Three Friends, Two Mountains, and One Angry River
“What are you doing for 国庆节?” I was often asked before the break. 国庆节 (Guoqingjie) is China’s national holiday celebrating the day the Communist party was formed. No one really cares, except for the fact that everyone gets a whole seven days off, from October 1st to the 7th.
“Going to 怒江 (Nu Jiang)!” I would reply, stressing the NUUU because the asker would inevitably knit their brow, then correct me. “Oh! 丽江 (Li Jiang), of course.”
At the end of our trip, I insisted that 怒江 was the new Jiang, a pun met with the eye-rolls and glares that good pun always should, but I meant it. From what I remember, 丽江 is a knock-off of 大理 (Dali) but sadder and just as touristy. 怒江, however, is beautiful, rich in the Lisu minority culture, and “off the beaten track.” (Whatever that means… there was only one “track” that seemed to be beaten quite frequently.)
怒江 is the prefecture just north of where I live but over a huge mountain range. About half of the population is Lisu, an ethnic minority found in Burma, Thailand, India, and Yunnan. They have their own language, traditions, and history, independent of China’s dominant ethnic group, the Han.
Shout-out to my girl Jasmine for the idea. She suggested it to Diane and I, and though at first I thought, wait you want to go somewhere more rural than where we already live?… now I’m really glad we did. Also, I"m going to refer to the three of us as DAJ from now on, mainly because I can.
We all met up in 保山 (Baoshan), and after the most glorious meal of our lives, walked over to what seemed to be the red-light district to find a place to sleep. Over the next two days, we took four buses and one police truck to finally get to 丙中落 (Bingzhongluo)—the northern-most, most isolated, yet somehow most touristy town on our agenda. At this point, there were eight of us: DAJ, two second-year Chinese fellows we bumped into at the bus station in 保山, two slightly annoying American college students we bumped into at the bus station in 福贡 (Fugong), and a cool Chinese guy they had bumped into at a bus station in 昆明 (Kunming). You see, it was rumored that to enter 丙中落 one needed to pay a 100元 fee. Yet my friend Jasmine, ever the networker, called her local-teacher friend, who called one of his friends from 怒江, in order to call his policeman friend to ask him to sneak us in for free. We later met a nice German guy who astutely observed, “relationships… I think it’s called关系 (guanxi)… seem to be pretty important here.” So the eight of us, plus two policemen, piled into a five-seater and drove right on through the toll gate to our destination 丙中落. Another shout-out for Jasmine and her homie Yangxu.
Unfortunately, there was not a single hotel room available. We asked high and low, but receptionists started to scold us, “it’s 国庆节 ! And it’s late!” Splitting up didn’t even help, though it did help us lose the other Americans. A man sitting outside eating a pomegranate overhead our pleas, “I have a place you can stay. It’s just not cleaned up…”
We were skeptical. “Can it fit eight people?”
“8, 10, 25—it doesn’t matter.”
Terrified, we continued to search. 丙中落 only has one street, and after walking it up and down three times, we started to consider the offer from the creepy pomegranate man. But finally, I noticed a store solely selling live chickens and fish also had a 宿主 sign. Alright, maybe the rooms were a little yellow-tinged, but it was about half the price of every other hotel. We celebrated our find over dinner at a hostel called Aluo’s, which we really liked, so we made a reservation at their other location in 迪麻落(Dimaluo) for the following night.
In the morning, it was down to DAJ again. We nabbed a map and decided to hike to 迪麻落 by foot. Psyched to not be trapped on a bus, we marched off into the wilderness with a vague notion of heading southeast. First, we needed to cross a bridge. Pretty straightforward—head towards the water. Well after asking three different people, we still couldn’t find it. When we asked a woman a second time, she took us to the right path.
"Hmm, if it took us an hour to just find a bridge, maybe we can’t make it in a day…"
"No!" said optimist Aubrey.
We walked over the bridge and encountered a man with a fancy walking stick. Little did we know, he would soon be our salvation.
Along the angry river we went, until we met an old, skinny 北京人, a chubby dude with a big camera, and his preteen son. They proved to be enjoyable hiking company, and we walked until we came across a village, and stopped to ask directions at a church. (Bizarrely most of the area is devoutly Catholic, thanks to some missionaries back at the turn of the 20th century). They laughed in our faces, ‘it takes us a day to get to 迪麻落.’ Fine. We would find a road, and from there hitchhike to a place we could definitely walk from.
At the road, we parted ways with our new friends, and tried to flag down any and every car. Things were looking pretty grim when a familiar face rolled up. The man from the bridge! Turns out him and chubby dude had been friends since elementary school. He dropped us off, and we were on our way. Only a 10km trek from this point. Except we hadn’t really eaten lunch and a cab suddenly rolled by, tempting us. But our cheapskate hearts saved us from sloth. ’30 块?!’ we scoffed. ‘No way.’
After a two-hour slow uphill march, we arrived at Aluo’s, road-weary and relieved. Showers (cold)! Food! 啤酒! Sleep! What more could we have asked for. We chatted with Aluo himself for quite a while, a strikingly handsome older gentlemen with amazing 普通话 (standard Mandarin, pretty much everyone in China speaks their own local dialect, or in 怒江’s case, the Lisu language). He told us we had to go to 阿路来卡 (Alulaika), about three hours up a mountain.
The next day, we headed up. The path was a steep one, but the views were more and more amazing the higher we climbed. Once we were at the top, we were literally walking on clouds. Naïvely thinking we would find a restaurant, it slowly dawned on us that 阿路来卡 is a tiny village of about twenty homes and a church. I was getting ready to fly down the mountain for food when our new trek-mate begged a random household to cook for us. Though barely understanding Chinese, they were gracious and hospitable, serving butter tea, potatoes, spicy fried egg, and rice (so only potatoes and rice). We gave them two American quarters as a keepsake, and 60快 for the trouble.
I think the best part about this trip was how little stress, how little effort, how little planning any of us put into it. We took things day by day and it turned out to be an amazing week. I feel like I would only ever be so casual about something unless I lived, well, just over the mountain. It also makes me appreciate coming home to Yong’an because it’s really just as beautiful, yet I don’t even have to share it with the tourists.