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Cycling the Nujiang: Bingzhongluo and the Tibet border

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The Nujiang gorge, north of Bingzhongluo
The Nujiang gorge, north of Bingzhongluo

We've finally arrived. In many other situations we would be resenting the 18-hour bus journey we've just taken from Kunming. But we smile and remind ourselves that it has delivered us and our bikes to one of the most breathtaking areas in China.

We are in Bingzhongluo (丙中洛), a small town which is the northernmost outpost of modernity in Yunnan's Upper Salween River valley. The Tibet border is 30 kilometers to the north, Myanmar's Kachin state 50 kilometers to the west, and to the south the river gorge extends for some 300 kilometers, where roiling rapids, sublime peaks and staggering biodiversity await.

Here the Salween is known as the Nujiang (怒江), literally "angry river." In this remote corner of northwest Yunnan it flows out of the Tibetan hinterlands toward the Bay of Bengal. It is China's last major undammed river and one of the world's longest free-flowing rivers.

The Nujiang Gorge is the westernmost of the three valleys included in the Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areas, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The other two valleys are those of the Lancang River (澜沧江) and the Jinsha River (金沙江) as the Yunnan portions of the Mekong and Yangtze are known, respectively.

The Three Parallel Rivers area is a global biodiversity hotspot for a reason – three of Asia's great rivers flow southward for more than 200 kilometers, with only 100 kilometers between the gorges, which are separated by towering mountains. The extreme depth of these gorges – the Nujiang Gorge is more than 4,000 meters (13,000 feet) deep – translates to a wide range of temperatures and climates suitable to a dizzying variety of plant and animal life.

Our plan is to complete a six-day bicycle tour in and around the Nujiang Gorge. We'll start in Bingzhongluo and go north to the Tibet border. Then we'll turn back south and spend the next few days cycling downriver and passing through the small cities of Gongshan (贡山) and Fugong (福贡).

On the fifth day we'll ride over a pass atop the Gaoligong mountains (高黎贡山) and descend to the town of Pianma (片马) on the border with Myanmar. On the final day, we'll ride to Nujiang Prefecture's capital, Liuku (六库), and take a bus back to Kunming.

Bingzhongluo is perched on a hillside far above the gorge and we decide to pass our first afternoon there by hiking down to the river and crossing a footbridge to a farming hamlet called Taohua Dao (桃花岛), or "Peach Blossom Island".

3742Joseph Rock#http://www.gokunming.com/en/blog/item/1839/book_review_joseph_f_rock_and_his_shangrila# were drawn to the Nujiang area: the diversity of plants is almost overwhelming. We draw in the sweet scent of flowers and immediately spot wild irises, several types of rhododendrons, and a host of other flowering plants. A botanist could fill a whole day cataloguing just a few square meters of land.

At Taohua Dao
At Taohua Dao

Taohua Dao is nestled pleasantly amid the barley fields at the base of the mountains, with snow-capped peaks in the distance. The single-story houses are built of wooden planks and roofed with rough-hewn slabs of slate, which is plentiful in the area around Bingzhongluo and frequently used as a roofing material.

It begins to rain. The weather in the upper part of the valley will remain chronically unpredictable during our brief stay. If we had come a month or two earlier it would likely have been less rainy and the river, filled only with mineral-rich glacial runoff instead of silty rainwater runoff, would be a vibrant blue color instead of its current brown.

The area is beautiful nonetheless and the fog and low-flying clouds associated with the wet weather imbue the landscape with a feeling of mystery.

We trudge back to Bingzhongluo and while walking down what is essentially the town's only street we run into outdoor activities guide Peter Yang outside his shop. Yang founded his company, Baini Travel, in Dali, but has since opened up another branch in Bingzhongluo. His trekking rates aren't cheap, but we had read some very positive recommendations of him and might have considered going on one of his treks if we weren't focused on bicycle touring this time around.

We then head to a small café and warm up over a pitcher of salty yak butter tea. Tomorrow we'll head 33 kilometers deeper into the gorge to set foot in Tibet for a brief moment before turning back south.

It's cold and raining the next morning as we point our bikes north and ride into the foggy fold of the mountains. Paved surface gives way to a muddy track that is punctuated by an occasional fresh landslide. There is really no good reason to torture ourselves going all the way to the Tibetan border – beyond which foreigners are not permitted. But neither of us has been to Tibet and it seems like a waste to get so close without at least visiting the border.

Our perseverance is rewarded with spectacular scenery. North of Bingzhongluo the valley tightens in on itself and much of it is lined with limestone and granite bluffs and occasional cascading waterfalls bursting down hundreds of meters from an unseen source high above.

The border area is a low-key affair. On the side of the muddy road a few signs posted by a local police station inform us in Chinglish that foreigners must turn back, while stating in Chinese that we have in fact already crossed the Tibetan boundary line. After snapping a few photos and consuming some celebratory milk and cookies, we head back toward Bingzhongluo.

A reputed leftover from the ancient Tea Horse Road trade network
A reputed leftover from the ancient Tea Horse Road trade network

About 10 kilometers outside of Bingzhongluo there is a spot where the road crosses a bridge over the river. From the west side just south of the bridge, be sure to look across to the east side. There you will see a generations-old corridor carved into the cliffside that was reputedly part of a Yunnan-to-Tibet route on the Ancient Tea and Horse Road trading network, also sometimes called the Southern Silk Road.

At lunch on the way back to Bingzhongluo we begin to realize that, as in many parts of northern Yunnan, restaurant food in the Nujiang valley can be somewhat disappointing: it's pretty standard Chinese stir-fry cuisine, with no discernible local color. But we will have luck a few times over the course of the trip with ordering wild-picked vegetables (野菜) including greens and a type of shoot the locals call ciba.

Other aspects of the Nujiang valley make up for the culinary blandness. The next day begins with a brisk ride up above Bingzhongluo to some ethnic Lisu hamlets high up on the hillside. After having a look around and discovering a Buddhist monastery we descend the valley to explore the region's Christian history.

The Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Zhongding
The Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Zhongding

A wave of Protestant and Catholic missionary activity in the Nujiang valley in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries targeted the peoples of this remote region for conversion. The legacy of the missionaries that lived in this region lives on today in unexpected ways. One example is the unusual Fraser alphabet used as a script for the Lisu language. The alphabet was developed by two Protestant missionaries in the early twentieth century and can be seen on some local signs.

The Lisu language written in the Fraser alphabet
The Lisu language written in the Fraser alphabet

The missionaries developed this writing system in order to translate the Bible into the Lisu language. They eventually converted a sizable part of the Lisu population to Christianity.

With more than 230,000 members and 47 percent of the Nujiang valley's overall population, the Lisu are the region's largest ethnic group, according to figures from the year 2000 census. One Western missionary organization estimates that up to half of Nujiang prefecture's Lisu population is Christian.

Each village seems to have at least one church. On this day we visit one of the best known, the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Zhongding (重丁), which lies on the road below Bingzhongluo. We had passed by the church the previous day, but had to wait until today's Sunday service to go inside the grounds, which are normally locked.

Some locals are milling about at the church's entrance, waiting for the 11am service to begin. We ask them about the building's history. Nobody seems quite sure when the original church was built on this site, but the structure that stands here today was rebuilt about 20 years ago, according to an elderly woman seated against a wall outside the door. Joseph Rock noted in a piece for National Geographic in 1926 that the church was destroyed at least twice by Tibetan Buddhists who wanted missionaries to leave the area.

Annet Genestier's grave
Annet Genestier's grave

The man who rebuilt the church each time was a French priest named Annet Genestier. His is the only grave in the churchyard. The carvings indicate that he was born in the French department of Puy-de-Dôme in 1856 and died of an unspecified illness in Zhongding in 1937.

While taking in the tranquility of our surroundings, our minds drift to the next part of our journey further down the valley.

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Comments

Nevada

Thanks, Dan. Your writing takes me right there and the photos are wonderful. You've made me curious and hopefully my wife & I can travel through there and do some exploring...I don't think we'll be biking —not like you two adventurers!

Summer

Thank you for sharing your travle story!

Dan,

Thanks for your report.
Sean and I biked from Bingzhongluo towards the Tibetan border on January 1st, 2010. We thought we might have reached the Tibetan border after riding for a few hours from Bingzhongluo, but now that I see the sign in your photograph I realize we never actually made it. Where we turned around was a small wooden dilapidated house with a tiny store in it. Do you remember how many more km from that wooden house to the actual border it was?

Interesting that when we visited in the middle of the winter the weather was considerably better than it seems to have been for you in the summer. Blue skies, and beautiful blue water in river.

Also...did you really take a bus direct to Bingzhongluo from Kunming? Was that a standard passenger bus, or a private chartered bus? We saw no signs of passenger buses direct from Bingzhongluo to Kunming when we were there. In fact, we didn't even see direct buses from Gongshan. The furthest up the valley one could get direct from Kunming in December 2009/January 2010 was Fugong.

Hi Matt,

Thanks for the comments. Winter does seem to be a preferable for weather, although the vegetation, wildflowers etc this time of year are quite nice.

It's maybe another 10km or so to the signs if we're thinking of the same wooden house with the store inside. From Bingzhongluo it's about 16km on pavement and another 16km on dirt – 32km total. But it's worth noting that one of the multiple signs at the "border" says in Chinese that you've already crossed into Tibet, so maybe you crossed the border anyway and it just wasn't marked.

We didn't take a direct bus to Bingzhongluo, we went to Fugong. I didn't want to overburden the text with too many logistical details, so I've appended them to the final post in the series, which should come out this week.

I visited the Nujiang in November, 2010. The weather and water were perfect at that time.

However, I did not get north of Bingzhongluo as far as the Tibetan Border. See my article on my website: www.china-consult.com.au/2011/12/25/nujiang-canyon/

So I plan to return late this month (January 2013). Is it possible to hire a bicycle or motorcycle in Bingzhongluo? I want to get to the border, then travel down the valley.

Is it possible to get a lift (hire) from Bingzhongluo to the Tibetan border if I can't hire two wheels? My plan then would be to walk back to Bingzhongluo. (and keep walking down the valley).

Cheers,
Bulaien (Chinese for Brian)

There is a person on the main street in Bingzhongluo who rents out a jeep and two motorcycles. But you'd have to talk to him well ahead because they're often rented out. We also talked about some people in a repair shop about renting out the vehicles that were repaired, but didn't have a lot of luck with that. Maybe if you give a better impression.

You should also probably know that riding in Bingzhongluo may require above average driving/riding skills. You often have to ford fast streaming rivers, cross vehicles on ridiculously narrow roads and mount steep and badly paved mountain trails.

Thank you for that, friend.

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