Thursday, September 06, 2018


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                                                                                                [Click here to go forward to Chapter 12]

[At Christmas 2007 I took my 9-year old son Paul to explore the Salween (Nujiang) river canyon... travelling via Dali to Liuku, Fugong and Gongshan then Bingzhongluo]

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, Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory.

Managed to get a bit more kip and then stirred a chatty Paul out of bed at 7.30-ish, while still dark outside, to get him washed and dressed before we went over to the Tibetan café over the road. Our driver “Tony” from Kunming was waiting for us and we had breakfast of mantou (steamed bread) with pickles, plus some hard boiled eggs before we set off. As it got light I did a bit of last minute shopping for biscuits and water while they filled up the Jeep with petrol.

And then at about 8.30am on this sunny December 23rd, we were off, driving down the side road all the way down to Chongding first, and past the Catholic church we’d visited the day before. It was slow going at first because there were quite a few road crews upgrading the gravel track into something suitable for ordinary cars. They are obviously grooming this place for an influx of tourists.

Soon we were past the tipper trucks duping concrete and muck on the road, and the first stop was right down by the riverside at a place called Shi Men Guan (Stone Gate Pass). At this point the high walls of the cliffs closed in around the turquoise slow-running Nu river and at this early hour much of the river was in shade and with mist over the water.
Nujiang north of Bingzhongluo, Yunnan

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

Shimenguan, Bingzhongluo-Chawalong road

The vegetation here was still lush and green, and the climate quite mild – but beyond Shi Men Guan there were few people and no traffic about.
We continued on the road up to the turn off for Qiunatong, some 18km up the road, admiring the spectacular scenery along the way.

Didading - near Qiunatong

Stopping at n encampment for more road workers, we then pressed on along a dirt track as the smooth road gave way to a bumpier, unmaintained track.

The Jeep bumped and jolted its way along the right hand (eastern) side of the river – occasionally turning a hairpin bend or following the road a little higher above the river – but nothing too scary – yet.

Road on Nujiang south of Chawalong, Tibet

We got glimpses of snow covered peaks around corners and hiding behind the main range towards what appeared to be Burma. The scenery really was breathtaking, especially in the winter sun and under blue skies, and we seemed to have it all to ourselves.

peak above Nujiang north of Bingzhongluo, Yunnan

By mid morning we came to a pale blue sign that announced were leaving Yunnan and entering Tibet. Paul amused himself by jumping from one side to the other and chanting “Now I’m breaking the law, now I’m not.” We didn’t have Tibet entry permits.

We made it to Tibet

Some way up the road we came across our first Tibetan village of Longpu, where the style of houses was typically robust Tibetan, like small stone forts. Quite a contrast to the dark wooden log cabins of the Nu and Lisu a few km to the south. We noticed the landscape was becoming more arid, the hills apparently steeper and bare of vegetation, and the sky even bluer than before.

Nujiang waterfall

Bridge over Nujiang north of Bingzhongluo, Yunnan

After a short break where we ate more mantou and hard boiled eggs by the roadside, we pressed on along an increasingly dangerous road.

I had not expected this and it came as a rude shock to find that our route now lay along a precipitous ledge carved out of the sides of the steep cliffs. The road was barely wide enough for one car and the drop off at the side was all too frequently a sheer drop straight down into the river. The surface of the road was very bumpy and uneven, so each lurch saw me gripping the interior handles and grimacing at the prospect of a sudden slip off the road. To my alarm I found the doors were locked, so even my panicking plan to shoot out of the door should we come off the road would not be possible. I was terrified. The road just got worse and worse, and one of the bad things about it was that I could see the scary sections coming up in advance – in fact many of them looked much worse and more precarious from a distance than they really were in reality.

Nightmare road above Bingzhongluo

Paul was enjoying my discomfort and didn’t seem bothered by the risky nature of the road at all. As I sat there quaking and muttering “Oh God” or “Aiyah!” He just laughed and taunted me with: “Daaad – we’re going to fall off!”

The worst sections involved the road jutting out on a sharp spur over the river and then turning a tight corner to ascend or descend. I gripped the seat tightly and just closed my eyes and dare not to look or breathe.
I didn’t even dare think what would happen if a car or truck came the other way and we had to stop or worse, reverse.

I was not happy with the state of the road – in some parts the road appeared to be little more than a load of gravel tamped together tightly and shored up against falling into the river way below with just a few planks of rotting wood.

And just when I though we were over the worst an even more precarious section would come up.

Road on Nujiang south of Chawalong, Tibet

Needless to say I didn’t have much inclination to appreciate the fine views or the changing scenery.

Before I knew it we were in a very different arid landscape of fine white and grey dusty rock, massive steep slopes on either side, ending in jagged ridges. Cactuses grew along the roadside and the air appeared dry and thin. We passed a few Tibetan style cabins, some Mani stones and prayer flags, but for mile after mile the landscape was just barren of almost all forms of life – including vegetation. As Tony said, in these parts it may only rain two or three days in a year.
Tibetan house on upper Nujiang

Paul had by now nodded off and I cradled him on my lap as we crossed more ridiculously dangerous sections of ledge-road, until we eventually pulled up below a large white chalky landslip.

Chalky landslip on Chawalong road

landslip on Road on Nujiang south of Chawalong, Tibet

Landslip in Tibet, north of Bingzhongluo

Until now Tony had not appeared to be fazed by the state of the road, but here he got out and paced up and down, squinting up at the landslip and wondering whether it would be safe to cross below the buttressed wall that held back the huge mass of small stones. It took him a while to make up his mind that it was safe, and we go back in the car to edge rather quickly along this much swept route.

And then a few minutes later we were finally at Chawalong. The town appeared to comprise a picturesque cluster of traditional stone Tibetan buildings clinging to the hillside, and a more modern Chinese-style one street strip of sleazy and run down concrete building, tatty shopfronts and a few official buildings.

Chawalong, on the Nujiang

Tony asked the Tibetan guy who we had given a lift to for the last 5km where his friend lived, and was pointed to the far end of the traditional village.

And it was here that we pulled up, along an old cattle track, with instructions for me and Paul to keep out of sight until we knew which building we were staying in.
There were a few ragged looking girls herding goats and cows along these tracks, while others laboured along with large piles of sticks and branches lashed to their backs.

We finally got the all-clear and emerged stiff and reeking of nervous sweat form the Jeep, to walk up the grey gravel track to the house where Ma Huang’s local mate lived. A few local kids saw us and smiled/gawped before we reached the doorway and entered the dark interior of the Tibetan household. We had arrived in Chawalong.

 Chawalong, Tibet

Where we dined, Chawalong, Tibet

Inside the dark house we climbed up the rough wooden steps past a nasty looking German shepherd dog that was tethered in the rank-smelling straw of the ground floor. Upstairs we entered the black, barely lit large living room and joined the Tibetan family around a table. Some of the family, including a grandad with Buddhist prayer beads, were squatting round the big fire/stove in the middle of the room. But we were ushered to the table where we were given sunflower seeds and cups of warm Qingke barley wine, which our host assured us was their equivalent of water and was OK for kids to drink.

Chawalong interior 2

On the big TV they were watching some kind of Chinese male beauty pageant – in which bronzed sculpted gay-looking young Chinese men strolled across stage in just their boxer shorts, holding a couple of pink balloons. It was surreal.

Chawalong Tibet, north of Bingzhongluo

And this is pretty much how we spent the evening – watching crap Chinese TV (a program about a Chongqing-based cop drama) while the hosts chatted to Tony. I asked one guy what dialect of Tibetan they spoke, and he assured me they all spoke mandarin. I later learned he was just a lodger from Sichuan, and out-of-work guy who had moved to Chawalong because he preferred the easy life and relations with the Tibetans compared to the rate race of lowland Sichuan.

Chawalong interior

I asked a smart looking local Tibetan guy about the road, expecting some reassurance, but to my dismay he agreed that it was extremely dangerous because it was not an official road and therefore the local government did not maintain. The whole road was unstable, he said because the maintenance was done by local people on a voluntary basis. Only last month a group of Taiwanese and HK visitors had been killed when their vehicle came off the road, he told me.

Paul mooched round the house and made me nervous with his mischief – taunting the big dog, herding chickens, and throwing bits of waste maize to the pigs and chooks below form high up on the unfenced open roof.

We had dinner of chicken (the one we brought was beheaded, but Paul did not seem fazed by this at all), and I gobbled up much of the pork and chillies dish.

I had presumed we would be staying there that night, but at about 9.30-ish Tony suddenly announced were off, and we all traipsed over in the dark to a rickety wooden guesthouse on the main street, made form planks of what seemed like plywood.

On the way I broached the subject of my being nervous about the road trip back tomorrow, and Tony seemed surprised and hurt when I suggested there were some sections I might prefer to walk. He made some cold comment about being careful walking near the edge, and asked if it was his driving or the road that I didn’t have confidence in. I assured him it was the latter.

Walking down the main “street” of Chawalong felt like walking through the set of a western movie – as Paul remarked, all they needed was a Saloon Bar. On route we passed a couple of ‘nightclubs’ playing Tibetan and Eurotrash music, and within I glimpsed a group of Tibetan girls doing something that looked a line dance in a lounge with scenic pictures drawn on the wall.

A few locals shouted a friendly hello from the dark street sides – how could they see I was a foreigner in the dark?
Later on when I went back and peeped inside the other upstairs disco I found it to be full of rough looking Tibetan guys doing the same kind of arm over shoulder dancing, while others sat around at low tables strewn with hundreds of empty beer bottles, looking absolutely smashed. I didn’t linger to chat.

Instead I returned to get Paul settled down for the night, and to try sleep myself in the big dorm room we had all to ourselves.
I didn’t sleep well. I woke up at 3am again, my knees knocking and shivering with terror at the thought of those precipitous roads I would have to face one more time.

I picked up my book, The Power and the Glory, and quite appropriately reached the bit where the whiskey priest tries to prepare himself for death on the eve of his execution. “He woke full of hope, which immediately drained away …”.

I felt just the same and couldn’t rid myself of the mental image of those narrow ledges above the river. In my fevered imagination I even thought them likely to be too scary even to contemplate walking along, let alone driving. Would it be possible to walk back all the way in maybe three or four days? Or could I even get back by going north, further into Tibet and then doing a dogleg to Litang? That’s how petrified I was.

I managed to snatch a little more sleep until 7-ish, when I woke up and got dressed with false bravado on Christmas Eve, singing Christmas carols such as Hark the Herald Angels Sing to myself in an effort to maintain morale. Who was I trying to kid?

Near Bingzhongluo:
Peak on Bingzhongluo-Chawalong road

Long drop to the river:

Nujiang north of Bingzhongluo, Yunnan

Nujiang near Yunnan-Tibet border.Bingzhongluo-Chawalong road

Longpu, the first Tibetan settlent on the Nujiang:

Nujiang in Tibet, north of Bingzhongluo

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

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

Nujiang in Tibet, north of Bingzhongluo

Dwarfed by the landscape:

Nujiang road from Bingzhongluo to Chawalong

The barren road to Chawalong:

Bingzhongluo-Chawalong road


Road on Nujiang south of Chawalong, Tibet

Near Chawalong:

Road on Nujiang south of Chawalong, Tibet

Day 2: Return to Bingzhongluo

We didn’t hang around long in Chawalong on the morning of Christmas Eve. (If you want to see some excellent pictures of Chawalong, and portraits of the local Tibetan people by other photographers click here or here).

In the early morning light Chawalong looked even more grim than it had in the dark of the previous evening. Our guesthouse backed on to the edge of the river, and the slope down to the river seemed to serve as the local rubbish tip as well as outdoor toilet. A few curious locals came and gawked at us as we brushed our teeth, and I really just wanted to get out of there and get the scary road journey over with.

Once I was in the car I wasn’t too worried – it was all out of my control. We said our farewells and re-traced our route back along the bumpy road through the arid valley, past the landslip and then onto the scary sections of ledge road, way above the Nu river.

I don't like this road

It was bad, but not as bad as I’d expected. I made it easier for myself by sitting on the cliff side of the car, so I couldn’t see down the huge drop offs. And on the scary bits I stuck my eye in the viewfinder of the video camera and found that I wasn’t half so scared when I was seeing it as it was filmed – it was only when I looked at the real thing that I got the collywobbles again.

Road along Nujiang south of Chawalong, Tibet

Nujiang road to Chawolong, Tibet

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.

Nightmare road above Bingzhongluo

"There, that wasn’t so bad after all …” I reassured myself.
Then round the next corner came one of the worst bits – a sharp turn round a section of road with a sheer drop off down to the river. I could have stayed in the car and managed it (honest) but I asked to get out and filmed the Jeep going over that section, and they waited a few hundred metres beyond to pick me up.

Nujiang road to Chawolong, Tibet

In fact Tony insisted that I tell him when I wanted to make more photos and he would stop the Jeep – so much so that we were making very slow progress because there were just so many scenic bits.

Nujiang road from Bingzhongluo to Chawalong

We passed bridges and cables over the rivers and even saw a couple of other vehicles on the road this time – a Jeep overtook us and a truck went past in a cloud of dust going up the valley. I wouldn’t want to be riding in that.
Nujiang river bridge

But there were no other people.
We stopped for lunch above the village of Longpu again and enjoyed the warm sun as we ate more boiled eggs and mantou by the car.
By early afternoon we were underway again and I had almost had too much of the scenery. Places where yesterday I would have gone into a frenzy of snapping I now ignored – I simply had too many picturesque views already.

Nujiang north of Bingzhongluo

I hunkered down in the back seat of the Jeep and swayed along as we entered what I thought would be the final strait of the voyage back to Bingzhongluo. We were approaching the border between Tibet and Yunnan, and with only about 50 or 60km to go, I expected to be back in town within the hour and soaking the dust and grime away in a hot bath. I was already thinking ahead to the evening, where we would spend Christmas Eve going down to the local Catholic church to see the Lisu people celebrate midnight mass.

But then the engine of the Jeep died and we rolled to a halt in the middle of nowhere.

Tony tried starting the car and at first I thought it was just a simple stall. But when the car engine would not turn over and was dead he stated flatly that we had run out of petrol.
Out of petrol, Songta, Nujiang south of Chawalong, Tibet

All of a sudden our plans were in turmoil. What did this mean – where were we and how were we going to get out of here?
Tony was quite calm and simply said that he would walk to the nearest settlement and phone down to Bingzhongluo to get the boss man, Ma Huang to come and bring us some petrol.

He set off to walk up the hill as we took stock of our position. We were on the lower reaches of the river, where the vegetation was lush and there were streams running down from the steep sided hills. Large dramatic snow peaks towered over us.

Nujiang south of Chawalong, Tibet

A short stroll down the road ahead of the car revealed some buildings ahead – so I rushed down to tell Tony, and he reversed course and headed off to try phone from there.

As we waited, me and Paul clambered down the 50m from the road to the edge of the Nu river – the first time we had actually been within touching distance of this mighty river. At this point it was slow and deep, but the currents looked strong – and eddies grew faster as the river soon narrowed into a section of rapids.

Beach holiday on the Nujiang

After half an hour of mucking about, throwing stones in the river, Tony returned with bad news. There was no phone down at the shack he had found, and the woman he’d met there said there were no other phones in other nearby settlements within walking distance. We would just have to wait until a passing car came through which could lend us the few litres of petrol to complete our journey, said Tony. That, or get them to pass on a message to Mr Ma Huang. But not to worry, he said, Ma Huang would act swiftly when we weren’t back by the expected time of 4pm, and so be up here to pick us up.

I believed his confident assurances and just settled in to watch over Paul, who was playing by the river bank making sandcastles on a sandbar. An hour past, it was now 4.30pm, and I still believed we would be back in Bingzhongluo before it got dark.

I mooched down to the shack a few hundred metres down the road and got chased by the woman’s vicious dog. I checked the story about the phone and asked her what the likelihood was of passing traffic – she just shrugged her shoulders.

Then I had a scare when Paul was doing his usual daredevil climbing/exploring – Shortly after I heard those dreaded words: “Dad - Look at me!” he slipped while climbing down from a tree hanging over the river, and banged his knee badly on a rock.

He was ominously quiet and I was all worry and anger with him, trying to explain that if he broke a leg here we would be absolutely stuffed, being two days walk from even the most basic first aid facilities. He sat, chastened, in the car and kept out of trouble for a while after that.

Another hour went by and I began to have my doubts about getting out of there in a hurry. It would be dark soon after 6pm and we had seen no other traffic. Tony suggested we move our stuff down to the shack from the car, and as we did a truck came up from Bingzhongluo. But of course he had only diesel, not petrol, and was of little use to us. I thought Tony might ask him to call Ma Huang, but he didn’t.

Songta Tibet, north of Bingzhongluo

We settled in to the tiny shack where the lady lived, invited in by her to sit around the smoky fire on tiny stools. Normally I might be quite angry or frustrated by such a last minute foul up and avoidable delay to my journey, but I just didn’t care right then. I was in such high spirits for having “survived” that dangerous road earlier in the day that I was euphoric and it just felt great to be alive – I just didn’t care!

Gongta, Tibet, where we spent Christmas

And this is where we spent our Christmas Eve. As it got dark I began to lose hope of getting out of this remote place, and settled in around the fire, trying to put a brave face on it. Paul seemed happy – flicking ash and sparks from the fire, poking the chickens that roamed around and prodding the cat, dog and the little piglet that shared our places around the fire.

Gongta, Tibet, where we spent Christmas

The woman was all hospitality. She boiled up a big cauldron of water on the fire and cooked us some noodles to which Tony and our Beijing woman companion added spam and a bit of green leafy veggies.
What a Christmas Eve this was turning out to be! Here we were in the middle of nowhere with absolutely nothing to do. No Christmas cheer in this little shack. The only diversions were a vicious fight between the resident guard dog and another dog that accompanied tow young lads who suddenly appeared from the night. They were the woman’s sons and seemed like really country yokels. Between them they beat the two snarling dogs violently with large sticks until one limped off whining to sit on top of the pig sty roof.

Christmas Eve in Tibet

After that me and Paul settled into a game of cards round the fire, playing blackjack, Uno and even snap – in the course of which Paul won about 80 kuai off me, much to his delight.
Gongta, Tibet, where we spent Christmas

When it was finally time to turn in the host offered us the use of her ‘spare room’, which turned out to be a cold shed that contained just an iron bedstead on which had been lain three rough planks, a blanket and a dirty duvet. That was all the bedding for four of us. Tony and the Beijing woman graciously offered the room to us, and they said they would sit up and try doze by the fire.

So I ended up pulling out the few other items of clothing from my bag and using them as extra mattress material, and settling down with Paul on the plans, huddling together to keep warm. I had to be careful to avoid two other hazards – a live electrical socket connected with bare wires and no plug – and the vicious guard dog which was tethered just outside our door – so I had to skip smartly away from its snapping jaws every time I entered or left the room.

Surprisingly I did manage to grab a few hours of sleep, but it wasn’t easy or comfortable, what with the hard planks digging in my back and Paul rolling over off the planks and taking the duvet with him.

I must have been asleep for two or three hours when in the middle of the night I suddenly heard the startling sound of a vehicle sounding its horn over and over, somewhere nearby. I dragged myself out of bed, and feeling vulnerable and scared, emerged from the shed into the freezing night air (remembering with a start to dodge the dog) and had a muddled conversation with a Tibetan guy asking where the boss was. I wasn’t sure if he was specifically looking for Tony or whether he was just a passing driver looking for a bed for the night.

Tony soon emerged, looking absolutely worn out from his smoky fireside stool vigil, and had a chat with the guy. He then explained that he would go with the driver in his truck down to Bingzhongluo and bring a recovery vehicle the next morning. Given the late hour and the danger of the truck travel on the road at night we would be better off going back to bed and waiting a few more hours, he said.
And so that’s what I did, thinking that help would be arriving soon after breakfast. Wrong again.

Gongta, Tibet, where we spent Christmas

And thus it was we awoke on Christmas morning, “Away in a Manger” – literally. No crib for a bed – just a few planks. And no room at the inn for these travellers, so we had had to stay amid the beasts, if not in the stable well at least in the tool shed. No wise men, just three very tired and weary travellers, eating instant noodles for breakfast. No gold, frankincense or myrrh. Just some leftover pickles, chilli sauce and a dusty bottle of past its sell-by date Pepsi from the woman’s meagre store.

As we waited for help to arrive she told us that she helped look after the local river monitoring station – it was only a very small affair, measuring river levels. She ran a little store selling noodles and cigs to make a few cents from the occasional passing truck or itinerant workmen passing through. She grew her own vegetables and her kids foraged and hunted in the surrounding forests – picking herbs and medicinal mushrooms when they were in season.
Nu boys at Gongta, Tibet

Gongta, Tibet, where we spent Christmas

The two young lads played with Paul that morning – sharing their catapult (which they later donated to him when they saw how much fun he was having with it, and wouldn’t accept any money for it). They also demonstrated their crossbow.

The morning dragged on and what little sense of adventure I felt over our “stranded in Tibet” escapade was now rapidly running out. Ten o clock and even the ever-patient Chinese woman was beginning to sigh. I began to have hallucinations. I would think I could hear the shifting gears of a truck and rush out on to the road only to realise it was the grunting of the pigs in the sty next door.

I walked up and down the road in both directions for a mile or more, with nothing to see except some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. I walked down to the rapids of the river, bushwhacking my way through brambles to get a good view, and then rock hopping to get as close as I safely could to the madly rushing torrent. And while I was down there I again imagined I could hear the roar of engines – hurrying back to the road once more, only to find deserted disappointment.

Gongta, Tibet, where we spent Christmas

Gongta, Tibet, where we spent Christmas

Lunchtime came and went – and our Christmas lunch was – surprise surprise – more instant noodles with hunks of spam from a tin.

This was getting seriously annoying and I was beginning to curse under my breath. What the **** was Tony doing? Was he just going to leave us here another day? Had he given up on his hope of 1000 kuai fee? Had he had an accident in the truck?

I was full of doubts by now and set 2pm as the deadline for action. I f nobody had arrived by then I would take Paul and set off to walk the 18km down to the nearest little settlement of Didadang. There, the woman told us, there was a basic guesthouse. I could do it in about four or five hours, she reckoned – but she had never walked with a dawdling eight year old.

I took another walk down to the river to take some more photos of nearby peaks, now that the sun was high in he sky and the valley was no longer in shade. Then I would pack all my kit and walk out of there.


On my return to the shed I was delighted to see a minivan – and then another jeep – help had arrived at last – almost 24 hours after we had first run out of petrol. We were saved.

Our actual departure form this isolated and beautiful spot was a bit of an anticlimax. First we had to wait more than another hour while they tried to refuel the Jeep and get it going. When this didn’t proceed too smoothly, they decided to evacuate us in the tinny little minivan. So we all crammed in and rattled off down the road after saying a final heartfelt thank you and farewell to the wonderful Ms Liu, who had welcomed us to her humble shack and shown the true spirit of Christmas in sharing all her meagre supplies and accommodation with us, the complete strangers.

The minivan was rude shock after the spacious, tough and well-suspensioned Jeep. It jolted us around and swerved dangerously near the edge of the track as its puny engine screamed and whined to drag us metre by metre back down the Nu river valley towards Bingzhongluo. I couldn’t complain though – it was getting us out of there, wasn’t it?

Nujiang north of Bingzhongluo

And so it was we finally hauled ourselves up out of the river valley at Bingzhongluo, back past the Catholic church where Lisu villagers were sitting about in the churchyard in their vivid Sunday best coloured costumes of pink, sky blue and yellow. I could have got out there and taken some great pictures and they finished off their celebrations, but I was just too physically and mentally exhausted. I stayed in the van, rode the extra 1km back up the hill into town and on arriving went straight up to our hotel room to soak all the smoke and dust off myself in the bath and shout: “I’m alive! I’m alive!” in a silly voice to no-one in particular.

It did feel good to be alive...

Peaks above Songta:
Snow peaks in Tibet, north of Bingzhongluo

Longpu from the north:
Nujiang road to Chawolong, Tibet

Nu village near Bingzhongluo (Shi Men Guan)

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