It didn’t feel like we were starting out on an epic adventure. The night before our departure from Dali we tucked into beef curry and rice while watching Braveheart at some pretentious café that would in normal times I’m sure be full of westerners. But this being just a few days before Christmas we had the place to ourselves, and the mother of the young female owner was solicitous in the extreme, urging us upstairs to relax and watch TV.
And even the next morning when we set out before daybreak to take the local commuter bus into Dali New Town (ie Xiaguan), it didn’t feel like we were going anywhere remote. As we stepped somewhat nervously on to the “Business Class” coach at Xiaguan bus station I was surprised to see the next two passengers were a couple of young American kids. One of them, a teenage girl, looked like she was the model for the gawky babysitter in The Incredibles – right down to the braces on her teeth. Given that the Nujiang valley is a Christian part of China, I presumed they were the kids of missionaries operating in the area.
We settled into our seats as the bus left Xiaguan and seemed to descend forever down the long and curving motorway that has now been built along the path of the old Burma Road. I didn’t realize how high Dali was in altitude until we continued this descent for what seemed like hour after hour. Some of the views over epic green hills stretching to the horizon, dotted with picturesque Yunnan farms was breathtaking.
Paul kept himself busy reading his newly acquired Harry Potter book while I tried to avoid watching the abysmal Jackie Chan bank heist movie playing on the bus TV. This was followed by a surreal Chinese movie about wizards from the underworld – dating from the 80s judging by the hairstyles and filmed in Nepal. It featured a twee Chinese woman and her ET-like friend Bigui and their various celestial friends who manage to overcome the dark empress of evil and her green snot curse.
Just as I was beginning to sit back and enjoy the trip we drove past a service station (yes, on the Burma Road – complete with the same motorway signs for snacks, petrol and toilets you would see at Watford Junction) … but with a mile long queue of trucks waiting to get petrol. Thank goodness we aren’t in that queue, I thought. Whoops, spoke too soon. About 30km further on, in the middle of nowhere we hit a long tailback of trucks and cars. We stopped and everyone got out. As I walked up the line of stationary vehicles my heart sank when it became clear that this was a long, long tailback. Truck drivers were sitting on the road, cleaning their air filters while others had started taking their engines to bits. We were obviously in for a long wait. I presumed it was because of the province-wide fuels shortages, and I continued on up the road for more than a kilometre, despairing that we would get anywhere this day.
Passengers from other coaches were sat out by the road, playing cards or cracking sunflower seeds and sipping from their flasks of green tea. I wondered whether there was any chance of us hitching a ride with a passing truck going back to Dali along the invitingly clear highway running the other way.
Then, just as I reached the start of the jam at a tunnel entrance, the police car blocking the road pulled away and waved the first trucks onwards and through.
I raced [staggered more like] back to our coach, wondering if I could remember where it was, and had visions of my son being carried off without me, to arrive in the middle of nowhere in China by himself and with no money.
I made it back, absolutely knackered, just in time as our coach was setting off, with the driver urging me to “Shang Che!” – and the traffic block cleared remarkably quickly.
And then it was on again, down through the mid morning sun, watching the massive hills of Yunnan slide by as we crossed first the Mekong river, and then on to the motorway exit for Liuku.
From the two-lane highway we switched to a twisting cobbled road that took us back up on to a dusty plateau, through some very dry and dusty country until we corkscrewed down again towards the Nujiang. The scenery was greener and there were waterfalls and larger rock formations lining the road.
I overheard the American kid talking to what I presumed was his father on a mobile, saying that we were approaching the checkpoint and he hoped to be back in time for “supper in town”. Sure enough, we soon pulled up at an official military checkpoint for the Nujiang valley, where armed soldiers boarded (wearing flak jackets) and took away our passports for a while. Fortunately, they were soon returned and we continued the last few km into Liuku.
It seemed a chaotic, scrappy sort of city and as we disembarked I grabbed Paul and got us into a taxi to take us to the west bus station, across the Nu river, from where we were told the buses up the valley departed.
At this smaller bus station a friendly woman pointed us to the ticket office, where lo and behold our American colleagues were already buying their tickets. Thanks for showing us the way, I thought. So much for Christian charity!
But once we boarded the bus and got chatting to these wary kids, I learned that they were not missionaries, but the daughter of a UN agricultural advisor based in the valley, and her older tutor. Still, they remained rather wary of us and didn’t chat after that.
The next part of the journey, up the lower stretches of the Nujiang, was interesting and scenic, but seemed to go on forever. The road followed the western (left hand side) of this turquoise-green river for mile after mile. The further north we went, the higher and steeper the hills became – and it was amazing to see tiny farmhouses clinging to the side of the hills, often thousands of feet up, just for the sake of tilling a few terraces of rice.
I also noticed the first Protestant Christian churches. These stood out from the other scrappy buildings, being painted in clean white paint and having a plain red cross mounted over the black roof. It was odd to see a village with a red crucifix on a smart building at one end and the red flag of China flapping over the school at the other.
But aside from the odd church, there was no sudden feeling that you were in a 'Christian' part of the world – the Nujiang still had the same Chinese blend of messy construction and exploitation of natural resources as you see anywhere else. There were tractors, and road workers doing the usual backbreaking work. A few Lisu women wore traditional brightly-coloured headscarves and those ethnic hilltribe-style shoulderbags, many hauling loads of bushes using the headband to take the weight. Some of the younger ones looked quite attractive in an almost Burmese kind of way – reminding me of that singer Tanita Tikaram. The other Lisu passengers on the bus appeared cheerful but backward - two mothers of indeterminate age, with a brood of snotty nosed urchins who spent most of the journey puking into plastic bags. The nice coach lady tried to get them not to spit on the floor, but they didn’t seem to understand her Chinese.
As the light started to fade we said goodbye to the US kids and continued on to Fugong, which expected to be a pleasant ethnic mountain town. Instead, when we arrived, it was dark and the town appeared rough around the edges and not particularly clean or attractive. Lots of shonky concrete shopfronts and dim lights in obscure doorways.
Feeling lost and in a bit of a panic, I followed the advice of the driver and checked us into the first hotel we saw, opposite the bus station. This was a grim concrete corridor place, feeling more like a prison. The room overlooked the main street with all its traffic noise, but I thought it better than nothing, better than that great dark threatening unknown of the streets.
But when we recovered and went for a walk to have dinner (I managed to persuade them to cook us up some fried rice with egg and another with pork - the restaurants hereabouts don't have menus, they just open up the fridge and ask which bits of meat and veggies you want cooked) I felt better and we explored what little more there was of this dismal dark town. After stumbling blindly down a few dark alleys we even managed to find an internet café, where I was able to google Fugong and learn that it had a nice hotel called the Dianli Binguan. And this place turned out to be right opposite our fleapit, and I quickly booked a room there when I saw how palatial they were compared to our concrete bunker. I didn’t mind losing the deposit on the old room, I was so relieved.
And so, after this long first day we both went to settle down to sleep, whilst watching the Beijing Symphony Orchestra play a Dvorak concerto on the hotel room TV.