Thursday, June 03, 2010

Yading 'Big Kora' Trek Diary, Part 1 - Getting ready

I have of course, already made one trip to Yading, almost ten years ago. You can read about that brief trip here. At that time, the Yading National Park was still in its infancy and there were few facilities at Yading or at the park entrance near Chonggu monastery. To cater for the increasing numbers of visitors, the monks at the monastery had erected a grubby old marquee tent and knocked up a couple of makeshift shacks from planks of pine, which contained a few camp beds and dirty mattresses. Another couple of ragged-looking marquees and wooden shacks had been put in further up the valley at Luorong.

Like most of the visitors at that time I did the standard 'tourist' trekker route, which comprised the inner kora (circuit) of Shenrezig. This was essentially a very long day walk over a couple of passes, starting from Luorong, going up past the two lakes (Wuse Hai and Niunai Hai) below Shenrezig to the first 'three-way' pass and then turning left to complete the circuit by going behind Shenrezig and returning to Chonggu Si monastery via another rather arduous pass. I had travelled in May and was very fortunate in that I had a clear day for my walk, and got great views of all three mountains: Jambeyang, Chanadorje and Shenrezig, from the lakes area. As is usual in these parts, the cloud increased by mid afternoon, and the crossing of the second pass was done in cold and overcast weather.

So what made me go back? Well, I never got to see the other more remote parts of this mountain range that Joseph Rock described in his article The Holy Mountains of the Outlaws. He came in from the western side and did a full circuit of the three peaks, stopping finally at Chonggu Si before returning to Muli. I had really only seen the final part of his trek, that bit which lay in the (admittedly very scenic) Duron Valley. I'd always wanted to explore a little more and fill in the blanks.

Around Christmas 2009 I was thinking about making a return trip to south-western China. After ten years of on-again, off-again interest in the areas visited by Joseph Rock I had come to feel that I had 'been there, done that'. I had done Minya Konka, Muli, the Mekong and Kawakarpo areas and most recently I had been to the Salween. The only place I hadn't been to was the more northerly destination of Choni, in Gansu province, where Rock had spent a winter at the Buddhist monastery, preparing for an interesting but abortive attempt to reach Amnye Machen by following the Yellow River. This was my 'missing link', the last piece of the jigsaw in terms of 'collecting' Rock trips, but I wasn't very keen. I really wanted to see some mountains, and Choni area was relatively gentle in terms of hills. During one of my weekend saunters down Oxford St in Sydney I had popped into one of the many second hand bookshops (Berkelouw's, I think) and found myself leafing through an old book from the 1940s by the mountain climber and photographer FS Smythe. I was instantly transported into another alpine world of peaks, footprints in the snow, gnarled trees and glacier moraines. This is where I want to be, I thought. I wanted to be up high, in the clouds again.

In fact I really wanted to do a long-ish alpine walk, and really get away from it all - but where to go? At first I thought about doing the 'big' kora around Mt Kawakarpo (Meili Xueshan) in NW Yunnan near Deqin. This would involve crossing over from the Mekong to the Salween and then back again, and would mean traversing several high passes in a trip of about eight to ten days. A guy called Richard Scotford has guided trips on this kora and describes them here. It sounds great. But I had only recently been in the Salween (Nujiang) region and this would mean a return to almost the same place. So my thoughts turned to Yading. Surfing the web I found an account of a 'big' or outer kora of all three of the three peaks, written as part of a travel diary by a young American traveller and photographer called Lloyd Raleigh. He gave a vague but amusing account of this arduous trip, which involved crossing six or seven passes over a seven day period. He made it sound like fun, and the few photos he included on his web travel diary looked stunning - mountain peaks, alpine lakes, forest of spruce and fir trees and rhododendrons and some pretty rugged country. I decided to go.

The only problem was that I had no decent map of the area other than Lloyd's artistic sketch map, which was not to scale (and he had got lost and went off the proper route during his trek - hardly reassuring). Also, his track notes were not very specific, and were hard to follow because he referred to the mountains using the English translations of their Tibetan names - 'Wisdom' for Shenrezig, 'Power' for Chanadorje, and 'Compassion' for Chanadorje. Or was it the other way around? Whatever ... I had made my mind up to do the trip and pencilled it in for mid to late May. In theory, this was one of the best times to go. Joseph Rock says in his articles that late spring (May-June) and autumn (September-October) are the seasons most likely to provide the ideal conditions for travelling in western Sichuan and northern Yunnan. During winter the passes are closed by snow, and I knew from bitter experience that the conditions can be frigidly cold and bleak. In summer it is the rainy season, when the remnants of the monsoon rains sweep over from Burma and create drizzly and overcast conditions from late June to early September. So May it was.

I posted a message on this blog to announce my intentions, and said that I was looking for a trekking partner. Past experience has shown me that it's best not to travel alone in these parts, for safety reasons if nothing else. Within a few days I had a few tentative inquiries from around the world. An American guy doing postgrad research into tourism in China said he would be in the area and would be interested in coming along. Closer to home, I had an email from an old internet contact, Peter, with whom I had previously corresponded about treks in the Kham area. Peter was from Geelong in Victoria, and with a group of friends who were also keen bushwalkers he had already done some interesting treks in the Gongga Shan and Ganze areas of Tibetan Sichuan. From their photos they looked like real trekkers, with all the right gear, quite unlike my own makeshift attempts at being an outdoorsy person. Peter said he was also tempted by the prospect doing the 'big' kora at Yading, and was hopeful he could get some time off work. By a stroke of luck, he lived just around the corner from my auntie in Geelong, and a couple of weeks later while paying a visit to her I was able to drop by at his house to talk things over with him.

It's funny meeting someone else who shares an interest in a fairly obscure area. I'm normally used to the glazed expressions and bizarre, off-the-mark questions that emanate from people when I try and explain the attraction of trekking in western China in the footsteps of the plant collectors and explorers of the early 20th century. Peter, however, 'spoke the same language', and he had an impressive - perhaps even intimidating- aura of competence about him, quite unlike my own 'seat of the pants' approach to meandering in the mountains. We were soon discussing the finer points of how we'd go about the trek - he'd already looked up the route on Google Maps, and pulled up a great 3-D display of the whole route, complete with GPS points, courtesy of a Chinese guy who claimed on his website to have taken a mountain bike around the kora!
Yading kora
I shared a few of my dog-eared old paper documents about various aspects of the trip. Another interesting question he posed was why so few people were interested in trekking in this area of China. Modern-day would-be adventurers complain that it's hard to really get away from it all these days - the Annapurna Circuit is now all tea houses and paved roads. And yet the Kham area of China/Tibet is still unfrequented by westerners - why is that? Is it the language barrier? Or just a perception that China is overcrowded and polluted and too difficult because of red tape and regulations? Who knows the answer? Well, we didn't - but we parted with an agreement to meet up in early May in Chengdu.

Now, I’m 47 years old and not exactly a fitness fanatic. I don’t go to the gym or do any regular exercise or sport, so I decided I needed to get into slightly better physical shape to do this trek. For the six weeks before I embarked on the walk I started going for a run every day, eight laps around the local park football field, taking about twenty minutes – just long enough to break into a serious sweat. It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t pretty. I expected that after going through an initial ‘pain barrier’ period I would start to feel better and fitter, but that never happened. Every evening after work I dragged myself around the park, and every day it was just another tiring drag. If anything, I started to feel even more tired and worn out after several weeks of this. I just hoped it would be ‘alright on the night’.

For my tickets, I went to my usual travel agent - China Travel Service near Sydney's Central Station - and I was pleasantly surprised to find this time that I could get a return from Sydney to Chengdu, via Guangzhou, for a little over $1000. That was about $500 cheaper than my last trip. I put in my passport with them as well, to apply for a China visa, being careful to avoid listing my occupation on the application form as ‘journalist’ and instead putting something vague about working in publishing.

With my tickets booked, I then started thinking about what gear to take. After all my previous trips I have always always vowed to travel with as little as possible next time, but how can you ‘travel light’ when you are expecting to camp out in the mountains for up to seven nights?

I went out to the garden shed and dug out my hiking gear, much of it now 15 or so years old. My rain jacket had seen better days – when I hung it up readying it for a re-waterproofing I found that it had large tears under the arms, and the zips didn't work. My faithful and comfortable boots were in a similar sorry state of disrepair, with the soles looking like they were about to part company with the uppers. It was time for a visit to the canyon of Kent St, home to Sydney’s outdoor gear shops.

The next Saturday morning I trawled my way through Paddy Pallin, Kathmandu, Mountain Equipment, Macpac and the many other gear shops offering a plethora of equipment – much of which I had never even seen before. Water bottles, I discovered, were now an archaic tool from the past – the done thing in the 21st century is to take a camelback-style 'hydration system'. The one I was persuaded to purchase was allegedly designed for the Israeli Army and guaranteed not to become smelly because it repelled germs.
The gear shops of Kent St stocked an intimidating array of gadgets and appliances that I felt guilty for not bringing with me. Most of these items were exhorbitantly priced compared to what you would pay for their 'civilian' equivalents. Carbon fibre knives and forks for $50. Titanium cooking pots, $100 each. Walking poles. 'Second skin' dressings for treating blisters. And the clothing! Gone are the days when you can set off into the hills wearing a manly thick jumper, a lumberjack shirt and a tough pair of trousers - tweed or corduroy, probably (and not forgetting to tuck your trouser bottoms into your thick hiking socks). Now it's all about shells and layers, made of fibres that have the word 'poly' in them. And in pastel or dayglo colours. I fingered numerous examples of Gore Tex and other waterproof fabrics as I searched out a replacement rain jacket. One of the best was a sturdy-feeling coat I found in the Macpac shop, but it was only available in a shade of pinky-orange. Not wanting to look like a lump of bubblegum on legs, I instead opted for a jacket from Mountain Designs, mainly because it was the same reassuringly subdued blue colour as the one it was replacing.

As well as buying a new jacket, I also walked away with a new pair of Kathmandu hiking boots (one size too big as it turned out), a pair of those gossamer thin hiking trousers with zips that convert them into shorts, a new pair of high-tech socks and seven packets of Gordon Ramsay restaurant-priced freeze-dried meals, that promised to transform into delicious-sounding treats such as Mexican Chicken once water was added. (By the way, later on, when emptying out an old backpack, I found I still had a couple of these left over from a previous trip some years ago. The expiry date was 2006 –four years ago - but I tried one anyway and it tasted just like new - ie crap. I'm sure they're all made from the same ingredients, just with different flavourings added.)

New boots have to be broken in, of course, so the next day saw me on my run pounding round the park in my new outsize hiking boots, eliciting some very strange looks from the mums and dads supervising their kids at soccer practice.

The other essential items of kit for any Woodhead hike are books. I can’t spend several weeks on the road in China without something to read, but at the same time I am loathe to spend large amounts of money on books that I will end up discarding or giving away. So it was off to the Op Shop (charity store) to see what kind of $1 wonders I could rustle up. After passing on several copeis of The Da Vinci Code, for this trip the best I could find on the shelves was the autobiography of yachtsman Sir Francis Chichester, a collection of Jeremy Clarkson articles from the Sunday Times and pseudo-travelogue by a London writer Jenny Diski on her quest for silence and solitude in New Zealand and Finland.

Then it was time to think about food. On previous trips I had relied on those freeze dried meals for dinner and a combination of Vitawheat crackers and cheese for lunch. Not very tasty, but it worked. I should have stuck with the successful formula. Instead, I found some small tins of ‘ready to eat’ meals at the local Woolworths, which contained tuna or chicken mixed with pasta and vegetables (well, carrots and beans). They looked quite tasty and handy, so I bought six, thinking they would suffice for lunch. I also allowed myself six Snickers bars for energy. For breakfast I bought a big bag of my favourite muesli and got some milk powder in a ziplock bag.

The other major item to fill my backpack was camera gear. Being one of the last people in the world to still prefer using film over digital, this meant bringing a large bag of film canisters, as well as three different film cameras. With a collection of more than ten film cameras – all of which I am passionately attached to - it was hard to choose which ones to bring.
In the end I settled for my big Rolleicord medium format camera, the Leica M2 as the mainstay, and a small Nikon 35Ti ‘point and shoot’ for slide film. Altogether I packed about 70 rolls of 35mm film (Kodak 400 print film and Kodak E100 G Ektachrome) and 12 rolls of Ektachrome 120 film.

When I put all this plus my spare clothes, sleeping bag (a Mont 3-season), Thermarest and tent (a Walrus one-man lightweight job) in the pack it clocked up almost 20kg on the bathroom scales. Oh dear. I decided it would be a good idea to have a trial run to see if I could manage such a heavy load, and also to check out all this new gear to make sure it all worked.

Paul en route to North Era, Nikon 35Ti + Kodak Elite Chrome slide film

A couple of weeks later I took my 10-year old son Paul on a practice walk - a gentle overnight trip to the camping ground at North Era beach, in the Royal National Park south of Sydney. After a lovely apple pie and cream to start us off at the café near Otford, we set off along the clifftop track and down through the ‘Palm Jungle’ to Burning Palms beach and beyond. As well as being a pleasant interlude, the trip taught me a few valuable lessons - I discovered that the rain jacket was very sweaty and very fiddly to zip up, my boots were too big (more thick socks needed) and my backpack sat uncomfortably low on my back and I kept trying to hitch it up. My food choices seemed OK, but the trip also reinforced the fact that I would need to be carrying a lot of water – we consumed two litres in just a few hours of relatively easy walking.

Back at home, after a few last minute purchases and adjustments, I was now ready to go. All I had to do now was wait those last few weeks and days. And oh, how slowly they seemed to tick over. "Big trip coming up - are you excited??!" people would ask me at work. Well, no, not really. More worried about what might go wrong. And as I was to discover, plenty of things would go wrong.

[To be continued]

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