The last time I visited Daocheng it was something of a backwater, a one-street town with just one decrepit official hotel for foreigners and a couple of colourful Tibetan guesthouses. Now the whole main street was lined with guesthouses and we were besieged by touts as soon as we got off the bus, offering to take us to the 'official' YHA youth hostel, or one of several other trekker's hostels. Other Tibetans crowded in on us and offered private transport to Yading. At least it looked like we'd have no problems getting there!
Ignoring the touts, we walked across the road and discovered a wonderful and cosy cafe-cum-guesthouse, the 'Here Cafe' (Gaoyuan Kezhan, or Plateau Youth Hostel), set up by a delightful young Chinese couple in a converted Tibetan house.
The couple, Yang Na and Xiong Ke, had moved from Chongqing and created a very homely and relaxing trekker's lodge in this otherwise austere little town. We looked longingly at the comfy sofas and were disappointed to hear that their dorm rooms were already full, but they quickly arranged a room for us in the 'overflow' next door, run by a lovely friendly Tibetan woman who ran the adjacent little wooden kiosk shop. When we mentioned that we were planning to spend a whole week or more at Yading, Yang Na gasped and said - "Oh, are you Michael? Doing the kora? An American guy called Travis has been hanging around here waiting for you ..." Small world indeed.
She told us that 'Travis' had moved on to Yading, and we would no doubt run in to him at the guesthouse there the following day.
After shedding our big packs, we had a quick look around town and dived into a small restaurant for something to eat. The great thing about restaurants in small Chinese towns is that you can just walk in and ask the owner to prepare whatever you fancy. No need for menus. They invariably have the raw ingredients such as beanshoots, vegetables and mushrooms on display on the shelves, and the meat is in the fridge. In this case, we asked the lady to stir fry us some pork and peppers and also some mushrooms and tomatoes. "No. Better the other way round," she replied. "Pork with tomato, mushroom with peppers." And so that was that. One day someone will open a DIY restaurant in Sydney like this, and it will be a huge success.
After the shirt-sleeves weather of Chengdu, Daocheng was cold. Very cold. I had been banking on buying some kind of thermals in China, but the Daocheng shops had little on offer. There were several selling all manner of Tibetan paraphernalia such as beads and incense from India ('Export Quality'), but when it came to warm clothing the best I could manage was padded waistcoat trimmed with imitation fur. It would have to do.
Back at the Here Cafe we settled into the cosy chairs and sipped our Snow Beers. Xiong Ke, the slightly boho co-owner, told us that he had done the kora a couple of years ago and we shouldn't have any problems finding the way. We wouldn't even need tents, he said, because there were yak herders huts along the way. His beautiful partner said it would be a nice alternative to the now over-developed main valley. "They have golf buggies running up and down the valley now to carry tourists," she said, in American accented English. Golf buggies? Well, electric powered carts. Aiyah!
There were only two problems with our proposed kora trip, said Xiong Ke. Firstly, it was the wrong season for doing the kora - most Tibetans did it in October, when the weather was milder and clear, not in May when it could still be cold and icy or cloudy. The more pressing problem was that it was now the 'congcao' (pronounced Chongtsao) season. The congcao - or awato - is a strange kind of fungus that develops inside the carcass of a caterpillar buried just under the surface of the soil, and it is greatly prized for its medicinal and rejuvenating properties. A single congcao can sell for hundreds of kuai in the big cities like Shanghai, and Tibetans sold them for about 25-30 yuan locally. They were only in season in the last few weeks of May, and during this time Tibetans emigrate en masse into the hills, where they can be seen rummaging through the topsoil with small metal hoes, digging up the fungus. During this time few Tibetans would be interested in breaking off this lucrative activity to earn 100yuan a day for guiding western trekkers, said Xiong Ke.
The next morning, after an amazing Yunnan coffee, Yang Na and Xiong Ke set us up with a reliable driver, and he was given instructions to take us to the same guesthouse where Travis, our mysterious would-be co-trekker was staying. After a breakfast of xiaolong bao (small steamed bread buns with meaty fillings) we embarked in a tiny minivan driven by the portly gruff Tibetan, who wore the typical off-the-shoulder Tibetan cape and even kept his cowboy hat on throughout the drive. Aside from offering to take us on the kora himself, he said little on the two hour journey over the hills to Yading. We passed through what had once been Riwa township, but which has now been confusingly re-named 'Shangri-La', in the same way as the much bigger town of Zhongdian in Yunnan has adopted this tourist-friendly moniker (Xiangelila in Chinese). Then we reached the entrance to the Yading National Park, where we had to pull in to a major gatehouse complex and carpark to purchase our Y150 park entrance tickets. It was here that we ran into Travis, who was travelling as a passenger in a beat-up Landcruiser, accompanied by a rather slick young Chinese woman wearing a purple coat and knee-high boots. He was a tall, rugged blond-haired guy who looked like he'd just hiked out of the mountains of his native Colorado.
Travis introduced himself to me and said that he had been hoping to accompany us on the trek, but he had developed a really bad chest infection in the last week and it was refusing to go away despite being blasted with every antibiotic the local hospital clinic could throw at it. So, regretfully, he was going to have to pass on the chance of doing the kora this time around. He would however, be basing himself in Yading for a while as he was working on a PhD thesis on how Chinese tourism was developing. We drove on together and soon arrived at Yading, where our driver deposited us at a very un-promising looking building site around an old Tibetan house that had a sign outside proclaiming it to be the Dengba Guesthouse.
The owner, a rather diffident young Chinese guy from Anhui, apologised for the mess, and said the rooms would be ready by that evening but were still being fitted out with bedclothes and basic furniture. We took his word for it (with Travis' reassurance that this was the place to stay) and went for a walk around Yading. Almost every building in the tiny settlement of about ten houses had been turned into a guesthouse of some sort (even one called [Joseph] 'Rock's Rooms'), but we appeared to be the only tourists in town. The only other people about were groups of friendly old Tibetan grannies and granddads, and lots of snotty-nosed Tibetan urchin kids. No shops, and no restaurants.
The other major thing we realised about Yading was that the actual entrance to Yading National Park was way down below in the bottom of the valley - about 500 metres lower down and a good mile's walk away.
On this our first day at Yading, we went for a 'familiarisation' walk down to the park gate and then an hour's walk up the valley to Chonggu Si monastery. Going down was a drag, but once we got past the gatehouse and the many Tibetans offering houses for hire, I realised that I was seriously unprepared for the high altitude.
Even the gentle incline of the gravel track up to the monastery soon had me rasping for air and stopping for regular rests to get my breath back. We had come up almost directly from sea level to 4000 metres and it's no wonder that we were left floundering like fish out of water. Along the trail we encountered quite a few Chinese tourists who were rising horses up to the monastery. Some of them had brought along aerosol bottles of oxygen. I didn't think I would have to go that far - but it didn't bode well for our plans to be hiking at much higher altitudes, carrying a 20kg pack.
The trail up to Chonggu Si had been upgraded and signposted since my last visit. Past the 'Dongle Bridge', a musical toilet block and many mani stone cairns, I found the monastery had changed for good and for bad. On the positive side, the rickety old shacks and dirty marquee tent accommodation blocks had been removed, making the place look neater. A large and ornate new chanting hall had been added to the group of buildings, on the site of an old ruin. However, the area around the monastery had been developed into a dire 'tourist reception area' eyesore. Where there had once just been a gravel track leading up the valley to the Luorong pasture, the park authorities had now installed a wooden walkway. Nothing too much wrong with that. But alongside this they had also laid an ugly winding ribbon of concrete road all the way up the valley on which a fleet of 'golf buggy' electric cars plied back and forth carrying tourists to Luorong for 80 a head, while playing tinny Chinese and Tibetan tunes from loudspeakers.
This 'bullet train' as we termed it, had a terminus area complete with ticket office, 'police station' (a bare room with a heater in it), 'clinic' (a bare room with a bed in it), concrete assembly area, garage and even a few rows of modern toilet cubicles. We peered into a few of these toilets and they were all blocked and disgustingly fouled up - one even had a pair of men's underpants left behind on the floor. Why does China - which boasts of having a 5000 year old civilisation and has put an astronaut in space - have such problems maintaining even the most basic toilet facilities? The Yading Nature Park charges a 150 kuai entrance fee but can't even provide a clean toilet.
Walking back down the hill to the entrance, I asked around among the horse-for-hire Tibetans about the prospect of hiring someone to guide us around the mountain. Some said it could not be done, some just shrugged or laughed, but one big young guy pushed himself forward and said he had done the kora and he would be willing to take us round ... but it would take ten days and would cost a lot of money. I decided he was bullshitting, and said thanks, but we were no longer interested. He became more persistent, however, and pushed his case quite aggressively, as he followed us further down the hill. He was to prove difficult to shake off. When he did eventually break off, he said he would come and find us that evening to discuss the trip further and he warned us - "if you come back to hire a guide, make sure you ask for me first!" Eek!
From the gatehouse, the walk back up the hill to our guesthouse nearly wiped me out. It was only a gentle gradient on the road, but the long slog had me panting for air and experiencing heart palpitations. Peter took a couple of steep short cuts that avoided the long switchbacks of the road, but I failed miserably when I tried these. By the time I had reached the guesthouse higher up an hour later, my confidence was seriously dented. How could I even contemplate hiking in the hills if I couldn't even manage a gentle road walk without a pack on? Maybe I needed a few more days to acclimatise to the altitude.
Back at the guesthouse I realised I would also need some time - and more clothes - to acclimatise to just how cold it was. As soon as it got dark the temperatures plummeted and even with five layers of clothing on I was still shivering around the table in the communal 'dining room' of our guesthouse. The guesthouse owner arranged for everyone to eat together. He had recruited a volunteer helper - a young kid from Guangzhou - who received free board and lodging in return for helping about the hostel and coking dinner for everyone. He produced a wide variety of dishes - tofu, pork, pepper, and scrambled eggs with tomato, mushrooms - all delicious. We shared this with a group of female trekker types from Guangdong and one from Hainan Island who buzzed around chattering away as if on speed. Travis told us about his academic studies into tourism and his life divided between Chengdu, Beijing and here 'in the field'. A former Peace Corps volunteer, he talked with us about books on China, and he revealed he was an old friend of another former Peace Corps worker Peter Hessler, now a famous China-based author and journalist. His companion was not his girlfriend but a female tourist from Shanghai who had also wanted to visit Yading. "Angela' seemed an unlikely enthusiast for the great outdoors. Her purple jacket was matched by purple-tinted contact lenses, and she had brought along her hairdryer, which she used noisily before we ate dinner. She spoke in staccato matter-of-fact Shanghai English, and seemed determined to enjoy her visit to Yading and to see all the sights.
We also shared the guesthouse dining room with a couple of earthy carpenters from near Chengdu. They were just visiting, making a set of tables and doors for the manager, and their accents were near incomprehensible to me, but Travis got along well with them and poked fun at them and their eating habits.
With only a small heater to warm the room, we soon retired to the double eiderdowns of the bedroom. I didn't sleep well. The high altitude had me waking suddenly, gasping for air, and the dryness of the alpine air also resulted in me waking up at regular intervals with a terribly parched dry mouth and cracked lips.
We were to spend two dull and frustrating days at Yading like this, waiting for the weather to clear. Each morning we would wake early, at about 6.30 am and rush to the window to look and see if the view of the mountains had improved. On each day we were greeted by the heart-sinking sight of mountains shrouded by low cloud. We made further trips up the valley, to visit Luorong on the 'bullet train', and again the weather was overcast and the peaks were hidden by low cloud. We ventured higher up to the two lakes, paying an extortionate 300 kuai to hire horses to take us up there. The journey took only an hour or so, and we were only allowed to ride the horses on the flatter sections - the rules stipulated that we had to dismount on strenuous steeper stretches of tracks. Up at the lakes it was blowing a gale and small but hard pellets of snow were falling - more like hail really.
On the way back we looked for the start of the trek. According to Google Earth, it should have been easy to spot the large gully that leads up to the north between Chonggu Si and Luorong. In reality, the thick covering of trees at ground level made it less obvious. There was a gully, but no obvious track up it. The GPS said this was the right place to start, but it did not look promising. We really needed a guide to show us the way.
We went back down and tried negotiating for guides and horses again, and each time we got wildly different answers. "You can’t do the kora, the snow is too deep on the passes." "It's too windy." "The route is impassable for horses" "It will take you two weeks." "We will only do it for 400 kuai per day ..."
We asked at the guesthouse, but a local man who was deemed reliable and trustworthy by the owner told us that the kora was too difficult for horses and that nobody would be willing to act as route guides (xiangdao) during the congcao season.
With no serious takers for our kora guiding proposal, we switched tack. We had met some Chinese trekkers who had come over from Muli, and they said there wasn't too much snow up on the high pass. So we asked some local Tibetans if they would take us just over the first pass and on to Garu, a village on the other side, en route to Muli. Only two days instead of seven.
Down at the park entrance, the 'horse hiring' manager called us into his office and sat us down. Dorje, as he was called, had the air of a big boss in a multinational corporation. "Look" he said conspiratorially.” I have heard about what you want, and it can all be arranged. Horses, guides, everything. You leave it all to me, OK?" We told him we wanted to leave the next day. "No problem. I will come to your hotel tonight to finalise the arrangements. From now on, you don't talk to anyone else about these arrangements. Clear? Don't talk to these young local punks, they will promise you anything, but they haven't a clue. Alright?" We agreed, and returned to our guesthouse full of hope for the next day. But Manager Dorje never showed up.
On the fourth morning at Yading we woke up and saw the weather was again looking grim. Whatever. We were getting cabin fever. It was time to do something, even if it just meant tackling the first pass by ourselves. We packed our bags, said farewell to Travis and hitched a lift in the beat-up old Landcruiser belonging to the guesthouse manager from Anhui, and we went down the hill to start our trek.
Day 1: From Chonggu Si over the 'Garu Pass'
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.
Day 2: From Chanadorje, over the Yaka Pass
The morning of Sunday 17th May dawned bright and cold in the valley in which our 'Hammersmith' hut township was situated. The massive crags that had looked so grim and foreboding in the grey overcast weather the day before, now shone with an almost golden glow as the rays from the early morning sun lit them up.
We had been woken up at 6am by Wangdu, who came over from the hut they had taken shelter in, to tell us that we must make an early start. Today's walk around the mountain would be a long one, he said; because we had to make it over a pass before sundown to reach another settlement where they could stay. Despite their claims of the night before, they still did not appear to have any extra coats or blankets for our planned multi-day trip around the mountains. We would have to stay with other people in settlements and huts such as the ones we had sought shelter with the night before, they told me. Their sack of belongings and supplies still looked pitifully small.
We quickly struck the tent in the nippy morning air, and stood around as the gas stove hissed away to boil some water for a Nescafe. The cold encouraged us to pack up quickly, and there were few other people round at that early hour to witness our departure from this isolated encampment. Dressed in all the layers of clothing we could muster, including gloves and warm hats, we set off down the valley to work our way around the large escarpment and back towards the rear (western) side of Chanadorje.
When I had planned this trip on Google Earth, my 'fly through' at ground level made it appear as if we simply dropped down to the right, off this ridge, into a deeper valley that ran in a perpendicular direction. On the ground of the real Earth, it wasn't quite so straightforward. Wangdu and Dorje took us almost immediately off the track that led down to Garu, and instead took us into the creek bed, where we hopped and hobbled over the many sharp rocks and boulders underfoot.
We followed the dry creek bed downwards, and it was hard going - there was no obvious track. Dorje claimed to know where he was going - he said he had done the kora once before, but I began to have my doubts when the creek suddenly disappeared over a steep cliff.
The cliffs dropped down into the forest of fir trees below, and the valley continued down, presumably in the direction of Garu and beyond that to the Shuiluo river canyon bordering Muli. We worked our way back round to the left, back to regain what seemed to be the track, which we then followed down in a steep descent into the valley, aiming for a makeshift bridge made of a couple of logs over the creek much lower down.
I wasn't happy about losing so much altitude - on the principle that what goes down has to come up again, at some point. But as we crossed the bridge there was a clear track rising up from the other side, and we found ourselves following this through the forest, contouring around the side of the hillside, now heading more to the south, and presumably back in the direction of the peaks. It was marvellous country, and through gaps in the trees we occasionally caught glimpses of a huge snow covered peak ahead of us - this had to be Chanadorje.
The track crossed a series of gullies and creeks, before rising again slightly and heading towards a more open area, clear of trees. After turning another corner and heading up a rise, we suddenly emerged into a clearing that could have been almost a man-made design for a campsite. And at the far end of the valley, the great flat-topped white triangle of Chanadorje rose directly up into the sky ahead of us, bathed in the sunlight - it was an amazing and breathtaking sight. I whooped in delight, and my camera clicked incessantly as we pressed on ahead.
At first the mountain was framed by fir trees and sloping hills on either side, but as we got closer to the mountain, these screens fell away, granting us an almost unhindered view of the west face of the mountain, where the sheer vertical snow and ice slopes plummeted straight down into glacier moraines. These were familiar to me from a well-known picture of Joseph Rock's, taken in 1928. He had snapped a picture of the moraines, with a tiny horse and rider included in the distance to give a sense of scale. Rock's picture had omitted the much more impressive higher sections of the mountain, perhaps because this was obscured by cloud - some wisps of which were visible in the top of his picture.
But in his account he says he gained a superb view of the mountain from this site that he said the local Tibetans called Shingara. This site was where Joseph Rock first reached the Konkaling area from Muli via Garu, and he started his circumambulation of the mountains from this spot.
"We were now on unknown ground, never before trodden by the foot of white man. My Nashi assistants and lama guide and magic provider, as well as I, were eager to penetrate to the mysterious peaks guarded by the Konkaling outlaws ... Here we crossed a pass where our lama and Tibetans yelled "Lha rgellah! Lha rgella!" (The gods are victorious!). Then they hastened to burn juniper twigs as an offering to the scared mountain Chanadorje, which we were then facing. But clouds enshrouded its hoary head. Proceeding up a rocky rail, we halted on more gentle slopes, and then at 15,300 feet decided to pitch camp.... Evening settled over our high camp. I sat in front of my tent, facing the great mountain mass which Konkaling Tibetans called Chanadorje. Presently, the clouds shifted, revealing the glory of the Holder of the Thunderbolt - a truncated pyramid flanked by broad buttresses like the wings of some stupendous bat. Immense masses of hanging ice and snow extend to the very foot of the mountain, where they form huge moraines resembling a vast amphitheatre. This the Konkaling people called Konka Djra-nsre, the Sea Dragon's Snout. It is the source of the glacier stream, the Konka Chu."
It was mid-morning when we arrived at Shingara, and the sun was shining in a cloudless sky, giving us fantastic panoramic views not just of the magical peak of Chanadorje, but also of the grey rocky peaks and ridges that formed a natural amphitheatre around it. Horses grazed untended on the meadow, and there were a couple of herder’s log cabins that appeared uninhabited. Apart from the sound of the horses’ bells ringing as they foraged for grass, we had this perfect Shangri-La of a place to ourselves. Our guides wanted to press on from this beautiful spot, but we lingered, taking photographs and simply marvelling at its wonderful views and enjoying the suns rays.
It was here that Joseph Rock had encountered some problems with his lama guide from Muli. The lama was petrified at the prospect of meeting the outlaw bandits of the Konkaling, and feared for his life. He tried to divert Rock's caravan from its circuit round the mountains, to a viewing point where they could see all three peaks. The lama hoped the explorer and botanist would be satisfied with this view and then turn for home without continuing into the bandit's lair. He was to be disappointed. Rock ordered him to run ahead and bring back the diverted train of mules and horses, and return to Shingara, where they would set out on the next stage of the circuit.
After what seemed like an hour, we also left this idyllic spot, heading to the left of the river bed flowing from the glacier moraine, and through a small swamp to start ascending a hillside towards the next pass. It was another long grind of a climb, and again I went into 'treacle mode', dragging one foot slowly ahead of the other in short sections of ten or twenty metres. We left the forested lower levels of the hills and rose up into a scrub-covered basin and what would be the first of three false crests of the pass.
From this first plateau we continued to ascend up to a second and then a third ridge, at which we paused for a breather with a group of three young Tibetan girls and their father, who were out on the hills foraging for congcao.
The girls wore ornate silk patterned jackets, offset by the more utilitarian Chinese army caps. The views from this lofty perch continued to be stupendous, but now we had turned around the side of Chanadorje, so from this vantage point it appeared to be a sharp pyramid, piercing the blue sky. We passed through another moorland basin and turned to the right, skirting the mountain and heading up to the true pass up a relative gradual grassy incline.
The pass brought us onto the rim of a whole new narrow valley, one which Joseph Rock called the Saiyo Katso. The floor of the valley was wooded and had some clearings where we could make out several huts or dwellings. Directly opposite us, across on the other side of the valley was a subsidiary hanging valley basin which contained a picturesque small lake.
Ahead of us we could see two round peaks on the opposite side of the valley, while far away in the distance we could also see a high icy wedge of a peak jutting into the sky - which may have been the peak described as Dzamabala in Rock's account of the journey. Or was it Jambeyang?
It was around this spot where Rock stopped for lunch, shot some snow pigeons and then found a group of Tibetans hiding among the trees.
"After they had been observed they stepped forth and called; whereupon several women crawled from behind huge boulders in the stream bed. Any shots heard hereabouts are always supposed to have been spent on sending some individual into the spirit world., since no one wastes shot and powder on useless pigeons, as we had done."
We also stopped for lunch just beyond this point, above the middle of the Saiyo Katso valley. We sat down below the huge scree slopes that formed at the base of this face of Chanadorje. I looked up the valley, to see if I could see where the next pass was. In our track notes copied from Lloyd Raleigh's account, he refers to a steep pass with a switchback track up it, but which he and his companion opted to climb by a more steeper direct route, hand over hand.
When I looked down the valley, I was initially puzzled to see there was no pass as such, because a wall-like ridge blocked the end of the valley. Then my heart sank when I realised that this 'wall' was the steep pass mentioned by Raleigh. From a distance, the sheer black rock looked too steep to climb, and it was topped with ice and snow, sitting on what looked like a razorback crest. This was presumably the Yaka Pass, which Rock had described in unusually understated terms as "an arduous crossing".
It was now mid afternoon and as we contemplated this dreadful prospect, I assumed that we would be tackling it the next day. The valley had several huts further down, and I thought that this was where Wangdu and Dorje had in mind for somewhere to stay for that night. But no, we must press on, they insisted. We had to get over this pass because it was threatening to snow and it could be blocked tomorrow, they said. And they insisted there was some place to stay 'on the other side'.
I wasn't having any of this. We had been walking hard since 6am that morning and I was done in after eight hours of almost continuous slog at high altitude. It was time to rest up for the night, and I simply did not have the energy to continue. Wangdu, however, insisted that we absolutely had to get over the pass. He dismissed my complaints about it being too steep, by urging me onwards to see it at closer range, where it wouldn't appear so bad, he said. Close up, it still looked bad.
It took us another hour or so to reach the base of the Yaka Pass and, from below, it looked ugly. Black rock, hard ice and snow loomed overhead, and there appeared to be no sign of the 'switchback trail' that supposedly offered an alternative to a straight-up hands and feet scramble. I sat down, feeing utterly exhausted and felt like giving in, telling Wangdu that I simply couldn't make it. Peter sat down as well, and as I stewed in rebellious silence, he pulled out the stove and started boiling some water for a brew. After a cup of tea and a Snickers bar, I felt slightly better. I would at least attempt a try of the first section of the pass, just to prove to Wangdu how impossible it was. Seeing how all in I was, Peter graciously offered to carry my day bag up the slope for me. So off we went.
Passing the last of the rhododendron trees, we reached the first section of snow as the incline increased. It was only a short patch of snow on grass, but I slipped and slithered and cursed. The weather was closing in now, clouds had formed over the pass and the wind was picking up. It was cold and I donned my jacket and gloves.
As Wangdu had predicted, the slope was not as vertical as it looked from a distance. It was walkable, mostly without having to resort to handholds, but it was a bastard of a climb. I put my head down and went into a zombie-like walking trance. I retreated into the hood of my jacket and counted out four steps and four breaths at a time. I developed a silent cadence, almost like a Marine drill instructor - Hup 2-3-4 ... Hup 2-3-4 ... and set myself a series of 'missions' - the next big rock, the next bush or the next cairn. I was ascending the pass, army-style, by numbers.
I don't know how long it took before I neared the top, but it must have been about an hour, to ascend perhaps 500 or so metres. The higher I got, the worse the weather, so that by the time I reached the continuous snow sections near the top of the pass, I had my hood completely zipped up and needed my scarf wrapped around what little was still showing of my face to keep out the bitter wind. It was snowing and we ascended into a black and white maze of rocks and snow. The last 100 metres was across a steepening snow slope, and I began to feel panicky at the prospect of slipping and shooting down over the many gullies and rock fields below.
Pic: Peter Jost
The others had moved on ahead, over the crest of the pass, and I cursed them for leaving me behind. What if I turned round and went back down? Would they come back to look for me? They had all my gear, I couldn't survive back in the valley by myself - so onwards I had to go. And besides, when I looked down at the steep snowfield I had crossed, I had no wish to retreat that way. "Why am I doing this?" I asked myself.
I crossed the last and steepest section of snow, in almost whiteout conditions. I placed my feet carefully in the footprints of those who had gone ahead of me, and trod nervously as my feet occasionally slipped from under me. With no ice axe or walking stick, I had nothing but my gloved hands to steady myself on the slope.
Eventually, the slope eased and I found myself on the top of the pass - and to my surprise it was not the razorback ridge I had been expecting. In the misty and almost blizzard-like conditions on top of the pass I found myself standing amid a labyrinth of black peaks, jutting up into the cloud. The way directly ahead was blocked by walls of black rock, but there appeared to be possible exits via misty corridors that led between the rock towers.
There were possibilities to both left and right, and Dorje headed off to the right. Peter, however, had his GPS which showed that left was the way to the exit, even though the immediate prospect was of more ascent. We climbed a short way to another sub-plateau and the corridor appeared to snake around in a zig-zag to the south. This seemed to be a way. The snow was now thick on the ground, and we 'postholed' our way through the snow amid this evil-looking jungle of jagged rock, until a final small ridge appeared, topped by what looked like a cairn. This was it - the true pass, and the way out to the world beyond.
Sure enough, beyond this small ridge the ground receded and I almost cried with relief when I saw that we would not be faced with a descent as steep as the way we had come up. Ahead, instead was a long and gloomy snow-covered valley festooned with rocks and boulders, leading to where, I had no idea. But down we went, into the Lawatong Valley. We had left the domain of Chanadorje and were entering the kingdom of Jambeyang.
Joseph Rock described his 1928 crossing of the Yaka Pass thus:
"We crossed the pass in torrential downpours. There was no trail, and the ground was littered with slabs of schists over which the water rushed in torrents, depositing everywhere a slippery grey mud, which meant torture for the loaded mules at an altitude of 16,300 feet. In the eyes of the pilgrims we most certainly would have acquired much merit, for the weather god could hardly have sent worse weather - or better - as the case may be, depending on the religious viewpoint."
On Yaka Pass wonderful primroses formed large round cushions, their roots embedded in cracks between bowlders, the leaves small and glossy. They were almost completely hidden by brilliant wine-coloured flowers. Other cushion plants vied with these, such as forget-me-nots of the richest sky blue. Other primroses sttod in rows upon rock shelves, their purple flowers nodding in the wind and rain.
The mules, climbing over the rocky pass, which resembled a stairway with giant steps, fared badly and had to be helped bodily over the bowlders. Climbing at altitude is difficult enough in good weather, but in a terrific hail and rain storm, with a howling gale driving the icy pellets into one's face and making one gasp for breath in this rarified atmosphere, it is doubly disagreeable."
I descended with big strides through the snow, elated at having made it over the pass and for having emerged from that threatening black devil's lair of snow, cloud and rocks around the summit. Gradually the weather cleared and the snow glare began to dazzle my eyes. Wangdu, however, had taken my sunglasses, claiming that his eyes were painfully sore. I just squinted and continued on down. We descended below the snow line, into a another bleak, rocky and desolate valley, where there appeared to be no signs of human life.
Where were the settlements and people that Wangdu had told us about - the place where we were supposed to stay for the night? Looking back over my shoulder, clouds still swirled around the summit, obscuring the higher reaches of the peaks. One of them matched the description given by Rock of the peak Tuparu, a truncated column "like a cenotaph".
Further down we started to pass small cairns, and piles of mani stones, signs that we were still on the pilgrim trail. Eventually we reached a flatter section of rough grassland on the left, in the middle of which was a small and very forlorn looking stone shelter.
Was this the great place that Wangdu had dragged us over the pass to stay at? Apparently not. Dorje loped over to take a look at the abandoned hut, and came away, shaking his head. There was nobody in residence, and no firewood, so it would be of little use to them as a shelter for the night. We continued on until we reached another scree slope beneath some grey rocky cliffs. At this point Peter cried out that he had seen some mountain sheep running off up the hill. I squinted up at the cliffs where he was pointing to a couple of specks among the rocks. They were too far away for me to see clearly what they were.
At the base of the cliffs before the scree there was a familiar jumble of rocks. I recognised this as the 'stupa cave', mentioned by Joseph Rock. His Tibetan guides had halted here for the night, using the cave for shelter. His photograph of the place from 1928 shows the mouth of the cave surrounded by a primitively assembled rock wall and a Buddhist stupa or chorten.
"Our escort and lama guide occupied a cave-like shelter under an overhanging cliff, part of the buttresses of mighty Jambeyang. Here pilgrims or lamas had erected chortens, or reliquary shrines, which rose to the rocky vault; a rocky balustrade encircled the long cavern, which serves pilgrims as well as bandits for shelter - and place of attack."
The cave was still there and appeared almost unchanged from 1928. A rickety stone stupa still stood at the entrance to the cave, and there were one or two faded Buddhist murals drawn on the walls. It felt eerie to be stood in exacty the same spot as where Rock had obviously set p his camera to take the picture. How many other westerners had passed this way in the intervening eighty years?
According to Rock's article, it was near this shrine cave that on his second trip round the peaks he came face to face with the feared chief of the Konkaling bandits, an evil-looking Tibetan called Drashetsongpen:
"He was circumambulating the scared peaks, perhaps in expiation of his heinous crimes or in contemplation of new predatory ventures. His entourage was composed the scum of the outlaws, their sullen faces hinting of loot and murder.
The leader politely uncovered his head, bowed, and motioned for me to sit on a rock. Then he ordered an underling to untie a saddlebag of yak hide, from the recesses of which he took large chunks of much fingered yak butter and loaves of a sort of cottage cheese. It rained in torrents while this took place, which prevented me from taking pictures of him and his thirty outlaws, all armed with rifles and pistols looted from Chinese soldiers in the north.
He asked me where we intended to camp that night. As I hesitated to reply, he placed his hand on his chest and said: 'You will have nothing to fear, for I have given orders that you shall remain unmolested.' This ended our interview."
Joseph Rock camped nearby, "on the southern slopes of Mt Jambeyang, at the foot of moraines and hanging glaciers, in an alpine meadow covered with a multitude of flowers." We could find no such alpine meadow. We were stuck in a bleak rocky mountainside below the cloud-wrapped moraines of Jambeyang's glaciers.
I kept expecting to see a village or some cosy huts appear as we continued on across a faint trail that ran over one of the massive scree slopes. Beyond it was a huddle of fir trees, clinging to the side of the mountain.
The track started to ascend around these trees, but despite my best hopes, there were no settlements to be seen. After ascending some way up this 'heartbreak hill', Wangdu conceded that he didn't know if there was anywhere to stay in the vicinity. He pulled a gormless face and shrugged when I asked him where we were supposed to stay for the night. There wasn't even any level ground to camp on. I was furious. He had dragged us all the way over the Yaka Pass on the pretext that there was 'somewhere to stay' on the other side, and here we were stuck in the middle of nowhere, tired, hungry and with nowhere to set up camp as dusk approached.
We retreated a way back down the hill into the forest, and Wangdu suggested a dried up creek bed as a place to spend the night.
"But where are you going to stay?" I demanded. "You have no sleeping bags, no shelter, and it may snow tonight.... what are you going to do?"
Wangdu again just shrugged.
"We can build a fire here and keep warm through the night, don't worry about us," he said in an offhand way.
I strode up and down the creek bed which was festooned with rocks and had barely a metre of flat ground where a tent could be pitched.
"This is no bloody good, we can't camp here," I shouted, kicking a rock as I tried to control my temper. I simply couldn't believe it.
Wangdu and Dorje had already dumped our backpacks and were dragging branches and sticks together to start building a fire.
"No problem, no problem. You can put your tent there," they said, pointing with their chins towards a sloping piece of ground that had marginally fewer rocks sticking out of it than the surrounding bits. I wanted to throttle these two clowns. Or at least walk off and leave them to deal with the consequences of their own incompetence. Here we were, 15,000 feet up a mountain in the evening, and I felt guilty for having persuaded them to bring us to this godforsaken spot with no prospect of shelter.
Once again, Peter came to the rescue, pulling out the stove to boil up some water. I calmed down a bit after I sat down and had some of the hot instant soup he made.
It was too late to choose another campsite, but we decided to pitch Peter's two man tent further up the track, where it was relatively flat. I would pitch my smaller one-man tent down in the creek be for Wangdu and Dorje to use, but not too near to the roaring fire that they had already created. I was doubtful they'd use the tent. They had no sleeping bags.
Pic: Peter Jost
We boiled up more water to make our dinner. I had a reconstituted freeze-dried lamb and vegetables, Peter made himself a curry with noodles. We didn't speak much. Wangdu and Dorje recycled the disposable instant noodle containers they had used the night before and filled them with a new batch of instant noodles from packets they carried.
I was worried about them spending the night out in the open, and they now seemed a bit pathetic, as they gratefully accepted all the items we could spare out of our backpacks. We gave them our woolly hats, our rain jackets and a bagful of teabags. Peter hiked off about half a mile to the nearest water source to get them more water so they could make tea on the fire through the night. I gave them some Snickers Bars, and then we left them, in the dark, out in the open and in the cold, to turn into our cosy tent.
When Joseph Rock camped here he wrote:
"The stillness of the cold night at the high elevation of our camp was often disturbed by the thundering noise of falling blocks of ice, dropping and sliding from the heights above."We had exactly the same conditions, except the stillness of the night was also disturbed by my nagging conscience and doubts. "Would our guides still be alive and in a fit state to travel in the morning?"
Day 3: Over the 'Shoulder Pass' to Jambeyang Lake
We were woken at daybreak by Wangdu and Dorje shaking the tent and shouting for us to get up.
"Zou! Zou! It's already 6am - time to go!"
We emerged into another freezing and clear morning to see the pair of them looking very rough: bloodshot eyes, gaunt sleepless expressions, but still alive. And not surprisingly, given their night out in the open, very grumpy.
They hung around sullenly as we got out of the tent and started to pack, chivvying us along to get moving. Up above us, the clouds had cleared from around the icefalls and base moraines of Jambeyang, revealing a series of crags and buttresses, and some of the higher ice spurs as well. It was very beautiful but we were too cold, tired and hungry to appreciate it all. Peter and I were grumpy too. Being a long walk from the water source, we weren't given time to make a brew of tea for breakfast. Our water bottles were almost empty and I had no time for even a sip of water before we were urged onto the track by an impatient Wangdu.
I made quick visit to pick up the bits and pieces we had lent them for the night, and to pack up my mini tent and stuff it in my pack - it looked like they hadn't used it. There had been no snow, and the way back towards the pass looked clear. So much for Wangdu's excuse for getting over the pass yesterday in a rush.
We set off almost immediately, back up 'heartbreak hill', up towards some cliffs, and I was immediately running on empty. I tried eating a bit of a muesli bar as I walked, but I was so out of breath from walking that I was choking and soon gave up. I would walk hungry for the time being. After about an hour, the track levelled out and turned a corner around a cliff.
We had magnificent views down the Lawatong valley, but the track itself narrowed as it turned around the crags, and we had to negotiate a very exposed section of about ten metres of track cut into the cliffside that left me quaking in my boots. I'm glad I hadn't tried to tackle it the evening before when we were all exhausted. Even the usual imperturbable Peter remarked, "That was actually quite dangerous!" So it wasn't just me.
As was becoming commonplace on this trip, the overwhelming fear and panic that I felt was soon replaced by awe, as we entered another natural amphitheatre, this one on a massive scale, as cliffs and an icy peak like an inverted ice cream cornet - was this Jambeyang? - formed a semi circle around an expanse of meadow.
The idyllic scene gave us a welcome bit of downhill walking - and to top it off there was even a wonderfully clear stream running through the middle of this flat basin, where we were able to rest and replenish our empty water bottles. There were a couple of abandoned stone shelters beyond the stream, and at the base of the cliffs there was some kind of shrine made of stones piled up in a heap, and strewn with the usual strings of prayer flags.
A track headed off to the left, and this seemed the natural exit to stay along the upper reaches of the Lawatong valley, so I was surprised when Dorje instead walked over to the shrine beneath the cliffs and started walking up the slope to the left, that led on to higher snow slopes. "What is he doing?" I asked Peter, who had the GPS and also a copy of some screengrabs of the route taken from Google Earth. "He's going the right way," replied Peter, to my dismay. "That's where the GPS says the track is."
But I could see no track, only a bulge at the base of the precipitous cliffs that extended as far as I could see to our left, in a southerly direction along the rim of the Lawatong valley. Dorje reached the snowline and started sidling left, to walk higher, under the lee of the cliffs. "Surely, not," I said to myself. "Please tell me this isn't true..." Wangdu and Peter were already following in his footsteps, quite literally as he was now plodding through virgin snow.
I followed reluctantly behind, starting up the steep track to the snow, and then edging out into the footprints of the three who had already preceded me. As we edged up the edge of the amphitheatre the views became even more magnificent, but I was in no mood to appreciate them - I was beginning to get worried again as I slid and skidded on the snow. Some parts of the trail were quite safe, with rocks and rhododendron branches protruding from the snow to give an anchor.
Other sections, however, were smooth and dropped off to steep rocky slopes. Maybe a fall wouldn't be fatal, but I didn't fancy a sudden accelerating slide on the ice-encrusted early morning snow to find out what damage it would do when I hit the rocks below. I cursed myself for not picking up a stick to guide and steady myself with. We were now above the tree line again and there was barely even a twig to use for support.
On some of the most exposed sections of snow I took extreme care placing my feet in the deep imprints left by the others, but even this wasn't enough to assure me that I would avoid slipping. I started to use my right arm as a makeshift ice axe, holding my fingers flat together and thrusting my pointed hand down to break the surface of the snow and hold myself on the slope. It was exhausting to do this for every step, not to mention extremely painful after repeated 'stabbings' of the snow. By the time I finished the end of the 100 metre snow field, the tips of my fingers were numb with cold, and I had to put my hand down my shirt and hold it against my chest and then against my thighs to thaw it out - a very painful reawakening process as the blood came back to my frostnipped fingertips.
Having conquered this obstacle, I turned the ridge to find I was faced with having to cross another sloping snowfield of similar length. The others had moved on ahead and I was left alone to struggle on, feeling utterly miserable and occasionally extremely panicky on the difficult steep sections. "This is dangerous. I shouldn't be doing this," I thought, looking down into the depths of the Lawatong valley far below and wondering if there was an easy escape route down to the valley floor.
It was very odd country. The cliffs to my left were almost vertical, followed by the snow-covered steep scree slopes, which eased off into scrub and tree-covered gentler slopes a few hundred metres below our track. This was then followed by a second steep drop off, down into the invisible depths of the valley floor. Were there people down there? Who could tell?
Rock also found it strange country. On these slopes he sighted some wapiti (a kind of deer) and his hunter-guide managed to shoot and hit one: "but the animal rolled probably 2,000 feet, down to the bottom of the Lawatong valley."
When I first read this passage in the National Geographic I could not envisage how a valley could allow an animal to roll so far from reach, but standing in the upper heights of the edges of the Lawatong valley it was all too clear how something could continue on a long descent and disappear over the wooded lip and into the trench-like abyss further down.
The snow track crested another buttress, where the others were waiting for me, and I stopped to take stock. The track seemed to be heading even higher, onto impossibly steep snow slopes that merged into the bottom of the cliffs. I was definitely not going any higher, even if it meant abandoning the trek and heading down into the Lawatong valley to seek an alternative way out. If I remembered the geography of the area at all, the valley headed due south for a couple of days of walking distance, where it eventually led to a small village called Eyatong, which had a rough road track connecting it to Riwa.
If I abandoned the circuit and was able to find a safe way down, I would surely be able to find somewhere to stay down there and eventually get out back to 'the world'. If I couldn't go forward, I could hardly go back over the Yaka Pass, so down would seem to be the only other option.
Fortunately, even Wangdu and Dorje conceded that the slopes above us were too steep and dangerous to proceed on. "The snow is too deep at this time of year," they said pointing upwards. Can't get through ..." they said.
"Let's try a bit further down the slope and see if there is another way forward," I suggested. Peter however, was holding his GPS and pointing upwards "That's where it says the track is ..."
Wangdu and Dorje edged round the rock buttress and started looking for ways down the steep and jagged rocks to the scree slope. below. They eventually found a viable route, and we headed down, losing all the metres gained in the last few hours of painful, laborious and scary plodding up the snow slopes. We went down the scree until we reached the very top edge of the rhododendron tree line. In the snow we could see a set of footprints heading into the trees. We weren't the only ones to have abandoned the high cliff track.
The footprints led to a faint track that we ended up and down through the thick rhododendron forest, but overall it thankfully stayed relatively level so we stayed along the same contour, proceeding down along the edge of the Lawatong valley without losing any more height. It was a track, and it led somewhere.
We must have walked maybe a mile or more in this fashion, stopping every so often to rest and admire the view back towards the amphitheatre and its dramatic sky-piercing peak.
Peter was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the fast pace at which we were being pushed along by Wangdu and Dorje. The trek was supposed to be taking us five or six days, but at this rate we would be done in four or even three days, he noted.
"This is magnificent country. We should be spending more time here, not rushing through," he complained.
It was becoming quite clear that Wangdu and Dorje wanted to get through the kora as quickly as possible and pocket their 1200 yuan. They had dropped very unsubtle hints that this is how much they expected to be paid for taking us and our bags round the mountains, whether it took three days or six.
Peter was all for paying them off early and letting them go back at their own fast pace, with us relying on the GPS for directions for the kora now that our guides’ knowledge of the route had been exposed as a sham. However, I knew I just didn't have the strength and endurance to lug my 20kg pack over steep snow slopes like the one we had just been on. I was dependent on these guides to carry my bag - even if they could not find the route or a decent place to camp.
We continued on our way along the cliffs, picking our way in the bright sunshine across the open scree and boulder-strewn slopes below the long line of crags. By midday we seemed to be nearing the 'shoulder' where our maps indicated that the cliffs emanating from Jambeyang ended in a peninsular-like feature that we would have to 'turn', and switch from our southwesterly progress into a north-facing valley that led towards Shenrezig.
By now we had become strung out and separated. Peter had been edging as high as possible, wanting to follow the course of the track as the markers appeared to show it on his GPS. Dorje was also up high, and lagging some way behind. Wangdu was up ahead, also getting higher now, and barely visible except for the bright green-yellow fluorescent colours of my pack cover, bobbing between the rocks. I followed them upward, crossing a deep gully and trying to keep to a faint track on the other side as we hit more snow patches and the scree go steeper and steeper.
The trail had now become quite exposed in places and I was getting jittery. The others were now all well above me, near the cliffs and I didn't seem to be able to find my way along the track. I eyed what seemed to be a fairly direct route that would take me straight up to where the others were now collecting, and started pulling myself up on all fours, up the steep slate slopes. It was a bad mistake.
Once off the faint track, I lost my bearings, and the others had disappeared over a crest, out of view. With nothing to aim for, I floundered on the slope, moving from one unstable pitch to another, with the loose slate crumbling away as I tried to grip it, and larger rocks falling on me as I grabbed onto them for handholds. It seemed a lot steeper than it had looked from below, and when I looked down I almost fainted with terror when I saw the fall I faced, straight down the mountain.
In my panicked state I was trying to climb faster than my already stretched lungs would allow me. I grew careless and clumsy, leaping and sliding over the scree, and panting in huge deep breaths, until I had to pause for a while at some stronger feature, trembling on the spot in a kind of animal fear. I was thoroughly fed up and just didn't want to go on, but I had no choice.
After all my previous scary episodes on the exposed cliff track and the snow slopes I felt like all my reserves of courage had been depleted. It was as if my adrenalin batteries were completely empty. I had used up all my 'fear fright and flight' responses and I simply could no longer pluck up the courage or energy to keep moving on up from this frightening exposed position. I felt like I was close to a breakdown, close to snapping. But I had nobody to shout or scream to, nobody to help - they had all moved up towards the 'shoulder'. I was on my own.
I continued clawing my way up, feeling futile, like a rat trying to climb out of a barrel. Two steps forward, one step sliding back. After about another ten minutes I saw Peter way up above me, sitting down by a cairn. This gave me something to aim for, and I set off, again, shouting myself hoarse in the wind, asking him to wait and give me directions. He looked down and must have heard me, and gestured that I should move over to the right, where the going was easier.
Pic: Peter Jost
Perhaps ten minutes later I managed to drag myself up to the perch where Peter was sitting, along with Wangdu. I flopped down on my back on a patch of turf and lay there, gasping like a fish out of water, feeling utterly spent. My fingers were scratched, my clothes were smeared in slate dust and soil, my legs felt like they had been battered with hammers and my jaw ached with tension from having borne an almost permanent grimace for the last hour. "Having a fun and relaxing time on your holidays?" I asked myself.
Five minutes later when I was able to sit up and look around, I saw that we were almost at the shoulder. The great final protrusion or rock from Jambeyang lay above us, and a final, relatively level circuit of a rock corrie would bring us to the upper corner. Who knew what lay beyond? I was certainly hoping it would not be more of the same, in reverse.
I followed slowly behind Peter as we continued up through the rock fields and then turned left, across a final bowl. Higher up I could see Dorje with the bright red backpack on edging along a set of tracks along a snow field. This was one of the two unpleasant final surprises the shoulder had in store for us.
The snow field was again not too steep in itself, but it certainly held the prospect of a sticky end if you failed to arrest yourself once you started sliding. Being higher up, it was almost solid snow, and this time I was unable to 'punch through' with my arm to get a satisfactory anchor. I got across, after an interminably long and slow crossing, footstep by precarious footstep, at the cost of yet more frayed nerves. As I stepped onto solid rock it was just a walk of a few yards before the final terror, a section of track that skirted a steep drop. So near, and yet so far!
As I edged out into the abyss, Dorje started to come back across to offer me a helping hand. This scared me even more than the prospect of a solo attempt, and I waved him away with a hysterical "Bu yao! Bu yao!" and almost loss my balance as a result of my manic gesturing.
Pic: Peter Jost
And then I was there - the Lawatong valley was behind me, I turned the rock corner and I was looking up into the Yechetsura valley - and to my relief it was a completely different proposition. No steep scree slopes, no sudden drop offs - just a relatively modest and manageable drop down across snow-covered rock fields into "a most peculiar valley" that Joseph Rock also found to be a strong contrast to the environment of the Lawatong valley, from which he had just emerged.
"Rocks here were of an entirely different nature, being composed of enormous slabs as smooth as a billiard table, the entire valley slope resembling a huge macadam road. Giant blocks the size of a small house, composed of many layers of such slabs, had fallen from the heights and lined the trail, which was still covered in places with large patches of snow and ice."
The valley also looked like a nice smooth road to me as well. Smooth, but covered in a glaring coat of snow.
We rested for some time having lunch on the tip of the shoulder, perched high up on the rocks, where we could survey the remaining grandeur of the Lawatong valley and its hidden green depths, then turn and view the prospect of the snowy Yechetsura that lay ahead of us. In the lower reaches of the Yechetsura canyon there was another hanging valley indented into the side of the valley, surrounded by steep cliffs and containing a green lake. The climb up from the Lawatong valley looked to be a most strenuous undertaking. I was glad we hadn't dropped down too far.
After the sweat and terror of my scrambling up the shoulder, the descent into the Yechetsura and the subsequent journey up its snow-bound length to a gentle further pass was like a dream. The only thing that marred my progress was the intensity of the glare from the sun's UV rays on the snow. Once again, Wangdu had purloined my sunglasses, claiming with complete justification that his eyes were painful because of the lack of sleep the previous night.
This left me traversing the snowfields fearing the effects of snow blindness. I had seen this in my trekking partner on my last trip to Yading, nine years before, when he trekked for much of the day on snow without wearing sunglasses. He woke the next day unable to open his eyes, and spent the next two days in bed with painful, swollen eyes.
I didn't want to repeat his experience, and so I took to walking across the snow with my hood up and my scarf wrapped around my eyes like a blindfold. I kept just one eye half open, in an almost permanent wink, peering out through the haze of my eyelashes to see where I should plant my foot in the next footstep left by Wangdu who was walking ahead of me. In this way I walked the several miles up the Yechetsura valley for the rest of the afternoon, until we crested a gentle snow covered pass and saw a fertile patch of green sward below us.
After the desolation of the depths of Lawatong and the snowbound Yechetsura, this green haven seemed to be alive with life. Descending across a babbling brook, we saw a few horses grazing on the grass, and a handful of Tibetans were out on their hands and knees, foraging for congcao. These were the first people we had seen since before the Yaka Pass, two days before, but they paid us little attention. They had presumably come up from another valley that seemed to feed in from the right, beyond yet another mighty rock spur.
Once we reached the bottom of this round basin, I suddenly spotted a large deformed rock about the size of a truck, sitting in the middle of the grass. I recognised it immediately. It was "Rock's rock" - a large lump of schist that had been the site of one of Rock's camps during his circuit of the mountains. He had assembled about fifteen of his escort and guides around the rock and taken a portrait of them,, which he entitled; "Where pilgrims stop for tea flavoured with yak butter and salt ..."
We also stopped for tea here, but flavoured with powdered milk. It was a lovely spot, overshadowed by hulking great ridges, and with the tip of Jambeyang's western face visible in the distance over another pass. A we sat drinking our brew, a group of local Tibetans came over and we showed them a copy of the picture of the rock taken by Rock 80 years earlier. They were curious and bemused, but otherwise kept their counsel.
I took a few photos from the same spot as Rock, lining up the mountain peaks in the background. This was another location that had remained unexplored and unchanged for the last eighty years.
The final part of our day was spent surmounting another relatively gentle pass after climbing out of the basin and up over some brown moorland that reminded me of the Yorkshire Dales.
Wangdu told us there was a most beautiful lake on the other side of the pass. I was lulled into a false sense of security by the gentle ascent, for when we reached the pass, partly covered in snow, the immediate drop on the other side was precipitous.
While there seemed to be a less steep exit to the right hand side, all the foot tracks led straight down a steep snow slope that terminated in a cliff edge, beyond which there was just a lot of thin air. It looked to me like a ski ramp at the Winter Olympics.
The footprints in the snow showed others had already made it safely down, and they stood around nonchalantly waiting for me to join them, but I lost my bottle. By now I was extremely tired, and I cried out like a petulant child, asking for help to get down - for me at least- this terrifying slope. Wangdu loped back up the snow, and took my bag, while lending me his wooden stick. I used it to steady myself as I shimmied down on my backside, looking and feeling pathetic. When I reached the 'cliff' I found the drop beyond was a mere ten or twenty feet, not the hundreds of feet my imagination had conceived.
We were now looking down over a great lake - Russo Tso (Wisdom Lake) and, to the right, the twin peaks of Shenrezig and Jambeyang in all their glory. Jambeyang was the nearer, and the slopes fro its twisted and foreshortened summit descended to the lake shore. Shenrezig was across the other side of the lake, in the distance, but its bulk was if anything even more impressive. We could see what looked like a route from the other side of the lake towards Shenrezig, which passed what looked like a small encampment with a couple of cabins or shelters on the slopes.
It was here that we said farewell to Wangdu and Dorje. They were still intent on returning to Chonggu Si that day, even though it was already 5pm and they had yet another pass to summit and another long valley descent ahead of them. We decided that we would linger around the lake, and so paid them off in a bizarre business transaction on the rock platform high above the lake.
They certainly had earned their 1200 yuan, hauling our backpacks over six passes, each over 4500 metres. They had stayed out in the open all night without shelter and then carried on another day to trek with 20kg packs, crossing more passes, eating only instant noodles. These Tibetan supermen - they made the SAS look soft.
We shook hands with them and I gave them a few surplus items such as my waistcoat and a lunchbox. They did us one final favour, portering our backpacks down the hill and leaving them in a pile at the bottom as we followed at a slower pace, picking our way over the rocks and trying to find a safe and less steep way down.
Around the shore of the lake was a thin strip of beach, and we headed down over the rocks towards it, losing our way a couple of times, until we finally got to the water's edge. We were now on our own, in the wild. We selected a flat area of the grey sand and pebbles that made up the lake shore, and eyed it up as a place to camp for the night. It was the only possible camping site, as the scrub on the hillside was too thick to pitch a tent.
The 'beach' looked firm, but some sections were distinctly springy and marshy, so we picked areas that appeared more firm and dry. As the sun went down we got our tents up and were soon sitting on the rocks, waiting for the water to boil, and then sipping tea and spooning the reconstituted meals into our hungry and shrunken stomachs. What a day! I wrote in my diary; "It was the hardest thing I have ever done. Like heaven and hell. Hellish effort, hellish scared, but heavenly views!"
Day 4: Over the Three Way Pass back to Luorong
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.