Bingzhongluo is the 'end of the road' town in the Yunnan section of the Salween river (Nu Jiang) canyon. North of the town the official tarmac road ends and there is only a hazardous gravel trail that runs along the precipitous cliff edges of the canyon above the surging river as it leaves Tibet. There is about 100km of road (and not much else) between Bingzhongluo and Chawalong, the first town in Tibet. It's a wild and barren landscape with just a handful of small farming hamlets. But this was familiar territory for me.
I'd been along this 'road of death' some years ago on a spur-of-the-moment illicit 4WD sojourn up to Chawalong, organised by a local guide who had connections with the Chinese army and police. Back in 2007, there had been no checkpoints along the road to Tibet, simply because hardly anyone travelled that way. The poor road was just too dangerous. More recently I had come down the same road from a village called Aben in Tibet after having walked in along mountain trails while doing the Kawakarpo kora (the pilgrim circuit round Meili Xueshan).
At that time I'd given up half way around the circuit (I was doing it with my two teenage sons - I blame them!). Now my aim was to complete the second half of the circuit by taking up where I left off - at the village of Aben in Tibet. I didn't want to repeat the first section again, and that was why I had recently crossed from the Mekong to the Nu Jiang via the She-La further south instead of repeating the crossing of the Doker La pass from Deqen. This meant, however, that I now had to get myself into Tibet without the required foreigner's entry permit which was only obtainable for groups travelling to distant Lhasa. In the past I had heard it was possible to get into Tibet by hiring a local guy to drive you up the road after dark, when the police checkpoints were said to be closed and unmanned. On this trip, however, I had already been told that the security checkpoints were getting tougher and were now manned 24/7.
But perhaps first I should backtrack a bit. I had reached Bingzhongluo from Baihanluo after my awful day descending from the high passes without a guide. The curse of Baihanluo persisted until the very end. After spending an uncomfortable night in 'The Filthiest House in China' I was woken by the drunken granny who was already sipping beers for breakfast and necking vodka-like baijiu for a post-breakfast chaser. I refused her offer of a drink to go with the fried mushroom breakfast and said my farewells to my kind hosts and gave them 50 kuai for their trouble. They would not accept it, so I just left it on the table and headed down the hill. Easier said than done. I was immediately followed and harrassed by half the dogs in the village and took several wrong turnings before I eventually found the correct trail that led down to the valley floor.
Down at Dimaluo, I found myself on a real road for the first time in three days. It was the beginnings of the new highway being constructed over the high mountains to link the Nu Jiang and the Mekong (Lancang Jiang) valleys. I faced an 8km hike down to the Nu Jiang river, but was fortunate to get a lift from a passing 4WD, whose occupants could not believe that I had walked the three day trail over from Cizhong. They dropped me off at a small riverside town called Pengdang, from where I was able to flag down a local bus travelling from Gongshan to Bingzhongluo. And as a bonus I managed to avoid paying the 140 yuan park entrance fee for the Nujiang Scenic Area as the guy at the ticket barrier did not believe that a tourist would be travelling on a decrepit local bus service. Perhaps my luck was turning?
It was 1 October and I found Bingzhongluo to be packed to the rafters because it was China's "Golden Week" - the multiple day holiday around the Guoqing (National Day) when most of the country decides to take a few days vacation all at the same time. Bingzhongluo had only a handful of guesthouses and hotels and I quickly found they were all completely full - mostly booked by Chinese tourists coming up from places like Kunming. I ended up having to settle for a mediocre room in an indifferent hotel for an extortionate 300 yuan. Once settled in, I went for the said beer in the only cafe in town, and asked around about the possibility of getting a ride into Tibet. Despite offering to arrange hikes and local trips, the reaction from the local tour operators and hostel staff was uniformly negative. They could arrange trips into the mountains or even over to the mysterious Dulong Valley, but none of them would even think about Tibet.
Bingzhongluo's single street was busy with private cars and 4WDs heading up towards the border, but most were only going as far at the final Yunnan village of Qiunatong about 18km distant - none of the were willing to give me a lift towards Chawalong, a further 60km across the border. I got the same message from the local minivan drivers who touted their vans for hire at the town crossroads. Most of the drivers professed ignorance about the road to Chawalong, and the few who had heard of it spluttered with laughter and suggested ridiculous prices when I asked about hiring their van to go there. Quite a few pointed out that it was now expressly forbidden for foreigners to enter Tibet via the Chawalong road and reminded me that there prominent signs posted on the road warning about this. In a small town like Chawalong there are only a few drivers for hire and I very quickly exhausted my options. I spent much of the morning hanging about at the 'crossroads' where the road turned off for Tibet, asking anyone with a van if they would go to Tibet. The answer was always 'no' and I soon became an object of scorn and derision for the drivers plying their trade. Each time I reappeared they would laugh and say "Still here? You're wasting your time! Go to Gongshan instead!" I retired to the nearby bar, had a coffee and kept one eye on the crossroads out of the window to see if any other drivers showed up. They didn't. And thus it was that I spent two frustrating days in Bingzhongluo, feeling marooned and defeated.
After a night spent in the dull hotel room licking through the 23 channels of Chinese state TV, I woke for a second morning of disappointment. One 4WD driver had said he might hire his vehicle out to take my up to Chawalong - for a fee of about $300. When I called him back, however, he had changed his mind and claimed he was too tired to make the trip. I began to feel paranoid and wondered whether news of my intentions to get into Tibet had reached the ears of the local cops. That might explain why nobody was willing to take me.
I spent another slow day in Bingzhongluo, trying unsuccessfully to hustle a ride up into Tibet. "Nothing to do and all day to do it in." The local restaurants and the bar were full of Chinese from places like Guangzhou, many taking advantage of their private car ownership to drive around and see a bit of their own country. There were no foreigners in town and the Chinese all asked the same questions: "Where are you from? Are you travelling alone? Are you studying/working in China?"
On the morning of the third day, still unable to find a driver, I resigned myself to turning back and re-tracing my steps over the She-La pass back to the Mekong. I consoled myself with the thought that it was a stunningly scenic trip and I would have more time on the return trip to enjoy the sights. But before I left I decided to take a minivan up to the next village of Qiunatong, just so that I could say I had travelled some distance along the Nu Jiang. Qiunatong was known as a small Catholic village of Nu and Tibetans. It had a quaint wooden church that Rock had stayed at during his sojourn through the area. I had also been there before on a previous trip to the Nujiang.
I found a female minivan driver who offered to take me there for 150 yuan. When I mentioned that I had been trying to go to Chawalong in Tibet she told me to keep quiet about that when we passed through the new checkpoint. Uh? What checkpoint? I didn't even know there was a security checkpoint - there hadn't been when I had come this way two years before. Sure enough, after we passed through the impressive Stone Gate gorge about 5km down the river, we came to a serious-looking red and white striped barrier blocking the road.
|Pic by a Chinese driver of the first checkpoint at the Yunnan-Tibet border at Nidadang.|
The authorities meant business. The checkpoint station was manned by four members of the WuJing (army militia), dressed in full combat gear complete with helmets, ammunition bandoliers and with their fingers quite evidently on the triggers of their semi-automatic rifles
Our minivan was stopped and like the vehicles ahead of us it was searched. I was ordered out and told to stand to one side while my passport was taken away and the details entered into a computer terminal. This was all very new and sinisterly efficient compared to my previous trips up the Nu Jiang. After a wait of about ten minutes my passport was returned and our van was waved through the raised barrier - with permission to go only as far as Qiunatong, still in Yunnan. We drove along the riverside in subdued silence, the 'heavy' atmosphere of the checkpoint reaffirming my change of heart about trying to sneak into Tibet. There was no way I was going to try dodge around a checkpoint manned by trigger-happy PLA guards. Or so I thought. Everything changed within 15 minutes of arriving in Qiunatong.
As with Bingzhongluo, the village was packed with tourists and I soon learned (though not before my minivan had departed) that the small guesthouse was completely booked out for the holiday weekend. I dumped my backpack in the courtyard and sighed. The female proprietor of the guesthouse was friendly and sympathetic, but said there was nothing she could do - even as we spoke she was approached by two other groups of tourists asking if they had rooms.
While wondering what to do next, I met a guy who said he could arrange transport for me to the next village. I won't reveal his identity. "You want to go to Tibet? It'll be expensive ..." he said. His idea of expensive was 600 yuan ($100). I said I was willing to pay that. Then he looked at my backpack. "That's too big - you can't take that on a motorbike."
My hopes of getting to Tibet were suddenly revived and I told him I could get rid of a lot of the junk in my bag. Within a few minutes I had pulled out the bulky clothes and taken out the old tent, shrinking the bag size by about half. He looked at it sceptically and said "wait here". And so I waited. And waited. For about an hour, in the late morning sun. The guesthouse owner kept coming by and saying "someone will be here soon ..." but the only activity in the village was someone with a chainsaw lopping branches off a tree. Finally, I heard the burr of a motorbike arriving, and a young-ish kid pulled up on a 150cc motorbike. It didn't look big enough for two, let alone a bag, but it was my only hope for getting up to Tibet.
For the next hour I suffered increasingly excruciating pain as we reached the 'main road' and continued up northwards along the river. It was a bike designed for five-foot high Asians, and my long European legs didn't fit. My knees were bent at an impossibly cramped angle as I attempted to keep my feet planted on the footrests. Every time I tried to adjust my stance the drive rebuked me with a 'stop it!'. It was like trying to maintain the lotus position on a small saddle jolting over potholes and around hairpin bends. I called it the Kawasaki Yoga position. The scenery was spectacular, as I knew from previous trips up and down this forbidden road. Nice scenery. Pain. This was becoming a recurring theme on this trip.
The route followed high cliffs and in some places twisted crazily up and down around sheer rock faces, with terrifying drops to the river below. It felt safer going by bike than by car, but I was in so much agony that I was unable to appreciate the views - or the danger. For two hours we sputtered and coasted non-stop along the Nujiang 'road of death', passing the yellow signs that marked the Tibetan border and their mangled English warnings of "Forbid Foreigner Turn Into Strictlg" (in Chinese the much more direct "Strictly Forbidden for Foreigners to Enter - by order of Chawalong Police").
Beyond this the bike turned left off the 'main road and up a side road towards Aben. This followed a smaller tributary up a narrow gully, in places heading steeply uphill until after another hour we arrived at my goal - the village of Aben. I had made it into Tibet. I was 'illegal'. All I had to do now was find another driver to take me beyond the final security checkpoint, about 20km further up the road.
|A view of Aben from above, taken on my previous visit in 2012|
I'd arrived in the late afternoon of Saturday 4th October and was dropped off at the village from the motorbike by the kid from Qiunatong. Despite coming from the neighbouring village, 60km down the canyon, he seemed ill at ease among the Tibetans of Aben and wanted to leave immediately. He was a Nu minority kid and a Catholic from a village of log cabins. Here we were in a Tibetan village where the houses were sturdy stone fortresses decorated with colourful Buddhists frescoes. We had crossed a cultural divide.
The kid stayed just long enough to have a quick drink and to be paid off by me, in the courtyard of a guesthouse run by a cheerful, no-nonsense Tibetan woman. She invited me in and I told her of my aim to get up to Chawalong. She nodded non-commitally and said 'we'll see". I also told her that I was hoping to meet up with some foreign trekkers who were doing the kora and due to walk down from the Xinkang La pass above Aben that afternoon. The woman said she was expecting them as their Chinese liaison guy had already called ahead to books rooms. So after a much-needed beer I walked up Aben's twisting street to see if I could see them on the way down.
As I hauled myself up the steep main 'street' I was passed by groups of jubilant and tired Tibetan pilgrims walking the opposite way, downhill, just arrived from their four-day round-the-mountain trek from Deqen. Like me, they faced another week of walking to complete the mountain circuit and return to the Mekong. Many of the pilgrims carried the stout staffs of thick green bamboo, decorated with a few strands of leaves sticking out of the top. Aben had several primitive guesthouses and rest sheds (little more than polythene sheets stretched over a few logs) to accomodate them. The pilgrims came in all shapes and sizes: there were Tibetan grandmas swivelling personal prayer wheels, young lads with hefty backpacks, family groups of parents and children, and parties of Buddhist monks and nuns bedecked in crimson and yellow robes. They all looked as exhausted as I had felt two years earlier after I completed the same long knee-jarring descent from the pass into Aben.
I walked to to the top end of town but could see no sign of the Whistling Arrow trekkers. I was accompanied by the young son of the guesthouse owners, a cheeky and talkative kid called Tashi, who brought his dog along. Tashi was like any other 11-year-old, full of curiosity and guileless questions. "Where are you from?" "Why have you come here?" "Why do you wear such big boots?" "What's it like in England?" "What kind of car have you got?" Tashi sat with me on the wall at the top of town, and babbled away quite unselfconsciously, telling me all about his family and his life. He was pleased because he had a long 10-day break from school, but he missed his older brother who was away somewhere up north.
Tashi told me proudly that his family sometimes went to big towns like Bingzhongluo and Gongshan, and his parents had bought him a mobile phone, which he demonstrated to me. He got me to play some of the music on my iPhone and he recorded it on his own phone. I grinned at the thought of future visitors to Aben being greeted by the sound of the Bee Gees Jive Talking or Chic's Dance, Dance, Dance from my iTunes collection of 70s disco music. As we spoke a couple of 'real' trekkers arrived, a Chinese and a Tibetan guy who hailed from Zhongdian. They were very hip and laid back and told me that my "foreign friends" were at least a couple of hours behind them. And so I retired back to the guesthouse with Tashi, who showed me his Tibetan language schoolbooks, and got me to sit and watch an episode of Spongebob Squarepants dubbed in Chinese.
Word had obviously got round that I was seeking a ride to Chawalong, and a few local guys huddled around the table cracking walnuts, smoking and discussing the best way to do it. The guy who seemed the most sensible and reliable said he would take me to the town beyond Chawalong for 800 yuan. This would involve riding on the back of his motorbike at night, and he said I would have to get off the bike before the checkpoint and walk through alone for a hundred metres, because he could not take the risk of being caught smuggling a foreigner into Tibet past the police. Like everyone else, he told me "foreigners aren't allowed into Tibet without a special permit - there are signs everywhere along the road saying this." The guesthouse manageress agreed. "It's much more stricter now because there is more traffic on the road to Chawalong. It used to be just local people, but now there are people who come from Guangzhou and Shanghai in 4Wheel Drives to drive through the canyon. But if you walk through at night you will be OK. There is a trail round the back of the checkpoint," she assured me. I wanted to see what arrangements the commercial trekking group had made so I told them I might try the following evening.
But when the seven-strong Whistling Arrow commercial trekking party arrived in a bustle of activity at about 6pm, I learned that my hopes of going into Tibet with them were in vain. The trek leader Adrian had originally told me they also planned to sneak past the checkpoint into Chawalong at night. However, at the last minute his Chinese liaison manager Edward had been able to arrange a special Tibet permit for their group and a van to take them through the checkpoint the following day. I wasn't on the permit, so I couldn't travel with them. I would have to make my own arrangements. The western trekkers, mostly Hong Kong-based expats, busied themselves arranging their gear and getting cleaned up after completing the first four days of their ten day trek around the mountain. It was strange to hear English spoken again after almost a week of speaking only Chinese, and I felt a little left out of this group who had obviously bonded during their arduous few days of walking over the Doker La and other passes of the pilgrim circuit.
We all had an early night and the western trekkers departed in their van the next morning, leaving me in Aben to contemplate my solo attempt to get past the checkpoint. The guesthouse manageress told me to keep a low profile and not to walk about the village now that the other foreigners had left. I was an 'illegal' - in Tibet without a permit, and she didn't want anyone to know I was staying at her guesthouse. If I stayed out of sight, the villagers would think I had gone with the other foreigners, she said.
And so it was that I spent a very dull second day in Aben, waiting for my motorbike driver to show up 'after dark'. I read some books, mooched up and down the stairs, packed and re-packed my backpack and tried to wash a few clothes. But it is still very difficult to pass a whole day doing nothing - especially when you are apprehensively waiting to do something illegal. I felt like a condemned man awaiting execution as I counted down the hours to our departure. As the zero hour of 7pm approached I found myself pacing up and down the room and visiting the loo every ten minutes. I couldn't stop thinking of those four armed soldiers I'd seen at the Nidadang checkpoint the day before, standing tense and alert, ready to pounce on any errant foreigners. Their fingers on the triggers. "Take it easy. It will be OK," the manageress advised me over dinner of fried egg and tomato with rice. But I couldn't relax.
At last the sun went down and it got dark - it was time to go. "Zou ba!" said the motorbike guy, and he strapped my backpack to the side of his bike. Once again I contorted my legs to fit them to the small proportions of the bike footrests. It was a tight squeeze with two of us and a pack on the bike, but I felt glad to be going when we said farewell to Aben and rolled down the gravel road back towards the river.
Riding on the back of a motor bike at night was an even more nerve-wracking experience than in daytime. The weak headlight threw a small pool of yellow light on the potholed road and I hoped and prayed that the driver knew what he was doing. This new guy drove much faster and more aggressively than the kid from Qiunatong. He powered the bike over the bumps and rocks of the road, and the bouncing and jarring unseated me several times, forcing me to try wriggle back onto the centre of the saddle. And again I was scolded for moving and de-stabilising the bike. There were of course no streetlights or lamps in this part of the world but the quarter moon gave some illumination of the canyon when we finally got back down to the river after an hour or so. By this time I was once again in cramped muscular agony due to my legs being bent almost double to fit on the footrests. Sitting directly behind the driver I soon discovered another problem - he had terrible bad breath. Every so often he exhaled in my direction and I got a foul wave of halitosis, so bad it made me want to gag. I had to put my scarf around my mouth as a filter to breathe.
After another half an hour of bumping and lurching over the unseen hazards of the road I was actually looking forward to reaching the checkpoint so that I could get off, stretch my legs and put an end to the excruciating discomfort. The road skirted around a huge towering outcrop of rock and turned towards Chawalong. "Nearly there" said the driver. I braced myself for the next part of the plan, and told the driver that I wanted him to wait around on the Aben side of the checkpoint in case I didn't make it through. I didn't want to be left stranded in this huge canyon at night with a 30km walk back to Aben if I somehow didn't make it and got turned away from the checkpoint.
|This pic from a Chinese website shows the old police checkpoint at Quzhu. New one is bigger!|
The driver quickly brought the motorbike to a halt and switched off his headlight. He peered through the darkness and was obviously sizing up this unexpected development and how he was going to get around the barrier with his bike and how I would walk through the brightly-lit surroundings without being detected. We sat in silence for what seemed like ages, but was probably just a minute.
Then without saying anything he released the brakes and allowed the bike to coast forward in the darkness - no lights, no engine. The road sloped gently down to the checkpoint barrier and we picked up a little speed. With no lights I was more worried about hitting an unseen rock or pothole in the road and being flung off the bike. I didn't know what the driver had in mind, but it didn't look like I would be walking after all.
Within a minute we had reached the checkpoint and I could see ahead that the end of the red and white barrier pole was padlocked down. Would the driver dismount and try manhandle the bike under the barrier? No. As we approached it he pushed the ignition button and the engine hummed into life. With a quick twist of the throttle he gunned the engine and twisted the handlebars, aiming us off the road round the left hand side of the barrier. There was a narrow gap of less than a metre between the end of the barrier and some bushes on a slope that went down to the Nu Jiang river, somewhere in the darkness below. The driver manoeuvred us around the barrier, through the bushes and over some rough ground to the side of the road, the bike fishtailing as he put his feet on the ground and pushed us along.
But the drama wasn't quite over. The driver seemed anxious to get away and he drove even faster than his previous aggressive efforts. We bounced around on the road as he revved the engine, and almost came to grief when we suddenly hit a patch of deep, thick grey clay dust that bogged down the wheels and almost tuned the bike on its side. The driver put his feet down and tried to 'paddle' us through this morass, until we emerged and sped up again on firmer ground. The driver now put the headlight back on, and also switched on his bike 'sound system' that blasted out wailing Tibetan karaoke music into the night. We blazed and bumped down the gravel road and I clung on to his waist as we tore blindly round corners over more bumps and potholes.
|This is what the final section of the road to Chawalong looks like in the daytime. Imagine doing this at high speed at night.|
Once the initial euphoria of getting through the checkpoint had worn off, I once again began to notice the discomfort of my cramped seated position and longed for a chance to straighten my legs. The driver, however, had other things on his mind. He kept looking back over his shoulder and after a while I did the same. I was startled to see the headlights of a vehicle following just a few hundred metres behind. Was this a police car or just an ordinary local on their way to Chawalong? I quickly remembered that the checkpoint barrier had been locked, so this car must have just set off from beyond the barrier. It seemed to be driving slowly, but my driver didn't wait to find out what it was. He went flat out on the bike, tearing round more corners and even accelerating on downhill sections, then braking suddenly when a rock or a bump in the road loomed out of the darkness. I was terrified and was sure were were going to hit a boulder or rut and come off the bike.
And in this way, music blaring and buffeting around the rutted road, we proceeded on to the small town of Chawalong, about an hour away through the dark and uninhabited Nu Jiang river canyon. It was one of the scariest and most wearying hours of my life. We passed a large landslide that was a prominent feature of the gorge, and I noticed cactuses in the dark by the roadside. This section of the river was very arid and barren - a real contrast to the verdant green 'jungle' around the lower reached of the river near Bingzhongluo.
|Not my photo, but you get the idea of how basic Chawalong is.|
I felt a mixture of relief and trepidation when we drove into Chawalong. It was a like a scene from the Wild West - just a single dusty and churned up road running between two rows of bars, shops and official buildings such as schools. There were a few people milling around on the street and in doorways and I tried to hide my face. My driver made no attempt to slow down, but tore up the street at full throttle until he suddenly slammed on the brakes and skidded to a halt outside a karaoke bar-restaurant. He jumped off the bike and went inside, uttering only the word "xiuxi" (rest) in my direction as he departed. I painfully and slowly tried to unseat myself from the bike, and found that my legs could barely move, I was so paralysed with cramp and discomfort. I stood for a few moment, bow-legged like Charlie Chaplin until the feeling started to come back into my legs and feet. I shook them a bit and then went in to the restaurant.
I got a huge shock when I looked inside to find my driver, only to spy him sat at a table with a policeman. Was this a trap? A set up? The cop looked up from his rice and nodded at me. He was a burly Tibetan, and didn't seem at all surprised to see me.
"Ni hao!" he said. "Are you with all the other foreigners?" "Er, yes!" I mumbled. I looked at my driver for guidance but he was ignoring me, eating some rice.
"What are you doing here?" the policeman asked.
I told him we were doing the kora around the mountain.
"Oh, that's tough," he replied. "Good for you." And with that he returned to talking to his friends, and paid me no more attention. A waitress hovered next to me and asked if I wanted to eat, and again I looked at my driver. He just shrugged his shoulders, so I said no.
After waiting around awkwardly in the doorway for 15 minutes, my driver got up, said goodbye to all his friends and turned to me again. "Let's go ..."
I could only presume that the Chawalong cop was one of the driver's friends or relatives. He obviously had no interest in apprehending me or sending me back to Yunnan.
We got back on the bike and motored about ten minutes out of town and up the hill to a small village called Longpu. There we pulled off the road and into the courtyard of a large Tibetan house. The driver told me this was as far as he was taking me. Tomorrow another bike could take me up the road and over the minor Tangdu La pass to get to the next stage of the kora at a village caled Gebu.
I was ushered into a large room that looked like a shrine, as it had lots of Buddhist decorations and monuments on the wall. But it was simply the guest room, and I was welcomed here by several other Tibetan guys who urged me to sit and share some walnuts and their local brew made from corn, Shuijiu. It was quite sour, almost like cider.
And with that my Aben driver departed after extracting his fee. I was left in the care of a new group of Tibetans and felt a bit like a downed WW2 pilot being passed along the French Resistance smuggling line. I was now safely beyond the checkpoint and in the hands of another local network of Tibetans who promised to deliver to my next destination. The next day they would deliver me to the the start of the next stage of the walking kora - Gebu village.
On the morning of Monday 6th October I woke in the Tibetan house above Chawalong with the usual dry mouth and slight headache from the altitude. I'd slept on a wooden bench in the guest room, and a Tibetan woman came into the room at 7am and appeared to be continually muttering and grumbling about me under her breath until I realised she was reciting a Tibetan religious chant. The woman invited me to share breakfast with the family, which consisted on momo bread and tsampa (butter tea) in the kitchen. They were a very friendly bunch and it felt good to be 'safe' and no longer under threat of being caught, fined and booted out of Tibet.
After breakfast when I asked where the toilet was I was told 'just go anywhere round the back - that's the Tibetan way'. Round the back was the pig sty. A bike was supposed to be taking me up the road and over the minor Tangdu La pass and to drop me off at my jump off point for the trek, Gebu. I had to wait about an hour before it turned up, during which time I roamed around the house exploring the roof where corn, veges and chillis were spread out to dry, and where one of the guys was sifting some corn.
The new bike driver was a friendly and laid-back Tibetan called Dorje, who had agreed to take me to Gebu and then continue as my guide all the way to the Sho La pass, three days beyond. Unfortunately he didn't seem to speak or understand even basic Mandarin, so we had to communicate in sign language. At 8.30am we saddled up and set off up the zig-zag road out of Longpu village. As a driver, the new Tibetan was more relaxed on the motorbike, weaving the bike from one side of the road to the other and singing along to his music as we climbed through pine forest in the cool early morning air. As before I wore my raincoat with the hood up and a scarf around my face to protect from the chill slipstream.
We reached the Tangdu La pass in about half an hour, where we had great views back over Chawalong and the Nu river valley to the south. The road markers said it was 20km from Chawalong. The pass was just an unremarkable cutting through which the road ran across the main ridge, it was forested and there was a huge ugly electricity pylon plonked on top. There were also some pilgrim rest huts and a small shop at the pass, where we stopped to have a quick drink of tea and warm ourselves by the fire. As we waited, two other vehicles pulled up full of boisterous Tibetans, who proceeded to spread prayer flags over the surrounding bushes and trees.
The subsequent descent by road to Gebu was through spectacular scenery. In the distance to the north was a fine mountain peak, and the road itself spiralled down to a fast-flowing green tributary of the Nu river. It would be a very treacherous road to drive by car or van, but I felt relatively secure on the back of a motorbike. The scale of the landscape was awesome and the sheer steep sides of the valley were much more dramatic than I had been led to believe by the 3D images from Google Earth.
When we arrived at Gebu mid morning I had been expecting to find the western trekkers there, bt the small village seemed deserted. When I asked a sullen teenager if he had seen any foreigners, he pointed his chin up at what looked like a pylon on the hills to the north and said "they went up there".
I had planned to start walking from this point, but my driver told me the starting point was a little further up. And so we continued up another zig-zag trail up the hillside, which took us eventually to a wooden hut on a spur, that was busy with pilgrims. At the hut I was welcome by some of the Chinese and Tibetan trekkers I had seen in Aben. They were sat around the fire, drinking tea and exchanging stories. They had also hitched a lift over the Chawalong road section of the kora, and were about to set off on the next walking section of the kora.
And so once I had unloaded my bag from the bike and re-packed it, I joined up with a group of four Tibetan pilgrims as we set off up the well-worn kora trail up the dusty hillside. The view back down to gebu and south to the Tangdu La were spectacular.
The angle of the track was steep at first, but then eased off to a more gentle gradient that it was following the contours of the hillside to the north. To our left (west) we overlooked the river valley and as we ascended gained superb views across to the mountain ranges and ridges towards Burma. One peak in particular looked similar to the Mt Kenyichunpo described by Rock as being the highest peak of the Salween Irrawaddy divide.
After about an hour of walking with the pilgrims we turned a corner and came to another small hut that served as a shop and rest point. I was surprised to see a group of people apparently doing some exercises on the hillside ahead of us. When I approached closer, I realised it was the western commercial trekking party and they were taking part in a yoga session on an outcrop facing the river.
The trekkers seemed to be 'in the zone' and preoccupied with their yoga, so after a quick hello, I rejoined 'my' group of pilgrim trekkers and sat with them in the shade, knocking back a whole bottle of water in one go due to my thirst. After a few minutes the Tibetans got up to continue up the hill, and I joined them, thinking that the western trekkers would soon be following behind us - I was mistaken and this was the last I saw of them. I didn't know at the time, but they were having to wait 24 hours for their horses to catch up with them after their van ride from Aben. For the rest of the kora they would be a day behind me.
The rest of the afternoon was a long but not unpleasant slog up the track through pine forest. The Tibetan pilgrims walked faster than me - they were fitter and acclimatised to the altitude. However they tended to stop frequently for breaks, or to investigate some interesting mushroom or herb they had found along the wayside, so we kept the same pace overall. I was pleased to find that I had now acclimatised a little to the 3000m altitude and could maintain a steady pace up the hill for long periods. My guide was carrying my 10kg backpack, which of course helped, but I was also carrying about 5kg of camera gear and other items in my smaller daypack.
There was little to see once we were in the forest, but we did get occasional views of the surrounding mountain ranges. I soon ran out of water - despite taking more than a litre with me, and was gagging with thirst by 4pm, when we arrived at the "Gebu Top Camp". This was just one of the many pilgrim rest stations along the kora. It was little more than a fireplace with a bit of thick plastic sheeting thrown over a few logs. Next to it was a more sturdy log cabin that made the small shop - complete with resident shopkeeper and his son. And next to that was a larger sleeping area that was again little more than a flat piece of ground with some bits of flattened cardboard to sleep on, and protected from the elements by plastic sheeting that flapped in the wind. The price for staying at these way stations was 10 yuan a night, with free hot water.
The Tibetans collapsed with exhaustion where they sat and immediately had a nap in the vegetation. I had a look around the place and was disappointed to see the amounts of rubbish strewn about the area. Plastic bottles, instant noodle containers, plastic wrappers were thrown about with no thought of the environment at all. Tibetans venerated the mountains and treated the pilgrimage as a sacred duty - and yet they desecrated the whole route with their garbage. It was hard to understand. The same applied to the sanitation. There were no toilets at the shelter and piles of old excrement and discarded toilet paper could be seen in all the surrounding bushes. I was especially alarmed to note that many visitors had been shitting up the hill, close to the fresh water source that provided drinking water via a pipe to the shelter.
When it got dark at 7pm the Tibetans cooked up their usual meal of noodles, spam and some chillies in a large cauldron, while I ate one of my dehydrated meals, much to their bemusement and curiosity. And once the sun had gone down there was no power or light, so there was little to do except retire to the sleeping bag and read a book on my Kindle, and listen to the rustling of the trees in the breeze. The uncertainty and seat-of-your-pants planning that had plagued this trek persisted to the very end.
The next morning, stepping outside into the grey dawn, the sky was now clear of clouds and revealed the many different peaks on the horizon. To the west was the bulk of what I presumed to be Mt Kenyichunpo on the China-Burma border. The same range to the north had a more serrated peak, while directly to the north and somewhat nearer was the snowy jagged pyramid of the mountain that dominated the valley we had travelled up yesterday since crossing the Tangdu La pass. I sat round the fire with my guide and shared a bit of momo bread with him before we packed up and said farewell to the storekeeper and his son.
As we set off up the hillside covered with small trees and bushes I soon felt the impact of the altitude on my breathing, and slowed to a steady, lumbering plod while my guide raced ahead. I had thought we were almost at the Gebu Pass and expected it to be just around the next corner. I was to be sorely disappointed: it took me more than an hour before I finally crested the pass. It proved to be something of an anticlimax. Still in pine forest, the Gebu La was nothing more than a mass of prayer flags strewn among the trees. There was no vantage point or sweeping views - just a tantalising glimpse of the western peaks through the branches of the trees.
My guide was waiting over the other side, as usual sat on the track and playing with his iPhone.
And so after stopping to take a few pictures I continued on down, still in forest. The track descended at a steep angle initially, and it was difficult to concentrate on placing my feet all the time. Going down proved to be just as hard as going up, but in a different way. On the uphill sections I would struggle for breath - but at least it was possible to get into some kind of steady rhythm.
On the downhill section I found I was stepping over a random assortment of large stones and boulder outcrops, balancing on tree roots and descending step-like platforms constantly. It was tedious and frustrating because it was a stop-start kind of motion where I was always having to watch where I was placing my feet, or risk a tumble and broken bones. You can maintain the concentration to do this for an hour or two, but after a while you start to get careless and make mistakes. Dangerous ones. As well as being torture for the knees (even with my umbrella-cum-walking stick) this was mentally trying, and frustrating because I could not afford to let my attention lapse for even a second. When my gaze wandered to some sudden epic view through the trees I would find myself tripping up and tumbling, hands outstretched, onto the rocks. No wonder mountaineers feared the descent than the ascent. Complacency was dangerous.
The trees were festooned in the now familiar 'wizard's beard' of wispy light green vegetation, which the Chinese knew as muliusiu. The ground however, was festooned with an array of litter discarded by uncaring pilgrims: plastic bottles, food wrappers and Red Bull cans.
After some way the track turned rightwards (south) and skirted the contour of the hill, entering sparser stands of tall pines. I glanced occasional glimpses of the surrounding mountain ridges and of the deep forested valley below. In the distance, the peak of Kawkarpu was partly shrouded in cloud, and it dominated that end of the valley. On the opposite side of the valley a rough road had been hewn out of the hillside and followed the course of the Wichu river southward. My track ran parallel to this road, only a kilometre or so away as the crow flies, but it would no doubt take all day to reach it by crossing this vast canyon.
The track slowly descended towards a green ribbon of river, and wended its way around huge outcrops and spurs of the mountains. At one point it passed though a well-irrigated gully in which huge stands of stinging nettles grew, and I had to be careful to avoid brushing against them. Further on I took a serious fall down the hillside when the path beneath my feet simply collapsed and gave way without any warning, causing to to suddenly drop about three metres into the undergrowth. I reflexly grabbed hold of branches and bushes as I fell, which arrested my fall to the river but left my hands badly scratched and also left several painful wood splinters embedded in my fingers. These splinters were to prove a painful distraction for the rest of the day every time I flexed my fingers.
By about lunchtime I had almost reached the bottom of the valley, and could look back and appreciate the huge drop in height that I had made from the Gebu Pass. Below me I could see an isolated farmstead by the riverside, and even a few cattle grazing in the adjacent field. But I could see no sign of any human activity, either at the farm or on the road opposite. This was a very isolated valley.
My guide had tired of waiting for me and paced on ahead, leaving me alone in this desolate ravine. As I neared the river the track went steep again and I was faced with a choice of two paths: one went down to the water at a steep angle while the other skirted round a large craggy outcrop and looked very exposed. One slip off the track and I would end up in the raging white waters of the river. I chose the cliff track simply because it looked more well travelled than the path down towards the river,which I guessed might be an access trail for the nearby farm. I must have been right, because after I traversed the rocky outcrop over the river, the track descended straight down a landslide-prone gully in a series of tight zig-zags, until it reached the water's edge. There was no way a track could get around the outcrop at the water level, where the bare rock protruded out into the torrent. From here it was just a short stroll along the river bank through a makeshift 'gate' until a small bridge came into view.
There were a few Tibetan houses on the opposite bank and this was where my guide was waiting for me. A man of few words (well, he couldn't speak Chinese), he was sat in an adjacent shed with a couple of other Tibetans, and he offered me a bowl of instant noodles. After a half hour break it was time to be off again - back uphill and heading towards the next small hamlet called Laide.
The walk uphill to this small collection of about six houses was a tedious reversal of my recent descent, having to regain all that lost altitude. Having become accustomed to going downhill it was a painful re-introduction to the sweating, hyperventilating rigours of going uphill. Walking in the middle of the afternoon when it the hot sun beat down made it all the more difficult. But this was only a foretaste of what was to come. Laide was just the start of a long and miserable climb out of the valley, towards the Sho La pass.
The following four hours of uphill are boring to describe in writing because nothing much happened. It was the worst part of the whole trek for me because it was sheer hard work with no reward in the form of views or interesting sights. Just hour after hour of slogging up a track through the trees. There was nothing to see ahead and nothing to see below, except for an occasional view back over Laide. Every time the houses of Laide came back into view I felt like I was still on the outskirts of the place and not making any progress. It was a dull and depressing slog, pausing every fifteen minutes to rest, get my breath back and gulp some more dirty water down. One of the worst aspects was that I didn't know when it would end. Maps of the trail being hard to come by and signposts being somewhat lacking, it was impossible to know if the next rest stop was just round the next corner or another two hours up the hill. Sometimes I would think I could see a structure up ahead and think I was about to reach a hut or shelter, only to find it was a fallen tree or a large rocky outcrop from the ridge. No wonder asylum seekers go crazy and try to commit suicide in detention. It was hard enough facing uncertainty for one afternoon, never mind months and years of it.
When you tell your friends and family that you're going on a Tibetan 'trek' it conjures up images of a jaunty and active bit of walking through the great outdoors. Trek was the wrong word for that afternoon's activity. Trudge would be a better word. Trudging up a brown dusty track that seemed to never end. Again I had a terrible thirst and had consumed both my bottles of water within a couple of hours or so. There were no other water sources on this uphill section, so I finished the day hobbling in a weak and dehydrated state up to the final destination - the 'Laide Upper Camp' as I dubbed it. Another makeshift shelter for pilgrims, situated some distance below the Sho La pass.
When I first arrived at the hut I was exhausted and in a bad mood, and let out a torrent of abuse at some young Tibetan guys who mocked my final few steps to the doorway. Thankfully they didn't understand English, but I'm sure they got the gist of it. Within ten minutes though, we were good friends and chatting away as I sat on one of the sawn-off logs around the fire at the shelter and knocking back a whole can of cold-ish beer in one go. My rehydration had begun and the hut owner sold only beer and Coca Cola. There was no water to be had at this camp except for a slow trickle coming through a plastic pipe, which went into the cooking pot to be boiled up as kaishui. I settled into a corner, brushed away the spiders and other creepy crawlies in the soil, and put my feet up. Bliss.
The Laide upper camp was already occupied by a few Tibetan pilgrims, including a group of four monks. I was so exhausted that I did not venture out after I arrived, except for a brief sojourn to the door to take a picture of the distant snowy bulk of Kawakarpu in the distance behind the trees. Instead, I just lay on my sleeping bag on the floor and watched the shadows of branches play on the walls. Once again the thought came into my head; "The best thing about trekking is when it stops." Ahead lay the final goal - the Sho La pass. All being well I should arrive there tomorrow. Getting there would make all this pain and discomfort worthwhile. That was why the Tibetans did this pilgrimage, wasn't it? To acquire merit.
The final day:
When I woke up at the 4250 metre camp above Laide I had no idea if my guide would be continuing with me to the pass - or even if I would cross the pass that day. In truth, I didn't even know where I was. I had no maps, only some printouts of rough screengrabs from Google Earth that suggested I was high up near the final track leading up to the Sho La pass. But as with the previous day, I wasn't sure if the higher plateau was ten minutes away or two hours up the hill. All I knew was that there was still a bit of a walk up to the pass, which was the highest on this trek at 4815 metres (15,800 feet - higher than I had ever been). I also knew that there was another hut just before the pass, located in an exposed gully. I had this notion that I might walk as far as this hut (two or three hours away?) and stay there for the night, exploring the area around the pass. However, the 'manager' of this camp soon quashed that idea. He was a gruff Tibetan with a thick mane of hair, and told me he also 'controlled' the other hut, but that there was nobody there at the moment. It was locked up and not available to stay in. So it was the Sho La pass or bust.
The Tibetan pilgrims, as usual, were up before dawn and most of them left like a flock of chattering birds before it got light. The few of us remaining got up at 7am and I struggled through the motions of brushing my teeth, washing my face and finding somewhere to go to the loo.
Outside it was cold but the air was still and I got a great early view of the mass of Kawakarpo to the south, peeking up in the clear sky over the treetops. The view didn't last long though - within 20 minutes, thick fog had rolled up from the valleys. After just a few days of trekking my skin and clothes were coated with a thick layer of dirt, grease and dust. I stank of woodsmoke and sweat, and my hair was ragged like a stiff brush. I used a little of the local water trickle to make some coffee and to rehydrate the milk powder for my muesli. The water was brackish, gritty and tasted of smoke. When I asked the hut owner if he had any bottled water he shook his head and pulled out a box of Coca Cola - that was the only fluid he had except for beer. I took a can of each.
We set off up the hill early, with my guide saying he would accompany me as far as the pass - but he would not say what his plans were beyond that. I counted myself fortunate that at least I had someone to carry my pack that far. I reckoned I could lug it myself down the hill after the pass.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that we reached the crest of the ridge fairly quickly, within 15 minutes. There was another primitive log shelter and from here the track levelled out and skirted the side of the slope to the left, and into the final valley that led up to the pass. The track passed through stands of bushes and low shrubs, but there wasn't much of a view. Much of the landscape was still in dark shadows as the sun had yet to rise over the ridge.
As we skirted the contours, the valley below was still filled with cloud, and the landscape became bleaker as we rose above the vegetation line. Now the ground was almost martian - red and grey rocks and scattered boulders. After an hour we reached a small gully with a dried up creek, aside of which lay the final hut. As the owner had told us it was closed up and deserted. No place to stop.
The track took one final twist to the left and we hiked up into the final basin before the Sho La pass. This was it - the final destination.
As if on cue, the sun started to light up the landscape, bringing a feeble touch of warmth to the red rocks. From here the trail to the pass could be seen zig-zagging upwards, culminating in a distant field of prayer flags. My guide stopped and prostrated himself and clasped his hands together in prayer.
It only remained to pick our way over the boulder field and choose one of the several faint trails that led up to the pass. There was no sign of the other pilgrims and nobody else about: it felt like we had the whole mountain to ourselves. This was the culmination of the trek and my excitement rose as I stumbled up the last few metres and caught site of the passageway through the mass of prayer flags that marked the pass.
A few more steps and I arrived at the pass, feeling triumphant. Walking through the mass of prayer flags, I gasped as I saw the epic view over the other side back down into Yunnan. In theory I was no longer illegal. The Sho La (Chinese: Shuola Yakou, 说拉垭口) pass marked the border between Tibet and Yunnan, the high watershed between the Nu Jiang river and the Mekong (Lancang Jiang). On the Mekong side it was sunny and bright, while much of the Nu Jiang side of the pass remained hidden in shade.
I spent about 15 minutes on the pass, savouring the views and taking a few photos. The views over to the Mekong were awesome - though many of the ridges and valles were already being hidden by rising clouds. Many of the pictures of the Sho-La pass I had seen on the internet showed it to be a bleak and inhospitable place, often covered with snow and ice. I was lucky - I had perfect weather for this crossing, the air was clear and still, if a little chill.
I felt like the conquering hero, having reached this new height of 4800 metres. However, just as I was priding myself on my ruggedness, I heard cooing noises and looked through the arch of prayer flags to see a group of Tibetan women arriving, carrying babies and infants with them. One woman even had a milk bottle and was preparing for a bottle feed. All of a sudden I didn't feel so special. Despite the cold wind the group of women were dressed in light clothing, as if out for a stroll on a spring day, while I was wrapped up in my windproof jacket and with my scarf around my neck. The women parked themselves on the sunny side of the pass and started to feed their kids. I had no idea where they had come from - there had been no sign of them at the hut and I couldn't fathom where they had spent the previous evening - we were at least a day's hike from the nearest village in the valleys far below.
Meanwhile, my guide was looking restless. He gestured for me to take my backpack, and I paid him off for the last three days of portering and acting as a xiangdao (guide). He'd said he was going to return back down the mountain towards his home near Chawalong, but then a few moments later he asked if I wanted to pay him another day's fee and have him carry my pack down to the Mekong. I declined, and he said he would be walking down that way anyway.
And so I set off alone down from the pass, leaving Tibet behind, back into to Yunnan. It would be all downhill from here. But before I departed I left my can of beer among the prayer flags at he pass, along with all the offerings left by the Tibetans, as an offering to the mountain gods.
The path descended through the stone and scree fields towards the green and brown vegetation of the wide basin below, surrounded by ridges of orange and grey crags. All very beautiful.
As I pounded down the trail with my backpack weighing heavily on my shoulders for the first time, I pondered a strange and macabre death that had occurred at this spot. About three years previously an eccentric Australian woman called Margo who lived at the Tiger Leaping Gorge near Lijiang had died near the Sho La pass after attempting a solo crossing. As I related in a previous blog post, her body had eventually been found near the pass and it was presumed that she had lost her way and died of exposure after being stranded overnight while unequipped for the extreme weather of the high mountains. Margo had been encountered earlier on the trail by another group of western trekkers who had been doing the kora at the same time. She had acted in a bizarre and aggressive manner towards them and threatened to have them arrested. While she had a guide, Margo had walked ahead and alone for much of the kora, and had gone missing while crossing the Sho La pass. The full story is here: (Wayback archive).
What puzzled me was how she had managed to get lost. Having just completed the crossing of the pass myself, I couldn't understand how Margo had gone off the trail because it was so obvious and well trodden, except for perhaps the final few hundred metres. I could only guess that she had deliberately gone off the trail or had become disoriented in poor light (and yet the other trekkers say the weather was not bad during the time of their crossing). And as the Tibetan mothers and babies had shown, even a lightly equipped trekker could cross the pass if they were lucky with the weather. It would remain a mystery.
I was luckier than I realised. During the same week of my trek over the 4800 metre Sho La pass, disaster struck a large number of western trekkers in another part of the Himalayas, crossing a similar pass on the Annapurna circuit in Nepal. A sudden snowstorm trapped scores of people crossing the Throng La, and at least 40 were killed by the cold conditions or avalanches.
I had no such problems on my descent. The weather was perfect and the track was good. I regained the vegetation zone and walked amid a pristine landscape of pine and spruce trees, down to a clearing where a small hut with a blue roof had a wisp of smoke coming from within. I didn't go in, but continued down into the forest. The trail followed a stream that grew into a strong torrent as it got further down.
At one point it formed a waterfall, and the Tibetans had turned the pool beneath into a kind of wishing well, with banknotes plastered over the rocks. It was an unlucky site for me, as I left my umbrella behind here and only realised much further down the trail, by which time I had no intention of walking back down to retrieve it.
The walk down through the forest took many hours, including a brief stop for lunch by the river. I was alone for much of it, having left the Tibetan mothers behind a short distance below the pass.
By mid afternoon, however, I caught up with a group of Han Chinese trekkers who had been doing the kora for the last ten days. They were all very well equipped, and strode purposefully down the track wielding their trekking poles and shooting me quizzical looks as I passed them. I'd been told by the last hut manager that the descent from the Sho-La pass to the road would take four hours. That must have been the Tibetan high speed walking pace, because after leaving the pass at 9am I was still wearily plodding down the gorge at 1pm with no end in sight. I had emerged from the forest and entered a series of dry defiles and gullies, down which the track plunged towards the distant valley bottom.
By now the end was in sight, but still frustratingly far away. I could see the opposite side of the Mekong valley and even some houses and farms there, but each gully led only to another, and I seemed to be getting no nearer to the final strait. The sun was now high in the sky and my Coca Cola energy drink long exhausted. I had no other water so filled my bottles from the river and popped purifying tablets in them. This meant I faced a a thirsty 30 minute wait for the sterilising tablets to dissolve and take effect.
The path crossed and re-crossed the river many times, and by mid afternoon I had also caught up with the Tibetan monks and nun pilgrims who had shared the hut with me the previous night. My ears popped many times with the gradual loss of altitude before I eventually started to see signs of encroaching civilisation: first a concrete bridge instead of one made of logs, then a water irrigation channel - and then piles of rubbish - and flies.
It wasn't until late afternoon that I turned round a large rockface and saw the end in sight - the road about half a kilometre away. Just a couple more descending loop sections of track and I arrived at a stretch of road by the brown Mekong river. There was nothing there at all to mark that this was the end of a pilgrimage, the terminus for an epic, 10-day journey that had begun in Deqin more than 240km and five high mountain passes away around the circuit. No signs, no markers, no shrines or visitor's books to commemorate the completion of this long walk. There were no signs of life or habitation at the end of the the kora trail - just the brown river and a generic concrete road sign advising to guard against forest fires.
I was lucky in that a couple of minivans had been waiting for the Chinese trekkers, to take them back to Deqin. I was able to negotiate a ride, and thus avoid tan additional walk along the road to the village of Meili Shi about a mile away. There was little traffic on the road and I didn't think there would be much chance of a lift.
It took about two hours driving to get back to Fei Lai Si, along some spectacular sections of road that twisted up and down the canyon walls alongside the Mekong. But I was too exhausted to appreciate the scenery. I had had ten days of amazing landscapes and that was enough for me. All I wanted then was a cold beer and a lot of not walking. And that's exactly what I made sure I had when I got back to the hostel. It was as if I was in a different universe to the people around me - I was walking on air, having completed the kora.
The next morning I got up at dawn and joined the hordes to watch the sunrise over the mountain ranges. As they ooh-ed and aah-ed over the first streaks of sun to hit the peas, I just took in the view and tried to comprehend that I had walked right around those mountains over the last two weeks. And felt quite chuffed with myself.