Cizhong to Demalo
Our goal was to hike from Cizhong to Baihanluo on the other side of the “snow mountains” to the west. This would take us to the next major river, the Nu (also known in Burma as the Salween). The Nu, after flowing out of Tibet, runs along the border before turning into Myanmar. The mountains that separate the Nu from the Mekong form a continental divide between the Pacific and Indian oceans. To access the Nu river by vehicle requires a grueling, roundabout journey around the impassible mountain ranges that separate the two rivers. It was just this chain of mountains, with snow-covered summits over 4000m, that we wanted to cross. From the couple that ran the guesthouse in Zhongdian, we had heard that there was a trail from Cizhong. Our goal, Baihanluo, was the site of another historic Catholic church.
Liu, who ran the guesthouse in Cizhong, draw us a map on the scrap of paper. He wrote the names of the settlements in Chinese along the way, and we transliterated them in English so that we could ask for directions along the way. Since we would not be coming back to Cizhong, we had to carry everything with us on our backs. Liu, along with his little dog “Xixi” (“shishi”) accompanied us to the start of the trail. Xixi had taken a liking to Anne and insisted on following us, despite our attempts to send her home. It started to rain again. The thick, wet forest was dripping with moss. We tried to follow the trail the best we could, but at one junction, where a canal intersected the trail, we hesitated. Liu had insisted that we turn left, away from the river, at one point. Was it here? Luckily, a woman driving a mule came along, and we followed her and her tracks up the trail. At the first big stream crossing, after a couple of hours, we could not coax Xixi to leap from rock to rock over the rushing water. Another few hours brought us to the first “settlement”, a single stone shelter in an alpine pasture! The woman with the mule had already arrived. The herder living there served us hot butter tea with an incredulous look on his face. Cold and wet from the rain, we tried to warm ourselves around his small fire, before deciding to continue up the valley. When leeches started to appear, we tucked our pants into our socks. Several more hours of hiking brought us to a pasture with several shelters. This was the second-to-last place marked on our hand-drawn map. Here the trail crossed a rushing stream. The bridge was a single narrow log suspended over the rushing water. With a heavy pack and wet boots it was difficult to grip the skinny, slippery log as it bounced with our weight. We could imagine ourselves slipping headlong into the churning water, far from help. Just in time, a boy from one of the nearby huts came to help. He waltzed over the bridge to our side, then held our hands steady as we slowly inched across, sideways, to the other side. He led us to a small rock shelter surrounded by thick mud. The hut was made of stacked rock walls, a few roof beams and thin wooden shingles, barely enough to keep the cold wind and dripping rain at bay. It felt good, though, to sit and warm ourselves by the fire. The father offered us a bowl of butter tea to drink as we picked the leeches off our shoes. On either side of the fire was a narrow wooden bench with just enough room for three people to sit, theirs knees uncomfortably close to the flames. After changing into something warmer, we hung some of our wet clothes above the smoking fire to dry them out. The father, attempting to make conversation, offered Eric some grain liquor, clearly one of his only luxuries, from a plastic jerrycan. The mother made it clear that we could stay the night with them, a welcome relief after over eight hours on the trail.
When we showed them our hand-drawn map, they made it clear that the next place was not inhabited. As we sat inside by the fire, a man coming from the other side of the mountains stopped for some butter tea. He was emphatic about telling us something about the trail conditions. After several attempts in Chinese (or perhaps some other language, who knows), he wrote it down on a cigarette wrapper. Despite their best efforts, it was impossible to communicate with our hosts. Sometimes they would ask us questions, then repeat them very clearly and slowly, but we could only laugh and make it clear that we didn’t understand a word! After the cows had all been milked and fed, we ate dinner: boiled noodles in pork-fat broth. Anne remarked that today was our first wedding anniversary!
Anne found a puppy tied up under the bench and took it out to play with. Once it became dark, the whole family wanted to chat, smoke and drink liquor around the fire. The father threw a big log on the fire and it started to smoke. We claimed one of the fireside benches as our bed. It was nothing more than a few rough planks, too short for Eric and barely wide enough for two. With all the clutter, there was barely room for our backpacks. We unrolled our mats and took out our sleeping bags. As we zipped ourselves up, our hosts stared in confusion, then giggled. Had they ever seen sleeping bags before?
Long before dawn, the father and mother started coughing, then talking. We knew that we had a long day ahead of us, and didn’t feel like lard noodles or butter tea for breakfast. We prepared our things as soon as we could and said goodbye. It was hard to put our cold, wet clothing on again. We wanted to start walking right away to warm up. Eric pressed some money into the mother’s hand for putting us up and feeding us. She stared at the money in her hand with a quizzical expression. Perhaps she did not expect to be paid, or the money was not enough.
Up and up went the trail, through the cloud forest, past huge trees filled with hanging moss, and across green, soggy pastures. There were no markings on the path, so we had to watch closely for footprints and other trail signs. The clouds and mist made orientation difficult. We passed the last settlement, a couple of roofless rock shelters similar to the ones below, their shingles stacked inside for the winter. There was nobody. Then the leeches were after us. One attached itself to Eric’s hand as he steadied himself on a protruding rock. Then the trail ended in a snowbank. We had to follow the vague, melted footprints of those who had passed before us, kicking toeholds into the steep snow to keep from slipping onto the rocks below. Where was the pass? As we pondered where to go, we saw two men picking their way down through the hard snow. They were wearing tennis shoes and held plastic bags over their shoulders to keep off the rain. They were surprised to see us! One shouldered Eric’s pack, then shook his head looking as us as if we were crazy. It was easy to follow their footsteps to find our way to the top. We did not linger at the pass. Eric sat down to take off his shoes and squeeze out his socks. All of the cold, windy weather seemed to be blowing through the narrow rocky notch. On the other side, it was easier to cross the snowfields and follow the switchbacks down. At this point the valley split into two. Far below on the right, we could see a few huts. According to our directions, we should cross a second pass before descending to Baihanluo. Our map was unclear. Most of it detailed the trail before the pass. There was nobody around to ask, so we followed our intuition and chose a clear trail to the left that continued downstream.
For the rest of the afternoon, we continued down the valley. The trail, though, became less and less clear, before finally disappearing in a muddy, forested bog. We pushed ahead, slogging through the mud, looking for footprints and vague paths to follow. Finally we came to an inhabited hut. When we asked directions, the man pointed to a steep ridge above us. Although it was already four o’clock, we really wanted to get to Baihanluo. We started to climb the switchbacks up the steep, forested slope. With already more than ten hours of walking and almost nothing in our stomachs, our energy was fading fast. It took most of our remaining strength and willpower to get to the top. On the way we crossed a group of porters carrying goods. One of them stopped to proudly shake Eric’s hand, no doubt impressed with our effort. On the other side of the pass, the trail turned to mud as it descended through a bamboo forest. We were so tired that it was hard to keep from sliding in the slippery mud that oozed to our ankles. When the trail forked, we took the branch that continued along the contour of the mountains, as the man in the hut below had indicated. After a while, though, the trail seemed wrong. Clouds covered the valley below, making visual orientation impossible. There were no more footprints and it seemed to be climbing again. We turned back and started going down another steep, muddy slope. Each slip and fall cost quite an effort to get up again and keep going. Night was falling fast. We were covered with mud. After twelve hours of steady walking we were exhausted and had to stop, but there were no inhabited villages or huts. It was impossible to find anything in the mist below. As we continued down the side of the mountain, we saw a crude hut below. In the failing light, we climbed down. The shelter had not been inhabited for a while. There was a lock but it was open. Choosing not to build a fire, we rolled out our sleeping bags, took off our filthy wet clothes, ate some crackers and lay down to sleep.
In the morning it was a long way down to what turned out to be Demalo on the valley floor. It was noticeably hotter and more humid at the bottom. Arriving in the village, we were welcomed into a roadside café where we were served a plate of hot steamed buns. There was no bus out of town, so we walked the two hours to the Nu, passing an open mine by the side of the river. Arriving at the wide, muddy Nu river, we crossed the footbridge and stuck out our thumbs to catch the first bus to Bingzhongluo, a descent-sized town up the valley. Checking into the best hotel in town, we spent the entire afternoon cleaning ourselves and washing everything thoroughly. The water from the machine ran black with mud and grime. We then sat down to a well-deserved meal and a cold bottle of beer.