Monday, September 01, 2014

Pilgrims on the Kawa Karpo Kora

In a few weeks I will be joining the likes of this family group on a walk around the mountains range of Kawa Karpo in NW Yunnan. The Chinese call it Meili Xueshan, but you don't see any Chinese doing the circuit.

The 10-12 day pilgrimage is an almost wholly (holy?) Tibetan event. It's quite amazing how many groups you see doing the kora - whole extended families from far and wide, mums, dads, kids, daughters, nieces, grandparents, cousins, uncles and other hangers on.  And not just locals. We met young guys from faraway places like Yushu, and quite a few people who had done the kora several times previously.

One of the most memorable groups was a group of three young men, one of whom had a bad leg and could not walk on it. He didn't have crutches - he was just kind of hopping and limping the whole way, supported the whole way round (as far as we could see) by his mates. It was hard enough for us fit and healthy westerners to do this 10-day trek up and down six or so 4000-metre mountain passes - what this guy did was just just amazing - or insane, depending on your point of view.

Back in the 1920s, Joseph Rock was very dismissive of the Tibetan devotion to religion and pilgrimages. He thought they were stupid and mindlessly superstitious. But you can't help being impressed by their faith and dedication. Most of the pilgrims we saw were friendly - some were a bit reserved, but none were unfriendly or hostile. There was an amazing feeling of camaraderie and shared experience. On one section of the trail I came across a small makeshift store, unattended. Anyone passing by could have stolen the goods, but I saw wads of notes stuffed under bottles, left by honest customers. You don't usually see that kind of trust in China.

In the picture above you can see the typical sleeping arrangements for the pilgrimage - just a makeshift wooden shack or a few poles holding up some plastic sheeting over a dirt floor and some grass or straw if you're lucky. God knows what it's like it it rains. There's usually a fire with a big cauldron of water on it for making butter tea and noodles. And that's about it.  Anyhow, I am looking forward to going back to the Kawa Karpo in about three weeks time. All I need to do now is get a bit fitter.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Plan B: Cizhong to Dimaluo via the She La

Although I am supposed to be doing the Kawa Karpo kora next month I am tempted to go for Plan B - cross from the Lancang to the Nujiang via a more southerly route (and one that Rock took on his first trip) - via Cizhong and the She La pass, not to be confused with the Sho La further north, on the Kawa Karpo circuit. The She La is known in Chinese as the 蛇拉腊卡垭口 (Shelalaka Pass).

I have found a few Chinese trekker blogs with some good pictures of it, and I have also tracked down the actual location of the pass via latitude and longitude - not easy! The pass was suggested to be in three different places by three different people. I tracked down the real location from a photo that a Chinese trekker took of his GPS on the pass.

Anyway, the crossing seems to involve a long slog up a wooded valley just to the south of Cizhong, up to the last steep section up to the She La. On the way there are several cabins and pastures that serve as lodgings. Over the pass it seems to be a steep zigzag down into the Sewalongba valley. This looks like a very marshy place and many people have described it as a leech zone. Some trekkers even tape up their ankles and cuffs to try keep the blighters out.

Through the Sewalongba the next stage is to the Balagong Pass (巴拉贡) - Rock called this the Doyonglongba. Some people have stayed overnight in cabins in lower parts of the Sewalongba at a place called Chuka Muchang (pasture) or 初卡牧场. From the Balagong pass it is a fairly straightforward descent through forest to my old haunt of Baihanluo and its Catholic church, just above Dimaluo.

I am thinking of doing this trek and then heading up north beyond Bingzhongluo to Chawalong, from where I can make the crossing back to the Lancang and thus to Deqin.
For those who are interested the co-ordinates for the She La are:  27°59'53.46"N,  98°47'32.70"E.
And for the Balagong Pass:  27°57'30.70"N,  98°45'10.02"E.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Starting to (over-) prepare for the next Kawa Karpo kora

Darren doing the Doker La lightweight. My kids in the background.
As usual before heading off on a big walk I tend to fret too much about little things which turn out to be inconsequential once I get on the trail.

At the end of September I will be flying to Lijiang and then heading up to Deqin to do the Kawa Karpo kora again. I've already done the East-West bit, but this time I won't have the kiddywinks in tow (yes I took my two children last time and they did it easier than me), so can hopefully complete the circuit and do the West-East section. I'm in two minds about whether to go lightweight or to take the full kit of tent, stove and food.

The lightweight option is do-able, as shown by our intrepid Canadian companion Darren on the last trip (see above). Darren did the whole circuit as if it was a walk in the park, armed only with a sleeping bag and a bit of heavy duty polythene sheeting to act as a groundsheet/raincover. You can get away with that because there are pilgrim rest stations en route, which have a bit of shelter ( a dirt floor with a bit of flattened cardboard if you're lucky) and a fire to make hot water on - and there are basic shops that sell drinks, smokes and noodles. Darren also took a brolly, which doubled as a walking stick. All you need, really, if you're confident and lucky with the weather.  Admittedly Darren was an experienced climber and glacier guide based in the Rockies, so for him the Doker La was probably a piece of piss.  I'm of a mind to emulate that and just rock up with the same few bits and pieces.

On the other hand ... the control freak/cautious side of me wants to do just the opposite, and take every bit of possible gear that I might need. I've already been trying out the Gore Tex waterproofs in Sydney's recent torrential winters downpours. I've also been  fiddling with the MSR stove and giving the lightweight pots and bowls a clean. Will I need them? There are log cabins en route that can serve up pot noodles, but do I want to try live on them for 10-12 days?

As usual, I'm also agonising about what cameras to take. I'll definitely be taking one of the medium format film cameras: I'd prefer the wonderful Rolleifex 3.5F but it can be a bit temperamental. Might have to settle for the simpler Rolleicord instead.  For the first time I'll probably be taking a digital (Sony A7) instead of a film 35mm film camera. This will be my back up camera and will relieve me of the burden of taking loads of film. It will be a pity not to be taking my Leica M2, but I will still be using the Leitz lenses on the digital body.

I picked up my China visa today, so now it's just  a case of counting down the next five weeks before I head off. And trying not to get too obsessed about preparing. So if you see a flustered 50-something bloke striding round Sydney dressed inappropriately in trekking gear and carrying a backpack - it's probably me doing a bit of practice.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Going back to the Nujiang ... in September

I have just booked my flights to Lijiang for late September, from where I intend to have another shot at the Kawakarpo circuit - or possibly a crossing from Cizhong to Dimaluo on the Nujiang. My first choice would be go back to do the Yading outer kora again. However, I'm going back to the Nujiang because it seems to be the only place with decent weather at that time of year. If you recall from my last few posts, my trip to Yading in October 2013 was a disaster - completely snowbound, as was my 'Plan B' - Gongga Shan. I guess those places are just too far north for October trekking and it's too late in the year to do any decent trekking. Well, if I find there's a heatwave occuring when i get off the plane in Lijinag I may well head up to Yading, but otherwise it's the Kawakarpo circuit for me. I would like to finish what I started in 2012 (with my kids in tow) - I only managed the first half of the kora from Yongzhi to Abing on the Nujiang. This time I would like to re-cross back to the Mekong over the Sho La. And as I said, rather than repeat the Doker La (which is fantastic) I would like to try a different route over to the Nujiang via the She La from Cizhong to Dimaluo. Well, that;s the plan ... just need to get in shape now. Oh, and buy some film for my Rolleiflex ...

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Finished the book!

I've now finished a draft of In the Footsteps of Joseph Rock, the book that covers all my travels from 1990 to places like Muli, Gongga Shan, Muti Konka (Yalong canyon), Yading, Qinghai and the Nujiang. I've already loaded bits of it up to this website, but it's all a bit fragmanted. Soon I hope to see the whole book complete with some nice photos available as a download at Amazon courtesy of those nice chaps at Camphor Press.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Staying with the monks at Gongga Shan monastery

With the monks at the Gongga Shan monastery

After a very cold and miserable day at the monastery, the monks eventually relented and let us sit near their fire for a couple of hours. We spent a bit of the evening trying to thaw out before they gave us the boot. Vowed there and ten to get out as soon as possible! IN this picture you can see one of the female Buddhist nuns.

Friday, March 21, 2014

My jinxed visit to Gongga Shan monastery, Oct 2013

In October 2013 I tried to repeat my Gongga Shan trek of 1996. I trekked back to the monastery from the Yulongxi valley via the Yulongxi Yakou (pass). Unfortunately this time the weather was terrible. It started bad and just got worse. On the day we arrived it was misty and raining and very cold. Over the next two days the snow started and got heavier. We didn't get any view of the mountain or even of the surrounding valley and glacier. The whole trip seemed to have been jinxed -  I must have upset the mountain gods. Here's a pic of our long suffering horses (mules?) having a feed just after we arrived at the monastery.

Mules at Gongga Shan monastery, Oct 2013

This guyd had brought a group of Chinese trekkers in on day one. They only stayed a couple of hours and then buggered off back down to Tsemi because of the poor weather - can't say I blame them!

Gongga Shan monastery from above, Oct 2013

This was about as clear as it ever got!

Gongga Shan monastery, Oct 2013 - Rolleiflex pic

Gongga Shan monastery, Oct 2013

Monika passing the time at Gongga Shan monastery, Oct 2013

It was boring at the monastery after the first day. For hours on end we would sit in the room trying to keep warm by sitting in sleeping bags and waiting until the next meal from our meagre supply of food (thank goodness we brought stuff to eat - nothing at the monastery whatsoever). This is Monika from Poland, who did the trip at the same time as me - she had quite bad altitude sickness. You can see the cooker I brought with me on the shelf. The room was draughty and freezing cold.

Gongga Shan monastery, Oct 2013

Gongga Shan monastery, Oct 2013

A very bleak Gongga Shan monastery, Oct 2013

A very bleak Gongga Shan monastery, Oct 2013

Arriving at Gongga Shan monastery, Oct 2013

Arriving at the monastery, our guide does a few prostrations at the shrine

A very bleak Gongga Shan monastery, Oct 2013

Monday, March 17, 2014

Gongga Shan in Oct 2013

Had a very dull two day stay here at the monastery! There's only so much you can see and do at this place after the first few hours of looking about the rooms. The cloud was thick and there was absolutely nothing to do from waking up (early - it was chillingly cold and damp) to going to sleep early. It was too cold to just sit about, and yet there was nowhere to go in the fog - too easy to get lost. I tried walking up on to the ridge above the monastery but turned back after an hour, fearful that I would lose my way in the thick fog and increasingly heavy snow covering my tracks. This was no longer the isolated, quaint monastery that I had visited in 1996. The monks were bored of dealing with hordes of trekkers and were not interested in talking to us once they had collected the accomodation fee and park fee. They wouldn't even let us sit near their fire to get warm - a real insult by Tibetan standards!

Gongga Shan monastery, by Rolleiflex

Arriving at Gongga Shan monastery, Oct 2013

Gongga Shan monastery in the rain

Gongga Si as seen on out arrival in October 2013, by Rolleiflex

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Buchu river valley, en route to Gongga Shan

After a very long and knee-pounding descent from the Yulong Xi pass, we finally arrived at the Buchu river and crossed at this bridge - then it was a long slog along the river gradually ascending to a shoulder a few hours away where we met the track from Tsemi, turned left and went up to the Gongga monastery. When we came back this way three days later the whole landscape was under snow (see earlier photos).

The "Eco-Hut" in the Buchu Valley, Oct 2013

The "Eco-Hut" in the Buchu Valley, Oct 2013

After a loooong descent from the Yulongxi Pass nto the Buchu valley we came to this hut, which was said to have a great view of Gongga Shan in clear weather. It was described as an 'eco-hut' was was actually just a bare shell - colder in than out!

Monday, March 10, 2014

贡嘎山 玉龙西 Gongga Shan, Yulongxi, October 2013

This is a picture that I took with my Rolleiflex 3.5F using slide film (Fuji Portra I think), at Yulongxi, before setting out on the Gongga Shan trek. This is the 'guesthouse' where we stayed - in reality it was just a farmhouse, next to some hot springs. We were driven over in a small van from Kangding by a 17 year old kid, who was the son of the farmer. This is the grandtaher of the family, who apears to be a part time monk.

贡嘎山 玉龙西 Gongga Shan, Yulongxi

贡嘎山 玉龙西 Gongga Shan, Yulongxi

Monday, March 03, 2014

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Gongga Shan trek, autumn 2013: the invasion of the 4WD

When I first visited Gongga Shan in 1995 it was a fairly remote and untravelled region. As I describe in my long chapter of that first visit, I set off from Kangding and hired a couple of horses and a guide in Laoyulin to take me on a four day trek to the monastery. During all that time I didn't see one other vehicle and no other travellers. In fact, for most of the trip through the Yulongxi valley I didn't see any other people at all, except in the villages or encampments we stayed in each night. Of course everything has changed now. Gongga Shan is a major tourist attraction and the Yulongxi valley now has a road running up and down it carrying a fair bit of traffic - mostly 4WDs like those seen in the picture. There are many more Tibetan houses, many of which have signs outside advertising them as guesthouses. There is even a road over the Tsemi La pass all the way to the village of Tsemi, though this is really only open to serious off road vehicles and motorbikes/tuolaji. Progress is inevitable, and I don't begrudge the locals their chance of making a living from the visitors. Nevertheless, it's a shame that this once peaceful and isolated spot is now just another stop on the tourist itinerary.