Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Doker La pass - then and now (1924 and 2102)


Here's Joseph Rock's picture taken from the Doker La pass looking down the Tibetan side (ie to the west). The pass marks the border between Yunnan and Tibet, and is part of the famous Kawakarpo Kora that circuits the holy mountain of Kawakarpo (Meili Xueshan). I did the kora in 2012 with my two sons, one of whom can be seen in the picture doing the steep descent.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Then and now: Jambeyang, 1927 and 2012


The back of Jambeyang (South east face) as seen on the big kora round the three peaks of Yading.

Then and now: Choni monastery, Gansu

The old Buddhist monastery at Choni, now known as Zhuoni, in Gansu, where Rock wintered before going on his expedition to Amnye Machen.

Mount Chiburongi, near Gongga Shan


This is what you see on the second day walking up from Kangding en route to Gongga Shan

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Bahang, Salween valley: 1926 and 2006


The old French missionary church as Bahang is still there. Now it is run by a local priest and the village is called Baihanluo. The local Nu people still drink corn liquor, as described by Joseph Rock. It is no longer such an isolated outpost. Trekkers pass through the village en route to cross the Sila pass to the Mekong. Other visitors drop in from the Nujiang valley by care. And this year a major road will open up connecting the Mekong and Nujiang valleys - it will travel just below Baihanluo.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Radja monastery then-and-now

Radja monastery 1927 and 2011

Joseph Rock visited Radja monastery (also spelt Ragya) in Qinghai in 1926/7. He only intended to use it as a stepping off point to get to Amnye Machen but the stupid bugger tried to go up the Yellow river canyons instead of the nice easy route round the hills to the south. Easy to say that with hindsight, I suppose. Anyway, Rock floundered around in the Yellow river canyons for a week or so before giving up. The only view he got of Amnye Machen was through a telescope from about 70 miles away. You can see the whole new town of Lajia that has sprung up along the riverbank since his visit.

Radja monastery then-and-now

Radja monastery 1927 and 2011 Here's a nice comparison pic of the monastery at Radja (Lajia in Chinese), Qinghai. It sits on the banks of the Yellow river beneath some crazy red cliffs. In this picture it seems like it hasn't changed much, but actually there is quite a large 'new town' to the left of the picture where in Rock's time there were just a couple of houses. I found it to be a very friendly place, probably on account of they don't get many visitors.

Yading then and now - Rock's rock

Yading (Sichuan) then and now - 1928 and 2008

This is the then-and-now picture of Rock's rock" - a big boulder embedded in some pasture round the back of Jambeyang. If you do the Yading "Big" Kora you will come across this on the fourth or fifth day (two days from the end of the trek). It's actually only a day's walk from the Five Colours lake/Milk Lake area that most Chinese tourists visit at Yading - but that would mean walking anti-clockwise round the kora and the local Tibetans would not like that.
Joseph Rock described it as a huge lump of schist that had broken off from Jambeyang. It sits in a flat clearing after trekking up the boulders and slabs of the bleak Yetchesura  valley. Nice place to stop for a cuppa or even camp.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Muli monastery - then and now

When I first visited Muli monastery in the mid 90s it was a very remote and unspoilt place. I had to hike over the mountains from Yongning, and it took me two very tough days to get there (I was fit enough and stupid enough to do it solo in those days). I had no proper maps other than Joseph Rock's sketches, and yet I made it in one piece. The huge monastery complex housing thousands of monks that was photographed by Rock was gone, and only a single temple hall had been rebuilt. The setting was still quite spectacular, and I enjoyed my stay there, even though it did have a bit of a tragic and abandoned air about it. I have not been back since, but the recent Google Earth images suggest that more monastery buildings have been rebuilt and there is now a flashy road to the monastery, replacing the primitive gravel track that existed in 1995. There's not much reason to go to Muli - it's a fairly unremarkable monastery in a  dead-end valley. Perhaps that's why it has remained a relatively unspoiled place. You can read about my trip here.


Sunday, January 25, 2015

Yongning then and now

Here's a picture of the Zhamei Si monastery at Yongning, just north of Lugu lake. When I visited in the 1990s the monastery had been rebuilt after being destroyed. Most  of the buildings that Rock photographed were gone, but if you look carefully in the picture you can see one of the main temple halls had still survived. I took this picture from the top of a nearby hill that I had climbed out of curiosity - it was only when I later looked at my photo that I realised it had been taken from the same place as Rock's - great minds think alike! This photo was taken en route to Muli monastery, you can read about that trip here.


Saturday, January 24, 2015

Konka Gompa then and now

When I went there in 1991, the monastery at Gonga Shan hadn't changed much since Joseph Rock visited it in the late 1920s. The monastery had been destroyed in the Cultural Revolution but had been rebuilt in much the same style and in the same spot. These days (2014) there has been a lot more work done on the Gompa and it looks a bit more flash.


Friday, January 23, 2015

Yading then and now #2

The photo on the left was taken by Joseph Rock in the late 1920s. It shows a Tibetan shrine in the cliffs beneath Mt Chanadorje on a very remote section of the kora (circuit) around the three sacred Konkaling mountains. We stumbled across the same shrine on about the third day of doing the kora in 2011. It is truly in a very remote location, below one of the most difficult pass crossings. It used to be a resting place for Tibetan pilgrims doing the 5-6 day circuit of the mountains. As you can see some of the shrines have been destroyed but others rebuilt in a more haphazard way.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Yading then and now

I'm trying to get a full account published of all my journeys in Rock's footsteps. I have a manuscript that is being edited with a view to online publication as an e-book and available through sources such as Amazon. It would be nice to include some then-and-now photos to compare how the Tibetan borderlands have changed since Rock's visits in 1927. Here's one example:


Sunday, January 11, 2015

Ragya monastery then and now

Here are pictures taken by Joseph Rock in 1926 and my own follow-up taken in 2012, of the Ragya (Lajia) monastery in Qinghai, on the banks of the Yellow river. As you can see - not much has changed.




The Mekong, just south of Deqin

This is the view of the river on the road down from Deqin to Cizhong, taken in October 2014. There used to be a very crude and dangerous unsurfaced road cut into the hillside. This has now been replaced with a new two-lane highway, complete with bridges and tunnels. Odd, because there is very little traffic on this road, which eventually goes all the way south to Weixi. Perhaps it will get busier when the short cut to the Nujiang over the Gaoliging mountains is completed.


Monday, January 05, 2015

Kawakarpo Kora: the WiChu (Yuqu, 玉曲) valley

This photo was taken with my Rolleicord and Kodak Ektachrome transparency film on the penultimate day of my trek. This is the view of the descent in to the Yuqu valley from the "Gebu pass", en route to Laide, which is located up a side valley on the other side of the river. Kawakarpo (Meili Xueshan) can be seen at the head of this valley.


Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Looking back at the Sho-La pass from the Yunnan side, October 2014

Look carefully at the ridge line and you can see the prayer flags.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Picture of the week: Yading, back of Chanadorje

Just came across this old image from my Yading kora trip which I've never posted before. It was taken with my Leica M2 on the second day as we walked round the back of Chanadorje on the way up to the 2nd pass (or actually on it?) . This is looking back down at where we'd come from.  Nice, I think.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Kawa Karpo kora: view looking north from Gebu high camp

This is the view looking north from the hut above Gebu village on the Yuqu (wichu) river.

From the 1990s archives: Muti Konka (aka Maidi Ganga 麦地贡嘎), Sichuan


This remote mountain is located about two days hard travelling on horseback from Jiulong country, south of Kangding - near to the Yalong river canyon.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Wichu (Qiqu) river valley

Just over the pass from Gebu, on the way to Laide, in Tibet. By Rolleicord.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Yufeng Si (temple) Camellia tree 1990s and now

This was taken during our ill-fated attempt to hike to Yading via Muli. Me and these kiwis got as far as Muli and halfway over to the Shouchu valley before getting bogged down and lost. And getting a logging truck back to Muli (Wachang). We visited the Yufeng Si temple near Lijiang before we set off. Keith Lyons (second right) liked the place so much he settled there and now runs his guiding agency in Lijiang.




 

Same tree, 20 years later. Autumn, so not in bloom.

Video of the earthquake in Kangding


Some 'vision' of the earthquake as captured by Kangding street cameras.

Friday, November 21, 2014

From the archives: Jambeyang

Taken at the three-way pass above the lakes next to Shenrezig, 2010?.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Pic of the day: Deqin (Atuntze)


I tried to take this photo from the same spot where Joseph Rock took his photo in 1926 of Deqin (then known as Atuntze). His photo showed a forlorn village of just a few mud houses in a sloping valley. It was only when I climbed to the top of this hill above Deqin where the monastery used to be that I realised he had taken his photo much further away, from the curve of a track at the top of the valley. By this time it was too late in the day to get there, so I did a direct descent past a chorten, back into town. This vantage point is on the hill above the town square, reached by a twisting switchback road that passes a small valley with a waterfall. There is a more direct route straight up if you can find the obscure path that leads up there. The monastery is now being rebuilt in concrete, after having being demolished during the Cultural revolution and transposed to the other side of the valley (an unlucky spot, apparently). The site of the old monastery is now occupied by a village called Gusong.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Tibetan workhorse

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Day 1 of the Cizhong - Baihanluo trek

Monday, November 10, 2014

Cizhong, Yunnan 茨中

Pic of the Catholic church taken from its vineyard, October 2014. Sony A7 digital camera and Leitz 50mm Summicron lens.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Alexander David-Neel: the Joseph Rock connection

Today while browsing at Gould's second-hand book emporium in Newtown I came across an old copy of My Journey to Lhasa by the Franco-Belgian female explorer Alexandra David-Neel. After reading the first chapter I discovered for the first time that she had walked the Kawa Karpo kora - and across the Doker La at the same time as Joseph Rock in 1924. (I had always assumed her explorations had taken place much earlier in the century and had presumed she had travelled the main route to Lhasa, via Kangding further north). In fact, she attributes her success in being able to get into Tibet in disguise to Joseph Rock. As she approached the Doker La from Londre (present day Yongzhi) she was able to avoid suspicion because there were many other 'outsiders' in the area working as plant collectors for "an American naturalist" (ie Rock). David-Neel travelled to the area with her Sikkimese companion Yongden and she was disguised as a Chinese and later as a Tibetan pilgrim. I haven't read the full book yet, but it does seem rather long-winded and obtuse. Despite having been that way myself, I simply do not recognise anything of her description of the route she walked  to get over the Doker La. She describes villages where there are none and she portrays rather dull areas as mysterious and beguiling. She's either exaggerating or there has been a whole lot of change since she was there. And conversely she also fails to mention some of the absolute highlights of the Doker La pass crossing, such as the awesome views looking back towards the Mekong.
I thus find myself thinking: if I can't trust the text about the places I know, how can I believe what she's written about other places?  I have the same problem with much of Joseph Rock's writing. His description of the crossing of the nearby Si La pass gave quite the wrong impression compared to my experience of it.
Still, it is tantalising to think what would have happened if these two explorers had come face to face back in 1924 on the pilgrim route to the Doker La. The Belgian-French spiritualist and writer who inspired Kerouac meeting up with the irascible self-promoting Austrian emigre scholar. I get the impression that Rock had little time for women, both socially and intellectually. They would have made an interesting contrast sharing a tent and perhaps a cup of coffee in the Tibetan borderlands in 1924. I came across a letter from David-Neel to Rock in the Edinburgh Botanic Gardens archives a couple of years ago - I wish I'd made a copy of it now.
Anyway, it was interesting to read the account of another traveller on the "Dokar Pass" and the route to Thibet as she calls it - and it also acts as a reminder to be sceptical about Rock's claims to be the 'first white man' to explore this area.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Random photo: the Sila Pass, near Cizhong (by Rolleicord)

Day 2 of the trek from Cizhong to Dimaluo: this is what the Sila Pass looks like, from the eastern side. Beyond the cairn is the track down into the Sewalongba valley.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

How to do the Kawakarpo Kora - a trekking guide


by Michael Woodhead  
A guide to the Kawakarpo Kora trek (Meili Waizhuang 梅里外), with track notes for “pilgrims” (朝圣 ‘chaosheng’)


Introduction
The Kawakarpo Kora is  one of the best treks in the world, but done by surprisingly few westerners. It is a traditional pilgrimage route for Tibetans, that involves a 150km trek around the sacred peaks of the Kawakarpo mountain range. The main peak of this range, also known as 'Kawegebo' or Meili Xueshan (beautiful snow mountain) is 6740 metres in height and is revered by Tibetan Buddhists. The trek usually takes about 8-10 days and involves crossing seven  mountain passes including the main ones known as the 4080m Doker La (east to west) and the 4800m ShoLa (west to east). The track starts near Deqin, in the north west corner of Yunnan province and traverses across the Hengduan mountain range from the Mekong (Lancang Jiang) river in Yunnan to the Salween (Nu Jiang) river. Half of the circuit involves a crossing into Tibet, and this may be a reason why few westerners do the trek - it is difficult to obtain a Tibet entry permit for the trek. However, most of the trek is on un-policed mountain trails and it is possible to avoid the only security checkpoint on the road into Tibet (more details later).
The trek is not particularly difficult but it is quite strenuous and requires stamina and a reasonable level of physical fitness. The good news is that there is a well-trodden track and - unusually for China - a network of simple guesthouses and shops along the trail, so you don't need a tent or to take 10 days worth of food. However, this walk is not to be taken lightly - the weather conditions can turn treacherous, especially on the passes, and you must come prepared with warm and waterproof clothes and good boots. It is also a very remote trek - you can expect to be away from civilisation for days on end, with no mobile phone access and walking in remote valleys where the nearest basic medical facilities are two or three days walk away. There are no mountain rescue teams and no authorities available to help you out if things go wrong - you must be self sufficient and flexible. On a positive note it is a safe area and you will be trekking alongside Tibetan pilgrims who are invariably friendly and helpful.
It is possible to do the trek without a guide, but I would strongly advise against this. A local guide is essential for routefinding in some areas and also as a go-between in dealing with other Tibetans and helping arrange accomodation and transport. You can arrange guides in Yongzhi or even with the van drivers at Fei Lai Si, many of whom hail from Chalitong. Speaking at least some Chinese will obviously be helpful. Local Tibetans do not speak English, and many don't speak  Mandarin to a high standard so you must be prepared to improvise use sign language. Alternatively, you can do one of the commercial guided treks around the kora such as the excellent one run by Adrian Bottomley of Whistling Arrow.

If you want to see my blogs of the two kora treks I've done click here and here. If you want to see photos from each day of the trip, try this Chinese language blog here.

When to go
The best times to go are spring (May-June) and late autumn (September-November), when the weather is dry and settled. Avoid summer as this is the wet/monsoon season, while in Jan-April the high passes may be closed due to snow.

Getting to the start of the track
The start of the kora is at a village called Yongzhi, just above the Mekong (Lancang Jiang) river, about 25km south west of Deqin. Hire a minivan in Deqin or at the Fei Lai Si viewing point for the mountain, where most tourists stay. Cost will be about 300 yuan. The road goes down to the river and follows the right (east bank) through a small town called Yunling (云岭), and crosses the river at a place called Chalitong.
There are actually two alternate routes  to start the kora, the upper and lower tracks. The upper track starts at Yongzhi (2480m) and skirts the upper side of the Yongzhi gorge as it ascends the valley. The lower track starts at the river near Chalitong and follows the tributary river up through the Yongzhi gorge. The two tracks merge further up the valley. There are no shops at Yongzhi except for perhaps the most basic supplies (water, instant noodles) so make sure you do your final shopping in Deqin.


Day 1: Yongzhi 永久to Yongshitong camp永是通
 From Yongzhi the track ascends a track across fairly open hillside to the south until it reaches a corner ‘pass’ (the Duola Yakou多拉) and turns into the Yongzhi gorge. There are good views of the Mekong below. After the pass the track levels out somewhat and enters thicker forest so the views are more limited, except for occasional views down into the Yongzhi gorge. 
The track passes some shrines and sets of prayers flags including one place called A-se Jialang(阿色加朗) where pilgrims have left offering such as clothes and items of clothing. The track passes a place called LongNa (隆那) continues in this way through the forest, passing the first of many ‘rest stations’ at a place called Qu Xia (曲夏). This is a rather gloomy spot in a gully, and it best to continue on to the camps further on. The rest stations typically comprise a wooden shack containing a small shop selling noodles, drinks and basic commodities such as lighters and cigs. They also have a fire with a pot of boiling water. 
The larger stations also have a ‘dorm’ which is basically just a large flat area sheltered with large sheets of heavy duty polythene spread over logs. Pilgrims cram into these sleeping areas and spread out their sleeping bags on old bits of cardboard on the bare ground. On the first day the camp to aim for is at Yongshitong (3340m) which is next to a small river, higher up in the valley.



Day 2: Cross the Duokela 多克拉(4080m) to Zansutang camp 咱俗塘 (3630m)
The second day involves  a strenuous hike over one of the highlights of the trek – the Doker La pass or Duokela as it is called in Chinese. From Yongshitong the track ascends through thick forest for several hours, following the course of the river until it comes out into a wide valley surrounded by high mountain ridges. The views here are superb and there are waterfalls and may peaks to be seen. 

The track continues to follow the river, passing more shacks, until it reaches the Duokela Base Camp(多克拉口下). This camp an be reached by early afternoon from Yongshitong. From the base camp’ the track turns left and ascends steeply up the western side of the valley up towards the Doker La.  After an hour or so the track comes out into a wide basin, where the track can be seen zig-zagging up to the Doker La. From here the forest is left behind and it is another couple of hours walking up an increasingly steep track  to the pass. 

The final stages of the track up to the pass are over windswept scree and rock. The pass itself is festooned with hundreds of prayer flags with only a narrow passage through which the track crosses the narrow ridge. 


It is a sacred place for Tibetans and also marks the border of Yunnan and Tibet – once over the pass you are in Tibet (illegally if you don’t have a permit). 
The view from the pass are great in both directions. On the western side of the pass the track descends in very steep and quite exposed zig zags into a bowl-like basin, gradually easing off in angle with descent. The track then veers off to the left and follows the valley down in a twisting path that later follows the right hand side of the valley down towards a river. 

The Zansutang camp is ‘round the corner’ and located by the  side of the river. It is quite a sizeable camp with a shop and most pilgrims stop over here after crossing the Doker La.



Day 3: Zansutang camp咱俗塘 to Qunatang camp 曲那塘 2460m
The third day walk is mostly in forest and involves crossing only one lesser pass, the Lu-a Sen La yakou (阿森拉, 3840m). The track follows the river is mostly fairly level and passes through a place called Zhangqie Lu(章切路) before ascending to the Lu-a Senla Pass. This has many bowls of tsampa and other offerings such as clothing strewn about. After the pass there is a steep descent through forest to a bridge and rest station/camp at a place called Qunatang. There is a second camp some way further up the side of the hill, in a pleasant gully next to a stream and small bridge.


Day 4: Qunatang camp 曲那塘 to Aben village (Abing,阿丙村2290m)

The first half of the day is spent climbing up through forest to the  Xinkang La pass (辛康拉, 3740m). There is little water en route, but there are a couple of rest stations and shops further up. The ascent is quite arduous and dull because of the lack of views – but the views from the pass over to the Nujiang are very good. The Xinkang La is a large pass in forest, as usual strewn with prayer flags. From the pass you can look down and see the destination of Aben far below. The second half of the day is spent on the long and knee-hammering descent to Aben. The track goes through pine forest before emerging into more open farmed land lower down.

Interlude: Getting past the Tibet checkpoint from Aben to Chawalong.
Aben is a Tibetan community of about twenty houses and is a major waypoint on the kora. It has several guesthouses and shops, so is a good place to rest and stock up on basic supplies. However, the next stage presents a problem for westerners without permits as it follows the motorable road up the Nujiang, with a police checkpoint at a place called Quzhu (曲珠)The only way to get round this is to get a local with a motorbike to take you past the checkpoint after dark. The road barrier is closed so only bikes can get past. 
It takes about an hour by motorbike down to the checkpoint and a further hour or so beyond to the Tibetan town of Chawalong (察瓦, which the Tibetans call Chana). Some drivers insist that you get off the bike and walk through the checkpoint alone, as they fear being caught in the act of helping a  foreigner through the checkpoint. There are warning signs on the road saying that foreigners  are not permitted, even though the actual border with Tibet is about 10km further south.

The dirt road is quite rough and hazardous, often with steep drops into the river.  The landscape along the river is awesome, mostly uninhabited and quite barren with cactuses, and there is a major landslide that has to be crossed before reaching Chawalong. The driver/guide should be able to arrange for you to stay in a house in or near Chawalong. As Chawalong is in Tibet, you may be reported to the police and expelled if you try stay in an official guesthouse. If you do get caught, expect to be detained, fined and then sent to the nearest town in Yunnan, Bingzhongluo, which is a day’s drive in a 4WD along a treacherous road through the Nujiang canyon that will cost you 1500 yuan or more.

Day 5: Chawalong (1910m) to Gebu (格布村, 2340m)
This section is optional. Many trekkers get a lift straight through to Gebu, about two –three hours further north on a road that crosses the Tangdu La pass (堂堆拉, 3352m). If you decide to walk it is about 15km on the road from Chawalong up through a village called Longpu (普村) and some sparse pine forest to the Tangdu La, passing a small monastery called Zhatong. There are short-cuts of track between the zig-zags of the road up the steep hillside. The pass is just a cutting through the high point of the ridge, in forest, with an ugly electricity pylon, though with some views back over Chawalong. There is a small shop here and a place to get boiling water.
The road descends from the pass through more forest, down past rice fields of Tangdu village and then into a spectacular canyon of a river called the Wichu (Chinese: Yuqu, 玉曲). There is a great view of a high mountain to the north. The steep-sided canyon is quite arid  and devoid of vegetation compared to the more fertile land around Chawalong.
The road passes a settlements called Zhagu (扎古) and Reda then continues down a barren and rocky trail around a dramatic bend in the river to a settlement called Lada (拉达) which has  a small shop and more rice terraces and then on a dusty road.  The river is crossed by a bridge beyond Lada, and the road continues to the village of Gebu.
 
The village of Gebu has a guesthouse and a shop, and is the jumping off point for the next major pass – the Dagu La (达古拉), but more often known just as the Gebu La.


Day 6: Gebu to Gebu Pass Hut (3900m).
A zig zag road ascends steeply out of Gebu up to a ‘shoulder’ hill to the north, on top of which is a wooden shack with a shop and rest station. Some pilgrims take a motorbike taxi up to the shack and stop there for the night rather than in Gebu.  There are great views back over Gebu and down the Wichu canyon towards the Tangdu La. 
From the shack the track leaves the road  and goes up through arid worn channels into forest, from where it levels out and follows a gentler gradient north along the hillside through open forest towards a second rest station reached in about an hour. This is the last shop before the pass, so stock up on fluids here as there is little water to be had for the rest of the day.
The track leaves the hillside and its views of the river and climbs up through forest towards the pass. The path is good and there are occasional fine views to the west and especially of a snowy peak that may be Kenyichunpo on the Burmese border. The track is not steep but it is quite a hike up to the next shack and rest station, which is situated about an hour’s hike below the Gebu Pass (also known as Dagu La, 达古拉)
This is a very simple shack with space for about twenty people to sleep outside under the plastic sheeting. There is a basic shop and fireplace, but water is limited to a trickle from a nearby pipe. There is a lot of rubbish here and no toilets, so beware of sanitation and drinking water. There is a small viewing area just above the shack with great views over the valley.

Day 7 Gebu Pass hut to Laide (来得 3090m)
From the Gebu Pass hut it takes about an hour to hike up to the Dagu La (达古拉) through forest. The pass is covered by forest, but there are some views to be had to the west of the snowy peak. The track then descends, steeply at first, over a trail into another loop of the upper reaches of the Wichu river canyon. There are some nice views to the north but soon the track turns south east and descends more gradually through the thick forest towards the river following the contours of the hillside. There are no rest stations or water sources on this part of the trail.
After a long descent the track stays fairly level for an hour or so of walking then  emerges from the forest and skirts some curves around the hillside. The river can be seen below and the ridges on the other (eastern) side of the valley come into view. The mountain Kawakarpu (Meili Xueshan) dominates the southern section of the valley. The track passes through fertile glades and gullies as it descends to the river, on the other side of which a crude road can be seen. As the track reaches the river a sharp switchback trail down a gully needs to be negotiated after a cliff walk, until the riverside is reached. A level track passes through a gate and comes out at a bridge to a couple of Tibetan houses at Laide bridge or Long Xicun.
From the bridge it is a further two hour walk up a zig zag track through scrub and low bushes to the small village of Laide, nestled in a side valley. There are informal guesthouses at Laide, including one at a large house with a shop that is set apart, about five minutes higher up the valley on the way up to the Sho La pass. It may also be possible to camp here.

Day 8: Laide to Sho La Pass hut (4300m)
From Laide the track ascends up through forest up to a ridge and then on up to a set of huts in the “Meiqui Bugong” (梅求)valley that leads up to the highest part of the kora – the ShoLa pass or Shuola (). This can be a very tedious and strenuous  section to hike, with little variety to the endless zig zags up through the forest. There is also no water en route and  no rest stations etc until you reach the hut just below the  plateau. The hike takes about four hours, with only occasional views back over Laide and the Wichu valley to break the monotony. 
However, once you have reached the plateau hut you have done most of the vertical climbing for the pass.  There are two sets of huts close together, the first is  in the forest and is where most pilgrims stay. A second more primitive hut is about fifteen minutes hike further up, in more open terrain. From here some Tibetans ferry pilgrims on motorbikes over the last kilometer or so up to the base of the Shola pass. 
The track turns east and skirts gently upwards over more open terrain, towards a basin that forms the beginning of the Shola pass. There are good views of the north side of the Kawakarpo range from here. The track ascends through scrub after leaving the treeline, and eventually reaches the final hut before the pass. This is located in a shallow gully, but is very exposed to the elements and is often left locked and unattended. Don’t rely on it being open. 
From here you have a choice of staying before the pass or crossing the pass later in the day and staying at the hut on the other side. The latter is preferable as the sun does not rise over the mountains until after 9am, and so the scenery is  not very impressive if you make the early start that is necessary to walk from the pre-pass hut to the end of the trail.


Day 9: ShuoLa Pass (4800m) to Meili Shi (梅里石)
From the ShoLa huts the trail enters more windswept and barren alpine terrain, culminating in the red rocky basin devoid of any plant life that leads up to the pass. There are some good views of Kawakarpo on the way up – make the most of them as this is the last you will see of the peak on the kora.
The track is obvious for most of the way although there are several smaller tracks leading up o the final section of the ridge. The going is straightforward in good, clear weather but could be treacherous in fog, snow or ice – and thus good visibility is needed, as well as weatherproof kit. The final few metres of trail to the pass is not too steep, and it culminates in the usual sea of prayer flags. The views in both directions are excellent, although Kawakarpo is not visible from the ShoLa. The views to the east towards the Mekong are especially impressive. The rocky ridges on either side of the pass are also awesome.
After enjoying the pass, which marks the Tibet border, you can descend the track into Yunnan and head back down towards the basin and the vegetation zone. The track is easy to follow and mostly good, and within an hour you have left the scree slopes and entered a zone of trees and shrubs, out of the worst of the wind. The track heads right and follows a valley down to a clearing, called Dulongtong (杜隆塘) where  there is a small hut with a blue roof next to the marshy beginnings of a stream. There appeared to be other [abandoned] huts nearby.
From this point it is about a four-five hour descent to the road, along a track that stays mostly on the left side of a mountain river that gushes through the forest. The descent is not difficult but can seem never-ending and onerous. About half way there is a sacred waterfall where Tibetans leave banknote offerings. There are also some clearings by the river further down, which would make good camping spots. Water is not a problem because of the river (if you can boil/sterilize the water). 
 The track crosses and re-crosses the river many times and eventually enters a series of narrow, steep sided gullies. At this point the lower valleys of the Mekong/Lancang river come into view, but there is still a long way to go to reach the end of the trail. The track winds down a series of defiles and gullies, with each one seeming to be the last, but always leading to another. After a long ear-popping descent, signs of reaching civilization appear, such as metal bridges and concrete water irrigation channels. The final few kilometres of the kora are a series of rock-strewn paths through gullies in what can be very dry terrain as the sun beats down in the afternoon.
The end of the trail finally comes in sight and there is nothing to mark the end of the kora but a milestone on the quiet highway running along the Mekong. There are sometimes minivans waiting for hire to take pilgrims beack to Deqin. If not, it may be possible to hitch, or it is about a kilometre walk right (south) to the village of Meilishi (梅里石) which has shops and possibly a guesthouse. The cost of a minivan for the two hour journey to Deqin is about 200 yuan.

Monday, November 03, 2014

The Balagong Pass - by Rolleicord and Kodak Ektachrome


This is the view of the final few metres leading up to the Balagong Pass, from the east (Sewalong Valley) side. As you can see it is a fairly gentle pass but it took a lot of huffing and puffing to get up there through the forest. Because of the trees there is no good view from the pass itself - but there are excellent views about 15 minutes further down on either side. Just over the top of the pass the Nujiang valley comes into view, very different from the Sewalongba valley and the Mekong valley before that - and you can see the ridges in the distance all the way to Burma. But that's another picture.