Sunday, October 26, 2014

The trek continues: from Chawalong to Gebu via the Tangdu La

On the morning of Monday 6th October I woke in the Tibetan house above Chawalong with the usual dry mouth and slight headache from the altitude. I'd slept on a wooden bench in the guest room, and a Tibetan woman came into the room at 7am and appeared to be continually muttering and grumbling about me under her breath until I realised she was reciting a Tibetan religious chant. The woman invited me to share breakfast with the family, which consisted on momo bread and tsampa (butter tea) in the kitchen. They were a very friendly bunch and it felt good to be 'safe' and no longer under threat of being caught, fined and booted out of Tibet.

After breakfast when I asked where the toilet was I was told 'just go anywhere round the back - that's the Tibetan way'. Round the back was the pig sty. A bike was supposed to be taking me up the road and over the minor Tangdu La pass and to drop me off at my jump off point for the trek, Gebu. I had to wait about an hour before it turned up, during which time I roamed around the house exploring the roof where corn, veges and chillis were spread out to dry, and where one of the guys was sifting some corn.

The new bike driver was a friendly and laid-back Tibetan called Dorje, who had agreed to take me to Gebu and then continue as my guide all the way to the Sho La pass, three days beyond. Unfortunately he didn't seem to speak or understand even basic Mandarin, so we had to communicate in sign language. At 8.30am we saddled up and set off up the zig-zag road out of Longpu village. As a driver, the new Tibetan was more relaxed on the motorbike, weaving the bike from one side of the road to the other and singing along to his music as we climbed through pine forest in the cool early morning air. As before I wore my raincoat with the hood up and a scarf around my face to protect from the chill slipstream.

We reached the Tangdu La pass in about half an hour, where we had great views back over Chawalong and the Nu river valley to the south. The road markers said it was 20km from Chawalong. The pass was just an unremarkable cutting through which the road ran across the main ridge, it was forested and there was  a huge ugly electricity pylon plonked on top. There were also some pilgrim rest huts and a small shop at the pass, where we stopped to have a quick drink of tea and warm ourselves by the fire. As we waited, two other vehicles pulled up full of boisterous Tibetans, who proceeded to spread prayer flags over the surrounding bushes and trees.

The subsequent descent by road to Gebu was through spectacular scenery. In the distance to the north was a fine mountain peak, and the road itself spiralled down to a fast-flowing green tributary of the Nu river. It would be a very treacherous road to drive by car or van, but I felt relatively secure on the back of a motorbike. The scale of the landscape was awesome and the sheer steep sides of the valley were much more dramatic than I had been led to believe by the 3D images from Google Earth.

I wished I had walked this section as I very much wanted to take photos - but my driver and guide had committed to taking me to Gebu on the bike.

 When we arrived at Gebu mid morning I had been expecting to find the western trekkers there, bt the small village seemed deserted. When I asked a sullen teenager if he had seen any foreigners, he  pointed his chin up at what looked like a pylon on the hills to the north and said "they went up there".

I had planned to start walking from this point, but my driver told me the starting point was a little further up. And so we continued up another zig-zag trail up the hillside, which took us eventually to a wooden hut on a spur, that was busy with pilgrims. At the hut I was welcome by some of the Chinese and Tibetan trekkers I had seen in Aben. They were sat around the fire, drinking tea and exchanging stories. They had also hitched a lift over the Chawalong road section of the kora, and were about to set off on the next walking section of the kora.

And so once I had unloaded my bag from the bike and re-packed it, I joined up with a group of four Tibetan pilgrims as we set off up the well-worn kora trail up the dusty hillside. The view back down to gebu and south to the Tangdu La were spectacular.

The angle of the track was steep at first, but then eased off to a more gentle gradient that it was following the contours of the hillside to the north. To our left (west) we overlooked the river valley and as we ascended gained superb views across to the mountain ranges and ridges towards Burma. One peak in particular looked similar to the Mt Kenyichunpo described by Rock as being the highest peak of the Salween Irrawaddy divide.

It was now early afternoon and the sun was beating down fiercely. I was really glad that I had invested in a big umbrella in Bingzhongluo which I now put up to shield me from the intense UV rays. Many of the trekkers I'd seen had walking poles, but I have always found these to be more of a hindrance than a help on treks (except for going down steep slopes) - whereas along umbreall could be used as both a rain and sun shelter as well as a walking stick. Credit for this idea must go to the Canadian trekker Darren Fairly who had accompanied us on our last trip around the Kawakarpo kora. Darren's approach to the trek had been extreme lightweight, with just a sleeping bag and an umbrella as his main items of kit.

 After about an hour of walking with the pilgrims we turned a corner and came to another small hut that served as a shop and rest point. I was surprised to see a group of people apparently doing some exercises on the hillside ahead of us. When I approached closer, I realised it was the western commercial trekking party and they were taking part in a yoga session on an outcrop facing the river.

The trekkers were focused on their yoga, so after a quick hello, I rejoined 'my' group of pilgrim trekkers and sat with them in the shade, knocking back a whole bottle of water in one go due to my thirst. After a few minutes they got up to continue, and I joined them, thinking that the western trekkers would be following behind us - I was mistaken and this was the last I saw of them. I hadn't known at the time, but they had to wait 24 hours for their horses to catch up with them after their van ride from Aben. For the rest of the kora they would be a day behind me.

The rest of the afternoon was a long but not unpleasant slog up the track through pine forest. The Tibetan pilgrims walked faster than me - they were fitter and acclimatised to the altitude. However they tended to stop frequently for breaks, or to investigate some interesting mushroom or herb they had found along the wayside, so we kept the same pace overall. I was pleased to find that I had now acclimatised a little to the 3000m altitude and could maintain a steady pace up the hill for long periods. My guide was carrying my 10kg backpack, which of course helped, but I was also carrying about 5kg of camera gear and other items in my smaller daypack.

There was little to see once we were in the forest, but we did get occasional views of the surrounding mountain ranges. I soon ran out of water - despite taking more than a litre with me, and was gagging with thirst by  4pm, when we arrived at the "Gebu Top Camp". This was just one of the many pilgrim rest stations along the kora. It was little more than a fireplace with a bit of thick plastic sheeting thrown over a few logs. Next to it was a more sturdy log cabin that made the small shop - complete with resident shopkeeper and his son. And next to that was a larger sleeping area that was again little more than a flat piece of ground with some bits of flattened cardboard to sleep on, and protected from the elements by plastic sheeting that flapped in the wind. The price for staying at these way stations was 10 yuan a night, with free hot water.

The Tibetans collapsed with exhaustion where they sat and immediately had a nap in the vegetation. I had a look around the place and was disappointed to see the amounts of rubbish strewn about the area. Plastic bottles, instant noodle containers, plastic wrappers were thrown about with no thought of the environment at all. Tibetans venerated the mountains and treated the pilgrimage as a scared duty - and yet they desecrated the whole route with their garbage. It was hard to understand. The same applied to the sanitation. There were no toilets at the shelter and piles of old excrement and discarded toilet paper could be seen in all the surrounding bushes. I was especially alarmed to note that many visitors had been shitting up the hill, close to the fresh water source that provided drinking water via a pipe to the shelter.

When it got dark at 7pm the Tibetans cooked up their usual meal of noodles, spam and some chillies in a large cauldron, while I ate one of my dehydrated meals, much to their bemusement and curiosity. And once the sun had gone down there was no power or light, so there was little to do except retire to the sleeping bag and read a book on my Kindle, and listen to the rustling of the trees in the breeze.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Sneaking into Tibet past the security checkpoint: from Aben to Chawalong

Everyone in Aben had a different opinion on how I should get past the police checkpoint  before Chawalong. One guy said I should go through early in the morning, before the staff came on duty. Another said I should hike on one of the trails around the back of the checkpoint. The most common advice was to go through at night, when the police went off duty, but even this advice was disputed by some of the people I met in Aben.

I'd arrived in the late afternoon of Saturday 4th October and was dropped off at the village from the motorbike by the kid from Qiunatong. Despite coming from the neighbouring village, 60km down the canyon, he seemed ill at ease among the Tibetans of Aben and wanted to leave immediately. He was a Nu minority kid and a Catholic from a village of log cabins. Here we were in a Tibetan village where the houses were sturdy stone fortresses decorated with colourful Buddhists frescoes. We had crossed a cultural divide.

The kid stayed just long enough to have a quick drink and to be paid off by me, in the courtyard of a guesthouse run by a cheerful, no-nonsense Tibetan woman. She invited me in and I told her of my aim to get up to Chawalong. She nodded non-commitally and said 'we'll see". I also told her that I was hoping to meet up with some foreign trekkers who were doing the kora and due to walk down from the Xinkang La pass above Aben that afternoon. The woman said she was expecting them as their Chinese liaison guy had already called ahead to books rooms. So after a much-needed beer I walked up Aben twisting street to see if I could see them on the way down.

Aben was a strange little place - a community of about 15 households perched on a shelf-like horizontal patch of ground below the  high ridge of the mountains, and overlooking the Nu Jiang river. It was surrounded by a few fields growing corn and potatoes, but most of the landscape was steep and barren rocky mountainside that could not be cultivated. The locals were all subsistence farmers and were engaged in a variety of manual tasks such as threshing corn, milking cows and hauling heavy baskets of cut wood and vegetables up the hill, using a band around the forehead to take the load. It was a primitive and hardy place - no Shangri La, despite the epic scenery. However, Aben was unique among Tibetan villages in that it was a waypoint on the Kawakarpo kora.

As I hauled myself up the steep main 'street' I was passed by groups of jubilant and tired Tibetan pilgrims walking the opposite way, downhill, just arrived from their four-day round-the-mountain trek from Deqen. Like me, they faced another week of walking to complete the mountain circuit and return to the Mekong. Many of the pilgrims carried the stout staffs of thick green bamboo, decorated with a few strands of leaves sticking out of the top. Aben had several primitive guesthouses and rest sheds (little more than polythene sheets stretched over a few logs) to accomodate them. The pilgrims came in all shapes and sizes: there were Tibetan grandmas swivelling personal prayer wheels, young lads with hefty backpacks, family groups of parents and children, and parties of Buddhist monks and nuns bedecked in crimson and yellow robes. They all looked as exhausted as I had felt two years earlier after I completed the same long knee-jarring descent from the pass into Aben.

I walked to to the top end of town but could see no sign of the foreign trekkers. I was accompanied by the young son of the guesthouse owners, a cheeky and talkative kid called Tashi, who brought his dog along. Tashi was  like any other 11-year-old, full of curiosity and guileless questions.  "Where are you from?" "Why have you come here?" "Why do you wear such big boots?" "What's it like in England?" "What kind of car have you got?" Tashi sat with me on the wall at the top of town, and babbled away quite unselfconsciously, telling me all about his family and his life. He was pleased because he had a long 10-day break from school, but he missed his older brother who was away somewhere up north.

Tashi told me proudly that his family sometimes went to big towns like Bingzhongluo and Gongshan, and his parents had bought him a mobile phone, which he demonstrated to me. He got me to play some of the music on my iPhone and he recorded it on his own phone.  I grinned at the thought of future visitors to Aben being greeted by the sound of the Bee Gees Jive Talking or Chic's Dance, Dance, Dance from my iTunes collection of 70s disco music. As we spoke a couple of 'real' trekkers arrived, a Chinese and a Tibetan guy who hailed from Zhongdian. They were very hip and laid back and told me that my "foreign friends" were at least a couple of hours behind them. And so I retired back to the guesthouse with Tashi, who showed me his Tibetan language schoolbooks, and got me to sit and watch an episode of Spongebob Squarepants dubbed in Chinese.

Word had obviously got round that I was seeking a ride to Chawalong, and a few local guys huddled around the table cracking walnuts, smoking and discussing the best way to do it. The guy who seemed the most sensible and reliable said he would take me to the town beyond Chawalong for 800 yuan. This would involve riding on the back of his motorbike at night, and he said I would have to get off the bike before the checkpoint and walk through alone for a hundred metres, because he could not take the risk of being caught smuggling a foreigner into Tibet past the police. Like everyone else, he told me "foreigners aren't allowed into Tibet without a special permit - there are signs everywhere along the  road saying this." The guesthouse manageress agreed. "It's much more stricter now because there is more traffic on the  road to Chawalong. It used to be just local people, but now there are people who come from Guangzhou and Shanghai in 4Wheel Drives to drive through the canyon. But if you walk through at night you will be OK. There is a trail round the back of the checkpoint," she assured me. I wanted to see what arrangements the commercial trekking group had made so I told them I might try the following evening.

But when the seven-strong commercial trekking party arrived in a bustle of activity at about 6pm, I learned that my hopes of going into Tibet with them were in vain. The trek leader Adrian had originally told me they also planned to sneak past the checkpoint into Chawalong at night. However, at the last minute his Chinese liaison manager Edward had been able to arrange a special Tibet permit for their group and a van to take them through the checkpoint the following day. I wasn't on the permit, so I couldn't travel with them. I would have to make my own arrangements. The western trekkers, mostly Hong Kong-based expats, busied themselves arranging their gear and getting cleaned up after completing the first  four days of their ten day trek around the mountain. It was strange to hear English spoken again after almost a week of speaking only Chinese, and I felt a little left out of this group who had obviously bonded during their arduous few days of walking over the Doker La and other passes of the pilgrim circuit.

We all had an early night and the western trekkers departed in their van the next morning, leaving me in Aben to contemplate my solo attempt to get past the checkpoint. The guesthouse manageress told me to keep a low profile and not to walk about the village now that the other foreigners had left. I was an 'illegal' - in Tibet without a permit, and she didn't want anyone to know I was staying at her guesthouse. If I stayed out of sight, the villagers would think I had gone with the other foreigners, she said.

And so it was that I spent a very dull second day in Aben, waiting for my motorbike driver to show up 'after dark'.  I read some books, mooched up and down the stairs, packed and re-packed my backpack and tried to wash a few clothes. But it is still very difficult to pass a whole day doing nothing - especially when you are apprehensively waiting to do something illegal. I felt like a condemned man awaiting execution as I counted down the hours to our departure. As the zero hour of 7pm approached I found myself pacing up and down the room and visiting the loo every ten minutes. I couldn't stop thinking of those four armed soldiers I'd seen at the Nidadang checkpoint the day before, standing tense and alert, ready to pounce on any errant foreigners. Their fingers on the triggers. "Take it easy. It will be OK," the manageress advised me over dinner of fried egg and tomato with rice. But I couldn't relax.

At last the sun went down and it got dark - it was time to go. "Zou ba!" said the motorbike guy, and he strapped my backpack to the side of his bike. Once again I contorted my legs to fit them to the small proportions of the bike footrests. It was a tight squeeze with two of us and a pack on the bike, but I felt glad to be going when we said farewell to Aben and rolled down the gravel road back towards the river.

Riding on the back of a motor bike at night was an even more nerve-wracking experience than in daytime. The weak headlight threw a small pool of yellow light on the potholed road and I hoped and prayed that the driver knew what he was doing. This new guy drove much faster and more aggressively than the kid from Qiunatong. He powered the bike over the bumps and rocks of the road, and the bouncing and jarring unseated me several times, forcing me to try wriggle back onto the centre of the saddle. And again I was scolded for moving and de-stabilising the bike. There were of course no streetlights or lamps in this part of the world but the quarter moon gave some illumination of the canyon when we finally got back down to the river after an hour or so. By this time I was once again in cramped muscular agony due to my legs being bent almost double to fit on the footrests. Sitting directly behind the driver I soon discovered another problem - he had terrible bad breath. Every so often he exhaled in my direction and I got a foul wave of halitosis, so bad it made me want to gag. I had to put my scarf around my mouth as a filter to breathe.

After another half an hour of bumping and lurching over the unseen hazards of the road I was actually looking forward to reaching the checkpoint so that I could get off, stretch my legs and put an end to the excruciating discomfort. The road skirted around a huge towering outcrop of rock and turned towards Chawalong. "Nearly there" said the driver. I braced myself for the next part of the plan, and told the driver that I wanted him to wait around on the Aben side of the checkpoint in case I didn't make it through. I didn't want to be left stranded in this huge canyon at night with a 30km walk back to Aben if I somehow didn't make it and got turned away from the checkpoint.

This pic from a Chinese website shows the old police checkpoint at Quzhu. New one is bigger!

But as we turned the next corner and the checkpoint came into sight, I instantly realised that the original plan for me to walk through the checkpoint was not going to happen. From pictures I'd seen posted by Chinese 4WD drivers on internet forums I had been expecting the checkpoint to be a small, anonymous hut with a police sign on it. And for it to be in darkness. Instead, what we were confronted with was a large whitewashed concrete bunker lit up with floodlights and with a flashing blue and red police light mounted on a prominent red and white striped pole across the road. I couldn't see any police on duty outside the building but the lights inside were on and the floodlights made visibility around the building as clear as daytime.

The driver quickly brought the motorbike to a halt and switched off his headlight. He peered through the darkness and was obviously sizing up this unexpected development and how he was going to get around the barrier with his bike and how I would walk through the brightly-lit surroundings without being detected. We sat in silence for what seemed like ages, but was probably just a minute.
Then without saying anything he released the brakes and allowed the bike to coast forward in the darkness - no lights, no engine. The road sloped gently down to the checkpoint barrier and we picked up a little speed. With no lights I was more worried about hitting an unseen  rock or pothole in the road and being flung off the bike. I didn't know what the driver had in mind, but it didn't look like I would be walking after all.

Within a minute we had reached the checkpoint and I could see ahead that the end of the red and white barrier pole was padlocked down. Would the driver dismount and try manhandle the bike under the barrier? No. As we approached it he pushed the ignition button and the engine hummed into life. With a quick twist of the throttle he gunned the engine and twisted the handlebars, aiming us off the road round the left hand side of the barrier. There was a narrow gap of less than a metre between the end of the barrier and some bushes on a slope that went down to the Nu Jiang river, somewhere in the darkness below. The driver manoeuvred us around the barrier, through the bushes and over some rough ground to the side of the road, the bike fishtailing as he put his feet on the ground and pushed us along.

The blue and red flashing light lit up the scene, and I momentarily froze, expecting the door of the guardhouse to open at any second and police to emerge and challenge us. I had my hood up and a scarf around my face but this was not a very effective disguise for a six foot high foreigner with a large backpack. In a moment we were back on the road and the driver opened up the engine and off we went, glancing furtively over his shoulder as we sped off towards Chawalong. We had done it! Past the checkpoint!

But the drama wasn't quite over. The driver seemed anxious to get away and he drove even faster than his previous aggressive efforts. We bounced around on the road as he revved the engine, and almost came to grief when we suddenly hit a patch of deep, thick grey clay dust that bogged down the wheels and almost tuned the bike on its side. The driver put his feet down and tried to 'paddle' us through this morass, until we emerged and sped up again on firmer ground. The driver now put the headlight back on, and also switched on his bike 'sound system' that blasted out wailing Tibetan karaoke music into the night. We blazed and bumped down the gravel road and I clung on to his waist as we tore blindly round corners  over more bumps and potholes.

This is what the final section of the road to Chawalong looks like in the daytime. Imagine doing this at high speed at night.

Once the initial euphoria of getting through the checkpoint had worn off, I once again began to notice the discomfort of my cramped seated position and longed for a chance to straighten my legs. The driver, however, had other things on his mind. He kept looking back over his shoulder and after a while I did the same. I was startled to see the headlights of a vehicle following just a few hundred metres behind. Was this a police car or just an ordinary local on their way to Chawalong? I quickly remembered that the checkpoint barrier had been locked, so this car must have just set off from beyond the barrier. It seemed to be driving slowly, but my driver didn't wait to find out what it was. He went flat out on the bike, tearing round more corners and even accelerating on downhill sections, then braking suddenly when a rock or a bump in the road loomed out of the darkness. I was terrified and was sure were were going to hit a boulder or rut and come off the bike.

And in this way, music blaring and buffeting around the rutted road, we proceeded on to the small town of Chawalong, about an hour away through the dark and uninhabited Nu Jiang river canyon. It was one of the scariest and most wearying hours of my life. We passed a large landslide that was a prominent feature of the gorge, and I noticed cactuses in the dark by the roadside. This section of the river was very arid and barren - a real contrast to the verdant green 'jungle' around the lower reached of the river near Bingzhongluo.

Not my photo, but you get the idea of how basic Chawalong is.

I felt a mixture of relief and trepidation when we drove into Chawalong. It was a like a scene from the Wild West - just a single dusty and churned up road running between two rows of bars, shops and official buildings such as schools. There were a few people milling around on the street and in doorways and I tried to hide my face. My driver made no attempt to slow down, but tore up the street at full throttle until he suddenly slammed on the brakes and skidded to a halt outside a karaoke bar-restaurant. He jumped off the bike and went inside, uttering only the word "xiuxi" (rest) in my direction as he departed. I painfully and slowly tried to unseat myself from the bike, and found that my legs could barely move, I was so paralysed with cramp and discomfort. I stood for a few moment, bow-legged like Charlie Chaplin until the feeling started to come back into my legs and feet. I shook them a bit and then went in to the restaurant.

I got a huge shock when I looked inside to find my driver, only to spy him sat at a table with a policeman. Was this a trap? A set up? The cop looked up from his rice and nodded at me. He was a burly Tibetan, and didn't seem at all surprised to see me.
"Ni hao!" he said. "Are you with all the other foreigners?" "Er, yes!" I mumbled. I looked at my driver for guidance but he was ignoring me, eating some rice.
"What are you doing here?" the policeman asked.
I told him we were doing the kora around the mountain.
"Oh, that's tough," he replied. "Good for you." And with that he returned to talking to his friends, and paid me no more attention. A waitress hovered next to me and asked if I wanted to eat, and again I looked at my driver. He just shrugged his shoulders, so I said no.

After waiting around awkwardly in the doorway for 15 minutes, my driver got up, said goodbye to all his friends and turned to me again. "Let's go ..."
I could only presume that the Chawalong cop was one of the driver's friends or relatives. He obviously had no interest in apprehending me or sending me back to Yunnan.
We got back on the bike and motored about ten minutes out of town and up the hill to a small village called Longpu. There we pulled off the road and into the courtyard of a large Tibetan house. The driver told me this was as far as he was taking me. Tomorrow another bike could take me up the road and over the minor Tangdu La pass to get to the next stage of the kora at a village caled Gebu.

I was ushered into a large room that looked like a shrine, as it had lots of Buddhist decorations and monuments on the wall. But it was simply the guest room, and I was welcomed here by several other Tibetan guys who urged me to sit and share some walnuts and their local brew made from corn, Shuijiu. It was quite sour, almost like cider.

And with that my Aben driver departed after extracting his fee. I was left in the care of a new group of Tibetans and felt a bit like a downed WW2 pilot being passed along the French Resistance smuggling line. I was now safely beyond the checkpoint and in the hands of another local network of Tibetans who promised to deliver to my next destination. The next day they would deliver me to the the start of the next stage of the walking kora - Gebu village.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Getting into Tibet to start the Kawakarpo pilgrim kora: Part 1 - Bingzhongluo to Aben

The day after my nightmare descent into Bingzhongluo I found myself ensconced in a nice bar in Bingzhongluo enjoying a beer and wondering about how to overcome my next big problem - how to get into Tibet without a permit.

Bingzhongluo is the 'end of the road' town in the Yunnan section of the Salween river  (Nu Jiang) canyon. North of the town the official tarmac road ends and there is only a hazardous gravel trail that runs along the precipitous cliff edges of the canyon above the surging river as it leaves Tibet. There is about 100km of road (and not much else) between Bingzhongluo and Chawalong, the first town in Tibet. It's a wild and barren landscape with just a handful of small farming hamlets. But this was familiar territory for me.

I'd been along this 'road of death' some years ago on a spur-of-the-moment illicit 4WD sojourn up to Chawalong, organised by a local guide who had connections with the Chinese army and police. Back in 2007, there had been no checkpoints along the road to Tibet, simply because hardly anyone travelled that way. The poor road was just too dangerous. More recently I had come down the same road from a village called Aben in Tibet after having walked in along mountain trails while doing the Kawakarpo kora (the pilgrim circuit round Meili Xueshan).

At that time I'd given up half way around the circuit (I was doing it with my two teenage sons - I blame them!). Now my aim was to complete the second half of the circuit by taking up where I left off - at the village of Aben in Tibet. I didn't want to repeat the first section again, and that was why I had recently crossed from the Mekong to the Nu Jiang via the She-La further south instead of repeating the crossing of the Doker La pass from Deqen. This meant, however, that I now had to get myself into Tibet without the required foreigner's entry permit which was only obtainable for groups travelling to distant Lhasa. In the past I had heard it was possible to get into Tibet by hiring a local guy to drive you up the road after dark, when the police checkpoints were said to be closed and unmanned. On this trip, however, I had already been told that the security checkpoints were getting tougher and were now manned 24/7.

But perhaps first I should backtrack a bit. I had reached Bingzhongluo from Baihanluo after my awful day descending from the high passes without a guide. The curse of Baihanluo persisted until the very end. After spending an uncomfortable night in 'The Filthiest House in China' I was woken by the drunken granny who was already sipping beers for breakfast and necking vodka-like baijiu for a post-breakfast chaser. I refused her offer of a drink to go with the fried mushroom breakfast and said my farewells to my kind hosts and gave them 50 kuai for their trouble. They would not accept it, so I just left it on the table and headed down the hill. Easier said than done. I was immediately followed and harrassed by half the dogs in the village and took several wrong turnings before I eventually found the correct trail that led down to the valley floor.

Down at Dimaluo, I found myself on a real road for the first time in three days. It was the beginnings of the new highway being constructed over the high mountains to link the Nu Jiang and the Mekong (Lancang Jiang) valleys. I faced an 8km hike down to the Nu Jiang river, but was fortunate to get a lift from a passing 4WD, whose occupants could not believe that I had walked the three day trail over from Cizhong. They dropped me off at a small riverside town called Pengdang, from where I was able to flag down a local bus travelling from Gongshan to Bingzhongluo.  And as a bonus I managed to avoid paying the 140 yuan park entrance fee for the Nujiang Scenic Area as the guy at the ticket barrier did not believe that a tourist would be travelling on a decrepit local bus service. Perhaps my luck was turning?

It was 1 October and I found Bingzhongluo to be packed to the rafters because it was China's "Golden Week" - the multiple day holiday around the Guoqing (National Day) when most of the country decides to take a few days vacation all at the same time. Bingzhongluo had only a handful of guesthouses and hotels and I quickly found they were all completely full - mostly booked by Chinese tourists coming up from places like Kunming. I ended up having to settle for a mediocre room in an indifferent hotel for an extortionate 300 yuan. Once settled in, I went for the said beer in the only cafe in town, and asked around about the possibility of getting a ride into Tibet. Despite offering to arrange hikes and local trips, the reaction from the local tour operators and hostel staff was uniformly negative. They could arrange trips into the mountains or even over to the mysterious Dulong Valley, but none of them would even think about Tibet.

Bingzhongluo's single street was busy with private cars and 4WDs heading up towards the border, but most were only going as far at the final Yunnan village of Qiunatong about 18km distant - none of the were willing to give me a lift towards Chawalong, a further 60km across the border. I got the same message from the local minivan drivers who touted their vans for hire at the town crossroads. Most of the drivers professed ignorance about the road to Chawalong, and the few who had heard of it spluttered with laughter and suggested ridiculous prices when I asked about hiring their van to go there. Quite a few pointed out that it was now expressly forbidden for foreigners to enter Tibet via the Chawalong road and reminded me that there prominent signs posted on the road warning about this. In a small town like Chawalong there are only a few drivers for hire and I very quickly exhausted my options. I spent much of the morning hanging about at the 'crossroads' where the road turned off for Tibet, asking anyone with a van if they would go to Tibet. The answer was always 'no' and I soon became an object of scorn and derision for the drivers plying their trade. Each time I reappeared they would laugh and say "Still here? You're wasting your time! Go to Gongshan instead!" I retired to the nearby bar, had a coffee and kept one eye on the crossroads out of the window to see if any other drivers showed up. They didn't. And thus it was that I spent two frustrating days in Bingzhongluo, feeling marooned and defeated.

To pass the time, I went on walks down to see the "First Bend of the Nu Jiang" along with all the other holiday weekend tourists. I strolled up the road to see the new monastery being built to replace the old Champuting temple on the sight of the one burned to the ground  a hundred years ago by authorities in retaliation for the murders of Catholic missionaries by Tibetan. There's only so much you can do in a small town like Bingzhongluo, and stretching this out to two days was extremely dispiriting.

After a night spent in the dull hotel room licking through the 23 channels of Chinese state TV, I woke for a second morning of disappointment. One 4WD driver had said he might hire his vehicle out to take my up to Chawalong - for a fee of about $300. When I called him back, however, he had changed his mind and claimed he was too tired to make the trip. I began to feel paranoid and wondered whether news of my intentions to get into Tibet had reached the ears of the local cops.  That might explain why nobody was willing to take me.

I spent another slow day in Bingzhongluo, trying unsuccessfully to hustle a ride up into Tibet. "Nothing to do and all day to do it in." The local restaurants and the bar were full of Chinese from places like Guangzhou, many taking advantage of their private car ownership to drive around and see a bit of their own country. There were no foreigners in town and the Chinese all asked the same questions: "Where are you from? Are you travelling alone? Are you studying/working in China?"

On the morning of the third day, still unable to find a driver, I resigned myself to turning back and re-tracing my steps over the She-La pass back to the Mekong. I consoled myself with the thought that it was a stunningly scenic trip and I would have more time on the return trip to enjoy the sights. But before I left I decided to take a minivan up to the next village of Qiunatong, just so that I could say I had travelled some distance along the Nu Jiang. Qiunatong was known as a small Catholic village of  Nu and Tibetans. It had a quaint wooden church that Rock had stayed at during his sojourn through the area. I had also been there before on a previous trip to the Nujiang.

I found a female minivan driver who offered to take me there for 150 yuan. When I mentioned that I had been trying to go to Chawalong in Tibet she told me to keep quiet about that when we passed through the new checkpoint. Uh? What checkpoint?  I didn't even know there was a security checkpoint - there hadn't been when I had come this way two years before. Sure enough, after we passed through the impressive Stone Gate gorge about 5km down the river, we came to a serious-looking red and white striped barrier blocking the road.

Pic by a Chinese driver of the first checkpoint at the Yunnan-Tibet border at Nidadang.

The authorities meant business. The checkpoint station was manned by four members of the WuJing (army militia), dressed in full combat gear complete with helmets, ammunition bandoliers and with their fingers quite evidently on the triggers of their semi-automatic rifles.

Not my pic, but you get an idea of what the border guards look like.

Our minivan was stopped and like the vehicles ahead of us it was searched. I was ordered out and told to stand to one side while my passport was taken away and the details entered into a computer terminal. This was all very new and sinisterly efficient compared to my previous trips up the Nu Jiang. After a wait of about ten minutes my passport was returned and our van was waved through the raised barrier - with permission to go only as far as Qiunatong, still in Yunnan. We drove along the riverside in subdued silence, the 'heavy' atmosphere of the checkpoint reaffirming my change of heart about trying to sneak into Tibet. There was no way I was going to try dodge around a checkpoint manned by trigger-happy PLA guards. Or so I thought. Everything changed within 15 minutes of arriving in Qiunatong.

As with Bingzhongluo, the village was packed with tourists and I soon learned (though not before my minivan had departed) that the small guesthouse was completely booked out for the holiday weekend. I dumped my backpack in the courtyard and sighed. The female proprietor of the guesthouse was friendly and sympathetic, but said there was nothing she could do - even as we spoke she was approached by two other groups of tourists asking if they had rooms.

While wondering what to do next, I met a guy who said he could arrange transport for me to the next village.  I won't reveal his identity. "You want to go to Tibet? It'll be expensive ..." he said. His idea of expensive was 600 yuan ($100). I said I was willing to pay that. Then he looked at my backpack. "That's too big - you can't take that on a motorbike."

My hopes  of getting to Tibet were suddenly revived and I told him I could get rid of a lot of the junk in my bag. Within a few minutes I had pulled out the bulky clothes and taken out the old tent, shrinking the bag size by about half. He looked at it sceptically and said "wait here". And so I waited. And waited. For about an hour, in the late morning sun. The guesthouse owner kept coming by and saying "someone will be here soon ..." but the only activity in the village was someone with a chainsaw lopping branches off a tree. Finally, I heard the burr of a motorbike arriving, and a young-ish kid pulled up on a  150cc motorbike. It didn't look big enough for two, let alone a bag, but it was my only hope for getting up to Tibet.

I quickly confirmed the deal - 600 kuai to take me across the Yunnan border into Tibet, but only as far as the first village, Aben, up a side road before the main security checkpoint. This was where I planned to rejoin the kora (pilgrim circuit) and where I might even meet up with a commercial trekking group led by a friend. They had started the main kora three days ago and were scheduled to arrive in Aben the following day.

And so my now-depleted bag was strapped on to the back of the bike (my tent I donated to the guesthouse owner - "that's handy" he said) and I squeezed on to the back of the motorbike. I was a very tight fit between the driver and my backpack. As we set off down the road I wriggled around trying to create more space for myself - until the driver stopped and told me to pack it in. "It's dangerous along this road - stop moving about or we'll fall over," he scolded me.

For the next hour I suffered increasingly excruciating pain as we reached the 'main road' and continued up northwards along the river. It was a bike designed for five-foot high Asians,  and my long European legs didn't fit. My knees were bent at an impossibly cramped angle as I attempted to keep my feet planted on the footrests. Every time I tried to adjust my stance the drive rebuked me with a 'stop it!'. It was like trying to maintain the lotus position on a small saddle jolting over potholes and around hairpin bends. I called it the Kawasaki Yoga position. The scenery was spectacular, as I knew from previous trips up and down this forbidden road. Nice scenery. Pain. This was becoming a recurring theme on this trip.

The route followed high cliffs and in some places twisted crazily up and down around sheer rock faces, with terrifying drops to the river below. It felt safer going by bike than by car, but I was in so much agony that I was unable to appreciate the views - or the danger. For two hours we sputtered and coasted non-stop along the Nujiang 'road of death', passing the yellow signs that marked the Tibetan border and their mangled English warnings of "Forbid Foreigner Turn Into Strictlg" (in Chinese the much more direct "Strictly Forbidden for Foreigners to Enter - by order of Chawalong Police").

Beyond this the bike turned left off the 'main road and up a side road towards Aben. This followed a smaller tributary up a narrow gully, in places heading steeply uphill until after another hour we arrived at my goal - the village of Aben. I had made it into Tibet. I was 'illegal'. All I had to do now was find another driver to take me beyond the final security checkpoint, about 20km further up the road.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Cizhong to Dimaluo trek. Part 3: crossing the She-La into the Sewalongba valley

The crossing of the She-La was a heavenly experience that later turned in to one of the worst days of the trek, thanks to my duplicitous guide. The day started well when I woke at daybreak (6.30am) in my tiny tent. I'd had a good night's sleep and the morning wasn't too cold - a light dusting of ice on the flysheet. The views up the valley towards the pass were fantastic - and the sky was completely clear - great weather for  a crossing of the She-La.

I managed to drag myself up and got the stove going in the stone shelter to make a cup of coffee and eat some muesli. Packed up quickly, but it still wasn't fast enough for my guide, who had upped and left about 15 minutes before me, at around 7.30am. This was to be a recurring experience with a hidden agenda that I didn't twig to until too late in the day.

I was annoyed when I set off as the guide had already gone so far ahead I could not see him. This was troubling because the trail was faint in parts where it went over rocks or along the course of a stream, and route-finding was difficult. In the cold of the early morning I had donned my jacket, but soon discarded it as the sun came up and I began to sweat up the trail. I only had one bottle of water (boiled from the fire last night) and I worried this would not be enough to see me over the pass. The scenery was superb as I gradually ascended from the bottom of the ampitheatre valley to the right (north) in a series of zig-zags up towards the ridge.

I walked through stands of giant rhododendron trees, and the grey crags that towered overhead were an epic sight in the early morning sun. After an hour or so I had worked my way up to a separate side valley that gave on to a whole series of minor peaks and crags to the north. But the trail did not go into this sanctuary, but carried on up to the west, past another decrepit log cabin and on towards the ridge. At this point I was passed by a dog that appeared out of nowhere and was intent on hurrying up tot he pass.

As I ascended further I gained even better views of the valley below that I had climbed out of - the track went steeply to the right and I lost the trail for a while - very frustrating as I could not see my guide for help, he had gone ahead with the horse (and my bag). I guessed the route upwards and saw what I thought was the pass above me as a cleft between grey rocks. This was a 'false summit' despite a faint track going up there, and I found the main track headed off to the left (south) and appeared to run beneath the main ridge. It then ascended again towards the broken rocks and turned over a major crag that had a few airy exposed sections: nothing to worry about in these clear conditions but it would be a worry if walking on snow and ice.

Once this high crag had been topped, the trail eased out and I could soon see ahead that the pass was close - the track eased up to what looked like a small cleft in the ride - and I paused here to take my final pictures of the Mekong side of the divide before crossing over to the Nujiang side. Once again, the views were awesome and I counted myself extremely fortunate to have perfectly clear weather.

Most of the pictures I'd seen taken by other trekkers have been in cloudy and snowy conditions. I had clear views of all the surrounding peaks. Intriguingly, however, there was no sign of the main peaks such as Miyetzimu or Kawakarpo that Rock claimed in his article that he could see from this point.

And so it was with great satisfaction that I arrived at my first main goal - the She-La pass - or Sila as Rock called it. This is how he described it in 1924:

The actual pass was a small gap in the ridge - perhaps only a couple of metres wide. The track descended steeply on the other side, but nothing like as scary as the Doker La pass further north. It was all quite walkable. The pass provided spectacular views down into the Sewalongba valley below, and also across to the rocky ridge on the other side of the Sewalongba valley.

Much of the opposite slope was forested. And somewhere across there was the second, lesser pass, the Balagong La, that I would have to cross to get to Baihanluo and Dimaluo.

My guide had been waiting for me at the pass, and I paused at the She La for about twenty minutes, taking photos and having a drink and a snack - it was late morning, about 11.30am. My guide didn't wait for me but headed down the zig-zag track into the Sewalangba valley. I followed him about 15 minutes later and was able to catch him up further down the switchback trail. It was here that I saw a group of Chinese trekkers on their way up. I passed them lower down the valley but they barely acknowledged my greeting. Perhaps they were as worn out as I had been during the ascent to the pass.

It took about an hour to reach the valley bottom, during which time I gained great views in both directions, including a small tarn on the opposite side of the valley. Looking back up to the She-La I could barely see the pass - and the track looked a lot steeper than it really was.

At this point I was expecting that we would have a couple of hours more walking before pausing for the day to stay in one of the stone shelters lower down the valley for the night. I began to wonder why my guide had been in such a hurry as we had already completed most of the day's walking by early afternoon.

When we reached the river at the bottom of the valley I expected we would pause for lunch - it was the perfect place to take a break. My guide had other plans, however. As soon as he persuaded the horse to cross a small log bridge he headed straight up the slop on the other side. I tried to call him back, but he ignored my calls. We were still at an altitude of about 3000m and I found it impossible to try catch up with him. When I eventually shouted myself hoarse and got him to halt he was evasive about why we did not stop for lunch. I should have been more suspicious, but maybe the altitude affected my judgement. He told me there was a good place to stop 'just a bit further ahead', and I trusted him. It was now about 1.30pm and I plodded very grumpily up the opposite side of the Sewalongba valley, desperate for a rest and a stop for something to eat and drink. I didn't realise it but I was exhausted and probably dehydrated. After a further 20 minutes  walking up though forest with no sign of a rest stop, I rebelled and shouted for a halt. We paused on a featureless part of the trail while I had a drink and ate a few crackers.

Then it was onwards again, and I dragged myself up the forest trail like a zombie, assuming that there would be a hut around the next corner. Of course there wasn't. This went on for about 90 minutes until we eventually arrived in a clearing with some derelict cabins and a stagnant pond. It didn't look like a pleasant place to stop, and we didn't. It gradually occurred to my altitude-fogged brain that the guide was planning to climb up to the next pass this afternoon. He had no intention of overnighting in the Sewalongba valley and intended all along to turn this pleasant three-day trek into a rushed two-day trip to Baihanluo. I continued upwards, dragging my feet one after another and trying all different breathing 'techniques' (counting breaths, one breath per step, hyperventilating ...) to try keep myself going. The forest thinned out and I realised we were now close to the Bagalong Pass.

In a clearing I gained good views back to the She-La pass, which already seemed a long distance away. I wish I had taken more pictures at this point but I was exhausted, grumpy and also believed  I would gain better views from the Balagong Pass. I had now accepted that we would make the second pass crossing today and descend to Baihanluo. I didn't mind too much as it would give me an extra day in hand to catch up with the trekkers I had intended to link up with further north in Tibet.
The Balagong Pass was an unspectacular high point of the ridge in the midst of fir trees. There were no views in either direction.

At this point my guide grudgingly admitted that we were going to Baihanluo, not the Sewalongba huts, and I was far too exhausted to argue with him. Descending towards Baihanluo we emerged into alpine meadows where a few horses grazed, and gained views of the familiar multiple ridges of the Nujiang valley. There was even a hint of a view of Baihanluo and other Nu settlements far below. They all looked within easy reach.

We walked down across these open grassy areas and my guide suddenly seemed hesitant and unsure of himself. After descending a short way into forest we came across some log cabins that local cattle herders used for shelter. At one of them we paused abruptly 'for tea'. This sudden attention to refreshment breaks was no accident. My guide announced he would not be going any further with me, but was going to return to Cizhong. He was short changing me and wanted his Y1200 fee for getting me from Cizhong to Baihanluo, even though he had done this in two days instead of three. And he had only delivered me within sight of Baihanluo, not to the actual village which was a long way below. The hut was occupied by several of his Tibetan cronies, a really rough-looking bunch and the situation was an obvious shakedown. Pay up or else.

Thoroughly fed up with the situation and uneasy at the tense atmosphere, I handed over the money without comment, and walked off alone shouldering my heavy backpack. The guide called after me that it was "only 20 minutes" down to Baihanluo. It actually took me a hellish three hours. The main problem was that the trail became mixed up with many local farmer's tracks. I soon find myself following dead-end trails and paths that led to wooden log cabins that harboured vicious snarling dogs - and worst of all most of these were unchained. The dogs would hurl themselves along the track towards me and start snapping at my legs. Sometimes they would back off or flinch when I raised a hand holding a stone or wielded a stick at them. But some were fearless and aggressive attackers that could only be fended off by vigorous swinging of the stick and loud shouting. Sometimes their owners would emerge from the cabins to call them off, but often these dogs seemed untended and uncontrolled in their attacks. After the first two or three such dog encounters my nerves were frazzled and this just added to my physical and mental exhaustion. I had been walking almost non-stop since 7.30am over 4000m mountain passes and I was absolutely worn out, not to mention thirsty and hungry. I tumbled down the trail, praying that I would soon get to Baihanluo, but it seemed to never get any nearer.

I continued to lose my way and find myself bush-bashing around farmsteads and log cabins - or turning corners to find the trail blocked by two or three dogs. I was utterly fed up. Then things turned even more surreal when I was chased by a horse down the track. I heard a sound-effects like whinnying and turned to see a large brown horse galloping down the trail towards me with a strange look in its eye. This was no shy creature, but seemed intent on driving me off the trail. I dodged as it went by, hooves flying, and it skidded to a halt and turned to face me, kicking with its fore hoof, as if to challenge me not to pass. I ducked into the trees and tried to crash my way beside the trail away from the horse. Each time I re-emerged onto the track the horse repeated its charges until I had moved on about a hundred metres. I can only imagine I was invading this horses'  territory and it had offspring it was trying to protect.

I stumbled on down the trail for what seemed like hours, dodging more aggressive dogs and also slipping and sliding down some sections where the trail seemed more like a steep dried-up water channel than a walking track. It was a tortuous, endless and tedious descent down towards Baihanluo, which I eventually reached at around 6pm, when the light was failing and my legs could barely support me. Bruised, scratched and filthy, not to mention sweaty, stinking and thirsty, I was greatly looking forward to finding a guesthouse, sitting down  and sipping a cold beer. It was not to be. Once again I was to be deeply disappointed.

My previous visit to Baihanluo had been at Christmas about four years previously, when the Nu, Tibetan and Lisu inhabitants of this Christian village were all out in the square by the church celebrating by imbibing their alcoholic maize-based shuijiu. This time when I stumbled into Baihanluo, the village appeared to be deserted except for a pack of growling dogs that followed and snapped at me. I dumped my pack outside the locked up church and went looking for people. Apart from a couple of young kids who ran away, I could find nobody about the place. It was spooky. I walked up and down the village paths between the wooden houses, calling out "Ni Hao", but there was no-one around.

After about 15 minutes an older woman swayed into the square, obviously drunk, and I asked her where the vilage guesthouse was. She didn't seem to understand basic Mandarin and I had to repeat the question several times before she mumbled that there wasn't a guesthouse, but I could try stay with a household at the top of the village, way up the hill. I was in no state to walk back uphill again, so I asked if I could get a drink of water at her house. She waved me away at first, but later relented and I followed her up the concrete path to a ramshackle wooden house surrounded by hens.

The interior of her house was dark and dirty, the walls covered with soot from the fire in the middle of the room. I collapsed onto a tiny stool and helped myself to a cup of the kaishui (boiled water) from the cauldron over the fire, to which I added a teabag. Within minutes I had guzzled two cups of the smokey-tasting water and began to feel slightly better, if a little queasy.

I then sat there like a zombie, lacking the energy even to get up from the stool as the old women staggered about the house and offered me various dodgy looking items of food such as mushrooms, grit-speckled yak cheese and dirty hunks of cured yak meat jerky. I couldn't understand much of what the women was saying because of her thick dialect and also because she appeared to be quite drunk.

After about half an hour, when it had got dark, a couple with a young girl arrived - her daughter and husband, I presumed, and they spoke passable Mandarin. They told me I could stay at this house for the night and they'd make me some dinner. I was so relieved just to have shelter and something to drink - I didn't mind the poverty of the surroundings or the absolute filth and squalor.

The husband brought in a chicken that he killed and plucked of its feathers, before holding the gutted carcass over the fire to scorch it. He then chopped up the remains and put everything - head, claws and all-  into a pot with a mixture of potatoes, mushrooms and chillies to make a casserole. This took what seemed like an hour to cook and I was ravenously hungry. Unfortunately, when I was eventually ladled out my share of this chicken broth with some rice in a bowl, I only had three bites of the rubbery meat before I was suddenly and violently sick. I rushed to the doorway, where, to my shame and horror, I retched violently on to the floor, bringing back all the tea and what little food I had just consumed. I felt terrible.

My host family seemed unsurprised, and the grandma kept up a refrain of "Don't worry, we are Catholics here ..." After my stomach settled (and I cleaned up the vomit) I managed to swallow and keep down a bit more of rice and potato, accompanied by a few sips of Dali beer from a can. I tried to tell this kind family about how I had walked over from Cizhong, but they seemed uncomprehending and uninterested. They talked among themselves and later pointed me towards a rickety couple of planks in the corner, covered with a stained and flea-ridden blanket. That was my bed for the night, and I actually managed to sleep quite well on it with the help of my Thermarest and my sleeping bag. I still got bitten by fleas though.

Here's a selfie taken by the happy trekker after arriving in Baihanluo: