Sunday, June 24, 2018

Big changes at Muli monastery

I haven't posted for a while because I have little to add to my previous travels in the footsteps of Joseph Rock. If you've read my diaries (see right hand column), on of the first places I visited was Muli monastery, in the early 1990s. It was a wild and neglected place then, and I have sometimes thought about going back. But in the internet age it does not take long to find images and videos of how Muli looks now - and it isn't good. It appears that the old Muli monastery has now been replaced or superceded by a huge and flashy new temple. See the pictures and video (with footage of traditional ceremonies and dancing) for more info. It looks awful to me. The special character of Muli has long gone - it now looks like a tourist attraction at Disneyland. Glad I saw it when I did!

By way of  comparison with the above, here's a picture  how it looked when I visited (below Rock's original photo):

And here's how it looks closer up:

Sunday, March 25, 2018

One for the Joseph Rock nerds

I don't delve much into the Rock-abilia these days, but here's a good book I haven't seen before: Plant Hunting in China (1945) by EHM Cox. Nice summing up of Rock's status as a plant collector - not very good! You can download it as a pdf here.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Monday, March 19, 2018

Some of my favourite photos from the Nujiang Christmas cycle ride ...

All taken with my trusty old Leica M2 and a 50mm Summicron lens.

This is the octagon building at Zhiziluo - a weird retro mountain town near Laomudeng. This forgotten village used to be the capital of the country, and it was known as Bijiang. The place fell into decrepitude after 1974 when the country admin function was moved down to the riverside at Luhshui/Liuku about 120km south.
Zhiziluo is now a relic of time's past, with a slight unreconstructed industrial/Communist feel to it. The people are Nu and Christian. This one street town is just 5km hike up a good road from the famous church at Laomudeng. One of the villagers will usually give you a lift up here -'re quite friendly.

Gongshan. What can I say? It looks so scenic from a distance, but close up it is has the usual Chinese shoddiness and pollution. This is taken from the 'beach' looking northwest. Over the hills to the Dulong valley and Burma. The memorial stands next to a tourist area but there are no tourists. The riverside area has million dollar views but no million dollars.

Gongshan again. This time taken from the top of the hill looking south, towards the river area where I took the photo above. You get  a bit puffed out walking back up this hill!

More photos from the Nujiang bike ride at Christmas

Missing it already!

This one is taken look north from the outskirts of Gongshan. I've cheated a bit by photoshopping out some ugly powerlines running across the middle of the picture. Taken with my Leica M4 and a Summic50mm lens.

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Cycling the Nujiang with a Brompton

Just before the Tibet border, north of Bingzhongluo

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

My Nujiang cycling trip blog

Rather than re-post all my blog entries about the 2 week trip I will direct you to the original account at Crazy Guy on a Bike site.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Some film camera photos from the Nujiang

I took my Leica M2 with me at Christmas and took a few photos with the 50mm Summicron and a 28mm Canon lens.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

A wonderful trip to the Nujiang - and Laomudeng (老姆登)

Just spent a marvellous 10 days cycling from the Tibet border north of Bingzhongluo to Liuku - about 300 km. Not ideal conditions for a small for a small folding bike - the 228 highway is being upgraded to make access better for tourists. But the scenery and the people were both fantastic. Going by bike allows you to see & experience so much more than being confined on a bone-rattling bus. The highlight for me was 'discovering' the mountain top village of Laomudeng, neat Fugong. A beautiful Christian church set up by the local Nu people. Spent New Year there. Bliss.

Monday, December 04, 2017

The Christmas itinerary ... cycling from Tibet to Burma

Due to a recent injury I'm not able to hike much at the moment, but can still ride a bike. So for Christmas I'm planning a lazy-ish ride down the Salween valley from the Tibet border to Burma.

It's a bit unadventurous of me as I've 'done' this area a lot in the past (as you can see from my previous posts). But given my current financial situation and gammy knee it's all I can manage right now. Departing 20 December - travelling solo and back to basics - no camping, just banking on finding guesthouses en route.

Hoping the weather is as mild as it was when I last visited 10 years ago. And I hope the Lisu/Tibetan Christians are still as welcoming when they celebrate Christmas ...

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The long awaited Deqin-Gongshan road (Lancang-Nujiang, 德贡公路)

UPDATE: Since writing this article I've come across an announcement that the road will officially open on December 30 2017 - so I assume it will be an all weather route!

On my last trip to Deqin in Yunnan in October 2016, I made a side trip down the Mekong (Lancang) to try check out the new road crossing the mountains from the Mekong to the Nujiang valley. This road has been under construction for about five years. It is being built as a short cut alternative to the only other way in to the Nujiang valley, via the Dali-Liuku route, which means a 1000km drive from places such as Deqin and Zhongdian.

The rough highway shows up on some maps and on Google Earth as linking the start of the Kawakarpo trek - at Yongzhi and Chalitong - crossing the Biluoshan mountain range and eventually descending to the Nujiang via Dimaluo. The road looks completed on the 2015 Google Earth images, but when I arrived in Chaliding in October 2016 I found that none of the Tibetans there willing to take me over by motorbike. Even in the dry and relatively mild autumn season they said the road was impassable - blocked by rocks and deep mud. Obviously still not finished. There were no buses or any other vehicles crossing between the two canyons, though some road construction trucks were occasionally going up that way (but they wouldn't take me).

I've been keeping an eye out online to see if there have been any developments, but little has appeared until now. If you search for the term 德贡公路 (De-Gong Gonglu, ie Deqin-Gongshan Highway) you'll find a few adventurers have tried to get through in 2017 and not made it. But they talk of others who have made it through by 4WD or motorbike. There's even one story of 41 construction workers getting trapped up there in the snow of February 2017 and having to be rescued when their supplies ran out.

I'd love to try do this route by mountain bike.

Anyway, here's one guy who tried on a motorbike and found the road blocked by huge rockfalls. 

Thursday, August 17, 2017

The other Doker La - the China-India-Bhutan flashpoint on the Doklam plateau

I've noticed a few visitors to this blog have been searching for the term "Doka La" - which in Chinese has the same characters (Duokela Yakou 多克拉口)as the Doker La pass between NW Yunnan and Tibet (that I have written so much about as part of the Kawa Karpo Kora).

I presume my new visitors are looking the more newsworthy Doka La, which is a strategic pass between India and Bhutan, near the disputed tri-border Doklam plateau area with Bhutan. This region is the site of the current military face-off between the PLA and the Indian Army over a road that the Chinese have built across disputed territory. I have taken a look on Google Earth, and with the help of this blog by "Rohitvats" I have tried to compile a map based on Google Earth 3D images.

The Doka La seems to be the forward base for the Indian army on a pass that crosses into a corner of western Bhutan near the Chumbi valley. This valley extends into the Tibetan region of Yadong, which is a finger of China-administered territory jutting south into Bhutan. According to the current borders, the Tibetan-Bhutan border is at a place called Senche La. On Google earth you can see a zig zag road leading up to this pass from the Chumbi valley, from a large PLA barracks.

However Google Earth also shows that someone - presumably the Chinese - has built a road across this remote sliver of plateau in Bhutan all the way to the India border post. And China has recently published a new map showing what it claims to be the 'real' border between Bhutan and China - pushing he current border several km further south into Bhutan. Interestingly, the new Chinese map claims pretty much all of the remote Chumbi valley and all the high ridges above it.

Looking south, from the Chinese side, at the China-claimed part of Bhutan (red)
 This makes plenty of sense from a military/strategic point of view, as it allows China to consolidate its position overlooking India and Bhutan, and securing its current precarious "chicken's neck" sliver of territory in the Chumbi valley. As you can see from the map, China currently controls only the west side of the valley, and thus the access road runs right along the border with Bhutan, which is literally a stone's throw away on the other side of the Cho river. And Bhutan's defence is managed by the Indian army.

Not surprising that the PLA is seeking to secure its flanks in this highly sensitive area. In recent weeks the PLA have been very aggressively protesting Indian Army presence in what they claim is Chinese territory. This assertiveness has percolated through to the outside world, with overseas Chinese staging demonstrations over China's claims to the territory. Xinhua has even released a bizarre racist video that disparages Indians for their presence in the tri-border area.

There some good historical background on the Nathu La trade route and the Yatung region here. Well, to make things a bit clearer, here are a few images of the 'other' Doka La. Current borders are marked in yellow, China's new border claim is in red, and the disputed Chinese built road through Bhutan is purple.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Shuola Pass, Tibet (Kawa Karpo Kora)

No updates for a while so here's a video of me reaching the Shola pass last October ... as a comparison, here's a video of Canadian photographer Ryan Pyle reaching the same spot at roughly the same time of year.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Joseph Rock: about this site

This blog site is a compilation of my trek diaries and photos compiled from various visits to China and Tibet retracing the plant-hunting travels of Joseph Rock since 1992.

Joseph Rock made seven major botanical expeditions in the Southwest China/Tibet borderlands in the 1920s and 1930s. Over the 20 years I have gone back and revisited the routes he took. Some are (or were) relatively unchanged, others have been transformed by development. I took a few pictures with my old Leica and Rolleiflex cameras (I didn't adopt digital cameras until 2007 and even then continued to prefer film).

If you want to find out more about these trips, check out the index on the right hand side of the page. I have provided links to the various blog entries I made at the time.

These include the destinations:
These are the major sections, but this website also covers a lot of other miscellanea relating to Joseph Rock and other explorers of the region, such as Frank Kingdon Ward. It also covers nearby areas such as Dali (I have the best photos of the Cangshan peaks), Lijiang, Kangding and Chengdu, with pictures showing how they have changed over the years.

Unfortunately I haven't had time to arrange any of this in any sensible order. My advice is either to browse by year or do a search for your keyword in the box at the top left.

I won't be doing much updating of this site as I have pretty much covered all the areas Rock visited.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Shuola Pass 说拉垭口 Yunnan-Tibet border

From my October 2016 trip going from Meili Shi, Yunnan into Tibet (and back)

Sunday, February 12, 2017

On the Tibet-Yunnan border: the Sho-La

Took this in autumn 2016 with my Leica (35 Summicron). Just developed the photos.

This is my guide, doing a bit of praying on the pass. As you can see, the weather wasn't great.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Beautiful 1984 photos of Yunnan

The earliest of my photos on this blog are from 1990, and the China they portray now seems like a lost world - still quite 'communist' and undeveloped (see my chapter on Muli for example). There aren't many photos from China from the era before that. The few tourists who did visit the country in the 1980s tended to stick to the main cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. That's why it's such a thrill to see the photos from Harvard botanist David Boufford. He seems to have visited Kunming and Dali on a botanical expedition in coopoeration with Chinese scientists. His pre-digital 35mm film photos are beautiful and show a much simpler and cruder Dali compared to the tourist hotspot of today.

You can se more of his photos by searching the Harvard VIA site

Erhai lake

American researchers meet the locals

South gate of Dali

In the field

The Erhai Hotel, Dali

On the road

Yunnan kid, 1984

Bai woman (with nice watch)

Pre-tourism Lijiang old town

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Then and Now: Mekong 1928 and 2016

Today I was browsing  Joseph Rock's article "Through the Great River Trenches of Asia" when I came across a photo of a view that looked familiar from my most recent trip down the Mekong. In the National Geographic he has captioned the picture as "The Mekong river entering a narrow gorge near Yangtza". I checked my photos from my bus trip down from Deqin to Chaliding on the Mekong, and sure enough, one of the pics that I snapped from the bus window matches the one that Rock took.

When I took the photo it was about half an hour down the road from Deqin, just after the bus goes through a new tunnel.
I was on my way to check out the new road that is being built to connect the Mekong and Nujiang valleys, which starts at Chaliding and goes over to Dimaluo. Chaliding is little more than a bridge over the river with a couple of stores. It is a landmark because it is the embarkation point for Tibetan pilgrims setting off to walk the Kawakarpo Kora - the 10 days circuit of the holy mountains. This is the place where they do their last minute shopping for supplies before they start walking. It's all uphill from here!
And just for your information, the road over the mountain is not yet open, despite the official blue road sign indicating a turnoff to Gongshan. I tried without success to get a van or even a motorbike to take me over to the Nujing, but the locals said there were several sections of the road that were just clay and mud - meaning they needed to get off and push. They wouldn't take me. The Mekong-Nujiang road is said to open in early 2017.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Joseph Rock: the Leonard Cohen connection

I was just doing some research into George Johnston, the Australian journalist/novelist who visited Minya Konka in 1945 and gave a very different account (much more cynical and prosaic) to that of Rock's from a decade earlier. As I described here. Anyway, I came across this site which celebrates Johnston's later life as a bohemian in Europe and particularly his time on the Greek Island of Hydra, which he apparently shared with Cohen. The page tells a bit more about Johnston's visit to Kangding and Minya Konka, as related in his book Journey Through Tomorrow, but the beauty of it is an uncredited picture of Johnston with photographer James Burke on the Tsemi Pass, Minya Konka:

Thursday, November 10, 2016

More pics from the Shola Pass

From the western (Tibetan) side:

Monday, November 07, 2016

Pictures from my brief incursion into Tibet

My walk up the Shola from Meilishi near Deqin:

My 350 yuan a day guide.

Almost there ...

Made it, albeit not in the best of weather.

Huts on the Tibetan side of the pass

Monday, October 31, 2016

So near yet so far ...

Just come back from my attempt to reach the western glaciers of Kawakarpo. Didn't get there because of bad weather and an inability to find a guide who would risk entering Tibet illicitly without a permit.
However the main thing I learnt from this trip is that the area around Kawakarpo is becoming increasingly spoilt by overdevelopment, pollution and also by increasing restriction on western tourists. What used to be a relatively unexplored and neglected "Shangri La" area around Meili Xueshan is now being widely tramped and driven over by Chinese visitors. At the same time there are now more police checkpoints and restrictions on western visitors.
I managed to get to Deqin without too much trouble, but found that Fei Lai Si was even more built up and touristy than ever. There were more guesthouses and top end hotels, although many seemed empty or neglected. A lot of Chinese visitors were driving through and most were on their way to Yubeng. Strangely there were hardly any western visistors, except for Israelis, who were there in huge numbers. Pretty much every 'westerner' I saw in Fei Lai Si was  Israeli.
I hired a guide at Meili Shi, about 50km up the Mekong, and I walked up to the Shola Pass over two days. However the weather was terrible, but a lot of rain and cloud over the pass. I continued on into Tibet, but my guide was reluctant to go further because of a new PSB checkpoint at the lower village of Laide. Because of this I turned back after a day on the Tibetan side and returned to Deqin. There I tried to wait out the bad weather by visiting other nearby places of interest such as Cizhong. This once tranquil village  I found to be in a state of ongoing construction, complete with jackhammers and concrete mixers. There is a huge new bridge being built over the Mekong at Cizhong, a project of the company building a hydro dam that will swamp the lower-lying villages and the current bridge. The people of Cizhong are unhappy about their village becoming the place where may dam refugees will be relocated. Cizhing is a multifaith' community of Tibetan Catholics and Buddhists but the dsiplaced villagers who will be resettled there are mostly conservative Buddisists from near Yanmen. Their relocation to Cizhong will profoundly alter the local mix of minorities and faiths - and the locals are not happy.
Disillusioned with Cizhong, I tried to cross to the Nujiang by the new Gongshan-Dilamluo road that starts at a place on the Mekong called Chaliding (the start point for the Kawakarpo Kora). However I was again disappointed to find that the road is not yet finished and locals would not even think about trying to get me though on a motorbike (they said it would require the bike to be pushed over sandy/muddy sections). So in short I would say the area is fast losing its off-the-beaten-path charm, so get there quick if you want to see 'unspoiled' Yunnan. My worst impression was of the amount of litter along the walking trails. This despite the local authorities having put bins and many warning signs advisories about litter at regular intervals along the trail.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Two weeks to go before the next trip ...

I'm now counting down the days before I head off to Yunnan to do a solo hike to the unexplored Gongsenlongba glacier on the west side of Kawakarpo. As I've said before, this is a bit of a challenge because it lies in Tibet - so I will have to access it in a discreet way from the Yunnan side of the mountain. Thanks to Google Earth, I have found a clear route from the Mekong (Lancang) side, which appears to have several shelters/huts en route. This basically follows the kora in reverse for a couple of days, then diverts south after the Shola Pass (ie on the Tibetan side) to go across country towards the lesser 6509m peak Cogar Lapka. The glacier lies between this peak and another called Godanilaka (see the excellent map by Tomatsu Nakamura above).

I'm pretty much kitted up and ready to go. Unlike my last trip to Yading, I'm doing this one with little preparation and even less cash. I'm on a very tight budget, so won't be buying any new gear - just the same tatty old kit that has got me through the last few trips. The only thing I might splash out on is a porter/guide. Being 53 years old I'm getting a bit old for this kind of thing, ie lugging a 12kg bag up a steep slope at 4000m ... but I'm worried that I won't be able to find any local willing to go along this off-the beaten track for a few days. If the worst comes to the worst I'll just have to go alone drag the bag up there myself, very slowly. I'm not keen on going solo, but all the prospective trekking companions have dropped by the wayside, for various reasons. Very well then ... alone!

I've learnt from my last trips to keep the gear to a minimum. On my Yading trip I found that I could survive quite well on a diet of cheese and crackers for lunch and some instant noodles for dinner. So that's pretty much all I'll be taking.

My other big worry is getting nicked by the authorities for being in Tibet without a permit.  This is most likely to happen when I drop down to the western side of the mountain on my 'exit' stretch of the hike. I plan to try sneak through Chawalong and head down along the Nujiang out of Tibet and back into Yunnan to Bingzhongluo. I've done this route twice before and managed to evade the police/army checkpoint south of Chawalong by travelling at night. This time I'm taking a slightly different approach - I will be hiking on the other side of the river. Google earth shows that there are a bridges about 3-5km either side of the checkpoint, so it's just a case of crossing and walking on that side, keeping a low profile (touch wood). As part of my research into this delicate matter I've found a Chinese hiker's blog on which he has posted a photo of an official notice pinned on the checkpoint showing its opening times and even the phone numbers of the police on duty! Maybe I can use this info to distract the cops at a crucial moment while I leg it.
To get back to the Lancang/Mekong I'll be re-doing the wonderful Dimaluo-Cizhong trek.

So that's the plan. I have my China visa and a Kindle loaded up without about five books. I also have about 20 rolls of 35mm film that I'll be using with my Leica M2 camera (no Rolleiflex this time, I'm afraid).  I'm set ...

In the footsteps of er, Kingdon Ward (who did this trip in 1922, as described in Mystery Rivers of Tibet).

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Update to "Trekking partners wanted" post for Kawakarpo exploratory visit

Just to say that the trek is still on for the first week in October. I've had a few people asking, but nobody definitely confirmed yet. I think some may have been put off by how difficult I made it sound. To be clear, I don't expect it to be an extreme trek. Based on my last visit to this trail two year ago, I'm banking on the weather being mild and the trek being along reasonable paths that have shelters along the way. I'm taking a tent along as a backup, and also a stove, but don't expect to be using either for much of the trip. I'll be taking Diamox for the altitude and also plan to be walking at an easy pace. For food I will just be taking some fangbian mian and a few snacks. After my recent experience with horrible dehydrated trekking meals, I think this is way better (and a lot cheaper).

Will post an itinerary soonish.

Meanwhile, here's a pic I took from where I expect to be on Day 2: the Shola pass, at about 5000m. As you can see it's family friendly.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Trekking partners wanted for my next challenge ... the west face of Kawakarpo

After my recent 'success' going around the Yading  outer kora in seven days, I am itching for a new challenge. I was thinking that I had done it all when it comes to treks around mountains ranges such as Kawakarpo and Gongga Shan. But I was wrong. There is one unvisited area that has attracted me ever since I saw it on Google Earth - the western glaciers of Kawakarpo.

As you may know, the eastern Minyong glacier of Kawakarpo (Meili Xueshan) is now a tourist trap, visited by hundreds of trippers by bus and a short walk every day from Feilai Si. The three western glaciers, however are totally inaccessible by road. The only way to get to them is by taking a long detour from the already remote Kawakarpo kora circuit up untravelled valleys. Since the outer kora already takes at least 10 days, this would make a minimum of two weeks - possibly more, if you did it as an add-on to the whole kora. Add to this the fact that the west side of the mountain is in out-of-bounds Tibet means that few - if any - westerners have ever visited or  the main western glacier of Kawakarpo. So that's my next challenge, and I'm looking for trekking partners to join me on this exploratory trip.

On Google Earth it appears that the only way to get to the biggest and most impressive north west  glacier of Kawakarpo is via a long detour to the south, up a steep, narrow trackless valley, starting from the Wi Chu (Oui Qu) river near Laide (see the yellow trail, above). Laide is a waypoint on about Day 8 of the usual kora). The side trip to the glacier looks like a minimum of a four day round trip from Laide.

The encouraging news is that there appears to be a settlement at the glacier moraine - so there must be some way of getting in there.  More promising is the fact that there appears to be  a track that acts as a shortcut, running right over from Chawalong - (see the blue trail, above). This would make sense as it looks like a 2-day journey rather than what would be a four day journey from Chawalong going via the usual kora route of Gebu, etc. The bad news is that this shortcut goes over a steep mountain ridge:

A bit of searching on the Chinese language trekking blogs shows that a few intrepid hikers have made their way over the mule tracks from Chawalong - and they are calling it the Bogong Mountain Pass (伯贡山垭口) to Jiaxing (甲辛) village. It sounds like a bit of a rough trek - but is do-able.

I'm now reading up on the journey - with a view to doing this in October. If you are interested, contact me via beijingweek It will require at least 8 days from Deqin, and I'm planning to set off in early October. The trek will be pretty strenuous and you will have to be experienced & equipped/capable  to survive camping/lodging in very basic Tibetan farms for a week.

UPDATE 23/7/2016:

After researching a few Chinese hiking forums and blog posts it seems that Jiaying (the glacier settlement of four houses) is being regularly visited by a few intrepid groups of Chinese visitors to Chawalong. There seems to be a couple of routes - a direct path over the ridge that takes about 8 hours - and an indirect route  that uses a newly-created road on the ridge above the village of Longpu. This is part of a new road that the Chawalong authorities are creating to Jiaying - their hope is to turn it into a lucrative tourist destination to rival Minyong glacier on the eastern side of the mountain. The road is a branch from the Kawa Karpo kora route at the Tangdu La pass.

For me these routes pose the obvious problem that they are within Tibet, and this requires an impossible-to-achieve Tibet entry permit to get past the checkpoint south of Chawalong. (I got around this in 2014 by sneaking through the border checkpoint on the back of a motorbike at night, but it seems the checkpoints are now open 24/7 and the border guards - bianfang - becoming more vigilant for foreigners). My Plan B is therefore to try hike in from the Yunnan side. This involves doing the last section of the kora in reverse - up to the Shola Pass. I'm familiar with this route, and it should pose no difficulties unless any pilgrims take offence at someone doing the kora the wrong way round. But I'm not doing the kora - from the Shola there is a clearly visible track that skirts all the way below the ridge to the two glacier sites. Most of it can be seen quite clearly on Google Earth (see below, marked in green). There also appear to be some huts along this route.

My plan is therefore to take this route to Jiaying. Once there I have the option of trying to sneak out through Chawalong - or simply returning by the same route. There is also a longer, less steep track that goes back  and joins up with the kora route (marked in yellow).

If I do get past Chawalong down the Nujiang to Yunnan I plan to re-walk the Dimaluo-Cizhong hike via the She La pass and spend a little longer in the marvellous Sewalong valley. My hiking dates are around early-mid October, departing Deqin.

View from the north west: the well-trodden Kawakarpo Kora is marked in red. The tracks to access the western glaciers are marked in green. The longer alternative route is yellow.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

East of the Himalaya Mountain Peak Maps: Tamotsu Nakamura

I just got one of these limited edition books from the Sydney branch of publisher Kinokuniya. It's an absolute gem, packed with great photos and very detailed maps of the mountains of Eastern Tibet. That means it includes areas such as Kawakarpo, Gongga Shan and Yading. In true Japanese style it is beautifully presented and the 'quality control' is 100%. Mr Nakamura has travelled more than any other explorer in eastern Tibet in the last few decades and this really is a comprehensive summary of his research and filed trips. I will be spending many an hour poring over it and planning new treks. Sadly, as Mr Nakamura makes clear in the introduction, access to the area is now becoming difficult due the increasingly tight controls being applied by the PSB. Please let's hope that is only a temporary situation.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Thursday, July 14, 2016

17 Questions You Always Wanted to Ask About the Yading Outer Kora

I get a lot of email inquiries via this blog asking about doing the Yading kora. I'm leaving this here as a reference to answer some of the most common questions. If there's anything I've not covered, let me know!  

1. Why do it?

How often do you get to see three amazing and very distinct mountains in close proximity and have them all to yourself? This is a trip through a little travelled and unspoiled alpine area where you will meet few if any other people for a week. As well as the spectacular alpine scenery (including glaciers) the area is a treasure trove of rare flowers, plants and tree species. You will also see a wide variety of wild animals and birds. Yading is also rich in Tibetan Buddhist culture. The kora itself a sacred path for Tibetans, but for some reason the outer kora has very few pilgrims compared to more popular nearby routes such as Kawakarpo in Yunnan. As well as being a pilgrimage, the kora is also a great physical and mental challenge. Can you survive in the wild without access to shops, houses, electricity, roads - and the net or mobile coverage - for a week?

2. How long is the trek? 

I really don't know! I'd guess about 100km, but thinking of it in terms of distances from A to B is unhelpful anyway. The full kora takes seven days at a moderate walking pace of a fit adult, allowing for an average of five hours walking per day. You could do it in five days (we did) if you walked flat out, but this would be horrible, exhausting and leave you little room for error or seeing and exploring the many sights along the way.

3. What's the terrain like? 

It's mostly above the tree line on open hillsides and mountain slopes - that means walking on sometimes steep slopes exposed to the elements - wind, rain, snow and sun. You'll be walking on terrain covered by low scrub along muddy trails, up scree, on glaciers (if you want to) through stream beds, over makeshift log bridges, and occasional scrambling up rock and clay inclines. There is some walking through forest and also some walking along exposed alpine trails where you will need a head for heights.

4. Fitness? Experience? How difficult is it? 

 It's not a technically difficult walk apart from the odd sections that require a bit of scrambling. It can be done by a reasonably fit person who has stamina and can put up with bad weather, rough terrain and most importantly, altitude. It's not a walk for kids, your gran, or anyone with health or disabilities that limit their exertion - and it's not something you'd do on a whim and without proper gear. You need to be experienced in trekking in wild country and also able to endure some serious exertion, slogging up hills to altitudes of almost 5000m. You need to be able to balance on boulders, slide down muddy slopes and endure rain and strong winds. That makes it sound really arduous, but much of it can be pleasant and relaxed in the right conditions - I'm painting a worst case scenario. You will need to be self sufficient and carry all your food and camping supplies. This means either carrying a 15kg backpack (I couldn't do it) or having a porter with a mule to do the heavy lifting. It also requires some psychological robustness, especially if you are travelling alone (albeit with a guide) and can't speak Chinese. What was that moving outside the tent? Did I leave the gas on?

5. Maps? Route finding? 

There are no small-scale local and accurate topo maps of Yading that I know of. Some aerial pilot charts cover the area but they don't have enough details and the tracks/roads etc are hopelessly inaccurate. There are some Chinese hiker-compiled sketch maps (not to scale) and larger scale Chinese maps of the area, but I have seen nothing comparable to the British Ordnance Survey standard of maps. However this is the age of Google Earth and its zoom/3D functions allow you to get excellent resolution and scale for the entire Yading kora (if you know where to look). I have included screengrabs on my blog. This shows you can visualise even individual huts along the kora with Google Earth/Maps. And surprisingly the locals do not have access to such detailed views because Google is blocked in China - so take printouts or keep copies on your phone/tablet.
But even with maps the route finding is not straightforward - the trail is unmarked in many places, except by occasional piles of stones. Sometimes there are confusing multiple trails, some leading down dead ends or to areas beyond the kora. Please don't ask me about GPS and waymarkers. I'm a technophobe, I know nothing.

6. When's the best/worst time to go? 

There are only two narrow windows in the calendar when the kora route is walkable and with chances of clear weather to see the mountains: late spring (late May, early June) and autumn (September and October). The best time to go is autumn. The rainy (monsoon) season starts in early June and lasts until the end of August. At this time you will likely get low cloud and constant rain, with no views. Believe me, I've walked it for seven days and you need good waterproofs.
In winter and up to May the route is snowed in and you can expect subzero temperatures at altitude. Conditions underfoot will vary from treacherous to impassable. Snow and ice return from mid October. Even at the peak periods the weather can be highly variable - it may be scorching in the rest of Sichuan but we have had blizzards in Yading in June.
The other two factors to consider in timing are the peak Chinese holiday times of the Golden Weeks (around 1 May and 1 October) when Yading will be packed with visitors (Warning: entry is sometimes restricted to online pre-booked ticket holders during these periods).
Hiring a guide will be difficult in spring because it is the season for harvesting the lucrative caterpillar fungus (chongtsao) which means that locals can earn a lot more from foraging than guiding you.

7. Do I need to hire a guide? 

Yes, yes and yes. Firstly the route is not easy to find or follow, especially if there is bad weather such as mist, rain and snow. Secondly, the kora is a trip into a very isolated infrequently travelled region where there are no villages or sources of help should you have an accident. If you became stuck because of a sprained ankle or got lost due to bad weather, you could not expect there to be any 'passers by' to render assistance - at best there might be one or two groups a week doing the kora. Thirdly, a guide is needed to liaise and communicate with local people you may meet en route, especially if you don't speak Chinese (or the local Tibetan dialect). Yading Tibetans are generally friendly and helpful, but misunderstandings can easily occur over trespassing or expected payment for services such as food or assistance. A guide will take care of all that for you - and also carry your bag! The best place to arrange guides is though the guesthouses at Yading, or possibly Riwa. Expect to pay 300 yuan a day for one guide and mule. Few people understand English so you will need to get someone to translate your plans to the guide.

8. Does anyone speak English? 


9. Is there phone/wifi/internet coverage/power to recharge my phone on the kora? 


10. Fees, permits, restrictions? 

Expect to pay 300-400 yuan for admission to Yading National Park. The admission ticket alone is something like 250 yuan, and you are also compelled to use a 80 yuan shuttle bus to get there from Riwa (no private cars or buses. taxis etc allowed). There is also 80 yuan fee for the electric buggy service that runs up to Luorong from Chonggu monastery (though you can walk this bit). Recent reports from Yading have stated that the local government has banned trekkers from entering or leaving Yading by unauthorised routes such as the popular Lugu Lake/Muli/Galuo trek and the even moe popular Devil's Canyon side trek. I've also read that officially 'free camping' is no longer permitted but I've never seen anyone who would enforce these rules beyond the popular Luorong valley. However I have found park staff there to be very officious enforcers of the rules.

11. How do I get there? 

By bus you can travel from Chengdu to Daocheng in two days via Kangding (stopover) and Litang. Then a private hire van or motorbike to Riwa aka "Shangri-La". As I mentioned, from Riwa you can now only enter the park by the official shuttle bus (but you could hike in from Riwa up the valley to Chonggu in one day). It's also possible to get to Daocheng from Yunnan via the other "Shangri-La" (formerly known as Zhongdian). The bus travels a twisting road in one day, via the town of Xiangcheng. If you want to get to Daocheng in an hour, there are daily flights in to Daocheng-Yading airport (40km north of Daocheng) from Chengdu. I tried it, it's a great flight.
By the way, this being a blog about Joseph Rock I should mention that you could follow in his footsteps and get to Yading on foot, from Muli via the Shuiluo valley to the east. In the era of the good road from the north, I don't know many people who does this nowadays. Some Chinese trekkers do part of this route from the Shuiluo valley (often starting from Lugu Lake), which they call the 'Rock Trail'.

12. Accomodation? Do I need camping equipment? 

Increasing visitor numbers is putting pressure on accomodation in tiny Yading village, which has only about six guesthouses. Book ahead, don't expect to get a place if you arrive without a reservation. Many people now stay in Riwa, where there are more guesthouses, a youth hostel and some posh hotels. On the trek itself you will definitely need a good tent and a winter sleeping bag. There are no villages or places to stay on the kora route except for some decrepit bare stone shelters that are in varying rates of disrepair (some don't have roofs). So you will be camping and must be prepared for severe conditions including snow, hail, flooding rain, thunderstorms etc. You may be lucky some nights and your guide will arrange to sleep in one of the shelters or temporary tents used by the locals who are foraging for chongtsao - but don't bank on it, even as an emergency backup. There are suitable grass sites for camping on each section of the trail, all with sources of water (that should be purified).

13. Do I need to take food and water? Stove? 

You must be self sufficient in food for seven days. There is nothing available en route. One or two of the temporary Tibetan herder/forager sites might have a makeshift shop selling noodles and cans of cola. But do not rely on this. You will need to cook your food and that means a camping stove (unless you are prepared to forage for firewood and get a good fire going - possible, but hard work). Stoves and camping gas canisters can be bought in the outdoor supplies shop in Daocheng's main square. There is only a very limited stock of basic food and supplies in Yading village shops. Do your last shopping in the supermarkets of Daocheng or Riwa. There is reasonable water available from streams en route - I used iodine water purifying tablets and survived without any tummy troubles. For food I found that instant noodles did the trick for me most days, with just a few variations on dehydrated meals and a few extras. For lunch and snacks I relied on wholemeal crackers and cheese, which kept surprisingly well for a week. If you want to eat with the local Tibetans they live on tsampa (barley flour), yak butter tea and dry momo bread, with occasional bowls of spicy noodles.

14. What other gear will I need or be useful? 

See my blog post. Good waterproof boots (not shoes) and rain gear are the most important items

15. Altitude sickness? 

Yes, definitely, if you are coming from outside. Expect thumping headaches, waking at night with a dry mouth and thirst - and lethargy - wanting to lie down and doze off when you're walking. Altitude also means that your uphill walking ability is massively impaired. What would be a gentle uphill slope at sea level becomes a gut-busting struggle that leaves you gasping for breath after 20 paces when you arrive in Yading. The rule is, I believe, to acclimatise slowly at a rate of about 500m ascent per day above 3000m. Since Riwa is about 3500m that means at least three days. I found that the Magic Bullet for me in terms of altitude effects was Diamox. You have to start taking it two days BEFORE you arrive at altitude. I was fine with this and a couple of weeks of physical activity training before the trek. Meanwhile, I saw otherwise-fit Chinese guys half my age really struggling to cope with the altitude. Their Chinese Traditional Medicine remedies didn't seem to be helping them.

16. Safety? Dangers? 

Yading is not an inherently dangerous place. The main hazards that you face on the kora are the same as you'd face on any comparable trek in alpine areas: weather and the elements (cold, exposure, exhaustion, heatstroke, sunburn, lightning strikes) and the terrain (falling off cliffs, tripping over and breaking a leg or spraining an ankle). There are no especially dangerous rivers to cross, but some creeks and streams have to be surmounted by logs or makeshift wooden bridges. In winter there are ice and snow slopes on the passes. As I mention in my blog there are two particular sections of steep track on Days 3/4 at the back of Jambeyang that are quite exposed and would result in serious injury/death if you slipped from them. There are no particular nasty creatures such as bears (well there are reputed to be bears, wolves and leopards but I never saw any). There might be a vicious Tibetan dog with some of the local nomads, though I never encountered any in this area (unlike other places such as nearby Muli and Deqin). If you're travelling with mules you might either fall off or get kicked by them (stay well away from rear). The local Tibetans are mostly friendly, honest and helpful if encountered in remote areas, but can be a bit gruff and unsympathetic if they have been exposed to tourists at Yading.
If you do have a serious incident and require help or evacuation, the Yading authorities now charge a basic fee of 20,000 yuan for providing 'mountain rescue' services. I take out travel insurance (with outdoor activities extra cover) but I've always wondered if and how they would med-evac me out of Yading if I got stuck there.

17. What about the 1-2 Day 'Inner' Kora? 

Not much fun if you ask me. The first half, up Luorong valley to the pass between Jambeyang and Shenrezig, has some great scenery but you have to share the route with 5000 other Chinese tourists, some on horses or even being carried up on sedan chairs to the two lakes. The track is crowded and you sometimes have to wait for bottlenecks to clear or to pass slow walkers on narrow sections. Some visitors play loud music on their phones. Frustrating. Luorong valley is also spoiled by the recently built huge concrete road that carries electric buggies up with tourists from the reception point at Chonggu monastery. The second section, beyond the pass round the back of Shenrezig is better, but much of this is slog along churned-up muddy track through bushland, without any great mountain views. The mini kora involves crossing another pass before returning to Chonggu monastery. Sprightly Tibetan grannies walk this mini kora in a single day - but it's quite a stretch if you're not acclimatised. Best to allow two days and stay overnight at the huts/campsites between the first and second passes. See my blog for Day 6 and 7.

Photo: Peter Jost