I found it hard to sleep in Bingzhongluo on the night before we set off to Tibet. Partly the excitement/worry and partly the lingering stomach cramps from those dodgy jiaozi dumplings from the day before. I woke up at 3.30am and got up to make a cuppa and read a bit of my last remaining bit of English literature – The Power and the Glory.
Managed to get a bit more kip and then stirred a chatty Paul out of bed at 7.30-ish, while still dark outside, to get him washed and dressed before we went over to the Tibetan café over the road. Our driver “Tony” from Kunming was waiting for us and we had breakfast of mantou (steamed bread) with pickles, plus some hard boiled eggs before we set off. As it got light I did a bit of last minute shopping for biscuits and water while they filled up the Jeep with petrol.
And then at about 8.30am on this sunny December 23rd, we were off, driving down the side road all the way down to Chongding first, and past the Catholic church we’d visited the day before. It was slow going at first because there were quite a few road crews upgrading the gravel track into something suitable for ordinary cars. They are obviously grooming this place for an influx of tourists.
Soon we were past the tipper trucks duping concrete and muck on the road, and the first stop was right down by the riverside at a place called Shi Men Guan (Stone Gate Pass). At this point the high walls of the cliffs closed in around the turquoise slow-running Nu river and at this early hour much of the river was in shade and with mist over the water.
Further on up the river we crossed a new bridge and passed a few Lisu hamlets of log cabins on flats by the river.
The vegetation here was still lush and green, and the climate quite mild – but beyond Shi Men Guan there were few people and no traffic about.
We continued on the road up to the turn off for Qiunatong, some 18km up the road, admiring the spectacular scenery along the way.
Stopping at n encampment for more road workers, we then pressed on along a dirt track as the smooth road gave way to a bumpier, unmaintained track.
The Jeep bumped and jolted its way along the right hand (eastern) side of the river – occasionally turning a hairpin bend or following the road a little higher above the river – but nothing too scary – yet.
We got glimpses of snow covered peaks around corners and hiding behind the main range towards what appeared to be Burma. The scenery really was breathtaking, especially in the winter sun and under blue skies, and we seemed to have it all to ourselves.
By mid morning we came to a pale blue sign that announced were leaving Yunnan and entering Tibet. Paul amused himself by jumping from one side to the other and chanting “Now I’m breaking the law, now I’m not.” We didn’t have Tibet entry permits.
Some way up the road we came across our first Tibetan village of Longpu, where the style of houses was typically robust Tibetan, like small stone forts. Quite a contrast to the dark wooden log cabins of the Nu and Lisu a few km to the south. We noticed the landscape was becoming more arid, the hills apparently steeper and bare of vegetation, and the sky even bluer than before.
After a short break where we ate more mantou and hard boiled eggs by the roadside, we pressed on along an increasingly dangerous road.
I had not expected this and it came as a rude shock to find that our route now lay along a precipitous ledge carved out of the sides of the steep cliffs. The road was barely wide enough for one car and the drop off at the side was all too frequently a sheer drop straight down into the river. The surface of the road was very bumpy and uneven, so each lurch saw me gripping the interior handles and grimacing at the prospect of a sudden slip off the road. To my alarm I found the doors were locked, so even my panicking plan to shoot out of the door should we come off the road would not be possible. I was terrified. The road just got worse and worse, and one of the bad things about it was that I could see the scary sections coming up in advance – in fact many of them looked much worse and more precarious from a distance than they really were in reality.
Paul was enjoying my discomfort and didn’t seem bothered by the risky nature of the road at all. As I sat there quaking and muttering “Oh God” or “Aiyah!” He just laughed and taunted me with: “Daaad – we’re going to fall off!”
The worst sections involved the road jutting out on a sharp spur over the river and then turning a tight corner to ascend or descend. I gripped the seat tightly and just closed my eyes and dare not to look or breathe.
I didn’t even dare think what would happen if a car or truck came the other way and we had to stop or worse, reverse.
I was not happy with the state of the road – in some parts the road appeared to be little more than a load of gravel tamped together tightly and shored up against falling into the river way below with just a few planks of rotting wood.
And just when I though we were over the worst an even more precarious section would come up.
Needless to say I didn’t have much inclination to appreciate the fine views or the changing scenery.
Before I knew it we were in a very different arid landscape of fine white and grey dusty rock, massive steep slopes on either side, ending in jagged ridges. Cactuses grew along the roadside and the air appeared dry and thin. We passed a few Tibetan style cabins, some Mani stones and prayer flags, but for mile after mile the landscape was just barren of almost all forms of life – including vegetation. As Tony said, in these parts it may only rain two or three days in a year.
Paul had by now nodded off and I cradled him on my lap as we crossed more ridiculously dangerous sections of ledge-road, until we eventually pulled up below a large white chalky landslip.
Until now Tony had not appeared to be fazed by the state of the road, but here he got out and paced up and down, squinting up at the landslip and wondering whether it would be safe to cross below the buttressed wall that held back the huge mass of small stones. It took him a while to make up his mind that it was safe, and we go back in the car to edge rather quickly along this much swept route.
And then a few minutes later we were finally at Chawalong. The town appeared to comprise a picturesque cluster of traditional stone Tibetan buildings clinging to the hillside, and a more modern Chinese-style one street strip of sleazy and run down concrete building, tatty shopfronts and a few official buildings.
Tony asked the Tibetan guy who we had given a lift to for the last 5km where his friend lived, and was pointed to the far end of the traditional village.
And it was here that we pulled up, along an old cattle track, with instructions for me and Paul to keep out of sight until we knew which building we were staying in.
There were a few ragged looking girls herding goats and cows along these tracks, while others laboured along with large piles of sticks and branches lashed to their backs.
We finally got the all-clear and emerged stiff and reeking of nervous sweat form the Jeep, to walk up the grey gravel track to the house where Ma Huang’s local mate lived. A few local kids saw us and smiled/gawped before we reached the doorway and entered the dark interior of the Tibetan household. We had arrived in Chawalong.
Inside the dark house we climbed up the rough wooden steps past a nasty looking German shepherd dog that was tethered in the rank-smelling straw of the ground floor. Upstairs we entered the black, barely lit large living room and joined the Tibetan family around a table. Some of the family, including a grandad with Buddhist prayer beads, were squatting round the big fire/stove in the middle of the room. But we were ushered to the table where we were given sunflower seeds and cups of warm Qingke barley wine, which our host assured us was their equivalent of water and was OK for kids to drink.
On the big TV they were watching some kind of Chinese male beauty pageant – in which bronzed sculpted gay-looking young Chinese men strolled across stage in just their boxer shorts, holding a couple of pink balloons. It was surreal.
And this is pretty much how we spent the evening – watching crap Chinese TV (a program about a Chongqing-based cop drama) while the hosts chatted to Tony. I asked one guy what dialect of Tibetan they spoke, and he assured me they all spoke mandarin. I later learned he was just a lodger from Sichuan, and out-of-work guy who had moved to Chawalong because he preferred the easy life and relations with the Tibetans compared to the rate race of lowland Sichuan.
I asked a smart looking local Tibetan guy about the road, expecting some reassurance, but to my dismay he agreed that it was extremely dangerous because it was not an official road and therefore the local government did not maintain. The whole road was unstable, he said because the maintenance was done by local people on a voluntary basis. Only last month a group of Taiwanese and HK visitors had been killed when their vehicle came off the road, he told me.
Paul mooched round the house and made me nervous with his mischief – taunting the big dog, herding chickens, and throwing bits of waste maize to the pigs and chooks below form high up on the unfenced open roof.
We had dinner of chicken (the one we brought was beheaded, but Paul did not seem fazed by this at all), and I gobbled up much of the pork and chillies dish.
I had presumed we would be staying there that night, but at about 9.30-ish Tony suddenly announced were off, and we all traipsed over in the dark to a rickety wooden guesthouse on the main street, made form planks of what seemed like plywood.
On the way I broached the subject of my being nervous about the road trip back tomorrow, and Tony seemed surprised and hurt when I suggested there were some sections I might prefer to walk. He made some cold comment about being careful walking near the edge, and asked if it was his driving or the road that I didn’t have confidence in. I assured him it was the latter.
Walking down the main “street” of Chawalong felt like walking through the set of a western movie – as Paul remarked, all they needed was a Saloon Bar. On route we passed a couple of ‘nightclubs’ playing Tibetan and Eurotrash music, and within I glimpsed a group of Tibetan girls doing something that looked a line dance in a lounge with scenic pictures drawn on the wall.
A few locals shouted a friendly hello from the dark street sides – how could they see I was a foreigner in the dark?
Later on when I went back and peeped inside the other upstairs disco I found it to be full of rough looking Tibetan guys doing the same kind of arm over shoulder dancing, while others sat around at low tables strewn with hundreds of empty beer bottles, looking absolutely smashed. I didn’t linger to chat.
Instead I returned to get Paul settled down for the night, and to try sleep myself in the big dorm room we had all to ourselves.
I didn’t sleep well. I woke up at 3am again, my knees knocking and shivering with terror at the thought of those precipitous roads I would have to face one more time.
I picked up my book, The Power and the Glory, and quite appropriately reached the bit where the whiskey priest tries to prepare himself for death on the eve of his execution. “He woke full of hope, which immediately drained away …”.
I felt just the same and couldn’t rid myself of the mental image of those narrow ledges above the river. In my fevered imagination I even thought them likely to be too scary even to contemplate walking along, let alone driving. Would it be possible to walk back all the way in maybe three or four days? Or could I even get back by going north, further into Tibet and then doing a dogleg to Litang? That’s how petrified I was.
I managed to snatch a little more sleep until 7-ish, when I woke up and got dressed with false bravado on Christmas Eve, singing Christmas carols such as Hark the Herald Angels Sing to myself in an effort to maintain morale. Who was I trying to kid?
Long drop to the river:
Nujiang near Yunnan-Tibet border.
Longpu, the first Tibetan settlent on the Nujiang:
Nujaing north of Longpu:
Landscape becomes more dry and barren as you go further north:
Dwarfed by the landscape:
The barren road to Chawalong: