Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The final day: over the Sho La Pass (说拉垭口) at last

The uncertainty and seat-of-your-pants planning that had plagued this trek persisted to the very end. When I woke up at the 4250 metre camp above Laide I had no idea if my guide would be continuing with me to the pass - or even if I would cross the pass that day. In truth, I didn't even know where I was. I had no maps, only some printouts of rough screengrabs from Google Earth that suggested I was high up near the final track leading up to the Sho La pass. But as with the previous day, I wasn't sure if the higher plateau was ten minutes away or two hours up the hill. All I knew was that there was still a bit of  a walk up to the pass, which was the highest on this trek at 4815 metres (15,800 feet - higher than I had ever been). I also knew that there was another hut just before the pass, located in an exposed gully. I had this notion that I might walk as far as this hut (two or three hours away?) and stay there for the night, exploring the area around the pass. However, the 'manager' of this camp soon quashed that idea. He was a gruff Tibetan with a thick mane of hair, and told me he also 'controlled' the other hut, but that there was nobody there at the moment. It was locked up and not available to stay in. So it was the Sho La pass or bust.


The Tibetan pilgrims, as usual, were up before dawn and most of them left like a flock of chattering birds before it got light. The few of us remaining got up at 7am and I struggled through the motions of brushing my teeth, washing my face and finding somewhere to go to the loo.


Outside it was cold but the air was still and I got a great early view of the mass of Kawakarpo to the south, peeking up in the clear sky over the treetops. The view didn't last long though - within 20 minutes, thick fog had rolled up from the valleys. After just a few days of trekking my skin and clothes were coated with a thick layer of dirt, grease and dust. I stank of woodsmoke and sweat, and my hair was ragged like a stiff brush. I used a little of the local water trickle to make some coffee and to rehydrate the milk powder for my muesli. The water was brackish, gritty and tasted of smoke. When I asked the hut owner if he had any bottled water he shook his head and pulled out a box of Coca Cola - that was the only fluid he had except for beer. I took a can of each.

We set off up the hill early, with my guide saying he would accompany me as far as the pass - but he would not say what his plans were beyond that. I counted myself fortunate that at least I had someone to carry my pack that far. I reckoned I could lug it myself down the hill after the pass.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that we reached the crest of the ridge fairly quickly, within 15 minutes. There was another primitive log shelter and from here the track levelled out and skirted the side of the slope to the left, and into the final valley that led up to the pass. The track passed through stands of bushes and low shrubs, but there wasn't much of a view. Much of the landscape was still in dark shadows as the sun had yet to rise over the ridge.


As we skirted the contours, the valley below was still filled with cloud, and the landscape became bleaker as we rose above the vegetation line. Now the ground was almost martian - red and grey rocks and scattered boulders. After an hour we reached a small gully with a dried up creek, aside of which lay the final hut. As the owner had told us it was closed up and deserted. No place to stop.
The track took one final twist to the left and we hiked up into the final basin before the Sho La pass. This was it - the final destination.


 As if on cue, the sun started to light up the landscape, bringing a feeble touch of warmth to the red rocks. From here the trail to the pass could be seen zig-zagging upwards, culminating in a distant field of prayer flags. My guide stopped and prostrated himself and clasped his hands together in prayer.


It only remained to pick our way over the boulder field and choose one of the several faint trails that led up to the pass. There was no sign of the other pilgrims and nobody else about: it felt like we had the whole mountain to ourselves. This was the culmination of the trek and my excitement rose as I stumbled up the last few metres and caught site of the passageway through the mass of prayer flags that marked the pass.


A few more steps and I arrived at the pass, feeling triumphant. Walking through the mass of prayer flags, I gasped as I saw the epic view over the other side back down into Yunnan. In theory I was no longer illegal. The Sho La (Chinese: Shuola Yakou, 说拉垭口) pass marked the border between Tibet and Yunnan, the high watershed between the Nu Jiang river and the Mekong (Lancang Jiang). On the Mekong side it was sunny and bright, while much of the Nu Jiang side of the pass remained hidden in shade.


I spent about 15 minutes on the pass, savouring the views and taking a few photos. The views over to the Mekong were awesome - though many of the ridges and valles were already being hidden by rising clouds. Many of the pictures of the Sho-La pass I had seen on the internet showed it to be a bleak and inhospitable place, often covered with snow and ice. I was lucky - I had perfect weather for this crossing, the air was clear and still, if a little chill.


I felt like the conquering hero, having reached this new height of 4800 metres. However, just as I was priding myself on my ruggedness, I heard cooing noises and looked through the arch of prayer flags to see a group of Tibetan women arriving, carrying babies and infants with them. One woman even had a milk bottle and was preparing for a bottle feed. All of a sudden I didn't feel so special. Despite the cold wind the group of women were dressed in light clothing, as if out for a stroll on a spring day, while I was wrapped up in my windproof jacket and with my scarf around my neck. The women parked themselves on the sunny side of the pass and started to feed their kids. I had no idea where they had come from - there had been no sign of them at the hut  and I couldn't fathom where they had spent the previous evening - we were at least a day's hike from the nearest village in the valleys far below.


Meanwhile, my guide was looking restless. He gestured for me to take my backpack, and I paid him off for the last three days of portering and acting as a xiangdao (guide). He'd said he was going to return back down the mountain towards his home near Chawalong, but then a few moments later he asked if I wanted to pay him another day's fee and have him carry my pack down to the Mekong. I declined, and he said he would be walking down that way anyway.


And so I set off alone down from the pass, leaving Tibet behind, back into to Yunnan. It would be all downhill from here. But before I departed I left my can of beer among the prayer flags at he pass, along with all the offerings left by the Tibetans, as an offering to the mountain gods.
The path descended through the stone and scree fields towards the green and brown vegetation of the wide basin below, surrounded by ridges of orange and grey crags. All very beautiful.


As I pounded down the trail with my backpack weighing heavily on my shoulders for the first time, I pondered a  strange and macabre death that had occurred at this spot. About three years previously an eccentric Australian woman called Margo who lived at the Tiger Leaping Gorge near Lijiang had died near the Sho La pass after attempting a solo crossing. As I related in a previous blog post, her body had eventually been found near the pass and it was presumed that she had lost her way and died of exposure after being stranded overnight while unequipped for the extreme weather of the high mountains. Margo had been encountered earlier on the trail by another group of western trekkers who had been doing the kora at the same time. She had acted in a bizarre and aggressive manner towards them and threatened to have them arrested. While she had a guide, Margo had walked ahead and alone for much of the kora, and had gone missing while crossing the Sho La pass.

What puzzled me was how she had managed to get lost. Having just completed the crossing of the pass myself, I couldn't understand how Margo had gone off the trail because it was so obvious and well trodden, except for perhaps the final few hundred metres. I could only guess that she had deliberately gone off the trail or had become disoriented in poor light (and yet the other trekkers say the weather was not bad during the time of their crossing). And as the Tibetan mothers and babies had shown, even a lightly equipped trekker could cross the pass if they were lucky with the weather. It would remain a mystery.


I was luckier than I realised. During the same week of my trek over the 4800 metre Sho La pass, disaster struck a large number of western trekkers in another part of the Himalayas, crossing a similar pass on the Annapurna circuit in Nepal. A sudden snowstorm trapped scores of people crossing the Throng La, and at least 40 were killed by the cold conditions or avalanches.


I had no such problems on my descent. The weather was perfect and the track was good. I regained the vegetation zone and walked amid a pristine landscape of pine and spruce trees, down to a clearing where a small hut with a blue roof had a wisp of smoke coming from within. I didn't go in, but continued down into the forest. The trail followed a stream that grew into a strong torrent as it got further down.


At one point it formed a waterfall, and the Tibetans had turned the pool beneath into a kind of wishing well, with banknotes plastered over the rocks. It was an unlucky site for me, as I left my umbrella behind here and only realised much further  down the trail, by which time I had no intention of walking back down to retrieve it.


The walk down through the forest took many hours, including a brief stop for lunch by the river. I was alone for much of it, having left the Tibetan mothers behind a short distance below the pass.
By mid afternoon, however, I caught up with a group of Han Chinese trekkers who had been doing the kora for the last ten days. They were all very well equipped, and strode purposefully down the track wielding their trekking poles and shooting me quizzical looks as I passed them. I'd been told by the last hut manager that the descent from the Sho-La pass to the road would take four hours. That must have been the Tibetan high speed walking pace, because after leaving the pass at 9am I was still wearily plodding down the gorge at 1pm with no end in sight. I had emerged from the forest and entered a series of dry defiles and gullies, down which the track plunged towards the distant valley bottom.


By now the end was in sight, but still frustratingly far away. I could see the opposite side of the Mekong valley and even some houses and farms there, but each gully led only to another, and I seemed to be getting no nearer to the final strait. The sun was now high in the sky and my Coca Cola energy drink long exhausted. I had no other water so filled my bottles from the river and popped purifying tablets in them. This meant I faced a a thirsty 30 minute wait for the sterilising tablets to dissolve and take effect.


 The path crossed and re-crossed the river many times, and by mid afternoon I had also caught up with the Tibetan monks and nun pilgrims who had shared the hut with me the previous night. My ears popped many times with the gradual loss of altitude before I eventually started to see signs of encroaching civilisation: first a concrete bridge instead of one made of logs, then a water irrigation channel - and then piles of rubbish - and flies.

It wasn't until late afternoon that I turned round a large rockface and saw the end in sight - the road about half a kilometre away. Just a couple more descending loop sections of track and I arrived at a stretch of road by the brown Mekong river. There was nothing there at all to mark that this was the end of a pilgrimage, the terminus for an epic, 10-day journey that had begun in Deqin more than 240km and five high mountain passes away around the circuit. No signs, no markers, no shrines or visitor's books to commemorate the completion of this long walk. There were no signs of life or habitation at the end of the the kora trail - just the brown river and a generic concrete road sign advising to guard against forest fires.


I was lucky in that a couple of minivans had been waiting for the Chinese trekkers, to take them  back to Deqin. I was able to negotiate a ride, and thus avoid tan additional walk along the road to the village of Meili Shi about a mile away. There was little traffic on the road and I didn't think there would be much chance of a lift.

It took about two hours driving to get back to Fei Lai Si, along some spectacular sections of road that twisted up and down the canyon walls alongside the Mekong. But I was too exhausted to appreciate the scenery. I had had ten days of amazing landscapes and that was enough for me. All I wanted then was a cold beer and a lot of not walking. And that's exactly what I made sure I had when I got back to the hostel. It was as if I was in a different universe to the people around me - I was walking on air, having completed the kora.

The next morning I got up at dawn and joined the hordes to watch the sunrise over the mountain ranges. As they oohed and aahed over the first streaks of sun to hit the peas, I just took in the view and tried to comprehend that I had walked right around those mountains over the last two weeks. And felt quite chuffed with myself.


Monday, October 27, 2014

Kawakarpo trekking stage 2: from Gebu La to Laide


So there I was in the middle of nowhere in Tibet, getting away from it all. The scenery was superb and I was miles from away from the nearest road and villages. Sat in a rough camp almost 4000m up a mountain, sharing a fireside with some Tibetans. A million miles from care? Hardly. The long walk up to the camp below the pass had given me time to think. I had somehow assumed that getting physically away from the everyday routine and doing some prolonged and arduous physical activity would take my mind off everyday worries back home. It didn't.


As I dragged myself up the mountain track that day, the only feeling I had was that I had added physical misery and discomfort to my already long list of life woes. And as the sun went down and I settled down to try sleep at the Gebu camp lying on a sheet of old cardboard, I found I still had all the old nagging doubts and worries about bills to pay, kids acting up and stuff about the house that needed fixing. Same old shit, just with nicer views. I managed to doze off but woke up in the early hours with a dull headache and raging thirst and seemed to lay awake for hours on the hard ground, thinking and worrying too much. Being a neurotic hypochondriac with a vivid imagination just made things worse. What if I broke my leg, had a heart attack or got stabbed by some dagger-wielding Tibetan hardcase here? No roads or ambulances hereabouts, and no helicopter Medevac. It would be take two or three days being carried over high mountain passes on a stretcher to get to the nearest roadhead, then a long journey to the nearest rural clinic staffed only by nurses who probably knew less than I did about broken bones and clogged arteries. Don't get sick.

It was a long night and I was glad when the sky started to lighten at 6.30am and I was able to get up and stretch my stiff limbs and get myself some hot water to pour onto one of my Nescafe sachets. The Tibetan pilgrim women were also up at the crack of dawn and quickly packed up and unceremoniously departed while I was still rolling up my sleeping bag.


Stepping outside into the grey dawn, the sky was now clear of clouds and revealed the many different peaks on the horizon. To the west was the bulk of what I presumed to be Mt Kenyichunpo on the China-Burma border. The same range to the north had a more serrated peak, while directly to the north and somewhat nearer was the snowy jagged pyramid of the mountain that dominated the valley we had travelled up yesterday since crossing the Tangdu La pass. I sat round the fire with my guide and shared a bit of momo bread with him before we packed up and said farewell to the storekeeper and his son.


As we set off up the hillside covered with small trees and bushes I soon felt the impact of the altitude on my breathing, and slowed to a steady, lumbering plod while my guide raced ahead. I had thought we were almost at the Gebu Pass and expected it to be just around the next corner. I was to be sorely disappointed: it took me more than an hour before I finally crested the pass. It proved to be something of an anticlimax. Still in pine forest, the Gebu La was nothing more than a mass of prayer flags strewn among the trees. There was no vantage point or sweeping views - just a tantalising glimpse of the western peaks through the branches of the trees.


My guide was waiting over the other side,  as usual sat on the track and playing with his iPhone.
And so after stopping to take a few pictures I continued on down, still in forest. The track descended at a steep angle initially, and it was difficult to concentrate on placing my feet all the time. Going down proved to be just as hard as going up, but in a different way. On the uphill sections I would struggle for breath - but at least it was possible to get into some kind of steady rhythm.


On the downhill section I found I was stepping over a random assortment of large stones and boulder outcrops, balancing on tree roots and descending step-like platforms constantly. It was tedious and frustrating because it was a stop-start kind of motion where I was always having to watch where I was placing my feet, or risk a tumble and broken bones. You can maintain the concentration to do this for an hour or two, but after a while you start to get careless and make mistakes. Dangerous ones. As well as being torture for the knees (even with my umbrella-cum-walking stick) this was mentally trying, and frustrating because I could not afford to let my attention lapse for even a second. When my gaze wandered to some sudden epic view through the trees I would find myself tripping up and tumbling, hands outstretched, onto the rocks. No wonder mountaineers feared the descent than the ascent. Complacency was dangerous.


The trees were festooned in the now familiar 'wizard's beard' of wispy light green vegetation, which the Chinese knew as muliusiu. The ground however, was festooned with an array of litter discarded by uncaring pilgrims: plastic bottles, food wrappers and Red Bull cans.

After some way the track turned rightwards (south) and skirted the contour of the hill, entering sparser stands of tall pines. I glanced occasional glimpses of the surrounding mountain ridges and of the deep forested valley below. In the distance, the peak of Kawkarpu was partly shrouded in cloud, and it dominated that end of the valley. On the opposite side of the valley a rough road had been hewn out of the hillside and followed the course of a river southward. My track ran parallel to this road, only a kilometre or so away as the crow flies, but it would no doubt take all day to reach it by crossing this vast canyon.


The track slowly descended towards a green ribbon of river, and wended its way around huge outcrops  and spurs of the mountains. At one point it passed though a well-irrigated gully in which huge stands of stinging nettles grew, and I had to be careful to avoid brushing against them. Further on I took a serious fall down the hillside when the path beneath my feet simply collapsed and gave way without any warning, causing to to suddenly drop about three metres into the undergrowth. I reflexley grabbed hold of branches and bushes as I fell, which arrested my fall to the river but left my hands badly scratched and also left several painful wood splinters embedded in my fingers. These splinters were to prove a painful distraction for the rest of the day every time I flexed my fingers.


By about lunchtime I had  almost reached the bottom of the valley, and could look back and appreciate the huge drop in height that I had made from the Gebu Pass. Below me I could see an isolated farmstead by the riverside, and even a few cattle grazing in the adjacent field. But I could see no sign of any human activity, either at the farm or on the road opposite. This was a very isolated valley.

My guide had tired of waiting for me and paced on ahead, leaving me alone in this desolate ravine. As I neared the river  the track went steep again and I was faced with a choice of two paths: one went down to the water at a steep angle while the other skirted round a large craggy outcrop and looked very exposed. One slip off the track and I would end up in the raging white waters of the river. I chose the cliff track simply because it looked more well travelled than the path down towards the river,which I guessed might be an access trail for the nearby farm. I must have been right, because after I traversed the rocky outcrop over the river, the track descended straight down a landslide-prone gully in a series of tight zig-zags, until it reached the water's edge. There was no way a track could get around the outcrop at the water level, where the bare rock protruded out into the torrent. From here it was just a short stroll along the river bank through a makeshift 'gate' until a small bridge came into view.

There were a few Tibetan houses on the opposite bank and this was where my guide was waiting for me. A man of few words (well, he couldn't speak Chinese), he was sat in an adjacent shed with a couple of other Tibetans, and he offered me a bowl of instant noodles. After a half hour break it was time to be off again - back uphill and heading towards the next small hamlet called Laide.


The walk uphill to this small collection of about six houses was a tedious reversal of my recent descent, having to regain all that lost altitude. Having become accustomed to going downhill it was a painful re-introduction to the sweating, hyperventilating rigours of going uphill. Walking in the middle of the afternoon when it the hot sun beat down made it all the more difficult.  But this was only a foretaste of what was to come. Laide was just the start of a long and miserable climb out of the valley, towards the Sho La pass.


The following four hours of uphill are boring to describe in writing because nothing much happened. It was the worst part of the whole trek for me because it was sheer hard work with no reward in the form of views or interesting sights. Just hour after hour of slogging up a track through the trees. There was nothing to see ahead and nothing to see below, except for an occasional view back over Laide. Every time the houses of Laide came back into view I felt like I was still on the outskirts of the place and not making any progress. It was a dull and depressing slog, pausing every fifteen minutes to rest, get my breath back and gulp some more dirty water down. One of the worst aspects was that I didn't know when it would end. Maps of the trail being hard to come by and signposts being somewhat lacking, it was impossible to know if the next rest stop was just round the next corner or another two hours up the hill. Sometimes I would think I could see a structure up ahead and think I was about to reach a hut or shelter, only to find it was  a fallen tree or a large rocky outcrop from the ridge. No wonder asylum seekers go crazy and try to commit suicide in detention. It was hard enough facing uncertainty for one afternoon, never mind months and years of it.

When you tell your friends and family that you're going on a Tibetan 'trek' it conjures up images of a jaunty and active bit of walking through the great outdoors. Trek was the wrong word for that afternoon's activity. Trudge would be a better word. Trudging up a brown dusty track that seemed to never end. Again I had a terrible thirst and had consumed both my bottles of water within a couple of hours or so. There were no other water sources on this uphill section,  so I finished the day hobbling in a weak and dehydrated state up to the final destination - the 'Laide Upper Camp' as I dubbed it. Another makeshift shelter for pilgrims, situated some distance below the Sho La pass.


When I first arrived at the hut I was exhausted and in a bad mood, and let out a torrent of abuse at some young Tibetan guys who mocked my final few steps to the doorway. Thankfully they didn't understand English, but I'm sure they got the gist of it. Within ten minutes though, we were good friends and chatting away as I sat on one of the sawn-off logs around the fire at the shelter and knocking back a whole can of cold-ish beer in one go. My rehydration had begun and the hut owner sold only beer and Coca Cola. There was no water to be had at this camp except for a slow trickle coming through a plastic pipe, which went into the cooking pot to be boiled up as kaishui. I settled into a corner, brushed away the spiders and other creepy crawlies in the soil, and put my feet up. Bliss.


The Laide upper camp was already occupied by a few Tibetan pilgrims, including a group of four monks. I was so exhausted that I did not venture out after I arrived, except for a brief sojourn to the door to take a picture of the distant snowy bulk of Kawakarpu in the distance behind the trees. Instead, I just lay on my sleeping bag on the floor and watched the shadows of branches play on the walls. Once again the thought came into my head; "The best thing about trekking is when it stops." Ahead lay the final goal - the Sho La pass. All being well I should arrive there tomorrow. Getting there would make all this pain and discomfort worthwhile. That was why the Tibetans did this pilgrimage, wasn't it? To acquire merit.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The trek continues: from Chawalong to Gebu via the Tangdu La


On the morning of Monday 6th October I woke in the Tibetan house above Chawalong with the usual dry mouth and slight headache from the altitude. I'd slept on a wooden bench in the guest room, and a Tibetan woman came into the room at 7am and appeared to be continually muttering and grumbling about me under her breath until I realised she was reciting a Tibetan religious chant. The woman invited me to share breakfast with the family, which consisted on momo bread and tsampa (butter tea) in the kitchen. They were a very friendly bunch and it felt good to be 'safe' and no longer under threat of being caught, fined and booted out of Tibet.


After breakfast when I asked where the toilet was I was told 'just go anywhere round the back - that's the Tibetan way'. Round the back was the pig sty. A bike was supposed to be taking me up the road and over the minor Tangdu La pass and to drop me off at my jump off point for the trek, Gebu. I had to wait about an hour before it turned up, during which time I roamed around the house exploring the roof where corn, veges and chillis were spread out to dry, and where one of the guys was sifting some corn.


The new bike driver was a friendly and laid-back Tibetan called Dorje, who had agreed to take me to Gebu and then continue as my guide all the way to the Sho La pass, three days beyond. Unfortunately he didn't seem to speak or understand even basic Mandarin, so we had to communicate in sign language. At 8.30am we saddled up and set off up the zig-zag road out of Longpu village. As a driver, the new Tibetan was more relaxed on the motorbike, weaving the bike from one side of the road to the other and singing along to his music as we climbed through pine forest in the cool early morning air. As before I wore my raincoat with the hood up and a scarf around my face to protect from the chill slipstream.


We reached the Tangdu La pass in about half an hour, where we had great views back over Chawalong and the Nu river valley to the south. The road markers said it was 20km from Chawalong. The pass was just an unremarkable cutting through which the road ran across the main ridge, it was forested and there was  a huge ugly electricity pylon plonked on top. There were also some pilgrim rest huts and a small shop at the pass, where we stopped to have a quick drink of tea and warm ourselves by the fire. As we waited, two other vehicles pulled up full of boisterous Tibetans, who proceeded to spread prayer flags over the surrounding bushes and trees.


The subsequent descent by road to Gebu was through spectacular scenery. In the distance to the north was a fine mountain peak, and the road itself spiralled down to a fast-flowing green tributary of the Nu river. It would be a very treacherous road to drive by car or van, but I felt relatively secure on the back of a motorbike. The scale of the landscape was awesome and the sheer steep sides of the valley were much more dramatic than I had been led to believe by the 3D images from Google Earth.

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I wished I had walked this section as I very much wanted to take photos - but my driver and guide had committed to taking me to Gebu on the bike.


 When we arrived at Gebu mid morning I had been expecting to find the western trekkers there, bt the small village seemed deserted. When I asked a sullen teenager if he had seen any foreigners, he  pointed his chin up at what looked like a pylon on the hills to the north and said "they went up there".


I had planned to start walking from this point, but my driver told me the starting point was a little further up. And so we continued up another zig-zag trail up the hillside, which took us eventually to a wooden hut on a spur, that was busy with pilgrims. At the hut I was welcome by some of the Chinese and Tibetan trekkers I had seen in Aben. They were sat around the fire, drinking tea and exchanging stories. They had also hitched a lift over the Chawalong road section of the kora, and were about to set off on the next walking section of the kora.


And so once I had unloaded my bag from the bike and re-packed it, I joined up with a group of four Tibetan pilgrims as we set off up the well-worn kora trail up the dusty hillside. The view back down to gebu and south to the Tangdu La were spectacular.


The angle of the track was steep at first, but then eased off to a more gentle gradient that it was following the contours of the hillside to the north. To our left (west) we overlooked the river valley and as we ascended gained superb views across to the mountain ranges and ridges towards Burma. One peak in particular looked similar to the Mt Kenyichunpo described by Rock as being the highest peak of the Salween Irrawaddy divide.


It was now early afternoon and the sun was beating down fiercely. I was really glad that I had invested in a big umbrella in Bingzhongluo which I now put up to shield me from the intense UV rays. Many of the trekkers I'd seen had walking poles, but I have always found these to be more of a hindrance than a help on treks (except for going down steep slopes) - whereas along umbreall could be used as both a rain and sun shelter as well as a walking stick. Credit for this idea must go to the Canadian trekker Darren Fairly who had accompanied us on our last trip around the Kawakarpo kora. Darren's approach to the trek had been extreme lightweight, with just a sleeping bag and an umbrella as his main items of kit.


 After about an hour of walking with the pilgrims we turned a corner and came to another small hut that served as a shop and rest point. I was surprised to see a group of people apparently doing some exercises on the hillside ahead of us. When I approached closer, I realised it was the western commercial trekking party and they were taking part in a yoga session on an outcrop facing the river.


The trekkers seemed to be 'in the zone' and preoccupied with their yoga, so after a quick hello, I rejoined 'my' group of pilgrim trekkers and sat with them in the shade, knocking back a whole bottle of water in one go due to my thirst. After a few minutes the Tibetans got up to continue up the hill, and I joined them, thinking that the western trekkers would soon be following behind us - I was mistaken and this was the last I saw of them. I didn't know at the time, but they were having to wait 24 hours for their horses to catch up with them after their van ride from Aben. For the rest of the kora they would be a day behind me.


The rest of the afternoon was a long but not unpleasant slog up the track through pine forest. The Tibetan pilgrims walked faster than me - they were fitter and acclimatised to the altitude. However they tended to stop frequently for breaks, or to investigate some interesting mushroom or herb they had found along the wayside, so we kept the same pace overall. I was pleased to find that I had now acclimatised a little to the 3000m altitude and could maintain a steady pace up the hill for long periods. My guide was carrying my 10kg backpack, which of course helped, but I was also carrying about 5kg of camera gear and other items in my smaller daypack.


There was little to see once we were in the forest, but we did get occasional views of the surrounding mountain ranges. I soon ran out of water - despite taking more than a litre with me, and was gagging with thirst by  4pm, when we arrived at the "Gebu Top Camp". This was just one of the many pilgrim rest stations along the kora. It was little more than a fireplace with a bit of thick plastic sheeting thrown over a few logs. Next to it was a more sturdy log cabin that made the small shop - complete with resident shopkeeper and his son. And next to that was a larger sleeping area that was again little more than a flat piece of ground with some bits of flattened cardboard to sleep on, and protected from the elements by plastic sheeting that flapped in the wind. The price for staying at these way stations was 10 yuan a night, with free hot water.


The Tibetans collapsed with exhaustion where they sat and immediately had a nap in the vegetation. I had a look around the place and was disappointed to see the amounts of rubbish strewn about the area. Plastic bottles, instant noodle containers, plastic wrappers were thrown about with no thought of the environment at all. Tibetans venerated the mountains and treated the pilgrimage as a sacred duty - and yet they desecrated the whole route with their garbage. It was hard to understand. The same applied to the sanitation. There were no toilets at the shelter and piles of old excrement and discarded toilet paper could be seen in all the surrounding bushes. I was especially alarmed to note that many visitors had been shitting up the hill, close to the fresh water source that provided drinking water via a pipe to the shelter.


When it got dark at 7pm the Tibetans cooked up their usual meal of noodles, spam and some chillies in a large cauldron, while I ate one of my dehydrated meals, much to their bemusement and curiosity. And once the sun had gone down there was no power or light, so there was little to do except retire to the sleeping bag and read a book on my Kindle, and listen to the rustling of the trees in the breeze.