For the final exploration of 2012, I joined our old friend Prof. Gary Sigley for a trip across the Gaoligongshan range into Tengchong, famous as a caravan and trading station on the old road to Burma. I’d heard for years about a well-preserved stretch of stone road on the mountain; as you’ll see below, the rumours did not mislead…

The ancient stone paths runs for at least 15 km on either side on Gaoligongshan. It’s the longest stretch of well-preserved stone road I’ve seen anywhere in China. You can read more detail about this ancient trading route in Gary’s blog here, and see Gary’s photos here.

Anyway, back to the start of the trip and we began with a visit to the museum in Baoshan, pictured above with a topical horse-riding attraction just outside the back door. The museum is designed in the shape of a bronze drum, many of which have been unearthed during archeological digs in the Baoshan region. It’s an old-fashioned museum on the inside, however, and lacks the money to update its collections and exhibitions. Deputy Director Zhang obligingly treated us to lunch and had one of her underlings show us around the exhibition halls. There wasn’t a great deal to learn there, but we did emerge confident that we had chosen the correct path over the mountain.

The following day we hired a car and set off in search of the bridge pictured above. It’s not well known even in Baoshan, but it’s the oldest iron-chain bridge on the Nujiang, first built in 1789. It’s called Shuanghong Bridge and is still used by the villagers on the east side of the river to reach the modern highway along the west bank: a pair of mules accompanied us across the wooden planks, which are in a poor state of repair. The Japanese Army reached this point after invading from Burma in 1942, crossing the Gaoligonshan range along the same path Gary and I planned to follow westward. That was as far as they got: the Yunnan forces held the Japanese at the river and prevented further incursions, allowing Yunnan to continue serving as a rear supply base for the anti-Japanese war effort.

For anyone thinking of travelling this way, please note that special permits are required. This section of the Gaoligongshan range is designated as a “Nature Protection Zone” and permits must be acquired in advance from the management offices either in Baoshan or Tengchong. The museum people forgot to tell us that, so we had to wrangle with the locals for some time before being allowed up the mountain. We finally got going at midday, immediately entering a marvelous primeval forest full of birdsong and monkey calls. Most of the animals stayed out of sight, but we did see a couple of monkeys scuttling across the branches over the path.

Given that Shuanghong Bridge dates back to 1789, I assume much of this path is of similar vintage. This hoofprint was worn deep into the stone on the west side of the mountain.

Six hours after setting off, we just reached lodgings before the light faded completely. This stone hut is known as Nanzhai Gongfang and was built on the foundations of an earlier structure in 2001, at a time when this area was also designated as an “Eco-tourism” zone.

Unfortunately, such tourism as comes here leaves a less-than-environmentally friendly imprint. Nanzhai Gongfang was strewn with litter. It was so appalling that I made a special photo-study of it, which will form the basis of future action directed at getting this place cleaned up. The nature reserve workers bemoaned the trash and blamed it all on the tourists, but most of those tourists travel with guides from the nature reserve office (we met one group of them coming the other way, the only people we saw in two days on the mountain), and so they should certainly take a bit more responsibility. A high wind blew around the enclosure all night and I awoke the following morning covered in rubbish.

Gary crossed the pass, 3,200 meters above sea level. We started hiking the stone road at 1,900 meters.

This machine-gun post looks westwards down the trail just below the pass. It’s highly unusual to see such a well-preserved relic of the war in its original position. It was full of rubbish, of course.

This is the old main street through Jiangzuo, where the caravans halted either just before or immediately after crossing Gaoligongshan. I haven’t seen such an old-fashioned high-street anywhere else that hasn’t been turned into a tourist attraction and extensively rebuilt. This one is just gently rotting away – the new high street is half a mile distant and the tourists are yet to arrive, though that may soon change given what is happening in Tengchong, just an hour or so to the south.

This marvelous old courtyard was taken over by one of the GMD generals directing the final push against the Japanese in Tengchong in 1944. The fellow standing on the left was of the opinion that the tower next to him was once used to house the master’s favourite concubine.

There are remnants of what look like wartime illustrations on both sides of the main gate into the compound above. The locals who showed us around couldn’t elaborate on their content or history.

In Tengchong itself, we visited the war memorial. This was built in 1945 and commemorates the 9000+ Chinese soldiers and, if memory serves, 19 Americans who died fighting the Japanese occupation of Tengchong. It’s a beautiful and moving site, which contains not a mention of the Communist Party. I believe it’s the largest such GMD memorial on the mainland.

Just outside Tengchong County Town, we visited Heshun, which is at the core of the effort to make Tengchong into a leading tourist destination. The mules trotting down the street had just finished their daily Southern Silk Road Caravan performance in Heshun, which has been “contracted” for development by a Kunming company. The result of this is a ticket office at the town gate charging 80 yuan for entrance. Without that ticket, one is unable to visit some of the main attractions of Heshun, such as its famous library. Heshun is a remarkable place. For some reason, the people of Heshun were especially active in trading with Burma, and many of its denizens amassed considerable fortunes and built splendid homes, as well as temples and libraries. We only spent a day and a bit there, but I have not encountered such a “cosmopolitan” culture in such a remote spot anywhere else in China. Every old person we spoke to had fascinating tales of their own and their families’ relationship with Burma. Every local I spoke to was adamant in his or her opposition to the outside company and its ticket office and other developments, but the local government obviously has other ideas. There are already 16 flights a day from Kunming to Tengchong, about the same as there are to Lijiang, on which Tengchong and Heshun in particular are clearly modeling their tourist development. It’s quite the coming place and should be visited as soon as possible! We found there were still large parts of Heshun that belonged to the locals and that you could wander freely around and learn about the history and culture of the place; that was the case in Lijiang when I first went there in 1999, and it most emphatically is not any more.

Above is one of the old courtyards in the upper part of Heshun. There was a lot of new construction going on even around this part of town.

And if anyone doubts the Lijiang analogy, here’s the first offering of the purpose-built Bar Street by the main gate into Heshun. On the square by the town’s Dragon Pool there’s an old water wheel that bears a striking resemblance to the one that welcomes visitors to Lijiang Old Town (right next to the sign trumpeting Lijiang’s UNESCO World Heritage status). However old it looks, the Heshun water wheel is a fake: the mill it is part of is real enough and locals queued there until very recently to grind their grain for free, but the wheel was put in to make it more photogenic.

I’m hoping to make a more extensive exploration of the Tengchong area in 2013 and spend more time interviewing the remaining old merchants and caravaneers. It really is a fascinating place and well worth checking out. The climate is lovely, too, so it’s a decent option for a winter break for those of you in Beijing and Shanghai. The direct flights are fantastically expensive, but if you stop off in Kunming you can sometimes pick up flights on to Tengchong for as little as 320 kuai.