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The Shelter: an eco-friendly outpost in Yunnan's untamed northwest

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Two years ago, Brice Mathey traveled to northwest Yunnan and saw the mountains of the Three Parallel Rivers Protected Areas for the first time. He was led on hikes over 4,000-meter passes and through forested valleys near the Nu River (怒江) until he reached secluded Dimaluo Village (迪马洛村), nestled in the mountains of the northern Nu River valley.

During his trip, Brice — who prefers the use of his given name to that of his surname — met A Luo, a man who supplements his family's income by guiding hikers. A Luo often begins his guided tours through the mountains from places like Gongshan (贡山), stopping to visit the area's many restored churches along the way. An idea began to percolate in Brice's head, one that would take a few years for him to put into action.

What Brice had envisioned was a place for hikers to stop and rest comfortably as they walked through the mountains. He also wanted to build something that could be used as a tool for the development of local tourism, but one that would embrace and compliment nature and not detract from it. Eventually, this idea developed into what Brice has named The Shelter Project.

Originally planned to be built entirely out of earth, The Shelter has evolved into a more complicated effort. Brice is an artist and sculptor and came to Yunnan to write about his passion, clay architecture. The Shelter incorporates elements from this style of building while also trying to utilize as many locally-produced components as possible.

Surveying the Shelter Project site
Surveying the Shelter Project site

Work on the project began in June 2013 — a time Brice refers to as "chapter one". Along with eight volunteers and four local workers, he began clearing a 14-cubic meter section of hillside. Excavated materials were separated by hand into piles of clay, rocks and grass. All of which will be incorporated into the new structure.

Stones will be laid for the structure's foundation and flooring. The clay will be used to construct the walls and also be mixed with bamboo as part of a the roof. To provide waterproofing, tire rubber will be laid down over the roof with dirt and finally grass placed on top to provide insulation.

Local workers building a wheelbarrow under the support beams of a temporary refuge
Local workers building a wheelbarrow under the support beams of a temporary refuge

Support for the roof will also come from posts made of locally-logged timber. Workers from Dimaluo are also using some of the wood to make doors, window frames and furniture.

Everything used in The Shelter's construction has to be produced locally or brought in by pack horse. Early in the project, Brice ruled out bringing in concrete or any equipment larger than a chainsaw and small lathe. If a tool or machine was deemed to unwieldy to be hauled up on horseback, it would not be used.

Beginning stages of the excavation
Beginning stages of the excavation

Chapter one concluded in early July when Brice returned home to France for a month. He has now come back to China for the second chapter and expects to finish The Shelter before cold and snow close the mountain passes. Although much work remains, Brice is confident everything can be completed by mid-November.

When finished, The Shelter will have a living area of 27 square meters as well as a small porch. It is expected to comfortably sleep four in bunk beds — six in a pinch — and also have a small sitting area as well as a stove and kettle. Plans are in the works for an unattached, and permanent, bathroom.

Everything not produced on-site for The Shelter Project is brought in on the backs of people or horses, including brooms
Everything not produced on-site for The Shelter Project is brought in on the backs of people or horses, including brooms

The Shelter sits on land managed by Brice's friend A Luo. It is utilized from May to November as grazing land for livestock owned by local Tibetan, Lisu and Nu villagers. If all goes to plan, Brice will turn ownership and management of The Shelter over to A Luo for use as a waypoint when he guides hikers over the mountains.

Both men hope the project will raise a bit of money for locals as they sell supplies to people visiting the region. If the project proves beneficial to the area's tourism economy, the believe The Shelter Project can be duplicated with minimal affects to mountain ecosystems.

Brice Mathey (in red) and his band of merry volunteers
Brice Mathey (in red) and his band of merry volunteers

As of this writing, Brice has just made way back to the project site so he can return to work. He has arranged to employ local stonemasons and woodworkers but is also looking for volunteers. Daily life at The Shelter obviously involves intense physical work. In addition to pounding earth and moving rocks, each day laborers must collect firewood, boil water and cook group meals.

Brice has said anyone is welcome although he hopes people who do make the trip can devote more than one week of their time — simply because travel to the site can take so long. The trip may take a bit of time, but considering the location — an area containing some of China's richest plant and animal biodiversity — Brice thinks it is worth the sacrifice.

The excavated Shelter site, only needing some walls and a roof
The excavated Shelter site, only needing some walls and a roof

The Shelter Project can reimburse volunteers for their bus tickets to Gongshan and help arrange transportation to Dimaluo. From there, a guide will be provided for the half-day hike to the building site. Once at The Shelter, food, tents, mattresses and quilts will be made available to volunteers.

You can volunteer or contact Brice for more information by writing him at bricemathey [at] yeah [dot] net. Keep in mind that cell phone service and internet access are limited at The Shelter and it may take a few days for him to answer.

Images: Brice Mathey

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Comments

Bravo Brice! I will be back very soon!

What an amazing idea!!

Dimaluo-Cizhong trail is one of the most fascnating tails of Biluoxueshan I ever tried, but pretty strenuous, it's a a fantastic idea to build a shelter on the way, it would be perfect if set another one on the pasture up Cizhong, so that hikers no need to carry heavy gears like tent and pad.

Yes, high time to have something like the Appalachian Trail.

@changkt: I very much agree with you. My sister hiked the AT in its entirety several years ago and now goes back for volunteer maintenance all the time. Having a trail system in Yunnan with that amount of dedication would be amazing. I hope it happens. Brice, 加油!

The guy on the far left of the group trip is a nice Canadian guy named Tom I met walking Tiger Leaping gorge a while back. He had cycled all the way from Taiwan to Shangrila and was looking for the next place to go. I and others had recommended Nujiang valley, good to see he made it!

@blobbles you may be pleased to know Tom made it into the valley and also left with me to do the 2 day trek out of there onwards to Cizhong. Apart from one short climb on the back of a pack horse, the bike (aka "Fitzcarraldo") was carried almost the whole way (couldnt have been done without the help from fellow traveller and shelter volunteer, Luke, also pictured). An awesome trek but insanely difficult with a bike.

Ha haa, awesome, thanks jamtin for the update :-)

And holy moly, I can't believe he took his bike up and over those mountains! Insane!

@Apu.feisun:
There is a guesthouse in the pastures above Cizhong, at about 3300 metres, just now it's being renovated, but it's possible to stay there. And there are also a few emergency shelters on the way. So really no need to carry tent etc.

Great project. I passed the lodge last year while hiking over to the Nujiang via the Sela Pass. Wasn't sure who owned/ran the place, so bypassed it and stayed in a terrible shelter higher up the valley - dirty and full of smoke from the fire. It was so bad I ended up camping instead. Read about it here: www.josephrock.net/2014/10/cizhong-to-dimaluo-trek-part-3-crossing.html

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