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Morning bliss at the Dulong river

This is the account of a trekking journey I recently undertook in the Dulong river valley, Yunnan’s remotest corner in between Myanmar and Tibet. Part one of this story was originally published on GoKunming.com.

We stretch our stiff legs when we alight the green and white jeep. For the past three days, we’ve done nothing but sit in ever smaller vehicles: big comfy bus from Kunming to Liuku 六库, a smaller regional bus from Liuku to Gongshan 贡山, and finally a small jeep loaded with eight people bouncing their heads off the padded bodywork that took us across a high mountain pass from Gongshan to Kongdang 孔当.

We’ve arrived in Yunnan’s most secluded valley, home to the Dulong river 独龙江 which rages from its headwaters in Tibet through a mere 100 km of Yunnan, shedding over 1000 metres in altitude before flowing into Myanmar’s Irawaddy river. Locals consist of the Dulong 独龙族 and Lisu minorities 傈僳族 , but there are some Nu people 怒族 to be found as well.

Bapo village
Bapo village

Kongdang is not what we expected to see in this remote area. Fairly modern houses abound and the road that connects them is coated in fresh tarmac. The town boasts a school and a Mondrianesque museum, built with pebbles from the river, is being constructed to reinforce ethnic pride. We drop off our packs and pop into a nearby restaurant for lunch. We’re surprised to find out it’s packed with Chinese tourists – and only half surprised to find that the owners are Sichuanese. Putonghua does the trick, food is good.

Some tourists are costumed for trekking: Red Northface jackets and backpacks, while others are frantically harassing older ladies with facial tattoos (an old Dulong custom to prevent their married women to be thieved by roving bands of bandits) for pictures. “Come on, grandma, here’s ten kuai, now smile for the camera!”

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Heading South

We decide to escape the awkward theatre and our saviour comes in the form of a little van headed to Bapo 巴坡, the old administrative capital of the region, which has now been moved to more northern Kongdang by virtue of being the only town directly connected to the county capital of Gongshan.

To this day, the inhabitants looked unimpressed with either the move or our presence, so we abandon our plan of staying the night and march on. Ignoring a hastily sprayed “Caution: wolves”, we make camp on a roadside swerving spot with a good view of the river, hoping that no large trucks will come down after dinner. Dinner, for want of space in our backpacks, is noodles and will be for the coming seven days.

First campsite with river view
First campsite with river view

On the second day we manage to hitch a ride with the people putting in milestones in this brand new road (occasionally skipping one for reasons beyond us, but likely related to meals). We arrive at a collection of wooden huts by the name of Maku 马库. The tarmac road fades into dirt, lifting our spirits to a new high: walking on asphalt, after all, wasn’t our sense of adventure.

Our goal for today is the proud nation of Myanmar, or at least its border stone, and the road crawls high above the sky-blue river, revealing a sandwich of vegetation ranging from leafy tropical to temperate and pine trees at the top, cut in bite-ready slices only by the odd shiny waterfall. Brightly coloured birds sing and the sun highlights bizarre trees bearing fruit that most resembles blood-red mangos.

Maku village
Maku village

A loud bang abruptly jerks us out of dreamland and directs our attention to the river. Three large splashes betray the origin of the explosion. Workers on the other bank are dolling up an old riverside trail into a tourist boardwalk. We wish we were walking there as camping spots are in short supply along this section of the river. The gorge is extremely narrow and slopes are over 80% steep.

When we finally do get an opportunity to walk down, we don’t hesitate and commence the perilous descent towards the river and its tempting sandy white beaches. Somewhere in the bush we find something that mostly resembles the tail of a red panda. We wonder if it has been poached.

Red panda tail?
Red panda tail?

We pass the workers’ camping spot, cross a bridge over troublesome water, find a farming house and then a trail behind it leading to a beach. We hide our backpacks so we can walk to the Myanmar border unencumbered.

On the way, we see several building projects. Entire villages are being constructed by the government to accommodate nearby solitary dwellers, while diggers and dozers enlarge a trail that will eventually connect to Myanmar. One of the diggers doesn’t wait long enough to let us pass and its tracks send a huge boulder flying down the hill. Acting only on sound, we make an inglorious tiger-leap to save our skins. The boulder misses by a hair’s breadth.

The Moon waterfall
The Moon waterfall

Towards Myanmar’s Border

Between the Moon waterfall 月亮瀑布 – a cascade so huge it attracts tourists in police-escorted convoys – and the Myanmar border lies a tiny town presided over by a toothless self-proclaimed party member. He runs a tiny guest-house meant to accommodate traders from Myanmar that come to buy electronics and other goods on multi-day hikes from their home towns. The clipboard in his leathery hands keep track of all people going in and out. Not us, we’re kindly encouraged to go look at the border stone.

Constructing the way to Myanmar
Constructing the way to Myanmar

As we walk to the border on a three-foot wide trail through dense forest, we are joined by several of these traders. The women shyly greet us in English “Good morning” (it’s 4pm), “Careful!” (I guess that applies now), the men simply spit out mangled hellos.

The village also contains an interesting map detailing valuable ore deposits in northern Myanmar. It has only been published last year, but already looks like a piece of parchment reclaimed from an old shipwreck. The road construction suddenly makes sense to us: the Chinese are opening up northern Myanmar for its minerals and metals!

Map detailing Northern Myanmar's ore deposits
Map detailing Northern Myanmar’s ore deposits

We fill our canteens at a hose which the village elder congenially assures us is the purest possible source of water, and hurry back. We reach our beachside campsite just before nightfall, feast on noodles and bugger off to dreamland.

Two of us are sleeping in claustrophobic bivouac sacs and are woken by heavy rainfall. It delays our departure until noon and we resort to asking some bikers for a favour. They agree to take us and our bags down on a slippery death ride to Kongdang.

Interesting rock formations
Interesting rock formations

All of a sudden, our driver slams on the brakes. We open our eyes against the thrashing rain and see a massive bull toying around with its owner. The animal seems unhappy with its leashes, snorts and roars and kicks around. It’s a lot bigger than the largest water buffalo we’ve ever seen.

We carefully skirt the angry Dulong bull, which are apparently worth around 40,000 yuan a piece and get dropped off at Kongdang’s one and only roller-skating rink, where baijiu is served for all. We arrange hotel rooms for our saviours and get to bed early ourselves. If tomorrow’s weather is any better, we’ll go north.

Colourful fake booze
Colourful fake booze

Exploring the Northern Trails

When the first morning fog clears off, we meet some Chinese tourists and agree to hire a driver that will take us north to Xiongdang 雄当, the northern end of the road. An anthropologist on a research trip puts us in touch with the local military pathfinder who assures us all trails but the main one are military domain and thus off-limits for foreigners. Our only option is to walk north to the Tibetan border and come back.

The protestant church in Xiongdang
The protestant church in Xiongdang

Xiongdang is a new village. The government has put in a lot of effort and money to build some sixty houses to accommodate all village dwellers further north. All but a few die-hard villagers claim they’re happy to move into a more modern town with a road connection.

A little makeshift church provides religious services to those of the protestant conviction. Inside, chalk writings that look a lot like Fraser alphabet presumably teach the word of God. The Fraser alphabet, though mainly used for the Lisu language, may have been exported by Lisu Christians evangelising their Dulong neighbours who have no script of their own.

The purchase of some fangbianmian from the local storekeeper-turned-parson gives us a reason to walk into one of the village’s old wooden houses. It seems to act as the local pub as it’s filled with villagers warming themselves by the fire, drinking soup, tea, noodles, or simply getting languid on beer or baijiu.

The owner of the house is a welcoming lady who supplies us with baba, potatoes, tuber and information about the trails ahead. We also learn that we can stay in any of the new, empty houses. Number 59 serves exactly that purpose.

Chalet 59, Xiongdang village
Chalet 59, Xiongdang village

The house, looking a lot like a Swiss chalet, has never been lived in. The wooden floor boards still shine with varnish and we quickly realise why no one lives here: electricity and water haven’t been connected yet, and the house lacks a bathroom and a kitchen.

Those are expected to be built in the next year. In the meantime, people cook and wash outside or stay in their older wooden huts downtown. For us campers, the five-room chalet serves just fine. A drizzle sets in while we’re cooking our noodles and we pray for better weather the next day.

Makeshift Beehives near Xiongdang
Makeshift Beehives near Xiongdang

Into the Wild

Our prayers have been heard and we wake to some of the most perfect blue skies in a long time. The hillside forest generates small clouds but the dapper morning sun burns it all off. Blessed by this excellent weather, we start our hike towards the Tibetan border with a first stop in the village of Ban 班. The hamlet is barely connected to the power grid via a long wire strung all the way from Xiongdang and features scarecrows made of old shirts.

Its dogs most unwelcoming, we limit our visit to a few pictures and nihaos and move on. Our trail is littered with rocks, tree trunks and bridges made of thin logs and mouldy planks, sometimes provided with an improvised handrail. One bridge looks like it was designed by August Möbius after a heavy night of drinking and realised by a young Salvador Dalí with a spool of iron wire. Beneath us rage tributary rivers. We have to watch our every step and thank the heavens it isn’t raining.

Rickety bridge
Rickety bridge

The rest of our trail keeps following the river, however difficult the terrain alongside it. Every now and then we encounter a group of people, the women and horses invariably loaded with heavy baskets, the men wielding machetes and slingshots to shoot unsuspecting birds. While most of the fauna wisely stays hidden, the flora is fantastic.

Mushrooms ranging from pizza topping to a night at the DEA office sprout up everywhere and the trail is strewn with wild strawberry patches (the inedible kind). Every now and then, a jay flutters up from out of the bush and eventually we arrive at the forgotten village of Jiayong 加涌.

Interesting toadstools
Interesting toadstools

Because it largely consists of a single log cabin, we only later realise this was today’s goal, and we move on to the next place Shidang 石档, again a collection of deserted log cabins surrounded by large cannabis trees. The northern Dulong obviously build for colder weather than their tropical southern kin, whose huts are mainly made of bamboo.

The cabins seem deserted, and we decide to take shelter inside. The dwelling is littered with cups, trash and there are some blankets around the fireplace. We wonder if someone still lives here, or if only tourists and traders use this hut as a shelter. We make a fire and before long we’re snoring the night away.

Horses on their way to Xiongdang village
Horses on their way to Xiongdang village

A Dream of Monkeys

When we wake up the next day, the skies are overcast and a light drizzle rains down on our moods. We know we can reach the Tibetan border and be back in one day, so we decide to leave our backpacks in the cabin. Without the extra luggage, we swiftly skip along the trail towards Nandai 南代, a larger village with a small but active population, slightly exceeded by the amount of bark-happy dogs. All houses are constructed with wooden boards and logs, and the main economic activity seems to be weaving colourful mats and self-sufficient farming.

Nandai village
Nandai village

On its way to the river, a small side stream powers a mill house in which a grinding stone produces flour and oil. When we ask for the right way to the border town of Dibuli 迪布里, a scruffy man with two snot-nosed toddlers appears in his doorway. His wife speaks rusty Mandarin and walks us towards the beginning of the trail. The villagers obviously haven’t had a bath for many days and we wonder where they get their synthetic clothing from.

Weaving mats in Nandai village
Weaving mats in Nandai village

After Nandai, more slippery bridges over side-streams make the hike a hazardous enterprise. The trail is marked by ever fewer foot tracks and we repeatedly walk up dead ends, losing plenty of time. Since the trail is meticulously cut out of thorny bushes, taking short-cuts is not an option. According to our GPS, we’re only a few hundred metres away from the Tibetan border when the trail transforms in a series of rickety ladders supported by skinny branches, in turn held together by mouldy bark.

Daylight is quickly burning, so we decide it’s not worth the risk to go on. We turn back, moving our stuff to the first shelter. In the glow of our campfire, we make a lugubrious discovery in our cabin. From support beam dangle a set of monkey skulls, covered in green mould. An anxious glance at the clock reveals that it’s Halloween. We sleep an uneasy sleep.

Mouldy monkey skulls
Mouldy monkey skulls

Back to Reality

Our next day largely consists of tracing our steps back to Xiongdang, the makeshift village at the beginning of the trail. A cheery engineer in decidedly non-local clothing and his entourage of carriers greet us on the way. They’re on a prospecting mission for a new dam site.

If the controversy around the Nu river 怒江 dams continues, the Dulong may yet be the first to get dammed. A possibility hastened by the relatively small population, most of which have already moved to new government-built villages, so protest will remain small.

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Back in Xiongdang we find the ‘pub’ filled with young girls from around town. Our gifted chocolate goes down well with the girls, while the men are pleased with a case of beer. After we make clear we’re not protestant (and therefore apparently allowed to drink), we all get a warming shot of baijiu and convivial conversation ensues.

The girls thank their excellent putonghua to their education in Gongshan, which used to be a three-day walk from their home before the road was built. Some had even made it out to Shenzhen to work. Trying to discuss the monkey skull matter, however, made everyone fidget uneasily, so we decide not to ask any further.

Girls in Xiongdang's local 'pub'
Girls in Xiongdang’s local ‘pub’

We walk to the artificial village of Dizhengdang 迪政当 and arrange a minivan to Kongdang. The distance is a mere 30 km but the driver stubbornly wants 300 yuan, explaining that petrol costs 10 yuan per 500g of petrol. We’ve never heard of petrol expressed in weight units, but we’re happy when the van pulls into Kongdang.

Because it’s the weekend, all hotels are full so we have to make do with a 3-bed room out of woven bamboo, right next to the local disco/motorcycle-with-speakers. All tickets for next morning’s jeeps to Gongshan are sold out, too, so we end up hanging around town.

Basketball court in Ban village
Basketball court in Ban village

In the ticket shop, a group of girls from Myanmar are eyeing the smartphones on display. They’re a young teacher and her Rawang minority students, all wearing typical Myanmar sunscreen paste on their faces. In fluent English, she explains they have walked several days to come here and will be going back first thing in the morning. We think it’s a remarkable thing and the shopkeeper, who speaks their language, agrees and proceeds to show off his knowledge of the world, praising France and Germany for reprimanding the US in the eavesdropping case.

After a while, we manage to find a van driver and 7 passengers who cough up the total price of 700 yuan. The pass is covered in snowy sludge and we learn that it will be one of the last weeks before the road is officially sealed off for the winter. A salesman of agricultural machines we meet later in Liuku has brought his backpack. If he ends up getting stuck, he will make the four-day hike out through Tibet and back down via Bingzhongluo 丙中洛.

On the way back, the pass was almost snowed over
On the way back, the pass was almost snowed over

Getting to the Dulong river

Getting there is a lengthy and complicated enterprise, taking up to three days. We’re happy to help you on your way.

Getting into the Dulongjiang is currently best done by four-wheel-drive
Getting into the Dulongjiang is currently best done by four-wheel-drive

The longer route involves a day bus at 9:30 to Liuku 六库from the West bus station 西部汽车站 for 200 yuan. The ride takes about 8-9 hours including stops. Another option is to take the night bus to 福贡 for 240 yuan, leaving at 16:00 or 18:00. We prefer the former because Liuku is a nice place with a mountainside boardwalk, a pedestrian riverside zone and agreeable temperatures. In Liuku you can stay at the comfortable Gerui hotel 格瑞大酒店 for 135 yuan per night, including breakfast (phone: 0886-388 8885). The bus station is in the new part of town, which will require a taxi ride of 15 yuan.

Scene from the way back
Scene from the way back

The next day you need to take a bus to Gongshan 贡山 which leaves every 30 minutes from either Liuku and Fugong bus stations, last about 8-9 hours and cost 71 respectively 50 yuan. In Gongshan, both the Tongbao 通宝大酒店 (tel. 0886-351 3339) and Xiagu 峡谷大酒店 (phone: 0886-351 1666) hotels offer comfortable double rooms for 100 yuan and are within walking distance of the bus station.

Buy your ticket for the morning – 7:10 and 9:10 – jeep to Kongdang 孔当 in the shop next to the government seat (60 yuan). The ride will take 4-5 hours until the new tunnel is completed end 2014. Before the completion of this tunnel, the road will also be sealed off from mid-november to mid-march due to heavy snowfall. In Kongdang you can get a reasonable double room at the Daping Hotel 大平酒店 (phone: 139-8869 6984) for 60 yuan. On weekends, the few hotels quickly fill up so make your reservations in time.

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