It would take another ten years before I achieved my goal of crossing the Doker La. I returned to Deqin in 2012, this time with my two teenage sons in tow, to attempt the outer kora pilgrimage circuit of the Kawa Karpo (Meili Xueshan) mountains. This would follow Rock’s route over the Doker La to the Salween valley and the return to the Mekong valley by the more northerly pass, the Sho La that Rock later used. However, it would not cover the southerly pass – the Si La – that Rock had first used to cross from Cizhong to the missionary settlements of Baihanluo and Dimaluo in the Salween valley.
In the intervening decade I made two forays into the Nu Jiang (Salween) valley travelling by bus and jeep, to explore the settlements and mission stations that Rock had described in his “Great River Trenches of Asia” article.
The first of these was a trip made with my then nine-year-old son Paul in December 2007. It didn’t feel like we were starting out on an epic adventure because the area now seemed very much modernised and on the tourist trail. The night before our departure from Dali in the week before Christmas, we were tucking into beef curry and rice while watching Braveheart at a backpacker café. In the winter off-season 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 now felt like a quaint suburb of the modern town of Xiaguan, and the next morning we sat amid commuting workers on a local bus, watching repetitive ads for shampoo and soft drinks on the bus’s TV screens. It all felt very mundane, and we didn’t feel like we were setting off on a visit to a remote corner of the world.
This feeling persisted when we boarded a “Business Class” coach at Xiaguan bus station and spotted a couple of young American kids among the fellow passengers. 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 route of the old Burma Road. I hadn’t realised how high in altitude Dali was (2200m) until we continued this descent for what seemed like hour after hour. The views over epic green hills stretching to the horizon, dotted with picturesque Yunnan farms were 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 film 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 universal motorway signs for snacks, petrol and toilets that 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 line, I thought. Whoops, spoke too soon. About 30km further on, in the middle of nowhere, we were brought to a halt at the end of a long traffic jam of trucks and cars. The coach pulled up 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 guessed (wrongly as it turned out) that the gridlock was caused by the province-wide fuel shortage, and I continued to walk on up the road for more than a kilometre, despairing that we would get anywhere before the day was out. 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 in the opposite direction.
Then, just as I reached the start of the traffic jam at a tunnel entrance, a police car that was blocking the road pulled away and waved the first trucks onwards and through.
With visions of my nine-year old being whisked away unaccompanied from me on the bus I started to race back to our coach, wondering if I could remember where it was. I made it back to the bus, absolutely knackered, just in time as it was moving off, 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 wearing flak jackets boarded the bus and took away our passports for a while. Fortunately, they were soon returned and we continued the last few km into Liuku.
Liuku was a chaotic sort of city with a lazy sub-topical feel, spread along the banks of the wide Nujiang river. As we disembarked, we found we had to take a taxi over the river to the west bus station, from where minibuses departed for destinations upriver.
At this smaller bus station a friendly woman pointed us to the ticket office, where lo-and-behold the American kids were already buying their tickets. We got chatting to them and learned that they were not missionaries, but the children of a UN agricultural advisor based in the valley. 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 the rest of the afternoon, evening and into the night. 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 blend of messy half-finished construction and crude exploitation of natural resources that you see everywhere else in China. There were tractors, and road workers doing the usual backbreaking work, and everywhere activity and noise – this was no serene forgotten valley of Shangri-La.
A few Lisu women wore traditional brightly-coloured headscarves and ‘ethnic’ hilltribe-style shoulder-bags, many of them hauling loads of bushes using a headband to take the weight. Some of the younger Lisu women had sensuous, Indo-Burmese good looks – reminding me a bit 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 attendant 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 disembarking apparently in the middle of nowhere and continued on to the major town of Fugong, which we had expected to be a pleasant ethnic mountain village. Instead, it was dark and clamourous, rough around the edges and not particularly clean or attractive. My main impression of Fugong was a few dark streets 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 could find, opposite the bus station. This was a grim concrete corridor palace, feeling more like a prison than a hotel. Our 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 felt better, and we explored what little more there was of this dismal dark town. I managed to persuade the restaurant owner to cook us up some fried rice with egg and 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.
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 (‘Electric Company Guesthouse’). This place turned out to be right opposite our fleapit hotel, so we quickly switched establishments after I saw how palatial the Dianli was in comparison to our concrete bunker. And so, after this long first day in the Nujiang we settled down on comfy soft beds to fall into an exhausted sleep after watching the Beijing Symphony Orchestra play a Dvorak concerto on the hotel room TV. In a way it was rather akin to Joseph Rock listening to Caruso on his gramophone
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 snack place on the main street. A minivan with a sign for 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. 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 kilometres away over the crest of these green hills. We passed the famous Stone Moon Hill (Shi Yueliang) – a high razorback arch of rock with a circle-shaped hole in the rock.
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”.
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.
There were quite a few timber logging yards along the route, presumably processing what little is left of the forests of Burma over the other side of the high ridge. And looking up there, I had to admire the engineers who had somehow installed 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?
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 concrete town was how small and inconsequential it seemed - but at least the people were 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 dismal end-of-the-line town, I decided to press on to Bingzhongluo, where my Chinese guidebook said there was another “fine hotel” – it surely can’t be any worse than Gongshan, I thought.
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 Bingzhongluo was just yet another ugly Chinese frontier town. It was a one street dump 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.
Anyway, we’d made it to the end of the road, literally. Bingzhongluo is where the south-to-north road trailing up the Nu river valley comes to an end. And it ends in spectacularly ignominious style by just petering out into a bit of gravel and muck at the top of the main street.
The town itself was not much to write home about. There wasn’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 … and a crude outdoor market with flyblown slabs of raw pig and cow meat for sale most of it 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 very centre of town, there was the Yudong Hotel.
We decamped from the minibus and entered the lobby of this nearly-new establishment to find it completely deserted. We could have made off with the crossbows and other ethnic knick-knacks on display in cases in the lobby. Instead, we asked around and eventually a woman arrived and checked us in to a surprisingly plush room where we felt dump guilty for dumping all our dirty gear on the nice bed.
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 American Idol. Across the road next to 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 tendencies and 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, just across the border in Tibet, or over to the Dulong river valley “because I have friends in the army and they will give me face,” he said.
He sat us down and invited us to chat with some other Chinese outdoors-y types, all geared up in the usual array of spanking-new fake North Face kit. His wife, a homely, no-nonsense woman gave us a bowl of walnuts and my son 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 instead gave me the hard sell on why I should hire one of his Jeeps and go to Chawalong.
Getting tired of his assertive attitude, I got up to head off for a wander round town. Ma Huang invited me to return 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). It felt weird to be uploading digital pictures of this remote place straight up onto Facebook and Flickr for friends in Australia and England to see just a few moments after taking them.
I also noted that the local authorities 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 tacky souvenirs such as crossbows and Lisu costumes – though I was the only potential customer.
Looking back to Bingzhongluo, it looked like a picturesque alpine resort from a distance, with the snowy peaks in the background – quite different from the grimy reality when seen close up!
Back in the village, I narrowly escaped having to spend the evening at a ‘banquet’ with the big ego of Ma Huang, making an excuse about my son Paul feeling unwell, and instead we went off to get some simple fried rice instead. We slept soundly that night, after sitting in bed watching an Eric Clapton concert on Chinese TV.
The next day, Saturday 22nd Dec, I woke early while it was still dark, wondering why the local kids were chanting songs and slogans in the schoolrooms opposite our hotel at 7am in the morning. It was cold and foggy outside and I made the mistake of having jiaozi for breakfast from a shabby hole-in-the-wall eatery. It wasn’t long before I was gripping my stomach and experiencing the worst cramps and bellyache I could imagine – periods of calm and thoughts of “Oh, thank goodness, 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 nibbling only a couple of wafer biscuits for lunch, while Paul played in the internet café.
I took him down the hill to see the big white Catholic church. On our way down a track through the fields to the river we passed the filthy wooden houses of the local Lisu people. In the village of Chongding we found the church compound locked up 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 whitewashed church with delicate and ornate painted features. Inside it was just a regular church with microphone, Stations of the Cross, and a rope dangling down from the tower to ring the bell.
In the yard, with the mountain peaks as a backdrop was the single lonely grave, the final resting place of Swiss missionary, Pere Annet Genestier.
I only had time for a cursory look around as Madame Ding was muttering impatiently about having to get back to whatever she was doing. By the time I’d taken a few snaps of the lonely grave of Pere Annet Genestier in the yard she was ushering us out of the gate.
When I asked her when the Christmas celebration was she snapped: “Midnight on the 24th!” and kicked us out. I wasn’t expecting cucumber sandwiches but her Christian hospitality left a bit to be desired.
To add to our Bingzhongluo woes, later that afternoon we encountered an irate Ma Huang on the main street. He was evidently not happy because I had snubbed his dinner invitation from the night before and also because I had pulled out of a trip to Qiunatong that he claimed I had committed to. I sensed it was a bluff and emotional blackmail, and replied testily that I’d been very sick and I’d also had to care for my son. Ma Huang backed off somewhat and again invited us for dinner. This time I accepted.
This evening banquet with some Chinese trekkers and a few shady local characters – soldiers? comprised a lot of local vegetables, fatty pork and beans 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. Why not? It would be the highlight of the trip so far, and at the asking price of about 1200 kuai seemed good value.
And so to bed, to get ready for our big trip to Tibet.
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.
I managed to get a bit more kip and then stirred 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 assigned driver “Tony” was from Kunming and he waited for us as 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 road crews were 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 upstream we crossed the river by a new bridge next to an abandoned 1950s era suspension bridge and passed a few Lisu hamlets of log cabins on flats.
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 an 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 that were leaving Yunnan and entering the Tibetan Autonomous Region. 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 the first Tibetan village of Longpu, where the style of houses was typically solid and robust Tibetan, built like small stone forts. Quite a contrast to the dark and rickety wooden log cabins of the Nu and Lisu a few miles to the south. The landscape was becoming noticeably more arid, the hills apparently steeper and denuded of vegetation, and the sky seemed 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 the car and the drop-off over the edge was all too frequently a sheer vertical drop straight down into the river. The gravel and mud 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 panicky plan to leap out of the door should we come off the road would not be possible. I was terrified. The condition of the road just got worse and worse, and one of the worst things about it was that I could see the scary sections coming up in advance – in fact, many of them looked much more precarious and insanely dangerous 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: “D-a-a-a-d – 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 edge of the seat tightly and just closed my eyes and dare not to look or breathe. I didn’t even dare think about 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 it appeared to be little more than shored-up gravel tamped tightly together and held in place against the cliff by just a few stakes of rotting wood.
And every few minutes, just when I though we were over the worst bit, an even more precarious section would present itself. Needless to say I didn’t have much inclination to appreciate the fine views or the changing scenery.
When I did look around it became obvious that 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 barren of almost all forms of life – including vegetation. According to our driver, in these parts it might only rain for two or three days in a year.
Paul had by now nodded off and I cradled him on my lap as we crossed more dangerous sections of ledge-road, until we eventually pulled up below a large white chalky landslip.
Until now, the driver had appeared unfazed by the state of the road. Now he got out and paced up and down, squinting up at the landslip and muttering to himself about whether it would be safe to cross beneath a buttressed wall that held back a huge mass of rocks and stones. The landslide was obviously still a work in progress, and it took the driver 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 was a picturesque cluster of traditional stone Tibetan buildings clinging to the hillside, with a more modern Chinese-style one street strip of sleazy and run down concrete buildings, tatty shop-fronts and a few official buildings.
And it was here that we pulled up, along an old cattle track, with instructions for me and Paul to get our heads down and 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 from 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 gawped at us before we reached the doorway and entered the dark interior of the Tibetan household. We had arrived in Chawalong – Rock’s “Tsarung”.
Inside the dark house, we climbed up some rough wooden steps past a nasty looking dog tethered amid 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 granddad 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 body-sculpted young Chinese men strolled across stage in just their boxer shorts, holding 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 our driver, Tony. I asked one of the men round the table what dialect of Tibetan he 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 friendly relations with the Tibetans compared to the “rat race” of lowland Sichuan.
I also asked about the safety of the road we had just come up, expecting some reassurance, but to my dismay a local Tibetan man agreed that it was extremely dangerous. He said it was not an official road and therefore the local government did not maintain it. 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.
Meanwhile, 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 from 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 chillis dish.
I’d presumed that we’d be laying low and staying at this Tibetan house that night to keep out of sight of the authorities, but at around 9.30-ish our driver suddenly announced that we were leaving. To my surprise he led us through the middle of Chawalong in the dark, to a rickety wooden guesthouse on the main street built from planks of what seemed like plywood.
On the way I broached the subject of my being nervous about the road trip back tomorrow, and the driver seemed surprised and hurt when I suggested there were some sections I might prefer to walk. He made a curt reply about how I should be 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 Euro-disco 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 Graham Greene novel, The Power and the Glory, and 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 might I even get back by going north, further into Tibet and then doing a dog-leg 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?
The return trip: Chawalong-Bingzhongluo
We didn’t hang around long in Chawalong on the morning of Christmas Eve. 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.
I found that 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 that I couldn’t see down the huge drops to the river. And on the scary bits I stuck my eye in the viewfinder of the video camera and found that I wasn’t as 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 blurted out that I wanted to get out and film our Jeep going over that section, and the driver reluctantly agreed – saying he would wait a few hundred metres beyond to pick me up.
Back in the car, the worst behind us, we continued down the Nujiang. We passed bridges and cables over the river 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 as we got underway again, I’d 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 was expecting 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.
Then abruptly the engine of the Jeep coughed and died and we rolled to a halt in the middle of nowhere. The driver 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 completely dead the driver announced 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? We were stuck in a canyon on the edge of Tibet on Christmas Eve, with no prospect of getting out.
The driver remained calm and simply said that he would walk back to the nearest settlement a few kilometres up the road and phone 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, Paul and I clambered down the 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 on the grey sandy ‘beach’, throwing stones in the river, the driver returned with bad news. There was no phone down at the shack he’d walked to, and the sole inhabitant – a woman - said there were no other phones in other nearby settlements within walking distance. We would just have to wait for a passing car to come through and try flag it down to lend us the few litres of petrol said the driver. Either that or get them to pass on a message to Ma Huang back in Bingzhongluo. But not to worry, he said, Ma Huang would act swiftly once he noticed we weren’t back by the expected time of 4pm, and he would come up here to pick us up.
I believed these confident assurances and just settled in to watch over Paul, who was playing by the river bank making sandcastles on the sandbar ‘beach’. An hour past, and at 4.30pm I still optimistically believed we’d be back in Bingzhongluo before dark.
I mooched down to the shack a few hundred yards 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 I thought Paul had broken his leg. He was engaging in his usual daredevil climbing/exploring antics and I heard those dreaded words: “Dad - Look at me!” He had climbed up a tree hanging over the river, and right on cue he fell, hitting his knee badly on a rock below. Paul was ominously quiet but after an anxious few minutes it didn’t appear there was any serious damage. I felt a mixture of worry and frustrated anger with him, and tried to explain to him that if he broke a leg here we’d be absolutely stuffed, as it two days walk from even the most basic first aid facilities. He sat up, chastened, and kept out of trouble after that.
Another hour went by and I began to have my doubts about us getting out of the canyon. It would soon be dark and we had seen no other traffic. The driver suggested we move our stuff from the Jeep down to the shack, and as we were doing this a truck came up from Bingzhongluo. The feeling of excitement and relief was soon quashed when the truck driver said he only had diesel fuel, not petrol, and this was of no use to us. He drove off in the direction of Chawalong, leaving us downhearted.
And so 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 would have been angry and frustrated by such a last minute foul-up and avoidable delay to my journey, but on this occasion I really didn’t care. I was in such high spirits for having “survived” those sections of dangerous road earlier in the day that I was euphoric and just felt thankful to be alive.
And thus it was in this primitive shack that we spent our Christmas. Rather like the Baby Jesus, away in a manger, no crib for a bed. As it got dark I realised there was no hope of getting out of this remote place before tomorrow, and with a heavy heart 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 showed us the routine, practical hospitality that is typical of rural China. She had a big cauldron of water heating up on the fire and cooked us some noodles to which our driver added some 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 belonging to two 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 roof of the pig sty.
After that, Paul and I 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’. This turned out to be an icy cold adjoining shed containing just a bare iron bedstead on which had been lain three planks, a blanket and a dirty duvet. That was all the bedding available for all of us. Our driver offered the room to us, and said he would stay sitting by the fire in the shack and try snooze there.
I pulled out the few other items of clothing that I had in my bag and tried to adopt them as extra bedding material. Paul and I arranged ourselves on the planks, 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 tethered just outside our door –I had to skip smartly away from its snapping jaws every time I entered or left the room. It was bitterly cold that night but surprisingly I did manage to grab a bit of sleep, although it wasn’t easy or comfortable, what with the hard planks digging in my back and Paul rolling over and taking the duvet with him.
In the early hours I jumped up awake when I heard the startling sound of a vehicle engine approaching and the blaring of a horn nearby. I quickly but groggily dragged myself out of bed, and feeling vulnerable and scared, emerged from the shed into the freezing dark night (remembering to dodge the dog). A Tibetan guy appeared from out of the dark and asked where the ‘boss’ was. It was a muddled conversation and I wasn’t sure if he was our breakdown rescue or whether he was just a passing driver looking for a bed for the night.
Our Jeep driver soon emerged, looking red eyed and absolutely worn out from his smoky fireside stool vigil. After a chat with the Tibetan guy, he explained that this guy had been sent up here to look for us but had no petrol. Therefore, our driver would return with the Tibetan in his truck down to Bingzhongluo and bring a recovery vehicle the next morning. Given the late hour and the hazards of truck travel on the road at night our driver advised us that we’d be better off going back to bed and waiting a few more hours.
And so that’s what we 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. The stars in the night sky had looked down where we lay. It would have been nice to be asleep on the hay, but we had to make do with planks instead. Hay was a luxury we could only dream of. There’d been no room at the inn for us travellers, and so we 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 Pepsi long past its sell-by date, from the woman’s meagre store.
As we waited that morning for help to arrive the woman told us that she helped supply and maintain the local river monitoring station – it was only a very small affair, measuring river levels. She ran a little store selling noodles and cigarettes to make a few cents from the occasional passing truck or itinerant workmen passing through. She grew her own vegetables and her two boys 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 started to think I could hear the shifting gears of a truck and would rush out on to the road only to realise it was the grunting of the pigs in the sty next door.
As the day wore on 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 went 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. I was now starting to suspect we had been abandoned – and I was beginning to curse under my breath. What the **** was the driver doing? Was he just going to leave us here for another night? Had he given up on his 1000 kuai fee? Or had they perhaps had an accident in the truck while driving at night?
I was full of doubts by now and set myself a 2pm deadline for action. If nobody had arrived by then I would take Paul and set off to walk the 18km south down to the nearest little settlement of Didadang. The woman told us there was a basic guesthouse there, and we could walk it in about four or five hours, she claimed – but she had never walked with a dawdling eight year old.
I took yet another bushwalk 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. As I set off to return to the shack I had made my mind up to pack all my kit and walk us both out of there.
However, on arriving back at the shack I was delighted to see a minivan – and then another jeep parked outside. Help had arrived at last! Almost 24 hours after we had first run out of petrol, we were finally being rescued.
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 started. 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 woman, 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, complete strangers.
The minivan was rude shock after the spacious, tough and well-sprung Jeep. It jolted us around and swerved dangerously near the edge of the track as its puny engine screamed and whined to drag us yard by yard back down the Nu river valley towards Bingzhongluo. I wasn’t complaining though – it was getting us out of there.
And so it was we finally hauled ourselves up out of the river valley from the huge sheer-sided Shi Men Guan (“Rock Gate”) up to Bingzhongluo. We passed the Catholic church at Chongding where on Christmas Day 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 as they finished off their celebrations, but I was just too physically and mentally exhausted. Instead, I stayed in the van, rode the extra mile 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.
After three days of terror, uncertainty and monotony it did feel good to be alive and back in the real world...
Return to the Nu river, 2008
The next year I made a return trip to the Nujiang to try take more pictures of places that I’d missed on our sojourn from Bingzhongluo to Chawalong.
Just 12 months on, the Nujiang was visibly gearing up for tourism. In my hotel room in Fugong the television had a local channel airing a tourist style programme showing the delights of the Nujiang, making out the locals were all one big happy family - “Nujiang Huanying Nin!” (Nu River Welcomes You). The programme even featured Ding Da Ma, the grumpy old caretaker woman of the Chongding church at Bingzhongluo. It made her seem welcoming and her rickety guesthouse look quite flash, even claiming to have internet access for guests.
The reality, as I discovered when I arrived in Bingzhongluo the following day, was that the place was still a dump and a backwater, albeit with great scenery. A trip to some remote place like the Nujiang always sounds like a great adventure when you’re sat at home reading a book or blog about the place. The writer, of course, always leaves out the dull bits or glosses over them. But one of the biggest problems I found on my trips was the sheer boredom and loneliness of being on my own in a small one-street town like Bingzhongluo.
There’s only so many times you can wander up and down the main street looking at market stalls selling strange foodstuffs. And the evenings are the worst – the long hours before bedtime seeming endless and impossible to fill. You flick through the same old channels of Chinese TV and try to read books – but worry about finishing them off too quickly and being left with no reading material for the second week. (Thank goodness for the Kindle!) . At times like this I used to wonder how Joseph Rock occupied his time while travelling alone for months at a time in the wilderness. He took along his gramophone and Caruso records – and he evidently spent a lot of time writing letters – but what else did he do to amuse and occupy himself for those long evenings on the trail?
In Bingzhongluo I noticed that the bar run by tour guide Ma Huang (the so-called ‘National Park Information Centre’) was still there, but I avoided the place. Rather than take one of his jeeps this time I planned to walk up the Nujiang to a village that Rock mentioned as ‘Tjonatong’, now known as Qiunatong.
Glad to be leaving the charmless bleak concrete of Bingzhongluo, I set off down the track to the Nu river in good spirits, whistling Wish Me Luck as You Wave Me Goodbye. Down the hill I passed the Chongding Catholic church again but did not linger. The place was a hive of construction and renovation, noisy with the sounds of pneumatic drills and tractors – once again, not the Shangri La idyll.
I plodded on, walking through the huge granite or limestone gorge of Shi Men Guan with the road to myself. It was a pleasant walk along the Nu river and I passed through one village (Nidadang), which had its own small Catholic church and a nice friendly old woman caretaker. At midday I had stopped to eat my lunch of crackers, pistachios and an apple by the river, and then had a long haul up a gravel track from the main road up to the wooden log cabins of Qiunatong.
Joseph Rock makes only a passing mention of Qiunatong in his account of his travels to the ‘Salwin’ in the August 1926 issue of the National Geographic journal (‘Through the great river trenches of Asia’).
After crossing over the Sela pass from the Mekong valley and spending time at the ‘last outpost of Christianity’ - the French Catholic mission station/church at Bahang (Baihanluo) - he describes his encounters with the French missionaries there.
He mentions ‘the intrepid Father Genestier’ who lived at Tjonatong and who had previously been driven out of the village on two occasions by murderous Tibetan lamas. The Tibetans were opposed to the incursion of westerners - and especially missionaries -into the forbidden Buddhist/Lama-ist country. (Bear in mind that Tibet had just been invaded by a British-Indian force lead by Colonel Younghusband in 1904 and hundreds of Tibetans had been slaughtered by British Maxim guns).
Pere Genestier had managed to avoid the fate of other priests in the Nujiang and Mekong valleys, who had been captured and decapitated in 1905 and had their heads displayed on sticks of the town walls at Atuntze (Deqin). Genestier fled south into Lisu territory, which came under Chinese jurisdiction.
The location of Qiunatong is one of the key reasons why it became a focus for Catholic missionary activity. Located just a few miles south of the border with Tibet, Qiunatong was the nearest place to Tibet that the missionaries could set up shop under the protection of the then Qing Chinese government.
In response to the murders of the priests by the Tibetans in 1905, Genestier headed south and eventually arrived in Kunming - then known as Yunnan-fu, where he saw the French consul. The French consul made loud complaints and demanded action from the Chinese authorities, who obliged by sending a force of Chinese soldiers to modern day Bingzhongluo (then known as Champutong), where they razed the Tibetan Buddhist monastery to the ground and granted the Catholics some land further south at Baihanluo to build another church.
So a kind of uneasy truce was made between Tibetan Lamaists and French Catholics in the Tibetan-Yunnan border area. And this is where Genestier spent the rest of his life - among the Nu and Lisu people of the Salween (Nu) river canyon.
And so despite his much repeated claims to be ‘the first white man’ in the area, it is evident that Joseph Rock was following in the footsteps of western missionaries and plant hunters in the Nujiang/Salween canyon. Here’s what the German botanist Heinrich Handel-Mazzetti said of the Nu people he encountered around the mission stations of Baihanluo in 1917:
“The Nu do not practice alpine cattle farming: hence the well preserved state of their forests and the tracklessness of their mountains. They are a Burmese people and according to their handed-down traditions they migrated from the Drong Jiang. Most of them are short and somewhat unprepossessing in appearance, but absolutely honest. They are at a very low level of civilisation. They have no writing and their language is extremely poor in its vocabulary, being without any means of expressing abstract ideas; for example, they had no word for “colour”. They do not lock up their houses when they go out, they leave their few cattle unattended on die pastures, they wash as seldom as the other peoples living in these parts, and they are very easily converted to Christianity.”
My visit to Qiunatong began when I walked up a rough track from the Nu river towards the collection of log cabins. I followed behind a tractor that was carrying three guys who had been collecting firewood, as it was put-putting at the same speed as I was walking up the long incline. I passed a few houses and got barked at by a few dogs, but didn’t see any sign of the small village with a guesthouse and shops that I had been expecting.
Then suddenly I emerged into a small concrete square amid the houses, and there in front of me was the Qiunatong Catholic church. Not much to look at: mostly constructed of unpainted dark wood - it had a small cross on top and looked rather grim. There were a couple of locals loafing around on the steps in front of the church, but nobody paid me much notice. I took my heavy pack off my shoulders and found that an old lady hanging round by the door was the keeper of the church key - and she opened the place up to me. I was granted a few minutes to view the dark red-painted wooden interior and the simple kneeling pews and religious icons. Then I was asked to cough up a 10 kuai fee by the old lady before she shut up shop.
As I was leaving I read the various official ‘parish notices’ posted on the front door. One was asking the parishioners to respect and support the 2008 Olympics, and another listed financial contributions made by outsiders to the church restoration fund. It seemed the church had supporters in Spain, Hong Kong, Sweden and Beijing: 3000 yuan here, 20,000 yuan there. In contrast, another notice listed the contributions from Qiunatong villagers for the relief of the sick fund - 5 kuai here, 8 kuai there.
Most of the day’s activity in the village seemed to be focused around the construction of an extension to one of the buildings. About 20 villagers - seemingly more women than men - were hard at work, digging up gravel and using it to mix concrete and spread it on the floor. They carried their loads supported by straps round their foreheads and seemed cheerful enough, inviting me to join in and have a go. But I was exhausted from my long haul up the hill and was also frustrated that there was no store open in the village - the ‘xiaomaibu’ pointed out to me remained firmly boarded up despite my polite requests to buy some water or drink.
I eventually found my way to the village ‘lodge’ - which was a house like any of the others. A young girl led me there across a vegetable patch and I found the interior was similar to all other Tibetan houses I’ve ever stayed in - the spacious dark room with little furniture and with life centred around the fire. I was offered butter tea and was introduced to another guest from the outside world - a Chinese guy from Hunan province. He almost immediately started quizzing me about my travels and knowledge of China, and then got on to politics. He was a fervent nationalist, asking me why America wanted to control China and other such questions. More Chinese tourists then piled in to the house – they were the new breed of Chinese backpacker types, all kitted out with the latest outdoor gear and walking poles, and all very noisy.
I went out to have a look around the village - climbing up a track and crossing over to the other side of the valley, where I found the Qiunatong graveyard. There were some simple Chinese-style graves but topped off with crosses. There were also a few very primitive graves, some basically just a heap of stones, and the ones where a child had been buried next to adults were very poignant.
Back at the lodge there were quite a number of Chinese trekkers in residence. The local family cooked me a dinner of egg fried rice and, thankfully, some decent tasting and very filling momo bread, which was rather like a chapati. I was sat near the window, next to the head of the household - an older man in his late fifties or early sixties. He sat by the fire all evening, drinking corn liquor (shuijiu) slurring his words and telling us about the place. I couldn’t make out much of what he was saying, but then neither could the Chinese from Beijing. At one point he was sounding off about the logging in the area - but whether he was angry about the logging by outsiders or the recent logging bans, it wasn’t clear.
He told about how he had been in the army and had been involved in the liberation of the area. And yet at the same time he said that outsiders didn’t understand the Nu and their ways. This became apparent when even more Han Chinese tourists tramped into the house in their high tech trekking gear. They looked around, sniffed with disapproval and announced in loud voices that they were going to see the village chief to find them somewhere better to stay. The old man exploded, cursing them for being so insensitive and for their assuming that the village head (‘Cunzhang’) would be better than him. He lectured the new arrivals that the Nu people all considered themselves equals, shared everything and helped each other.
When the tourists sheepishly departed, he turned to us and started to tell us about how they village people had resisted the Han during the Cultural Revolution. When the Party cadres from Gongshan came to close down the Qiunatong church, the man said he was one of many villagers who told them that Christianity was in the hearts of all the Nu in the village and that they could not bear the closing of the church.
The guy kept offering me some of the snot-coloured corn liquor and I drank a few sips but it tasted of nothing much and seemed to have no alcoholic effect on me. Which was a pity as I could have used some Dutch courage to get me through the obligatory sing song - when it was my turn I did something Christmassy: “O Come All Ye Faithful”, I think.
The Chinese tourists talked among themselves - a continual game of stating-the-bleeding-obvious and also a lot of one-upmanship/bragging about where they had all been - mostly based around trips up to Chawalong.
At around nine we all went over to see the dancing and singing in the village hall. It looked like good fun: Tibetan-style dancing, arms-over-shoulders in a circle, a bit like the hokey-cokey, but with Tibetan lyrics - and the men and women staying in their own single sex groups to sing set pieces/challenges to each other. Nu girls hovered about the sidelines with kettles full of shuijiu to top up the dirty cups of all the drinkers.
I was accosted by a drunk local guy who informed me that we were now friends and told me that the Nu considered themselves different - “We like to enjoy ourselves!’ he told me. “We are Nu. We are honest. We like to have fun ...!”
Dimaluo and Baihanluo
Joseph Rock makes only a passing mention of Dimaluo (“Doyonglongba”) in his articles on the “Great River Trenches” region, when he passed through on his way from the nearby Baihanluo (or Peihanluo as he called it) mission station. Nevertheless, it was one of the highlights of my second trip to the Nujiang, mainly because of the amazing hospitality of the gentle Aluo. He is an ethnic Tibetan Catholic who lives in the village and runs a kind of eco-trekking lodge. I’d heard about him from tourist guidebooks and wasn’t expecting much (after my experiences with the egotistical and slightly dodgy tour guides in this area) - but I was pleasantly surprised.
I travelled there with an Australian backpacker I’d met in Bingzhongluo. On Christmas Eve, Wednesday the 24th of December 2008, we took a minibus 20 kilometres down the road from Bingzhongluo, alighting a bridge over the Nujiang at Pengdang. Before walking up a side valley to Dimaluo we had a wonderful lunch at a roadside restaurant where a few locals were sat out in the weak winter sun, playing cards and shooting the breeze.
One thing I love about travelling in this part of China is the simplicity of the eating places - you simply go in and point to whatever vegetables and meat they have on the shelves or in the fridge and tell them what you want and how you’d like it cooked. On this day, we ordered some fresh stir-fried peas, egg and courgettes, washed down with many refills of Chinese tea.
To get to Dimaluo we crossed the Nujiang over a metal suspension bridge and started walking up a side valley that pointed north. However, instead of the expected tranquil bywater, a long section road was in the process of being upgraded with heavy machinery and manual labour - diggers and dynamite. There were regular crumps and thuds, and we worried about being blasted to smithereens by the work gangs. We had to climb up and around huge mounds of clay and awkward fields of massive boulders that had been dislodged by the blasting.
So it wasn’t exactly a pleasant stroll for the couple of hours or so that it took us to walk up the valley until the track petered out at the sheer wall of a stone dam. Luckily there were some steps cut into the steep dam face and after a bit of wobbling and faffing around getting over the windswept wall at the top, we found ourselves looking over into the unfilled dam catchment - and beyond it, the picturesque village of Dimaluo.
It was a relief to leave the squalid road works and labourers’ huts behind us and we entered the village of Dimaluo to be welcomed by the ubiquitous barking dogs. As everywhere else in the Nujiang, the local people we met were all very friendly. They were mostly Nu but with some Tibetans.
After the rustic charms of Qiunatong, Dimaluo seemed like a major metropolis. It had a concrete square, a couple of shops, and several brick and concrete buildings, in addition to the usual wooden log cabins. We were pointed in the direction of Aluo‘s guesthouse, where we met the man himself outside, engaged in a bit of carpentry on some new window frames he was trying to fit. Dimaluo had an unhurried pace of life and he answered our first few questions without looking up, speaking in a gentle, slow voice as he pencilled in some marks on the wood and started sawing.
We dumped our bags in a large annexe to his house - a hall that was perfused with the ketonic aroma of fermenting corn. Hanging on the wall was the stuffed carcass of a pig stuffed pig, similar to the ones photographed by Joseph Rock. Around the village we admired the architecture of the Catholic church and chatted to some impish local kids.
That evening we had dinner with Aluo and his delightful family downstairs in the dark and gloomy living area. Dinner was a hotpot with large amounts of cauliflower and other locally grown vegetables in it. What took me by surprise was the sudden declaration by Aluo that we should say Grace before Meals – “Bless Us O Lord for What We Are About To Receive etc ...” something I hadn’t done since my Catholic school days. The other surprise was meeting two fellow residents - a couple of young Chinese American women. One of them was from the US west coast, working in Shanghai in public relations and was taking a Christmas break.
The other girl had already spent a few weeks in the Nujiang region, and was doing some kind of academic research into water usage. She told me that the dams on the Nujiang had officially been put on hold by the central government in Beijing, but the provincial government was quietly going ahead with them anyway. And it wasn’t for the local peoples’ benefit: the power was to be directed into the national grid, to be sold on to the energy-hungry eastern Chinese coastal provinces. Aluo told us that the road building work wasn’t just for the dam - there were plans to push it right over the Gaoligong mountain divide to connect to the Mekong and thus end the Nujiang valley’s dead end status.
After dinner we sat around for a while, trying to drink the alcoholic corn liquor shuijiu, and seeing some more of Aluo’s extended family, friends and neighbours dropping by for a singsong, a chat or to strum the guitar or surf the net on his computer. Even here you can’t escape the web!
Later on, I took off up to the church, where Alou told us there would be a midnight mass. And sure enough, even at 10pm the place was full, with women kneeling on the left hand ‘pews’ and men on the right. There was no priest and the service was conducted by a lay preacher. Under the yellow light of a few weak light bulbs the congregation sang hymns and chanted prayers in a Tibetan style. It sounded very similar to the kind of Buddhist religious chanting I’d heard in Tibetan monasteries - only this time it was peppered with words such as Yesu - and finished with ‘A-men’.
It was a very dark night and the stars came out overhead and it all felt very enchanting and Christmassy. As we returned, by torchlight, down the steep path that crossed the gully containing the stream, we passed Alou and his family clambering up on their way to the service. He was dressed in his Sunday best - a beautifully-coloured Tibetan-style pink cloak trimmed with fur.
The next morning, Christmas Day, I woke early, at sunrise and found myself alone in the house. I went downstairs into the sooty kitchen, where I sat by the fire trying to stoke it up by feeding in a few sticks and blowing the embers frantically to warm up some water for my Nescafe sachet. After about half an hour Alou’s kids suddenly appeared and showed me how it should be done. They brought in a huge pile of sticks and rammed them into the stove. Soon there was a roaring fire going, with plenty of water for my coffee.
They then were joined by Aluo and his beautiful wife, and as we sat around, the kids stripped some corn off the cob and fried this up to make popcorn. Then ‘Mrs Aluo’ mixed flour with milk and water to bake some delicious momo bread by the fire. And of course there was butter tea - prepared by Aluo’s son.
By 10am we were completely stuffed - and ready for the next stage of the trip - to go up to Baihanluo.
Bahang – the loveliest mission station
Joseph Rock came to Bahang by traversing over the 15,000 foot high Sila pass from Cizhong on the Mekong to the Salwin river [Nujiang], via a track built by Catholic missionaries.
Leaving most of his supplies behind he says he 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 Sila pass, he passed through deciduous forests of maples, with wild cherries and rhododendrons growing in the bush. And again there was that beard-like lichen covering the trees as is seen throughout much of Kham. The next day he crossed the Sila pass (yet again, in a snow storm) but not before seeing an overhanging triangular peak to the north.
From here his party descended into the Salwin valley and to an even more remote Christian missionary outpost known as Bahang, or Peihanlo in Chinese. He says a well-made trail had been constructed under the instruction of the French missionaries who manned “this most lonely and remote spot”.
First, though, Rock had to cross some subsidiary ridges and tributaries that flowed into the Salwin - the Sewalangba and Doyonlangba rivers, where they stayed in a mountain hut, which may well be the one, that trekkers still use when crossing this route.
On a bluff above the Doyonlongba (Dimaluo) river, Rock finally reached what he described as "the loveliest mission station of which I know" - Bahang. There, a young priest, Pere Andre, a veteran of the carnage of the First World War, lived in isolation, cut off from the outside world from November to May. Bahang was a collection of 18 huts and is still there in much the same form today’s Baihanluo, complete with its beautiful Catholic church, above Dimaluo in the Nu valley.
According to Rock the mission had twice been burnt to the ground by the Tibetan lamas of nearby Champutong (Bingzhongluo) monastery. The priest, Pere in residence at the time of Rock’s visit was Pere Genestier, the only survivor of a recent Tibetan massacre of Christian missionaries in the Salween canyon. Genestier had fled for his life down the valley to seek shelter among the Lisu. His Baihanluo colleague Father Dubernard, was not so lucky. He was killed and his head displayed on the gate of Atuntze (Deqin) lamasery.
In retaliation for this massacre of western missionaries and their converts, the Chinese burnt down the Tibetan monastery at Bingzhongluo. Sectarian strife was common in this little corner of Yunnan in the early 20th century.
On Christmas morning we set out from Dimaluo and walked up the river for a few kilometres before ascending the steep side of the valley. After a couple of hours of climbing we reached a scruffy village populated by rather ragged looking Nu and Tibetan people. The views over the valley were stupendous, and we could see other similar wooden hamlets dotted on the hillsides, each with a small white wooden church. With the blue sky and pleasant alpine backdrop it rather reminded me of Switzerland.
A local kid of about eight years of age who spoke good Chinese led us up the path to the Baihanluo church, where the locals were already enjoying a bit of Christmas cheer. In fact they were enjoying a lot of alcohol, in the form of the weak corn liquor that was dispensed from a large plastic barrel. Everyone seemed to be drinking – male and female, young and old.
The villagers were sat in groups around the basketball court in from the striking white church, chatting and laughing. We were welcomed and offered a drink, but we had no cups. Someone found us some dirty mugs and we held our drinks self-consciously as we ‘mingled’, chatting and taking photos.
It felt odd to be celebrating Christmas in the sun in a remote Christian corner of the Nujiang river valley, but it certainly felt like Christmas. The locals were friendly and unassuming, but also rather simple - if not primitive. We had a brief look around the church, which was under renovation. It seemed that the beautiful old murals and decorations were being touched up or even painted over, which seemed a shame.
From a distance, the white church looked quaint and graceful. Once inside, however, it was rickety and draughty. Built almost entirely from wood, it was spartan, dusty and the ill-fitting planks meant there were many gaps letting daylight in through the walls. There were just a few rows of simple planking seats and no other fancy trimmings. The altar, however, was decorated with all the trapping of Catholicism familiar to me from Christ the King church in Leeds. The stations of the cross, a tabernacle, the statues of Mary and Joseph, and even a home made nativity display, complete with little figures of the baby Jesus being visited by the Three Wise Men. It was all oddly reassuring and homely in this otherwise remote spot.
There was no priest in evidence, and the Baihanluo people said their service – like the one in Dimaluo – had been held the previous evening. We tried to find out more about the place but most people seemed out of it and more interested in getting sozzled and having a dance.
Their love of a drink was something that Rock had also noticed. The "Lutzu" people he encountered in the Salwin (Nujiang) valley he described as a poor lot who subsisted on corn, even using it to make liquor "of which they drink a great deal".
We hung around the Baihanluo church for most of the day, enjoying the dancing and holiday atmosphere and only reluctantly headed back down to the relative sophistication of Dimaluo. Before I left I climbed a bit higher above the village and managed to find the spot where Rock had taken his panoramic picture of Bahang and its church, with the hills in the background. It looked as if almost nothing had changed.
From Bahang, Rock had continued down to the river, where the inebriated locals ferried him and his helpers across the Salween river in dugout canoes. Continuing north, he arrived at the burnt-out monastery of Champutong [the present day Bingzhongluo], where only four monks remained to take care of what had once been a major temple.
The scenery here was now ‘tropical’, Rock had noted, in contrast to the cool uplands of the Mekong valley he had left a few days ago. The Salween river had carved out a "marble gorge" with walls that rose vertically for several thousand feet (this must be a reference to Shi Men Guan). The trails was a perilous shelf in places only as wide a man's hand, which meant tip toeing sideways along the canyon, facing the wall, while the river roared below.
The next day Rock climbed up to the western watershed between the Salween and the Irrawaddy (presumably he means the Drung or Dulong river) to photograph the 20,000 foot high Mt Kenyichunpo, which he claimed was only visible in October and November. It stood on the ridge that now border between China and Burma. Here Rock also encountered outposts of Lisu hunters, young boys who used arrows tipped with poison from the aconite root.
Across the divide he heard stories of a strange tribe, the Kjutzu, "a primitive harmless jungle people who the Chinese say live in trees like monkeys." This is presumably a reference to the Drung or Dulong people, who are short in stature, had facial tattoos and who live in houses raised off the ground. They were for many years a kind of lost tribe, until a road was put in over the divide to connect the Drung river and Nu valleys.
With winter encroaching, Rock then headed back towards the Mekong valley before the passes became snowed in. He returned down the narrow canyon to what is now the large town of Gongshan. Wit nobody about, he had to fire his pistol to attract attention to the locals across the river to bring their dugout canoes over to ferry him to the eastern bank.
On the return journey, instead of crossing via the Sila pass, he branched off after ascending though walnut and rhododendron forests to the Salwin-Mekong dividing range. He headed into a deep valley funnelling into a narrow gorge and village called Londjre. His guides refused to go there, saying there had been an outbreak of the plague. Rock did indeed find this hamlet deserted, but on account of a plague of lice that harboured ‘relapsing fever’. This tiny settlement, deep within a dark gorge and full of disease, must have been a chilling place.
Back on the banks of the Mekong, he was amazed to see large numbers of Tibetans crossing by way of the rope wires sliders. They were coming to make a pilgrimage to the Doker La pass. He noted that some Tibetan nuns and monks did nothing else than continually cross the Dokerla in pilgrimage, prostrating themselves on the ground and then drawing themselves up again.
"It seems that the Tibetans alone of all the religious people of the world heed St Paul's admonition 'Pray without ceasing'," Rock noted.
The botanist than made his way up the bleak Mekong gorge at this point, where high winds threatened to blow travellers off the narrow trail and into the river. He was greeted by Tibetan pilgrims with the traditional open palm and tongue gesture. His description of the area around Londjre deserves repeating in full:
"Of all the trails along which we had passed so 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 rocky zig-zags, 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 one had to brace oneself against the wind, holding on tightly to the cliff."
From the Mekong valley Rock gained even better views of the southern most peak of the Kawakarpo range, known as Miyetzimu, a 6055m peak that he described as:
"The most glorious peak my eyes were very privileged to see; no wonder the 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 the pale blue sky. Next to it is a huge crest of ice resembling a giant cockscomb, then comes Kaakerpu, from which the range derives its name."
And with that, Rock returned to his Lijiang base, via the small town of Atuntze [Deqin], then and collection of flat-roofed Tibetan houses.
Doing the Doker La, 2012
In late 2012 I came back to north-west Yunnan for a third visit to try see Londjre and the Doker-La pass. This time I brought along my two sons, Paul (13) and Andrew (15). Bringing along two truculent teenagers was asking for trouble and I was to get it.
I’d originally been planning to do the kora round the Kawa Karpo mountains (Meili Xue Shan) with my previous Aussie trekking partner Pete. However, we couldn’t match up our travel dates, and Pete had already set out to do the kora with three other Aussies when I arrived with my sons in China in October. While in Australia I’d exchanged emails with Pete saying that we’d try meet up if possible, but once in China it wasn’t possible to make contact him.
Instead, I brought the boys to Deqin by bus via Kunming and Lijiang. We started out on our trek from the Fei Lai Si lookout, near Deqin, which had by now grown into a small tourist village for sightseers coming to view Meili Xueshan. There were lots of restaurants, souvenir shops and guesthouses boasting the best views of the mountain panorama. The local authorities had built an official viewing area for the mountain for which they charged a 20 kuai entrance fee. And to prevent visitors from getting a free view by walking down the road they built a 12-foot high wall running right through Fei Lai Si that block anyone from getting a peek of the peaks.
We didn’t have this problem as we stayed at one of the guesthouses with a viewing area on the roof. At 6am in the morning it was packed with Chinese visitors all waiting with their cameras for the sunrise to hit Meili Xue Shan/Kawa Karpo. We were fortunate to have clear skies, and there was a rush of electric shutter clicks for 20 minutes as the sun’s rays first touched the tip of the Kawa Karpo peak and spread to the valley beneath.
There were also a few western tourists at Fei Lai Si, and most of them were planning to do the standard tour down to Yubeng and the Minyong glaciers, for which there was now an ‘admission charge’ of something like 200 RMB. However, we bumped into a cheerful Canadian guy from Calgary called Darren who said that he was also planning to do the full Outer Kora, and so we agreed to share a taxi ride down to the starting point at Chalitong and Yongzhi on the Mekong.
Arranging the ride was easier than we expected. At around 8am, when the sunrise-viewing crowds had dissipated, we asked a Tibetan driver of a minivan taxi if he would take us there. When he asked us our plans, we told him about our aim of doing the ‘big’ kora. His ears pricked up when I said that and he immediately replied by saying that Yongzhi was his home village and that he could make all the arrangements for horses and a guide for us to do the kora. After a few more questions and a bit of bargaining we agreed on a deal. We arranged to hire two horses and a guide from him for 340 RMB a day for a 10-day circuit of the mountains. The Tibetan guy seemed reliable and he assured us he knew the kora well - and that one of his family would act as guide. Sorted!
Before too long we were crammed in his van along with all our bags, descending down a steep and twisting side road towards the Mekong river. From this point at the southern end of the Kawa Karpo range we had perfect views of the triangular snow peak Miyetzimu. At first the rough road descended in tight hairpin turns and zig-zags, and I recalled the perilous road that I’d travelled up on from Cizhong to Deqin some years earlier. However, our current road then joined up with a newly-built modern highway running parallel to the river – it was smooth, pristine and empty and we accelerated along quickly to south. The views of the mountain peaks and the Mekong from the highway were superb –if it had been in the US or Europe this road would no doubt be marketed as one of the most scenic highways in the world.
We whizzed along southwards for about fifteen minutes until we reached a simple suspension bridge crossing the river. We paused there at a roadside shack at “Chalitong” while the driver chatted to some local Tibetans and told them about our plans. One of them spoke directly to me and warned us about police checkpoints along the road on the Nujiang side of the mountain.
Our circuit would take us temporarily from Yunnan into the Tibetan Autonomous Region before returning back over the mountain divide, and we didn’t have the necessary permits to enter Tibet. These were only granted to tour groups who wanted to travel to Lhasa, and could only be obtained in major cities such as Chengdu. We were banking on not getting caught by walking mostly along mountain trails and taking a chance that we would not encounter any police. However, there was one section of the Kawa Karpo circuit that ran along the road up the Nujiang valley for about 20km and through the village of Chawalong that we had visited illicitly by 4WD a few years earlier. The Tibetan man now warned us that there were new police checkpoints along this road to “Chana” as he called it – and that we would have to travel ‘after dark’ when they were unmanned.
Our Tibetan driver assured us that this wouldn’t be a problem and that his nephew knew how to get through the checkpoints.
The minivan crossed the river in the morning sunshine and we ascended what seemed like a thousand feet up the opposite side, up a dusty track amid scattered Tibetan houses and farmsteads. We eventually pulled up at the end of the track in Yongzhi, and disembarked into a small courtyard next a Hope Primary School where a few curious onlookers gaped at our heavy bags. The Tibetan driver took us into his house for lunch, where we were served butter tea, momo bread, pickled vegetables, mushrooms and something vaguely meaty that we assumed was chicken with lots of bones in it. The atmosphere was very friendly, and we chatted to the driver’s father about our family and our plans to do the full kora.
The driver left us in the care of his nephew, a young guy called Dorje, who he said had done the kora before and would guide us round the mountains. The circuit would involve crossing seven passes in total, the major ones being the Doker La on the way to the Nujiang and the Sho-La pass on the way back, both at altitudes of over 4000 metres.
“When you get to the top of the Sho-La my nephew can call me in Deqin – there is mobile phone signal reception there. Then I can come pick you up at the end of the track, so you don’t have to wait around for a few hours,” he said. It all sounded very well organised.
Before we set off I asked if they’d heard or seen anything of the four Aussie trekkers who were supposed to be in the area doing the kora at this time. After a bit of shoulder shrugging and conferring I was told that yes, there had been some foreigners going through on the trail recently - but they didn’t know when or where.
And so after lunch and the now familiar routine of saddling up the horses, we set off on the first leg of the Kawa Karpo kora. We had three heavy backpacks strapped on to the wooden saddles of the horses – they contained our three-man MSR Mutha Hubba tent, sleeping bags and five days worth of food and cold weather clothes.
By contrast, Darren was travelling ridiculously lightweight. He carried his own pack, which seemed only half full, and was walking in running shoes and with a large umbrella that he used as a walking stick and to provide shade from the sun. He told me that he’d only brought a sleeping bag and a polythene sheet for shelter. Darren was experienced in the outdoors in Canada – he worked on glaciers doing landslip work, and he seemed to know what he was doing. As we were soon to discover, Darren was quite justified and capable in travelling light.
We started to ascend the hill above Yongzhi and were surprised to find that we were being accompanied not only by Dorje’s wife - a small but tough young 20-something year old women – but also the grandma of the family, dressed in her traditional Tibetan attire. She was a sprightly old lady and set a sure but steady pace on the trail, warning us not to overdo it as we’d damage our knees.
It was perfect weather for walking, and even in mid-October we were able to walk in shirtsleeves and enjoy the warmth of the sun. For the first couple of hours we walked steadily up a track above Yongzhi towards the south, - it was open scrubby country and we gained spectacular views of the Mekong valley as we got higher. After a couple of hours we reached a ‘shoulder’, a pass where the track turned west and entered the Londjre gorge.
Just before we left Yongzhi we’d seen the first of many groups of Tibetan pilgrims that we would encounter along the kora. It was a family group who had tramped up through the village carrying bedrolls, babies and kettles strapped to their backs. They were dressed in everyday clothes, the women with long Tibetan skirts and many adorned with necklaces and bracelets and some even having the 108 plaits in their hair. Many of them carried thick sections of green bamboo as walking sticks, with a neat trident array of leafs plonked in the top.
As we entered the Londjre gorge the trail started to run through old forest and we no longer had any views except for occasional glimpses down to the settlements in the valley far below us. But already I was being distracted from the views by the bickering between my two sons. They only had one iPod between them and couldn’t agree on whose turn it was to use it. When I tried to settle the dispute, the older son, Andrew, stormed ahead in a huff, muttering about how he’d never wanted to come on the stupid walk anyway. It didn’t bode well for the next ten days of the trek.
The rest of the afternoon was spent walking through forest on the side of a steep slope high above the Londre gorge. We didn’t see anything of the black spiralling corkscrew chasm track that Rock had mentioned in his writing. Perhaps that was on the lower alternative route that led up to the Doker-La. The track had its ups and downs but wasn’t too strenuous. There were a few ‘mini-passes’ where prayer flags had been strewn across the branches and around the trail. There were also shrines where pilgrims had left all manner of items such as clothes, hats, watches, bracelets and sometimes renminbi notes. We passed a few other pilgrim groups and were wished a cheerful “Tashi Delay!”, a phrase we were to hear constantly repeated throughout the trek.
There were no villages or settlements en route, and for long periods we trudged along through the silent forest, wondering what lay ahead of us. As the hours went by I began to feel daunted by the prospect of the many long days of trekking ahead. It was hard to believe that in a week’s time, if we stayed on schedule, we’d still be only two thirds of the way through the trek and would still have three days walking yet to do.
My mood was not improved by the first sight of a place where I thought we might be staying overnight. Late in the afternoon we came to a place called Qu Xia, located beside the trail in the gloomy curve of a gully were a couple of makeshift wooden shacks covered with polythene o keep the rain out. Some Tibetan pilgrims were sat around a fire there, but it didn’t look like a very welcoming scene. They gazed at us, said a perfunctory “Tashi Delay” and I was glad when our guide signaled that we keep on going along the trail.
A couple of hours later we finally stumbled wearily into our first overnight stop at a place called Longna. It was a rocky clearing in the forest but there was barely any flat ground to put up a tent. There were two roughly-built temporary wooden huts. In one there was a fire going with a big cauldron of water on it steaming away, and a large flat undercover area where we could sit down and prepare some dinner. The fire was tended by a Tibetan guy who also seemed to be proprietor of a ‘xiaomaibu’ store in the next door cabin. It sold noodles, beer and a few other practical knick knacks such as cheap torches and lighters.
The store keeper was friendly and told me that another group of foreigners had recently come through. When I asked where they were, he pointed vaguely along the track and pointed towards the Doker La with his chin and lips in that typically Tibetan way. “Gone through – up there.”
We hauled our packs off the horses and started to prepare our fancy western meals with the help of boiling water from the cauldron. It was covered with a big flat lid and also had a ladle – but the water it delivered seemed a murky and tasted of smoke.
The fire smoke also pervaded the whole of the kitchen, rapidly inducing red eyes and fits of coughing in anyone on the wrong side of the fire.
While I faffed around unpacking my pasta and western cooking pots, Darren tucked into a simple bowl of three-minute noodles that he’d bought from the store, and he’d already moved into the ‘dorm’ before I had started cooking dinner. The dorm was another empty shack that had dry leaves on the floor and a plastic sheet for a roof. Dorje told us to grab a place to kip, and I immediately upgraded our lodging to ‘executive suite’ by purloining a few bits of flattened-out cardboard box to put on the ground beneath our sleeping bags. And it was just as well that we bagged good positions, because the deserted dorm soon filled up as other groups of pilgrims started to arrive. By the time it got dark at 8pm the place was full to bursting.
Andrew and Paul had already made themselves at home and were sitting around with their headphones on listening to their iPods and playing games on their mobile phones. Their big worry was that there’d be no electricity supply further along the trail and they wouldn’t be able to recharge their devices. They’d done really well on the trail on the first day, had no trouble keeping up and didn’t seem fazed by it at all. They took it all in their stride and didn’t particularly impressed by the setting or the cultural or physical uniqueness of the kora. Andrew, in his usual way, had immediately struck up a rapport with other young Tibetan guys around the camp. Despite his limited Chinese he was babbling away with them, comparing the technical features of his iPhone 4 with the phones of the Tibetans – many of whom also had smartphones.
As it got dark and everyone settled down to sleep I urged Andrew to get into his sleeping bag and get some sleep in preparation for the strenuous day ahead. By this time he had befriended one of the Tibetan mastiffs that was hanging around the huts and he was feeding it bits of the salami that I’d brought along for our lunches. Even in this remote spot Andrew could not shrug off his teenage habit of wanting to stay up late and trying to put off going to bed. “Just five more minutes dad – I’ve just managed to get the dog to let me pat him …”
I settled down to read my paperback (a bio of Laurence Olivier) in our airy dorm that was pretty much open to the elements. I was glad to have brought earplugs to block out some of the sound of Tibetan pilgrims chattering and coo-ing away all around us – and also to dampen the loud background roar of the nearby river.
Before we settled down for the night, I asked Dorje how far away we were from the Doker-La. “Tomorrow ‘fang shang’ (reach the top)– a couple of hours away,” he said, before settling into his thin sleeping bag alongside grandma.
Day 2: The Doker-La
I managed to sleep reasonably well in our rickety dorm, despite the altitude. I had come prepared with a water bottle at the ready for my usual night-time wakings with a dry mouth, and had also made a nice ‘pillow’ from my down jacket. However, we were all woken up early as a group of pilgrims got up and left in the dark at 4.30am. I dozed for a bit longer and then went to sit by the fire in the ‘kitchen’ shack, enjoying a cup of Nescafe. I was soon joined there by the storekeeper and an old Tibetan man who was slurping butter tea made by the usual plunger method.
The storekeeper grinned at me and pointed to the older man.
“You know that he’s the mafu (horse handler) for the foreigners ?”
I was confused.
“So what’s he doing here? I thought you said they’d gone up to the pass?”
“Up the trail, yes, but only five minutes away …” the storekeeper replied.
“You mean they camped HERE last night?”
“So why didn’t you tell us?”
“Well, you didn’t ask …” he grinned.
A few minutes later I was walking up the trail in the pre-dawn darkness accompanied by the older Tibetan man. I was still carrying my mug of Nescafe when he pointed off the track to a couple of tents pitched about 50 metres away under trees on one of the few level sections of ground in the area. If he hadn’t shown me where they were I would never have found them.
I bashed my way through the undergrowth and when I reached the tents I called out
“Come on, wake up you lazy Aussie bastards!”
There were a few astonished mutterings from the dark tents and then a head popped out. It was Pete.
“Mike? So you made it! You must have flown up here!”
There then followed a surreal fifteen minutes as I conversed with Pete in the dark and then was introduced to his wife and two other trekking partners John and Monica, whose heads also pooped out of the other tent. We had a lot to catch up on, and continued our conversation down at the kitchen over breakfast. It was such a weird and unlikely encounter, like a meeting of the local bushwalking club, but under the crest of the Doker La in Tibet.
It was soon daybreak and before we knew it our guide Dorje was urging me to get packed up and ready to leave. Pete and his companions were aiming to spend 12 days walking the kora rather than our ‘rushed’ ten days, and had planned to explore a bit more and do some side trips. So as our walking schedules didn’t match we said awkward farewells after we had struck camp, and our party headed off in front to try get over the Doker La ahead of them.
After a couple of false starts when we realised that we’d left hats and walking sticks behind, we were finally off to tackle the Doker La. The trail started off as a slow slog up through the forest alongside a large stream. It was another nice sunny day and I marvelled at the scenery that surrounded us as we gradually ascended to a large clearing in the base of the valley. We were surrounded by mountain ridges, and the forested slopes had waterfalls cascading through the beautiful autumnal colours. There was another pilgrim camp further up set amid a clearing and we paused for a quick lunch. Andrew, as ever the awkward teenager, insisted on having noodles rather than crackers for lunch, which meant unpacking all the cooker and pans from the backpacks. By the time his noodles were ready the guide was already ushering us to pack up and move on.
We continued on up the river until we reached a second pilgrim camp in a series of open meadows with even more spectacular views of the surrounding mountains and forests. A sign proclaimed this to be the Doker La camp. From here, the track left the valley floor and headed steeply up the left hand (western) side of the valley.
As we slogged out way up out of breath and stopping every few yards, we were soon left behind by our Tibetan guides, who seemed to be able to walk at a constant and unrelenting quick pace – even the grandmother spinning her golden prayer wheel surged ahead of us. I was lagging at the back, partly because of my poor fitness and lack of acclimatisation to the altitude. I also had the problem of my boots falling apart. Foolishly, I had opted to walk in a pair of trusty old hiking boots that were comfortable but starting to show their age. Now under the constant duress of the trail the sole of the right boot had started to separate from the boot and flopped about like a wagging tongue. The only thing I could do was to tie a spare boot lace around both the sole and boot tip. This wasn’t much of a solution as the lace kept slipping off and the toe of the sole would catch on rocks, bend back and peel back even further away from the leather body of the boot.
After about an hour of grinding up the gully in the side of the valley we eventually emerged into a hanging valley that led up to the Doker La. Now we could see the whole trail ahead of us, with the final section zig-zagging right up to the ridge line high in the sky. I whooped with triumph. The Tibetans were sat waiting for us up ahead, and we paused for breath and sat to admire the views all around us.
Once I stopped walking I started to feel chilly and put a jacket on. However, once we got moving I found it too hot and restricting. And so, even at nearly 4000 metres in altitude in late autumn it was still possible to trek in little more than a t-shirt and shirtsleeves.
We continued up the trail, with the pass now looking tantalising close. But the distances were deceptive and it proved to be an even harder and slower grind up the last mile or so to the top. Nevertheless, I was pleased with my progress. A year earlier I’d broken my leg badly, sustaining a tibial plateau fracture and broken ankle when I was hit by a car while cycling home in Sydney. I had been three months off work on crutches and this was my first real trek since the accident. I’d done a few practice day walks and weekend trips around Sydney before coming on this trek, but nothing as rigorous as this. So far, my leg and its metal pins seemed to be holding up fine.
As we got higher and closer to the Doker La pass the track got steeper and zig zagged up the final few hundred metres. Ahead we could see a band of prayer flags completing smothering the ridge, and I started to get the jitters. I’d been told the slope on the eastern side of the pass was steep and dangerous, and was now beginning to get worried about what might lie on the other side. Our guide didn’t help. He pointed to my flopping boots and said: “Not good – you need a firm foothold on the other side – very dangerous!”
There was only one thing to do – go and see. But in the back of my mind I wondered whether it would be prudent to turn back if it looked too bad. I was especially wary of putting my kids at any risk. I could almost imagine the Daily Mail headline – “Pushy dad forces teenage sons onto fatal Tibetan trek.”
However, another side of me was terribly excited about the prospect of reaching the Doker La. I recalled that picture of Joseph Rock posing for a portrait photo on the pass, wearing his tweed jacket and sturdy boots, and with his hands firmly on hips. The Doker La! The official gateway to Tibet and the pass from whose heights Tibetans would fling themselves to their deaths, in the knowledge that they would pass straight into heaven from this sacred spot!
I reached the pass with Darren who now knew all about my long-held ambition to get here. Just before I stepped on the very top he laughed and said with mock solemnity: “Well Michael this is it – the moment of truth!”
I’d always imagined having a while to savour the atmosphere of the Doker La once I got up here, but when we did snake up those last few yards amid a sea of prayer flags, I had only a few brief moments on the pass itself. This was partly because there was barely anywhere to stop and rest. The pass was literally a knife-edge ridge, with just a metre or so of flat ground on which to pause. Most of the area around the pass was festooned with impenetrable tangles of prayer flags, with only a passage wide enough for a horse to get through to the other side. I managed to get Darren to fire off a couple of quick pictures with my camera, but again the prayer flags blocked most of the view.
My other reason for not lingering on the pass was the sheer terror that I experienced when I looked over the edge on the other side. At first, it looked like a sheer drop with just a faint path indented into the side of the cliff. I dare not even descend the few yards it would require to take a closer look, and instead I pleaded pathetically with Darren to go ahead first. He went down and said that it looked ‘do-able’ – but by now I was getting into a right panic. I tried to stop the Tibetan guide Dorje from going over and told him that I didn’t want to continue, and that I wanted to turn back at this point. He looked at me as if I was mad and said the trail was fine. And with that, he headed off with the two horses in tow, stepping gingerly down the trail. Before I knew it, he had disappeared around a blind corner and was gone. I hollered after him and told him to stop. After a while he came back, alone and told me it was OK, and gestured that he would guide me down. And so it was I descended from the Doker La, literally having my hand held on some scariest and most exposed sections of the trail. As I edged along the track the guide gestured towards a thick rope nearby, stretching down the steep slope from the pass. “That’s the emergency rope for when it’s icy and frozen up here,” he said. “Pilgrims just hold on to it and go straight down …” To me it looked suicidal – perhaps it was the modern Tibetan way of entering heaven.
Soon we were over the worst though, and I then felt a mixture of exhilaration at having survived the steep descent and embarrassment for having been so easily scared. My two sons had descended unperturbed, wondering what all the fuss was about.
However, there was still a long and gruelling descent into a rocky basin, encircled by black and sinister-looking rocky ridgelines. I didn’t care. I had done the Doker La!
By the time we reached the bottom it was after 4pm and the guide was urging us to get a move on. He said it would be at least two more hours before we reached the next camp. It didn’t feel like that. I lingered at the back with Darren and we continued our descent down into a curving valley. I couldn’t stop taking photos and could hardly believe when I stopped and looked back at the Doker La that I had descended what looked like an impossibly steep slope.
As we caught up with the others I bounded along in high spirits and told them: “You realise we’re illegals now? We’re in Tibet without permits. We’re outlaws!”
An hour or so later we turned a corner and saw a couple of shacks in a clearing by the river on the valley floor below us. This was Zasutong, where we would stay for the night. When we got there, the place was already teeming with pilgrims – and many of the young Tibetan guys were delighted to see us. They spoke only a little Mandarin, but managed to tell us that they had come from Yushu in Qinghai to do this pilgrimage, and they all wanted to have their pictures taken with us – on the mobiles and digital cameras. How different from when Joseph Rock lugged his huge box camera and glass plates to take pictures of the pilgrims!
Rather than camp among the noisy and restless pilgrim groups in the large wood-and plastic-sheet dorm, I crossed over the river by a wooden footbridge and selected a level bit of grass and put our tent up there. Having brought the tent all this way it seemed a shame not to use it. But as with all camping activities, it seemed to require an inordinate amount of energy and patience to get the tent up and all the sleeping bags and mats sorted out. By the time I’d finished I was exhausted, which probably explained why I clumsily knocked my risotto dinner all over the floor while cooking it on my gas stove. I had to start all over again, but at least I could sip on some of the home-made red wine given to us by our guide Dorje – made from grapes cultivated in Yongzhi, he claimed. It tasted good and was just what I needed to finish off a remarkable day – meeting up with the Aussies on the Tibetan border and then crossing the Doker La.
After dark and a bit worse for wear, I switched on my head torch and wobbled back over the slippery log bridge that spanned the river, trying to find the tent. Even though it was only twenty yards away it was hard to find in the darkness. Before getting in, I paused to gaze in awe at the vast array of stars above in the perfectly clear night sky. It was a wonderful sight, especially when framed by the mountain ridges.
Day 3-4 To the Nujiang
It took us another two days to reach the Nujiang from Zasutong, and the walking was a bit of an anticlimax. After the spectacular scenery of the Doker La, the trail was mostly through thick forest with only occasional views of the surrounding valleys and mountains. We’d spent a cold night in the tent by the river in Zasutong and I slept badly, lying awake worrying about whether we’d be able to get through the checkpoint undetected at Chawolong. In the early hours I lay in my sleeping bag envisaging being apprehended by the PSB and trying to think of some credible excuse that I could give them for being in Tibet without a permit. I also worried about the state of my boots, and whether they would hold up to another week of arduous hiking – and especially the big climb over the Sho La to get back to the Mekong valley. It was still hard to imagine that we would still be on the trek a week from now.
At 7am we got up and started the wearisome process of clearing out the tent and packing it up in the freezing cold pre-dawn darkness. The tent flysheet was covered in ice and all the things we’d left under the flysheet - such as boots and backpacks - were now frozen solid. I dispatched the boys over to the camp to get breakfast, but worried about them crossing the icy and slippery log bridge over the river. What if they fell in and were swept away? It would only take a minute or two in that icy water to bring on exposure and hypothermia.
As it got light we tucked into a rushed breakfast around the fire, and Dorje was already up and loading up the horses. The other pilgrims had already departed. We set off without further ado, but as usual I had to have a “shake down” after about 20 minutes of walking to sort out the most comfortable clothes for walking in and to rearrange how I was carrying my cameras.
The trail was through forest and went up gradually for a few hours up to another pilgrim rest station, where a young Tibetan woman was overseeing a small shop. She had a young daughter there with her, sitting on a bed. What kind of life must it be, I wondered, to be living alone in the middle of the forest for days on end? No electricity or modern comforts, just a bed in a shack surrounded by boxes of noodles and drinks. Andrew was there before me and had already befriended the local dog, which looked fierce but was grateful for the bits of salami he was feeding it. Andrew donated his Angry Birds fluffy toy mascot to the little kid, who fingered it with amazement.
After a quick snack and drink we continued up the hill to a minor pass on a crest of the wooded hillside. This pass – the Lu-ah-sen La- had the usual streams of prayer flags and items of clothing, beads and other trinkets. We nicknamed it the Bowl Pass, because previous visitors had also left scores of bowls of tsampa there as offering to the deities. However, the tsampa had obviously been there a long time as it had gone rancid, leaving a terrible pong about the place.
The rest of the day was spent in a long descent through the forest to a river camp called Chonating. The drop in altitude must have been substantial because my ears popped three times before I reached the river. As our guides walked at a faster pace we became separated during the long afternoon and as the day wore on with no sign of them I started to worry that we’d followed the wrong track. Eventually, however, we bottomed out at the river, where I saw the guides ahead passing a few more shacks next to a bridge. We didn’t stop here, however. I managed to catch up with the Tibetan grandma, who didn’t pause but walked over the bridge, yodelling away as she continued to spin her prayer wheel. After another half hour we reached yet another group of shacks in the forest, and I saw with relief that Dorje had now halted and was taking the bags off the horses. This was Upper Chonating, he said, and we would rest here for the night before tackling the next major pass the following morning, the one that would take us over to a village called Abing and the Nujiang.
“When we get to Abing we have to be careful,” said Dorje. “I’m a bit worried about police and checkpoints. We’ll have to keep a low profile.”
He then explained how he planned to hire a truck in Abing, which would take both us and the horses along the road after dark to a place beyond Chawalong, past all the checkpoints.
“It should be OK,” he said. “I know people in Abing.”
I tried not to worry about it. To keep myself busy I did a bit of washing of clothes in the nearby river, hanging up the socks next to the little store, and then treated myself to a bottle of beer for my efforts. Andrew loped up looking sorry for himself. He claimed to have been stung by something, and pulled up his sleeve to reveal a glaring nettle rash. Being an Aussie kid he had never seen northern hemisphere nettles before and had been brushing his hand against them as he sat on a low wall.
Soon it was getting dark and in my beery haze I admired the silhouettes of the other pilgrims made by the weak bulb against the dirty plastic sheeting walls. It was quiet except for the murmuring of the Tibetans and the distant roar of the river. This was about as remote as you could get - deep in the forest, separated from even the most isolated villages of Tibet and Yunnan by 4000 metre passes. I tried to savour the moment, but just felt tired and uneasy about the days ahead.
Once again we spread out our sleeping bags on the leafy floor of the dorm and made ourselves at home for the night.
The next day was more of the same, walking in the forest - only this time uphill all the way. The track started ascending almost as soon as we left Chonating and continued on an unrelenting incline for the rest of the morning. The first couple of hours weren’t too bad, but by mid morning the altitude was getting to me and I was reduced to taking twenty paces and then stopping for breath.
Dorje wanted us to press on and would not stop for even five-minute break. He and his family pressed on, leaving me behind, and even the boys were able to make better progress than me. Soon I found myself left behind. It was quite spooky being alone in the forest, because now there weren’t even any other pilgrim groups about. Over the last couple of days we’d crossed paths with various family groups of Tibetans – sometimes we would overtake them on the narrow trail, and then they would later catch us up during our rest halts and overtake us again, all accompanied by many ‘Tashi Delays’ and sniggers.
Some groups comprised three generations of an extended family: grandmas, young husbands and wives and kids, all lugging their belongings or babies on their backs.
Sometimes the pilgrims were just a couple of young guys, who would stop and take pictures of us with their Phones. On one uphill stretch I was embarrassed to be overtaken by a group of young Tibetan men that included one who was lame in one leg and had to be supported by a friend on either side. That’s how slow I was.
We paused briefly at a pilgrim way station half way up the hill, and I was already knackered. After a few crackers and a cup of tea made from boiled but strange-tasting water, we were off again. More uphill, and it wasn’t long before I was straggling behind again.
As the afternoon wore on and the sun got higher I ran out of water. There were no streams or other water sources and I was soon parched and gagging for a drink. I cursed the others for leaving me behind – my spare water bottle was in my bag strapped to the horse. By now the altitude was really affecting me – I was panting like a steam train, feeling dizzy and was only able to take ten steps at a time before having to rest. I started to call out for those in front to wait, but got no reply. Then I tried whistling with my fingers in my mouth, but my tongue was too dry to get any sound out. I began to despair – wondering how long I would have to wait before anyone came back to check on me.
Then, just when I was about to give up, I turned the corner and before me were a couple of makeshift shacks by the track, apparently deserted – the fire was out. I called out, but there was no reply. It was eerie. And yet the shop was stocked with all the usual food and drink, so I hopped over the counter and helped myself to a couple of bottles of grape juice. I took out 10 RMB and left it under another bottle as payment – and then noticed a few other people had done the same thing. There were notes of RMB left at various places in the shop by other honest bypassers. I wondered how long the proprietor had been away and when he or she would return.
I carried on up the track, refreshed by the much-needed drink, and about an hour later saw the first sign of prayer flags ahead. Was this the summit of the Sing-Kang La pass that had to be crossed before descending to Abing? I hoped so. Prayer flags were strewn throughout the forest and suddenly I stumbled across the rest of our party, all sat around, quite oblivious and indifferent to my advanced state of exhaustion. But it didn’t matter, because this was the Abing pass. We pushed our way along a narrow passage through the mass of prayer flags, to find ourselves on the edge of a ridge looking down on a cluster of buildings far below. It was like the view from an aeroplane window. The mountain ridges receded into the distance, and across the other side of the vast canyon was the deep trench of the Nujiang. At last, we had crossed the main divide between two of the great river trenches of Asia! From here on it was downhill all the way to the Nujiang.
But first we paused to take a few pictures. As we did so, we were overtaken by a large group of Tibetan pilgrims. After the impression of being alone in the forest all day, it felt weird to see that so many people had been following right on our heels. This was obviously a sacred spot for them, as they cheered, whistled and arranged their own offerings and strings of prayer flags. However, we had an unpleasant encounter with one young Tibetan guy who objected to us walking backwards along the path to retrieve our day packs. In contrast to the friendliness shown by all the Tibetans we’d met so far, this guy had already displayed a truculent and surly attitude towards us when he first went past. He then plonked himself and his bag down near us and started scowling at us as we snapped away with our cameras. When I tried to go back up the track he stood up and blocked my way and gave me a filthy look, gesturing for me to turn around and go back down the track. I knew that Tibetans believe that you should only go clockwise around shrines, so I didn’t try to force the issue, and headed down the track for a few yards, waiting for him to move on. But he just sat there, glaring at us.
A few minutes later my son Andrew came back up the track to try retrieve some prayer flags he had left by the wayside. Again the Tibetan kid tried to stop him, but my headstrong teenage son just blabbed in bad Mandarin about having something to pick up and barged on past. The Tibetan guy looked furious and his expression was now pure murder. When he returned I had a big argument with Andrew about respecting the wishes of Tibetans, and at least waiting till the guy had gone, but he just shrugged his shoulders and dismissed my concerns, saying the Tibetan guy was “cool with it”.
Not waiting to confirm this, I hurried him on down the track, back through the forest, trying to get as far away as I could from the mad Tibetan guy. I explained to Andrew that a couple of years earlier in Kangding I’d seen a Han Chinese tourist attacked by a local Tibetan guy who’d been enraged when the Chinese guy ignored his warnings not to keep walking anticlockwise around a Mani stone shrine. The incident had led to a near riot as other Tibetans joined in, throwing stones at the minibus carrying the party of bewildered Han Chinese sightseers that included the one who had been slashed. When we caught up with Dorje and related the story he laughed and said it wasn’t disrespectful to walk anticlockwise around a shrine so long as you walked backwards and your feet were pointing clockwise.
“He was probably a just young punk jealous of you and your money,” he said.
We descended along a wide track out of the forest onto a dusty and open hillside, but Abing still seemed a long way below us - and so it proved. It took us another couple of hours of knee-shattering descent before we even got close to the Tibetan village. The track veered this way and that and passed some wooden huts and a snooker table, where a few more Tibetan kids were hanging out with a motorbike. How the hell did they get it up here? I soon found out when they followed us down the slope, bouncing over the rutted, rough clay soil between the stunted pine trees, tooting their horn.
It was late in the day when we finally traipsed into Abing, which was a picturesque Tibetan village perched on a small round plateau above the Nujiang river. My knees were shot and my boots were by now coming apart. I was glad to be down in a ‘civilised’ part of the world again, but also doubtful of continuing at this pace for another seven days. Dorje had been pushing us to the limit, and I was certain that I just could not continue at the same rate tomorrow. We needed a rest day. However, when I asked if we could take it easier the following day, Dorje shook his head said we were already behind schedule and would have to keep on at the same pace if we were to make it round the kora in ten days, which was my deadline. By now, Paul was also hobbling and limping, and found it hard to keep walking.
That decided it for me. Already worried about the prospect of getting nabbed by the police and worried about my disintegrating boots, I decided to see if we could leave the kora at the Nujiang and head south back into Yunnan. We could repeat our trip down the ‘road of death’ to Bingzhongluo from three years earlier.
And that is what we did. We hobbled into Abing to the surprise of many of the local residents, who stared at us from the verandahs and doorways of their Tibetan houses. Although it was a picturesque place, Abing now seemed to represent the worst aspects of ‘settled’ human communities. After the purity and comradeship of the pilgrim trail through the forest and mountains, Abing seemed idle, smug and indifferent.
And almost as soon as I entered the village I got a shock when I saw a man in a black police uniform riding up the hill on a motorbike towards me. I didn’t have time to react, but he drove past without paying me any attention. Maybe he was just wearing police-style clothes or was off duty, but it put the wind up me. When we reached the village centre, based around a couple of simple stores, I told Dorje that we wanted to drop out and head down to Bingzhongluo. Once I made it clear that we would still pay him his full fee for the circuit he assented with surprising ease, and quickly negotiated with the locals to hire us a minibus to take us down to Bingzhongluo.
Darren wanted to continue on the kora, so we arranged for a local guy to take him on the back of his motorbike past Chawalong after dark.
And so that was the beginning of the end of our Kawa Karpo kora and our Tibetan incursion. Within half an hour of arriving in Abing we had paid off our guide and said our farewells to Darren and were sat in a minivan being driven down a dirt track towards the Nujiang river. The track followed a turbulent tributary for a while before joining up with the main Chawalong-Bingzhongluo “highway”. The Tibetan driver assured us that the road cut into the cliff was safe ( “so long as it hasn’t been raining”), but it turned out to be just as evil and dangerous as I remembered from three years previously. I was terrified of the precipitous long drops straight down into the river from the edge of the narrow road, and winced when I saw how bad the road ahead looked.
As he drove, the driver kept up a low murmuring chant in Tibetan, just like the lamas in temples, but this did nothing to reassure me of our safety or benefit from divine protection. When he stalled the van on a narrow section of the cliff track and the vehicle lurched back towards the edge, I lost my composure and insisted on getting out and walking along the worst bit. Even walking the two-metre wide track was scary enough – I dare not approach the edge and its sheer drop back down to the river.
After a couple of hours we were over the worst sections of road and had passed the Yunnan-Tibet marker post, which now had a yellow sign which read “Strictly Forbid Foreigner Past This Point” in Chinese and something like “Forbid Foreigner Turn Into Strictly” in English. We settled down for another two hours of driving in the dark towards Bingzhongluo, and my two sons started arguing. I felt dispirited – I’d brought them along on this Tibetan jaunt thinking it might open their eyes to how others less fortunate than themselves lived, and that the trek might be a bit character building. I’d hoped the trek might instill in them a little bit of self reliance and selflessness, but here they were still squabbling over some details of a video game that they’d been playing online. They were still just a couple of teenagers who’d been dragged on a boring trip by their dad.
As I was thinking this we passed the point in the road where three years before Paul and I’d been stuck for Christmas when our jeep ran out of petrol. Back then, there’s been just a couple of wooden huts by the road, but now there was a whole row of new concrete houses and workshops – it looked like the Chinese were pushing ahead with the dam construction on the Nujiang. Further on there was also a whole new tunnel that had been bored through the solid rock of the cliff. The Nujiang was no longer a pristine, unpopulated wilderness. God knows what it would be like in another ten years.
Bingzhongluo had also changed remarkably. Where before there had been a single and forlorn hotel on the main street there were now several Dali-style backpacker hostels and bars.
We arrived at 9pm and as we sought out a place to get something to eat, I realised I had seen enough of Joseph Rock’s travels. I had now ‘done’ pretty much all the Joseph Rock expeditions. I had been in his footsteps from Muli, Gongga Shan and Konkaling to Muti Konka, Choni and now the Great River Trenches of Asia. It had taken me twenty years on and off, but now I had done the lot. During that time, the places themselves had changed enormously – since the 1990s China had opened up, prospered, and embarked on a mammoth program of infrastructure development. In the 1990s most of the places visited by Joseph Rock such as Yading and Gongga Shan were still ‘off the beaten track’ – many of them still without road connections and unvisited by westerners or even Chinese. Now there were new roads, hotels and tourist attractions everywhere and domestic tourism had taken off in a big way.
I was glad that I’d seen these places when they were still wild and unvisited. Perhaps I would re-visit some of them again for their natural beauty. However, I’d finally satisfied that nagging curiosity that had first been sparked by leafing through the pages of an old National Geographic magazine in the backroom of an Auckland library. I had been in the footsteps of Joseph Rock and re-discovered the ‘lost’ parts of south-west China and Tibet that he had first visited in the 1920s. I had confirmed the outstanding natural beauty of these areas he had shown in his photographs and I had met the modern-day counterparts of the ‘lost tribes’ of local peoples. Contrary to his claims they had not died out or sidelined into wretched poverty, but had become part of the wider Chinese nation. The “hopelessly superstitious” Tibetans who as Rock observed “prayed without ceasing” now had iPhones and solar power. The wretched Pumi people he once dispensed medications to now went to medical school. The apathetic ‘aboriginal’ peoples of Muli had become internal migrants, moving to work in construction of factories in the east of China. The Huofo ‘Living Buddhas’ had been persecuted suppressed in the 50s and 60s but had now come back – many of them holding government positions. The Naxi dongba shamens and sorcerers of Nguluko were back in demand – available for weddings and tourist parties.
Footnote: The Salween and Frank Kingdon Ward
With all the current troubles in Tibet it is interesting to read an account of a previous traveller to the Nujiang region, Frank Kingdon Ward. When he visited there in 1911-1913, Tibet was an independent country and the Chinese representatives had just been kicked out of Lhasa. There was a stand-off between Chinese soldiers and Tibetan soldiers around the Salween and in places like Chamdo.
Kingdon Ward made a lengthy sojourn down the Nujiang from north to south, visiting places that I passed through this last Christmas like Chawalong (‘Trana’), Longpu (Laungpa) Songta (Saungta), Qiunatong (Kiunatong), Bingzhongluo (Tramutang or Chamutong) and Gongshan (Sukin).
Like Joseph Rock, Kingdon Ward was a plant collector-turned explorer, and in 1913 he was in Deqin (Atuntze) and hoping to make a trip over the Salween to what we now call the Dulong or Drung valley.
Kingdon Ward had been plant collecting in Burma before, and he believed the Kiutzu or Nung, as the Drung were then known, were related to people he’s seen in upper Burma.
His account of his expedition to the Salween is published as the Mystery Rivers of Tibet.
In November 1913 he crossed over the Mekong (Lancang) from Deqin and then climbed over the big divide to the Salween (Nujiang) north of Kawakarpo via two passes, the first of which was called the Shu La. He followed the twisting Wichu tributary through the small villages of Pitu, Wabu and Kabu, aiming to get to the Tibetan gateway village on the Salween known as Menkung.
His first encounter with “Tibet” was a drunken lama who was village head in Pitu, who advised him that he could not proceed to Menkung in Tibet because of the fighting going on between Tibetans and Chinese. Kingdon Ward noted that Tibetans were filthy, many had goitre and they practiced polyandry.
Refused entry to Tibet, he headed downstream to try reach the Dulong (Taron valley) from around Bingzhongluo (Tramutang). He speculated on the origins of the Nu and Nung/Kiutzu (ie modern day Drung) people he saw along the Salween. He believed the Nu (Lutzu), who appeared almost Tibetan hereabouts were a product of intermarriage of Tibetans and Nung.
He travelled through the same Nujiang granite gorge whose roads scared the hell out of me in 2007. Back in 1913, there was no road along the riverside, but a decent walking track along the adjacent hills above the river, at least according to Kingdon Ward.
On arriving at the first Nu villages of Longpu (see below) and Songta, Kingdon Ward described them as being barely distinguishable from those of the Tibetans. He noted the locals had canoes and that he was now leaving the arid zone, as greenery and animals such as centipedes became more common.
The local “black” Lutzu he found friendly but primitive, living on little but maize (buckwheat) biscuits they baked over their fires. At Songta he saw the same impressive peak (above) to the west that I saw, which he described as Gompa La – the same peak that can be seen above Bingzhongluo. Progressing further downriver, he noted other differences – the Lutzu smoked whereas the Tibetans didn’t. The Tibetans traded salt for grain, which they could not grow much of in the arid Tsarong region.
Kingdon Ward stopped off at the French mission church at Qiunatong, where he met Pere Genestier, the priest now buried at the church below Bingzhongluo. He then carried on south, through a “limestone gorge”, which I presume is the modern day Shimenguan:
He eventually arrived in ‘Tramutang’, which sounds like Bingzhongluo (see below) – a settlement of 40 families bisected by a deep gully. Here there was a Chinese yamen (administrator) and some Chinese traders and a handful of soldiers. The local Lutzus lived on buckwheat but also tried to catch fish from the river in traps and nets.
Strangely, Kingdon Ward makes no mention of the imposing white Catholic church at Bingzhongluo, nor the prominent loops in the river here that are now promoted to tourists as the “First Bend of the Nujiang”.
Unable to get permission or porters to cross to the Taron (Dulong) valley to the west, Kingdon Ward continued on south, into Lisu land. He noted their different clothing – how the men resembled Burmese in carrying a ‘dah’ machete and the hemp shoulder bags, still used by Lisu today. Their homes differed from the wooden shacks of the Lutzu by being on stilts and using bamboo as well as wood.
Beyond Bingzhongluo, he was firmly in what he described as ‘jungle’ territory compared to the arid Tibetan areas upstream.
Kingdon Ward did not have a happy time among the Lisu. He described their love of liquor and pipe smoking, and how they use crossbows. Trying to cross to the Taron (Dulong) valley from Gongshan (Sukin) he was exasperated by his Lisu porters, who he described as lazy and argumentative, stopping every twenty minutes to sit down and smoke their pipes. Kingdon Ward had major problems with his newly hired Lisu interpreter and head porter, who he later found to be an army deserter and ne’er do well.
He also used some Nung (Dulong) porters who he described as ‘uncouth, almost ape-like’ looking weak and malnourished and yet having remarkable endurance.
Kingdon Ward had several disputes with porters along the way, in one case sorting them out by ‘tapping’ the offender on the nose so that it started bleeding!
Interestingly, he describes this borderland as being close to British influence from Burma, with locals reporting British troops arriving in force in the next valley.
Kingdon Ward made several attempts to cross over to the Taron valley, but was defeated by bad weather – rain and snow higher up, plus the truculence of his porters.
He eventually gave up and visited the Chinese fort at a place Latse, which he found to be a flimsy and unimpressive stockade [‘sufficient to deter the Lisu’] manned by 40 poor quality soldiers. (‘They loaf and learn the local language’). He makes no mention of the Moon-Stone Mountain - a part of the western ridge in this part of the Nujiang that has a hole in it and which is now a famed tourist attraction. Suffering from malaria and rheumatism, Kingdon Ward turned back to head north again after being refused permission to continue to Tengyueh, from where he might gain access to Burma.
His scoundrel of a porter absconded with some money and was condemned to death by the local Chinese sergeant, and Kingdon Ward headed back up river. He spent a miserable Christmas stuck in Bingzhongluo in the drizzle, and after being given an escort of two poorly equipped Chinese soldiers by the local yamen (‘a real gentleman’), he headed back up through the limestone gorge to Qiunatong.
He had his first decent meal for days back with Pere Genestier, who told him that travel over to the Taron was now impossible because the winters snow had set in. So Kingdon Ward retraced his steps upriver, this time travelling along precarious trails that required balancing on log planks stretched between ledges of cliff high above the river. Kingdon Ward was ferried part of the way upriver on canoes paddled by Lutzu woman around Songta, and noted that the river would be 15 feet higher in summer.
Pleased to be back in Tsarong, he was now faced with the problem of having two Chinese soldiers as escorts, in an area that was ‘at war’ with China. He therefore hung around in Songta for a few days until his ramshackle escort had run out of food and returned to Tramutang/Bingzhongluo.
Back in Trange (Chawolung?) he was again told that there was no chance of proceeding any further upriver into Tibet. The fighting made it a sensitive area, and Kingdon Ward expounds in his book how the Nujiang/Salween was a key barrier preventing Chinese entry into Tibet. He very much admired the Tibetans of the area, for their robustness, independence and general level of ‘civilisation’. He praises their fine food, houses, clothing and buildings, and contrasts them with the Chinese, whom he says are “slaves to convention” and who try bend everyone else to their way of doing things.
Kingdon Ward went east over the dividing range, back the way he came to return to the Mekong. He noted that the whole countryside was up in arms against the Chinese and that one male from every household had been conscripted against the Chinese soldiers.
He eventually arrived back in Deqin to find it a dismal grey place, closed down for Chinese New Year.