Thursday, August 01, 2013


Where in the world is to be found scenery comparable to that which awaits the explorer and photographer in north-western Yunnan?” 
So wrote Joseph Rock in 1925 after he returned from an epic three-month winter expedition through what he called “the great river trenches of Asia”.
This is a unique area of northwest Yunnan, where four of Asia’s major rivers run in parallel for a hundred miles or so, creating huge canyons separated by high ridge lines of mountains. In this area of south-west China bordering Burma and Tibet, the Yangtze, Mekong, Salween and Irrawaddy rivers flow side by side from north to south before diverging to follow separate paths through different countries and into different oceans.
The Yangtze is the easternmost river - known as the Changjiang (Long River) in China. Flowing south from its Tibetan headwaters, the river hits a mountain barrier at Shigu in Yunnan and makes an abrupt turn northwards, where it enters the Tiger Leaping Gorge. The Yangzte then hooks back southwards around Lijiang, before turning east to flow through the heart of China and ultimately into the East China Sea near Shanghai.
Next is the Mekong river, the Lancang to the Chinese, which maintains its southward flow from Tibet into Yunnan and then on through Laos, Thailand and into Vietnam, where it finally enters the South China Sea via the Mekong Delta near Saigon.
The Salween river, or Nu Jiang, follows the border between China and Burma for much of its length in Yunnan. The mountain ridge to the west of the river marks the border between the two countries until the Nu river turns westward into Burma and eventually reaches the Indian Ocean at Moulmein. A fourth river is the Dulong, a tributary of the Irrawaddy, both of which flow in parallel with the other rivers in northern Yunnan and the north of Burma.
The juxtaposition of these major rivers and canyons sees a dramatic transition from Burma’s tropical jungles to the temperate uplands of Yunnan. The array of canyons and mountain ridges forms a barrier to the monsoon rains that sweep east in May-June from the plains of the Indian subcontinent, and creates a series of unique micro-climates within each valley.
On the map it’s only 70 miles from the Burmese border to the ethnically Tibetan Yunnan town of Zhongdian (recently re-named as Shangri La), to the east of the Yangtze. But if you tried to make this journey on foot you would have a very rough few weeks, if not months, crossing four separate mountain ranges and the Dulong, Nujiang, Lancangjiang and Changjiang river valleys.
As well as a wide variety of local climates, this region is also hosts a wide variety of ethnic minorities. The north is the domain of the Tibetans, while to the west are the Kachin peoples of upper Burma. In Yunnan, each of the river valleys has a unique blend of minorities: in the eastern valleys the Naxi and Pumi predominate, while the Lisu, Nu and Drung are interspersed with Tibetans in the western river valleys.
And Rock’s use of the term ‘river trenches’ is apt, for here they form deep canyons and gorges, separated by towering peaks of mountains up to 25,000 feet in height.
In World War Two the Hengduan and Gaoligong mountains divides were dubbed ‘The Hump’ by the Allied pilots whose transport planes flew over them from India to deliver supplies to ‘free’ China after the Burma Road was captured and closed by the Japanese army.
In his article “Through the Great River Trenches of Asia” in the August 1926 issue of National Geographic, Joseph Rock once again opens by making dubious claims of being the first westerner to explore the region in depth.
“Few have been privileged to climb the towering ranges separating the mightiest streams of Asia ...,” he begins.
“No white man had previously had a glimpse of many of the scenes here photographed, for the few explorers who have penetrated these terrifying fastnesses have done so when the snow-crowned peaks were hidden from view by the enveloping monsoon clouds of summer.”
What Rock fails to mention is that the region had already been extensively explored and even settled by missionaries prior to his visit. His fellow botanist Frank Kingdon Ward had tramped all over upper Burma, Yunnan and Tibet from 1910 onwards on plant hunting trips. Kingdon Ward chronicled his journeys in books such as Land of the Blue Poppy and Mystery Rivers of Tibet. Rock makes only a passing mention of other explorers such as Jacques Bacot and Heinrich Handel Mazetti, who visited the Tiger Leaping Gorge (then known simply as the Yangtze canyons) before him.
And at the time of Rock’s expedition to the ‘Three Rivers’ region there were already many Catholic and Protestant mission stations and churches in the upper reaches of the Mekong and Salween rivers. The Catholic missions were set up by French and Swiss priests in the late 19th and early 20th century, and the priests travelled extensively across the region and even built the first proper paths over the mountain passes between the Mekong and the Salween canyons. So Joseph Rock was not the first to visit this region, despite his claim to be the first to photograph the canyons and their indigenous peoples.
“Lured by the magnificence of the mountain rages and the weird and little known chasms in which these mighty rivers flow, as well as by the strange tribes living on the slopes of their gorges and in their valleys, early one October I left my headquarters in the little Nashi hamlet of Nguluko on the Likiang snow range, to explore and photograph,” he writes.
In October 1924, with the monsoon rains not yet over, Joseph Rock set out for an autumn and winter visit to the northwest corner of Yunnan. As usual, he was accompanied by a large retinue of Naxi servants, helpers and bodyguards, 15 men in all, plus numerous mules to carry his three-month’s worth of supplies. When he set off from Lijiang, his aim was to walk up the Mekong (Lancang Jiang) river towards the French missionary post at Cizhong (then known as Tsechung) near Atuntze (now known as Deqin), and then cross the mountains to the Salween by means of the Doker La pass, a traditional Tibetan pilgrimage route.
But first Rock had to first work his way around the Yangtze, which envelopes Lijiang in its great first bend. Rock did this by passing through the village of Shigu, situated at the tip of the first bend of the Yangtze. Shigu was later to become a historic stopping off point for Mao Zedong’s’s Long March. In 1924, however, Joseph Rock found only a miserable settlement with flea-ridden rooms and ne’er-do-well opium-smoking Chinese.
In his article, Rock provides a colourful description of the scene at the end of a long day’s journey as his mules arrived at his accommodation in rainy Shigu and as “cats, dogs and dirty children add to the confusion.” 
“The lead mule with his large bell steps into the muddy courtyard, followed by his hungry co-sufferers. Without waiting to have their loads removed, they fight their way to the troughs and try to eat through the baskets tied over their mouths. Dogs are stepped upon, pigs squeal, mules bray, while long dead ancestors are conjured up unprintable language by the exasperated muleteers. Everywhere mud, dung, cornstalks and odours which it would be difficult to analyse! Poor cook! In such surroundings he has to produce a palatable meal!”
On his way to cross the Yangtze-Mekong watershed, Rock passed the scene of a Nashi funeral, where grey-cloaked mourners prepared paper replicas of servants and furniture to be burned in a ceremony to accompany the deceased into the next world. Rock then passed along a narrow track where spiders’ webs were so thick as to need a stick to be held up in front of the face.
“Unless one held up a to separate the yellow threads and make a passageway through this labyrinth, one’s head would soon have resembled a yellow ball of twine or fuzzy silk,” he writes.
In this way, Rock plodded in five days up a track to a settlement called Chutien, on the banks of a tributary of the Yangtze. This is the same route now followed by a motorable road from Lijiang to Weixi.
In my own attempts to re-trace Rock’s journeys to the “Great River Trenches of Asia” I had to make four trips to the region over a number of years. The repeat visits were needed due to my poor planning and ignorance of the weather conditions on the mountain passes. I also seriously underestimated the sheer scale of the landscape and the distances involved.
My first venture up the Mekong was in the early spring of 2002, when bad weather prevented me from making a crossing of the Doker La from the Mekong to the Salween (Nujiang). The whole trip was marred by setbacks. My first attempt to reach Deqin by road from Lijiang ended at Zhongdian because snow had closed the road over the Baima Shan mountain pass. Zhongdian was then still a primitive and rather grim one-street Tibetan town, a far cry from the “Shangri-La” (Xiang-ge-li-la) tourist boomtown it would later become.
I returned to Lijiang and tried an alternative approach to get to the Mekong valley from the south, via a town called Weixi. An early morning bus followed Rock’s route to ‘Chutien’, now known as Judian. This was where Rock had stayed in a room from which opium smokers had been evicted, and where he could admire the stars at night through holes in the ceiling. Our bus bypassed Judian and crossed the Yangtze-Mekong divide via a pass called Litiping, which Rock had described as undulating alpine meadows with hemlock, canebrake and rhododendrons growing in profusion, and birds singing. Eighty years later, Litiping seemed to be a barren stunted grassland interspersed with sheep herders’ rock shelters.
On the way down to the Mekong, Rock stopped at the small town of Weixi to rest and restock his supplies and develop some photographs. He also spent some time providing medical care to the locals of Weixi. In this backwater, people had blind faith in western medicine, believing that just one of Rock’s pills would cure advanced tuberculosis. The local cures included cow dung. Weixi had a post office where Rock was able - despite a lack of sufficient stamps - to send a letter to Washington DC.
In 2002 Weixi appeared to be a pleasant and rustic market town perched on the slopes over the Mekong valley. Its cobbled streets and wooden houses gave it something of the atmosphere of the old Lijiang town before it had a makeover and became over-run with tourists. Weixi’s steep streets were given over to stalls selling herbal remedies and household wares. Dark-skinned Burmese traders sold Indian joss sticks and Vietnamese toothpaste – their presence a reminder that the Burmese border was close by. Another local speciality much on display in Weixi was orchids - literally hundreds of them. There were scores of people on the streets trading orchids in plant pots. The more aesthetic specimens were changing hands for hundreds of dollars, due to the prevailing belief that they conferred good luck.
Weixi was a Lisu town and the locals seemed cheerful, industrious and rambunctious. Many of the Lisu were Christian, and their small churches could be seen in most villages in the Lancang valley. Some churches were built in traditional Chinese style with curving eaves, and with a red or white cross prominently displayed on the front. Oddly, Rock makes no mention of the strong Christian presence in the Mekong valley during his visit. Perhaps at that time the work of the missionaries in the Mekong had yet to bear fruit. The great British proselytiser, J.O. Fraser, (‘Fraser of Lisuland’) of the China Inland Mission was responsible for converting tens of thousands of the Lisu to Christianity during the early 20th century, but his work only started around the Great War of 1914-18 and may not have had much impact on the Weixi area by the late 1920s. Judging by the number of churches in this part of Yunnan, Fraser and his colleagues obviously had an enduring impact on the area. He devised a romanised script for the Lisu language that is still in use today by the Communist authorities.
From Weixi, Rock descended to the Mekong and arrived at a riverside village called Kakatang, where he noted that goitre was a major problem among the local populace. One local man had goitre so big and heavy it pulled down his chin so that he couldn’t shut his mouth. At the next village of Petsinhsun - now know as Beixincun - the headman wanted his portrait taken by Rock, who was amused to see the chief throwing on silk garments over his dirty clothes and posing “as if he was the emperor of China”.
It took Rock seven days to travel up the Mekong by mule as far as Cizhong, whereas it took us just a single day by bus. In Rock’s time, the route along the river was precarious and dangerous:
“The trail was appalling and often the loads had to be removed from the packs and carried one at a time by the mule-men over the treacherously narrow spots high above the stream,” he wrote.
In 2002, a smooth tarmac road ran up the eastern side of the Lancang river. The landscape was one of small farms and tilled fields, and many households grew the local staple of maize. The bus was crammed with boisterous and diminutive Lisu people, many of whom brought unusual cargoes on board during the frequent stops at the many villages. Whicker baskets were used as backpacks to transport bushels of plants or loads of seeds, and one passenger had plastic barrel strapped to her back containing water in which swam live fish.
When Rock progressed further north up the river valley, he noted there were fewer Lisu and more Tibetans in evidence. There were also Naxi living in the Mekong valley but they had adopted Tibetan ways and followed a Tibetan form of Buddhism, he observed. At a place called Yetche, Rock met a Naxi ‘king’ who he found to be friendly and dignified. This local dignitary claimed that in 1905 he had saved the life a British botanist, George Forrest, who was being pursued by Tibetan lamas intent on killing him. At that time, the Tibetans had strongly opposed the presence of western missionaries in the Mekong valley, seeing the mission stations and churches as a springboard from which westerners would convert all of Tibet to Christianity.
The Tibetans Lamas’ hostility boiled over when they murdered western missionaries in the area around Atuntze [now known as Deqin], and put the foreigners’ severed heads on display at the monastery there. As a result of this gruesome incident, the western powers put pressure on the Qing authorities in Yunnanfu (Kunming) to punish the Tibetans and provide protection to missionaries. The Chinese retaliated by razing several Lamaist temples and giving the land to western missionaries. The Han Chinese government had their own agenda to destabilise and undermine the political power of the Tibetan lamas.
When he continued further north up the Mekong, Rock noted how the scenery became noticeably grander beyond the village of Yetche. The river was now hemmed in by steep hills on both sides. Then, as now, there were few bridges spanning the Mekong. Instead, the locals relied on a cable ‘flying fox’ method to cross the river. Rock describes in lairy detail how he and his entourage - 15 men with all their horses and mules and supplies - slid over the roaring river on ropes. These days steel cable slide crossings are still in common use along the Mekong, but in Rock’s time the ropes were made from twisted bamboo strands greased with butter. Rock relates how his party were advised to walk a few more miles to a ‘new’ rope slide as the Cizhong rope was past its ‘use by date’ of three months!
Once across the river, Rock backtracked south to the mission station at Cizhong, where he met a French priest, Pere Jean-Baptiste Ouvrard, who had been working in this area for 14 years. Again, it is odd that Rock says almost nothing about Cizhong and its distinctive Catholic church. Perhaps he wanted to be the centre of the narrative and did not want to draw attention to the fact that others had been here well before him. Or perhaps it was an aversion to the Catholic church after his unhappy childhood experiences in Vienna with an overbearing and obsessively religious father. In his article, Rock only mentions that the priest helped him recruit a further 13 Naxi, Lutzu and Tibetan porters to help on the next stage of his journey - the crossing of the Mekong-Salween divide.
At Cizhong we crossed the river using a small iron suspension bridge and headed over the crest of a hill to find the village clustered around a square that doubled as a basketball court and outdoor waiting room for a primitive medical clinic operating out of a shack. A few of the local Naxi and Tibetan old folks were sitting around with glucose IV drips in their arms [to ‘restore energy’] or with huge nail-like acupuncture needles embedded in their knees.
After a drink at the medical shack we were taken up the road by an old gent who introduced himself as the caretaker for the Catholic church. He seemed delighted when I told him I was a Catholic and took us up to the church at the top of the village and opened up the doors for us to have a look around.
It was quite a strange feeling to walk past a Buddhist stupa into the forecourt of a Chinese-Baroque-style Catholic church in the middle of a mixed Tibetan and Naxi village in Yunnan. The church seemed old but well maintained - a bit like the caretaker himself. We padded round the silent interior, peering up at the colourful statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, trying to translate the Chinese language Christian posters on the wall, and looking for the original decorations.
On the ceiling there was a beautiful arrangement of symbols that combined Eastern tradition with Christian intent. Lotus flowers and swirly ying/yang symbols were interspersed with stylised Roman crosses. The altar was richly decorated with a pink floral cover, augmented by hangings of yellow silk and vases of local pink and red flowers. Above it, a statue of Jesus and the Latin inscription “Ecce Agnus Dei’. The small bell tower was reached by a set of creaky wooden stairs, and offered fine views over the valley and the cluster of houses that made up Cizhong. Most houses had satellite TV dishes on their flat roofs, which detracted somewhat from the otherwise rustic feel to this traditional village.
After an awkwardly reverential half hour spent padding around the dark interior of the Cizhong church gazing at the decorations, I made what I thought was a generous contribution to the collection box. However, my feelgood mood was quickly dispelled when the caretaker then demanded an extra 20 kuai ‘admission fee’ for letting us look round!
We stayed the night at Cizhong in the house of a local teacher, Mr Lee, who lived next door to the church and looked after its vineyard. The grapes had been introduced by the French priests and still produced a red wine, which was served to us that evening out of a plastic jerry can. The strain of grape used was now unique to Yunnan, he told us, as it was an old and unproductive variety no longer used by the French wine industry. It was as rough as guts.
Over a dinner of gristly chicken in a globby yellow soup, Teacher Lee told us a bit about the village. It was half Tibetan and half Naxi, he said. A bit like his own family - he was Naxi and his wife a Tibetan. And despite being an overseer of the Catholic church he himself was a Buddhist, as witnessed by the large mural of the Potala palace and the pictures of the Dalai lama over his fireplace. A collage of family photographs on his wall also showed his own travels to Tibet.
Mr Lee told us that the village was a harmonious place, where Christians and Buddhists had lived together peacefully for centuries. About 80% of the villagers were nominally Christian, but there was no longer a priest in the village - only a visiting cleric who tended to many of the small churches in the Mekong valley. Mr Lee lamented that the younger people of Cizhong showed waning interest in Christianity - they were more interested in karaoke, clothes and mobile phones. Materialism rather than Marxism was the biggest threat to the local church congreation, it seemed.
Mr Lee’s  house was neat and pleasant, with the sturdy wood fittings common to most Tibetan houses in the region. Downstairs in the yard there were pigs, cows and chickens. Upstairs on the flat roof, corn was stored and there were more rooms including his son’s study room, complete with a desktop computer.
Later I learned a little more about the history of Cizhong and its unique Christian history. French missionaries established a church here in the late 19th century after their initial efforts further north in Tibet were thwarted by aggressive opposition from then-powerful monastery lamas. The first French churches were burnt down and many of the missionaries were killed by local mobs with the tacit approval of the Tibetan lamas. Cizhong was selected as a spot to re-build a church because - despite its Tibetan populace - it lay outside the borders of Tibet and beyond the influence of the lamas.
Under Chinese protection, the missionaries were able to establish a new church and tried to set an example in the ways of the Lord to their Tibetan flock. It obviously worked, and many local Tibetans and Naxi were converted. But the north west of Yunnan was never a safe place under the unstable Chinese warlord regimes - and the missionaries continued to be plagued by bandits and lawlessness.
In 1905 the Tibetan lamas attempted to drive the Catholic missionaries out of the Mekong valley altogether - and succeeded in doing so initially after killing two priests. Swiss missionaries from the Order of St Bernard then took over from the French. The last western priest at Cizhong was Father Alphonse Savioz, who lived there from 1948 to 1951 until he was driven out by the newly-installed Communist authorities. He went to live in Taiwan and was eventually able to re-visit his old parish in the 1990s. One of his colleagues, Fr Maurice Tornay was not so fortunate. As parish priest at the Tibetan village of Yakarlo in the north, Fr Tornay came into conflict with the Tibetan lamas in the late 1940s. He tried to negotiate a ‘truce’, but was murdered while en route to Lhasa. Maurice Tornay was declared a martyr and saint by Pope John Paul in 1992.
And so, despite its image as a tranquil ‘Shangri La’ of Christianity in the wilds of Yunnan, Cizhong had a turbulent and unhappy past and an uncertain future. It was slowly becoming known as a tourist spot, and it may not be long before coach loads of tourists clog up the dusty lanes of this village. Already a Kunming company has started to develop a ‘Cizhong wine’, allegedly based on the grape variety originally introduced by the French priests.
From Cizhong, Joseph Rock crossed over the 15,000 foot high mountains to the Salween (Nujiang) in the west via the (Sila) Se La pass, and spent two weeks exploring the settlements and monasteries of the Salween valley.
Leaving most of his supplies behind at Cizhong, Rock ascended first from the Mekong river up a steep zig-zagging track through oak and pine forests to a ridge about 11,000 feet up. From here he had great views of the Baimashan mountains south of Deqin. Continuing up to the bleak pass, Rock passed through deciduous forests of maples, with wild cherries and rhododendrons growing in the bush.
On our March visit, however, we were told quite categorically by Teacher Lee in Cizhong that the pass over the Se La was closed by deep snow. We attempted a recce and spent half a day trudging slowly and breathlessly up a path behind Cizhong, gaining great views up the Mekong valley and of the mountain to the north. There were no other houses or settlements higher up in the mountains, but the herders we encountered up there were also emphatic that the mountain pass over to the Salween valley was closed. Reluctantly, we turned around and plodded back down to Cizhong.
The next day we continued our journey up the Mekong on foot. Walking up the dusty road beside the river it took us half a day to get to Yanmen (Swallow’s Gate), where we stayed for a night. The Tibetan and Naxi people we met along the way were very friendly – and many of them invited us into their homes to rest and have something to eat. We took up this offer in one small settlement where we heard strange thumping and groaning noises emanating from one of the houses. Inside, we found three young Tibetan monks sat on the floor in an upstairs room performing a house blessing ceremony. They banged drums, blew horns, rang bells and chanted unceasingly, unfazed by the appearance of two foreigner spectators.
Tired from our day of walking, we rested in the house for a while and shared some noodles with our hospitable Tibetan hosts. In some ways, they looked very similar to the Mekong Tibetans photographed by Joseph Rock. They passed the time printing colourful home-made prayer flags and making butter sculptures, which were scattered throughout the house temple. Maize seemed to be the main local crop and the locals spread corn on the road to have the husks split by the wheels of passing vehicles (not that there were many).
Beyond Yanmen we passed a narrow gap in the steep sided gorge, from which a mountain torrent emerged. This was the outlet of the notorious Londjre gorge that Joseph Rock descended with trepidation on his return to the Mekong from the Salween.
“Of all the trails along which we had passed thus far, none could compare with that which leads from Londjre gorge out into the Mekong. It is a veritable corkscrew up a weird black chasm, at the bottom of which roars the stream coming from the sacred Dokerla. The trail is built against a rocky wall of sandstone in short, steep zigzags, a most appalling structure of tree trunks suspended over the deep, narrow, yawning black canyon with overhanging cliffs. A gale was blowing in addition, which meant that at every turn one had to brace oneself against the wind, holding tightly to the cliff.”
We did not go into the Londjre gorge, but continued upriver, where valley narrowed further so that the Mekong ran swiftly between dramatic high walls of rock. We still wanted to try crossing over the mountains to the Salween, and held out a faint hope that the Doker La pass might be open to the north, even though the Se La was blocked by snow. The Doker La is a major pilgrimage route for Tibetans. It marks the official cultural border between China and Tibet, and according to Rock, it saw thousands of Tibetan pilgrims crossing it every year.
“A constant stream of pilgrims treads the narrow trail with the sacred prayer Om Mane Padme Hum ever on their lips as they whirl prayer wheels in their right hands. Thus they acquire merit. Many commit suicide by throwing themselves down the Dokerla, for to die on that sacred spot means emancipation and deliverance from re-birth. Some there are, especially nuns and monks, who do nothing all the year long but cross the Dokerla in penance.”
To reach the Doker La we no longer needed to use the rope bridge that had been the only means of crossing the Mekong when Rock visited. There was now a rickety iron bridge, across which mules were plodding, and which seemed swayed and creaked in the strong wind blowing up the Mekong gorge.
After crossing, we sweated our backpacks up a steep trail for much of the afternoon. The weather worsened as we got higher, and everyone we met along the way told us there was no way across the Doker La. The mountain ridge ahead of us was socked in with cloud, and it was starting to rain more heavily. As it started to get dark we conceded defeat – we weren’t going to ‘do’ the Doker La on this trip. In fact, we didn’t even know where we were.
Fortunately, a rough-looking Tibetan goat herder was kind enough to invite us to spend the night at his farm. In the gloomy interior we juggled with walnuts and watched a Hong Kong kung fu movie on his old fashioned TV. The farmer was only in his 40s but was already a grandfather - his teenage daughter was breastfeeding a little baby while piglets and kittens and puppies frolicked underfoot. And so it was that we spent the night sleeping on the floor of his threadbare wooden house, at an altitude of around 12,000 feet above the Tibetan hamlet of Yongjiu on the Mekong.
The next morning we woke up feeling stiff and cold, but our decision not to continue on to the Doker La was vindicated - it was pouring with rain. We said a big thank you to the farmer and headed back down to the Mekong. The route that had taken us several hours to climb up now took only an hour in descent. At the windy bridge we managed to find a shack to eat noodles, and we took a minibus along the last part of the route up to Deqin. It was a scary ride, along a narrow road that rose higher and higher above the river, and which had precipitous drop offs and some very scary tight corners.
Deqin was a scrappy town of ugly Chinese concrete buildings, wedged in the mountains. In Rock’s time it was known as Atuntze, and it comprised just a few stone and mud buildings and a small market place (“where people from the northern steppes bartered merchandise with the Chinese”). Rock says little about it in his article except that it was still “essentially a Tibetan town”, despite being annexed by the Chinese into Yunnan in 1703.
It was at the Fei Lai Si monastery just outside Deqin that we got a glimpse of the “peerless peak” of Miyetzimu (Meili) that Rock described so rapturously as “the most glorious peak my eyes were ever privileged to see. No wonder Tibetans stand in awe and worship it. It is like a castle of a dream, an ice palace of a fairy tale, or an enormous mausoleum with gigantic steps and buttresses all crowned by a majestic dome of ice tapering into an ethereal spire merging into a pale blue sky.”
By 2002 the viewing area for the mountain had become a tourist trap, with hawkers selling joss sticks and other offerings to be made at one of the many shrines. The tourist route also included a visit to the Minyong glacier that lies beneath Meili Xue Shan.
Instead, we opted to travel the same route back down into the depths of the Mekong canyon, but turned left at the river to visit the hamlet of Yubeng. At the junction of the road near the Mekong we stopped at a small Buddhist chapel, called the ‘Jungle Temple’. Inside, there were effigies of Buddhist deities, but also evidence to confirm Rock’s observation that the local people also worship the mountain itself as a deity.
The route to Yubeng branched off south above the western bank of the Mekong. Once again, the road was a nightmare for anyone with a fear of heights, as it was basically a ledge hacked out of the steep side of the canyon, high above the river.
We stayed a night at some hot springs above Xidang before walking over to the Tibetan mountain hamlet of lower Yubeng, where we spent three frustrating days waiting in a wooden shack for the weather to clear. It didn’t. It rained incessantly and fog blocked out any views of the surrounding mountains. We had little to do except sit round a fire that gave off little heat and hope tomorrow would bring better weather. We tried playing snooker on the outdoor table under a dripping plastic sheet.  I dubbed myself the pot black champion of the Mekong.
When the third morning dawned grey and wet, we tried to beat the encroaching cabin fever by hiking through the deep snow to see a sacred waterfall and a ‘magic lake’. It proved to be a miserable hard slog with slushy boots and we saw very little. Yubeng didn’t feel like Shangri La.
We spent a final night down in Xidang and went to a Tibetan ‘disco’ in the village hall, situated right underneath our guesthouse room. It started off with traditional Tibetan music but later switched to western dance tracks. Young glassy-eyed Tibetan guys hung around on the sidelines of the dance floor and leered at their rivals. A few scuffles broke out and we retired to our room. It was impossible to sleep because the music thumped on into the early hours.
When it got to 3am and with no sign that the music would stop, I made the mistake of thinking that I could forgo sleep and make an early start on the road back to Deqin.
My sleep-deprived brain reasoned that I could walk down the track to the main road in a couple of hours and hitch a ride on an early truck or bus heading back to Deqin. However, after about twenty minutes walking down on the road I realised with horror that Tibetan villagers let their guard dogs out to roam at night. Pursued by snarling mastiffs, I ran into a deserted shack and spent the remaining the hours of darkness cowering within, clutching my backpack in front of me as a last line of defence. It was an inauspicious end to my trip, and it would be five years before I returned to further explore the ‘river trenches of Asia’.

No comments: