Editor's note: This article is the first of two chronicling a week-long hiking trip GoKunming contributor Sander Van de Moortel recently took through the Dulong River valley. The second installment can be viewed here.
We stretch our stiff legs when we alight the green and white jeep. For the past three days, we've done nothing but sit in ever smaller vehicles — a big, comfy bus from Kunming to Liuku (六库), a smaller regional bus from Liuku to Gongshan (贡山) and finally a small jeep loaded with eight people bouncing their heads off the padded bodywork took us across a high mountain pass from Gongshan to Kongdang (孔当).
We've arrived in Yunnan's most secluded valley, home to the Dulong River (独龙江) which rages from its headwaters in Tibet through a mere 100 kilometers of Yunnan, shedding a somewhat astonishing 1,000 meters in altitude before making its way into Myanmar. Locals consist of the Dulong (独龙) and Lisu (傈僳) minorities, but there are some Nu (怒) people to be found as well.
Kongdang is not what we expected to see in this remote area. Fairly modern houses abound and the road that connects them is coated in fresh tarmac. The town boasts a school and a Mondrianesque museum built with pebbles from the river is being constructed to reinforce ethnic pride. We drop off our packs and pop into a nearby restaurant for lunch and are surprised to find it packed with Chinese tourists and only half surprised to find the owners are Sichuanese.
Putonghua does the trick and the food is good. Some tourists are costumed for trekking — red North Face jackets and backpacks — while others are frantically harassing older ladies with facial tattoos. These marks are an old Dulong custom purportedly adopted to prevent their women from being abducted by roving bands of bandits. The tourists are hungry for pictures. "Come on, grandma, here's ten kuai, now smile for the camera!"
We decide to escape the awkward theater and our savior comes in the form of a little van headed to Bapo (巴坡) — the old administrative capital of the region, which has now been moved to more northern Kongdang by virtue of being the only town directly connected to the county capital of Gongshan. To this day, the inhabitants looked unimpressed with either the move or our presence, so we abandon our plan of staying the night and march on.
We ignore a hastily sprayed sign reading "Caution: wolves" and make camp on a roadside swerving spot. We have a good view of the river, and are hoping that no large trucks will come down after dinner. Dinner, for want of space in our backpacks, is noodles and will be for the coming seven days.
On the second day we manage to hitch a ride with the people putting in milestones on this brand new road. They occasionally skip installing one for reasons beyond us, but likely related to meals. We arrive at a collection of wooden huts by the name of Maku (马库). The tarmac road fades into dirt, lifting our spirits to a new high — walking on pavement, after all, isn't our definition of adventure.
Our goal for today is the proud nation of Myanmar, or at least its border stone. The road crawls high above the sky-blue river, revealing a sandwich of vegetation ranging from leafy tropical to temperate with pine trees at the top, all cut into bite-sized slices by the odd shiny waterfall. Brightly colored birds sing and the sun highlights bizarre trees bearing fruit that most resemble blood-red mangos.
A loud bang abruptly jerks us out of dreamland and directs our attention to the river. Three large splashes betray the origin of the explosion. Workers on the other bank are dolling up an old riverside trail into a tourist boardwalk. We wish we were walking there as camping spots are in short supply along this section of the river.
The gorge is extremely narrow and slopes often have a gradient of over 80 degrees. When we finally get an opportunity to walk down, we don't hesitate and commence the perilous descent towards the river and its tempting sandy white beaches. Somewhere in the bush we find something that resembles the tail of a red panda. We wonder if it had been poached.
We pass the workers' camping spot, cross a bridge over troublesome water, find a farmhouse and then a trail behind it leading to a beach. We hide our backpacks so we can walk to the Myanmar border unencumbered.
On the way, we see several building projects. Entire villages are being constructed by the government to accommodate nearby solitary dwellers, while diggers and dozers enlarge a trail that will eventually connect to Myanmar.
One of the diggers doesn't wait long enough to let us pass and its tracks send a huge boulder flying down the hill. Acting only on sound, we make an inglorious tiger-leap to save our skins. The boulder misses by a hair's breadth.
Toward Myanmar's border
Between the Myanmar border and the Moon Waterfall (月亮瀑布) — a cascade so huge it attracts hordes of tourists in police-escorted convoys — lies a tiny town presided over by a toothless, self-proclaimed party member.
He runs a tiny guesthouse meant to accommodate traders from Myanmar that come to buy electronics and other goods on multi-day hikes from their home towns. The clipboard in his leathery hands keep track of all people going in and out. Not us, we're kindly encouraged to go look at the border stone.
As we walk to the border on a three-foot wide trail through dense forest we are joined by several of these traders. The women shyly greet us in English, "Good morning!" — it's 4pm — "Careful!" — that seems to apply. The men simply spit out mangled hellos.
The village contains an interesting map detailing valuable ore deposits in northern Myanmar. It has only been published last year, but already looks like a piece of parchment reclaimed from an old shipwreck. The road construction suddenly makes sense to us — the Chinese are opening up northern Myanmar for its minerals and metals. Yay!
We fill our canteens at a hose which the village elder congenially assures us is the purest possible source of water and hurry back. We reach our beachside campsite just before nightfall, feast on noodles and bugger off to dreamland.
Two of us are sleeping in claustrophobic bivouac sacs and are woken by heavy rainfall. The weather delays our departure until noon and we resort to asking some bikers for a favor. They agree to take us and our bags down on a slippery death ride back to Kongdang.
All of a sudden, our driver slams on the brakes. We open our eyes against the thrashing rain and see a massive bull toying around with its owner. The animal seems unhappy with its leashes, snorting and roaring and kicking around. It's a lot bigger than the largest water buffalo we've ever seen.
We carefully skirt the angry Dulong bull, which are apparently worth around 40,000 yuan apiece, and get dropped off at Kongdang's one and only roller-skating rink, where baijiu is served for all. We arrange hotel rooms for our saviors and get to bed early ourselves. If tomorrow's weather is any better, we'll go up north.
Getting to the Dulongjiang is a lengthy and complicated enterprise, taking up to three days. The longer duration trip involves a day bus leaving for Liuku from the Kunming's West Bus Station (西部汽车站) for 200 yuan. The ride takes eight to nine hours including stops. Another option is to skip to Liuku and take the night bus straight to Fugong for 240 yuan. That bus departs at 4pm and 6pm.
We prefer the former because Liuku is a nice place with a mountainside boardwalk, a pedestrian riverside zone and agreeable temperatures. In Liuku you can stay at the comfortable Gerui Hotel (格瑞大酒店) for 135 yuan per night, including breakfast — call 0886 388 8885 for reservations. The bus station is in the new part of town, which will require a taxi ride of around 15 yuan from the hotel.
Buses to Gongshan leave every 30 minutes from both the Liuku or Fugong bus stations. The ride from Liuku to Gonshan takes eight hours and tickets cost 71 yuan. From Fugong, the trip is roughly four hours and a tickets costs 50 yuan. In Gongshan both the Tongbao (通宝大酒店) — call 0886 351 3339 — and Xiagu (峡谷大酒店) — call 0886 351 1666 — hotels offer comfortable double rooms for 100 yuan and are within walking distance of the bus station.
Buy your jeep ticket for the morning — 7:10 or 9:10am — to Kongdang in the shop next to the government building for 60 yuan. The ride takes four to five hours until the new tunnel is completed at the end of 2014.
Before the completion of this tunnel, the road will also be sealed off from mid-November to mid-March due to heavy snowfall. In Kongdang you can get a reasonable double room at the Daping Hotel (大平酒店) — call 13988696984 — for 60 yuan. On weekends, the few hotels quickly fill up so make reservations in advance.
Images: Sander Van de Moortel and Matthew Hartzell
Map: Matthew Hartzell