Monkeys and Magic Men

Monkeys and Magic Men

by Duncan Collis, March 2002

The Nu Jiang
Duncan Collis recounts his adventures on an expedition to Nujiang in China's Yunnan Province with the Hong Meigui Cave Exploration Society.

I took another long and, I hoped, appreciative-looking drag on the Chinese cigarette I'd been given--my fourth that morning. To my left, Anthony was doing the same and trying to suppress a grimace. Non-smokers under normal circumstances, we'd been convinced by other expedition members that refusing smokes would offend our hosts, who we hoped could tell us about cave entrances. So for the good of the expedition we were doing our best impressions of chimneys.

I'd travelled out to China with Anthony Day and Julia Bradshaw, arriving a day late in Hong Kong thanks to the vagaries of Aeroflot. Following a hectic dash to Guangzhou to catch an internal flight we met up with Claire McElwain and Erin Lynch in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province in southwestern China.

Horse parking outside our hotel (the dilapidated one next to the posh Ecomamic)

We spent Christmas Day negotiating the Chinese public transportation system. 5 hours on a minibus to the popular backpacker destiation Dali, was followed by 8 hours on a sleeper bus to Liuku, a bustling town on the Nu Jiang (Angry River), close to the China-Myanmar border. It was my first experience on a sleeper bus, and I can say they are a superb form of transport, but the short bunks are obviously not designed with 6 foot tall westerners in mind.

In the wee hours of Boxing Day, our bus rolled into Liuku and we quickly established ourselves in the aptly named 'Hotel Traffic', and then set out for a look around. Anthony and Julia went one way, Claire and I headed off in another direction, and Erin remained close to the toilet. Several hours later we returned to the hotel, not having found any obvious cave entrances, but quite enthusiatic about the huge size of the mountains, not to mention the cloudless sky and warm weather. In the hotel room there was turmoil. After we'd all left, the hotel owner had decided she'd undercharged us, and declared that we'd either have to move to a smaller room or pay more. Erin had spent the entire day arguing the toss in Mandarin with a small posse of Chinese women. We decided to call their bluff and pack up our mountain of kit and leave. They weren't bluffing, so another suitably skungy hotel was located, and we booked in. It turned out for the best, as the guys who ran the place were really helpful and even let us store baggage there later at a very reasonable rate.

Lisu children

The Nu Jiang valley is not a limestone area, but has lenses of marble. We knew there were a few show caves in Liuku, but were not certain about the extent of the cave bearing rock, so our second day saw Anthony and Julia walking upriver (north) to potential entrances visible spotted from the road, while Erin, Claire and I set off up the east bank to check out the terrain and rock. Up the mountain we found nothing but more mountain. Despite ascending 1000m, our only reward was to see about twice as much again rising above us. Anthony and Julia came back having followed a path up towards the suspected entrances, which had run alongside an aqueduct until the aqueduct disappeared into a tunnel and the path became indistinct, ending at a quarry.

The next day, I joined Anthony and Julia on another attempt to reach the dark holes which had eluded them. The holes were only about 70m above the road, but the hillside was at 45 degrees, covered in prickly bushes and very loose. An extremely uncomfortable time was had by myself and Anthony making a direct ascent of this unpleasant slope. The bushes were strong enough to get in the way, but tended to snap when used as handholds, and did nothing at all to stabilize the shingle slope. Eventually we reached the continuation of the aqueduct, and made a final horrible scramble through more unhelpful vegetation to find that our 'cave' was about as long as it was wide and probably man-made. Anthony, our expedition geologist, readily identified shelter's chossy pale-green rock as 'Green Stuff' -- definitely not limestone. On our way down, we met Julia by the aqueduct, which she'd reached by an obvious easy path. Doh! We returned to the hotel scratched, sunburnt and starting to get an inkling of quite how big a task we'd taken on.

Claire at the Liuku showcave

Just outside our hotel we met two Chinese blokes with Claire and Erin. The men worked at one of the show caves in Liuku. It was shut for renovation, but Claire and Erin had wangled a quick tour (as well as a tour of the (very few) sights of Liuku) and had secured a trip beyond the show cave for us all the day after.

Now all we needed was some 'Electric Stone', as the Chinese call carbide. After much searching, Erin and I located a hardware store lit by a carbide lamp. This looked promising, and sure enough they sold us two enormous chunks (~5kg each), and a sledgehammer.

Julia with formations in the Liuku showcave

After a bit of cigarette swapping the next morning we went caving. The showcave was fairly nice, but the streamway we climbed down into was superb -- similar in size to Easegill main drain, but with pleasantly warm air and lots of pretties. It's supposed to be possible to follow it all the way to its resurgence, but near the end walls had been built to artificially raise the water level (we're not sure why) and all too soon we came to a sump. I wibbled my way up an extremely loose climb/sump bypass only to find that the way on consisted of low ducks in very deep water and squeezes. Helmet-off, I passed the first squeeze only to be stopped by a rather more committing one which opened out straight into another deep-water duck, and looked nigh on impossible to reverse. On the way out I opted to do a short free-dive rather than reverse the horrible climb. We were all a bit disappointed not to have done the through trip, but we later learned it would have been gated anway. After the trip we were treated to dinner by the show cave guys and were told that if we came back tomorrow, they'd take us to another show cave which needed surveying.

Drinking tea and smoking fags in the showcave office

We duly turned up the next morning, and to our surprise found a journalist from the local paper wanting to interview us. She asked all the usual questions about which universities we'd attended, and amused us greatly by asking me if I was a professor. (I think it must have been my bushy beard...) During the course of a lengthy conversation in finest Chinglish, one of the show cave guys mentioned caves further up the valley. It sounded as though they might even be unexplored. However, when asked where the entrances were, he seemed reluctant to tell us. Anthony and I smiled lots and sucked hard on our cigarettes, while Erin, Claire and Julia did the talking and eyelid-fluttering. He told us that we wouldn't want to go into the caves because they were certain to contain 'snakes and spiders'. Hmm, not our favourite things to share a cave with, but we were sure we could cope. Seeing us undeterred, they raised the stakes, warning of 'leopards and tigers'. This, we agreed, could be more of a problem, though we didn't really believe that it was very likely, but we assured him that we'd be very careful. He clearly wanted to protect us from some horrible fate, though, and raised his bid once again, finally assuring us that the caves were all home to 'monkeys and magic-men'. It was clear that we could not possibly hope to survive such horrors, and also clear that we weren't going to be told where the entrances were. It also became obvious, gradually, that we were being asked to go back into the same cave as yesterday, and to survey it. They'd already shown us a very good survey of the system, so it seemed like a bit of a duplication of effort. We decided that we'd be better off spending our time prospecting, and so politely declined, made our excuses and left.

Claire checks out a roadside hole

We wanted to inspect the rock at road level and perhaps to talk to a few locals over as much of the 250km of valley between Liuku and Gongshan, the major town to the north, as possible. Clearly this wasn't feasible on foot, and not really possible by bus, so we hit upon the idea using bicycles. We reasoned it ought to be fairly easy to buy bikes in China. We were mistaken.

A whole day was spent scouring Liuku for bikes to buy or rent. The best we managed was a small stock imexplicably for sale in an electrical store. Unfortunately, rather than the traditional and sturdy Flying Pigeons we were hoping for, they had three very small mountain bikes and two slightly larger 'shopper' type machines -- all lightly constructed, to say the least. The shopkeeper spent a long time fixing all the obvious problems, and eventually we took the contraptions for a quick test-run. My steel steed was no worse than any of the others - on its first trip it went less than ten metres before the handlebars came free, causing a few exciting moments, and then after a quick pit-stop, I made it all the way to the opposite side of the road before both pedals ended up pointing in the same direction. Even the shopkeeper admitted the bikes were hopeless. It was clear that a change of plan was needed.

Waiting for the bus in Fugong

The next day we hopped on a minibus for the 8 hour ride to Gongshan. Although we wouldn't be able to study the rock close up or talk to any locals along the way, we hoped to spot karst-like features or even entrances from the bus, and more importantly Gongshan we wanted to see in the New Year in Erin said the best bar in the valley was in Gongshan. However, despite noting a few areas which we all agreed 'looked good', this was based more upon gut feeling than anything else.

Arriving in Gongshan, Erin set off to sort out the hotel while the rest of us were supposed to wait with all the bags. However, no sooner was Erin out of sight than the bus started to pull away with our stuff still on the roof. We all piled back on, and much confusion ensued until the driver finally stopped a few hundred metres up the road, and we retrieved our packs. In the hotel, a novelty awaited us - hot showers!

New Year's Eve in Gongshan

After ablutions, we headed for the local bar to see in the New Year. We quickly found ourselves the centre of attention, with the owners of the bar and the other customers crowding round us and more and more drinks appearing on our table. Of particular note was some evil tasting 100+ proof which we affectionately called 'toilet cleaner'. The evening rapidly degenerated into the usual drunken fiasco, seeing the New Year in several minutes late, and eventually wobbling out into the street to find that our hotel had become one of a row of identical shuttered-up fronts.

New Year's Day was relatively quiet. Anthony, Claire and I walked north up the Nu Jiang valley and found no carbonate rocks. Julia spent most of the day testing the plumbing. However, Erin found that the waiter in one of the cafes we used in town claimed to know someone who would be able to tell us where there were some caves if we came back tomorrow. In the evening, we ended up in the bar again, and once more had to be let back into the hotel in the small hours.

Showcave north of Liuku, second entrance

More quiet pottering around spectacular scenery in the morning confirmed our suspicion that the Gongshan area held little caving potential, but our waiter was able to tell us that his friend knew of a big resurgance entrance some 7 days trek away in a parallel valley. The description included convincing details like a big draught, but the mountain pass was closed due to snow. We felt our best chance of actually finding caves was to go back to where we knew there was the right kind of rock. Therefore we travelled, via an overnight stay in Fugong, back to a showcave about 30km north of Liuku. We split into two groups and walked in opposite directions along the road, to find that the marble extended at least for a few kilometres both ways, and also noted in interesting side-valley about a kilometer north, which contained another entrance to the showcave. We decided to set off early the next morning for a 3 day recce in the hills above the showcave.

Hiking in the sun

Anthony and Julia set off up the side-valley, while Claire, Erin and I intended to go a short distance up the same side-valley then hack up a 'path' Anthony and I had seen the previous day. Unfortunately, the 'path' was just a very narrow landslide--impossible to get up. We backtracked to the showcave, then headed south looking for a path Erin and Claire thought they'd seen. Eventually the path appeared, and we slogged up it under the afternoon sun, ascending over 900m by late afternoon. We arrived in a village of Lisu people, one of the five minority nationalities where the friendly locals soon had us playing basketball, which we lost miserably despite a huge height advantage. Food arrived, and we were given beds for the night, which we felt incredibly guilty about as we were sure that it meant someone must have gone without.

Duncan crossing a stream

After breakfast we continued upwards. For a while we contoured round the hill, following an aqueduct, before following a path up to the ridge. From here we could see back past the Lisu village as well as down into the side-valley that Anthony and Julia had set off up. Claire turned back at this point, as she needed to go and get her visa renewed, but Erin and I continued. To our annoyance, the path refused to go upwards, and dropped down to the aqueduct again, but on the other side of the ridge - conduit passes through a gap in the ridge. We then strolled along the aqueduct for several hours, eventually reaching the point where it was diverted from the river flowing down the side-valley. Here camped, on ground which was frosty even in the late afternoon. We could see a well-worn path heading down the valley, and, reasoning that it ought to continue all the way down to the road, decided to walk down it next morning to make our walk circular.

Lost and exhausted

All went well for about the first hour of walking the next morning, apart from being surrounded by packs of snarling dogs each time the path took us close to a dwelling. It was all starting to look far too easy, when the path started to climb. Soon we were left with a choice between a steep ascent of perhaps 300m, or a lengthy backtrack to look for a lower route. Some time was wasted trying to avoid either of these options, before we resigned ourselves to the slog upwards. At the top, we had a choice of two paths, and chose the one which looked most like it was going in the right direction. It started to descend, and we happily followed it. The descent gradually became steeper, and eventually became very steep indeed, but was well worn, so we continued down it until suddenly it fizzled out in some ludicrously steep fields. This was not funny - no way were we going all the way back up that sodding thing! The best course seemed to be to traverse along the side of the valley, and hope to pick up a proper path. Small tracks appeared and just as mysteriously vanished again. We found ourselves picking our way along almost imaginary tracks which any self-respecting goat would probably have turned its nose up at. At one point we even tried wading across the river because we imagined we could see a path on the opposite bank, but the water was too fast and the rocks too slippery. After much thrashing through bushes, we came to a proper path. It seemed to come from nowhere, but we followed it. Of course, it went to nowhere as well, and we eventually gave up, and bivvied next to large boulder. At least we weren't lost; thanks to the Erin's GPS, we knew not only where we were, but also the location of where we wanted to be, to considerable accuracy.

At long last, an entrance

At first light, we packed up and set off back the way we had come, hoping for a navigational miracle. We took a branch off up a tributary, and then followed the first track which looked like it headed towards higher ground, and were delighted to find that we seemed to have stumbled onto a well-trodden route out of the valley. After an hour or so of encouraging progress, we were caught up by a friendly Lisu couple, who kept pestering us until we let them carry Erin's pack. They walked us back to their village, where they refused to accept anything in return for helping us. Now more Lisu people took over as impromptu guides, who presumably interpreted my laboured breathing as being indicative that I needed nicotine. On this occasion, I firmly declined, but the cigarettes were just offered again more emphatically until I accepted and lit one. Only when we were almost within sight of the road (still some 500m below us) did the men leave us and return up the hill to their village. During the whole of our trek up to this point, we had seen not the slightest hint of a cave entrance, and the rock over 800m above river level was definitely not marble, so we were quite amused to finally spot an obvious entrance in a cliff about 300m up from the river. We strolled into the hut near the showcave just under 24 hours past our agreed meeting time to find Anthony and Julia sitting around drinking tea. They had cut their walk short because they couldn't find a good route up the valley we had just had such fun walking down, and had had a rather dull time waiting for us, give or take a wild piss-up with the showcave staff.

The Nu Jiang recce was all but over; all that remained were bus rides and huge piles of assorted luggage as Anthony and Julia set off to spend a few days as tourists before going back home, whilst Erin and I needed to get to Kunming in order to meet up with Claire and prepare for the next part of the expedition in Chongqing.