It was a relief to get away from the Yading guesthouse after almost four days there, especially as the pipes had frozen and cut off the water supply to the toilets, which now stank to high heaven. We went down the hill at 8am and found the usual crowd of Tibetan horse handlers sitting around the gatehouse area. We went into manager Dorje's office and asked if he was still able to help us out with guides.
"No problem, no problem, just wait outside," he said, waving us away.
Ten minutes later he came out and said he had arranged two guides for us, at a cost of 200 kuai per day each, to take us over to Garu and on to Lugu Lake, if we wished.
"What about horses?" I asked.
"Ha! Horses can't make it! The track is too steep," he snorted. "You can only take guides - they will carry your bags for you." And the two guides he had selected were already familiar to us.
One of them, an older guy wearing a cowboy hat, had been clowning around with us the day before as I took his picture. He had asked me to send him a camera, as he didn't have one. His name was Wangdu. The other guide was the pushy and sullen guy who had been pestering us to hire him two days earlier. It didn't look like we had any choice but to hire him. His name was Dorje.
Before we set off, I sat down with both of them and thrashed out the deal. I didn't want any unpleasant extra charges or changes of plan later in the trek.
"OK, you will take us over the pass to Garu, and we will pay you 200 yuan a day for the two day trip and also two days pay for you to make the return trip. Understood?"
The sullen one agreed, but the older guy spoke up.
"Actually, it will only take us one day to return, so you only need to pay us for three days," he said, in an amazing and reassuring display of honesty.
And so that was agreed. They went off 'to get some supplies' for the trip and we waited in an almost festive atmosphere as the other Tibetans sitting around chatted about us and our trip.
Presently, Wangdu and Dorje returned with a small sack about the size of a shopping bag. That was the sum total of their supplies.
"Won't you need sleeping bags and food?" I asked.
"No need. There will be places to stay on the way. There will be people living up there," said Wangdu, pointing with his chin and lips in the Tibetan way up at the hills.
And without further ado they shouldered our packs and we set off, up the tourist track on the first stage of our trek. There were a few farewells to the assembled crowd, and then we were on our way.
After only ten minutes of walking, however, there was a lot of commotion and Wangdu turned around and put down his bag, to walk back down the hill. "Just a moment, won't be long ..." he said, as he disappeared into the distance.
He returned about ten minutes later accompanied by a young Tibetan woman with striking features, who I had noticed yesterday. It was his daughter, and she had insisted on relieving her father's load and carrying one of the bags at least as far as the monastery.
Pic: Peter Jost
Once again, we were on our way, but we didn't feel very adventurous. Here we were walking up a signposted tourist trail, which we shared with Chinese day trippers who sauntered past on horseback, bidding us good day with a "How Are You?" or "Ni Hao!" greetings. My bag was being carried by a young woman and I was already sweating and struggling for breath. Not an auspicious start.
On reaching the 'bullet train' terminus Wangdu took the backpack from his daughter and said a cursory farewell. We set off once more, this time along the concrete track and I expected that we would hike the mile or so up to the gully before heading up the mountain, so it was a surprise when we almost immediately left the concrete road and followed a small footpath that meandered up into the thick forest that surrounded the trail. It was only a few hundred metres on the left from the Chonggu Si terminal, and if you are looking for it, then be advised that it forks off well before a set of picnic tables.
The track lead up through the forest, which was a mixture of larch and fir lower down, and rhododendron (with pink flowers) higher up.
Within minutes I was floundering. Every step upwards left me gasping for breath. It was as if I had just run a 100 yard sprint and was trying to get my breath back after reaching the finish line, bent over, hands on hips to try get more air into my lungs. I tried all my old high altitude trekking techniques. Counting breaths, 1-2-3-4, counting steps, stopping every ten paces, and setting myself little goals such as reaching a rock a few yards ahead ... none of it seemed to offer any relief from the unrelenting 'instant exhaustion' that befell me as soon as I put one foot in front of the other. The constant hyperventilating and the rapid beating of my heart left me worried for the strain it was all putting on my body, not to mention the nausea and faint headedness I was feeling. After an hour I was considering packing it all in. I felt like death and I was falling further behind the others as I took more and more rest stops to regain some kind of control of my breath.
Somehow, I managed to carry on, taking baby steps and bending over like an old man, crawling at snail's pace up the trail until we reached the end of the tree line and emerged from the forest into open hillside. Here the track levelled out and we could see how our little path had been a short cut that connected up with the large gully. We were on the right track.
As the trail contoured around the side of the hill into the massive gully, we gained sweeping views of the Luorong valley below us, and in particular the unsightly white line of the 'bullet train' track. As we continued up the valley - we reached a basin beneath some prominent red rock turrets. On the flat grassy area were a couple of stone hut shelters. This was presumably the camping site that Joseph Rock referred to as Bayu in his account of his 1928 trip, situated in the Shindze Valley - the gully we were travelling up.
Whereas for us this was the first leg of the trip, for Rock, this was part of the final leg of his journey around the mountains, after he had spent three "most disagreeable nights" at the Chonggu Si monastery, plagued as he was by smoke, filth and ammonia-like fumes from the adjacent tables.
This is what he wrote:
"We left on the final lap for a pass up the Shindze Valley. There we camped at 15,800 feet, where we could view both Jambeyang and Shenrezig to the best advantage should weather conditions permit. We spent two nights at this high camp, called Bayu. The second morning, with a temperature of 40 degrees Fahrenheit on June 26, my lama [guide] awakened me at 4.30am, calling into my tent: 'Behold the glory of Jambeyang and Shenrezig - your luck indeed was great!' I rose and stepped into the cold grey morn. In a cloudless sky before me rose the peerless pyramid of Jambeyang, the finest mountain my eyes ever beheld. The sky was greenish black. The snowy pyramid was grey, but the apexes of both it and Shenrezig suddenly turned a golden yellow as the sun's rays kissed them."
Our luck was not so great and weather conditions did not permit such a rapturous vision. Instead, opposite us across the valley we could see the huge grey limestone razorback ridge, which I recognised from Joseph Rock's photograph of the site.
In his picture, taken on a clear day, both Jambeyang and Shenrezig were visible from this point, but we could see neither of them, as their summits were obscured in the low cloud.
Nevertheless, it was a nice place to take a break, and we ducked into one of the stone shelters to have lunch. Inside it was cold and dark, but at least we got some shelter from the wind. And at last I was lightening my load by consuming some of the supplies I had brought all the way from Australia. I had the first of my tuna and past ready-to-eat meals from a tin, and it didn't taste too bad, if a little oily.
Then it was onwards and upwards, and the going didn't seem as bad as it had in the morning. The landscape was bleak - brownish moorland and rocky outcrops, as we ascended towards a plateau surrounded by dark rocky ridges. I had been worried about this first pass because, at over 16,000 feet, it was the highest we would have to tackle. So far, however, it didn't seem to be too hard. We ascended from one plateau to another, and the weather deteriorated as we got higher.
Pic: Peter Jost
The wind blew very hard, but fortunately it was blowing from behind us. We were also bombarded with small particles of snow, almost like polystyrene balls. As we ascended a further false ridge we heard faint whoops and cries, and came across two Tibetans out gathering for congcao. They hailed us over and we sat down together for a longer rest as the fungus gatherers conferred with our two guides over a cigarette.
The pass now appeared to be quite close, and we had reached a final plateau surrounded by sinister black ridges of rock. The track was marked by a series of small cairns and as we continued on up we saw what looked like the pass at the head of a shallow incline. We had made it to our first objective!
When we reached it, the pass was marked by the usual cairns and strings of prayer flags, many of which were in a very ragged condition because of being battered by the high winds and rain at this altitude. The pass was relatively level, and nestled beneath a large outcrop of flat, slate-like schist.
We didn't hang around for long because the bitter cold wind was blowing hard, urging us on, to start the descent in the direction of Garu.
Over the ridge we were confronted by a grim and empty landscape of more jagged rocky ridges, black peaks jutting into the mist, and grey rock buttresses running into the distance. The track threaded down through the open tussock grass and made a relatively gentle descent. So much easier going down!
We plodded on down, with a massive high grey solid rock ridge emerging on our left hand side. On top of the ridge a few boulders perched precariously - one in particular looked like it had been placed there by a giant and would need only a slight push to set it rolling down the precipitous slope.
We were in a good mood on the way down and Peter and I noted that there had been none of the snow on the passes or steep slopes that we had been warned about so much by the naysayers back in Yading. If the highest pass was free of snow, we reasoned, the remaining lower altitude passes on the kora should also be open. So why don't we try for the kora instead of Garu and Lugu Lake?
On our next rest stop we put this proposal to our guides, and offered to pay them the same rate per day for taking us around the mountains instead of down to Garu. For a six day trip, this means they would get 1200 RMB instead of the 600 RMB they were expecting for the trip to Garu.
They agreed without demur, but said they would have to 'stock up on supplies' at a settlement further down the valley. They said there were 'people living up here' collecting congcao, but we could see no sign of anyone for the next hour or so. All we saw were a series of ridges extending to the horizon, in the direction of Muli.
However, in the late afternoon as we rounded another corner in the hills, we were suddenly confronted with a veritable mini-metropolis of makeshift stone huts sited in a natural basin. There must have been about twenty such huts, many emanating signs of smoke from cooking fires. Some had slate roofing, others were covered with heavy plastic sheeting held in place with heavy stones.
As we approached closer we heard the sounds of smashing glass, and spied three young kids playing on a large pyramid of empty green beer bottles, which they were smashing by throwing rocks at them.
"This is where people come up from the valley in May to dig for congcao," explained Wangdu. He seemed wary about approaching the huts, as they were populated by Garu people, a different tribe to his Yading brethren. I could understand his wariness - there had been a long series of local disputes over grazing rights and gold panning rights between the various peoples of the Konkaling.
Dogs were tethered on chains outside some of the huts, barking at us, and one or two people wandered about this temporary township city in the hills, but paid no attention to us. A few yak grazed on a flat section of turf and there was even a little store, complete with a snooker table. How had anyone hauled a snooker table up into these mountains?
After seeing its shopping and cultural potential I dubbed the settlement Hammersmith. Like its London namesake it had a Palais [of sorts], and now there were white men in it.
Wangdu introduced himself to the tough-looking and rather bossy young woman who ran the Hammersmith 'store' and soon we were settled inside around the fire, sipping butter tea along with a few other young men who popped in to see who the foreign visitors were.
Photo: Peter Jost
No one seemed surprised to see us, and we were welcomed to join them around the fire as if this kind of thing happened all the time. A few young kids came over to stare in at us, and we delighted them by offering them some balloons that were soon blowing about the windy environs of the camp.
Wangdu and Dorje sat with us and said they would get some more supplies here for our trip, including borrowing some coats and blankets.
Before it got dark we pitched our tent between two of the stone huts and settled in for the night. There were no toilets in the settlement, just squatting sites further up the hill behind the bushes. I hoped this wasn't where they drew their water from.
And so it was here in Hammersmith that we spent our first night of the trek. After dark there were few lights about the settlement, except for the store, which had cranked up a petrol-powered little generator to run a lightbulb. I settled own for what would prove to be a very cold and long night, for which my sleeping bag alone did not provide enough warmth. I had to get up and don all my extra clothes before I could get back to sleep, wondering what the next day would bring.