Thursday, October 23, 2014

Getting into Tibet to start the Kawakarpo pilgrim kora: Part 1 - Bingzhongluo to Aben

The day after my nightmare descent into Baihanluo I found myself ensconced in a nice bar in Bingzhongluo enjoying a beer and wondering about how to overcome my next big problem - how to get into Tibet without a permit.

Bingzhongluo is the 'end of the road' town in the Yunnan section of the Salween river  (Nu Jiang) canyon. North of the town the official tarmac road ends and there is only a hazardous gravel trail that runs along the precipitous cliff edges of the canyon above the surging river as it leaves Tibet. There is about 100km of road (and not much else) between Bingzhongluo and Chawalong, the first town in Tibet. It's a wild and barren landscape with just a handful of small farming hamlets. But this was familiar territory for me.

I'd been along this 'road of death' some years ago on a spur-of-the-moment illicit 4WD sojourn up to Chawalong, organised by a local guide who had connections with the Chinese army and police. Back in 2007, there had been no checkpoints along the road to Tibet, simply because hardly anyone travelled that way. The poor road was just too dangerous. More recently I had come down the same road from a village called Aben in Tibet after having walked in along mountain trails while doing the Kawakarpo kora (the pilgrim circuit round Meili Xueshan).

At that time I'd given up half way around the circuit (I was doing it with my two teenage sons - I blame them!). Now my aim was to complete the second half of the circuit by taking up where I left off - at the village of Aben in Tibet. I didn't want to repeat the first section again, and that was why I had recently crossed from the Mekong to the Nu Jiang via the She-La further south instead of repeating the crossing of the Doker La pass from Deqen. This meant, however, that I now had to get myself into Tibet without the required foreigner's entry permit which was only obtainable for groups travelling to distant Lhasa. In the past I had heard it was possible to get into Tibet by hiring a local guy to drive you up the road after dark, when the police checkpoints were said to be closed and unmanned. On this trip, however, I had already been told that the security checkpoints were getting tougher and were now manned 24/7.

But perhaps first I should backtrack a bit. I had reached Bingzhongluo from Baihanluo after my awful day descending from the high passes without a guide. The curse of Baihanluo persisted until the very end. After spending an uncomfortable night in 'The Filthiest House in China' I was woken by the drunken granny who was already sipping beers for breakfast and necking vodka-like baijiu for a post-breakfast chaser. I refused her offer of a drink to go with the fried mushroom breakfast and said my farewells to my kind hosts and gave them 50 kuai for their trouble. They would not accept it, so I just left it on the table and headed down the hill. Easier said than done. I was immediately followed and harrassed by half the dogs in the village and took several wrong turnings before I eventually found the correct trail that led down to the valley floor.

Down at Dimaluo, I found myself on a real road for the first time in three days. It was the beginnings of the new highway being constructed over the high mountains to link the Nu Jiang and the Mekong (Lancang Jiang) valleys. I faced an 8km hike down to the Nu Jiang river, but was fortunate to get a lift from a passing 4WD, whose occupants could not believe that I had walked the three day trail over from Cizhong. They dropped me off at a small riverside town called Pengdang, from where I was able to flag down a local bus travelling from Gongshan to Bingzhongluo.  And as a bonus I managed to avoid paying the 140 yuan park entrance fee for the Nujiang Scenic Area as the guy at the ticket barrier did not believe that a tourist would be travelling on a decrepit local bus service. Perhaps my luck was turning?

It was 1 October and I found Bingzhongluo to be packed to the rafters because it was China's "Golden Week" - the multiple day holiday around the Guoqing (National Day) when most of the country decides to take a few days vacation all at the same time. Bingzhongluo had only a handful of guesthouses and hotels and I quickly found they were all completely full - mostly booked by Chinese tourists coming up from places like Kunming. I ended up having to settle for a mediocre room in an indifferent hotel for an extortionate 300 yuan. Once settled in, I went for the said beer in the only cafe in town, and asked around about the possibility of getting a ride into Tibet. Despite offering to arrange hikes and local trips, the reaction from the local tour operators and hostel staff was uniformly negative. They could arrange trips into the mountains or even over to the mysterious Dulong Valley, but none of them would even think about Tibet.

Bingzhongluo's single street was busy with private cars and 4WDs heading up towards the border, but most were only going as far at the final Yunnan village of Qiunatong about 18km distant - none of the were willing to give me a lift towards Chawalong, a further 60km across the border. I got the same message from the local minivan drivers who touted their vans for hire at the town crossroads. Most of the drivers professed ignorance about the road to Chawalong, and the few who had heard of it spluttered with laughter and suggested ridiculous prices when I asked about hiring their van to go there. Quite a few pointed out that it was now expressly forbidden for foreigners to enter Tibet via the Chawalong road and reminded me that there prominent signs posted on the road warning about this. In a small town like Chawalong there are only a few drivers for hire and I very quickly exhausted my options. I spent much of the morning hanging about at the 'crossroads' where the road turned off for Tibet, asking anyone with a van if they would go to Tibet. The answer was always 'no' and I soon became an object of scorn and derision for the drivers plying their trade. Each time I reappeared they would laugh and say "Still here? You're wasting your time! Go to Gongshan instead!" I retired to the nearby bar, had a coffee and kept one eye on the crossroads out of the window to see if any other drivers showed up. They didn't. And thus it was that I spent two frustrating days in Bingzhongluo, feeling marooned and defeated.

To pass the time, I went on walks down to see the "First Bend of the Nu Jiang" along with all the other holiday weekend tourists. I strolled up the road to see the new monastery being built to replace the old Champuting temple on the sight of the one burned to the ground  a hundred years ago by authorities in retaliation for the murders of Catholic missionaries by Tibetan. There's only so much you can do in a small town like Bingzhongluo, and stretching this out to two days was extremely dispiriting.

After a night spent in the dull hotel room licking through the 23 channels of Chinese state TV, I woke for a second morning of disappointment. One 4WD driver had said he might hire his vehicle out to take my up to Chawalong - for a fee of about $300. When I called him back, however, he had changed his mind and claimed he was too tired to make the trip. I began to feel paranoid and wondered whether news of my intentions to get into Tibet had reached the ears of the local cops.  That might explain why nobody was willing to take me.

I spent another slow day in Bingzhongluo, trying unsuccessfully to hustle a ride up into Tibet. "Nothing to do and all day to do it in." The local restaurants and the bar were full of Chinese from places like Guangzhou, many taking advantage of their private car ownership to drive around and see a bit of their own country. There were no foreigners in town and the Chinese all asked the same questions: "Where are you from? Are you travelling alone? Are you studying/working in China?"

On the morning of the third day, still unable to find a driver, I resigned myself to turning back and re-tracing my steps over the She-La pass back to the Mekong. I consoled myself with the thought that it was a stunningly scenic trip and I would have more time on the return trip to enjoy the sights. But before I left I decided to take a minivan up to the next village of Qiunatong, just so that I could say I had travelled some distance along the Nu Jiang. Qiunatong was known as a small Catholic village of  Nu and Tibetans. It had a quaint wooden church that Rock had stayed at during his sojourn through the area. I had also been there before on a previous trip to the Nujiang.

I found a female minivan driver who offered to take me there for 150 yuan. When I mentioned that I had been trying to go to Chawalong in Tibet she told me to keep quiet about that when we passed through the new checkpoint. Uh? What checkpoint?  I didn't even know there was a security checkpoint - there hadn't been when I had come this way two years before. Sure enough, after we passed through the impressive Stone Gate gorge about 5km down the river, we came to a serious-looking red and white striped barrier blocking the road.

Pic by a Chinese driver of the first checkpoint at the Yunnan-Tibet border at Nidadang.

The authorities meant business. The checkpoint station was manned by four members of the WuJing (army militia), dressed in full combat gear complete with helmets, ammunition bandoliers and with their fingers quite evidently on the triggers of their semi-automatic rifles.

Not my pic, but you get an idea of what the border guards look like.

Our minivan was stopped and like the vehicles ahead of us it was searched. I was ordered out and told to stand to one side while my passport was taken away and the details entered into a computer terminal. This was all very new and sinisterly efficient compared to my previous trips up the Nu Jiang. After a wait of about ten minutes my passport was returned and our van was waved through the raised barrier - with permission to go only as far as Qiunatong, still in Yunnan. We drove along the riverside in subdued silence, the 'heavy' atmosphere of the checkpoint reaffirming my change of heart about trying to sneak into Tibet. There was no way I was going to try dodge around a checkpoint manned by trigger-happy PLA guards. Or so I thought. Everything changed within 15 minutes of arriving in Qiunatong.

As with Bingzhongluo, the village was packed with tourists and I soon learned (though not before my minivan had departed) that the small guesthouse was completely booked out for the holiday weekend. I dumped my backpack in the courtyard and sighed. The female proprietor of the guesthouse was friendly and sympathetic, but said there was nothing she could do - even as we spoke she was approached by two other groups of tourists asking if they had rooms.

While wondering what to do next, I met a guy who said he could arrange transport for me to the next village.  I won't reveal his identity. "You want to go to Tibet? It'll be expensive ..." he said. His idea of expensive was 600 yuan ($100). I said I was willing to pay that. Then he looked at my backpack. "That's too big - you can't take that on a motorbike."

My hopes  of getting to Tibet were suddenly revived and I told him I could get rid of a lot of the junk in my bag. Within a few minutes I had pulled out the bulky clothes and taken out the old tent, shrinking the bag size by about half. He looked at it sceptically and said "wait here". And so I waited. And waited. For about an hour, in the late morning sun. The guesthouse owner kept coming by and saying "someone will be here soon ..." but the only activity in the village was someone with a chainsaw lopping branches off a tree. Finally, I heard the burr of a motorbike arriving, and a young-ish kid pulled up on a  150cc motorbike. It didn't look big enough for two, let alone a bag, but it was my only hope for getting up to Tibet.

I quickly confirmed the deal - 600 kuai to take me across the Yunnan border into Tibet, but only as far as the first village, Aben, up a side road before the main security checkpoint. This was where I planned to rejoin the kora (pilgrim circuit) and where I might even meet up with a commercial trekking group from Whistling Arrow led by a friend. They had started the main kora three days ago and were scheduled to arrive in Aben the following day.

And so my now-depleted bag was strapped on to the back of the bike (my tent I donated to the guesthouse owner - "that's handy" he said) and I squeezed on to the back of the motorbike. I was a very tight fit between the driver and my backpack. As we set off down the road I wriggled around trying to create more space for myself - until the driver stopped and told me to pack it in. "It's dangerous along this road - stop moving about or we'll fall over," he scolded me.

For the next hour I suffered increasingly excruciating pain as we reached the 'main road' and continued up northwards along the river. It was a bike designed for five-foot high Asians,  and my long European legs didn't fit. My knees were bent at an impossibly cramped angle as I attempted to keep my feet planted on the footrests. Every time I tried to adjust my stance the drive rebuked me with a 'stop it!'. It was like trying to maintain the lotus position on a small saddle jolting over potholes and around hairpin bends. I called it the Kawasaki Yoga position. The scenery was spectacular, as I knew from previous trips up and down this forbidden road. Nice scenery. Pain. This was becoming a recurring theme on this trip.

The route followed high cliffs and in some places twisted crazily up and down around sheer rock faces, with terrifying drops to the river below. It felt safer going by bike than by car, but I was in so much agony that I was unable to appreciate the views - or the danger. For two hours we sputtered and coasted non-stop along the Nujiang 'road of death', passing the yellow signs that marked the Tibetan border and their mangled English warnings of "Forbid Foreigner Turn Into Strictlg" (in Chinese the much more direct "Strictly Forbidden for Foreigners to Enter - by order of Chawalong Police").

Beyond this the bike turned left off the 'main road and up a side road towards Aben. This followed a smaller tributary up a narrow gully, in places heading steeply uphill until after another hour we arrived at my goal - the village of Aben. I had made it into Tibet. I was 'illegal'. All I had to do now was find another driver to take me beyond the final security checkpoint, about 20km further up the road.


cath said...

Wonderful recount of your amazing journey Michael- really enjoying it - so interesting for an armchair traveller like me - no time (or money!)to travel...

mutikonka said...

thanks Cath!

Anonymous said...

We are on a plantseekers trip with the uk rhs and were at rock's house outside lijang today. Wanting to know more i was surfing and found your site. An amazing trek you are making in the great man's tracks. Eyes glued to your blog from now on.

mutikonka said...

Good luck with your plant seeking. You had more success than me in finding Rock's house - I cycled out to Yuhu but couldn't find it amid all the new tourist developments!

Anonymous said...

Thanks a lot for documenting your adventures Michael. Your blog and the Open Street Map that includes the Kawa Karpo trail provided me with enough info to attempt this hike. I got as far as Aben. I almost got a ride through to Gebu but unfortunately the road got blocked by landslide and the van I was planning to travel in could not get through.

I was told that sadly the last local who got caught smuggling foreigners through the checkpoints was beaten for 4 days and then imprisoned for a further 15 days! It does seem that there are still some people willing to try to smuggle foreigners through but the prices may have gone up slightly to reflect the dangers of getting caught.

mutikonka said...

Thanks for that info - the punishment for the people smuggler sounds very harsh! The locals seemed quite relaxed about taking me to Gebu last time, but on my most recent trip last month it was a different story. The guide I hired to take me over the Shola Pass was very nervous about being with a foreigner on the Tibetan side - and refused to go anywhere near Chawalong. Glad the maps helped, but it now seems that the area is out of bounds. I suspect a lot of this has to do with the increased traffic through the Nujiang and the rapid development taking place in the valley. I thought there was now a police checkpoint at Aben - did they say anything to you there? A South African couple said they were caught at Aben and forced to get a minivan to take them down to Bingzhongluo.