Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from "Yunnan Drifter: An Alternate Guide to Traveling in Yunnan", a book written by Lisa Liang and edited and translated by Lua Zhou.
Niru (尼汝) is the name of the valley that sits between the holy mountains Shen Gai and Nga Ya. The Tibetans call it Nizu, and that's what I'll call it, too.
To get here you go along an unfinished road that follows along the Nizu River. The closest town is Luoji (洛吉), a quaint little low point where the buses tread the farthest. After that you'll need either car or motorcycle, for the road is rough — uphill, downhill, rocks, gravel, mud, curves and bends, and, if it's the rainy season, plenty of rain.
Still, the way there is magnificent, and one can imagine once the road is complete — late 2015 — it will be a dream to drive: You follow the scent of pine trees deep into the forest, then rise high above the mountains for epic views of the valley, then come right down to the edge of the river and follow the steady roar of the rapids, cicadas buzzing and birds chirping all along the way.
Then you come to the end of the road.
Enter the Dude.
The Dude is a guy named Kevin, originally from Snohomish, Washington, a former longtime resident of Shangri-la, whom the locals endearingly call 'Guo Laoshi'. He has shoulder-length hair that he wears behind a headband, which is mostly sandy brown with a few strands of gray. He wears a pair of rectangular wire-frame glasses that magnify his eyeballs, and he's got a lazy eye or two which makes it difficult to tell whether he's talking to you or to the person sitting across the room. This also gives him the appearance of being in a state of perpetual Zen.
In fact, Kevin tends to go on long rants about being an "agent of karma", sometimes saying he's "the worst thing to happen to the Nizu cosmos", while at others proclaiming he's here to bring the Nizu salvation. He goes on in great detail about sacred geography, the relationships and love triangles between the mountains and the rocks, and then, ten minutes into the conversation, he'll pause, reflect, scrunch up his face and say, "Wait, what was I talking about?"
Kevin is one of the few purists left. He's spent the past eight years building the perfect little guesthouse in the middle of nowhere in one of China's last and most pristine of forests. Then he crosses his fingers and hopes that no one comes. Most people who do come are large groups of students; otherwise, it's mostly close friends or sometimes family, but often it's no one but him and Shiloh the dog.
And he hopes to always keep it that way — quiet, simple, small. A poor strategy for a businessman, perhaps, yet something to be admired.
When he started building the Nizu Roadhouse back in 2006, all he needed was a handshake from the head of the family who owns the land. The Gu family still lives on the land, in a house attached to the back of the lodge, and technically they own the lodge too, though Kevin doesn't seem to mind. They farm corn and barley on the land that surrounds the lodge, cook for visitors that come to stay, and, at the end of the day, receive a portion of the earnings.
Today, the lodge is finally coming together: Five rooms with enough beds to host up to 20 people, as well as enough camping equipment to board up to 20 more; a grand kitchen stocked with pots, pans, spices, supplies and cookbooks from around the world; a cozy stove/fireplace that keeps a large dining/hangout area warm; a wooden deck that faces into the valley of the setting sun; a library stacked with an impressive collection of books and magazines; a rare vinyl record collection, and certainly what is guaranteed to be the fullest stocked bar for miles and miles around.
Kevin truly loves Nizu. He's given up everything to be here: 15-plus years in Shangri-la running a successful outdoor equipment company, his wife and four kids and three grandchildren back in Washington, which he sees maybe half the year, or as much as he can manage. Still, as much as he misses his family, maybe he loves this place more. Everywhere, people know him — mention "Nizu" and "guesthouse" and they'll probably say, "Oh you mean that laowai?" Or, even more often, "Guo Laoshi?"
It's easy to see why he's so attached to the place, not just the lodge but Nizu itself. It's a lovely, lush valley that sits between two sacred rocks just outside the edge of Pudacuo National Park. It's where rivers collide to form glorious waterfalls, where you can hike up to breathtaking lakes that literally take your breath away — due to the altitude, where you can then hike all the way from the lakes over the mountain to the park entrance near Shangri-la.
Kevin jokes that one day Nizu will be engulfed into the national park, and the patch of grassland you pass through to get to the waterfalls will be transformed into a parking lot. It's funny to laugh about it now because it seems so far away, yet it's also a frightening thought to behold. Things happen so fast in China and it won't be long until the road to Nizu is finished and the connecting road to Lugu Lake, too, which breaks off at the end of Luoji, right before Nizu valley starts.
Already, the few visitors who come out here leave a trail of litter where they hike — water bottles, candy wrappers and other forms of human clutter to violate the eye. Banners and signs hang all around to warn of the danger of starting fires, but no one ever says anything about the litter.
Maybe Kevin's right, maybe we are the bane of the valley. We bring the bane and destruction when we tell more people about secret, sacred places, when we open guesthouses in remote forests and give people reason to enter holy mountains. Already, Kevin's neighbor has opened a guesthouse too, and for much cheaper, although it definitely isn't as cool as the Roadhouse, since the guests who stay there often come over to Kevin's place to take pictures or have a drink, and sometimes end up moving in after a few days. To be sure, no one for miles can compete with Kevin when it comes to stimulating conversation.
At the end of the day, maybe that's all we can hope for — that listening to folks like Kevin share their experiences and philosophies on life, love and preservation, that somehow that will bring balance back to the way things have gone.
Has the world come down to such dire straights that we're putting all our hopes in a guy like the Dude?
Well, I don't know about you, but I do find comfort in that.
"Yunnan Drifter: An Alternate Guide to Traveling in Yunnan" is a book for people who want to experience a different side of Yunnan, beyond the tourist traps and main drags, to a place where secrets and adventures unfold.
Author Lisa Liang was born and raised in Los Angeles, California. She came to China eight years ago and was living and working in Beijing before deciding in 2009 to escape the sprawl of the metropolis for the countryside. She has lived in Yunnan ever since. When not traveling, writing and taking photographs, Lisa is based in Kunming, where she runs an all-natural, organic foods company, Yunnan Naturals.
Translator Lua Zhou is a Chongqing native who lives and works in Beijing.
Images: Lisa Liang© Copyright 2005-2019 GoKunming.com all rights reserved. This material may not be republished, rewritten or redistributed without permission.