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Yunnan Drifter: Nizu, the end of the road

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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

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ja, people, development, ecology seem to b quite complicated. it appears to b very difficult people respect ecology. and not only tourists, i ve been cleaning around lama's temple the tibetan garbage, tibetans dont seem care leaving garbage on the precious mountain.

dont think there is much hope. ignorance,carelessness or evil r strong....

Kevin wasn't joking when he said that Nizu might be incorporated into Pudacuo National Park. It is well within the boundaries of the park's long-term plan, which includes hiking trails and a road from Shudu Lake to bring tourist loads on the order of what's already happening in Pudacuo.

Tthat might change depending on how the local government gauges the growing market for 自驾旅游 independent tourists. But it's likely that Nizu will be incorporated, at which point there will be less visible trash, because Nizu residents will be employed by the park to pick it up, as in other Pudacuo communities. Of course, there would be other costs, environmental and otherwise.

Is his guest house free to get to? Or do you have to pay park or other fees to get to it? Or if coming by bike, can you just ride around any ticket or tolls?

The Nizu Roadhouse is free to get to if you go via Luoji, but that road is not yet finished. If you go by bike/motorbike should be manageable, but not by car.

You will have to pay the ticket into Pudacuo if you want to get there by going through the park.

You can contact Kevin ([email protected]) or the Gu Family for more up-to-date info: Gu Laoshi (teaching at Luoji school) 13988787040

I've also heard it should be possible to ride a bicycle from there into Sichuan direction daocheng. From peering at Google earth there seems to be a road albeit a difficult one. Would love to hear whether it really is possible!

Thanks Lisa. I've had two operations on my eyes and they still seem to go astray!!

About current conditions to Nizu: The paved cement road should be finished by now, they almost had it done when I left in Oct. There currently is no ticket price to get in, but of course that will change (as all things do in China). It's a fantastic bike ride, by the way. 38 km from Luoji. By open top jeep or truck is truly amazing too. There are no roads (repeat, NO roads from my guesthouse). Only trails, and yes, it is possible to HIKE (or bike if you are truly crazy) to Dongyi in Daocheng County (two long days). I should be back sometime this year for a short stint. Website (ongoing) under construction (as is all of China). Cheers

Oh, and our beloved dog, Shiloh, died since I last saw him in Oct '14. Bit by a snake. Nizu is at 2700m in a valley that acts as a greenhouse, thus, with all the plants (virgin forest) there are animalia you won't see at similar elevations. Like cobras.

R.I.P Shiloh! Whoa, what an epic way to go. I also encountered a bright green snake while hiking up to the waterfalls. Awesome scary stuff!

Are bright green snakes scary?

sometimes can be and yes definitely if you almost step on one! but also it's just simply cool to see this slinky neon green thing slithering across the forest floor. oh yeah, there are also all kinds of mushrooms growing about, too. it's straight out of final fantasy or avatar.

so if one encounters one of these avatarianesque reptiles, should one: a) run like hell? b) climb the nearest tree? c) play dead? d) try to wrestle it to the ground? e) hypnotize it?

Walk around it and go about your business, or stop and watch if you're interested - personally I think snakes are cool little animals.

@Kaiwen, it would seem the cycle road takes you across a bit of a scramble then drops you at what on Google Earth seems to be a dirt road along a river heading to Daocheng. I then just wonder how bad the scramble would be.

@kaiwen,,, March 'FORTH' old friend ;)
Happy Birthday

When you gonna be there,, I'm thinking I need a trip ?

@bluppfisk. cycling to Daocheng is certainly doable. From the Roadhouse it's up, up, and away to the Nanbao Lakes (supposedly Yunnan's largest, highest, yak pasture) and then down to Dongyi. Yak trails, which in most cases are wide and easy to follow. You might have to carry your bike in some places. A Canadian guy rode to Nizu from Shudu Lake (the first and only guy that I know who has done it) and he said the trails were tough because of the big rocks, etc. You should have seen the local's faces when he descended into Nizu on a mountain bike! They thought he was some sort of a god! You'd be the first to do it, that's for sure!

@manutea Thanks for that. Chit, just keep on getting older (and hopefully wiser, slower, lower, and mellower). Planning on coming back this fall for the horse festival in Oct. With my lovely wife (whom, for the record, I love WAY more than Nizu!) :-)

Hi Kaiwen, still recall both Shiloh and Xiaolu were playing in your courtyard in the winter of 2012. I miss them very much, how old is Shilon?

I'm quite skeptical that Kevin, and others like him, can really change villages like Nizu for the better. Especially through tourism, which is such a hungry animal, devouring culture, resources, and indigenous lifestyles without partiality, all in the name of 'economic' development. Not to mention the recent uproar over Chinese tourists and their questionable behavior. The best he can hope for is to rebuild a-fresh after the place gets so trashed travelers stop coming (as research in tourism has proven). I wish him good luck.

Better him than a Marriott.

Shiloh was 9 years old. We bought him in 2005, and at the same time, we spent 3000 kuai for a female Tibetan Mastiff. Two weeks later thieves jumped our wall and stole the mastiff. They didn't want the golden retriever!

I wouldn't be surprised if some big hotel chain does come in and gobbles up some land. Although, the locals so far have refused to sell any of their "holy" land. Some big Sichuan boss already has tried. Thanks for the encouragement.

For faster responses and info on how to get to Nizu, contact:
Nathan Richmond

Turtle Mt. Gear & Outfitters 18708871463
[email protected]

I'd been eyeing Nizu on Google Earth and salivating for about three years now, and seeing this article set my mind to finally go there and cross this off my Yunnan bucket list.

Just got back from there yesterday so here's my report.

We were in Yading and thought we could find a way to drive direct to Luoji from Daocheng County, Sichuan, just as @bluppfisk assumed. Unfortunately, in our efforts to get any information about such a road from the Sichuan side, we were told again and again it was impossible. So we instead took the 75 km dirt road through Langdu, past the Meixiang yak cheese factory, to Gezan, looping around to Nizu the long way.

The concrete road from Luoji to Nizu is now finished (ahead of time, apparently, judging by Lisa's late 2015 estimate). It's a steep, narrow, winding road, but it is smooth and must be a lot quicker than the old road.

There are no tickets or fees administered on this side.

The valley in which Nizu rests is indeed idyllic.

The Nizu Roadhouse is a bit hard to find as there are no signs. But by asking locals where the "waiguoren de kezhan" is, we were able to find it, situated at the very top of the village. Quite a challenge to drive there, as the dirt road is very narrow and steep in parts. Recommend parking down the hill and walking up instead.

The guesthouse is charming and full of character just as expected. We looked forward to meeting Kevin and were sorry he wasn't there, but Mr. and Mrs. Gu took care of us.

No wifi (I'm guessing Kevin keeps it that way on purpose), no hot water, and no working toilets when we were there, but that's a small price to pay for the privilege of staying in such a beautiful, untouched corner of the world.

Seriously, this is one of the prettiest villages I've ever been to in Yunnan, and I've been to a lot of villages. So far, very little signs of negative development.

All around Nizu on three sides are mountains, forests, pastures, and trails. The trails begin immediately behind the Nizu Roadhouse.

You can hike from here to Pudacuo National Park the back way without buying a ticket (just stay away from the developed areas with the boardwalks and shuttle bus stops if you want to stay under the radar).

In a rare twist, the trails here are actually well-signed with markers installed by the Three Parallel Rivers UNESCO office.

As @Kaiwen said, Shiloh the dog is no longer, but there are two friendly cats who will keep you company.

Price is 120 per person, including dinner and breakfast. The "best-stocked bar" Lisa wrote about only had Dali beer when we were there, but maybe Kevin will remedy that upon his return.

Thank you @geogramatt for the kind review. I've figured out why some people have thought there is a road to Daocheng. Because the map "show's one"! Indeed, on a previous printed map there is a road. The Chinese have the strange habit of printing roads that don't exist, and leaving existing roads off some maps. Funny, I think there's a research paper in there somewhere.
I'm not surprised the toilets or showers don't work, nor that the bar is depleted. One of the main reasons I've decided to take a year off (I left six months ago) was to try to get the local family to take some ownership in the place, and indeed change the light bulbs. Development is a very complicated process, but a very important step is for the locals to see it as their own. It has been my intention all along to support them in "their" lodge.
One thing that would help is for guests not to pay the total price unless they are satisfied with the amenities. Please tell the hosts the price warrants at least water!!
Kudos to all who are trying to make China better.

holy cobras in shangrila?!? even batman couldn't conceive that.

anybody have a decent reference guide to flora/fauna for region? (basic scientific references for the layman)

Or Kevin, would you happen to know some of the unique species of flora/fauna in the Niru valley to look out for while there? Valleys of the Three Parallel Rivers Area seem to provide unique looking species up every corner..

@hasenman, sorry to say I don't know of some specific materials on the Nizu area itself. A few people have come to do research, one on the forests, one on mushrooms, the political economy of the village, etc. A book has been done on the birds (a copy is free to all guests at the Roadhouse). Nothing so far on the flora/fauna. There might be something on northwest Yunnan though. Not much help. Good Luck. Or, better yet, go yourself, stay at the lodge, and do it!

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