Bingzhonglue: The Valley of the Irises

23 May 2010

7.10am: The sun is about to burst over the ridge where a dusting of snow clings.

Morning mist rising from the gorge

The valley below has filled with a thick white mist, rising from the Nu Jiang, and swells is the curve spreading upriver with a gentle breeze.

It dissipates above the road and the rice-paddies and buildings of this straggling town are spared.

Ubiquitous pylons and morning mist over terraces

The journey up through increasingly narrow gorges was spectacular, ending in a narrow valley with mountains both sides. This town is an absolute delight. There is a temple on the ridge with prayer flags – something I haven’t seen since Zhongdian, but although we are more remote and two mountain ridges to the west of Zhongdian, there appears to be very little Tibetan influence here.

Bingzhonglue is a pretty one-street town perched high above the roaring river. It’s also exceptionally warm although the ridges are dusted with snow – we had expected it to be quite cold, as it’s on the same latitude as Zhongdian which Jason says has been cold and damp for weeks.

I met an American woman – about my age I suppose – travelling on her own up here and she was after Yak butter tea. She eventually found it, reporting that there were only about two Tibetan cafes here. She was unlike the more ardent and hardened American trekkers I’ve come across, and while obviously outgoing and adventurous, was not what I would call intrepid, and was clearly hoping to hook up with other travellers. It is much more reassuring – and perhaps safer. She was obviously curious about our expedition and did wonder if she might tag along – an obvious question. I referred her to John – not my place to make that sort of decision – but I suspect I know the answer.

9.20am It’s taken me 10 minutes to log onto my blog and we’re off in a few minutes… I don’t think it worked. (It didn’t.  I seem to spend a great deal of time trying to post my blog and photographs, with sporadic success. I’m updating this on 3 June from Dali where I have more time at my disposal.)

Yak butter tea in a blender

We breakfast in one of the two Tibetan cafés and I see yak butter tea made in a blender for the first time – a far cry from Nidzu where we ate with a Tibetan family during the Horse Festival last year.

But their freshly baked “cakes” of bread are delicious.

We drive to the end of the village onto a rough round, but just a few minutes later a landslide prevents vehicles passing so we continue on foot.

Landslip blocks road

It’s a glorious sunny day, about 85o F, a few wispy clouds forming over the snowy ridges. We see (smell first) a wonderful small-flowered white rose, and a few irises: Iris tectorum.

Iris tectorum and snowy peaks

Then, as we head further up the valley, hundreds of them covering the banks alongside the white water as it splashes and crashes down the mountain over huge boulders.
We head up a side gorge, the path fading out in a marshy meadow, heavily grazed by cattle, and have to backtrack. I slip, ending up with two sodden feet.

Looking back down the valley

Polygala arillata

I am astounded to find what I believe to be Polygala arillata with its pretty yellow flowers hanging down in clusters – familiar to me as I had painted it at Kunming Botanical Gardens last year, and now wonderful to see in the wild. The small tree was growing down a slope next to a pair of tombs settled quietly amongst more of the beautiful purple irises.

We lunch under a walnut tree next to a grove of Magnolia rostrata – Tibetan bread, crisps, processed chicken legs, fruit and water.

Local traffic

We’re just of the “main road” with a small village nearby, and with the thoroughfare blocked to motorised traffic, there’s a steady stream of activity either on foot or with horses and donkeys.

Our presence attracts attention and smiles from local people, and communication is helped greatly by having our own “local” guides.

Locals are very friendly

Rested, we head off again along the water channels, or levadas as they are know in

The greater part of a snake..

Madeira, and up into the hills, very occasionally seeing more interesting fauna than flora…

It’s hot, and getting hotter, and I have only brought a litre of water. We leave the levadas and clamber up a steep path, but the vegetation doesn’t seem to change and I really don’t have the heart for any more slogging in 90o heat.

Prayer flags near village

So I call it a day – but not before I take a detour up a steep path towards prayer-flags and a small mountain-top village to explore.

Village farmhouse

I then head back down to the road, with another hour’s walk back to the hotel, making my few sips of water last.

As I round the bend towards the town I’m minded of those Westerns where the cowboy staggers down the street under the searing noon-day sun, gasping for water and collapsing in a dusty, back-lit, slow-motion heap…