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There are however, several other doors into Tibet. "The Sichuan-Tibet Highway, begun in 1950 and finished in 1954, is one of the world's highest, roughest, most dangerous and most beautiful roads," said my guide book. And my mind was made up.
"You've picked a particularly bad time to try going through Tibet's back doors," says Aussie Tony. "This year is the 50th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China and the 50th anniversary of the 'liberation' of Tibet and security has been intensified all along the borders. There are checkpoints every few miles along the roads. The police wear Goretex bullet-proof vests and carry sub-machine guns. Beijing doesn't want any embarrassing incidents to mar the celebrations. July and August are monsoon months when many roads are washed away and landslides can bury your truck.
Also, Ghost Month begins in mid-August, an inauspicious time to travel. In any case, those areas along Tibet's borders that you plan to travel in are much more Tibetan than modern Tibet which has been largely Sinofied over the past two decades. I know, I was in Tibet last year. But, if you don't succeed in entering Tibet, you can always continue north and follow the Silk Road."
“By the way,” he continues, “If you persist in your folly, how do you propose to get through at the border?”
“Well, I look Chinese, and in Chinese clothes I might get through.”
“Hm, you might fool a westerner but you won’t fool a Chinese.”
During the two weeks before my departure I study the clothes, luggage, walk, squat and the way the Chinese held their chopsticks. I begin smoking again. On a bus I needed to look like half the male passengers so I would not be asked any questions. But despite my efforts, I cannot imitate the Chinese aggressiveness. I still have a foreigner's hesitant manner, like a guest in unfamiliar surroundings.
The night before my departure, a young Chinese friend asks to join me. We leave early in the morning for Lugu Lake on the Yunnan-Sichuan border and home of the Mosuo minority. From there we would go north to Kangding on the Sichuan-Tibet Southern Highway.
The road to Lugu Lake climbs over several high ranges with sheer precipices, mist-filled valleys, virgin forests and small villages and towns.
Just before Ninglang there is a checkpoint. I had not expected one before Tibet and am not fully prepared. The police officer boards the bus and asks several passengers for their ID cards. He asks for mine. “I have lost mine,” I say. “Where are you from?” he asks. “I come from Lijiang.”
He orders me off the bus with my luggage, a small typically Chinese carryall. While he searches my clothes, three other officers go through my bag. My pockets provide nothing of interest but in my bag they find my spectacles, polarising clip-ons and contact lens case, all clearly at odds with my image of a peasant.
“Are you from Taiwan?” they ask.
“I am going to Lugu Lake,” I insist.
“Can I or can I not go to Lugu Lake?”
It is the wrong attitude. It is the attitude of a man who has rights and knows them. They give me back my luggage and allow me to continue my journey.
Dotted with a handful of islets, Lugu Lake lies at 2685m above sea level and is as pretty as any Alpine lake. Luoshui village is a collection of wooden Mosuo homes and guesthouses painted in Mosuo style and built right on the lakeshore.
A sub-group of the Naxi and with a population of only 20,000 or so, the smallest minority group in Yunnan, the Mosuo, even more than the Naxi, have retained a strong matriarchal tradition. Females inherit property and in the case of divorce the mother automatically gets custody of the child or children. In a typical Mosuo home, several generations live together, men on one side and women on the other.
The Black Yi were famous for their slave-raids on Han communities and there is a story of a World War 2 American pilot who was captured by the Yi and kept as a slave for 12 years.
When the Red Army marched through the Cool Mountains they formed an alliance with the dreaded Yi and in 1959 the Communists persuaded the Black Yi to adopt a more socialist attitude and freed 700,000 slaves. The Yi are now famous for their fine embroidery, their lacquerware and long-stemmed pipes.
In the morning there is much excitement as the ponies are brought out, their bells jingling in the crisp mountain air. Several ponies are loaded with boxes and suitcases for a 3 day trek around the lake. These are hill ponies, small and compact for climbing hills. My friend Chong Ren and I take the short pony trip through the village and up into the hills for a scenic view of the lake, then back down to the lakeshore for lunch.
“But tomorrow we take a boat to the Sichuan shore. It is the same,” I say.
He nods agreeably but something tells me we won’t be going to Sichuan.
In the morning Chong Ren says,
“Perhaps there are no roads and no buses on the Sichuan shore.
We must go back,” he says with finality.
In the afternoon, Chong Ren wants to go for a boat ride in a Mosuo boat called a 'pig's trough' for its shape. I can make my own enquiries but it would be of no use. For unknown reasons he is unwilling to go further. I cannot drag him all the way to Tibet and I cannot leave him there at Lugu Lake.
The Tang poet, Li Bai, wrote: "The road to Sichuan is harder to travel than the road to Heaven."
I stand on the Yunnan shore and gaze at the Sichuan shore and feel bitter disappointment. I remind myself that there are other ways into Sichuan that are more interesting and besides, wasn’t this Ghost Month and an inauspicious time to travel?
The Sichuan-Tibet Highway: The Northern Route | North-west China : The Silk Road | China : The Centre of the World
Journey to Shangri La: Yunnan | Journey to Shangri La: Dali | Journey to Shangri La: Lijiang
Journey to Shangri La: Zhongdian & Deqin | The Year of the Dragon