Trek with the last caravan into Tibet. A traditional caravan journey is like a slow passage to our past and the wild west.
The road from Bingzhongluo into Tibet is part of the route known as “Tea Horse Route”. In the old days, Tibetans routinely operated mule and horse caravans on arduous long journeys from here to Lhasa, and beyond, to Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim and India. Tea was the main commodity carried on such caravans. These caravan routes became vital arteries for cultural, economic and religious exchange between Tibet and South Asia as the tea trade flourish; just as the Silk Road was, connecting China and Europe.
The return of Caravans
Today the old, perilous Tea Horse Trail between Bingzhongluo and Cawarong (also called Tsawarong, Tibet’s easternmost town) has been abandoned and replaced by a dirt road winding through the spectacular Nujiang Gorge. One can even catch a truck to Cawarong.
When we arrived at Bingzhongluo in May 2005, the road to Cawarong had been blocked by landslides since February. No modern vehicules can pass through. Horse caravans were in operation again.
In Bingzhongluo, we saw groups of horses and mules milling at street corners waiting to set off on the next journey north. The caravan drivers would spend a couple of days in Bingzhongluo to stock up on groceries and goods to be delivered and animal feed for the journey.
Costs: In May 2005, it cost Y100/per day for travelers to rent a horse or a mule from local farmers. The caravans that carried provisions from Bingzhongluo to Cawarong charged locals each pack Y2.40 per kilo per journey. We negotiated with several Tibetan caravans and managed to get the price offered by Gina’s Caravan at Y160 for our backpacks (Y4.00 per kilo). Traveling with the caravan also allowed us to pace ourselves over the three days as well as knowing where to camp for water access.
Walking with the horse caravan can be a tiring experience. Unlike human, the horses/mules only rest twice a day- at midday (lunch) and at night when they stops. In between they do not stop walking. Therefore unlike trekking where one would normally take a break after a couple of hours, there are no such opportunities with the caravan; it can be quite tiring.
The caravans do not necessarily stop for the night in a village. In fact often they stop close to a water source and just sleep along the roadside.
Access: The trek starts at Bingzhonglou (see Getting there and away) in Yunnan and ends at Cawarong in Tibet. When the dirt road between Bingzhongluo and Cawarong is open, you can walk to Cawarong and catch a truck back to Bingzhongluo.
Walking time: We traveled with one of such caravans from Bingzhongluo to Cawarong for three days. The distance between these two places is about 80 km.
Related Map(s): Around Bingzhongluo , Yunnan Nujiang Gorge. Photo Album: Click this link.
The trek follows the Nujiang and passes a few pretty villages on both its banks. All these villages sit on pieces of fertile land created by the sharp turns of the river. Wheat is the main crop. The route traverses some high mountain slopes, pretty and deep gorges as well as rocky wastelands.
There is only one through road from Bingzhongluo to Cawarong and so there is very little possibility of getting lost.
Map: Around Bingzhongluo
Day one: Bingzhongluo -> Zhongding Village (Nujiang Crossing) -> Stone Gate -> Wuli -> a Mill -> Duna Bridge -> Qiunatong . (Around 20 km).
It actually takes 4 hours to walk from Bingzhongluo to Qiunatong. We recommend you to stay overnight in Qiunatong in order to have enough time to enjoy the stunning landscape as well as to discover two beautiful villages: Wuli and Qiunatong. See Qiunatong pictures , Don’t miss the old Tea-Horse Trail wedged in the cliff near Wuli. (see below picture)
Day two: Qiunatong -> Yunnan/Tibet Border -> Songta Village -> Longbu Village (Around 30km, 8 hours).
The walk is long but easy. Accommodation in Longbu village is possible, staying with villagers. We camped outside the Longbu Village.
Day three: Longbu Village -> Lhakangla -> Flying Stone -> Cawarong. (Around 30km, 8 hours)
From Lhakangla to Cawarong is actually part of the circumambulation (kora) route around Meili Snow Mountains. You can also walk to Aben along the river joining Nujing in Lhakangla. We walked several minutes in this picturesque, sacred river gorge dotted by Tibetan Praying flags.
There are also a few landslide segments; one of them is known as the “Flying Stones” segment, an unnerving wall of small stones in the millions, about 200m wide, and 700 meters high. Caravans pass this delicate segment only in the early morning. Apparently quite a few horses and human were injured by small stones tumbling down from the mountaintop along this segment.
One needs to bring along their own food supplies. The caravan drivers normally cook noodles for lunch and rice for dinner. They bring their own food including vegetables, dried meat and any other condiments. Similarly there are no places to buy drinking water- there are water sources from springs along the route. There are no power supplies either (digicam users please note).