“But we little know until tried how much of the uncontrollable there is in us, urging across glaciers and torrents, and up dangerous heights, let the judgment forbid as it may.”

- John Muir, 1894

This was the longest and, by quite some distance, most challenging journey of the year. Owing to serious illness, our team split five days into the expedition: this blog will therefore go in two different directions, as well as down several byways and perhaps a few dead-ends. If you’re feeling like a long read about one of China’s more remote places, here we go…

The idea for this journey developed out of a previous trip in October 2010, when we retraced a large part of Joseph Rock’s 1923 expedition across Yunnan’s “3 Parallel Rivers” region. The climax of that particular adventure was our descent along what Frank Kingdon-Ward called the “Path of Terror.” In his 1924 book From China to Hkamti Long, Ward wrote: “The path climbed giddily. We balanced on crazy logs or descended the face of the cliff, clinging for dear life to roots and rocks.” Sharon Dennis, who accompanied us in 2010, can no doubt empathize. You can see Sharon’s video account of that trip here.

Ward’s terrifying path is the northern route to the foot of Mt. Gawagapu, the highest peak (5,128 meters above sea level) of the Gaoligongshan mountain range. Our aim this time was to make a fuller exploration of the range around Gawagapu: only this time exiting the mountain via the more commonly used southern trail. We would enter the range via a route still further to the south: above the village of Xiao Chala, which would provide the bulk of our guides and porters. All being well, we aimed to make a loop that would take us as far as the northern slope of Gawagapu, where sits a vast alpine lake seen by few except the most intrepid local hunter-gatherers.

To reach our base in the small town of Bingzhongluo entailed a full day’s drive through the magnificent Nujiang (Nu River) Canyon. This was one of the last areas of contemporary China to be brought under the administration of the central government. Small garrisons of Han Chinese troops only began moving up the river in the early years of the 20th century, mainly in response to the British Empire’s efforts to increase control over northeast Burma, which neighbours the Nu Canyon. They brought no significant Han migration in their wake, however: the canyon remains dominated by the peoples who lived there already 100 years ago. I’ll talk about them a bit more lower down.

The river, too, remains fundamentally unchanged. Almost uniquely among China’s great rivers (the Yarlung Zangbo, the upper course of the Brahmaputra, in Tibet was the only other example I could think of, but I looked it up and found that a dam began construction at Zangmu in November 2010), the Nu has not been dammed anywhere along its main course. The wild river is a thrilling sight and sound, particularly where it narrows into thundering rapids, some of which are almost the equal of those in Tiger Leaping Gorge. Naturally, the country’s hydro-engineers have made plans to harness the Nu’s energy. In 2003 it was proposed to build 13 dams along the Nu – this provoked such an outcry (from China’s nascent environmental movement, backed by international NGOs and, most notably, the government in Burma, where the Nu becomes the Salween) that Premier Wen Jiabao announced in 2004 that the project was being shelved to allow time for “further research.”

Hydropower is making a big comeback, in part because of the Chinese government’s commitments to energy-efficiency and renewable sources. In early 2011, Shi Lishan, deputy head of the New Energy and Renewable Energy Division of China’s National Energy Administration, said of the Nu River: “My belief is that development is a must. Because the Nu’s upper and lower reaches are already built up, in the past some people have said that it is necessary to leave a stretch of free-flowing river. I believe that putting that theory into practice is not realistic… We expect that, on the basis of strong evidence and after seeking the opinions of all parties, we can press ahead with hydropower construction on the Nu River.”

The Nujiang makes the off-center horseshoe bend pictured above just a kilometer or so south of Bingzhongluo. The Tibetan border is little more than 30 kilometers north of here.

Expedition Day 1

We got off to a typically late start, as we spent the morning buying supplies on Bingzhongluo market. This is a regular Tuesday event, which brings in considerable numbers of visitors from the villages along the river and up the mountain slopes on either side of the canyon. We concentrated on fresh meat and vegetables for the opening couple of days of the journey; there were no takers for the (allegedly) tasty tian shu trapped in the paddies (pictured below), which were selling for 60 yuan a kilo.

Bingzhongluo is a thoroughly mixed area. Its people predominantly belong to the Nu ethnic group, but there are also significant numbers of Tibetan and Lisu as well as a handful of Dulong people. Roman Catholicism and Lamaist Buddhism are the main religions, but there are also Protestant Christians among the Nu and Lisu, whose cultures are also said to preserve elements of pre-missionary animist traditions. I haven’t observed this myself but then I haven’t spent a great deal of time in either Nu or Lisu villages.

I think I’m right to say that it’s assumed the Nu are descended from the earliest inhabitants of the canyon. This might be true of the Dulong, too: the two peoples are closely related in language and various aspects of traditional culture, and one Dulong origin myth tells of two brothers being separated by a raging river: one goes west and fathers the Dulong, while the other remains by the Nu River and fathers the Nu. Both speak Tibeto-Burman languages, but this also makes them related to the Lisu, who migrated in large numbers into the canyon at a much later stage (Nujiang Prefecture is now a Lisu Autonomous Prefecture; Gongshan County, where Bingzhongluo is located, is designated a Nu-Dulong Autonomous County). The last to arrive were the Tibetans, beginning in 1766 with a monk from Dege who was tasked by his superiors with extending the influence of the Tibetan Church south along the Nu River. Tibetan families from Deqin, one valley to the east over the Biluo mountain range, came in the monk’s wake to take up farmland and work on temple construction (more about which further down).

Above is a typical Nu-style pattern being woven on a typical Nu-style loom. Cotton is used these days where hemp was the traditional fibre. Aside from older Tibetan ladies, not many people in Bingzhongluo dress in obviously “ethnic” fashion. The common choice of ethnic display is a shoulder bag whose design marks the wearer as Nu, Dulong or Lisu (Tibetans haven’t taken to this habit). Some Nu women have also adopted Tibetan dress styles as well as the Lamaist faith.

Our 16-strong party began from the riverside at Shuangla, making a half-day trek up the steep trail to the village of Xiao Chala. Besides myself and Yang Xiao, we were 10 porters, three Americans (Andy, Jenny and Phyllis) and one New Zealander (Dan). Xiao Chala is the last village on this side of the mountain. The children pictured above are all cousins and delayed me for quite some time with their desire to play and be photographed. This is a very poor area with dim prospects educationally, socially and economically. Alcohol abuse is so widespread that one of the local traffic police later told me government workers and anyone else with a bit of money sent their children away once they entered middle school, which is when the drinking starts. In his 1926 National Geographic article, Through the Great River Trenches of Asia, Joseph Rock noted the habitual drunkenness of the Nu people. Only the Protestant communities now seem to escape it. On the east bank of the river in 2010, I recall passing through Catholic villages adorned with mountains of empty beer and corn liquor bottles – poor testament to the teaching of the French and Swiss fathers.

The Chinese flags in the background are symptomatic of a recent trend in the area. Our porters said they didn’t know why every house in almost every village in Gongshan now flies the red flag, but my traffic police friend said this was an idea picked up from Shangri-la. That being a major tourism area, originally homes belonging to Communist Party members were encouraged to put out flags so that tourists would know where to go to find reliable information. In a Tibetan-style “keeping up with the Jones’s”, whole villages then began putting out flags. It had turned from a tourism project into a “face” project, said the traffic cop, which is how it had migrated into the Nu Canyon.

We stopped for the night at A Jiu’s house at the very top of Xiao Chala. A Jiu offers a good example of the flexible, fuzzy nature of ethnic identity in this region. I’d known him for two years and throughout that time had believed he was – as he said he was – Nu. His three children, however, all said they were Dulong. This was explained by the fact that A Jiu’s wife, who we called Xiao Fen, was Dulong and, as seemed common, the mother’s language and cultural identity dominated home life. When I asked other members of our team about A Jiu, however, they laughed and said he wasn’t really Nu: he was born and brought up in a Tibetan family on the other side of the river. A Jiu admitted this was true. Nevertheless, after marrying and moving to the Nu village of Xiao Chala, he had re-identified as Nu and seemed perfectly comfortable with this choice. He spoke Nu, Dulong, Tibetan, Lisu and (to a limited extent) Chinese. All our porters were multilingual, mainly in Nu, Dulong and Lisu, and it seemed to me they could all shift identities as easily as A Jiu if circumstances made it favourable, or necessary, to do so.

A Jiu’s three children (2 boys, 1 girl) were a delight. They were eager to help, learn and, most of all, play.

Day 2

The trail was unremittingly steep and forested. At lunchtime our team strung out along the path close to a clear stream, but beyond that there were no water sources, nor any open flat spaces. We entered a dark, old-growth forest around 4pm and soon after stopped to camp at a huge, hollow tree stump encrusted with massive arboreal rhododendrons, from where it was about 20 minutes to water. Despite warnings of snakes, none appeared, and the flies that had been so irritating in the afternoon sun vanished almost entirely in the shade. From around 1,600 meters above sea level at the river, we were now close to 3,200 meters up.

Day 3

My diary recalls, “Yesterday Andy tempted fate by telling me that these were ‘the hardest trails [he] had ever done’.”

Today was no joke. There was no water anywhere to be found, still less flat space, as we spent the entire day climbing along a steep ridge. Andy was already struggling the previous day; as his pace now slowed to a crawl, it became apparent by lunchtime that the chances of escaping the ridge and forest before dark were rapidly disappearing. Around 2pm we decided I would stop with Andy, gather what water I could from the others and send the rest on to camp. They could then send water back to us and I’d bring Andy on if and when he was able. That ability was increasingly doubtful, but at that moment the thought of trying to get him down what we’d just come up seemed more daunting than moving on into what our lead guide promised was better, more open country.

Happily, our advance guard found both a small space and some usable rainwater, though this meant another hour’s steep hike, which was almost too much for Andy. He lay down by the fire and passed out as soon as I let him (I kept him awake while he warmed up and proved his lucidity first).

Day 4

The campsite was cramped and full of acrid smoke from wet rhododendron logs. For the first time since we gathered in Kunming, no rain fell during the night. We got up, therefore, to a waterless morning and the main team made an early departure to find a more livable campsite. Andy continued to sleep while I poked at the remnants of the campfire, sitting on a semi-charred log that had the virtue of maintaining a warm backside. Everyone so often Yang Xiao would call in with news from the trail, none of which was good news. By midday they still hadn’t reached the lake, Longzang, which had been our destination for the past two days (its distance in the mind of our guide grew, rather than diminished, the further we ascended). Yang Xiao called in to say the trail was too difficult and I would have to take Andy down. He would send back help and water; in the meantime I would pray for clear skies and an improved Andy.

This was the earliest water source Yang Xiao could find. A Dou filled two 10-litre tanks to bring back to my and Andy’s emergency camp.

And these were the three fellows selected for the Rescue Team: A Pi and two A Dou’s, pictured here making a pile of fried dough baba.

In the meantime, I padded around my camp cage. My diary for that day begins, “Andy still alive,” which tells you all you probably need to know about my state of mind and the general state of affairs. As the morning wore on, the sun came out and for the first time on the mountain I could hear birds singing. A small tit, perhaps a rufous-vented tit, came and sat on the bamboo near my warm log. All around were dying pine trees, evidently infected by the same bug, the Yunnan Shoot Borer (Tomicus yunnanensis) that has decimated pine stands we’ve seen to the west and southwest of Shangri-la.

A Pi (above) and the two A Dou’s arrived around 5. They built the fire back up and made some noodles for dinner, plus a pile of Nu-style damper (below) for the trail on the following day. All three were sober young men, members of the Protestant congregation in their village. All scorned any notion of difficulty in descending the mountain – as long as it didn’t rain.

In the meantime, our main group continued onward and ever upward.

They finally reached the lake the evening of the same day. Not being present, I can’t testify to the challenge they faced, but from all reports things got tougher (though more beautiful) the higher they went. They crossed a pass at 4,210 meters above sea level before settling by the lake at 4,109 meters.

Days 5 and 6

I shan’t dwell on the travails of our rescue team during the two days it took for Andy to return to civilization and safety in Bingzhongluo, where he’s pictured below with the three members of what came to be known as the A-Team.

Very fortunately, the sun shone throughout our descent. At times, A Dou was moving Andy’s legs for him. I can’t possibly overstate what capable, courageous young men these are. They did all the work while I took care of the worrying. None of them had spent a day in school, but their knowledge of the mountain, and its plants and animals, was encyclopaedic.

Back up on the mountain, meanwhile, our team had crested the ridge for their first clear view of the peak and glaciers of Mt. Gawagapu, 5,128 meters above sea level.

This was as far as they got. From being what seemed a reliable fellow (he had led us along a very tough trail in 2010), our lead guide had turned into a drunk and a fibber. Rock’s words from 1926 echoed aptly: the people of this area, he wrote, “are a poor lot. They live solely on corn, their staple food, which they use for making a liquor of which they drink a great deal.” It had become clear that he had not, in fact, ever been to this place before and he had no idea where he was leading the group. The only people who had, in fact, been across the mountain from this direction were the members of the A-Team, who had been sent away to look after me and Andy. Given the increasingly perilous nature of the trail, a group meeting made the reluctant decision to descend the way they had come.

They moved back down to camp just above 4,000 meters, and from there made the descent all the way back to Xiao Chala the following day (the same day Andy and I reached Bingzhongluo).

Early the next morning, the team returned to the west bank of the Nujiang and then to Bingzhongluo.

Day 8

Undaunted, however, everyone (minus Andy) was back up the next morning to tackle another trail – the one we had originally planned to descend by. With only four days of the expedition left, there was just time to reach the watershed and try for a close-up view of Gawagapu’s main peak.

After I saw the team off at the trailhead, I walked across the gully north of Bingzhongluo to this Tibetan temple, called Puhua Si in Chinese. As far as I can establish, this institution dates back to 1782. The Tibetans had some success converting the local Nu to the Lamaist faith, but besides religion they also brought the temporal power of the Tibetan church – specifically its tax-raising talents and connections to the tusi, local headmen who kowtowed to the Chinese Empire in return for titles and imperial protection. From a fundamentally free people, the Nu were reduced to debt, serfdom and even slavery. Puhua was built under the patronage of the tusi of Kangpu, who was nominally responsible for the upper Nujiang canyon within Yunnan. At some point in the late 18th century the tusi seems to have ceded his tax-raising powers to one of the Tibetan landlord families across the border at what is now called Zha’en. A French missionary writing in 1872 told this story:

“The [Nu] people pay a yearly tribute to China; it is the Lama of the place [Bingzhongluo] who is in charge of sending it to Weixi. Moreover, they also have to pay a small tribute to the Tibetan mandarin of [Mankang]; this last is called alms and consists of steel cooking-pots, local cloth, etc… One assured me that in principle the [Nu] shouldn’t have to pay any tribute to Tibet, but the Tibetans, taking advantage of the weakness and gentleness of the inhabitants, asked for presents, and then required them; the mandarin then required the free transportation of salt loads; then the big bourgeois of [Zha'en] also asked for free transportation of their salt loads, this under the name of the [mandarin], and then under their own name. So things had came to the point that when the time came for the tribute, the poor [Nu] had to carry every year around 500 to 600 loads of salt, and were then forced to buy it at the rate of five loads of cereal for one of salt. Two years ago (1862), the [Nu], helped by the Chinese, settled in the area and, assisted by a Lisu regiment, organised a small revolution: they came to the tribute collectors and said that in the future they will regularly pay the tribute, but will only carry for free the seventeen loads of the mandarin.”

Check out this interesting paper if you want to know more.

Puhua temple as it stands today is a recent construction: it has been burned down several times, most notably by Qing troops in retaliation for the monks’ role in an anti-Catholic pogrom in 1905 (see below).

Day 9

After Andy had recovered to some extent, we took a morning trip out to the village of Qiunatong to see the Catholic church pictured in the background above. Unfortunately, we found it closed and the locals were not very forthcoming – the only man who spoke to us was a curious character from Sichuan who ran one of the stores next to the village basketball court. He claimed to have studied English for three years in Beijing, but had not apparently learned anything. Although he also claimed to be an atheist, he insisted on knowing whether or not we were Catholics – and said the locals would not like us to enter the church if we weren’t. This seemed to me to be a rather un-Christian attitude. Anyway, the absence of the church’s key-carrying guardian made this a moot point.

Qiunatong was one of the earliest sites of Catholic missionary work in the Nujiang. A French missionary, Jean Charles Fage, rented a house and a plot of land in the village in 1855, just a year after the arrival in this area of the first European missionary, also a Frenchman, Charles Renou. It’s much too long a story to present here, but the upshot of the Frenchmen’s work was a menacing fall in tax revenue for the Tibetan landlords and lamas. By 1865, the Catholics had been chased out, decamping to the Lancang River valley where they established another successful mission. In 1882, they crossed back over the mountain and tried again in the Nujiang, first establishing a church at Baihanluo and then re-establishing churches in Qiunatong and Zhongding. Once again, the Catholics found several communities eager for protection against Tibetan tax farmers (sorry for the materialist viewpoint here, but I’m sure this played a crucial role in conversions). Once again, the Tibetan ruling class (landlords and lamas) organized to expel the interlopers. The churches were burned and believers were threatened and murdered. Father Dubernard, head of the church at Ciku on the Lancang, was beheaded. Plant hunter George Forrest had been with Dubernard only days before and himself fled south to escape the Tibetan gangs. I can’t track down Forrest’s own account at present, but this section from Ludwig Brinkman’s Yunnan Explorer site seems to be taken from it:

“Pere Dubernard escaped for two days, but was eventually run to earth in a cave further up the valley. His captors broke both his arms above and below the elbow, tied his hands behind his back, and in this condition forced him to walk back to the blackened site at Tzekou [Ciku]. There they fastened him to a post and subjected him to most brutal mutilation; amongst the least of his injuries being the extraction of his tongue and eyes and the cutting off of his ears and nose. In this horrible condition he remained alive for the space of three days, in the course of which his torturers cut a joint of his fingers and toes each day. When on the point of death, he was treated in the same manner as Pere Bourdonnec, the portions of the body being distributed amongst the various lamaseries in the region, whilst the two heads were stuck on spears over the lamaseries of the town of Atuntze [Deqin].”

The sequel to this episode was a punitive mission by Qing troops. The burning of Puhua Si in 1905 was part of the slaughter and destruction they visited on the rebellious Tibetan regions.

While Andy slept and the rest of the team climbed into the range, I entertained myself by hiking up the sacred mountain directly behind Bingzhongluo, Mt. Gongdan. I tried twice but I didn’t find the route to the top, where one can allegedly look across to the peak of Mt. Gawagapu.

In the meantime the team had discovered that this path, which Yang Xiao and I used in October 2010, had deteriorated rather badly in the intervening two years. Once again, they faced a tough trek.

Nevertheless, they reached the top of the valley on schedule after two days. This camp sits at 3,375 meters above sea level.

Day 10

At dawn the next day, they had climbed to the ridge just in time to catch a glimpse of Gawagapu’s great glaciers before the clouds rolled in for the day. After that, it was another two-day hike down the way they had come. Sadly, time had run out and there would be no opportunity on this occasion to find a route around the peak to Chugan Cuo, the alpine lake on its north side.

Just to show you what it would have looked like on a clear day: this picture was taken from the pass pictured above in October 2010.

After the rest of our team departed, Yang Xiao remained behind in Bingzhongluo for several days to see if he could complete to journey to Chugan Lake. See how he got on here.