Burmese Days

Let this darkness be a bell tower

and you the bell. As you ring,

what batters you becomes your strength.

– Rainer Maria Rilke

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I had heard from my anonymous tipster (I never asked his name) in Nuodeng that the youth hostel in Bingzhongluo was a pretty hopping place, so all the way up the Nujiang I was imagining that it would be full of hip Chinese twenty-somethings. Not so. I rode 350km up the Nujiang and the only people I met were these Israeli doofuses: Shachar, Zuri, and Gilad. The first two are taking a kind of gap year to celebrate and unwind and find themselves again after their three-year mandatory army service. The third is a bit older, but still younger than me. And he has a Master’s in astrophysics. We bonded that night over dinner, beer, cards, and peanuts, and I decided to join them on their trek the next day. To the Dulong valley, only reached by road in 1999!

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The trip started at the point where the Dulong (pristine blue) feeds into the Nujiang (nasty brown). I don’t quite know how to account for the difference, except to say that on the third day of our trek it rained pretty heavily, after which the Dulong also went murky.

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People in town wanted to charge us $25 each for the ride out, so we decided to give hitchhikng a shot. Within an hour, all four of us were crammed into the back seat of a truck delivering snacks and other supplies to the valley. As we ascended the mountain along the nice, newly-paved road, Shachar asked me if I would bike on a road like this. I scoffed and gave him my usual line: if a truck can make it up, so can I. With my tent, my gorp, and a few bottles of water, I can go anywhere.

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I’m sure I sounded less like a badass and more like a dumbass thirty kilometers later when the rains came. Worse, the asphalt gave way to a road made of equal parts stones, potholes, and rivulets. The subsequent nausea-inducing jostling went on for a solid three hours.

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It was all worth it. On the way, we were treated to what must have been some of the most untouched scenery in the country.

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Intense mountains; the road reached its highest altitude at about 3500m, but these mountains towered ahead of and above us.

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Entirely non-deforested mountain slopes. Seriously, untouched. If there are any wild animals left in China, they almost certainly live here.

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Honestly, breathtaking stuff. At one point, a thought hit me, in that sort of way where the content is nothing new but for whatever reason its significance, its emotional impact, feels about ten times greater: imagine how much CO2 these trees must be breathing in. Imagine how much good they must be doing the world. Imagine how f***ed we’ll be once they’ve all been turned into tabloid newspapers and disposable chopsticks. I guess I know what I need to do with my life now.

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The trees had a similar effect on Shachar: he told me later that at the point where we passed an asphalt plant on top of the mountain, he got so angry that his eyes teared up. It was the first time in his life he’d had such an experience. How could people be participating in the desecration of something so grand? I thought then of this post’s epigram, a poem of Rilke’s that my friend Kristin sent me long ago. When confronted with the destruction of our world, feelings of grief are natural, even appropriate. They should be felt, acknowledged, accepted, and then acted upon.

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Thanks to the successful hitch, we made it to Dulong before nightfall and began the actual hiking the next day. Our destination: a village called “maku,” which Gilad had heard was special. People reported it as being somewhere between seventeen at forty kilometers away.

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Making coffee out of river water.


Oh, I’m sorry, were you trying to photograph something?

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Staring at, or into, or through the water; scooping it out of the river with my cup and watching the light patterns that formed at its cusp when I poured it back in; listening to it break around rocks; another one of those thoughts came to me, so banal in content but momentous in significance. THERE IS SO MUCH WATER HERE. So clean, so smooth. Bound to travel so far, to sate so many. Utterly amazing.

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A few km later. You motherfuckers. HOW CAN YOU DO THIS? How is it that the people who have been living next to, and probably off of, this river for generations have so quickly gone from thinking of it as a sacred provider to thinking of it as a nice place to dump their trash? I blame corporations. I blame consumer capitalism. I blame the USA. I blame myself.

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We walked and walked and walked – thirty kilometers or so. Immersed in the splendor.

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Shortly before nightfall, we reached the little village of “Dudu” home to about twenty-five families, all living in bamboo houses like this one. Oh, and guess what was booming in the background? That’s right, 오빠 강남 스타일!

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He looks cute, but what he’s really trying to do is jump out of his pen. Poor little guy. Makes me wonder if there’s a single happy pig on the entire planet.

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An open stone fireplace in the middle of the wooden hut. Apparently they don’t make mistakes. First, they served us boiled wild bamboo shoots, which we dipped in salt. They were floppy and rubbery, but actually pretty good. We stuffed ourselves, only to realize that they were just the appetizer! Next came a bunch of normal Chinese-style fried vegetable dishes – potato, bamboo, pork, etc.

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Towards the end of the meal, some youngins came in to hang out with us. The owner of our “hotel” was only 35, but his accent while speaking standard Mandarin Chiense was so thick that I could hardly converse with him. These kids spoke flawlessly, though. They told us that they could go to Burma whenever they felt like it, and that they didn’t have any communication problems because the people on the other side were the same ethnicity as them – “Drung” tribe. They said the Chinese Drung have it better than the Burmese, but didn’t explain further. They also said they’re Christians! Apparently when Mao took over he pushed the missionaries out of the areas inhabited by the Han majority. They tried to go to Tibet, but the Tibetans had strong enough Buddhist convictions that the missionaries had no choice but to head south and pester the minorities in the Nujiang and Dulong vallies. Moral of the story: these fifteen year olds don’t smoke or drink on Sundays.

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We set off again the following morning, hoping to hike another ten or twelve kilometers to reach “Green Orchid Village,” reknowned for its waterfall and its border corssing with burma.

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The whole valley was filled with these fern trees, which one random guy we met kept referring to as “gemlem.” It took me a while to decode his Yunnan dialect – he was saying “Gong long,” dinosaurs. Maybe meaning that these plants were prehistoric? Jurassic, even? Given valley’s remoteness and the plant’s apparent hardiness, I can kind of believe it.

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The path took us downhill until we were just about even with the river.

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Never had I seen the likes of this: banana trees ten meters tall

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Nor had I seen this: a pet monkey on a leash.

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Village boys, drunk before lunchtime.

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This is a chicken.

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This is a chicken on meth.

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As much as I hate to use the phrase, I kind of have to: this may have been the shoddiest bridge ever. One wooden plank wide; maybe two, depending how you count the cracked ones. Held together by something pretty close to piano wire. At least it wasn’t fishing line.

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The falls. Actually, compared to so many other things we passed on the way, not really that inspiring.

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We met some nice Chinese police officers at the base of the falls. They said that we could walk the remaning 3km to the Burma border if we liked, but that we should be careful, since the Burmese guards have a reputation for kidnapping tourists, marching them into the river, and then demanding money to spare their lives. If you don’t have money, they give you a phone and make you call a friend. I don’t know if this is true or not, but it does match up with a story someone else told us. We decided not to press our luck.

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We headed back to the village to have lunch, at which point the five drunk brothers ambushed us and insisted we partake in the festivities. We all said thanks but no thanks, several times, but to no avail.

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Is it cruel of me to post these photos? I don’t know, they insisted I take them.

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After we’d had as much as we cared to, we bowed out and walked back to Dudu. For three hours. In the rain. Zuri picked up two discarded umbrellas. I tore a giant leaf off of a banana tree. Neither worked well.


The next day, we hitched a ride home. Our car stopped in this village full of creepy looking kids.


Before long, Zuri started running around and picking kids up, after which all hell broke loose. Backed into the corner, he pointed at me. “Go get Mike!”


We had no choice but to start flinging them around like bags of rice.


“Who wants to be an airplane???” Oh, the joys of little tikes. Tykes? When I told them I was tired, some of them changed their tune from “bei wo!” (“carry on the back or shoulder” me) to “wo bei ni!” (I’ll “carry on the back or shoulder” you!). My Chinese is good enough to call them all horses and order them to bring me home.

Thus ended our excursion in Dulong, perhaps one of the most remote regions in China.

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Last but not least, a photograph of a porcupine.

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4 Responses to Burmese Days

  1. 썌키 says:

    That is all just pure awesomeness.

  2. Echo Liu says:

    it’s nice to read your trip story when i’m confused of my life.wish you another good trip.

    • Michael Roy says:

      Echo! Glad I can be of some help, though I don’t really understand how it’s possible…I guarantee you I am just as confused as anyone else. All I know is there are a few things I hate for sure: 1)harming the environment and 2)working jobs I don’t really care about. 3) would probably be stinky tofu.