Tuesday, July 02, 2024

Choni 卓尼 update

 I have just updated the Choni chapter to reflect a recent discovery that Rock was concealing a major feature of the place - the presence of Christian missionaries and hundreds of converts. 

In his article about Choni, Rock portrayed the small town in Gansu as a remote Tibetan princely jurisdiction with a strange and unique Buddhist character, untouched by the outside world.

However, this article describes how Scots protestant missionary William Christie lived in Choni (Zhuoni, 卓尼)  for two decades from 1904 to 1924,  departing just months before Rock arrived. Christie converted hundreds of Choni Tibetans to Christianity and even won the favour of the local prince, if not converting him. 

Christie turned an abandoned Tibetan monastery into a mission station in nearby Lintan, and the locals are still practising Christians to this day. And yet Rock makes no mention of this, though he must have been aware, having lived in Choni for almost a year. Perhaps he didn't want to spoil the image of himself as a pioneer explorer.

And maybe the presence of a Christian enclave is the reason why Choni was deemed sensitive and 'closed' by the local PSB when I visited  - and was deported - a decade ago.


Monday, June 24, 2024

You too can follow the roads once travelled by Joseph Rock


Just a quick update for the Joseph Rock aficianados. Someone with the handle of @chinadrivingtours (link) has uploaded hours of Youtube footage of real time driving in the Tibetan borderlands of Yunnan and Sichuan [and many other parts of the provinces]. 

So if you like looking at a lot of tarmac and the occasional bit of dirt road, every single metre of the road from Lugu Lake to Yading is available to view in 22 episodes. Might be useful if you're planning a bike trip and want to see the road conditions.  

Looks like they did a big loop - Dali to the Nujiang then up to Bingzhongluo, then to Deqin and around to Zhongdian ('Shangri La' ) and Lijiang. Plus there's bit of Meili Xueshan, Litang, Baoshan, Tengchong and much more.

Sunday, May 26, 2024

My trip to Xinjiang: Part One - Kanas Lake

 Not Joseph Rock related, but I have just returned from an interesting trip to Xinjiang. It was a fairly random, last minute spur of the moment decision to go there, propelled by insanely cheap airfares currently being offered on Trip.com - A$500 return from Sydney to Urumqi via Zhengzhou, on Tianjin Airlines.

My main goal was to visit the north of the province, to see the scenery around Kanas Lake on China's border with Kazakhstan, Russia and Mongolia. I managed this quite easily with an overnight train ride to Beitun from Urumqi, through scrub-covered, arid plains, which reminded me of the Australian outback. 

From the scrappy town of Beitun I took a shared taxi costing Y150 over more 'desert' and then into green hills to the tourist hub of Jiadengyu. This is situated 30km from the lake and has something of a ski village vibe and the buildings have a European styling. This is where most visitors stay, because the hotels are affordable and there's a shuttle bus that operates at regular intervals to take you to the Lake Kanas  park entrance. Entry is about Y230, which includes the bus fare, and you get half price admission if you visit the next day.

The scenery around Kanas Lake was magnificent, explaining why it is such a popular attraction and feature of so many photo galleries. The rolling green hills and birch forests make you think you might be in Alaska or Scandinavia. The local people are mostly Khazak ethnicity and they practice dairy farming.

This was just a recce visit, so I did the main tourists things - such as taking the shuttle bus up to the Guanyutai ride walk, where a stroll up the hill on a boardwalk takes you to a pavilion with epic views of the lake.  Most Chinese visitors on a day visit do the 10 minute bus/walk trip down to the boat wharf and take photos of the amazingly clear waters with the snow capped mountains as a backdrop. During the summer months its possible to take a boat ride on the lake, but in May the lake was still partially covered with ice, so the boats weren't running.

You can easily escape the crowds by walking off the marked tracks and just follow the edge of the lake. There are some signs warning about this being a 'beast infested area' [pictures of bears, wolves], but I didn't encounter any on my hour-long walk beside the lake. In fact I didn't encounter a single other person - it was very quiet and solitary - The Hills Are Live with the Sound of ... not much.

I followed this up with an equally pleasant 3.5km walk back from the boat wharf along the boardwalk trail that follows the Kanas river back to the bus depot, via a quaint wooden bridge. Again, hardly anyone about once you leave the tourist hub.

On my second day I took another bus to the border village of Baihaba, where you can peer over the barbed wire fence into the hills of Kazakhstan. The guidebooks say this area is closed to foreigners, but I had no problems getting the necessary permit from the police office just next to the bus ticket office at the Kanas Lake tourism centre. It's a pleasant trip through rolling hills and forests, and to be honest there isn't much to do in the village, which has just a couple of shops and restaurants. You can stroll among all the log cabin style buildings down to the border fence, and try not to attract the attention of the guards in the watch tower behind you. The border is very heavily sealed off by fences and under surveillance, so don't think about wandering over to have a look in Khazakhstan!

The shuttle bus ride back to Jiadengyu is a scenic trip in itself, and takes about 40 minutes. At the tourist village there is a 'food court' outdoor plaza where you can try many variations on the local specialty of barbecued meat. This is dairy country so there is plenty of beef and yoghurt on offer.

I only had a few days at Kanas Lake but I would definitely consider coming back to do some camping, cycling and packrafting. While there are many Chinese tourists, they tend to stick to the official coach route itineraries. I didn't see any independent travellers or foreign tourists during my visit. There were also no police or security restrictions or hassles, which I had been expecting in Xinjiang - these were more obvoius when I went down south to Kashgar [see next post].

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Return to Kangding after 30 years: trip report

 Over Easter I made a brief visit to Kangding from Chengdu, where I was doing a bit of digital nomad working. It's been about seven years since I was last there and yet again there have been major changes to this Sino-Tibetan border town. 

First of all, it is now ridiculously easy to get there. Four hours on a coach from the usual bus station in Chengdu, via the 318 Highway Expressway. The bus station is still next door to what used to be the old backpacker haunt of the 'Traffic Hotel' - but this has now been given a facelift to an upmarket boutique hotel, like much of the rest of China. It's now called the Hanbai 'M' Hotel (瀚柏酒店) and no longer offers backpacker dorms. 

The 318 Highway is now all modern motorway and there was a 20-minute stop at a very flashy new service area which was more like a Westfield Mall. It had a food court, outdoor gear shops (selling oxygen aerosol canisters) and other retail outlets, many with a '318' theme. The service area was also notable for having multiple EV charging stations that were in use by many cars and trucks, not just for decoration.

Thus the journey was very different from the arduous two-day bus journey on bone-rattling switchback mountain roads that I undertook on my first visit in the 1990s. Back then (and until recently) the only stops en route were at fly-blown grim roadside halts offering bowls of noodles and stinky toilets.

Arriving in Kangding, I'd already booked my hotel ahead via AliPay/Ctrip - about 200 RMB a night at the nice and friendly Tibetan run Yunzhi Hotel. I picked it because it was just a couple of minutes away from the bus station. I'd previously stayed at the US-run Zhilam Hostel, but I later found his has now closed down. 

The Zhilam had been set up by an idealistic American couple from Colorado - one of them the son of former Christian missionaries in China. When it opened, the Zhilam Hostel was seen as a trailblazing gamechanger for China's hospitality sector - bringing western sophistication and a progressive/benevolent/environmental approach to what was then still a rough and ready frontier mountain town. They employed and trained local Tibetans, they showcased local culture and products, did things in a sustainable way and they provided western levels of service and western-friendly fare.

When I hiked up the steep back road to visit the hostel the next day, I found the building closed up, and now crowded out and overshadowed by about 20 other upmarket guesthouses, homestays and designer hotels on the same high road above town. The new occupier of the former Zhilam Hostel building told me that the American managers had left some years before the covid pandemic, which had been the final nail in the coffin for the western-led tourism market in Kangding. She told she ran another hostel that was 'much nicer', up the road. I went to have a look and found it was one of many very stylish and comfortable guesthouses that all seem to  have a kind of 'IKEA Asia' vibe: modern, clean, bland.

This made me reflect on 'progress' and western influence in China. The Zhilam seems to be like many western ventures that enter China with high hopes and a bit of media hype (Starbucks, Tesla ...). But then after a few years they fail to catch on or fall out of fashion and are abandoned or become sidelined by more competitive local alternatives.  Even the successful western ideas become localised and assimilated to local tastes (KFC, Communism ...).

On my first evening in Kangding I walked up to the top of the old town, still relatively unchanged along the banks of the raging Zheduo river. The town square was still full of Han and Tibetan 'aunties' doing their synchronised dancing. There were quite a few Chinese tourists on the streets, including many independent travellers on bikes, heading for Lhasa. I saw one guy with the same folding bike model as mine. How he would get to Lhasa on a 20-inch wheel 8-gear Dahon Speed  - and barely and baggage - I don't know.

At the top of town, where the old Black Tent hostel used to be, there is now a swish cafe and shops attached to the renovated monastery. The building was not new, but I went in the cafe and had a German beer for old times sake, remembering the creaky wooden floor boards, stale, hard beds and flimsy plywood partition walls of the dirty old Black Tent guesthouse.

Across the road I revisited the not-so-new tourist zone with its many souvenir shops, restaurants and bars. The Himalaya Cafe was still there, and it became my go-to place for coffee and wifi during my brief stay in town. Just down the road I ducked in to the new LiNi supermarket, which was had a better range of products than your average suburban supermarket in Australia (though that isn't saying much).

My interest was in the beer and wine section, where I found a huge range of local craft and imported ales [most from Germany, some from California). They also had an impressive selection of wines, including a Penfolds 2018 Bin 28  Shiraz (368 RMB) that must have predated the China boycott of Aussie wines. Video here.

On my first full day in Kangding I flagged down a [shared] taxi and went up to see the Nanwu Si and Jinggan  Si Tibetan monasteries at the top of town. En route, I noted that my map showed a major new expressway bypass planned to cross above the town - and the construction of this was ongoing, meaning that cablecar access to the famous Paoma Shan hill was suspended.

It was a sunny day and the monasteries looked glittering and newly renovated. There were a few monks about, and a number of Tibetans sitting in the shade of spring blossom trees doing their picnic thing. After revisiting the temples I chatted to a couple of monks who were practising their Tibetan script while sat underneath red umbrellas in the courtyard. I didn't breach any 'sensitive' questions [Dalai Lama etc] but they seemed happy to talk about general monastery stuff and what they were doing in their daily lives.

Similarly when I climbed up the hill to investigate the commotion at the top  temple, I found a large number of monks around the entrance partaking in Tibetan monastic debate. This involved one 'challenger' reciting points of logic to a 'respondent' complete with hand claps to emphasise points, and the respondent returning fire with well argued rebuttals. All very animated, and they were happy to let me watch and film their sessions. There's a video on my Youtube channel here.

For lunch, I was delighted to find that my favourite jiaozi restaurant - the Datong Xiaochi snack outlet, was still very much in business 30 years after my first visit. I went in and enjoyed 12 of their wonderful guotie.

I took it easy in the afternoon, finding myself a bit out of breath with the sudden move to higher altitude (2600m). I revisited the Catholic church facing the river, which is now accessed by a dodgy lift to the fourth floor. The caretaker was a nice guy from Xian who was happy - insistent even - about showing me around the church. I was unchanged from my previous visits, but the old missals had gone.

The caretaker said he was surprised to see me as he thought foreigners were not allowed to visit Kangding. He told me that just a few days earlier an Italian priest who had tried to visit the church had been turned back by the PSB when stopped on the highway en route. I told him there were no such restrictions for 'ordinary' foreigners - and I had seen a French couple on the street who had travelled to Sertar monastery further towards Tibet.

I had an early night after a simple meal at the Islamic 'Qingzhen' restaurant attached to the Kangding mosque (it was Ramadan so only open after dark, and the owner seemed a bit grumpy). A bottle of local craft beer (Shangri La Highland Qingker Barley Black Yak ale) went down very well after that.

On my second day in Kangding I had hoped to visit Mugecuo lake, about 20km north of town. I woke early and it was still cold when I hiked down to the bus station at 8am in search of a bus or taxi to take me there. I soon found that there were none of either to be had for a reasonable price for a solo traveller. The pushy Tibetan car hire touts didn't inspire much confidence, and they were asking 600 RMB for a 40km round trip - best travel in a group! I then found that not much opens in Kangding before 9am, which is when I sat finally down in the Highland Cafe for my morning coffee.

After a bit of dithering I consulted my Baidu map, which told me I could revisit my previous mountain hiking start point of Lao Yulin by taking the No. 1 bus. Using my AliPay 'transport' QR code on my phone, I jumped on the next bus, which took me up about 6km and a few hundred metres of altitude through Kangding "New Town" (Xin Cheng). What was once a shabby edge-of-town area had been transformed into a mini-Hong Kong of high rise apartments, public buildings, shopping malls and even a mega church. 

I debussed at what I thought was the edge of town and hiked a further 2km up more of the same, along a busy road that obviously led to a high school, judging by the number of kids in school uniform traipsing past saying 'hello' to me. I tried and failed to find the plain old hot springs building by the river where I had taken a dip about 15 years previously, but it now looked like it had been replaced by a grand Hot Springs Hotel resort complex.

I plodded on upwards past the school, to where I had a better view of the first ridge of the Gongga Shan range of snow peaks. But the April weather was blustery, grey and with passing rain showers, I did not want to linger for long. When I got to what the map said was Lao Yulin, I did not recognise the once rural village where I had hired horses from a Tibetan farmer called GerLer. 


My photo from 1995 showed a simple dirt track winding through a few Tibetan stone homesteads. Now there was a busy highway conveying trucks and tourists in SUVs up a valley dotted with concrete guesthouses and 'minsu' homestays. 

There was also something that looked like a large military barracks, surrounded by high walls, barbed wire and many surveillance cameras. I asked a friendly local woman if she knew of someone called Gerler, and she said "Yes - he's my uncle...". But she then said he had moved away many years ago and had now retired to live in Chengdu.

So after taking a few photos on the same spot where I guessed I had taken the one in 1995, I turned around and headed back down towards Kangding New Town. One thing that struck me was how fit and strong I must have been in 1995 (age 32) to have hiked up all this way with a heavy backpack, at around 3000m altitude - in just over an hour, according to my trip report. Now at the age of 62 I was struggling to do the same journey by bus!

A few local Tibetans greeted me on the way back down and invited me in to their houses to drink tea, but I politely declined. This was yet another instance of where modernisation and development had caught up with and replaced the old traditional landscape and ways. I recalled on my first visit when the locals had been asking me about Bill Clinton, democracy and the Dalai Lama. Now they were asking me if I was interested in staying at their Tibetan 'glamping' site or saying that most locals had moved into posh apartments down in the New Town.

I took the No. 1 bus back down through the New Town, passing the nearly completed expressway junction and tunnel for the new bypass - which also now avoids the spectacular mountain pass of Zheduo Shan. I continued on down back to the old town, where I did a bit more walking round the streets before heading back to the bus station to get a ticket out of Kangding back to Chengdu for the next morning. 

When I was taking a photo on one of the many bridges across the Zheduo river, a local guy came up and asked me what I was snapping. When I explained I had been here 30 years ago, he said that was before he was born. I felt old, and wanted to move on to somewhere new.

You can read about my 1995 visit to Kangding on my Gongga Shan trek blog entry here.

Thursday, March 07, 2024

My book "In the footsteps of Joseph Rock" is now published on kindle


After sitting idle on my laptop hard drive for a decade, I have decided to publish the book manuscript derived from this blog. It's available on kindle, if you search the title or my name on Amazon. 

 I must confess though that the book is really just a compilation of the blog chapters listed down the right hand side of this site. I've tidied it up a bit and divided the text up into fun-size chapters. I've also added an intro and afterword. But if you want to see the photos in colour, this blog has them.

It costs $10, which is what kindle suggests for self published books, of which I [in theory] get 70% before tax. I'm not going to sell as many copies as the Da Vinci Code [downloads to date: zero], but it's there for the record more than anything else.

Happy reading!

Monday, February 19, 2024

Modern day Joseph Rock deported after years collecting plants and seeds in South West China

 Came across this vague article in the SCMP. Remarkable similarity to what Joseph Rock was doing a century ago. The last sentence may be bad news for people like me who like to visit nature reserves in China:

China has deported a foreigner for gathering protected plants, warning that external forces had infringed the country’s ecological security.

In a post on its WeChat account on Saturday, the Ministry of State Security said the foreigner “illegally excavated and collected” China’s key protected plant species.

“The foreigner was instructed by an overseas organisation to illegally dig up and collect specimens and seed samples of thousands of wild plant species, and transported them abroad through illegal channels nearly 2,000 times,” the ministry said.

“The state security agency has expelled him/her in accordance with the law, successfully cutting off the ‘black hand’ of foreign forces that infringed on China’s ecological securi

The ministry did not say the name or nationality of the defendant or identify the plants taken.

But it said the offender travelled to “dozens of reserves and scenic areas” in Sichuan and Yunnan provinces from 2011 in an operation that lasted nine years.

It also did not specify which law the foreigner broke but cited the country’s counter-espionage law, saying that “stealing, spying on, purchasing, and illegally providing” the “foregoing documents, data, materials, or items”, were all acts of espionage.

The provision is one of the expanded parts of the amended law that came into effect in July.

Before the amendment, espionage was defined as stealing, spying, buying, or illegally providing “state secrets or intelligence”.

But it has since been widened to say that all documents, data, materials, and items related to national security and interests have the same protection as state secrets and intelligence.

The ministry also cited the country’s regulations on the import and export of endangered wild fauna and flora, as well as regulations on nature reserves.

Citing the nature reserve regulations, the ministry said “foreigners entering a nature reserve shall be approved in advance by the nature reserve management organ” and must not “engage in [unapproved] activities such as collecting specimens in nature reserves”.

Tuesday, February 06, 2024

Blog reprieve and a visit to the Dulong river valley

 Well this blog still seems to be running despite several warning emails from Google that the blog hosting is to be cancelled unless I sign up to a hefty monthly subscription fee with Google Business. In the meantime, I should report that I have just come back from a great trip to the Dulong river valley in Yunnan. This is not directly Joseph Rock related, because he only mentions the 'Tarong' river briefly in his National Geographic article about when he was visiting the Salween. In the article 'Through the Great River Trenches of Asia' (1926) he briefly refers to the "Kjutzu ... a simple primitive tribe who live across the divide who, the Chinese say, live in trees like monkeys". Other explorers talked about rumours of a tribe of pygmies who lived in the remote valley of the Tarong river that flows in to Burma.

Even in the 1980s, Chinese photographer Shen Che described the 'Drung' people as a 'primitive tribe' of about 4000 people who lived a subsistence farming life in the Dulong valley. The valley was only accessible by horse caravan trail from the Nujiang, which was closed by snow and ice in the winter months.

Of course since then the Dulong has opened up to the outside world. First a rough road was built in the 1990s, and this was gradually upgraded to a paved highway in the 21st century, and more recently(2015) a tunnel has been bored through the highest mountain section at around 3-4000 m altitude to make this an all-year passable highway.

The main settlement of the Dulong valley, Kongdang, is now a small centre for hotels and restaurants, and even has an EV charging station. The Dulong people are now assimilated into mainstream China's development - they no longer wear the traditional stripy carpet clothes or sport crossbows. Most families have SUV cars and take advantage of the 4G mobile network. You might still find an elderly lady with the unique Dulong facial tattoos, but they are wheeled out for the tourists and charge a fee for posing.

I got there in one of vans that run from the centre of Gongshan to Dulong town (100 RMB), leaving at 11am daily and taking about three hours (the road is currently only open from 11.30 for a few hours daily to enable further upgrading work to be done). I stayed at a decent hotel (Hapang Pubu) in Dulong township for about 200 yuan a night. The friendly manageress arranged for a driver to take me on a day tour up and down the valley for  700 RMB for a day. 

I had a great guide who took me on the epic trip down the canyon to the Burma border, where there is a scenic waterfall and some guesthouses (but no Burmese people, the border is totally sealed off, like a modern day Iron Curtain). He told me that the local people had benefited from the visit of Xi Jinping a few years ago. As part of the subsequent poverty alleviation programme, the local people got a free house to replace their rickety old wooden shacks ( a few still survive) and they also receive 2-3000 RMB a month as a living allowance in return for developing and preserving the local green environment.

With my guide I also visited the north of the valley, which is much colder and sparsely forested, more similar to a Tibetan landscape, as the road eventually continues into Tibet. I went as far north as Xiongdang, and beyond to the new 'tourist theme village' Kelaluo where there are new guesthouses and a water feature - not too remote any more. 

The trip was part of a recce to see how easily it now is to travel in remote parts of China. The answer is - easier than ever. The Dulong is now readily accessible from Kunming via Baoshan (3 hour high speed train) then a 4 hour bus to Gongshan. No special permits needed and no police hassles except for a universal document inspection when entering the Nujiang at Liuku. 

It helps enormously to have AliPay and WeiXin/WeChat functions set up for payments and hotel bookings, train and bus tickets etc, but people still accept cash.

As part of my trip I also revisited Gongshan and Bingzhongluo in the Nujiang. I stayed in a swish Lavande hotel in Gongshan for a mere 200RMB ($28), which is cheaper than a bunkbed in a Sydney backpacker dorm. I also found that Bingzhongluo has had a makeover, with the main street's former dirt road now a smart thoroughfare lined with posh shops and hotel similar to somewhere like Dali.

Overall, this trip made me realise that in my 30 years of sporadic travel in Rock's foosteps there have been as many or even more dramatic changes in the places of interest as in the previous decades since Rock's time! I will write more about my latest trip and the interesting folk I met in further posts ...