So we had made it to the end of the road, literally. Bingzhongluo is where the south-north road up the Nu river valley ends. And it ends in spectacularly ignominious style by just petering out into a bit of gravel and muck at the end of the high street.
The town itself is not much to write home about. There isn’t much to it. A few rickety wooden stores selling the usual basic bits and pieces of Chinese rural life – packets of noodles, cooking oil, cigarette lighters, rice wine … then there is a crude outdoor market with flyblown slabs of mutilated pigs and cows for sale – more fat and gristle than red meat. There was a small hospital, where outside there were a couple of patients hooked up to IV drips. There was a large primary school rising two stories up, and opposite, in the centre of town there was the Yudong Hotel.
We decamped from the minibus and entered the lobby of this almost new establishment to find it completely deserted. We could have made off with the contents of the display cases – the crossbows and other ethnic knick knacks on display. Instead we asked around and eventually a woman arrived and checked us in so we could go up to the relatively posh room and get rid of all our gear.
Exploring the town didn’t take long. There were a couple of other smaller guesthouses, some stores and one mini-supermarket in which the bored girl was watching China’s version of Idol.
Across the road by the school was what looked like a bar or café called the "Bingzhongluo Travel Information Centre" with some English signs in the window offering yak butter tea and meals.
Inside were some ornate wooden tables and sat around a brazier I found Mr Ma Huang, one of the new breed of Chinese adventure travel guides. I don’t know why but they always seem to have megalomaniac, overbearing personalities. Ma Huang wore a military style baseball cap and fatigues. I was admiring his gallery of photographs when he slapped me on the back and announced that he could take me to many of these places in one of his Jeeps – in particular to forbidden areas such as Chawolung, across the border in the Tibet TAR or over to the Dulong river valley “because I have friends in the army and they will give me face,” he said.
He sat us down and invited us to chat with some other Chinese outdoorsy types, all geared up in the usual spanking new North Face kit. His wife, a homely, no-nonsense woman gave us a bowl of walnuts and Paul got stuck in, shattering many of them with the metal nutcrackers.
I tried to make conversation and to ask about how to get to the Catholic mission station of Baihanluo, but Ma Huang dismissed this place as not worth visiting, and again gave me the hard sell on why I should go in one of his hired Jeeps to Chawalong.
Getting tired of this assertive attitude, I got up to go off for a wander. He invited me to come back for dinner and one of the other trekker types asked if we wanted to go to the village of Qiunatong the next day. I said I’d think about it.
In the meantime Paul had managed to find the local internet café, where he joined the other local kids playing Counterstrike. With him busy I wandered off down the road to walk the 2-3km back along the narrow hillside road, snapping pics of the “First Bend of the Nujiang” (not really the first bend at all and while picturesque, not to be compared with the dramatic first bend of the Yangtze).
I also noted that they were already tarting up the roadside and constructing a special viewing platform, complete with landscaped plants and ochre-painted chains. There was even a tent selling souvenirs such as crossbows and Lisu costumes – though I was the only potential customer.
Looking back to Bingzhongluo, it looked like a picturesque alpine resort from a distance, with the snowy peaks in the background – how different from the reality close up!
There were a few Lisu or Nu men and women working to fix up the road, but they didn’t look especially interesting or different – they said a friendly “hello” and ignored us.
Back in the village it felt weird to be uploading digital pictures straight up onto Facebook and Flickr just a few moments after I took them. I also bumped into some westerners just getting off a minibus. Eager to strike p conversation, I asked if they would be interested in visiting Dimaluo over the next day or two, only to be told that since they were Jewish they would be resting the next day (the Sabbath) and anyway, they could not go to a Christian church because of heir religion (so why come to one of the few areas of China noted for its Christianity then? I wondered to myself).
I narrowly avoided a dinner party with the big ego of Ma Huang, the other Chinese trekkers and a local army guy by making an excuse about Paul, and instead we went off to get some simple fried rice instead.
We slept soundly that night, after sitting in bed watching an Eric Clapton concert on Chinese TV.
The next day, Saturday 22nd Dec, I woke early while it was still dark, wondering why the local kids were chanting songs and slogans in the schoolrooms opposite at 7am in the morning. Made the mistake of having jiaozi for breakfast at the hole in the wall eatery opposite where we’d had fried rice the night before. Not long afterwards I was gripping my stomach and experiencing the worst cramps and bellyache I could imagine – periods of calm and thoughts of "Oh, I’m over it now” only to be hit even harder with sudden waves of cramp and spasms. At least it provided me with an excuse for not going with the Chinese trekkers to Bingzhongluo.
Instead I spent much of the morning back at the hotel, sipping tea and eating only a couple of wafer biscuits for lunch, while Paul played in the internet café.
I took him down to see the Catholic church down a side road by the river way below, passing the filthy wooden houses of the local Lisu people. In the village of Chongding we found the church compound locked while a group of workmen were fixing up the road with a noisy roller and lots of gravel. No rural idyll here. We got a local woman, Ding Da Ma, who runs a trekkers dorm, to come and open the place up for use. It was a beautiful white washed church with delicate and ornate painted features. Inside it was just a regular church with microphone, stations of the cross etc, and a rope to pull and ring the bell in the tower. In the yard, with the mountain peaks as a backdrop was the single lonley grave, the final resting place of Swiss missionary, Pere Annet Genestier.
I only had time for a cursory look around as Madame Ding started getting impatient. By the time I had taken a few snaps of the lonely grave of Pere Annet Genestier in the yard she was ushering us out.
When I asked her when the Christmas celebration was she just snapped "Midnight on the 24th!", and booted us out.
Later in the afternoon I bumped into an irate Ma Huang, who said he was not happy the way I had piked out over dinner the night before and had pulled out of the Qiunatong trip. I told him I had to keep an eye on Paul and that I’d been sick, and he relented somewhat and invited us for dinner.
This comprised a lot of local vegetables, fatty pork, beans etc, and lots of maotai toasts. I tried to avoid as many of these rocket fuel sips as possible, but eventually ended up quite merry, and maybe this was something to do with me assenting to go on the trip to Chawolong in Tibet the next day. But why not – it would be the highlight of the trip so far, and at the asking price of about 1200 kuai seemed good value.
I dragged the Israelis over from their Sabbath seclusion after sundown and tried to persuade them to come along too. Spent the rest of the evening facing multiple questions, during which I acted as translator from Chinese to English while the woman translated into Hebrew for her partner. It all came to naught. They basically wanted to do some trekking and no more riding in the car. They had visions of walking north from BZL up into Tibet and then cutting over to the east to get to Litang and eventually down to Litang, Zhongdian and Lijiang/Dali. Despite getting this far they didn’t seem to have much idea of where they were or the kind of terrain they faced. And they kept making excuses like her partner having a bad back from being in the Israeli Army as reasons not to go on the Jeep.
I gave up in disgust and let them go off. I’d rather travel alone than put up with all that kvetching.
And so to bed, to get ready for our big trip to Tibet.
Chongding Catholic church:
Chongding church interior:
Bingzhongluo school sports carnival: