In part one we travelled from our home in Lijiang, Yunnan Province, to Chengdu, the vibrant capital of Sichuan and far into the Tibetan heartland. We ascended to a height of 4500m aided by a tractor and we pick up part two at 4am in the morning.
Knowing that astronomical dawn was near, sleep evaded me; of course, its ironic that I got comfortable and warm for the first time all night, and as the walls of the tent begin to glow slightly with those first kisses of predawn light, I have to fight the internal demons to get dressed up in as many layers as I can, and go out once more to face the world.
I emerge from the tent and look around once more at the seriously shabby state the abandoned house is in; we’d done the best we could to tidy up, but one could only reflect on the former glory of this home. It was built as a temporary rest stop for Tibetan pilgrims who circumnavigate the holy mountains on foot, journeys that can take many weeks. Other such peregrinations as they are known, include Mt Kailash and Mt Manasarovar in far western Tibet, and the three holy peaks in Yading valley, also in Sichuan Province.
Having spent plenty of time in Tibetan homes, I stand and imagine the glowing range, which doubles as house heater and stove; the smell of juniper wood smoke and yak butter, two staples of the Tibetan lifestyle. Now, it’s dark, muddy and soul-less. I flee outside where there are no ghosts.
The hillsides around me are clear of cloud and ringing with the clicking calls of Tibetan Snowcock, a monster-sized relative of Pheasants and Chickens. The last time I had seen these was at 5000m in the Kumbu Valley below Mt Everest in Nepal, and it was great to be among them again. They truly are high altitude specialists, and eek out an existence in this inhospitable climate.
I look south, but Gongga Shan is hidden in cloud, as is the whole valley floor, an impressive temperature inversion, with only the zone between about 3000 and 5000m clear, which at least gave me an idea of where I was.
Purple-flowered dwarf Azaleas blanketed areas of the hillside, with the occasional Gentian studding the short turf that represented about the only vegetation to be seen. Most of the rocky outcrops were broken and shattered, stark evidence of the bitter climate that pervades the area for most of the year; the nearest trees lay over 1000m below me.
Our horses have wandered off along the broad ridge, looking like they have been feeding all night, and a herd of Yak share the sparse slopes. It transpired that it was this herd that had stumbled their way into our refuge in the night and had caused quite a stir until our Tibetan horseman had ushered them out. The Yak are quite large with fierce-some horns, and they make the horses nervous, setting off their neck bells jingling in fear.
I give the yak a wide berth, as they can be unpredictable, and I always prefer to avoid confrontations with half ton wooly horn wielders.
The others get up and start fiddling with breakfast, and as if on cue the clouds begin to fall from the sides of Mt Gongga and I am staggered by the shear size of it. It’s a shapely peak, for such a brute, and it’s icy slopes tower over 3000m above my own elevated position. By now the light is quite harsh, with the sun actually in line with the peak, but I am simply delighted to be able to soak in this phenomenal view. I make some images juxtaposing the peak with the fog, horses and even a yak, and soon enough we have to set off on a 7 hour hike down the valley to our next night accommodation.
Our guide can hardly walk after yesterdays fall from the trailer and he hobbles weakly down the trail. His slow pace allows me to take my time and take more images, watch Snowcock fly over our heads and generally soak up the high altitude ambience. Juanli and I both say we’ve never felt so good at 4500m before, full of energy and a healthy apetite. We stride through the hills happy and chatty stopping each other as we see new images in our minds; abstracts on the opposite hillside, and as we drop down, beautiful Rhododendrons and lush forests.
As we continued our descent, the looming presence of Gongga Shan became even more apparent, as was just how beautiful this valley was. Surrounded on all sides by giant glaciated peaks and shrouded in thick natural forest, punctuated with some of the most profuse Rhododendron trees I have seen in China. Not quite as large, nor impressive as those of the Tadapani Area of Annapurna in Nepal, but stunning all the same. And at the bottom, nestling in a small patch of fertile soil were three Tibetan houses. Squarly cut stone, ornate windows, secure little compounds with stout walls and gates, more perfect than any upmarket suburban home I have seen anywhere in the world.
Our plan had been to stop here for a late lunch then climb back up to a monastery at 3900m, but with an eye ever skyward I was aware of a gradual deterioration in the weather, and coupled with our guides virtual immobility, decided that this last homely house west of the misty mountains would make a perfect place to spend the night.
Our hostess, the glorious and gracious Qiong Qiong cooked us fried tomatoes and eggs in soup with a bowl of plain rice, and honestly, no meal ever tasted so good. Food in these valleys is simple and relies heavily on what is in season, or can be cured and dried. We off-loaded some of our fresh fruit and veg on her to supplement her larder for which she was grateful, showing immense humility. Sitting around the blackened range that is the centrepiece of any Tibetan home we were as content as fat cats on the hearth.
Our Tibetan guide told us of a secret lake he knew about an hours walk away and the three of us decided to take a look. We were all a little foot sore and tired, but when asked if there was any climbing involved he smiled and said no, it was downhill all the way. I laughed and laughed until he realised that I was well-aware that downhill all the way meant uphill all the way back!
The clouds were thickening overhead and a few spots of heavy rain began to fall, but we were making our way through ancient forest that provided enough shelter, and the sites and smells were captivating. Lichens hung heavily from the gnarled branches and birds sang from every thicket. We left the Giant Laughingthrushes behind as we left the scrub, but these huge gregarious birds are somewhat ubiquitous in these mountains, with more character than a Scottish meat pie.
We had been hearing stories of bears in these woods for a few days, but as with most large mammals in China our chances of seing one were slim, but when we came upon a tree stripped of its bark up to a height of some 7 feet it was clear there were bears in these woods and this was fresh sign. As we walked through the dim forest following no path but our own our guide talked of the numerous bear attacks in the woods around there. One man had his nose and ear ripped off and another only managed to escape with his life by jumping off a cliff after a bear had dragged him up a steep slope.
By this time, the three of us were walking on eggshells and were mildly shocked that the Asiatic Black Bears were so potentially ferocious. Then again, if someone was after my paws and gall bladder, I think I’d be ill-tempered too!
We didn’t linger long, the weather was turning and the rain looked set to become more persistent and we headed back to the house. I was really tired and could barely eat, and headed to bed at 19:30 and fell instantly into a long sleep. Down at only 3400m it felt like bliss, all that lovely rich oxygen.
Feeling really fresh we set off the next morning on the 19km hike to the road where our driver would pick us up. The horses were loaded up with our rucksacks and we carried our own camera gear and tripods. All the rain overnight had flooded the path and there were tiny earthworms wriggling uncomfortably all over it. I was stunned when Qiong Qiong, her husband, two grandchildren and our horseman began collecting them; holding out there wet hands to show me the small creatures. I was actually at a loss as to what they were doing until they took them over to the edge of their pasture and released them. Tibetans value life in a pure way, these animals were in distress and may have drowned, they saved them, simple.
Why can’t the rest of the world be like this?
Of course, moments like this are hugely provoking, and it was in a thoughtful mood that we began our walk out. Instantly we climbed over a Rhododendron encrusted ridge and into paradise; a wide green valley stretched into the far distance, our path laid out as a green ribbon, weaving between the giant trees and flowering shrubs. The sun was playing hide and seek with the clouds and it was perfect walking weather.
Hour after hour the path unfolded before us, pristine, clean, unblemished. An occasional Tibetan house, with its familiar architecture, even a small school for the couple of dozen kids who live in the valley, where they learn Tibetan, not Mandarin.
I stopped often, composing images of fallen Rhododendron blossoms on the forest floor, or a blue glacial pool beneath a gnarled old tree. It was simply a day to walk and to see and to think. Even now as I sit writing this in my warm, clean office at home, I physically long to be back in that valley. Life is simple there; hard, surely, but with a clarity that is probably history in the “civilised” world.
By 15:00 we have reached the road, our driver is sat there waiting patiently. We pass small items of use from our packs to our Tibetan horseman, who will make his way back up the valley and stay the night alone with his horses in some remote camp. We pile into the car and start the bumpy ride down towards our hotel and some hot springs. I take off my shoes and my feet swear loyalty to me forever, but no sooner have they thanked me the back suspension breaks and we are stranded roadside.
There are no roadside services here, and to my amazement the driver has a spare! He’s a tiny, weedy little guy in a suit, but he sets to and gets down on the muddy track and begins to loosen wheel nuts and jacking up the car. He professes to have never changed one before, but he’ll give it a go. The rain comes on and we sit on rocks and watch. After an hour his progress is slow and as the first truck appears we flag it down and at the insistance of our guide the three “clients” leave the scene and we’re on our way out.
Sichuan province is lush and verdant at the lower elevations, and as we descend we enter thick bamboo forest; massive canyon walls soar over us, vast and unfathomable. Waterfalls plunge over the rims, many thousands of feet in single strands. And always, we head down, down.
In an hour or so we reach our hotel and head directly for the hot spring baths. Juanli and I lie back, the mineral rich waters easing the strain from our legs and soaking away the weariness. It all suddenly feels quite incongruous, that morning we’d been staying with Qiong Qiong in a secluded alpine valley, no phones, no internet, and now we were luxuriating in a hot tub with the prospect of a good dinner on the near horizon.
The driver and guide roll in about 9pm having managed, after 6 hours of wet, uncomfortable work to change the broken suspension. The car now makes some seriously weird noises, but it gets us back to Chengdu. During the work our guide, whose leg was only now beginning to improve, had cracked his head open and had a nasty welt as a momento. It really hadn’t been his trip.
And now, as I sit in my office, a blue sky outside and early morning light playing on Jade Dragon Snow Mountain that looms over Lijiang, I begin to look forward to heading back to that valley for a longer stay in October. To explore hidden ways, the monastery and the Gongga Glacier, and perhaps even see an Asiatic Black Bear. But for now, we’re heading off again on Thursday to the mountains a little closer to home, trekking into the Baima Massif on the Tibetan border, and hopefully some more images and a few stories to tell on our return.
If you missed Part One – CLICK HERE