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.
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.
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 were focused on 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 they got up to continue, and I joined them, thinking that the western trekkers would be following behind us - I was mistaken and this was the last I saw of them. I hadn't known at the time, but they had 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 scared 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.