Despite the cold night, I slept well in my tent on the shores of Wisdom Lake - or Ziho, as Wangdu had called it. I woke to the sound of ducks quacking and splashing on the lake surface nearby, and the sound of Peter's stove hissing away. There wasn't much room to move in my one man tent but I didn't want to get out of the warm cocoon of my sleeping bag just yet.
When I did, I emerged into an icy swamped world, with the dagger like peak of Jambeyang looking down on us. It was bitingly cold, and the dry beach that we had pitched our tents on the night before had been transformed into a waterlogged and marshy surface. The flysheet of my tent was rimed with ice, and the inner of the tent had sunk into a miniature puddle, and I had been saved from a complete swamping by the extended high sides of the waterproof groundsheet.
All the items that I had left under the flysheet and around the entrance vestibule of my tent had become soaked with water, and when I looked back inside the tent I noticed that I had actually slept in a small puddle that had formed under my Thermarest. I moved around slowly in the early morning frost, and slowly tried to pack up my gear and hang out some of the wettest items such as the flysheet and sleeping bag to dry on the rocks.
Pic: Peter Jost
I had a much-needed instant coffee and choked on some of the muesli that I forced myself to eat, made with milk powder and water from the lake. The water looked clean enough to drink without sterilising tablets, but I didn't take that chance. Peter was also packing up, and he laughed out loud when he lifted up his groundsheet and saw that his body heat had melted the icy ground beneath his tent, creating a puddle of water in the shape of a human body. The golden rays of the sun lit up the tops of the nearby ridges, and then our mood improved considerably as the sun came over the top of Jambeyang in the east and started to warm us up.
Pic: Peter Jost
The lakeside was then an idyllic spot, the smooth surface of the water acting like a mirror to reflect the nearby peaks, this image ruffled by the very faint early morning breeze. We had the whole place to ourselves, and the Tibetan encampment we'd seen across the lake the previous evening appeared unoccupied and devoid of life.
When Joseph Rock camped by this lake, which he called Russo Tso, in 1928, he described it as "the most dangerous part of the journey" because here "dwelled the worst of all the Konkaling outlaws":
"Our lama guide, who carried one of my rifles, looked anxiously about, then tremblingly handed the gun to my headman. High on the slopes, under a rocky shelter opposite the lake, we espied several Tibetans behind rocky parapets. They commanded the entire lake valley and could have kept us from moving forward. Whether they were bandits or pilgrims we never learned. They remained behind their rocky ramparts and watched as we laboriously climbed to another pass, a level alpine meadow with valleys radiating in various directions."
As we sorted out our camp, Peter and I also saw some Tibetans spying on us. A line of women in the usual visors, colourful scarves and the typical long skirts that Tibetan women wore, approached along on the lakeside path, and suddenly stopped in their tracks when they saw us. They paused for a moment and then started towards us, crossing over the scrub to come and investigate these two strange foreigners and their equipment.
When they arrived, they gave cursory nods of greeting and started unashamedly noseying around, ooh-ing and ahh-ing as they looked into our tents, fingering the material, and picked up our bags to see how heavy they were. They all carried the blunt hoe-like tools for digging up congcao. One of them was able to speak a little Mandarin, and she told us that they were heading up the hill to start foraging. And then, with little further ado, they set off, chattering away in high pitched voices, reminding me of the Knights of Ni from Monty Python's Holy Grail.
We took a long time to get ready to move out, leaving our wet gear out to dry and air in the sun, so it wasn't until 10.30am that I finally had everything packed up in my bag and shouldered it for the first time on this circuit of the mountains. It was punishingly heavy, and I worried whether I would be able to haul it up the next pass.
We moved out, moving around the lake towards the two Tibetan huts on the lower slopes of the hillside at the north end of the lake. This seemed the only way with a viable route to get up out of the lake valley and towards Shenrezig. Sure enough, when we reached the log cabins there was a rough track of sorts, and we started to ascend through the scrappy mix of bush and grass. There were a few Tibetan mules about, but no people.
As we got higher, the views back over the lake were amazing, and we could see the rocky trail from which we had descended the pass the previous day.
After about an hour of this slog we reached a series of cairns and the gradient eased off a little. We now had superb view of the south western face of Jambeyang ahead of us, the whole face covered in a coat of black ice that reflected the sun. I wouldn't want to try climbing that, I thought.
As we continued up, we saw no sign of Tibetans in any ramparts or otherwise. I clicked away on my cameras at the amazing views, pausing frequently to change the film - I had now mastered this finger fumbling art so that at a pinch I could do it while on the move. To my disappointment, I discovered that my Nikon 35Ti point and shoot camera had packed up, presumably because its electronics had been affected by the water soaking the previous night. I would have to rely on my all mechanical, totally analogue cameras, the Leica and the Rolleicord.
Another hour or so of relatively easy ascent brought us to a plateau and I sensed the final "Three Way pass" was not far off.
A few more strides across the brown grass and scrub, and surely there it was. A large heap of stones, festooned with red yellow blue and green prayer flags lay ahead, at the top of the rise. When we arrived there we had great views of both Shenrezig and Jambeyang, the latter looking almost close enough to reach out and touch. The tip of Chanadorje's peak could also be seen, peeping over a ridge in the distance, to the north.
We still enjoyed clear blue skies, and put down our heavy packs to walk around and explore this great spot, snapping away down the various different valleys. To our left, the pass allowed entrance to a valley that headed round the back (south side) of Shenrezig. I was back on familiar territory because this was the route I had taken on my previous visit nine years earlier. I had climbed up here from Luorong via the two lakes, and then returned to Chonggu Si by this route. This was now part of the most commonly walked trekking route in Yading, and I wondered if and when we would encounter our first people from the outside world.
I did not wish to repeat this old route, even though it would mean we would not do a complete circumambulation of all three peaks on this trip. Instead, I wanted to go down the Duron valley that runs between Shenrezig and Jambeyang, because - if the clear weather held out - this would give us spectacular views of all three peaks at the same time.
First, though, we paused for lunch. By now I had become thoroughly fed up with the oily 'ready to eat' meals of tuna and chicken that had seemed so appetising and filling when I had packed them in Australia. Just the sight of the labels on the tins made me want to retch. I ate a little of one, but was happy to accept the offer of some of Peter's salami and Vitawheat crackers, followed by some chocolate almonds. It was one the best meals I have ever enjoyed, mostly because of the location, and because it marked an unofficial finish line for the circuit trek. As this was the seventh and final pass, from here on, it would be downhill all the way, back to Chonggu Si.
We lingered for a long time around the Three Way Pass, before reluctantly setting off and heading back into 'the world'.
We tramped over a couple of scree mounds, and then emerged onto the ridge overlooking the valley containing Niunai Hai, or Milk Lake. Its translucent deep green waters appeared in a much more attractive setting than when we had last seen them on our initial recce visit during the bleak and blustery snowy gales of almost a week ago.
As we started our descent we saw the first Yading tourists coming up from below - a group of four Han Chinese tourists, some on horseback being escorted by Tibetan guides. The ones who were walking were togged up in an amazing array of shiny new mountaineering gear, complete with walking poles and windproof jackets buttoned up to the max, despite the warm and pleasant weather. Walking past them in our shirtsleeves, with unshaven, wind-burned faces and with our dirty gear hanging off the backs of our packs, we must have looked like tramps. They didn't say hello or ni hao.
Instead of continuing down the main trail, we diverted off on a smaller but higher level track to the left that looked like it would take us along the ridge above Wuse Hai (Five Colour Lake). As we continued along, approaching the hulking east face of Shenrezig, we also gained better views of Jambeyang's triangular western face, and also increasingly good views down the valley towards Chanadorje and an interesting conical black peak somewhere in between.
The views were amazing, and I was so busy taking pictures, swapping my wide angle 28mm lens for the 50mm lens on the Leica and then switching to the Rolleicord, that I lost track of Peter, who had continued on further down. When I reached the edge of the lake, the water level was looking much lower than when I had last visited in 2001, and there was also a lot less snow than at that time.
By now I was encountering more groups of Chinese day trippers who were sweating their way up from the Milk Lake terminus of the pony express. Some of them looked at us in amazement, and one group even stopped especially to try take my picture. I had not looked in a mirror for almost a week and wondered what I must look like to them. I had one final look around on the ridge over Wuse Hai lake, which now had signposts describing the views. I saw the cairn where I had taken a spectacular picture on my last visit, but by the time I reached it the clouds were starting to roll in ad I was unable to capture the same fine views of Chanadorje as before.
All that remained now was the 'easy' descent to Luorong. I plodded wearily down the track, passing more groups of Chinese tourists, and headed off down the gully where we had previously ascended with horses. However, this supposedly 'easy' descent proved to be a very long hard slog. I had mentally already crossed the finish line, and began to resent the continued need to drag myself over more boulders, and was especially frustrated when I found myself having to do more sections of 'uphill' towards the end, as I reached the lower reaches of the valley and the track twisted back up through trees. The pack straps dug into my shoulders and I was terribly thirsty. Once again, my water bottle was dry, and there was no sign of Peter. Was he ahead of me or behind?
After what seemed like hours (and some nice views of Chanadorje), I passed a few makeshift shelters and the huts of the Luorong 'horse hire' station came into view. I also got my first glimpse of the upper end of the unsightly 'bullet train' concrete ribbon, and the ugly hanger-like building that I presumed served as a garage or power station for it.
As I took my last few weary steps to the Luorong huts there appeared to be nobody around. I flopped down on the wooden bench outside the main hut, where from within I could hear the sounds of one of the Chinese Liberation-era war movies playing on a TV. The head of a Tibetan man popped out and he looked at me quizzically, wondering why a tourist had arrived so late in the day when most tourists were presumably heading in the opposite direction. I told him I had just completed a complete round-the-mountains circuit but he didn't seem at all impressed. Perhaps he didn't believe me. So I asked him for a bowl of their 'convenience noodles', just like the last time we had visited.
It was about 5pm when I tucked into my plastic bowl of chilli noodles. They were disgusting, but I enjoyed every slurp. I had completed the Yading Big Kora.