Tongdian is really a working class town, not many whities wash up here, they stare at me as I walk down the street. We have figured out that if you go into a restaurant and point at eggs and tomatoes you end up with an omelette, this place is awesome.
I have rarely seen women taxi drivers anywhere in the world, but here like in the roadworking teams they stand tall beside their comrades. The typical taxi driver is minority cow-girl. Tight blue jeans, faded shirt, long black hair and beads, windswept Tibetan like features. We caught a pleasurable ride through to Lanping wuth one of these ladies in the back of an old Datsun.
Lanping isn't exactly a tourist mecca either. Its a town by Chinese standards. Tall buildings, fruit on the sidewalk, we don't see much of it apart from the inside of the internet cafe. Chinese internet cafes, or "wangba" are normally vast gaming chambers where people can service their addiction to virtual worlds. World of Warcraft is big here and the service is surly. The punkish teenage girl doesn't get it that mandarin script means about as much to us as a pile of twigs.
We are a novelty here too, as we seek mini-vans a small crowd gathers. I blow it. I am convinced our destination is Kanping (for some reason I had it in my head we were going camping in Kanping). They try to tell me that we are in Lanping, which I agree with, but that still doesn't get us anywhere. A crowd really starts to gather now to watch this foreigner lose face, it must be 30 people edging in on us. I go for the map in the top pocket of my pack, damn its the wrong one, China central not south. It must be deeper. I unpack my bag carefully in the melee, "oh its here" Penny says, in our daypack where I carefully organised it this morning. Where are we going, oh "damn Yongpin", "Yongpin, oh ar Yongpin"...they gesture us to the minibus five metres away and two minutes later we are on the road.
Its another of the cowgirl drivers, and she drives well, climbing a high pass to the west before we begin our giant descent into the Mekong gorge. We feel like a point on a spirograph, creating butterfly wing shapes as we curve around tributaries. Fir forest gives way to golden fields at harvest time. Wheat or is it barley, scythed then bunched up to dry, standing like a minature teepee. I think I know the name for this technique, aren't these things Snooks like my old friend Zane. I search wikipedia and they are not a type of fish, a Canadian comedian or a rap group based in Sweden, So i don't know what they are called those bunches of wheat or is it barley standing like miniature teepees in lines at harvest time.
We eventually arrive at the Mekong, the mighty Lancang as it known here. The town of Yongpin clings to its side 500 metres up. From the roof of our hotel looking down we can see clearly how the traditional skyline has been pierced by the recent high rises. Down in the valley we stare at the mighty brownness of the river, where it bends and a bridge crosses. Adjacent to us on the far side of the valley is a mighty spur that leads up and over the Biluao snow mountains to the Nu Jiang to the west. We were thinking of walking this way, but a 2500 metre ascent when we couldn't see the tops and an uncertain descent on the far side deters us this time. We travel on.
But not before we discover dumplings, or steamed bread, the big ones are plain, the ones with brown stuff spilling out the side have some sort of chocolate paste. The small ones are packed with mystery meat, yummy. There is fried bread as well, wads of it to take on the bus. The bread doesn't last for long as we bus south down the Mekong. The road is rough and at one place we get out to walk where someone is stuck coming the other way. I get to thinking about the Mekong and the NZers who traversed its length during the first Hillary Expedition. With a bit of research it is slightly disappointing to see the spin illustrated by comparing these two articles here and here. The first descent of a river must surely be in it aye?
From the Mekong we climb high, high, awesome views to the southeast down the valley or for that matter straight down. We keep on climbing into the clouds, before we cross a quick spur and begin our descent, down, down, down into the third of the three great parallel rivers that make up Chinas "three parallel rivers". The Yangtze, the Mekong and now the Nu. We hit the Nu at Liuku, an unwieldly town on both sides of the river which features a golden buddha standing on a little hill. We couldn't get out of there quick enough, on another bus and off up the river. There are two water features, the almighty river, surging in places like a Peter Jackson special effect. Imagine a rapid named "horse of the apocalypse" and you'd get close. The Nu isn't brown like the Mekong its evil silty grey, the colour of dirty socks, you can imagine it sucking you in, you and your horse and your little flock of goats. The other water feature is manmade. Many tributarys are damned higher up, piped and dropped the last 100 or so metres into the Nu. The Chinese appetite for theatre sees the overlows piped from the most unlikey spots. Straight out of knife edged ridges fountains of water cascade into the valley.
We change buses again at Fugong and meet our eccentric bus driver Tobi. I have now met my Chinese counterpart who likes dancing while driving, body shaking, hands gyrating in the air. he stops for us at the scenic place, the hole in the rock and has the rest of the van in stitches with his whistle which be blows at startled passersby and witty comments he makes to stragglers on the road. We giggle along with the crowd. It gets dark and the road becomes a tunnel, we surge on through occasional villages, lights at night in a car always remind me of arriving home at Waitati after a long trip from Christchurch. In a daze we arrive in Gongshan. When we tell Tobi the fanciest hotel is too expensive he takes us to his house and puts us up for the night. His wife cooks us dinner, we drink beer and communicate with our respective mandarin-english books. Random. The next morning Tobi and I fetch breakfast, tasty dumplings and a new treat, fresh soy milk. We sit on their floor and enjoy each others company for one last time.
Tobi drops us off at a bridge over the Nu and we navigate to De Ma Lo, the famous Tibetan village (not quite sure why). We take a tributary when both a sign and a little girl point the same way and enter a construction site. The river descending from De Ma Lo is next on the list of hydro projects. Rough shanty town camps dot the valley, the trees have been stripped from lower slopes and the dam lies ready to fill, at least to our eyes. Just out of reach of the dams final extent we find De Ma Lo and Alou's guesthouse. Alou is a famous conservationist, unfortunately we can't communicate to work out exactly what he does, but we choose to visit and support him anyway.
The guesthouse is very much a family affair and very open to visitors. We walk in and before we know it we are sitting on the couch with a cup of yak butter tea (this stuff is fine but watch for a day or two later when they evolve to giving you fermented rice wine complete with soggy rice and rotten egg). I get used to turning down the constant offer of cigarettes the male bonding technique in China (no dammit I don't I'm almost tempted to smoke). The Tibetans here are Catholic with crazy old churches based on a french desuign. We visit the Church first, then attend mass the next day on sunday. I wish I had an audio recording of the Gregorian chanting in Tibetan, very primal.
The tradition is church, then cards, then drink then basketball, three games, young fellas, old fellas then women. We didn't realise, instead going home for a nap. I shot some hoops with a local later on, slowly getting into the zone.
That evening another group of tourists arrived, these Chinese. They had just been in the Drung valley where we were thinking of going, we checked out their photos and decided to move on, where is the snow?! We organised a guide to take us across the Bilauo Mountains to Cizhong on the Mekong, another story to write up!