do you deal with a fallen hero like Robert Mugabe? A man that the whole continent have looked up to, a man who assisted the liberation of South Africa for instance. How do you, basically, how do you tell your father to shut and sit down?

Robert Mugabe, he's not getting out of power; he's made up his mind that he's going to drop dead in office.

ALEXIS BLOOM: As long as Mugabe stays, his people will continue to flee.

At crowded deportation centers in South Africa, the unlucky ones are rounded up by the police.

And herded back to a country on its knees.

In our time in Zimbabwe, we were lucky enough to have met those still willing to speak out.

But their voices are growing harder to hear.

Mexico: A Death in the Desert

Reported by Claudine LoMonaco

CLAUDINE LOMONACO: The bus ride from Mexico City had taken six hours. I came here to Oaxaca to piece together the life of a dead man.

Back in Arizona, I had reported on the increasing number of migrants who have died trying to cross into the United States. But I knew so little about any of them.

In Agua del Espino, I found a village of Zapotec Indians mourning the loss of one of its sons, Matias Garcia. He was one of nearly 400 migrants who died along the border last year.

This night marks the anniversary of his death.

His name was Matias Gracia. He was 29 years old.

SENORA: Matias Juan Garcia Zavaleta was my first child. And as you know, the first are a mother's favorite because they're the first and they suffer the most.

CLAUDINE LOMONACO: Matias was the oldest of five children. When he was eight years old, he left school to work in the fields with his father.

At 16, Matias started leaving his village in southern Mexico to work in California.

AUJELIO: Between March to September, when the grape harvest ends there's only women here. All the men migrate.

CLAUDINE LOMONACO: Matias left each spring. But he would return every fall.

ISIDRA: People love our village. It's the land where we live, where we were born. They work in the U.S. but they always return, because this is their home. Even though there's no way to earn money here, we live off our land. You don't need money for everything.

CLAUDINE LOMONACO: Matias' wife, Isidra, feeds the family with the corn and beans they grow. The money he earned in the North helped build their home and clothe the family. It sent his sons, Juan and Elias to school.

Two years ago, Matias decided he would stop crossing.

ISIDRA: He didn't want to be away from us.

CLAUDINE LOMONACO: This is Matias in a home video taken in 2002. That spring he began growing chilies so he could make enough money to support his family without going north.

But an early frost that fall destroyed the crop overnight. It left Matias in debt. He had to cross again.

This time he would take a cousin with him and his 18-year-old brother, whom we will call Serafin. It would be Serafin's first trip north.

SERAFIN: Because he was the oldest, he was like our father. He supported us since we we're little. My brother... I loved him a lot.

CLAUDINE LOMONACO: The men set out on May 28, 2003.

SENORA: The day they left, I took both of them to the altar.

I blessed them. I gave them a hug. I gave them a kiss. They put on their backpacks and said goodbye to us. And then, they left.

CLAUDINE LOMONACO: Their mother wanted them to avoid a three-day bus ride and save their strength for the journey. She convinced them to borrow money so they could fly just south of the border.

They spent the night in Sonoyta, a popular crossing point along the Mexico/Arizona border. Like most migrants, they hired a coyote, or smuggler, to guide them. He told them to buy two gallons of water each.

SERAFIN: I was really scared. I had no idea what it would be like. And then they said we were going to walk and I got even more scared.

CLAUDINE LOMONACO: On Friday, May 30, it was 104 degrees. The group started walking at five in the afternoon to avoid the worst of the desert heat.

The men walked all night. They crossed more than twenty miles.

After sunrise, the heat rose quickly. It was too hot to continue walking.

They rested in what little shade they could find. In the summer, the desert floor can reach up to 170 degrees.

The men barely slept. They ate tortillas they brought from home. They each had less than one gallon of water left.

The journey north wasn't always so difficult. For years, most Mexican migrants entered the United States from Tijuana. Matias' uncle made the trip many times.

BERTOLDO: We used to cross through Tijuana. There was a path that went over a little hill.

The jump, we called it, and poof! You'd be there. So here was the border with the U.S. and you'd just go around, through the hills, and then to SanYsidro. American taxis would take us the rest of the way.

CLAUDINE LOMONACO: In 1990, Matias first went north through Tijuana.

Four years later, the U.S. entered the North American Free Trade Agreement. At the same time the U.S. opened the border to trade, it made it harder for people to get across with a new strategy called Operation Gatekeeper.

The Border Patrol reinforced the old fence with a series of walls between Tijuana and San Diego. They hoped to push migrants east into the desert. They thought the rugged terrain would act as a natural barrier and discourage people from entering the country illegally.

But it didn't. Hundreds of thousands of migrants began crossing the desert, first in California, then in Arizona.

Matias Garcia had crossed the desert before, but usually in April. But this time, he couldn't raise enough money to hire a coyote until mid May. The delay pushed his journey into the hottest part of the year.

SERFAFIN: We began walking again at five in the afternoon. That's when Matias started to feel sick. We kept walking and Matias felt really tired. Finally, he said "I can't walk anymore. I can't do anything."

CLAUDINE LOMONACO: By seven o'clock, the men ran out of water.

A few hours later, Matias collapsed.

SERAFIN: He was moving around. He was screaming and jerking. I was holding him but he told me to let go.

Serafin and his cousin carried Matias for several hours. They were trying to make it to Highway 85 in southwestern Arizona.

SERAFIN: "We're going out to the highway," I said. "What highway, I'm at home," and that's when he lost control.

He didn't know who I was. He called out for our sister. "She's not here, I said. "We're in the desert." "No, we're not in the desert," he said. "I'm in my house."

One moment he told me to look after his children and take care of them.

"Keep trying," I told him. "We're going to cross the border to make a better life. We're going to make it." But he didn't even know where he was.

CLAUDINE LOMONACO: Sheriff's Deputy Michael Walsh works along the border. He found the men that night. They were trying to flag down help.

DEPUTY MICHAEL WALSH: I was just doing routine patrol. I guess it was probably around like 2:15, 2:30 in the morning.

As I pulled up I would say the person that was flagging me down was standing right where my vehicle is at right now. I could see that he was visibly upset. He was crying. I looked at the person that was lying on the ground. I could see that he was deceased.

CLAUDINE LOMONACO: It wasn't the first time Deputy Walsh had found the body of a migrant in the desert.

DEPUTY MICHAEL WALSH: Mostly you just find skeletal remains out in the desert. With this one there's a lot more emotion, you know, family emotion involved in it. So it's a lot different. You have a name with the person. You know, he had a brother, a cousin. They, you know, were obviously close. They were visibly upset when he passed away.

CLAUDINE LOMONACO: The men had walked 32 miles. Matias died forty yards away from the highway they'd hoped would take them to California.

SENORA: On Sunday, we were waiting for a call to find out if they'd crossed. We woke up early to make breakfast. Finally we had a call. My husband went to answer it. He came back very sad. We asked him if they'd already crossed. He said, "No. One of our sons didn't make it." "But what happened?" I asked. "He died," he said. "Who died?" I asked him. "Matias," he said. That moment was so hard for us.

CLAUDINE LOMONACO: A week later, Matias' body was sent home. But his family believes that his spirit is still in the desert.

His mother says he visits her in her dreams. "Mama. Tengo sed. Tienes agua?" "I'm thirsty," he says. "Do you have any water?"

The day after Matias died, Serafin and his cousin were deported and released in a nearby border town.

Within hours, they crossed back over the border and started walking through the desert again.

SERAFIN: We began to think about our families who didn't have any money. And how we had to pay back the money we borrowed for the journey. So we decided to try again.

CLAUDINE LOMONACO: After walking for two more days, they got a ride to a small farming town outside of Fresno, California.

Men from Agua del Espino have been working here for decades.

SERAFIN: I thought it was going to be really beautiful here. I was going to come with my brother. He was going to show me how to do the work, how to do everything. But the truth is, it didn't turn out that way. It was different because he didn't end up coming with me. And I began to suffer alone.

CLAUDINE LOMONACO: Back in the village, Matias' widow suffers too - trying to be strong for her sons.

ISIDRA: For the older one it was very painful.

He got sick when I told him about his father. Because he's older, he understands. But the younger one doesn't understand yet. Sometimes he tells me his dad is working, and that he's going to come back to us. "Mama, daddy's in the north, isn't he? And he going to come see us?" When I can bear it, I say, "Yes, he's going to return." And when I can't, I say, "No. He's in the cemetery." "And we're going to go see him."

MATIAS' AUNT: [singing] The poor of the earth who've had everything taken from them ask for justice and equality.

CLAUDINE LOMONACO: At a memorial service, his aunt sings at the family's loss.

In the ten years since the U.S. tightened its border policy, more than 3000 people have died.

China: Women's Kingdom

Reported by Xiaoli Zhou

XIAOLI ZHOU: On the banks of Lugu Lake, just east of Shangri-la, lies a place in the southwest corner of China known as The Women's Kingdom.

I grew up far away in Shanghai. I've been thinking of coming here for over a decade.

The people who live here are called Mosuo and their homeland is famous throughout China as a place where women do not believe in traditional marriage.

A young boat guide named Chacuo told me love between a man and a woman is different here.

CHACUO: People here feel weird about marriage. Why should we get married?

XIAOLI ZHOU: The Mosuo are a small, mainly Buddhist, ethnic group. They have their own language and are said to be china's last matriarchy.

Mosuo women practice what they call "walking marriage," a tradition that has persisted for at least a thousand years.

CHACUO: The couples here don't share assets and work separately. They only spend the sweet nights together. If the two get along with each other, they get together. Why would you want the marriage license to handcuff yourself? Right?

XIAOLI ZHOU: Mosuo children don't live with their fathers. They are raised by their mothers and their mothers' families. Once the media started touting the "women's kingdom" as free love culture, hundreds of thousands of tourists began coming. Most of the tourists are Chinese, from the Han majority, like me.

The Han Chinese men who come here are attracted by the tantalizing possibilities of free love.

ZHANG JUN: I just came here to have fun. Mosuo women who grew up with 'walking marriage' and the matriarchy look at relationships between men and women in a different way.

XIAOLI ZHOU: ChaCuo tells me the tourists don't always respect her culture.

CHACUO: Most frequently, they ask me if I have tried 'walking marriage,' how many men I have practiced it with, and if they can walk into my room at night ... I hate that last question most! I hate it. They always sound so cocky! Every time, I would reply, "Do you really think you're very attractive? Are you really all that great? Then they would shut up."

XIAOLI ZHOU: In the old days, Mosuo men and women would gather to sing and dance on special occasions. Now Chacuo and the other Mosuo dance every night, for the tourists.

Life here is very different now.

Chacuo told me if I wanted to see the way it used to be, I would have to travel to a remote village called Wujiao, seven hours on horseback, up and down the hills, only the locals know these roads.

About 200 Mosuo live here, high on the mountain. When I arrive, unannounced, a family immediately takes me in - showing its traditional Mosuo hospitality.

In Wujiao, the old ways remain strong. Women are in charge of almost everything, while men help with the farm work.

Elsewhere in the China, many girl babies are abandoned. Here, the young Mosuo girls are favored.

SUNA LAMU: I enjoy being a girl. Girls can do everything. Isn't that great?

XIAOLI ZHOU: The girls go through a "coming of age" ceremony when they turn thirteen. Afterwards, they are allowed to wear dresses, they can start dating, and they get their own rooms.

LACUO: My mom gave me all these. They are silver.

XIAOLI ZHOU: LaCuo says she loves to put on rings, but she will never wear a wedding ring.

LACUO: Marriage is not fun. After people get married, they always fight with each other. So noisy!

XIAOLI ZHOU: On the hills above Wujiao, Lacuo and her uncles herd yaks for the family.

In Mosuo families, uncles are much more important than fathers.

LACUO: My uncles are better than my father. When I was a child, my uncles always looked after me while mom was working on the farm.

UNCLE: When I get old, these girls will definitely look after me. When I have my own kids, I'll leave them with their uncles. I'll probably buy them some clothes once in a while. We Mosuo men live great lives because we can play around all the time.

XIAOLI ZHOU: The women work hard to support their families.

Evenings are spent together around the fire spinning wool ... and telling stories.

Very few foreigners ever reach the village of Wujiao.

The women tell me they are so happy I've come that they want to celebrate. They have fun dressing me up - and before I know it, we are all dancing.

But even here there is the lure of another world.

LACUO: Women from the outside are more beautiful. I'm a bit fat now. A thinner body looks better.

XIAOLI ZHOU: Lately LaCuo's family has been renovating their second floor to make comfortable rooms for visitors.

LACUO: It would be more fun if tourists can come and live in our house!

XIAOLI ZHOU: Soon, there will be phones and a paved road ... and tourists will come to this village too.

Back at Lugu Lake, ChaCuo told me she had actually fallen in love with one of the tourists - named Zhang Jun. In a break with tradition, the two are now living together. But she says it hasn't always been easy.

CHACUO: The time I went to see his parents, I stayed there for over two months. I almost went crazy because I couldn't sing on the streets. One day, I said to Zhand Jun that I could no longer control myself. I had to sing to my full voice on the street. But he stopped me, saying people would think I'm crazy. In the end I had to lock myself up in the bedroom to sing my songs.

Zhang Jun says his life here is mostly good.

ZHANG JUN: Gradually I started accepting the Mosuo values. It's true that life become a bit boring after a while. And sometimes I do ask myself where my career would have gone if I had spent all these years in a big city?

ChaCuo says she wants Zhang Jun to be happy, but there are some things she won't do for love.

CHACUO: I won't marry him. I won't move with him to a big city. If Zhang Jun leaves me one day, I may be able to bear the pains, but if he forces me to leave my family, I probably won't be able to survive it.

I realized that even in the women's kingdom, freedom comes with painful choices.