Trekking in Shangri-la: Up a remote river valley

We had a vague research plan. In fact, we were treating this trip as a sort of reconnaissance, to check out the area, and hopefully make some contacts. We are both interested in Chinese dialects, language contact, and Chinese language education among China’s ethnic minorities, particularly Tibetans. We hoped to make contact with some rural schools to see how Tibetans are learning Chinese. The first challenge we encountered was finding information about the river valley we wanted to visit. I had heard about the Niru Valley from a former student who had spent a short time there the previous year. A remote place like this does not appear in the Lonely Planet Guide or any other guide. Searching online also did not produce much. We finally found a hand drawn map from a Chinese blogger who had visited the region. The information was scant, but better than nothing.

We planned to hike up this valley past the village Hongxiu (at least that’s what we had heard) to the Tibetan village of Niru. We hoped there was a school there and that we might be able to meet the teacher, even though school was out for the summer. We also hoped to interview some locals and talk to them about their experiences learning Chinese. But more than anything we wanted to see some natural, remote, and wild parts of China. We had both spent plenty of time in big Chinese cities and had seen all the big cultural sites many times.

The evening before we left we went down to the entrance to the old town where drivers and their minivans congregate. We talked to a few guys until we met a guy we liked. He was a Tibetan who was born and raised in Shangri-la. We negotiated a price for him to drive us to the village of Luoji.

Our Tibetan driver and his mini-minivan

The next morning we met him and we began our journey. Minivans in China are not like minivans in the U.S. which are actually quite large. These are tiny little vans, and yet they still can seat up to 6 or 7 people. Luoji is an ethnic Lisu village several hours drive southeast of Shangri-la. The Lisu are an ethnic (non-Chinese) group that have lived in Yunnan Province for hundreds of years. In fact, there are more ethnic minority groups in Yunnan than any other place in China.

The road to Luoji started out as a nicely paved two lane road. We first climbed up out of the Shangri-la plain, then began descending into a deep valley. For the first two hours we climbed up and down switchbacked roads through very green and lush countryside. Occasionally there would be a village on the hillside with terraced farmland. We also passed a ranch with rustic buildings with livestock.

Our driver was delightful. He had a high school education and had pretty good Mandarin. My experience is that the more education a person has the better their Mandarin is. I have spoken with plenty of people in rural areas of China that had very rough and broken Mandarin. (It is secretly gratifying to talk to Chinese that have worse Mandarin Chinese than I do). We really enjoyed talking with him as we drove. He told us all about his education, particularly how they learned Mandarin Chinese as children. He told us all about his family. He was married and had two daughters, of which he seemed very proud.

After about two hours, the road began to deteriorate. It went from nicely paved blacktop to a type of crushed rock road, to a dirt road full of pot holes, and deep muddy pools. It was pretty rough going for about an hour and a half or two hours.

After about three and half or four hours we arrived in the small village of Luoji. The main road ended here. At the end of the road was a small restaurant, a guest house, and a small store. We had bought some things in Shangri-la so didn’t bother buying anything. When we got out of the minivan, we were met with stares. It was as if they had never seen foreigners before. They even seemed a little spooked. We were anxious to get out of town, so to speak, so we paid our driver and bid him a warm farewell. He had never been to Niru but he pointed out the way.

Luoji was much lower in elevation than Shangri-la, probably by at least three thousand feet. It was much warmer down here in this river valley. Shangri-la had been very pleasant and cool, being over 10,000 feet in elevation. We were surprised it was so warm here.

With all our belongings in midsized backpacks we set off down a narrow dirt road. We felt a sense of excitement mixed with a bit of trepidation at the unknown. We really did not know what to expect up this valley, but we hoped to meet some rural Tibetans, see some beautiful unspoiled country, and enjoy the peace and quiet of the countryside. We had read a Chinese blog report that there was a rustic guesthouse up the valley in an area called Hongxiu Village, but we were not sure where it was. We assumed we would be able to buy food at stores, or eat at small restaurants. In Shangri-la we had bought some crackers, coconut cookies, some instant noodles, and some peanuts. We each carried two quarts of water. We did not bring any camping gear as we planned to stay in guesthouses along the way. We were also hoping to hike high into the mountains above Niru to some high mountain pasturelands where the local Tibetans grazed their yaks in the summertime.

The road just outside Luoji descending down to the river

The trek begins

Three hours later we are sitting by the side of the road, hot, sweaty, and already running low on water. The road out of Luoji dropped down into the bottom of the valley and crossed a river, then switchbacked up the other side for a couple miles. It was steep going for quite awhile. Once we got to the top of the gorge, the road turned left up into the Niru Valley along the Niru River. At this point the river was far below us at the bottom of the valley. Across the valley picturesque farms dotted the mountainsides and side valleys. It was very idyllic and looked like something out of a coffee table book.

We were told by some locals in Luoji that the road to Niru was built the year earlier. Up until that time it was not much more than a trail. In several places the road is washed out, or covered by rocks from small landslides. Occasionally a jeep or truck passes us. We are sitting taking stock of the situation. We’re running low on water but there is a small creek running down the mountainside and across the road. We fill our bottles and treat them with purification tablets that I carry in my first aid kit. That should be good for a few more hours. We certainly were not expecting this kind of heat.

Collecting sap

After another couple hours we come upon a small cluster of wood frame houses. We are again running a bit low on water, so we decide to see if someone can offer us some water. We leave the main road and head down a small side road that leads to the farmhouses. Almost immediately a mangy dog appears barking ferociously. We both instinctively reach down and pick up a few rocks. A few well-aimed throws sends the dog on his way. We heard stories of the fearsome, and huge Tibetan mastiffs. We approach what looks like a very old wood frame house. There is a woman in the yard washing clothes in a large metal washbasin. We greet her in Chinese. She turns and yells something in a language we do not understand. A young teenage girl appears from inside the house. She speaks Chinese, as most school-age kids in China do. They are Lisu and her mother does not speak Chinese. We ask them if there are any stores around. They say the only store around is back in Luoji, so we ask if they can give us some water. She invites us into the house, so we drop our packs outside the front door and enter a dimly lit, very rustic house. It is made entirely of wood, the floor, walls, ceiling. There are three chickens wandering around inside. There does not appear to be any running water or plumbing.

The young girl gives us each a cup of boiling water and we sit and chat. She is in middle school and says there is a small school nearby that teaches all the kids in this part of the valley. She tells us that most of the kids are Lisu or Naxi. She has okay Mandarin, though it is accented. Her mother sits by smiling. They tell us that they have never seen foreigners before, except on TV. After about fifteen minutes we thank them and take our leave.

A bit further down the road, we come across another cluster of houses. We wander around a bit, until we find someone and ask them if there is a store nearby. A young girl runs off, returns a few minutes later with an middle aged women who shows us to an old building that looks like it used to be a store. Inside the floor is littered with boxes and trash. She rips open a few boxes until she finds one with bottled Chinese sports drink. The expiration date is a year old, but probably can’t do too much harm so we each buy two bottles. It looks like a type of guesthouse was build here but nothing came of it. It was deserted. Their Chinese was pretty rough so we didn’t spend much time there. We thanked them for the drinks and continued up the road.

The entire day the road gradually climbed up the valley. By afternoon the road had dropped down to the bottom of the valley and we were hiking along the swift and roaring Niru River. After another hour or so of hiking we came to a gate over the road with a sign saying “Niru.” We had finally arrived. This was the beginning of the Tibetan area. At the top of the sign was Tibetan writing with large Chinese characters below. We were pretty tired. We had been hiking for about eight hours and had covered probably 15-17 kilometers. But we were disappointed that no village appeared, only occasionally farm house along the road or across the river. The homes here though were distinctively Tibetan.

Tibetan farmhouse

We began to get a little concerned about where we might stay for the night. It was getting late and we were tired. A few minutes later we approached a Tibetan farmhouse with a tattered sign advertising a guesthouse. The sign was all torn up and half of it was hanging down to the ground. It didn’t look too promising, so we decided to walk on a bit and see what we could see. Every time someone would pass in a car we would ask how far it was to Niru. We got everything from two hours to seven hours so we really did not know how much further it was to the village proper. Another few kilometers up the road we met a farmer on the road in front of his house. It looked like a newly built house and was nicer than any of the other farmhouses we had seen along the way. We chatted for a bit, and asked him if we could stay at his place for the night. He said he could not house us, but didn’t really give any reason. I think he was kind of scared of maybe getting in trouble for housing foreigners without proper permission. He told us that this valley was gearing up for the tourist trade but was not ready yet. He said there had been some tourist here, but they were all Chinese, never foreigners. He gave us some boiled water so we could make our instant noodles for dinner. No one has heard of a Hongxiu Village.

And so we sat on the side of the road eating our noodles wondering how far it was to the actual village. We sat on a log eating, a few black pigs rooting around in the brush behind us.

Foraging pigs

Michael’s stomach was acting up so he headed up the hillside into the woods to take care of business. I sat alone enjoying the peace and quiet that I was so unaccustomed to in China. Dark clouds were moving in from up the valley and it looked like it might rain. We had no camping gear, did not know how much further the village was, and could not find anyone around to take us in. Most of the Tibetan farmers that we had seen would wave to us, then quickly disappear.

As I sat there two kids, a teenaged girl and boy, came walking down the road from up the canyon. They were very surprised to see a foreigner sitting there on a log eating a bowl of noodles. Our conversation went like this.

“What are you doing here?”

“My friend and I are heading up to Niru. How much further is it?”

“At least four hours on foot. It’s too late to get there today.”

“Are you sure? We heard it was pretty close.”

“No. We just came from there. We walk this road all the time.”

“Do you know anywhere we can stay for the night around here?”

“You can stay at any of these farms around here. Anyone will take you in.”

“I don’t think so. Everyone seems to be afraid of us.”

They both burst out laughing. They are both Tibetan, but give us their Chinese names. (I am intentionally not using their names here because, though the chances are remote, I do not want to risk getting them into any trouble). Many Tibetans have Chinese names, which sometimes are transliterations of their Tibetan names and sometimes are just made up Chinese names. You cannot translate an English (or Tibetan) name into Chinese, so if you want a Chinese name, you get a native to help you pick out a Chinese name. She is fifteen years old, he is seventeen, and she is actually his aunt. They have just returned from ten days in the mountains picking wild mushrooms. Their families have a cabin up in the mountains where they stay with a couple other families, picking mushrooms. They had come down into the valley and sold their mushroom crop to a buyer who would then sell them in Shangri-la. They were returning home for the night to clean up. She would then head back up to the mushroom camp, and he would stay at home, while his mom would head up to the camp.

They offered to help us find a place to stay. So we headed back down the road, from where we had come. When we would arrive at a farm, they would shout out (in Tibetan) to the residents. They knew everyone all up and down the valley. No one seemed to be around and they were perplexed. When we arrived at the farm with the tattered guesthouse sign, they shouted out to a women in the courtyard of the home. She looked up, saw us foreigners, then quickly disappeared into her house She would not come out no matter how much the kids called out. They were both very amused by this.

The supposed guesthouse

Finally, they suggest that we just come home with them. I tell them that I don’t think their mothers would approve of them dragging home two middle-aged white foreigners. They laugh again and assure us it will be fine. They tell us that their mothers have never seen foreigners before and will really enjoy it. I continue to resist, until the boy finally says, “I’ll call my mom and ask if its okay.” To our surprise he pulls a cell phone out of his pocket and proceeds to call his mom. We cannot believe that there is cell phone coverage up this remote valley. The girl explains that there is pretty good coverage all up and down the valley. Cell phone coverage all over China is pretty good, but we did not expect it up here. The conversation with his mother is all in Tibetan so we cannot tell what is said.

Michael with the Tibetan kids

In fact we have both studied a little Tibetan before this trip, but we learned very quickly that we were learning standard Lhasa Tibetan, and the dialect spoken in this area was quite different. So our efforts did not help us too much, except for some basic greetings. Our driver also taught us some basic phrases while we were driving out to Luoji.

He tells us that his mom said it was okay for us to stay the night at his house. Michael and I look at each other, shrug our shoulders, and gratefully follow them down the road. We hike back down the road for two or three kilometers, before leaving the road and crossing a rickety bridge across the river. We then follow them up a very steep, narrow trail up a mountainside to the top of a bluff where there are two traditional Tibetan houses surrounded by cornfields. The first house is where the girl lives, and the second house is where the boy lives. We all proceed to his house. These houses are similar to the ones we had seen in the outskirts of Shangri-la, though they are much smaller, and more rustic.

The boy's house on the bluff

There is a high wall around the house and a gate that opens into a courtyard. The courtyard is covered to depth of about 18 inches with leaves and branches. This is to absorb the animal waste. There are several small black pigs there as well as several chickens. We walk across the small courtyard, and up a steep wooden stairway to the second floor and into the house. It is post and beam construction, made entirely of wood. The floor is rough wooden planks, burnished smooth by countless footfalls. There are no glass windows, just one small opening, a out two feet square, with a wooden door over it. It is very dark inside, only illuminated by two large, but very dim bare light bulbs hanging from the ceiling. It smells like wood smoke. His mother greets us warmly, a broad smile spreading across her wind burned face. It is obvious that this woman has spent her life working in the outdoors. No fancy headdress or colorful clothing out here in this remote area.

On one side of the room is the open fire for cooking. There is a large steel wok in a kind of frame over the fire. Next to it is a steel woodburning stove that they use for heat in the winter. The only furniture in the room are two low wooden platforms that are used for sitting.

They are all quite excited to have guests, especially foreigners. The mother gets busy cooking a simple meal. It consists of stir-fried potatoes with just a little salt, and some stir-fried squash and some yak cheese. It is very simple, but much appreciated. They cook over an open fire indoors. Above the fire is a woven platform where cheese is stored.

Reaching for some cheese from the storage rack above the fire

A nice hunk of smoked yak cheese

Above this is a hole in the ceiling where the smoke mostly dissipates into the third floor storage area. This is where they store grain, corn and barley, yak hides, chili peppers, and so on.

Ladder to the third floor storage

They grow corn and squash. They collect wild mushrooms, raise pigs and chickens, and rely heavily on yaks for butter, cheese, meat, and their skins for clothing and tents. Smoked and dried pork hangs from the ceiling. The men are with the yaks in the high summer pastures. In fact, the fathers are away most of the year with their yak herds. The boy’s older brother is with his father and the yak herds.

There is no running water in the house. They collect water from a nearby creek, and store it in a large, probably 30 gallon barrel, in the corner of the large room. There is no bathroom. At one point I have to go and ask the boy where I should go. He laughs, as if this is a ridiculous question, and simply says, just go anywhere outside.

As rustic as these farmhouses are, they all have satellite television, and solar hot water heaters with cisterns on a high platform. So there is hot water to wash with.

The girl is a sophomore in high school. She boards at the high school in Shangri-la during the school year. She has very good Mandarin Chinese. She tells us all about her schooling, even pulling out some of her textbooks. She also studies English and shows us one of her English textbooks, but she cannot really say much in English. The boy only attended through primary school. As a result his Chinese is heavily accented and we sometimes have a hard time understanding what he is saying. But he is very patient with us, and laughs often.

They are very gracious hosts, and allow me to take lots of pictures of them and their humble home. Realizing that I have a camera, they want me to take pictures of them in their formal, traditional dress. They run into one of the two bedrooms, off the main room, and return with a pile of brightly colored clothing. They proceed to dress up in their traditional clothing that they wear at weddings and during the Tibetan New Year celebrations. They are beautiful and all hand made. After taking photos of them, they insist that we try on the clothes as well. They are very amused and laugh when we try on their these traditional clothing. We laugh along with them as we contemplate what we are doing, and the good luck that has brought us here. The black robe I try on his made from yak wool and is heavy and thick. The hat is made from fox fur.

We have a very enjoyable evening visiting with them. It’s getting late and they need to get up early in the morning. In fact the boy’s mother is getting up at 2:00 am to head up to the mushroom picking camp. It is a ten to twelve hour hike up into the mountains. The girl prepares to go home and tells us that we need to stop by in the morning before we leave to have some fresh milk from their cow. She is very proud of the fact that they have a milk cow.

They prepare a bed for us by pushing the two wooden platforms together. They throw a wool rug over it, with a couple more heavy wool blankets and a couple pillows. We have travel sheets that we use as well. It is a very hard bed, but we are grateful to have a place to sleep. When they turn the lights out the room is absolutely pitch dark.

Our bed for the night

The mother is up early, re-stoking the fire and making yak butter tea, then she is off. Later that morning, around 7:30, the boy is up re-stoking the fire and preparing breakfast for us. We have traditional Tibetan tsampa, which is really just barley flour, yak cheese, and yak butter tea. In some Tibetan areas tsampa is made by mixing barley flour with yak butter tea to form round dough balls. For many Tibetans, this is their primary diet, along with lots of butter tea. In this area the barley flour is eaten raw accompanied with butter tea. You just grab a pinch of flour and pop it into your mouth, and wash it down with tea. Yak butter tea is made with hot water, yak butter, salt and tea leaves. It is very strong, and most westerners have a difficult time getting it down. The tea is prepared in a wooden cylindrical churn. It wasn’t the most appetizing breakfast, but what a unique cultural experience. We were profoundly grateful to be having this experience.

Making yak butter tea

A Tibetan breakfast

After breakfast, we pack up and head next door. We meet the girl’s mother, and her 90-something year old grandmother, who has been blind for the past twenty years. No doubt cooking over a fire indoors for many years had something to do with that. The mothers speak just a little Chinese, but the grandmother only speaks Tibetan.

The proudly serve us each a large bowl of milk. To our surprise it is very sour and full of curds. We sip it tentatively. Michael leans over and says he’s going to hurl if he has to drink any more. I’m trying not to laugh. I guess I have learned to mentally shut out gross things and just put them down. But I admit, the sour, curdled milk is pretty bad. After a short visit, we thank them, and head down the steep trail, across the river, and back onto the road. They assure us it is only about a four hour walk to the village of Niru. It turns out that this whole long section of the valley is technically Niru village, but at the end of the valley is the cluster of homes that constitute the village proper.

TO BE CONTINUED

4 thoughts on “Trekking in Shangri-la: Up a remote river valley

  1. What an amazing trek, and how lucky that you were able to stay with this wonderful family and witness first hand a way of life that hasn’t changed in centuries – even if the sour milk was a bit unpalatable 🙂 Had to laugh about the cell phone incident. I remember being surprised to get a full signal on Gyaphelri, which is more than I could ever get from my rural home back in the UK. My mother was even more surprised – not knowing I was travelling, she called to chastised me for not contacting her. When I replied that I was in Tibet there was a pause before I heard “bl**dy hell, this’ll cost me a fortune” and the phone went dead!

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