Monday, February 02, 2009

A Happy Christmas at Dimaluo Catholic church, 怒江 迪麻洛

Joseph Rock doesn't make any mention of Dimaluo in his articles on the Three Rivers region, even though he must have passed through on his way from the nearby Baihanluo (or Peihanluo as he called it) mission station. Nevertheless, it was one of the highlights of my most recent trip to the Nujiang, mainly because of the amazing hospitality of the gentle Aluo (or is that Alou?) - an ethnic Tibetan Catholic who lives in the village and runs a kind of eco-trekking lodge. I'd heard about him from tourist guidebooks and wasn't expecting much, to be honest (having endured other ego-tistical and slightly dodgy tour guides in this area) - but I was pleasantly surprised.

It's only a short journey of about 20km down from Bingzhongluo to the bridge over the Nujiang at Pengdang. On Christmas Eve, Wednesday the 24th of December 2008, we decamped from the bus and had a wonderful lunch at a roadside restaurant where a few locals were sat out in the weak winter sun, playing cards and shooting the breeze.

One thing I love about travelling in this area is the simplicity of the eating places - you simply go in and point to whatever vegetables and meat they have on the shelves or in the fridge and tell them what you want and how you'd like it cooked. In this case we ordered some fresh stir-fried peas, egg and courgettes, all washed down with tea.

Crossing over the metal suspension bridge to the eastern side of the river there was a white church perched on a small hill, but I bypassed that 'for later' and took a right turn [downstream] along a dirt road and followed this for a kilometre or so as it curved off up a side valley that pointed north.

After fording a small side river, things got ugly. Instead of the expected tranquil valley, the road was in the process of being upgraded by some serious machinery and manual labour - diggers and dynamite. There were regular crumps and thuds, and we worried about being blasted to smithereens by the invisible work gangs. We had to climb up and around huge mounds of clay and awkward fields of massive boulders that had been dislodged by the blasting.

So it wasn't much of an idyllic walk for the couple of hours or so that it took us to walk up the somewhat gloomy wooded valley - eventually culminating in the track petering out and being blocked by a sheer wall of a stone dam. Luckily there were some steps cut into the steep face and after a bit of wobbling and faffing around getting over the windswept wall at the top, we topped off and found ourselves looking over into the unfilled lake of the dam catchment - and beyond it, the picturesque village of Dimaluo.

Just a few more minutes up the road and we left the squalid work camps behind and entered the village to be welcomed by the ubiquitous barking dogs. As everywhere else in the Nujiang, the local people we met were all super friendly. The people of Dimaluo are a mix of Nu and Tibetan, as far as I could tell, with the Tibetans being fairly recent migrants into the area (ie about 100 years ago), on account of their more advanced animal husbandry and farming techniques.

After the rustic charms of Qiunatong, Dimaluo was a big metropolis. It had a concrete square , a couple of shops, and several brick and concrete buildings, in addition to the usual wooden log cabins. We were pointed in the direction of Alou's guesthouse, where we met the man himself outside, doing a bit of carpentry on some new window frames he was trying to fit. It was a slow pace of life and he answered our first few questions in a gentle, slow voice as he pencilled in some marks on the wood and started sawing.

We dumped our bags in the big hall of his downstairs area, filled with the ketonic aroma of fermenting corn, and plastered with posters explaining the stages of the trek over to the Mekong (Lancang) at Cizhong. But we weren't planning to do that, so we mooched around the village, chatted to some cute local kids (I sang them a song and made jokes about my big nose) and snapped a few pictures until our room was ready. It was just the wooden floor of a clean upstairs room, and I was glad for the airmat and sleeping bag I'd brought - even though duvets were supplied.

We had dinner with Alou and his delightful family downstairs in the dark and gloomy living area. If I remember rightly it was hotpot with large amounts of cauliflower in it. What took me by surprise was the sudden declaration by Alou that we say grace before meals - Bless Us O Lord for What We Are About To Receive etc ... something I hadn't done since my [Catholic] school days. The other surprise was meeting our two fellow guests - a couple of American Chinese girls, with the accent being very much on the American.

One of them was from the US west coast, working in Shanghai in public relations and was taking a Christmas break. When I mentioned I was a medical journalist she started off discussing in how plants could feel pain. I thought she was doing a parody of a Californian, but apparently not. When I mentioned what I did she said I sounded like the "go-to" guy for medical matters.

The other girl had previously spent a few weeks in the region, and was doing some kind of academic research into water usage in the area. She told me that the dams on the Nujiang had officially been put on hold by the central government in Beijing, but the provincial government was going ahead with them anyway on the sly. And it wasn't for the locals' benefit: the power was streamed into the national grid, to be sold on to the energy hungry eastern Chinese coastal provinces. Alou told us that the road building work wasn't just for the dam - there were plans to push it right over the Gaoligong mountain divide to connect to the Mekong and thus end the Nujiang valley's dead end status.

After dinner we sat around for a while, trying to drink the alcoholic oatmeal that is shuijiu, and seeing some more of Alou's extended family, friends and neighbour dropping by for a singsong, a chat or to strum the guitar or surf the net on his computer. Even here you can't escape the web!

Later on, I took off up to the church, where Alou told us there would be a midnight mass. And sure enough, even at 10pm the place was full, with women kneeling on the left hand 'pews' and men on the left. The service seemed to be conducted by a lay preacher, and under the yellow light of a few weak light bulbs the congregation sang hymns and chanted prayers in a Tibetan style. It sounded very similar to the kind of religious chanting I had heard in numerous Buddhist monasteries - only this time it was peppered with words such as Yesu and finished with Amen.

It was a very dark night and the stars came out overhead and it all felt very enchanting and Christmassy. As we returned, by torchlight, down the steep path that crossed the gully containing the stream, we passed Alou and his family clambering up on their way to the service - all dressed in his Sunday best - a beautifully coloured Tibetan-style pink cloak trimmed with fur.

The next morning, Christmas Day, I woke early, at sunrise and found myself alone in the house. I went downstairs to the sooty kitchen, where I sat by the fire trying to stoke it up with a few sticks and blowing the embers frantically to warm up some water for my Nescafe sachet. After about half an hour Alou's kids suddenly appeared and showed me how it was really done. They brought in a huge pile of sticks and rammed them into the stove. Soon there was a roaring fire going, with plenty of water for my coffee.

They then were joined by Alou and his beautiful wife, and as we sat around the kids stripped some corn off the cob and fried this up to make popcorn. Then Mrs Alou mixed flour with milk and water to bake some delicious momo bread by the fire. And of course there was butter tea - prepared by Alou's son.

By 10am we were completely stuffed - and ready for the next stage of the trip - to go up to Baihanluo.


Anonymous said...

Ah, it's Aluo and not Alou. You're very good at remembering!

mutikonka said...

Well according to his webiste ( it's Alou. I'm confused.

Unknown said...

If we're using pinyin, it's Aluo.
Nice pictures, Michael!