It'll take you a 40-minute flight, a 10-hour bus ride and at least a one-night stopover to get from Kunming, capital of Yunnan province, to Bingzhongluo, a small town at the boundary with Tibet autonomous region.
The journey sounds exhausting and you might be wondering if it is advisable to wait for improved transportation.
Be warned: This would be a mixed blessing. On the one hand, you'd save yourself the tortuous journey but on the other, you'd also be too late to catch this unspoiled paradise before time catches up with it.
Drastic changes might happen very soon and transform not only the isolated town, but also a region that has been cut through and dominated by the mighty Nujiang (Salween) River.
Stone Gate Pass is a pop scenic spot along the Nujiang River
A series of hydroelectric dams is planned for the country's only great undammed river. Although the mammoth project has been postponed due to heated debates on its negative impact on the local environment and communities, it still looms large over the area.
I had to spend most of my five-day trip to Bingzhongluo in a car but I never got bored of the scenery.
My travel companions and I started at Baoshan, crossed the Nujiang River by the Dongfeng Bridge and headed north along the river and all the way through the spectacular Nujiang River gorge.
The condition of the tar-sealed road was surprisingly good and the beautiful scenery seemed endless.
From Baoshan to Liuku, the river and gorge is still quite wide. Tall bombax trees line the road and create a pleasant shade. Islets with lush woods, sandbars with fine white sand, and rocks and huge boulders are scattered in the middle of the river. On the western bank and eastern slope of the Gaoligong Mountains are acres of subtropical fruit trees and lush tracts of sugar cane and corns, all flourishing under the blue sky.
It was certainly one of the most beautiful roads I had ever traveled. "It would be flooded if the planned dam was built," said Zhu Linwen, our guide and driver.
Spreading out on both sides of the river and connected by a bridge, Liuku is the major town of Nujiang prefecture and from there, the river becomes narrower, with rapid currents. The slopes of both the Gaoligong Mountains and Biluo Snow Mountains on the eastern bank of the river become steeper and waterfalls hang on sheer cliffs.
Fields and hamlets scattered halfway up the mountains and fragmented forests dotting the mountain tops reveal the fragility of the local environment. The water in the river looked muddy but Zhu was not perturbed. "When the rainy season ends in one or two weeks, it will become mirror-clear," he said.
We arrived at Fugong town that night and set off the next morning.
The road became even narrower and sometimes it was down to a single lane. Fortunately it was flat, with little traffic. Soon we passed Stone Moon, a famous scenic spot. A natural stone arch on the Gaoligong Mountains, it doesn't look as impressive as it sounds but the scenery of the gorge was fantastic, as a thin scarf of morning fog floated slowly from the surface of the water up the slopes and played its magic together with the morning sunshine.
The Bingzhongluo National Park Project Office in the town of Bingzhongluo
People of different ethnic minorities dressing in their distinctive costumes were common along the way. Zhu told us that they were Lisu, Nu and Yi people. After a while, I gave up trying to learn how to distinguish them by their clothes.
Overhead cables are still used by the local people to cross the river and it was thrilling to watch several local villagers, including an old woman, speeding across the river like that.
When we arrived at Gongshan county at 9 am, the town, which spread on both banks of the river, was still half clouded in mist. From there, we headed to Bingzhongluo along a newly paved road, which was halfway up the Gaoligong Mountains.
Half an hour later, we passed the entrance of Bingzhongluo National Park, a checkpoint on the road where outsiders must pay 20 yuan (S$2.90) for admission.
Soon we arrived at the first lookout, over the first hairpin bend of the river. On a small tableland nestles a hamlet of the Nu people, whose stilted houses roofed with slices of black rock are shaded by woods. Plots of corn and wheat had already been harvested and villagers were busy ridging the land with their buffaloes. Dwarfed by cliffs of the Biluo Snow Mountains, the isolated land looked so peaceful.
Then came a lookout offering an awe-inspiring panoramic view of Bingzhongluo, which made one realize why this largest tableland in the Nujiang River Gorge has long been considered a "Land of Peach Blossoms", a fictitious land of peace unspoiled by the outside world.
On one side, the Gaoligong Mountains with their snow-capped summits separate Bingzhongluo from Tibet, while on the other, the river and Biluo Snow Mountains separate it from northwestern Yunnan.
While modern concrete structures are concentrated around the town, houses and fields belonging to the Lisu, Yi, Nu, Dulong, Bai, Naxi and Tibetan people are spread out on both sides of the river.
The good environment and climate have attracted many ethnic groups to the area. "So you also find a few different religions at Bingzhongluo," Zhu said.
At the one-street town, we found a white stupa built by the local Tibetans. Along the newly paved road down to the river, we saw a white church at Chongding village. It was built by a French missionary 100 years ago, though the present structure is a replica of the original.
The 18-km paved road, winding along the northern bank of the river, passes a few more villages, a scenic site called Stone Gate Pass (Shi Menguan) - the narrowest site of the Nujiang River where sheer cliffs close in around the river and an endemic plum tree grow tenaciously on the cliff walls, and ends at a bridge.
Crossing the bridge, the road divides in two. One road is the remains of an old horse track, or "Tea Horse Caravan Route", to Lhasa. Another is the new road to southeastern Tibet, which is still under construction. "Once the road opens in the next year, Bingzhongluo might regain its importance as a gateway to Tibet," Zhu said.
Traditional stilted houses are scattered around Bingzhongluo
Hiking is the best way to admire the area's beauty but with very limited time, we had to turn back.
At the town of Bingzhongluo, I found the project office of Bingzhongluo National Park. But it seemed that the office wasn't functioning yet, as no one was working inside.
Later, Lan Huiming, director of Gongshan tourism administration, explained: "It is because the Yunnan provincial government has not approved the project yet."
"The launch of the project relies on whether or how the dams will be built on the river, though according to the present plan, no dam will be built near Bingzhongluo," he said.
Although the TNC has helped the park complete a tourist interpretative system at Bingzhongluo and the local government has issued a regulation restricting construction of more concrete buildings at Bingzhongluo, "we can only prepare and wait at this moment," he said.
(China Daily 11/11/2008 page18)
| Mama Ding's multicultural melting pot
Mama Ding was one of the first Chongding villagers in Bingzhongluo to open their homes to travelers. The 68-year-old Tibetan woman, Jin Xiulan, is called "Mama Ding" because her husband's surname is Ding. But she is the head and backbone of her multi-ethnic, 17-member household.
Her husband comes from the Nu ethnic group and her three daughters are married to men from the Bai, Lisu and Han ethnic groups respectively.
The Ding family started receiving travelers in 1998, when "visitors could only make shakedowns on the floor".
In 2001, the family borrowed 200,000 yuan ($29,400) from the local bank to construct a new wing for their two-story house. The building is still under construction. But the family has already been able to provide 30 beds for their guests.
During national holidays, the beds are fully booked, Mama Ding says. "Tourism can bring an annual income of 20,000-30,000 yuan to the family. But most of the income will be used to repay our loan."
There are eight homestays in Chongding village, which has 50 households. At Bingzhongluo, Ding says, the number is more than 20.
To help tourism development of the villages, the local tourism administration gave a refrigerator, a garbage bin and 18 quilts to the family.
"But some families got a loan of 20,000 yuan," she says. "We got only 10,000 yuan."
Mama Ding is Catholic and follows the Christian faith just as her grandparents and parents did.
She is responsible for opening the Chongding Church's door for visitors when the priest is not at home.
"Today I have already opened the door for three groups of tourists," she says.