Thursday, April 28, 2005

Coming up next: "Through the Great River Trenches of Asia"

kawakarpo flags, originally uploaded by mutikonka1.

My next set of photos will be from my trip three years ago to retrace Joseph Rock's footsteps though the epic valleys of the Yangtze, Mekong and Salween, which run parallel in north west Yunnan. Here is Mt Kawakarpo [Meili Xueshan] near Deqin.

old lady at yubeng
Our old lady friend at Yubeng, under the shadow of Mt Miyetzimu near Deqin. We spent four boring days sitting out the rain at this village.

Monks near the Mekong river valley, Deqin

mekong monks2, originally uploaded by mutikonka1.

These young monks were involved in a blessing ceremony on the top floor of a house we were pasing along the road between Weixi and Deqin, just north of the Catholic church at Cizhong.

mekong monks

Lamasery near Cizhong

lamasery near cizhong, originally uploaded by mutikonka1.

mural bw
Detail of a mural on its wall.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

The modern way to Minya Konka, Part 1: Chengdu

Chengdu, originally uploaded by jiulong.

In the 1920s Minya Konka was a little known mountain on the fringes of Sichuan province that had been seen by only a handful of westerners. To get there involved many days of mule travel from the provincial capital of Chengdu. Nowadays, thanks to the wonders of air travel and motorways you get from Chengdu to the start of the Minya Konka trek in a single day. On my most recent trip I was at work in Sydney on Friday, flew to Chengdu via Guangzhou on Saturday and arrived in Kangding on Sunday in time to arrange a taxi to the Khampa village of Lao Yulin the same afternoon. On Monday I was on horseback, heading up to the Djesi La!

This picture shows Chengdu celebrating the 50th aniversary of Communist rule in 1999. Spot the Mao statue.

Bus to Kangding

Bus to Kangding, originally uploaded by jiulong.

The first part of any journey to Minya Konka is the long and winding road up from the plains of Sichuan into the foothills of this eastern limit of the Himalayas. Until about five years ago this was a grim journey up crumbling roads via Ya'an and over the Erlang Shan mountain. The road was often one stationary traffic jam of army trucks and it generally took two whole days of bone shaking travel. With the opening up of the Erlang Shan tunnel - and a motorway from Chengdu and Ya'an - you can now get to Kangding in a day. You pass through the historic town of Luding, where Chairman's Mao's Long March had one of its landmark battles - to capture the chain bridge over the rushing Dadu river. Here is my bus at Ya'an, complete with VCD movies on board.

Hiring a guide at Lao Yulin [老榆林]

lao yulin, originally uploaded by jiulong.

From Kangding a took a motorbike taxi out to the hot springs at Lao Yulin, about 5km west of town up a scrappy valley. You could just make out some of the Minya Konka peaks from here. I walked past a derelict textile factory - where some people were still living in the ruins, and then along the main dirt road through the village of Lao Yulin. It was here that folk came out of their houses and asked if I wanted to ride a horse and hire a guide. I did, and on my initial trip hooked with a great guy called Gerler, whose house this is. On my second trip it was with a much less reliable fellow called Gong Xianyao.

Lao Yulin (老榆林): Gong Xianyao's House

Gongxianyao's House, originally uploaded by jiulong.

At Laoyulin [老榆林] I negotiated the hire of a couple of horses and guide with the first bloke I met on the road. He was called Gong Xianyao in Chinese, and he wanted something like 80 yuan a day per horse. Once we'd agreed to terms, he said he would send his son to go get the horses. I thought this would be half an hour. It turned out to be half a day - we didn't set off until the morning.

Home shrine

home shrine, originally uploaded by mutikonka1.

At Gong Xianyao's house one room was a makeshift shrine devoted to members of his family who had passed on.

Horses need shoes

horse shoes, originally uploaded by mutikonka.

Before departing Lao Yulin my guide had to shoe all the horses.

Putting horse shoes on

putting horse shoes on, originally uploaded by mutikonka.

This is Gerler shoeing my horse. On my second trip I had to wait for two days while Gong Xianyao rounded up his horses.

Tibetan mastiff

hello dog, originally uploaded by mutikonka1.

This pooch belongs to my guide Gerler, who lived at Lao Yulin. Like all Tibetan hounds it was trained to bark at strangers.

Tibetan kids with my bag

kids with bag, originally uploaded by mutikonka1.

This was taken at Lao Yulin, as we were getting saddled up to leave.

In the saddle - departing Lao Yulin

In the saddle, originally uploaded by jiulong.

This is from my first trip to Minya Konka in 1996. It shows my Khampa Tibetan guide, Gerler, as we west off from his home near Lao Yulin. It would be a long day trekking up the gloomy and barren valley towards the Djesi la (pass). About half way through the day there was a fork in the track, with the left hand track heading over towards Hailuoguo.

Horses at Djesi La [加则拉]

Horses at Djesi La, originally uploaded by jiulong.

After a long day in the saddle we arrived at some yak herder's tents just below the Djesi Pass [加则拉] at about 15,000 feet.

The road to Minya Konka part 2: the Djesi La [加则拉] Hotel

black tent1, originally uploaded by mutikonka1.

After the first long a sore day in the saddle, as it got dark I began to wonder where we would be staying. Then, a dot on the hillside far away slowly came into clearer focus. I was a black yak hair tent being used by some yak herders as their "summer" accomodation. They grazed their yaks in the high pastures at 14,000-16,000 feet in the "warmer" months of June to September, before snow drives them back down to the relative lowlands of 10-12,000 feet.

On this occasion we squeezed in with the tentants of this black tent for the night. The floor was hardened mud and much of the tent was filled with smoke from the fire, giving me the characteristic Tibetan red-eyed look within an hour.

As night fell it began to snow and the yak herder brought in the yak calves to share one corner of the tent with me. The herders cooked up some noodles with chilli in their huge cooking pot, and this was complemented with the usual tsampa and some dried yak meat - kind of like beef jerky. I rolled out my bivvy bag on the muddy floor and amazed them by taking off my contact lenses - they thought I was taking my eyes out for the night.

Before we dropped off they cranked up some karaoke on a battery operated ghetto blaster and the men knocked off half a bottle of baijiu [rocket fuel spirits].

inside a black tent
Interior view of our cramped but cosy black tent. The weave of the hair is quite loose, allowing in a bit of light - and the wind!. When it rains, a few drips of rain to get through. But when it rains heavily the yak hair swells, closing the gaps.
Another view of the typical yak hair herder's tent. Vicious guard dog not pictured.
tent cuppa
My guide Ger-ler having a cup of yak butter tea in the tent. You can see some of the gaps that let the wind and rain in.
cuppa tent2
Put the kettle on ...
tent interior
Ger'ler with our hosts in the black tent.
black tent2
The following morning I woke up freezing cold, despite my down sleeping bag, air mat and bivvy bag. The snowfall during the night had transformed the landscape into a wintery but beautiful mountainscape.
cold djesi
This was the bitingly cold view I got when I first emerged from the tent. It is looking towards the Djesi Pass and the mountain called Chiburongi. The sun has only just touched the top of the peaks.
djesi yaks
A few minutes later the sun's rays were reaching down into the valley
djesi la snow
As we set off towards the Djesi Pass, the mountain Chiburongi came into view.
This is a snap I took of Chiburongi on the way up to the Djesi La.
Mt Chiburongi 1929
This is the same view captured by Joseph Rock with his autochrome colour prints 80 years earlier.
minya high
As we crossed over the Djesi La, we entered the top end of the Yulongsi valley. It was weird. There were vultures hopping about on top of the pass, and just after we descended a huge grey cloud billowed over the pass behind us and chased us down the hill like it was alive. We tried to outrun it, but it was soon on us and enveloped us in a blizzard. It was a complete whiteout, and I thought we'd had it. But as suddenly as it appeared it cleared up and seemed to vanish into thin air, leaving only a light mist and a small fall of snow that soon blew away.

my little pony
Here I am on the ridiculously small pony. With my long western legs buckled at 90 degrees to fit into the stirrups I found it excrutiatingly uncomfortable to ride for several hours a day. I also had the most skittish nag, which would buck and try throw me off every hour. It eventually succeeded in doing this just over the pass, and I thought I'd broken my arm for a while. Fortunately it was just bruised, and I swapped with my guide for a much more placid horse.

long march
As we descended into the much flatter Yulongsi valley I decided to walk to relieve my aching backside and calf muscles. The sheer size of the landscape was just overwhelming - it just went on and on for hour after hour of nothing. There were no signs of human life here at all.

For our second night in the hills we camped at the top end of the Yulongsi valley at the foot of the Djesi La. Here is my guide Gong Xianyao, in the sheep pen that we used for shelter. He had no sleeping bag - just a camp roll. I don't know how he survived the night in those freezing temperatures, but he refused all my offers to share the tent.

When we woke the next morning it was again bitterly cold. The frost-covered shape in the bodybag is Keith Lyons, who was not surprisingly even colder than I had been in the tent. God knows how our guide survived. We were alarmed to find that he and horses had gone. We thought he'd done a runner, but he re-appeared mid morning to tell us that the horses had been scared off by a wolf in the night. It took us most of the morning to find them, high up on a ridge overlooking the valley.
Cairn above Yulongsi 2
minya landscape
Looking for the horses we climbed this ridge that must have been between 16,000 and 17,000 feet high. It did me in but the view over to Minya Konka was worth it, in retrospect.
minya peaks
Here is a more close up view taken by Joseph Rock of the same range in 1929.
Minya Konka peaks, near Kangding
Skull on cairn, Yulongxi, near Kangding
At the top of the ridge there was a kind of pass where some Tibetans had erected a cairn decorated with a yak skull and some stone carvings.
Horse carving on cairn, Kham
Here is a detail of the stone carving on the cairn.
minya flags
yulonsi arrive
At the end of the second day in the hills we at last arrived at the inhabited middle section of the Yulongsi valley. Here our guide knew some people we could stay with in a real house.
This is the house where we stayed in Yulongsi before attempting the journey over the Tsemi La. It was a typical Tibetan dwelling, with the ground floor reserved for animals, and a notched log leading up to the cavernous dark first floor where we sat around a fire place on tiny stools. The Tibetans were masters of woodwork, but for some reason made no furniture for themselves. We kipped on the grimy wooden floor, but did not sleep well, as the house had an electrical clock that played a tinny but loud Happy Birthday on the hour.
door frame
The grandma of the house was spinning wool and making clothes with an ancient loom just like the one seen below.
A loom as seen by Joseph Rock in 1929.
Tibetan family at Yulongsi
The Tibetan family that acted as our hosts at Yulongsi.
mao poster
The walls were decorated with a weird tableau of Buddhist and Communist Party deities.

Over the Tsemi Pass [次梅拉] to the Konka monastery

tsemi sil, originally uploaded by jiulong.

From Yulongsi I followed in Joseph Rock's footsteps over the 16,000 foot high Tsemi La [次梅拉] to get to the Konka Gompa [monastery] at the foot of Minya Konka. This involved an early start and a long ride up the steep hill path to the pass. Most of the way up to the pass was barren grassy hills, giving way to rocky outcrops at high altitudes.

river cross
From Yulongsi we first had to ford a river on horseback to reach the foot of the hills we were going to cross.

Cairn above Yulongsi
Approaching the Tsemi La.

tsemi la horses
It was a great moment when, many hours later, after much puffing and panting by our poor overworked horses, we finally crested the ridge and Minya Konka came into sight. Here is Ge-ler with our horses on the first trip in 1996.

tsemi horses
This is me and Gong Xianyao on the Tsemi pass on the second visit to the monastery in 1999.

Photoshop Tsemi La
A sunburnt me on the Tsemi La for the first time - on my first trip.

tsemi la
This is the Tsemi La [次梅拉] in cloudy weather. Not much of a view of Minya Konka.

Tsemi Pass. As usual, Minya Konka is hidden in cloud.

This is the kind of view the lucky visitor gets on a rare clear day of Minya Konka from the Tsemi Pass.

minya horses
My guide Ge-ler told me that the last group he guided to the monastery included an American guy who broke his leg falling off his horse at this point. He was in extreme pain but could only be taken out on horseback. I was extra careful and walked this bit.

down from tsemi la
The track down from the pass to Tsemi village [次梅] is a steep zig zag through rhododendron bushes.

This is the village of Tsemi [次梅] at the bottom of the valley. I t is really only a collection of three or four houses. Cut off from the outside world, they were really stuck in a timewarp. They had a statue of Chairman Mao and used flintlock rifles, and communicate in a kind of warbling, yodelling dialect. Or maybe it was just the effect of the altitude on me!

tsemi village

Tsemi house

At Tsemi village we stopped to rest. On my first visit here I felt really bad at this point and wanted to stop and go back. Altitude sickness and lethargy was really getting to me and I just wanted to go to sleep.

horses ready
While resting at Tsemi, my guide forced me to drink some butter tea. I'd been living on camper's dried meals until then, which in retrospect I believe were lacking in fat and energy. The fatty yak butter tea must have boosted my energy - it certainly revived me and got me back on the horse again.

me and horses
Ge-ler ignored my requests to go back and insisted on delivering me to the monastery. Here I am about to embark on the final leg, up the Konka valley.

tsemi bridge
Crossing the Buchu stream on the way up to the Konka monastery.

river crossing
On our second trip we took a more roundabout route which involved crossing the Buchu river further down where it was in flood.

Minya Konka gompa  western side of Gongga Sahn
The Konka Gompa at last.

The Gompa in fog.

gongga gompa courtyard
The interior courtyard of the Gompa.

Minya Konka gompa monk
This is one of only two monks at the temple on my first visit

Minya Konka monk
This is the head lama of the Minya Konka lamasery in 1929.

minya lama
The monk at the Gompa told me he had a watch that was broken. It had been given to him by some American mountaineers a few years before. It turned out that its battery had run out. I promised to bring him a new one on my next visit. But when I returned three years later, he had died.

lama cupboard
The lama inside the main temple.

lama makes butter tea
Making butter tea.

lama fireside
We spent two days at the Konka Gompa. Most of the time the weather was thick fog. So we sat around the fire drinking tea and talking.

gompa fireside
Ger-ler and the lama round the fire. During my stay at the Gompa I suffered from bad headaches and disordered breathing from the high altitude.

minya wisp
Here is a view of the mountain taken by Joseph Rock in 1929.

monk on rock
Rock photographed these monks burning juniper near the monastery in 1929.

This is a visiting pilgrim at the monastery in 1929.

Gongga Shan glacier
A view of a higher part of the Minya Konka glacier from 1929.

glacier down
Joseph Rock's photo looking back down at the Konka Gompa
monastery from high up on the ridge, in 1929.

Some more photos [not mine] of Gongga Shan, taken from a Chinese website. I will credit them where I can, if I can get the Chinese translated:

Gonga Shan side view
Gongga Shan from Tsemi La
Gonga Shan from Tsemi La