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The loneliest road in China
A trek through Yunnan’s Gaoligong Mountains on a thousand-year-old road with more donkeys than vehicles
Wang Wenxin, my 61-year-old guide, slows to a halt.
The midday sun is high in the sky and we've already been walking for five hours, sometimes following clear signs along the thousand-year-old paved road, at other times carefully trying to trace the correct route among the trees and streams.
It's not easy.
Once an important supply route for caravans of mules carrying exotic goods to and from southwestern China, the ancient trail we've been following for close to a week through Yunnan’s Gaoligong Mountains has long been superseded by other roads.
Largely abandoned and unkempt, its paving stones are overgrown with grass or missing completely. Trees lie across the path and few markers can be seen that hint at the rich history of the road.
It has long been known as the Ambassador Road since early dignitaries used the route to cross back and forth between British-ruled Burma (now Myanmar) and China.
More donkeys than cars
While modern visions of China center on vast smoggy cities, crowded streets, jammed highways and markets crammed with fake goods, in the far reaches of the country there are still ancient roads that wind through quiet countryside.
Roads where visitors are far more likely to see a donkey than a scooter or businessman.
Visitors are far more likely to see a donkey than a scooter or businessman— Kit Gillet, author of article
The Ambassador Road is one of these near-forgotten trails.
Stretching hundreds of kilometers through a UNESCO biosphere reserve in Yunnan, it passes through picturesque hamlets, towering forests and flirts dangerously with imposing rivers, carrying with it a life that today looks strikingly archaic compared to the chaos of China’s urban centers.
The Gaoligong mountain range is about as far as you can get from the big city life in Beijing and Shanghai.
Days walking the trail are followed by nights sleeping in farmhouses and drinking rice wine in the company of farmers who have acted as innkeepers along the ancient road for centuries.
While the road dips into valleys and the occasional market town, for the most part it snakes its way over mountain passes and through barely inhabited landscape.
With only a scattering of villages and many hours of walking between each small hamlet, even today travelers are forced to rely on the kindness of strangers.
Few tourists venture here, and I simply pick up our casual guide, Wang, at Yongping, one of the first towns on the journey. He'll stay with us until we reach Tengchong, 200 kilometers to the southwest and close to the Myanmar border.
Even though Wang has walked the route twice before, he still has trouble picking out the correct route at points, and with only a handful of people crossing our path each day it's no easy task getting directions.
Despite mountain peaks marking most of the trail’s length, Europeans using the road in days gone by described the “rolling hills of the plateau,” “purple orchids and white dog-roses in the lanes” and “hedges of scarlet Cydania japonica broken here and there by masses of pink peach-blossom, and everywhere green leaves unfurling.”
Much of the same landscape remains, and it is still possible to bath in natural hot springs with local villagers, stare up at icy waterfalls, traverse rickety wooden bridges and buy fruit and vegetables at Sunday markets.
Yet the road is long forgotten by most and now serves only the few people who continue to live along its path.
The larger towns in the valleys receive their goods and agricultural products from trucks along new cement roads, everything sped up in accord with the pace of modern life.
Perhaps this just makes it all the more charming for the few visitors who have the time to walk sections of this lonely road.
“I think we went the wrong way a few kilometers back,” Wang eventually says, after taking some time to determine the correct path of the Ambassador Road.
He shrugs his shoulders and leads me back down the path we had just come -- back through the endless yet stunning fields, peaks and trees.
The best way to get to the Ambassador Road is to fly to Kunming, and then take a bus to Yongping.
From Yongping, the trail winds its way down to Tengchong and beyond in the far southwest of China.
First published February 2011, updated November 2012