Monday, July 25, 2005

Fulfilling a dream: I finally reach Muti Konka (Maidi Gangga)

maidi gangga_1, originally uploaded by jiulong.

We were farewelled from Mundon/Mongdong mid morning by all the four families of the hamlet, many of them dressed up specially in their finest Tibetan clothes. Again I tried walking, but even a short stroll up this relatively easy slope left me breathless. I remembered we were close to 4500 metres high.
"Qi ma!" urged the horse handlers, and I quickly complied. "Without horses you'd have no chance of getting to here," said Wang Qi.

And as Joseph Rock had noted:

"Merely walking or climbing over a steep trail at heights of 16,000 feet is difficult enough, without carrying 80-100 pounds on one's back. This feat was performed by the Hsifan peasants through fear of our lama, who represented the Muli king ..."

This time it was our horse handlers who bounded up the hill in frayed plimsolls. Their singing of Tibetan songs seeming to grow louder and more enthusiastic as we climbed higher. Perhaps it was to do with the amount of Ara - spirits distilled from maize - that they consumed. By the afternoon they reeked of it.

We ascended up the ridge, gaining fine views of Mundon from above, through fir forest that was regenerating from a 1984. In parts, whole swathes of the mountainside had been denuded of trees, while others seemed untouched. Ahead we could see the high ridge of the Wadzanran pass, and Pema warned that if it rained we would likely see many wenxue (leeches) emerging. "As big as fish some of them are," she commented.

But the weather stayed fine and clear. We reached a plateau and clearing, ideal for camping, where the horses rolled on the grass and we had fine views in three directions: to our right the serrated ridges falling gradually to the Yalong river and rising again in Muli county. To our left were the ridges that trailed off into the Yangwe Kong. And ahead was the Wadzanran pass.

"That's where the bandits used to lie in wait for the mule caravans that came up from Yunnan," said Wang Qi. "They were bad guys - you wouldn't want to meet them!"

By now, peeping above the crest of the brown grassy hill ahead was the tip of a snow peak. "That's Mutikonka!" exclaimed Wang Qi. It was frustratingly near but I could see little of it. After our break we continued, skirting around the left hand side off the rounded ridge we were ascending, seemingly away from the Wadzanran pass.

When I expressed my doubts, Wang Qi told me:

"We aren't going up to the pass - I've got something better to show you. Something Rock missed."

And as we rounded the ridge, suddenly the whole length of the Mutikonka ridge came into view. And what a sight its snow covered heights were. As well as the majestic main peak, there was a second snowy dome and in front of it a rocky knob, not covered by snow.

"Mutikonka is the yak spirit mountain," Wang Qi told me. "The peak there is its horns, this ridge is one leg and the Wadzanran ridge is another leg. The pass is its knee," he said.

The rounded second peak, Jachong, was Mutikonka's wife and the rocky knob, named Yandron Zemu, was its little sister, he explained.

There was even better to come. As we continued around the hill, suddenly the lower reaches of the mountain slopes came into view. And there, far below us lay the most perfect alpine lake, kidney shaped, with much of its length hidden from view behind the forested arm of a descending ridge. On its near shore was a grassy plain where several tiny houses could be made out. It was like a scene from old Switzerland.

According to Wang Qi the alpine lake beneath Mutikonka was known as Zumi Ho to the Pumi, or Chang Haizi [Long Lake] in Chinese. We sat down to have a rest and one of the horse handlers, agentle older man, told us of the legend of a monster in the lake's depths. He recounted how he himself had seen something splashing around under the surface of the lake some twenty years ago, and the large waves it had created on the shore. It was hairy, with the head of a horse, he said, matter of factly, sucking on his cigarette. No one doubted him.

We descended steeply though forest to the grassy clearing in front of the lake, and were welcomed by one of the two yak herding families who made a living there. As his dog barked at us, Mr Champei invited us into his primitive house made of grey boulders. Inside the timbered interior it was surprisingly light and airy - quite a contrast to the mucky darkness of Mundon's dwellings.

As we settled down for suyou cha, I looked around and wondered like Rock, how these people coped with the isolation. But even here, two days hard horse rise from the nearest dirt track, they had electricity from a distant hydro power station. There were light bulbs and a dusty old hifi player.

And as with all Tibetan houses, they had a picture frame on the wall, filled with family photographs. Some of the older ones were of the family in quilted PLA-style uniforms - from the 1970s. The more recent ones showed them on excursions to the Big Buddha at Leshan, down in the Han-dominated Sichuan lowlands. These were not people cut off from the outside world any more.

We settled down around the central fire, above which was suspended a wicker basket from which hung black entrails of condensed grease and soot. Inside the basket were mounds of cheese. A yak's skull decorated with motifs like tattoos took pride of place on the mantle piece and the lady of the house was soon preparing butter tea in the usual way using a plunger to squish a mixture of tea and liquid butter up and down inside an elongated wooden bucket.

For our dinner she first prepared Yumi Momo (maize bread) by cooking the maize dough in the ashes of the fire. While that was baking she took out a black old kettle that appeared to have noodles inside. It was actually yak cheese, congealed on lengths of tree twigs that had been put inside the kettle. She unwound some of the stringy cheese and mixed it with green peppers to make a kind of macaroni they called Gyedon, or Xiulai, in Chinese. This was complemented by more fatty yak beef and thin strips of fried potato stir fried with chillies.

Namu, the big city student, surprised me by her quick adaptation to our primitive surroundings. I had been misled by my initial impressions of her pouting mannerisms and constant fiddling with her mobile phone. I had expected her to be squeamish in this environment, but she was obviously born to it. Looking incongruous in her trendy city clothes, she expertly built up the fire, served up the tea and bantered with one of the young Tibetan horsehands, Tsemi. He seemed to be a bit of a jack the lad, but his ribald conversation and jokes kept everyone enthralled throughout the evening. A bottle of ara (maize) spirit was passed around, and Tsemi was a good mimic: there was some joke about mispronouncing Jiujiu (uncle) that had everyone in fits. Pema laughed until she choked, and I reflected it was a long time since I had heard such unrestrained laughter. I felt a bit excluded.

The toilet arrangements were simple - you just went outside somewhere, not too near the house or the lake. In the darkness I wandered some way off and turned off the torch. It was almost completely black except for the overarching white presence of the mountain, like two arms of a ghostly cloak around the lake. I couldn't see the house at all, and I panicked. Without a torch, I felt that even from a few yards away I would not have been able to find the house again.

Back inside, I settled down in a dusty corner and fell into a fatigued sleep to have strange and vivid dreams. Was it the altitude or something else at work?

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