In my heart I am free, to choose, to live and my quest for experiences both challenging and rewarding. I am not by nature a relaxed person, the thin veneer of calm and humour hides a thicker skin of restlessness and a need for activity. Its almost like I have to keep moving, perhaps to the point of fear of stopping. Subsequently, being largely desk bound for 6 months from early December became a daily burden to be endured. Thankfully, I had the challenge of writing, designing and publishing my ebook, Seeing the Unseen – How to Photograph Landscapes at night, but when it was finished, a fresh void opened up before me like a deep pit.
Show a caged Tiger an open door, and without thought it’s out there and heading for the forests before you can say “what stripes?”
When my wife Juanli came into my office last week and said we had a chance to join a small expedition to circumnavigate Gongga Shan in Sichuan Province, I was packing before she’d finished telling me the plan.
Like a kid before Christmas, I was counting days, looking at maps, satellite images and thinking about the trip, and when the Friday evening came and we set off, I was alive and buzzing – my absolute preferred state of being.
Gongga Shan is a giant at 7556m/24790ft, and is the furthest east of the mighty peaks, standing somewhat isolated from anything else so large, although surrounded by over 40 peaks over 6000m. The area is remote and mysterious, and I was excited and anxious to get up there. I had my concerns that the second night was to be spent at 4500m, as it flew in the face of my caution for proper acclimatisation. But, I figured it was only one night, and I’d been a lot higher often.
We flew over from Lijiang to Chengdu on the Friday evening, arriving in the small hours of Saturday morning and made our way to the hotel through a Bladerunner cityscape of flashing red neon and overpasses – already a surreal juxtaposition to the relative calm of our home town in Yunnan. 02:30 and restaurants were full with diners, girls in mini skirts totter on high heels, couples head for waiting taxis. Bedding down at 3am with an alarm set for 05:30 never bodes for a good nights sleep, but we were moving, and that’s all that mettered.
Our plan was to head west all day into the Tibetan heartland to the north west of the mountain, and a long 12 hours it was. The road, which is the main route to Lhasa from the east, is under repair, and delays were frequent. But the landscape of thick bamboo forest and almost unfathomably deep gorges was interesting and the time passed easily. We bought fresh apricots from roadside vedors and sucked the sweet flesh greedily.
That night we stayed in a Tibetan Hotel at 3450m/11318ft, and both slept like logs. Having spent many years in Tibet and SW China I can only say the culture here seems more authentic than in the autonomous region itself; with more permanent settlements. The architecture of these homes is stunning – each one a stone fortress, sufficient to withstand prolonged onslaught from marauding neighbours, certainly a tradition based on a very feudal society.
As we continue our journey by car into the mountains, through villages of intriguing architecture, we immerse ourselves more and more into the Tibetan culture. Faith wraps the people and the landscape like a giant comforter, stuppas, temples, prayer flags, monasteries and Budhist mantras carved into the very hillsides. I can’t think of many other places where the people, the landscape and their faith are so richly intertwined.
We leave the tarmac behind and onto a rough track which we follow for another hour or so, winding our way up to about 3700m. The sun burns out of an azure sky, the thin air offering no resistance, even beside a small gurgling river and surrounded by bushes and forests, it feels like a hostile desert. We unpack our gear and the driver leaves – there is nothing to be seen, just high jagged peaks surrounding the valley in which we have been dumped. After half an hour or so, a man can be seen leading three pack horses, and in time he arrives beside us. He says our ride is on its way.
Soon, the chugging diesel roar of a tractor is heard and one of the Chinese workhorses rounds a corned pulling a rough metal trailer. These things vomit diesel smoke and are both a staple of the culture and a danger to life and limb – their brakes can be unreliable with the driver preferring to maintain momentum once speed has been hard-earned.
We throw our gear in the back and the four of us perch on the metal runners on the side – as we take off its clear this will be a seriously uncomfortable ride. But, we’re climbing, up a broad valley, no sign of human activity to be seen, just birds and a few Yak. We cross the 4000m barrier and some clouds spill over the ridges 1000m above us. Within an hour we are surrounded by mist and the temperature falls through the floor. It had been over 30C while we waited in the valley, and now, as we don fleeces and long trousers it is hanging around 5C.
We make the most of the journey, bouncing along smiling, sharing laughs when suddenly we notice the 4 had become 3 – our guide had been thrown off the trailer and was lying imobile on the track some 100m back. We rush to his aid and thankfully he’s fine, but has badly knocked his leg, which plagues him for the rest of the trip.
Arriving at the 4500m high pass, we can see nothing, no view, just a chilling fog and a strong persistant wind. Its an unforgiving spot, and we begin to explore the abandoned Tibetan house as a possible shelter for our tents. Without windows or doors its a mess inside, horse shit, yak shit, plastic bags and bottles – but it still looks better than pitching the tents outside. We clear up as best we can, piling the garbage in one corner and get the tents up. It’s not going to be a comfortable night.
The tractor departs and the four of us plus our Tibetan horseman settle in, building a fire out of damp wood, but it’s a smoky affair and we soon put it out, the minimal warmth overcompensated by choking to death.
Suddenly, it brightens slightly and we rush outside to see the cloud clearing about us, giving us a brief look at the terrain we were in. I grab off a couple of shots and feel enthused that we may still yet have a clear sunset, but alas, within a minute or so the cloud billows up again out of the valley and we are once again swamped. If anything its worse than before and the rain comes in earnest.
We cook up a meagre meal of rice and veg and as the weather continues to deteriorate with thunder, lightning and giant hail stones, and we head into the confines of our sleeping bags by 18:30. We’re in the head of the storm that is torturing the valley far below us.
It is a long night, thankfully with no adverse symptoms of altitude, but the cheap tents and ground mats we’ve been provided with make it impossible to be warm or comfortable. The wind and mist find their way into every crack and we shiver together for the long hours. At some stage, a crash and a huge bellowing rock us awake and we realise something(s) large and unwelcome are in the confined room with us. We lie still and mildly terrified, scared to breathe. We hear shouts from our Tibetan guide and shortly all again is quiet.
At 4am I get up to explore the weather; the Milky Way is visible to the west, but no moon and heavy cloud makes any thought of night photography impossible. All is quiet, in this land of Wolf, Bear and Lynx the mountains are a wild and remote place. I return to the sleeping bag for another hour waiting for enough light to see by.
In the next instalment we continue our journey into the most beautiful valley I have ever been to, where more misfortune befalls our poor guide.
CLICK HERE to read Part Two