Sunday, January 27, 2008

Nujiang river north of Bingzhongluo

The next few pics show our Christmas trip up the Nujiang (Salween river) along the border with Burma. We took a Jeep from the "end of the road" village of Bingzhongluo up into Tibet along an unofficial and poorly maintained road, which was very dangerous, as you will see fro the pics.

Scary bit of road along Nujiang river north of Bingzhongluo

I was too scared to ride in the Jeep - I got out and walked this bit!

Scary bit of road along Nujiang river north of Bingzhongluo

Taken on the way to Chawalong in Tibet using a Contax IIa and Biogon 4.5/21mm lens.

Nujiang river north of Bingzhongluo

Taken on the way to Chawalong in Tibet using a Contax IIa and Biogon 4.5/21mm lens.

Nujiang river north of Bingzhongluo

The first village after crossing the border into Tibet - Longpu. Taken on the way to Chawalong in Tibet using a Contax IIa and Biogon 4.5/21mm lens.

Nujiang river north of Bingzhongluo

The bit of road that scare me - taken on the way to Chawalong in Tibet using a Contax IIa and Biogon 4.5/21mm lens.

Nujiang river north of Bingzhongluo

Spot the bridge below - taken on the way to Chawalong in Tibet using a Contax IIa and Biogon 4.5/21mm lens.

Nujiang river north of Bingzhongluo

Below is the village of Longpu - this is the first town you come to from Bingzhongluo after crossing the border into Tibet. Taken on the way to Chawalong using a Contax IIa and Biogon 4.5/21mm lens.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Shi Men Guan, Nu Jiang (Salween river) Yunnan in Kodachrome

Nujiang river (怒江) Yunnan Kodachrome

Just south of Bingzhongluo.

First bend of Nujiang river (怒江) Yunnan Kodachrome

Nujiang river (怒江) Yunnan Kodachrome

Just outside Bingzhongluo.

Paul in Chawalong in Kodachrome

Paul in Chawalong in Kodachrome, originally uploaded by jiulong.

Nu Jiang (Salween river) Yunnan in Kodachrome

Somewhere between Fugong and Gongshan. Taken from the bus, hence poor quality. And it scanned badly so I destaurated the colour in Photoshop.

Nujiang (怒江) river Yunnan Kodachrome

Somewhere between Fugong and Gongshan. Taken from the bus, hence poor quality. And it scanned badly so I destaurated the colour in Photoshop.

Nujiang river (怒江) Yunnan Kodachrome

Somewhere between Fugong and Gongshan. Taken from the bus, hence poor quality.

Nujiang (怒江) river Yunnan, Kodachrome

Somewhere between Fugong and Gongshan. Taken from the bus, hence poor quality.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Nujiang river, Yunnan

Nujiang river, Yunnan, originally uploaded by jiulong.

Slight cock up on the photography front. Out of 17 rolls of Kodachrome slide film only a handful of pictures came out. Seems like the Voigtlander Color Skopar 28mm lens I was using had some kind of malfunction, and only the snaps taken with a Leica 35mm Summaron lens came out. Bugger.

Lisu kid near Bingzhongluo, Nu Jiang (Salween river) Yunnan in Kodachrome

One of the few pics that came out - because I switched to a Leica lens. It breaks my heart that I took scores of other pics like this which ended up in the bin because they came out blurred to buggery, thanks to a defective Voigtlander Color Skopar lens.

Nu Jiang (Salween river) Yunnan in Kodachrome

Nu Jiang (Salween river) Yunnan in Kodachrome

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Nujiang - yesterday, today - but no tomorrow?

The next few posts describe some of my travels along the beautiful Nu Jiang (Nu river) valley in Yunnan over Christmas. I was following in the footsteps of Joseph Rock again, specifically his trip which he described in the National Geographic of August 1926 as "Through the Great River Trenches of Asia" (referring to the parallel rivers of the Salween/Nu, the Mekong/Lancang and the Yangtze/Jinsha. The Nujiang is still an unspoiled paradise, but perhaps not for much longer. Like the other rivers mentioned, there are plans to dam the Nujiang at several places along its length. I have previously described plans to build dams on other rivers such as the Litang river. One can only take hope from the recent announcement that the planned dam on the Yangtze/Jinsha that would have destroyed the Tiger Leaping Gorge has been cancelled by the order of the central government. Let's hope they also see sense in regard to the Nujiang dams.

Here are the ones planned, including those at Bingzhongluo and Songta, places described in my travel account.

Dams planned for the Nujiang

Nujiang (怒江) trip Part 1: Dali to Fugong (福贡)

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.

Dali in the 1920s

Dali north gate

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.

Nujiang (怒江) trip Part 2: Fugong (福贡) to Bingzhongluo (丙中落)

Friday the 21st of December saw use rising at eight in the morning in our anonymous hotel room in Fugong. I couldn’t tell if it was light or not as we had no outside window, and when I first woke up in the early hours I couldn’t remember where I was for a few moments until suddenly I realised – “Blimey,
I’m in the Nujiang Valley!”

We didn’t muck around – straight up, get dressed, and out on to the chilly street to grab the standard Chinese breakfast of doujiang (warm soy milk), youtiao (fried dough sticks) and mantou (steamed bread rolls) from a grotty place on the main road. A minivan with a sign showing he was off to Gongshan was already waiting on the street so we piled in and set off for the next leg up the Nujiang valley.
From Fugong, the scenery just got better and better.

Nu Jiang (Salween river) Yunnan in Kodachrome

The river twisted and turned, but was essentially placid, sometimes looking more like a long thin aquamarine lake than a great river. The valley sides became steeper and there were huge crags and mountains rising beyond – Burma was only a few km away over the crest of these green hills. We past the famous Stone Moon Hill (Shi Yueliang, 石月亮) – a massive ridge with a circle-shaped hole in the rock. And at one point I looked down in to the river to see canoeists paddling away – but they were too far away to see if they were westerners or Chinese.

石月亮 - Nu Jiang (Salween river) Yunnan in Kodachrome

Our fellow passengers were an outgoing young couple who talked and talked – sometimes to us, sometimes to each other. He told us we’d arrived just in time to see the Christmas celebrations among all the Christians in the valley – he called it something like Kerfoo Jie instead of the standard Chinese name of Shendang Jie. He also went on at length about how he’d been around a bit – to Malaysia etc, but “When I have the money I haven’t the time, and vice versa”.

Nujiang river, Yunnan

The driver was fairly whizzing along and I noticed he had Christmas glitter decorating his rear view mirror. And when his mobile went off the ringtone was the tune of the Christmas carol: “The First Noel …” All very surreal.
Noticed quite a few timber logging yards along the way, presumably processing what’s left of the forests of Burma a few km away – and had to admire the engineers who installed the ugly power pylons way up high in the valley – how did they ever get access to those high ridges, never mind string high tension power lines over such huge distances and heights?

Along the Nujiang river, Yunnan

We eventually arrived at Gongshan just after lunchtime, and the first thing I noticed was how cold it was after the almost subtropical mildness of Liuku. The other notable thing about this ugly place was how small and inconsequential it seemed - but at least the people seemed quite friendly. A vivacious Lisu girl in the street front restaurant served us up with beef noodles as we sat shivering, and fired curious questions about us as we slurped.

Feeling slightly disappointed at this hopeless-looking end of the line town, I decided to press on to Bingzhongluo, where my Chinese guidebook said there was another “fine hotel” – can’t be any worse than Gongshan, I thought.
Nujiang river?

I’d envisaged Bingzhongluo to be a hillside community of log cabins, after reading a 1980s book on the Lisu and Nu people. But as we rounded the last corner of the road above the epic and sweeping “First Bend of the Nujiang” (itself a notable sight), I saw that BZL, as we shall call it from now on, was just yet another ugly Chinese frontier town.
Bingzhongluo, Yunnan
To be precise, it was a single street eyesore in a spectacular location. At first, I felt a bit let down after paying the 50 kuai “Scenic Area Entrance Fee”, but the scenery really did change my mind.

First Bend of the Nujiang:
Nu Jiang (Salween river) Yunnan in Kodachrome

Bingzhongluo overlooking the Nu river:
First bend of Nujiang river, Bingzhongluo, Yunnan


Bingzhongluo, looking north:


Nujiang trip part 3: Cracking walnuts in Bingzhongluo (丙中落)

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 end of the road, literally

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.

Ma Huang on Nujiang south of Chawalong, Tibet

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.
First souvenir stall on Nujiang river, Bingzhongluo, Yunnan

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.

Aerial view of Bingzhongluo from Google Earth

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.
Grave of Pere Genestier, Chongding Catholic church, Bingzhongluo
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.
Dind Da Ma (Old Ma Ding), Chongding Catholic church, Bingzhongluo

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, Bingzhongluo

Chongding church interior:

Chongding Catholic church, Bingzhongluo

Bingzhongluo school sports carnival:

School carnival, Bingzhongluo

Nujiang trip Part 4: Bingzhongluo (丙中落) to Chawalong (察瓦龙)

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.
Nujiang north of Bingzhongluo, Yunnan

Further on up the river we crossed a new bridge and passed a few Lisu hamlets of log cabins on flats by the river.
Nujiang south of Chawalong, Tibet
bridge over Road on Nujiang south of Chawalong, Tibet

Shimenguan, Bingzhongluo-Chawalong road

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.

Didading - near Qiunatong

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.

Road on Nujiang south of Chawalong, Tibet

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.

peak above Nujiang north of Bingzhongluo, Yunnan

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.

We made it to Tibet

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.

Nujiang waterfall

Bridge over Nujiang north of Bingzhongluo, Yunnan

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.

Nightmare road above Bingzhongluo

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.

Road on Nujiang south of Chawalong, Tibet

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.
Tibetan house on upper Nujiang

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.

Chalky landslip on Chawalong road

landslip on Road on Nujiang south of Chawalong, Tibet

Landslip in Tibet, north of Bingzhongluo

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.

Chawalong, on the Nujiang

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.

 Chawalong, Tibet

Where we dined, Chawalong, Tibet

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.

Chawalong interior 2

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.

Chawalong Tibet, north of Bingzhongluo

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.

Chawalong interior

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?

Near Bingzhongluo:
Peak on Bingzhongluo-Chawalong road

Long drop to the river:

Nujiang north of Bingzhongluo, Yunnan

Nujiang near Yunnan-Tibet border.Bingzhongluo-Chawalong road

Longpu, the first Tibetan settlent on the Nujiang:

Nujiang in Tibet, north of Bingzhongluo

Nujaing north of Longpu:
Nujiang in Tibet, north of Bingzhongluo

Landscape becomes more dry and barren as you go further north:

Nujiang in Tibet, north of Bingzhongluo

Dwarfed by the landscape:

Nujiang road from Bingzhongluo to Chawalong

The barren road to Chawalong:

Bingzhongluo-Chawalong road


Road on Nujiang south of Chawalong, Tibet

Near Chawalong:

Road on Nujiang south of Chawalong, Tibet