While we were hanging out in the common area of a hostel in Xining, a blonde guy of Thor-like proportions pushed his bike in, a bit disheveled from an intense ride across far western China. After just a couple responses to the usual introductory questions that travelers tend to swap--names being the last priority--I interrupted him to ask, "You're William Clifford?" To which he relied, "Why yes I am!" with a slightly puzzled look. I explained, "I'm supposed to email you after we take the train to Lhasa." Not only that, but he had also written the post I had seen earlier on the Thorn Tree forum.
We met up with Will a second time in Kathmandu after our respective tours through Tibet. After that, our paths diverged but we kept tabs on his progress through India, Bangladesh, and Burma. While we were heading north in the Yunnan Province of China, he was working out the bureaucratic logistics of crossing from Burma into the Yunnan, despite the widespread belief that this border is closed to foreigners. It appeared that we would be within cycling distance of each other if he successfully crossed the border. He did, making it happen through his stubbornness and creative strategizing, perhaps with a little bit of good luck thrown in too. We were both interested in exploring the Nujiang Valley, so it seemed like the perfect place to meet up.
The Nu river originates from glacial melt on the Tibetan Plateau, descends through the Yunnan, continues into Burma where it is called the Salween, then briefly forms the border with Thailand before emptying in to the Andaman Sea. It is one of the longest free-flowing rivers in the world and one of only two major rivers in China that have not been dammed. Of course, that is soon set to change with the revival of a controversial dam extravaganza proposal in China that had previously been shut down by protests launched by the Chinese environmental movement. Myanmar is moving forward with its own dam(n) plans as well.
We would be cycling along the section of Nu constrained by a long narrow valley nicknamed "The Grand Canyon of the East" where several of the dreaded dams are scheduled to harness the river's powerful descent. Apparently the gorge is 13,000 feet deep (presumably measured from distant glaciated peaks rather than the immediate summits of hills that hem it in), a product of the same tectonic plate collision that created the Himalayas. The dramatic topography of the region and the associated variation of climates has created incredible biodiversity. Lonely Planet claims that "the gorge holds nearly a quarter of China’s flora and fauna species, and half of China’s endangered species."
For what it is worth, some sections of Nujiang are included in a complex of fifteen protected areas established in 2003. They are known as The Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan UNESCO World Heritage Sites. UNESCO cites a criteria of the designation as the belief that it "may be the most biologically diverse temperate region on earth." Until recently, its historical remoteness has protected its cultural diversity as well, with several of the Yunnan's twenty-five ethnic minorities residing there. As with anywhere in China, Han-centric modernization and integration policies are now rapidly altering the cultural make-up and way of life in the valley.
Looking up the valley from its abrupt entrance, we were excited for the many miles that lay ahead. The lowest reaches of the valley were similar to the landscape we had been recently riding through, but now we had the focal point of a tremendous muddy river and the dramatic hillsides that hemmed it in. Agriculturally, this was the land of lychees and mangoes and apparently we were hitting it at the peak of the season. After passing by countless roadside mango stands, we finally stopped to buy a few, but they were so cheap that we ended up with many. Next, we were tempted by lychees. I thought I was getting half of a pre-packaged "bouquet", but through communication challenges I ended up with several kilos worth. Then they threw some free mangoes in to boot. The next stop was an unusual sight for a country where Nescafé is king: a roadside stand offering free samples of locally grown Yunnan coffee! The proprietor ground the beans in a classic manual grinder and brewed the deliciousness up in a contraption reminiscent of chemistry experiment. A new twist on our favorite drink was a dollop of coffee flower blossom honey for a sweet kick. After that, we were handed expertly peeled mangoes and sent off with several more on the house. We were hauling at least fifteen pounds of fruit by then and dared not stop anywhere else for fear of more free mangoes. Yes, there are certainly worse problems to be had out there.
We thought the steps of a roadside monument outside of a village would be a safe spot to actually consume some of the fruit we had accumulated, but within minutes some of the residents spied the random people and came over to investigate. The usual smiles and giggles led to the usual elaborate photo shoot and soon we were offered packets of sticky rice steamed in banana leaves. We learned through the basic translation app we were using to communicate that this was special holiday food prepared for the Dragon Boat Festival. We unwrapped the packets and dipped them in thick molasses that accompanied them, creating a massively gooey mess in our hands as we ate. We let the spontaneous roadside party run its course, but decided to push on despite the late hour of the afternoon. After a long day of riding through rural areas, we were quite caught off guard when approached a collection of tall buildings framed with neon lights. The bustling city of Liuku seemed so out of sync with the rest of the valley.
We had reached Liuku ahead of Will. We tried to convince him just how "leisurely" we ride, but he was certain he wouldn't close the gap if we kept moving up the valley. Always happy to have an excuse for a rest day, we spent an extra day there to wait for him to catch up. He put in a couple of huge days and rolled into town in the late afternoon. Wearing a bright yellow tunic printed with red elephants, a decomposing leather hat, and sporting a beard that hadn't been tamed since Kolcutta, he had perfected the "vagabond-on-a-bicycle" look since we last saw him.
Truth be told, we were a little nervous to ride with someone else, wondering if our styles would mesh and our routines would be compatible. We worried that we would be too boring for him after months of adventuring through intense situations. Those concerns evaporated within the first few miles of heading out of Liuku the next morning. Within an hour, we had laughed more than in the past week combined. And all joking aside, Will balanced his laid back flexibility with an ability to also tactfully communicate his priorities as needed. For our part, we did our best to conceal our habitual bickering couple dynamic and enjoyed being social with someone besides each other.
Upstream of Liuku, the gorge began to narrow and the valley turned greener, a theme that would continue all of the way up the valley. At least one of the three of us was inspired to stop at nearly every new bend in the road, so our collective progress was slow, another theme that would continue for the duration of our time together. But with so much beauty to take in, why rush? On the first day alone, Will flew across the river on a zip line that locals use in lieu of a bridge, we explored a cave containing a Buddhist shrine, we were mesmerized by rapids that would flip any raft in a split second, we watched rockfall on the opposite river bank, and of course we posed for an excessive photo shoot for domestic tourists, including some monks on vacation.
So it was only appropriate that we met a gregarious old woman, whom we later nicknamed Mama, while we were stopped along the stretch of road below her village. She didn't speak a word of English, but it was clear that she wanted us to follow her home. We pushed our bikes to her house at the top of the hillside settlement and were offered a thermos of hot water while sitting on little stools on her porch. This was certainly a nice gesture, but what we really needed was a place to spend the night! Through the universal symbol for sleep, we secured a spare room while her daughters shyly observed us from a distance, trying to figure out exactly how and why we were moving in to their home for a night.
We were soon served dinner from a very basic kitchen, featuring grilled meat and, of course, heaps of rice. When the family gathered in the living room that evening, Mama got the party started by putting on a DVD of traditional dance, presumably of the Lisu people, but we were not knowledgable enough to be certain since there are many ethnic minorities residing in Nujiang Valley. Mama and the least shy daughter began dancing in the middle of the living room, and it wasn't long before the weary bicycle travelers were pulled off the couches as well, no doubt providing amusement at how awkwardly we imitated their steps in the revolving group circle.
When the energy for dancing waned, we returned to our stations on the couches. This time a very drunk son-in-law took a particular interest in "conversing" with Will. Each time he said something, unintelligible to us whether he was drunk or sober, Mama would slap my thigh, point at them from across the room, and crack up with hearty cackle, which of course cracked me up too. As tears of laughter streamed down her face, she would lift her shirt up to wipe them away, freely exposing her breasts, thus spurring a few more giggles from our end each time. This sequence repeated itself countless times until she abruptly announced that it was time for bed. While the family fell asleep, we finally changed out of our cycling clothes and found our way to a bucket shower, before settling in on a thin woven matt serving as the mattress on a wooden platform bed.
We slept in long after the family was awake the next morning. They generously cooked up a breakfast quite similar to dinner while we loaded up the bicycles. When we conveyed our gratitude with a modest donation to Mama, she waved it away and implored us to stay longer. While spontaneous homestays are usually fun and inevitably memorable, they are also energy intensive. We were ready to keep moving, but we were all quite tired that day too. We opted to stop rather early in Fugon, a population center with a generic Chinese city feel to it.
The following day we passed by Nujiang's most famous sight, the Stone Moon, which is actually a roundish hole in a rocky ridge line. That evening, it seemed like camping would be an enjoyable option, but Matt and I figured that finding a spot would be a real challenge. Since flat land is so limited in the narrow valley bottom, it seems every inch is utilized for houses, roads, or crops. Even then, corn is planted in crazy and random places, a few stalks squeezed in here and there, right up to the edge of the road. Fortunately, we had a wild camping enthusiast with us who rode ahead to scout out potential sites, focusing on the sandy beaches along the calmer stretches of river. Will found one that looked idyllic across the river, so we crossed a suspension bridge to a village and asked a group of locals if we could camp there. They pointed us down a trail that cut through their property, but it proved to be unfeasible to get our bicycles all the way down to the beach. Conveniently enough, we also passed by an abandoned building on the way, so we took over the porch and overgrown grassy yard, still sleeping within feet of a cornfield of course.
The pattern of hot sunny days had shifted to cool and cloudy weather the following day. As we crossed the suspension bridge to return to the main road, we looked back and noticed that our desired camping beach was mostly underwater! A rainstorm in the night had raised the water level just enough to make us grateful we didn't get down there.
That afternoon we officially entered the UNESCO protected area and soon after faced a series of steep inclines. The previous days had been surprisingly gradual in their elevation gain as we continually traveled up the valley. The climb afforded us the stunning view of what is referred to as "The First Bend", where the Nu makes a dramatic curve around a peninsula within the deep valley walls below. This complimented the dramatic first look at Bingzoulao laid out on a sloping shelf high above the river yet far below the traces of snowy mountains partially obscured by clouds in the distance.
We settled in to the Road to Tibet Hostel, an accurate name as long as you are a Chinese national, since foreigners can not enter Tibet unless by train or plane along with a prearranged permit. The guesthouse is run by Aluo, an intrepid guy who's a knowledgeable resource for exploring the area. That night we celebrated reaching our "destination" with beers at a cozy restaurant frequented by Tibetans and basketball players, both in their respective forms of typical dress.
Bingzoulao was a pleasant enough base, so we stayed for few of days. After a leisurely morning involving multiple breakfasts the day after we arrived, we were motivated enough for an afternoon hike to "Peach Blossom Island." As we headed down the road toward the river, we noted a distinctive cycle touring bike parked outside of an upscale hostel. It belonged to a Chinese fellow who had been on the road for a couple of years. Overcoming the usual communication challenges, Will got some long sought after and essential beta from him on new roads heading east out of the upper Nujiang Valley, avoiding the substantial backtrack down to Liuku. The chance meet up confirmed a hunch we had developed from hearing stories of Will's previous adventures in addition to spending a few days traveling with him. Simply summarized, all we can say is, "Where there's a Will, there's a way!" As for us, we had already resigned ourselves to the out and back trip, believed to be the only option by numerous travel sources, since we had left our excess belongings at our odd hotel in Liuku.
After the route finding connection, Will and the Chinese cyclist were two peas in a pod while he accompanied us as an informal guide through the village on Peach Blossom Island. He returned while we continued on to see The First Bend from river level, finding our way around the hump of land the flowing water encircles.
The next day we took a day ride further upstream towards the Tibetan border. On the way, we paused in the courtyard of a landmark Catholic Church while locals in both traditional and Western dress arrived for mass. Further along, we were intrigued by a church that seemingly blended Christian and Buddhist iconography and architecture. Missionaries have been hard at work targeting the ethnic minority groups since the late nineteenth century. They even created a script for the Lisu language known as the Fraser Alphabet, involving upside down and backwards Roman letters. A translation of the Bible was their next move, of course.
We had no choice about our next stop at a police checkpoint where we had to register our passport details in case we tried to sneak in to Tibet. We didn't even make it close, first opting to take a side road up to a random village for a look around. A nice viewpoint back along the main road seemed like a logical turnaround, so we snapped some photos at the furthest point up the Nujiang we would explore, but the adventurous part of the trip was yet to come.
On the way back, we thought it would be cool to ride on what is purportedly a section of the historical Tea-Horse Road. In the same vein as the Silk Road, it was network of trade routes between Tibet and the lowlands to facilitate the trade of horses for tea, among other items. We crossed a modest bridge and cautiously began down a trail that had been chiseled out of a vertical cliff face. Will crouched over his handle bars to fit under the overhanging rock and I ducked too, but simply out of instinct rather than necessity. The trail narrowed to single track with an adrenaline-inducing drop off straight into the river below. I had no qualms about getting off my bike and walking a few sections, but the boys rode all of it. In less than a mile, the trail dropped us into the scenic village of Wuli, so picture-perfect that it might even be preserved as is by the Chinese government as a token example of traditional life. Less desirable villages have been rebuilt with more modern and quite uniform houses throughout the valley, giving communities a strangely suburban housing development look frequently see in the States, but a bit more modest.
Not much was going on in the village as we rode through it, but leaving on a different trail connecting to another bridge downstream proved to be the most adventurous part of our outing. After riding on the edge of a terraced cornfield, only once crumbling underneath me causing a minor crash into some stalks, the trail became too steep and narrow to ride. Then it plunged down toward the river with a series of wooden ladders and makeshift ledges built across sections of mass erosion. We were so close to the bridge that we opted to carry our bikes down the ladders instead of backtracking, although I'm sure it took more time and effort in the end. So much for an easy rest day!
After one more true rest day in Bingzoulao involving writing, bike maintenance, and even a movie night, we parted ways with Will. We failed to convince him to come with us to the Dulong Valley, a side trip to this side trip in a more remote valley accessed from Nujiang. He had his exploratory route heading east over the mountains to Lijiang to tackle; the Dulong was a week-long distraction to the west. While our respective journeys would later take us to some of the same places, it would no longer be at the same time.
It had been a week made memorable by both the excellent company and the specialness of the place. Developing a firsthand connection to Nujiang makes its uncertain future all the more worrisome. Whether by dams or the valley's inevitable discovery by masses of domestic tourists, biodiversity will suffer. Which is not to say that the river is in pristine condition now. Eddies were routinely filled with swirling chunks of styrofoam and partially burned garbage overflowed containment pits along the river banks. As if seeing this wasn't painful enough, we witnessed employees of a local hospital unloading bag after bag of bloody medical waste from a beat up ambulance and tossing it straight into the water. Yep, in broad daylight.
It is times like this when travel is a reminder of just how disempowering it is to be an outsider. What could we do but watch? If the Chinese government wants those dams built, who in this world can stop them? While travelers may be disempowered to intentionally create change in the places they briefly pass through, the process of travel is ultimately empowering. Awareness is more acute, knowledge is more impactful, inspiration is more lasting. Call it what you will, but travel's potential to effect change is best fulfilled in whatever place the traveler happens to call home. As for us, while we didn't exactly have access the incredible biodiversity of Nujiang, we at least got to see its overall beauty before it's gone.