Yunnan adventure, October 2010

The day after I arrived in Kunming, a University van took me, my good friend Shaoqun, and her brother and cousin, to Da Li, four hours away, to begin our week-long adventure up the Nu Jiang (angry river) in Yunnan province, western China. IÕve put up a rough Google map of our journey here. We went to Da Li to collect our borrowed SUV and pick up our hired driver, who had travelled by bus from Lu Ku. ItÕs a historic town, amid mountains—some topped by wind farms—but we didnÕt see the historic part until our return journey.

We all had lunch in a scuzzy cafˇ: rice; spring rolls; pork skin, lightly cooked (bad); chitterling stew (awful); two green vegetable dishes (good); aubergines stewed in something (excellent); pigÕs kidneys in thin strips (delicious); dishwatery soup with some green leaves in it (OK); tea. This was a typical meal for the next eight days: one or two unpalatable dishes, one or two OK dishes; one or two delicious dishes; accompanied by a thin soup; and always rice, rice, rice and tea, tea, tea. ThereÕs no menu: you walk into the restaurant kitchen, poke the food on the bench around a bit, take a look at the bits of meat, discuss whatÕs available, and over the course of a long and (to me) mysterious conversation come to an arrangement as to what it will be. I should point out that during this whole trip I understood very little. All the conversations were in Chinese—Shaoqun was the only person who spoke English, and now and again she took time out to answer a question or explain to me what people were talking about.

Finally our driver arrived, and we set off on a gruelling 5-hour trip along winding roads above massive cliff drops, passing scores of land slips covering half the road, sometimes more. Conditions were challenging: it rained on and off; night fell as we drove; and there were huge trucks to pass, in both directions. During a particularly reckless overtaking maneuver the driverÕs cell phone would inevitably ring, and of course he would always answer it. We had to stop at a police checkpoint—they were bemused by me, and one young soldier casually but ostentatiously pocketed a few more clips for his machine-gun while the other recorded all my passport details in a big book. Yunnan borders Burma and unfortunately there is much drug smuggling, so there are many police checks—and separate army checks, which I was told are designed to combat police corruption. At one checkpoint I was surprised to hear Shaoqun utter my three words of Chinese—ni hao for hello, xie xie for thank you, and ma ma hu hu for horse-horse-tiger-tiger (itÕs a long story)—all in the same sentence. It turned out that they asked if I spoke Chinese, and in response she recited my entire vocabulary.

We rolled into bed in a nice hotel—at least, it greatly exceeded my expectations—in Lu Ku. Breakfast was steamed buns and hot yakÕs milk tea laced with sesame oil—delicious—and I was the restaurantÕs first-ever Western customer. Before that, on my early morning walk, I found the Nu Jiang river that we were to drive along upstream almost to Tibet. Only a few km from Burma, separated by a mountain range, itÕs the westernmost of the Ņthree parallel rivers of Yunnan,Ó which arise in Tibet and run into Yunnan very close together, but later diverge radically. Nu Jiang to the west becomes the Salween and flows south and west into the Bay of Bengal; Lan Cang in the middle becomes the Mekong and flows south and east into the South China Sea; and the easternmost, Jinsha, which I had walked along three years earlier, turns sharply left and becomes the Yangtze, flowing through China and into the East China Sea at Shanghai.

All day we drove north beside the huge and angry river. We saw people from remote villages crossing on flying foxes, hanging in a harness from a pulley-wheel, with one wire for each direction. (Do you know what I mean by a Ņflying foxÓ, sometimes called an aerial runway or zip-line? You hang under a wire, propelled along by gravity—usually in a childrenÕs play park.) One guy carried a catapult for birds, which he demonstrated for me (but missed). Another had a bow and arrow; traditional in this part of China for hunting small game. We passed donkeys, mules, goats, water buffalo, chickens, ducks, little pigs, and many dogs. Dogs are kings of the road: they just sit in the middle and force traffic to detour around them. We negotiated many landslides, including one four months earlier that erased an entire village of 96 people and another that washed a car into the river in a freak accident, killing all the occupants. Vegetables were cultivated on every little scrap of flat roadside land. Dozens of waterfalls cascaded down the mountains on either side, and there were many hydro stations on side streams. In some places enormous pylons carrying power cables stepped their way up from the river and over high mountains. How did they get them there?—certainly not by helicopter, said Shaoqun. But how? ŅWe built the Great Wall,Ó she reminded me.

We stopped for lunch in Fu Gong, where I met a white man, one of only three in the entire trip (all western Canadians). The people along the valley are from various Chinese ethnic minorities: Li, Li Su, Nu. At one viewpoint was a craft shop selling goods from Burma, staffed by an attractive Li Su lady in national dress. (This was the only tourist shop I saw in the entire trip.) We stopped at the Ņschool bridge,Ó where some years earlier a passing reporter noticed kids from the other side of the river coming to school on the flying fox. He mentioned it on TV and viewers donated money to build a pedestrian bridge. Graffiti warning that Ņparents who take their child away from school commit a crimeÓ underscored the importance the Chinese people place on education. We finally reached our destination, Bin Zhong Luo, one of three villages that claim to be the inspiration for Shangri-La—and yes, it was indeed surrounded by snow-capped mountains, with peaches growing in the valley far below. A little girl in full Nasi costume was helping her mother out in the restaurant where we ate dinner.

Up next morning for an unexpected taste of home: soda bread for breakfast, just like Ireland! ItÕs what the Nu people eat. And the Irish would be flabbergasted to see people prising their bread apart with chopsticks to insert pickled vegetables. There are two kinds of yakÕs milk tea: sweet and savoury (that is, oily, tasting like sesame oil): both absolutely delicious, though in neither case could I detect any actual tea. We hired a guide from the Nu minority, and hiked on a rutted track along a riverside gorge to within a few hours of Tibet. A few trucks and motorbikes passed us in both directions, one, Tibet-bound, loaded with corn whisky. Stunning scenery, numerous waterfalls, rapids, torrential side-streams. We passed the odd shack, some on the other bank with only flying-fox access, unbelievably remote. In the old days they cut a length of bamboo in half, placed the half-cylinder over the wire and clung to it to slide across, high above the river. Now they use a pulley-wheel.

Lunch was at an impressive waterfall flowing across the track; I swapped most of my city-bought picnic snacks for half a piece of our guideÕs freshly made soda bread. A little pipe diverted some water to a small generator from which a single electric wire led up to a shack 1 km away. There was no insulation, and the bare wire passed over the ground: how can this be? Then we turned and hiked back. We met two very grubby little kids outside a shack playing alongside a little piglet, hen and chickens: they didnÕt understand when I took their picture and showed it to them, but they sure liked the chocolate that Shaoqun gave them. Our driver met us on time, thanks to mobile phones—even our Nu guide had one. There was a road block on the way back: the road had to be kept clear for some important government officials, so we whiled away an hour or two over a beer at a roadside inn until we were allowed to proceed.

Back in Bin Zhong Luo we had a lively visit to the local school, for Shaoqun had brought some exercise books and pens from the city as a gift. I was swarmed by lovely laughing kids who I was trying to photograph. Shaoqun tried to hold them back for a picture, but as soon as I aimed the camera they all took off and raced towards me, waving and shouting. After dinner (including Ņstomach of pigÓ and lotus root), we sipped a little corn-based liquor in the primitive cafˇ run by our Nu guide and his soda-bread-baking Tibetan wife. He grew up as a lonely shepherd in the mountains, and taught himself the erhu (two-stringed Chinese violin), which he played for us—he made the instrument himself. Now he picks mushrooms in the summer months and does nothing much in the winter except help his hard-working wife in the cafˇ. We hadnÕt really needed a guide that day, but it pumped a few dollars into the local economy—and we made a friend. It turns out that his wife wove the cloth for his sky-blue Nu-style jacket, which I had admired, so we ordered one for me, to be put together by the tailor across the road. And because you can only make cloth for two jackets, and I didnÕt need two, we ordered a little suit to be made for my grandson Riley.

Then he took us off to a village dance! They deliver a dozen bottles of beer to your table, arranged in a neat triangle, in a barn-like building with a stage and Tibetan-style music coming from loudspeakers. We drank out of shot glasses, and a single toast, typically one-on-one, involves draining the glass and refilling three times. Of course, as non-locals—and especially a European—we were something of a phenomenon, and many people ambled over with their beer bottle for a three-glass-toast with each of us. And, hilariously, we danced on the stage, shuffling around in a circle with all the others, with some fancy footwork and half-turns at cadences in the music—though, to me, it was all a bit unpredictable. It really was the most wonderful evening, and fortunately the beer was rather weak.

Breakfast next day was in our friendÕs cafˇ: freshly baked soda bread and oily Tibetan tea. We drove to a tiny village, Qiu Na Tong, high in the mountains. We hiked 2 km further up to the old school there, now closed because kids attend the school we had visited in Bing Zhong Luo, where they board for a couple of weeks at a time. The village is lovely, though itÕs slightly disconcerting to see electric wires strung all over—they are ever-present in the Nu valley where plentiful electricity comes from the river and even the smallest hovel has a light bulb. A few people even have washing machines. Shaoqun dished out candies to shy kids, who often didnÕt really know what to do with them because they were wrapped. We strolled back down to the river for a picnic lunch—by now I had completely abandoned the city snacks in favour of soda bread and boiled eggs. Then we walked and along a riverside path, cut into the cliffs in some places, to Wu Li (a village in fog), a picturesque little village accessible only on foot. We crossed a swing cart-bridge and, guided by a lovely (but grimy) little village girl whose family sent her to accompany us, down to where the side-streams joins the Nu river. Then back to our car, and back to Bing Zhong Luo to be measured by my tailor, and a final cup of Tibetan sweet tea with our Nu/Tibetan friends.

Then we drove back to the nondescript little town of Gong Shan, which is not so nice—certainly compared to Shangri-La—and it was raining, which made the place seem even dirtier than it already is. Our evening meal there can only be described as ma ma hu hu (whose meaning lies somewhere between English mediocre and French comme ¨i comme ¨a). One dish was a whole chicken, including head and feet, but it must have been a very scrawny one because it was only head and feet: quite inedible. Then we discovered that there was no room at the inn. So Shaoqun checked out another one, which was decidedly less than ma ma hu hu, and finally we found one that was OK but É Chinese toilets. One trouble with Chinese toilets is that theyÕre so, well, conspicuous in the bathroom, with no lid. Another is they can smell really bad.

In the morning, despite light rain, cloudy skies, and an indifferent weather forecast, we decided to nevertheless continue with our plan to hike deep into the mountains for a nightÕs ŅcampingÓ (in a hut). We wanted to take a guide and mule, but the track was apparently unsuitable for mules, so we hired two Li Su porter/guides. Eventually they turned up, and loaded their baskets with our gear—sleeping bags, mats, and food. We finally got our driver out of bed (apparently each night, wherever we were, he was out partying), but the car wouldnÕt start. The AA doesnÕt reach this far, so he headed off in a taxi and returned with a borrowed battery and jump leads, and we were away. We drove far up a side valley before the road petered out and Shaoqun, her brother, the guides and I started walking (her cousin opted out of this trip and stayed in bed).

Our route was through a park called Qi Qi towards the village where the dragon people—Du Long, meaning one dragon—live. After a couple of hours we reached the park rangerÕs primitive cabin (though he did have TV), and ate lunch. Things turned argumentative when we went to leave and he asked for our permit; Shaoqun had been told we didnÕt need one. A heated argument with Shaoqun ensued; she kept pointing to me (Ņhe came all the way from New Zealand just for thisÓ). Eventually our guides went inside with him for a conflab, and finally it all came down to money. Three people × two days × ´10/day is 60 yuan. (We gave him a ´100 note and asked him to keep the change, but he refused—which made it all seem legitimate.)

Mud, slippery stones, dramatic views of mountains with drifting low clouds, glimpses of the furious stream and many side waterfalls. We had to walk through three waterfalls: I came a cropper in one and sat down in the water! Occasionally it rained, and the forest became drippy. Finally we reached the farm buildings, or rather huts, where we spent the night—you can actually see the place here in Google Maps! Roaming the farmyard were a beautiful pig, several hens, and a standpipe gushing water. One of the nice things about western China is plentiful clean water.

There was a smoky fire on the mud floor of the cookhouse, which doubled as a lounge, with logs to sit on. And the caretaker, a silent—sullen?—dragon man. It turned out he had been here a month and we were only the third party to come through; I was surprised he wasnÕt a little chattier. Only our guides could communicate with him, because he spoke only the dragon language, and it was only with difficulty that Shaoqun could communicate with them. We ate a smoky dinner of boiled vegetables and tinned meat—spam! It was raining, and there was little to do except sit around in the smoke and gloom and pick off the leeches that we had gathered on our walk and mysteriously continued to appear on our bodies throughout the evening, and barbecue them in revenge. Gross. We tried in vain to dry our boots, which were soaked through. There was no light except from the fire, so it was early to bed, in a bunkhouse across the farmyard. I had my own room, with a hard bed and filthy mattress. The whole experience felt like a little taste of poverty.

This is where we turned around. The hut lies partway along a narrow multiday walking track that right now is the only access to the Du Long village. ThereÕs an extremely primitive road that takes a different route, but it is currently completely impassible because itÕs being rebuilt. I think the walk would take us four days, and the locals two or three days, so the Du Long are extremely isolated. But they are used to isolation. There are only 5000 dragon people, and they have a custom of tattooing the womenÕs faces heavily to make them less attractive to marauding invaders from Tibet or Burma! (although only very old women still have tattoos). We were up early for a dank smoky-fire breakfast, and before departing I tried on one of our porter/guideÕs baskets, which was surprisingly comfortable except that the tumpline around the forehead, which they donÕt always use, strained my neck. Me carrying a load was a huge joke: even dragon-man laughed.

So it was back, via a snack at the Park WardenÕs hut (all smiles now), to civilization at the road-end villageÕs Communist Party headquarters, where we awaited the car. By now yesterdayÕs occasional rain has become more serious, and we were soaked through. We dropped the guides off at their village, had a late lunch in crappy old Gong Shan, and drove for 5½ solid hours, with only one two-minute photo stop, back to Lu Ku and the nice hotel there to clean up and try to dry off. My boots were smelly and totally saturated; I washed them as best I can and threw the socks away.

Shaoqun, who had researched this trip meticulously, planned one further unforgettable cultural experience: a church service. The Nu valley is predominantly Christian, and devoutly so. Throughout our trip we spied picturesque little churches dotting the valley, both by the roadside and on the inaccessible other side, sometimes standing in splendid isolation high up in the mountains. Apparently a couple of French missionaries journeyed upriver from Vietnam, in the mid 19th Century I think, and converted the people to Christianity. The Church helps this society in many practical ways, and not only does the Chinese government refrain from attempting to suppress religion, it actually encourages it by providing money.

Anyway, a country church in Bai Hua Lin (hundreds of flowers) not far from Lu Ku is renowned for its singing. Unfortunately we arrived just in time to miss the 8 AM service. Thankfully we decided to await the next service, passing the time by visiting a charming nearby village, with a little market, and eating an early lunch there. We bought spicy noodles from a market vendor and took them to a tiny restaurant to supplement the meal that they made for us there—this is the closest that Chinese get to takeaway meals. Back at the church we whiled away some time by playing table tennis at an outdoor table: IÕm not great but I was not the worst!

We entered the church for some bible readings before the service began. It turns out that on Saturdays people journey down from where they live far up in the mountains, attend church that evening and again on Sunday, staying overnight with friends, and walk home on Sunday afternoon. Many—particularly the old women—were wearing traditional Li Su dress, with amazing cylindrical hats. And do they sing! One man stood in front, giving the beat, and from the very first note they all blasted away fortississimo (or more). The congregation segregated themselves into soprano–alto–tenor–bass regions, men on one side and women on the other. The sopranos made a screechy sound, like Beijing opera, which to my ear sounded dreadful. But they were giving it all theyÕd got: no-one held back. There was no organ; no instrument other than the human voice. A large choir came to stand along the front and sang some more. Then there was a sermon, which lasted 28 minutes.

Everything was in the Li Su language, which, strangely, is written not in Chinese characters but in something that looks more like Arabic letters, though with some strange upside-down additions. Apparently the same French missionaries developed the written language. I borrowed a hymnbook—later they presented me with my own—and spent the long sermon learning the musical notation by decoding a few of the hymns that were familiar to me. ItÕs all there in four-part harmony, with numbers to represent pitches and dashes to represent durations. Then there were some prayers, another choir number, and we were out within the hour. I was disappointed that there wasnÕt more singing: to my surprise, I found it quite moving. Outside we milled around with the after-church crowd, admiring all the colourful traditional costumes.

Sadly, our trip was winding down. We had another long drive (4 hours) with hardly a stop, along an excellent, very new, well-engineered highway winding through scenic mountains, back to Da Li, through which we had come a week before. This time we stayed in a nice hotel in the ancient city, which was built by the Bai ethnic group. Da Li is quite touristy, particularly compared with where weÕve been, and the place was full of foreigners. It was all quite picturesque, but marred by souvenir shops, some of whose staff were dressed in full Bai costume, and restaurants that advertised western food. On my pre-breakfast walk I discovered a lovely street with a landscaped stream running down the middle. Rice noodles are a local specialty, and we went for breakfast to the best place in town: they were indeed excellent. Here I encountered my first beggar in China, an old man who turned on his heel and left when Shaoqun offered to buy him breakfast instead of giving him money. We found a temple built for Guang Yu, a famous warrior from 1500 years ago, with huge golden statues of him and two formidable-looking henchmen.

On the way back to Kunming we stopped for lunch in Chu Xiong, home to the Yi ethnic group, who have white-walled houses and often paint pictures on them. Nearby is the World Dinosaur Valley, ChinaÕs largest dinosaur park, and little clusters of houses beside the highway are painted with dinosaur pictures. There were roadside vendors displaying pheasants they had caught, and in one case a live rabbit on a string. Back on the highway are a few humourous road signs (REARENDCOLLISION:KEEPSPACE; DONÕT DRIVE TIREDLY). We finally arrived in Kunming and went straight to ShaoqunÕs apartment for a reunion with her husband, who had been looking after their one-year-old girl while weÕd been away.

What a great experience!

Ian H. Witten
11 January 2011