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 ...

Tuesday, October 03, 2023

The end of this blog?

 I've just received a notification from Google that I will now have to pay something like $15 a month to keep this website running. It used to be about $40 a year. So sod that, I might try migrate it to a generic blogspot site if I can be arsed ... but that would mean reloading years of content and photos. 

Perhaps it's Google's way of saying that the era of personal blogs about specific nerdy subjects is over. Does anyone still have any interest in the remote China borderland travels of a cranky Austrian-American botanist a century ago? 

Besides, I've retrodden in most of Rock's footsteps, at least the travels he reported on in National Geographic: Muli, Minya Konka, Muti Konka, Choni, Kawakarpo, Konkaling, Ragya  - done 'em all. Perhaps the only bits I would still like to get to are the crags of  Zhagana in Gansu and some of the Yellow River canyons near Amnye Machen.

One thing's for sure - the places I visited in the 1990s and the 2000s have again changed beyond all recognition from the places I saw. Time moves on and in China there is a kind of relentless unsentimental progress that turns quaint remote villages into modern but boring towns of high rise apartments. Look at Dimaluo on Google Earth these days and the log cabins have given way to townhouses.

 So it was nice while it lasted, but all good things come to an end. I'll try keep this blog up and running as long as possible, but otherwise, auf wiedersehn meine Damen und Herren.

Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Quick recommend: Dengtuzi Outdoors Club

 In contrast to my last post about the hordes of 'influencers' now on Tibetan highways, I would like to recommend a bunch of guys who are doing the real 'hard yards' in the mountains of south-west China: the Dengtuzi hiking club. Don't know much about them but I came across a bunch of their hiking diary videos on ixigua when looking for recent clips about the Kawka Karpo Kora. These guys have really gone off piste! Their site shows some great hikes in the off the beaten track areas around Meili Xueshan in NW Yunnan - not just the usual Outer Kora. (Runner up prize if you want to see a recent video of some Chinese hikers doing the regular kora - here).

These hikers are going into situations that i would be out of my depth in - hiking up snow and ice slopes at 4500 m to get across ridges - and camping out in emergency shelters on slopes where there is no level ground. They also highlight the pitfalls of trying to retreat from a mountain by following streams/creaks through the thick undergrowth of gullies. 

They appear to be based in Yunnan (but registered in Xiamen) and you can also find them on channels such as Weibo and Sohu. Oh, and all their videos are in Chinese only so you might need to get your Pleco translator out for the subtitles! 

 Enjoy ...

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

The new Tibet travellers: 'influencer' vloggers raising revenue from livestreaming channels: Are they for real?

 During the last three year pandemic 'exile' from hiking in China I've been doing some armchair travel via video channels, trying to see what the locals are doing in the corners of Yunnan and Sichuan that I used to visit. And what I discovered [as I've already posted about] is a whole new trend for young Chinese travellers to post regular daily video diaries of their Tibet/Qinghai/Yunnan/Sichuan/Gansu/trips on channels such as bilibili and ixigua. But these are not videos of hikers yomping and camping across the forests and mountain passes of South West China, rather they are a rather unique form of road-trip-with-Chinese characteristics. 

Firstly, most of the 'hikers' are literally road bound - they stick to the highways. Secondly, while some post images of bike, car or motorbike trips, many of these video diaries are from people - usually females - who for some reason have decided to pull a trailer or handcart with them to carry their supplies,  and even as a cramped sleeping quarters.

As this blog post [in Chinese] explains, this handcart hiker phenomenon has taken off in China because of the unique arrangement of China's fenced-off internet. Rising prosperity and personal freedom among young people has encouraged travel within China. This has combined with the rise of the 'self media' [Zì méitǐ '自媒体'] business model in which Chinese have aimed to make a fortune by creating their own content on video channels and social media sites. In China, many social media and video sites are structured to incentivise building followers and views - and they have inbuilt payment/funding/sponsorship systems. This has led to a wave of China-based travel livestreamers trying to become influencers or wanghong (网红). Since their content is all in Chinese and almost wholly on Chinese sites such as ixigua/weibo rather than Youtube/Tiktok etc, they are not on the international radar.


Let me give you an example. 'Wandering Wan Wennuan' is a young woman from a small town in Sichuan who has 1.3 million followers on ixigua alone. Her channel has hundreds of daily and weekly updates of her various trips into Tibet and other parts of by road/bike/hitchhiking. The video clips get between 50,000 and 500,000 views each. How much revenue she derives from all this content and views is not clear.

Her most recent mode of transport was a hand pulled cart along the 'Qinghai-Tibet' line. Prior to that she has posted videos of her trip in RVs and a motorcyle and sidecar rig to places such as Hainan. 

She has been posting videos for several years and they appear genuine, depicting the many encounters she has had with other travellers and locals along the way. She talks to restaurant and hotel owners, local cops, truck drivers who give her lifts, local families, Tibetans working in the fields, shopkeepers and a range of other people travelling by motorbike, 4WD etc. Sometimes she hooks up with others and travels with them for a while. At one point she adopt a stray puppy and takes it with her.

Bizarrely, she claims that her hiking is motivated by a desire/compulsion to lose weight, even though she appears throughout to be of normal weight and quite healthy. 

It seems to be for real. It would be hard to fake all the ups and downs of being on the road: tyre punctures, cooking plain meals in the rain, flooded and muddy campsites, not getting to your destination by nightfall - and the worries of being a solo camper when things go 'bump in the night'. It also seems to be posted in real time rather than prerecorded. But you can never tell if there is any outside support or creative editing. Or outside sponsorship and perhaps co-operation from business and local governments, not to mention [self] censorship. Some of the video make reference to [or feature] her 'fans' who greet her or who turn up to assist through contributions. Some just want selfies.

Wen's videos also cover her between-trip interludes in her hometown, where she provides regular updates on her 'real job' as a sausage-making entrepreneur (this stuff is not for the vegans). Wan also occasionally posts videos that give clues to her 'travel influencer' activities and revenue - she has bought four wheel drive 'tanks', motorbikes and a nice apartment.

Wan is just one of hundreds of Chinese travellers who are now posting videos online. Some of these other video travel bloggers are seen in her videos on the road, and the comments suggest that at least some of the are not genuine travellers but people doing it in pursuit of social media/livestreaming fame and fortune. One young woman she meets, for example, claims to have hiked 50km along a Tibet highway in one day - which is further than I do on some of my cycling days. The commenters also point out that she has a soft and fair facial complexion, at odds with the brutal wind and UV burned faces of real travellers.

And this is where 'Wandering Wen' lets the mask slip in one video. In response to similar accusations that she is a fake vlogger with a film support crew and backup truck, she posts footage of what she looks like with the beauty filter turned off - a more realistic vision of reddened, sunburnt and freckled skin and mouth sores!

Well, real or not, it certainly makes for interesting armchair travel viewing and an insight to the unique young Chinese influencer style of travel in the 21st century. 

But there are downsides, without even going into the whole Tibetan politics question. The Chinese blog decrying the rise of the travel vloggers on Tibetan roads points to a more tragic aspect. One such young female called Meimei from Henan was killed in May 2021 when she lost control of her handcart and was crushed.

Is the travel vlogger/livestreamer/influencer phenomenon here to stay? Who knows. I guess my point is that this is the new wave of 'self media' travellers you will encounter on the road in South West China.

Thursday, May 12, 2022

China is closed so I went to Nepal in the footseps of Bill Tillman

 More than two years since the pandemic started and like everyone else I haven't been doing any international travel. I'd become so used to flying cheaply to Kunming and Chengdu from Sydney that I began to take it for granted. With travel restrictions starting to be lifted after Christmas 2021 I was itching to get back into the mountains. Unfortunately China is still closed, so I plumped to go to Nepal instead. Reasons: mountains and trekking, obviously, but also few restrictions such as permits, isolation/quarantine and entry requirements.

I decided on trying the Langtang valley trek, as this seemed the nearest and most convenient for Kathmandu and a simple hike to acclimatise/acquaint myself with Nepal and its trekking scene.

I flew to KMD from Sydney with Malaysian, via KL. Wouldn't really recommend Malaysian - they were a bit sloppy and indifferent, kind of like a slightly better version of Garuda. After a few hassles with online covid forms and apps I arrived at the  very basic Kathmandu airport and paid my $30 airport tax and was granted a visa on arrival for $50.

I took the bus to Syabru Besi, which was a hopeless joke. I'd always assumed Nepal was a functioning country, given its popularity with western trekkers and mountaineers, but the bus service to Langtang was a chaotic, decrepit mess. The whole experience reminded me of travel in China in the 1990s - a boneshaker bus hustling for passengers at the side of a dirty road, no proper bus station. And a terrible stop-start journey over dirt track potholed roads that took eight hours to cover 80km. Just horrible.

I did the seven day Langtang trek, which was three days up the riverside track to Kyangjin Gompa and two days down, with two days at the scenic alpine area. Did a few side hikes, and it was nice, but the whole area is simply devoted to trekking and you kind of feel like you're just another a customer in a conga line of trekkers. There were a surprisingly large number of trekkers from the US, Europe (including Eastern EU) and the UK. Despite criss-crossing paths and leapfrogging each other between tea houses, the foreigners were not particularly friendly. A lot of them were just wankers with their trekking poles and flash gear, bashing along to a strict itinerary. There were also quite a few divvies who had fallen for the Namaste hippy culture, as if it were still 1974. You know who you are, you with your Kathmandu loon pants, Jesus beard and red 'tilak' dye smeared on your forehead. Don't greet me with 'Namaste', I'm not Nepali, dickheads.

The teahouse system meant I didn't have to take a tent or sleeping bag [good], but it also means you are locked in to the boring set menus of dal bhat [lentil curry] and dull variations on chow mein, fried rice and fried eggs/omelettes/momos. I don't want to eat another egg for a while.

I shouldn't be such a grump. The Nepali people were nice, especially the Tamang (descendants of Tibetans) living in the Lantang area. Not so keen though on the constant hassling and hustling [You have guide? Where you stay?] and the bullshitting when things don't work ['bus needs mechanic, maybe leave tomorrow'].

The highlight of the trip was a variation I did on the Tamang Heritage Trail. At Tatopani ['hot springs' that lost their thermal power after the 2015 earthquake] I hired a local guide to motorbike me up along the Sanjen Khola river to the border with Tibet. It was an 8km ride along an ugly construction road, now dominated by a Chinese hydro dam project that seemed to be making no progress - maybe because the border has been closed during the covid pandemic?

At the top of the valley we parked the bike at a messy worker's camp and legged it up an old track into what looked like the upper reaches of a glaciated valley that eventually reaches the moraine coming down from a mountain called Ganesh. Weirdly half the valley is Chinese (Tibetan) territory, while the lower reaches are in Nepal. At the point where we reached the Chinese border, Nepal territory was on the left hand side of the Sanjen Kharka river while China was on the right bank. The track crossed it via a very flimsy bridge made of planks and sticks. Given that this is a closed valley that can only be entered from Nepal, I doubt there are any Tibetans in residence.

I'd surveyed the route by Google Earth, on which it looked straightforward and relatively, but in reality it was a tough scramble up a boulder-strewn trail. The track was not always very obvious, and in early may there were still sections that crossed snow slopes, which had to be traversed very carefully, as they descended steeply into the boiling torrent below.

We walked for a few hundred metres into Tibetan/China territory just to say we'd been there, but the trail was very precarious and the weather foggy and damp, with little visibility, so we didn't proceed further up the valley.

The only Chinese people we encountered were the foreman and supervisors at the hydro site on the Nepal side. They were surprised and delighted to find that I could converse in Mandarin with them.

The scenery was nice but my overall impression of Nepal was not great. I have been spoiled by travel in remote parts of China where the roads are now uniformly good, the buses modern and well equipped, and the local villages all have reliable and high standard electricity, sanitation and mobile phone systems. And even the most remote yak herders hut has decent food! Nepal is unfortunately still a Third World country by comparison. In China it's possible for me to converse with and engage with local people on an equal footing. In Nepal, with its decades long reliance on trekking as an industry, I felt like I was just another tourist - and not a very capable trekker, come to think of it.

So I'm looking forward to returning to south west China whenever the country opens up again. Unfortunately Xi Jinping's cult of personality and increasing micro-management and mismanagement of the pandemic means that might be some time off.

In the meantime, here's a link to the 1949 book written by the weirdo British explorer Bill Tillman and his travels in the Lantang area.

Tuesday, February 08, 2022

Armchair travel #2: Nujiang and Myanmar

 Here's a bilibili video playlist for a guy called Weimeng (Raymond?) from Jilin. Most of his videos relate to his cross border trips from Ruili into the Wa and Kachin areas of northern Burma - very interesting - I don't know how he managed it. He even shoots video while bribing the various militia guys at checkpoints. There's even a hilarious bit where he films some illict black market trading taking place in Ruili through gaps cut in the border fence. Also of interest for previous readers of this blog are his trips up the Nujinag from Bingzhongluo. The No Foreigners Allowed sign at the Yunnan-Tibet border now has a bell to ring!

Monday, February 07, 2022

More armchair travel in the Nujiang region

 There are some great amateur travel videos on the Chinese video site bilibili, aka 'B Zhan'. This guy 'Brother Lee' seems to be from Sichuan and has some crazy videos of his trip to Lhasa and beyond. He has little money or kit, rides a cheap bike, survives on instant noodles and biscuits, pitches his tent in public toilets (not as bad as it sounds, there are actually some quite posh ones have been installed on the highways) and bathes in the rivers. Well worth a look, although it is only in Chinese. Worth translating. He starts off his trip looking like a pale, quietly spoken pudgy guy and ends up looking like a beggar, cursing and lamenting his lot as his bike crashes and he is forced to work in recycling factory for months to make some more cash to travel - an epic. I tuned in for the Deqin-Gongshan highway but this is the least interesting of his many destinations. It looks like a muddy eyesore. Enjoy!

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Imaginary Peaks: The Riesenstein Hoax and Other Mountain Dreams - by Katie Ives


This book looks like an interesting read - it includes the story of how Joseph Rock was hopelessly wrong about the height of Minya Konka, suggesting that it was 30,000 feet! Likewise Amnye Machen was suggested by some to be higher than Everest. There's an excerpt of it here

 Meanwhile, not much happening on the travelling front - looks like it'll be another year before there's any chance of walking in Yunnan and Sichuan again.

Sunday, August 08, 2021

Return trip to Muli - an armchair traveller visit via bilibili videos


As described on this blog, almost 30 years ago I did one of my first trips in Rock's footsteps to Muli monastery. Back in the 1990s there was no proper road from Lugu Lake to Muli - hell there wasn't even a map! I took a chance an followed Rock's map and found the trail was still as he described it. Much of it was dirt track and sometimes just a faint trail through the fields. I tramped over the mountains and through the forests via Yongning, Hot Springs (Wenquan), Wujiao and then up over the mountain pass and down into the Muli vally. It took me three days. Saw very few people en route, just a few wild Tibetan and Naxi locals.

Well now you can do the same trip in a few hours on a good road - as this guy shows in his video of a motorbike trip from Lugu Lake to Muli monastery. The route is much the same but now there are multiple police/militia checkpoints [to check for cigarettes or any fire-related materials - they had catastrophic forest fires in Muli]. There's also a few tourist scenic viewing points installed at places such as the Gibboh Mountain pass - in contrast to the bleak place we paused at. The biggest change of course is Muli monastery. Now a very opulent and grandiose series of buildings, not the dilapidated single building we found (it's still there but now massively overshadowed by the big monastery buildings). 

So I don't think I'll be returning to Muli. But I would still like to visit the other more remote monasteries that Rock described in the area - Kangpu and Waerdje - at some point. 

Monday, March 22, 2021

Next destination on the list ... Jiaying (甲应村)

Having viewed the magnificant Kawakarpo (Mt Meili) from the east like most people, I've always been curious to see what it's western face would be like. A look on Google Maps suggested it would be possible to get views of the west face and its glaciers from a tiny hamlet called Jiaying (type in 甲应村 to search), accessible by a rough track from Chawalong. It was next on my list of place to explore, but it looks like the village has  now had an upgraded road put in and is receiving a increasing stream of visitors arriving by 4WD and motrobike. 

With just a handful of Tibetan houses, I bet the locals are now a bit jaded by the attention they are getting from outsiders. But I suppose tourism and homestays are being promoted by the Nujiang government as part of poverty alleviation, so good luck to them.  Wish I'd got to see it before the pandemic ...

Here's one of the many videos now popping up on Bilibili.

Here's another. Some very slick outdoors lifestyle productions going on here. 

And this one gives you a full view of the epic exposed road track along and over the ridge to get to Jiaying from near the Tangdu La north of Chawalong:

And finally Esther, here's a map view, looking over the Nujiang from west to east, showing [in green, lower section] where the trail goes from Chawalong. You can see my previous travels along the Kawakarpo Kora marked in red. Of course this is all just across the border from Yunnan in Tibet so out of bounds to big noses. In the good old days of few visitors you could sneak through at night on a hired motorbike, but now they've put a big police checkpoint at Quju and you have very little chance of getting past that.

A few years ago I had the idea of trekking through to Jiaying round an old herder's track just above the treeline from the Sho La (also marked in green, top) - I found a few Chinese hiker accounts of it and it sounded very hairy, remote and exposed. Would take about three days. Epic.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

A great website about travel in SW China


If you enjoy reading  articles about the explorers and adventurers in South West China of the 1920s, you will appreciate this excellent website by John Hague. It describes the travels of his grandfather  Dr Hubert Gordon Thompson and Brig. Gen. George Pereira around Yunnan, Sichuan, Gansu and beyond to Peking in 1923. If the name Pereira rings a bell it's because Joseph Rock mentions him in his articles. The articles are a great read and also have wonderful photographs. They include diaries, maps and also photographs of artefacts from the travel.



Monday, September 21, 2020

Excluded from Yunnan. Feels like Likiang 1949 ...

What with the pandemic and the looming conflict between the western powers and China, it feels like I won't be seeing Yunnan or Sichuan for a while. Hope it's not like Joseph Rock's situation in 1949 when he was forced to fly out of Lijiang - and leave China - at short notice forever because of the Communist takeover, and spent the rest of his life in the US, pining for the mountains of Yunnan ... OK I'm not THAT obsessed with the place, but it did make for a cheap and interesting place to visit with plenty of adventure and nice food ... and not too many other foreign tourists.

Watch this space.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Another photo from the lockdown archive ...

Chonggu Si (monastery), Yading. This is the new building, still being built at the time [2013] I took this photo with my Rolleiflex and medium format film ... a bit busier nowadays!

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Random photos: Bingzhongluo street market

From almost a decade ago, taken with my beloved Leica Minilux - now gone to the cemera graveyard.

Monday, May 04, 2020

Lockdown dreaming

Stuck in the house, in this city in this country for an indefinite period I'm glad that at least I'm alive and healthy and perhaps one day I will get out again to visit places such as the Nujiang. Looking though my old photos made me realise there are so many that I haven't posted on this blog - such as this one of Laomudeng (老姆登) between Liuku and Fugong.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Xikang: the Vanishing Province - Chinese photographer Sun Mingjing's Remarkable Record of 1939 and 1944

Another great book discovery on my latest trip to Yunnan. Just done an excellent two week bike tour from Kunming to Hekou (Vietnam border). No Joseph Rock connection (although he did stay at the hill station of Dalat when passing through what was then Indo China on his way to a ship connection in Haiphong). But the trip did give me the opportunity to pop into Mandarin books in Kunming, where they have lots of great books on the region - unfortunately most of them I can't afford. But I couldn't resist this collection of photographs from the former province of Xikang ( the Tibetan bits of Sichuan). The photos are by Sun Mingjing (孙明经) and include some great images of places like Kangding and Ganze. I can't find much info about Sun online. The son of Nanjing Christian intellectuals, he was interested in photos and movies from the age of five. In 1939 after graduating in film studies from Jinling University, he travelled to Xikang and took many documentary style photos. He went on to become a pioneering socially aware documentary film maker and spent a year in the US. However after the Communist takeover he opted to stay in China rather than move to Taiwan. In the 1950s he was condemned as a rightist, never made any more films again and had many of his photos and films confiscated and destroyed by Mao Zedong's Red Guards. He died in obscurity in 1991. His photos of Xikang are wonderful.

Update: April 2020 ...
I wish I could post more of these wonderful photos

Monday, December 16, 2019

De-Gong Highway update

I wrote before about the newly opened road that connects the Mekong (Lancang) valley and the Nujiang (Salween) from Deqin to Dimaluo/Gongshan. Well here's the first English account of a westerner crossing it by bike - the heroic Vlad, who seem to have been a teacher in Korea before his epic bike trip through China. As you can see, the road was blocked by a scary landslide ...

Monday, October 21, 2019

Genyen trek 格聂峰

Nothing new to report on the Joseph Rock front, but I've just completed a mini-trek from Litang to Batang via Mt Genyen (格聂峰, Chinese: Ge Nie Feng). A very nice and remote undeveloped part of Tibetan western Sichuan, with very few western tourists. And these days it makes a nice change from 'Rock' territory such as Yading, which has now become saturated with tourism development.

I got the inspiration for doing the route from Tom Nakamura's book about the mountains of western China. He shows an interesting track from Genyen's Rengo Gompa (Lenggu Si monastery 冷古寺 to Batang via a place called Bomi. In reality I found the track is now already a dirt road and is being upgraded to a scenic highway! Quite a few Chinese trekkers do the so-called C-Line half kora around the Genyen range, starting at Lamaya and ending at a place caled Anju, from where hire vans connect with the main Litang-Batang highway. Example blog (in Chinese)

And as usual the local Tibetans are offering transport on their motorbikes. I'd originally planned to hike from Lamaya (600 yuan van tide from Litang) to the monastery, but my driver showed me that there is now a good road all the way to the monastery, where he dropped me off. Free camping, but not much else by way of facilities there - a small restaurant and shop, but no mains electricity or phone coverage.

You can see more of my photos on Insta: https://www.instagram.com/mutikonka/?hl=en


For anyone interested in trekking to Genyen and Rengo monastery, here are some practical points:
Daily bus from Chengdu to Litang, costs about 220 yuan, leaves at 6.30am, arrived in Litang (via Ya'an, Kangding and Yajiang) at about 4-5pm.
Litang: stay at the Summer Hostel (Xiatian Hostel, about 40-50/night for dorm), where the staff can introduce you to guides/drivers for Genyen. I used a guy who hangs round the hostel called Jiang Yang (13684494474), who was OK, speaks a little English - charges 600 yuan to hire his van for the trip to Genyen.
At Genyen you can stay at the monastery, where there is a simple guesthouse (?150-200Y a room a night?), or camp. You can hire local Tibetan guides/porters at the monastery from the going rate of 350/day for guide and transport - ie motorbike.