We didn’t hang around long in Chawalong on the morning of Christmas Eve. (If you want to see some excellent pictures of Chawalong, and portraits of the local Tibetan people by other photographers click here or here).
In the early morning light Chawalong looked even more grim than it had in the dark of the previous evening. Our guesthouse backed on to the edge of the river, and the slope down to the river seemed to serve as the local rubbish tip as well as outdoor toilet. A few curious locals came and gawked at us as we brushed our teeth, and I really just wanted to get out of there and get the scary road journey over with.
Once I was in the car I wasn’t too worried – it was all out of my control. We said our farewells and re-traced our route back along the bumpy road through the arid valley, past the landslip and then onto the scary sections of ledge road, way above the Nu river.
It was bad, but not as bad as I’d expected. I made it easier for myself by sitting on the cliff side of the car, so I couldn’t see down the huge drop offs. And on the scary bits I stuck my eye in the viewfinder of the video camera and found that I wasn’t half so scared when I was seeing it as it was filmed – it was only when I looked at the real thing that I got the collywobbles again.
And so we progressed back in stately fashion in the early morning sun. I was too preoccupied with taking pictures to get too nervous, and in fact I was almost enjoying it, especially when I thought we were over the worst.
"There, that wasn’t so bad after all …” I reassured myself.
Then round the next corner came one of the worst bits – a sharp turn round a section of road with a sheer drop off down to the river. I could have stayed in the car and managed it (honest) but I asked to get out and filmed the Jeep going over that section, and they waited a few hundred metres beyond to pick me up.
In fact Tony insisted that I tell him when I wanted to make more photos and he would stop the Jeep – so much so that we were making very slow progress because there were just so many scenic bits.
We passed bridges and cables over the rivers and even saw a couple of other vehicles on the road this time – a Jeep overtook us and a truck went past in a cloud of dust going up the valley. I wouldn’t want to be riding in that.
But there were no other people.
We stopped for lunch above the village of Longpu again and enjoyed the warm sun as we ate more boiled eggs and mantou by the car.
By early afternoon we were underway again and I had almost had too much of the scenery. Places where yesterday I would have gone into a frenzy of snapping I now ignored – I simply had too many picturesque views already.
I hunkered down in the back seat of the Jeep and swayed along as we entered what I thought would be the final strait of the voyage back to Bingzhongluo. We were approaching the border between Tibet and Yunnan, and with only about 50 or 60km to go, I expected to be back in town within the hour and soaking the dust and grime away in a hot bath. I was already thinking ahead to the evening, where we would spend Christmas Eve going down to the local Catholic church to see the Lisu people celebrate midnight mass.
But then the engine of the Jeep died and we rolled to a halt in the middle of nowhere.
Tony tried starting the car and at first I thought it was just a simple stall. But when the car engine would not turn over and was dead he stated flatly that we had run out of petrol.
All of a sudden our plans were in turmoil. What did this mean – where were we and how were we going to get out of here?
Tony was quite calm and simply said that he would walk to the nearest settlement and phone down to Bingzhongluo to get the boss man, Ma Huang to come and bring us some petrol.
He set off to walk up the hill as we took stock of our position. We were on the lower reaches of the river, where the vegetation was lush and there were streams running down from the steep sided hills. Large dramatic snow peaks towered over us.
A short stroll down the road ahead of the car revealed some buildings ahead – so I rushed down to tell Tony, and he reversed course and headed off to try phone from there.
As we waited, me and Paul clambered down the 50m from the road to the edge of the Nu river – the first time we had actually been within touching distance of this mighty river. At this point it was slow and deep, but the currents looked strong – and eddies grew faster as the river soon narrowed into a section of rapids.
After half an hour of mucking about, throwing stones in the river, Tony returned with bad news. There was no phone down at the shack he had found, and the woman he’d met there said there were no other phones in other nearby settlements within walking distance. We would just have to wait until a passing car came through which could lend us the few litres of petrol to complete our journey, said Tony. That, or get them to pass on a message to Mr Ma Huang. But not to worry, he said, Ma Huang would act swiftly when we weren’t back by the expected time of 4pm, and so be up here to pick us up.
I believed his confident assurances and just settled in to watch over Paul, who was playing by the river bank making sandcastles on a sandbar. An hour past, it was now 4.30pm, and I still believed we would be back in Bingzhongluo before it got dark.
I mooched down to the shack a few hundred metres down the road and got chased by the woman’s vicious dog. I checked the story about the phone and asked her what the likelihood was of passing traffic – she just shrugged her shoulders.
Then I had a scare when Paul was doing his usual daredevil climbing/exploring – Shortly after I heard those dreaded words: “Dad - Look at me!” he slipped while climbing down from a tree hanging over the river, and banged his knee badly on a rock.
He was ominously quiet and I was all worry and anger with him, trying to explain that if he broke a leg here we would be absolutely stuffed, being two days walk from even the most basic first aid facilities. He sat, chastened, in the car and kept out of trouble for a while after that.
Another hour went by and I began to have my doubts about getting out of there in a hurry. It would be dark soon after 6pm and we had seen no other traffic. Tony suggested we move our stuff down to the shack from the car, and as we did a truck came up from Bingzhongluo. But of course he had only diesel, not petrol, and was of little use to us. I thought Tony might ask him to call Ma Huang, but he didn’t.
We settled in to the tiny shack where the lady lived, invited in by her to sit around the smoky fire on tiny stools. Normally I might be quite angry or frustrated by such a last minute foul up and avoidable delay to my journey, but I just didn’t care right then. I was in such high spirits for having “survived” that dangerous road earlier in the day that I was euphoric and it just felt great to be alive – I just didn’t care!
And this is where we spent our Christmas Eve. As it got dark I began to lose hope of getting out of this remote place, and settled in around the fire, trying to put a brave face on it. Paul seemed happy – flicking ash and sparks from the fire, poking the chickens that roamed around and prodding the cat, dog and the little piglet that shared our places around the fire.
The woman was all hospitality. She boiled up a big cauldron of water on the fire and cooked us some noodles to which Tony and our Beijing woman companion added spam and a bit of green leafy veggies.
What a Christmas Eve this was turning out to be! Here we were in the middle of nowhere with absolutely nothing to do. No Christmas cheer in this little shack. The only diversions were a vicious fight between the resident guard dog and another dog that accompanied tow young lads who suddenly appeared from the night. They were the woman’s sons and seemed like really country yokels. Between them they beat the two snarling dogs violently with large sticks until one limped off whining to sit on top of the pig sty roof.
After that me and Paul settled into a game of cards round the fire, playing blackjack, Uno and even snap – in the course of which Paul won about 80 kuai off me, much to his delight.
When it was finally time to turn in the host offered us the use of her ‘spare room’, which turned out to be a cold shed that contained just an iron bedstead on which had been lain three rough planks, a blanket and a dirty duvet. That was all the bedding for four of us. Tony and the Beijing woman graciously offered the room to us, and they said they would sit up and try doze by the fire.
So I ended up pulling out the few other items of clothing from my bag and using them as extra mattress material, and settling down with Paul on the plans, huddling together to keep warm. I had to be careful to avoid two other hazards – a live electrical socket connected with bare wires and no plug – and the vicious guard dog which was tethered just outside our door – so I had to skip smartly away from its snapping jaws every time I entered or left the room.
Surprisingly I did manage to grab a few hours of sleep, but it wasn’t easy or comfortable, what with the hard planks digging in my back and Paul rolling over off the planks and taking the duvet with him.
I must have been asleep for two or three hours when in the middle of the night I suddenly heard the startling sound of a vehicle sounding its horn over and over, somewhere nearby. I dragged myself out of bed, and feeling vulnerable and scared, emerged from the shed into the freezing night air (remembering with a start to dodge the dog) and had a muddled conversation with a Tibetan guy asking where the boss was. I wasn’t sure if he was specifically looking for Tony or whether he was just a passing driver looking for a bed for the night.
Tony soon emerged, looking absolutely worn out from his smoky fireside stool vigil, and had a chat with the guy. He then explained that he would go with the driver in his truck down to Bingzhongluo and bring a recovery vehicle the next morning. Given the late hour and the danger of the truck travel on the road at night we would be better off going back to bed and waiting a few more hours, he said.
And so that’s what I did, thinking that help would be arriving soon after breakfast. Wrong again.
And thus it was we awoke on Christmas morning, “Away in a Manger” – literally. No crib for a bed – just a few planks. And no room at the inn for these travellers, so we had had to stay amid the beasts, if not in the stable well at least in the tool shed. No wise men, just three very tired and weary travellers, eating instant noodles for breakfast. No gold, frankincense or myrrh. Just some leftover pickles, chilli sauce and a dusty bottle of past its sell-by date Pepsi from the woman’s meagre store.
As we waited for help to arrive she told us that she helped look after the local river monitoring station – it was only a very small affair, measuring river levels. She ran a little store selling noodles and cigs to make a few cents from the occasional passing truck or itinerant workmen passing through. She grew her own vegetables and her kids foraged and hunted in the surrounding forests – picking herbs and medicinal mushrooms when they were in season.
The two young lads played with Paul that morning – sharing their catapult (which they later donated to him when they saw how much fun he was having with it, and wouldn’t accept any money for it). They also demonstrated their crossbow.
The morning dragged on and what little sense of adventure I felt over our “stranded in Tibet” escapade was now rapidly running out. Ten o clock and even the ever-patient Chinese woman was beginning to sigh. I began to have hallucinations. I would think I could hear the shifting gears of a truck and rush out on to the road only to realise it was the grunting of the pigs in the sty next door.
I walked up and down the road in both directions for a mile or more, with nothing to see except some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. I walked down to the rapids of the river, bushwhacking my way through brambles to get a good view, and then rock hopping to get as close as I safely could to the madly rushing torrent. And while I was down there I again imagined I could hear the roar of engines – hurrying back to the road once more, only to find deserted disappointment.
Lunchtime came and went – and our Christmas lunch was – surprise surprise – more instant noodles with hunks of spam from a tin.
This was getting seriously annoying and I was beginning to curse under my breath. What the **** was Tony doing? Was he just going to leave us here another day? Had he given up on his hope of 1000 kuai fee? Had he had an accident in the truck?
I was full of doubts by now and set 2pm as the deadline for action. I f nobody had arrived by then I would take Paul and set off to walk the 18km down to the nearest little settlement of Didadang. There, the woman told us, there was a basic guesthouse. I could do it in about four or five hours, she reckoned – but she had never walked with a dawdling eight year old.
I took another walk down to the river to take some more photos of nearby peaks, now that the sun was high in he sky and the valley was no longer in shade. Then I would pack all my kit and walk out of there.
On my return to the shed I was delighted to see a minivan – and then another jeep – help had arrived at last – almost 24 hours after we had first run out of petrol. We were saved.
Our actual departure form this isolated and beautiful spot was a bit of an anticlimax. First we had to wait more than another hour while they tried to refuel the Jeep and get it going. When this didn’t proceed too smoothly, they decided to evacuate us in the tinny little minivan. So we all crammed in and rattled off down the road after saying a final heartfelt thank you and farewell to the wonderful Ms Liu, who had welcomed us to her humble shack and shown the true spirit of Christmas in sharing all her meagre supplies and accommodation with us, the complete strangers.
The minivan was rude shock after the spacious, tough and well-suspensioned Jeep. It jolted us around and swerved dangerously near the edge of the track as its puny engine screamed and whined to drag us metre by metre back down the Nu river valley towards Bingzhongluo. I couldn’t complain though – it was getting us out of there, wasn’t it?
And so it was we finally hauled ourselves up out of the river valley at Bingzhongluo, back past the Catholic church where Lisu villagers were sitting about in the churchyard in their vivid Sunday best coloured costumes of pink, sky blue and yellow. I could have got out there and taken some great pictures and they finished off their celebrations, but I was just too physically and mentally exhausted. I stayed in the van, rode the extra 1km back up the hill into town and on arriving went straight up to our hotel room to soak all the smoke and dust off myself in the bath and shout: “I’m alive! I’m alive!” in a silly voice to no-one in particular.
It did feel good to be alive...
Peaks above Songta:
Longpu from the north:
Nu village near Bingzhongluo (Shi Men Guan)