Against the Stream (for 350km)

“What one person can do, what you can do, what each one of us must do, if we’re going to have a decent world, a good world in which to live, and certainly if we’re going to leave a healthy planet to our children and grandchildren; what we must do is personally wake up to these issues, and then be an instrument of awakening, if only for one other person. Tag, you’re it.”

– Thom Hartmann, Author of “The Last Hours of Ancient Sunglight,” in the documentary “Crude Impact,” making the point I tried to make in my TEDx talk, except much more eloquently.

I’ve had pretty persistent difficulty figuring out how to incorporate environmental concerns into my writing and into my trip. When I pass trucks full of miserable animals, I think, “If only people witnessed this suffering, maybe they wouldn’t eat so much meat.” When I pass garbage trucks dumping trash directly into a river, I think, “If only people saw this, maybe they wouldn’t buy so much unncessary plastic.” When a truck passes me and belches black smoke into my face, I think, “If only people breathed this directly, they might be less inclined to drive.”

A million other things lead to almsot identical thoughts – forested mountains with large swaths of trees consipcuously missing; rivers brown with runoff because the decimated ecosystems above are no longer able to hold soil in place; villagers wandering through picturesque rice paddies and household gardens wearing plastic jugs full of pesticide; lush valleys replaced by third-tier cities full of crumbling concrete; birdsong replaced by sputtering engines and angry honking.

I must not be confident in these “if onlies,” though, because I don’t work very hard to inform people about these things – partially from a sense that they’re already known, and partially from a sense that people prefer not to know, or at least not to be confronted. More often I stick to pictures of idyllic scenes, or stories about the absurd adventures I get into, of the awesome things I eat and people I encounter. But, sometimes, a sense comes to me: these are all things that we could easily lose. These are all pleasures and privileges on a precipice. What will happen to these up-and-coming places when they’ve finished the process of deforesting themselves? When they’ve lost ancient and sustainable agricultural traditions and technologies? When they’ve become dependent on food and other inputs from outside the valley? When the oil starts to run dry?

Such thoughts have beein filling my head over the last week or so as, on a random tip from a Chinese-American guy I met in Nuodeng, I decided to postpone my entry into Southeast Asia in order to ride north once more, this time along the Nu River. Of the three parallel rivers that run through this region – the other two being the Jinsha (Golden Sand), which runs 1000km east and then merges with the Min to form theYangtze (which runs another 3000km and empties into the Pacific at Shanghai), and the Lancang, which runs south into Myanmar and Laos (and becomes the Mekong) – the Nu is the Westernmost, just one valley away from Myanmar. It’s home to several different ethnic minorities, including the Lisu, the Nu, and the Drung tribes, among others. It’s also, from what I’ve heard, the only major river in China that has yet to be dammed. Which is probably why the valley it runs through is supposed to be home to a quarter of China’s plant and animal species. Sounds like a place not to be missed, right?

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Where it starts. One road. 350km to the border with Tibet, with only three sizeable cities and an occasional town or village in between.

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Here’s what my next two weeks of riding will look like: mountains in all directions, the road straight ahead, and the river at my side.

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Low-hanging wisps.


“The First Bend of the Nu River”

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Some time ago, missionaries devised a writing system for the Lisu language. Out of China’s 56 ethnic minorities, I think about 30 Live in Yunnan, and maybe 10 or more live in the Nu river valley.

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Speaking of which! Two young, friendly, curious, and talkative restaurant owners. He’s 29, she’s 24. They have a two year-old. They pay about $1200 a year in rent for their two-room restaurant, where a bowl of noodles costs $0.90 and a vegetable stir-fry costs twice that. He’s Han Chinese (what we think of as just plain old Chinese) from Sichuan, she’s from the Lisu tribe just a few villages up the valley. I overheard her and another woman speaking Lisu and asked her for a little lesson, but she just blushed and said the language wasn’t pretty to listen to. Unlike the Tibetans, who have managed to some degree to hold on to their old religion and nomadic lifestyle, the Lisu seem to have been mostly absorbed. When this couple’s child was born, they had to choose an ethnicity for her to use on official documents. They picked Han.

Among the revealing questions they asked me about America: “What do you eat in America?” “How much do your houses cost?” “Do you have rice noodles?” “Are the pigs black or white?” “You have black people, right? Are their kids black too?”

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Welcome to Fugong.

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Fairly typically of China, this fancy hotel is located onlt twenty or so meters away from not-quite-squalor of the road scene above. I got my hotel for $3.25 a night: a shabby bed in a 6×10 concrete room. The Norwegian I met, who lives in Beijing, works at the embassy, speaks awesome Chinese, and was a very intersting guy, preferred somewhere “clean.” $50 bucks a night – that’s my travel budget for a week! All that shiny marble is gone when you close your eyes. That’s how I see things, anyway.

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Preparing to camp in a pagoda in a public park. Average accomdotion cost for the past two nights: $1.63!

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Even deep at night, there’s never a moment of silence here – the river gurgles nonstop, sometimes so loudly that I awoke thinking a thunderstorm had started up.

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Unplanned adventure! Spelunking!

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20km of cave paths.

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Thankfully, there was Chinese traveler at the bottom of the cave who was willing to go in with me.

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Check out them stalag- and stalac-tites.

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Also thankfully, I have a kickass flashlight.

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WTF? Styrofoam rocks?

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We wandered through the caves for a solid hour or more, even taking off our shoes and plodding through these little lakes. Eventually, it got deep and narrow enough that our courage left us and we headed back.

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Some sort of oil in the water.

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The other guy stumbled upon this on our way out. Nearly fist-sized. That should pay for a couple more months on the road.

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The end of the road: Binzhongluo, a national park just 35km from the border with Tibet. A tiny town overlooking the Nu river, squished between the mountains, where you get to watch the steam rise from the trees every morning.

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Three new Israeli friends: Gilad, Shachar, and Zuri. More on them in the next post. Curious what we’re looking at?

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The view from our hostel after the rain stopped.

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Look closely at the top-left corner and you’ll see: it’s a double! Extremely hard to capture on camera, but there are two rainbows there, I swear. First time I’ve ever seen such a thing.

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Something tells me it’s gonna be a nice couple of days.

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5 Responses to Against the Stream (for 350km)

  1. 썌키 says:

    Double rainbow all the way dude!

  2. 썌키 says:

    Also, I for one would really enjoy seeing more photos of fucked up shit you see along the way. Miserable pigs, denuded hillsides, polluted rivers. Make some beautiful images of awfulness!

    • Michael Roy says:

      the thing is, most of the time, people perpetrating the FUS won’t let me take pictures of it – a sure sign of the cognitive dissonance they must feel when that’s the way they make a living. i almost feel guilty capturing them in the act.

  3. Ralph says:

    Mike: Actually, I’ll bet your Dad wishes he was there with you, and I know I wish I was there! I still love that kind of travel, even at this age. Have lots of fun, send me some specific pictures if you get a chance!

    • Michael Roy says:

      wow, ralph, fancy seeing you here! i’ve actually run into quite a few 60-something chinese cyclists on the road out here, so the way i see things you’ve got no excuse! think you can convince my dad to join us?