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Good question, that.
This was pretty much the exact conversation I had with Andy a few months ago over a Skype call. I was in Sydney, Andy in London in April 2010.
Andy was at a loose end for his summer holidays and asked if I’d like some company for a couple of weeks on the first leg of my Shambhala trip. “Bonus” I thought – it’s always nice to ride with a buddy for a while. I used to work with Andy at Trailfinders in the UK 15(!) years ago. He’s a great bloke, really up for seeing some special places and up for a new pedalling power challenge.
While on that Skype call we noted a tertiary road following a river on the Burmese border with Yunnan, China. The road followed the Nu River system along a valley which sounded great. It looked remote, and some parts looked hard to get to, great! We found out later that there is a good reason why this valley is relatively unexplored – there is only one way in, and only one way out (the same way!) meaning we would have an almighty backtrack down the same valley adding days we simply didn’t have to our itinerary. There was another option, to try and cross the mountain range to the east but as we found out, there were no marked roads on any maps, no tracks or access points through the range which peaked at 3,650m, that’s a 2000m vertical climb from the Nu river!
An American twist
Fast forward 8 or so weeks from that Skype call and there we were at an outpost town called Fugong, half way up the Nu Jiang Valley. We were joined by afriend of Andy’s, Tim from the US of A. Tim came along pretty much at the last minute. He had always wanted to see Asia by bike and when he heard of our plans he leapt on board! Tim loves people, absolutely loves hanging out & chatting with anyone. Tim used to work for Trek America as a tour guide and then in marketing, I can see why! He can’t go past a basket ball court without having a game, and he can’t turn down an opportunity to help the local butchers shave a recently terminated cow!
The Nu Valley and the Lisu people
In 2003 Unesco listed the Nu Jiang (meaning ‘Raging River’) valley as a world heritage site. This was a big draw card for us, especially as there are rumours afoot of plans for thirteen dams along the Nu River, “the second largest in Southeast Asia and one of only two un-dammed rivers in China” *1.
Everyone we had spoken with, including the Military Police, said there is no way through to the East over the range, we would have to back track to Liuku, Yongping, & Dali adding 5 or so days riding, and then we would have to ride back up north on the other side of the range.
So how do we get across the Nu Jiang Shand valley if there are no roads or tracks?
Well, as it turns out we had an amazing bit of luck! Andy and Tim met a Canadian guy called Dean who was waiting for a rickshaw in Fugong. I had gone ahead to take photos of the valley. We learnt that Dean had been living in Fugong for the past 10 years. He’s the ‘go to guy’ in these parts and we really could not have got across the range without him and his Lisu friends.
We spent that evening working out the logistics and time frames, food and water requirements we would need in order to get across the range safely. Dean’s right hand man, 26 year old Apu, is ethnic Lisu. We learned from Sindy, an Chinese English teacher in Fugong, that until only very recently the Lisu had been a slave society. Slaves not only to Han Chinese, but also among other Lisu tribes.
Apu and his relatives Ati and Aku hadn’t crossed our proposed route to Weixi County in a long while and the constant rain up on the plateau was worrying them. Horses would be out of the question – it’s just to steep and slippery. They felt confident they could get us across, however. Apu organised a helper who came from the other side of the range too, he would be able to assist with the descent to Weixi as he knew the villages and trails well.
The Lisu people carry heavy loads in baskets on their backs, attached to their foreheads. Tim tried to lift one of the baskets and admitted it was a tough gig.
Apu, Ati and Aku carried their loads smiling all the way on muddy goat tracks that lead high in to the clouds. Andy, Tim and I would slip and fall in the mud time after time. Our bikes would catch on branches or on rocks and catapult us over in to the brush.
The first days climb was a killer. For 10 hours we walked almost 1.5 vertical kilometers! We had to use our hands (and even our bikes) to pull ourselves up the rock ledges carefully dodging loose rocks and roots, by the evening we were so spent. Apu remained with us while the others went on ahead. He helped where he could, at one point he was carrying Tim’s bike AND carrying his heavy basket full of our panniers, cameras and camping gear. I have no idea how he did it.
As the evening drew nearer, Apu would let out a ‘Coooo-eeeh’ expecting to hear a cry in return from his buddies but nothing came back. This continued for almost an hour with still no return cry. It was getting dark and the cloud rolled in. I felt my legs turn to jelly and began to worry that we had lost the others. May be we had somehow got split up? With all our gear in their baskets and the temperature plummeting at almost 3,400m altitude, Andy, Tim and I sat down and started to realise the severity of the position we were in. Apu went ahead to see if he could find the others while we sat with the bikes in the cold and dark. It seemed pointless to try and get the bikes up even higher tonight – we had only one head torch between us and we were all so tired, wet, thirsty and hungry.
Tim was worried that if we were left out here for the night, we would surely perish in these temperatures. Andy was pretty quiet and I began to really feel the cold. 45 minutes went by and still nothing. I was starting to shiver now and I was beginning to come around to Tim’s thinking. It was bitterly cold when we stopped moving. Then, to our relief we could see torches shining through the mist.
Together we pulled the bikes up to a make shift camp in the path some 200 or so metres up the mountain. The patch of ground was only just wide enough for the tent. Rain was coming down as we put the tents up and I wondered how safe the ledge we were camping on would be – given the amount of rain coming down. When tiredness kicks in, it doesn’t seem to matter. An hour later and we were all crouched around a bamboo fire proud of our achievements, swapping our own stories of an epic day.
Oh sweet descent
The second day began like the first. Killer climbing of about 300 meters to the top of the plateau. Apu and the boys rejoiced in getting us up this far, as they knew it was all down hill from here. It was clear that these guys really cared for us. Seeing them shout and ‘whoop’ and taking photos made me feel that they were happy to be there too, that it wasn’t all just hard work for them – that they were enjoying the challenge as much as us. Although none of us could understand each other with language alone, we all understood each other then.
The descent was super tricky. Tim remarked on the Bamboo sticks we saw dug in to the mud, they had been sharpened and it reminded us of some Vietnam film where the unfortunate enemy would slip and fall on them. We followed steep rocky streams that went on for hours, throwing the bikes down two or three feet and jumping to catch them up. Leeches lie in wait. I had three leeches in a row on my legs, Andy slipped and bashed his eye on his bike as it came down on him and Tim’s right knee was beginning to swell.
We had breakfast at 11am and finally we made it down the other side of the range by 3pm. Now, although we had got down the range safely, we still had to get to Weixi town. We said good bye to our friends, the rest of the journey we could do on our own – a fast descent on fire trail – we would be much quicker on our own. After 3 hours of riding (and one puncture) we found that the road to Weixi was closed and only opened once a week – we would have to load the bikes in to trucks for the 7 hour detour journey from hell on roads that weren’t quite built yet. That’s another story..
*1: Lonely Planet 2010 Yunnan, China Guide