Thursday, August 01, 2013

Chapter 5: The Glories of the Minya Konka

Joseph Rock starts his October 1930 National Geographic article “Glories of the Minya Konka” with a typical flourish of exaggeration:

“Strange as it may seem, hoary old China still holds within its borders vast mountain systems wholly unknown not only to the western world, but to the Chinese themselves...” 

He was writing about the 25,000 foot (7550m) high mountain in western Sichuan, now know as Gongga Shan. In reality, Minya Konka was not "wholly unknown" to either Chinese or foreigners. The peak had been marked on Chinese maps for centuries and had been visited by several Europeans, including Rock’s fellow botanist Ernest Wilson as early as 1908.
Rock's article of his trip to Minya Konka reads like a Hollywood adventure movie - which is what it became. His article inspired the mythical Shangri-La as portrayed by James Hilton in his novel Lost Horizon, which was published shortly after Rock’s article appeared in National Geographic.
The scenarios are similar. Rock writes of a mysterious monastery located in an isolated Himalayan valley, cut off from the rest of the world by snow-bound passes for much of the year. According to Rock, the trip to the monastery was so arduous and the views of the mountain so spectacular that a visit was deemed by Buddhists to be the equal in merit of ten years of meditation.
Rock first glimpsed the ‘mysterious’ Minya Konka while exploring the Konkaling mountains near Muli in 1928. Observing the peak from the south west from about a hundred miles away, Rock claimed to have been immediately smitten by the sight of this ‘unknown’ peak.

“I decided then and there to spend the following year exploring Minya Konka ...”

And thus in the spring of 1929 Rock set out on an expedition to Minya Konka from his base at Ngluluko near Lijiang. Unlike his ‘quick dash to Muli’, this was to be a major undertaking - a journey of several months with an entourage of 20 Naxi porters, bodyguards and botanical assistants and 46 mules to carry supplies.

To get to Minya Konka, Rock’s mule caravan had once again to travel north-east from Lijiang, via Muli, on a journey that would take several weeks crossing mountainous terrain of epic proportions. He would have to traverse the vast canyons of the Yangtze and Yalong rivers and cross several high mountain passes to reach the domain of the ‘Minya’ Tibetans. Unlike the ‘uncouth, impudent’ and aggressive Tibetan robber tribes that Rock had previously encountered around Muli, the Minya Tibetans were a settled, agrarian people - a “gentle race”. The Minya lived in fear of the bands of looting and marauding Tibetan bandits from the Xiangcheng region, and they built watchtowers and fortress-like solid stone houses as self defence against attacks.

For his visit to Minya Konka, Rock based himself in a broad valley known as Yulongshi, near the town of Tachienlu (now known as Kangding). Despite its proximity to the Minya Konka peaks, the mountain was not visible from Yulonghsi, but was hidden behind a high ridge that had to be crossed by the 4500m Tsemi pass.

“Anyone unfamiliar with the geography of the country could, even with the latest maps in hand, pass up this valley without suspecting the existence of the Minya Konka range, crowned by one of the loftiest peaks of western China... And yet, these majestic snow peaks lie just beyond the high eastern valley slopes of Yulonghsi,”
Rock wrote.

In 1995 I started planning a trip to Gongga Shan monastery. The modern maps I consulted suggested there were two possible ways of trekking to the mountain - from Kangding in the north, or from the west via a settlement called Liuba. For convenience I chose to start from the Kangding because getting to Liuba would entail an extra two-day road trip over a high pass called Zheduo La. Rock’s ‘base camp’ of Yulongshi was not marked on modern maps, but I saw there was a valley and settlement in roughly the same place.

And so it was that in September 1995 I landed at Hong Kong's Kai Tak airport, with a plan to try re-trace Joseph Rocks’ journey to Minya Konka/Gongga Shan via Kangding. Lightly equipped, I naively believed that I would be able to trek all the way from Minya Konka back to Lijiang, via Muli. It had taken Rock months to travel this route and he had a huge support team of porters and mules to transport him. Seventy years later I had just a tent, a sleeping bag and a few days worth of food, and I thought I could somehow do the same trip.

I didn’t linger for long in what was then still the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong. Even in autumn the city was stiflingly hot and humid. With a heavy backpack and equipped for the cold mountain weather of Tibet, I sweated uncomfortably around the congested and noisy streets of Kowloon. To get a China visa I dropped my passport off at the China Travel Service office in Tsim Sha Tsui then took off to the relative quiet and cooler temperatures of the grassy hills of Lantau Island, where I camped out for a night on Sunset Peak. But it was still hot up in the hills, and thanks to Hong Kong’s smog-laden air, I saw neither sunset nor sunrise from the peak, just a soupy gloom. Down below me, in the murk, Hong Kong’s new airport was being constructed offshore at Chep Lap Kok. And so disappointed I returned to Kowloon to stay in a crowded eight-bunk dorm at the STB Hostel in Yau Ma Tei before picking up my visa from the ever-efficient CTS. The next day I flew to Chengdu, in Sichuan.

During a brief stay at the Traffic Hotel in Chengdu I was able to buy a ticket at the next door bus station for the two-day bus journey to Kangding.  The bus journey took me from the plains of Sichuan up a twisting, potholed old road across the 4000m Erlang Shan pass. This “Two Wolf” mountain ridge was a traditional physical barrier between China and Tibet. To reach it, the road went up through precipitous gorges and heavily forested hills, the last habitat of the panda. The road followed the course of a swirling river alongside which were were jarring reminders of China's industrialisation: hideously ugly and primitive 1960s-era cement factories that had been plonked unsympathetically into this epic and wild landscape.

It was a terrible road over Erlang Shan, and in the late nineties the Chinese were to bypass the summit by digging a 4km long tunnel through the mountain. This would cut out the worst parts of the switchback summit road and reduce the travel time from Chengdu to Kangding to a single day. But in 1995 my trip to Kangding still required an overnight stay in a filthy hotel in Ya’an, at the foot of the hills.

On the second day we re-boarded our basic Soviet-era bus, to continue up the mountain road to Kangding. The old bus groaned and shuddered up the road, passengers were sick and we had to endure countless stops caused by traffic jams and roadblocks. On some sections of the road whole chunks of the red-clay hillside had fallen away, depositing massive piles of rock and earth in the middle of the road that our bus had to skirt around. Progress was further slowed when we got stuck behind long convoys of slow moving PLA trucks. It was a relief, therefore, when we finally lurched over the summit of the Erlang Shan road in grey mist, and began an equally tortuous descent towards the Dadu river and the famous town of Luding.

According to Communist revolutionary legend, the strategically-important bridge at Luding was captured by Red Army forces in an audacious, near-suicidal attack during the Long March in 1935. Luding was a vital river crossing for the Mao’s Long March columns as it offered their only way of escape to the north from Chiang Kai Shek’s Kuomintang armies. In the Communist propaganda telling of the story, Luding bridge was captured by a daring squad of Red volunteers who crawled hand over hand across the chains of the old bridge (which was stripped of its planks) amid a hail of bullets fired by Kuomintang soldiers dug in on the opposite side of the river.

However, writers like Jung Chang have cast doubt on this account, claiming the Luding bridge crossing was actually much less dramatic. They quote witnesses saying the bridge was defended by just a few of the poorly-armed local militia. Furthermore, the local warlord Liu Wenhui had been paid off by Communist envoys to put up only token resistance to the Red Army. Whatever the truth, the bridge has been preserved as a Revolutionary landmark, and now sits in the middle of an otherwise unremarkable collection of ugly modern buildings.

From Luding, the Tibet road continued up an increasingly narrow canyon down which the waters of a turbulent river surged over huge boulders. A Buddhist chorten by the riverside was the first sign of Tibetan cultural influence. And then, in the late afternoon I finally arrived at my jumping-off point of Kangding.

At 2600 metres in altitude, Kangding is squeezed into a narrow, steep-sided valley between two sets of high mountains. Founded on the confluence of two rivers, Kangding sits on the cultural border between Han China and Tibet and has for centuries been an important trading centre. Tea and tobacco were brought up from China while Tibetan herdsmen brought their wool, fur and leather wares down from the highlands to trade.

In 1908 the American consul described ‘Tatsienlu’ as a small town of 9000 people, mostly Tibetans.

“A large trade is done here in rhubarb and musk, the latter taken from the small hornless deer plentiful in this part of China. Of the exports of this district, musk is the most valuable ... next in importance of exports is wool. This trade of late has diminished, owing to the disturbances on the border. The coarse sack-like wool cloth ‘mu-tsz’ is worn by all Chinese coolies, while a fine grade dyed red called ‘pulu’ is the clothing of the higher class of the Tibetans. The lower classes, such as yak and pony drivers, wear entirely undressed sheepskins. About 45,000 pounds of wool is received annually in Tatsienlu.”

Gold was also traded in Tatsienlu, but as the consul noted: “The Tibetan confines mining to washing the alluvial sand in the river beds. He is averse to outsiders mining in his country, his antipathy to them being very great. The Tibetan wishes to be let alone and strongly resents foreign intrusion.”

Kangding was also a part of the ‘tea horse road’. Tea was a much sought-after commodity by the Tibetans, and bricks of tea were carried up to the trail to Kangding in heavy loads carried on the backs of porters from the tea plantations of the Sichuan plain:

“The tea packages are made up in rolls about 3 feet long. Each carrier will take on his back from five to thirteen, according to his age and strength,” the US consul noted.

Kangding is now part of the Ganze district of Sichuan, but at the time of Rock’s visit it was at the outer edge of the Chinese world. Tibet was then an effectively independent state and its borderlands were a turbulent area of power struggles between Chinese-backed warlords and the then-considerable power of the Tibetan lamas, backed by Lhasa.

In the 1930s, ‘Tatsienlu’ was part of a newly-created province known as Sikang, into which the Chinese had annexed the Tibetan borderlands adjacent to Sichuan. But lines on a map did not then amount to control over the Kham Tibetans.

Of the many different tribes of Tibet, the Khampas were renowned for their wild and independent warrior-like qualities. They had a reputation for being violent bandits and aggressive in local inter-tribal warfare. In 1995, Han Chinese dominated Kangding but Khampa men could still be seen swaggering through town like cowboys. They wore Stetsons and thick chubas, exposing one shoulder to the cold mountain air. They wore their hair long and tied it with threads of bright red wool.

All the Khampa men carried traditional Tibetan daggers at their waists in ornately decorated silver sheaths. Some wore them ostentatiously on their belt, while others - even those wearing western style suits, would occasionally give an unintended flash of their knives while bending over or when opening their jackets.

Joseph Rock used Kangding as a rest stop for two weeks during his expedition to Minya Konka, but his article says little about the town then known as Tachienlu (the sinicised version of the town’s Tibetan name, Dartsendo). The town was a place to replenish supplies, develop photographic negatives and gave the horses a rest. A photograph accompanying his article shows a view of the town from a nearby hillside, with Chinese-style houses clustered along the banks of the river. Rising above them is the imposing structure of a Christian church, built in the European style with large arched windows and an ornate Gothic façade complete with spires and towers. It is certainly as Rock outs it: “one of the most imposing Christian churches in this part of the world”.

The church was one of several built in the region during the late 19th century by French Catholic missionaries such as Père Jean- Baptiste Ouvrard. Mission stations were usually built one day’s riding distance from each other, and missionaries penetrated as far as remote Tibetan towns such as Batang, hoping to convert the heathen Buddhists to Christianity. The Kangding Church of the Sacred Heart was completed in 1912 by Ouvrard, who we shall meet again later in connection to his activities in the Salween and Mekong valleys further west.

Rock must have had to overcome his disdain of western ‘holy roller’ missionaries as he stayed at the China Inland Mission in town. At the time of his visit there were several missionaries in Tatsienlu, as well a handful of western traders. The missionaries ran schools, hospitals and orphanages, but they failed to win over many Tibetan converts. They must have had some success in Kangding, however, as there is still a Catholic church in town. The original was destroyed by floods in the 1980s but a gaudy lilac-painted replacement now stands by the riverbank, said to be host to 200 practising Christians.

I visited the church and was given a tour by the friendly Han Chinese caretaker. In contrast to the tackily painted exterior, the interior was a restrained and serene place, where the wooden pews had hymnals illustrated in an ornate pre-Vatican II style.

There was only one hotel in Kangding open to foreigners - the gloomy and bureaucratic Kangding Bingguan, located at the top of the town, next door to the Anjue Si monastery. At the other end of town stood the other major monastery, Nanwu Si. In Rock’s article he calls it the ‘Thunderbolt Monastery’, and it appears to be set in open countryside. In 1995, however, the monastery was hemmed in by four-storey apartment blocks and a PLA army barracks where recruits practiced their martial moves to shouts of “Sha sha sha” (Kill, kill kill). Nanwu Si still looked like the photo of it in Rock’s article and the monks there proved were friendly. , They reacted eagerly when they saw the pictures in the National Geographic from the 1920s - jabbing their fingers at the old images of the Konka Gompa and reassuring me that it was still there, and still worth a visit.

Trek Day 1: Kangding to Djesi La

The map suggested that a trek to Gonga monastery (Konka Gompa in Tibetan) should start from a settlement called Lao Yulin, on the southern outskirts of Kangding. With some trepidation, I set off on foot through the streets of Kangding at daybreak. Chinese kids were setting off for school, and they laughed at me, the foreigner, and taunted me with the usual cries of “Allo! Laowai!”

It was an uphill hike out of town along the main Sichuan-Tibet highway, until I branched off on a side road that took me along the left hand side of a small river and up along a valley dotted with a few decrepit buildings and shacks. Soon I was walking on my own and got my first glimpse ahead of me of a row of rounded snow peaks. At last, I was in mountain country!

After an hour or so I arrived at what I presumed was Lao Yulin. It was a depressing sight: just a concrete shell of an abandoned woollen mill, some slum apartment blocks and a few stone shacks dotted along the riverside. There was also a grim brick bath-house built around some hot springs, and the woman attendant there added to my pessimistic mood when she informed me that it was impossible to get through to Gongga Shan because of the heavy snows at this time of year. I nevertheless continued up a rough gravel road towards a higher village of stone Tibetan houses.

Struggling under the weight of my backpack and rasping in the thin mountain air, it quickly became apparent there was no way I could walk to Gongga Shan. I stopped for a breather outside a Tibetan stone house that had a couple of mules grazing in the backyard. When a Tibetan man appeared, I asked him how long it would take to get to Gongga Shan on foot. He immediately sneered at the suggestion.

“On foot? Ha! Nobody goes all the way on foot. It’s too far. You have to take a horse!” he said in thickly-accented Mandarin

So I asked him how much it would cost to hire horses to go to the mountain. The answer was 15 yuan a day each for two horses and 20 yuan a day for his services as a guide. Did I want to go? I was taken aback by his sudden offer and to give myself time to think I asked him whether it was possible to get to the monastery?

Yes, he knew the Konka Gompa monastery - he called it ‘Gongga Si’.

“Three days to get to the monastery from here, so six days there and back. Including a horse for me it would be around 400 yuan in total,” he said.

“Well? Going or not?” he demanded.

The Tibetan man’s name was Gerler. He was short and stocky, with a thick matt of hair, deeply tanned brown skin and stained yellow teeth. My gut feeling was that he was dependable – and as he gestured towards the mules I decided on the spur of the moment to take the plunge and hire him as my guide. With just a nod of the head, Gerler invited me into his spartan living room while he got the horses ready. There was little in the room - just a few solid wooden chairs and a table, and a mosaic of family portraits of his Tibetan relatives in a picture frame. Some of the older black and white photos were from the sixties or seventies, of family members dressed in Mao suits and caps posing with formal, unsmiling expressions.

Outside, a small crowd of kids and other youths gathered to watch as Gerler selected a horse, wrestled it to the ground and started to hammer horseshoes onto its hooves. He then brought out two Tibetan saddles, which were wooden A-frames covered with thick rugs. I belatedly wondered what I was letting myself in for. My only horse riding experience to date was riding a donkey along the beach at Bridlington. But before I had time to ponder too much on this, Gerler was already strapping my backpack onto one of the saddles and urging me to get on the horse.

“Qi ma! Zou ba!” (“Ride the horse! Let’s go!”). He held up a stirrup and I inserted my boot and swung myself gingerly into the saddle. What an odd feeling, to have what seemed to be a huge, lurching and unpredictable living and breathing beast beneath you as your mode of transport. I tentatively grasped the reins, and Gerler told me that if I wanted to stop the horse I should pull the reins in, thus pulling the horses head back and upwards.

And if I wanted to make the horse go? He lifted up the red-tipped end of the rope tether and flicked the horse’s rump with it, yelling “Cho!” The horse shoot out from under me, lurching along the dirt track with me perched precariously on top, bobbing and leaning to either side, trying to keep my balance. I felt very awkward in the saddle – it just felt wrong and I wondered if the horse could sense my unease.

Gerler swung into his saddle and followed soon after me, quickly catching up and passing me as he spurred his small horse to a canter by digging in his heels and waving the red-tipped tether. My horse started to speed up to keep up, as well and I groaned involuntarily as I held on for grim life.

“Don’t let the horse see the red rope too much,” hollered Gerler back at me as we cantered crazily up the rocky trail. “When he see the rope he will try to gallop.”

I gathered up the tether in my hands and concealed the end in my clenched fist. The horse still felt skittish and unpredictable, but eventually settled into a more manageable walking pace. Nevertheless, I still felt that my tenure in the saddle was extremely precarious.

As we headed up the lane, past neighbours’ houses Gerler called out a greeting of “Gadoh!” to people standing in the yards, and told them where he was going. “Taking the foreigner up to the Gongga Si - back in a few days!” he grinned. One man asked how much he was getting paid. “Four hundred!” said Gerler proudly. The reply was a rising and falling “Ooh-ah-oh” that I was to hear used many times by the local Tibetans, and which seemed to be a way of saying “Yes, I hear you.”

The first section of the track was fairly easy to negotiate as it was part of a road being constructed to go over to the Hailuoguo glacier on the eastern face of Gongga Shan. We soon left the village behind us, however, and forked off left onto a smaller mud track and crossed a bridge. We were getting out into the open hills. It was spitting rain as we continued up a gloomy and barren valley. The treeless landscape resembled the moorlands of Yorkshire, but on a much larger scale. Pitched on the hillsides were black wool-woven tents that belonged to yak herders, but there appeared to be nobody living in them. We plodded on upwards through the open country for a few hours and I slowly became a bit more confident about staying in the saddle but no more comfortable. The stirrups were too short for my long legs, which were bent back on themselves, making my knees and calves increasingly cramped and painful. With the low cloud, there was little else to see except the walls of the valley and the occasional black dots of yaks or dzo (a yak-bull cross) grazing high on the hillsides.

Gerler led the way, wearing his stetson and with plimsolls on his feet. He would turn around in the saddle and give me a smile from time to time, asking if I was alright. I wasn’t, but didn’t say as much. My horse seemed volatile and uncooperative. It would stop from time to time to munch at grass or take a drink of water, and when I tried to spur us on it would bolt away suddenly at the first sign of the red rope, leaving me hanging on grimly until Gerler caught up and was able to rein it back to walking speed.

And so it was in this manner that I spent much of the afternoon of the first day. By the late afternoon I was beginning to worry about where we would stay for the night. As we got higher the bare hills showed no sign of any human life or habitation, and I wondered whether I’d have to pitch my tent out here on the open windswept hillside. As we reached what seemed to be the top of the valley, Gerler started to whistle, and I noticed a black smudge on the distant horizon ahead of us, which slowly materialised into be a yak herder’s tent as we rode closer.

The occupants - two young men and a woman - came out and stared at us silently as we approached. “These are my cousins,” announced Gerler, “we will stay here tonight”.

He called out to them with a kind of Tibetan yodel-yell and the Tibetans responded with whistles and yelps. Arrayed around their tent were stacks of cut branches for firewood, and also a large mound of drying yak dung - to be used as fuel for the fire. There was also a pair of very agitated barking Tibetan mastiffs tethered up to a wooden bar outside the door of the tent.

The dogs were working themselves up into a frenzy at the sight of us, and I fervently hoped their restraining chains would hold.

It was a blessed relief to dismount from the horse and to be able to walk around and stretch my numb and aching legs - I hadn’t realised how saddle sore I’d become until I got off the horse. I edged warily around the barking dogs and we were ushered through the doorway into the interior of dirty black yurt-like tent.

Inside, once my eyes adjusted to the dark and smoky interior, I saw that the tent had an earthen floor, pressed smooth and dry by constant pressure from the tent’s inhabitants. The tent was centred around a fire, on top of which sat an iron frame holding a large sooty black cauldron. There was a hole in the tent roof immediately above the fire to let the smoke escape, but this was not a very efficient ventilation system. Quite a bit of smoke lingered within the tent, forming a blue-grey layer that sat above waist height. All the more incentive, then, to squat down on one of the greasy hard cushions on the floor and suck in the clearer air near the ground.

If you raised your head too high it entered the smoke layer, provoking an instant bout of coughing and bloodshot eyes. So I squatted on the floor and peered around me. The sides of the tent were packed with sacks of what looked like straw or twigs. There were also some pew-like low wooden benches, on which there were some dirty rolled up mattresses.

A few kitchen utensils were hung up around the fire - a ladle, a few metal pots, and an iron poker. I also noticed that us five humans inside the tent now shared the interior with several yak calves, which were confined by a rope in one corner, where they scuffled and peed.

It was almost nightfall and the temperature had plummeted to below freezing. I was glad to be near the fire. A faint breeze blew through the loose weave of the yak hair tent material which had gaps in big enough to poke a stick through. Nevertheless, it seemed to stop much of the rain that now seemed to be falling.

I started to unpack some bits and pieces from my backpack and soon had an untidy array of billy cans, cups, bowls, knives and forks and packets of food arranged around me, items that proved to be utterly fascinating to the Tibetans.

They watched as if mesmerised as I took some boiling water from the cauldron to make up one of my dehydrated sweet and sour chicken-with-rice meals in a bag. It all seemed so much more fussy than their simple fare of potatoes and noodles boiled up in the large black pot. The Tibetans spoke in their own Kham dialect, which I did not understand, although I was able to tell Gerler a few things in Mandarin about myself and my Auckland home, which he translated for the benefit of the others. They passed around the few photos that I’d brought with me, uttering admiring cooh’s and ahh’s as they fingered pictures of the beaches of New Zealand.

Gerler told me that our Tibetan hosts were about to strike camp and move back down the valley to lower altitudes for the winter. This was their summer pasture, he explained, and in the first few days of October the weather was getting too cold for the yaks. The young Tibetan woman spoke quickly and melodically to the others, and they told me she said she had been working in the wool factory down at Laoyulin until it shut down. Now she was out of work, and there was little else to do but go back to herding yaks again.

By 7pm it was dark and the Tibetans started to talk quietly among themselves, no doubt catching up on family gossip. One of the young guys produced a cassette player from somewhere, and they played a few wonky tapes of Chinese karaoke music as we sat around in the gloom. They smoked, took a swig or two of baijiu from a bottle, and we sat around the crackling fire.

By 9pm it was time for bed, and I decided it was way too cold to be sleeping outside in my microlight tent. Instead, theTibetans arranged a couple of old rugs on the earth floor for me, and watched again in fascination as I unpacked my sleeping bag and Thermarest and prepared for bed. They were gobsmacked when they saw me taking out my contact lenses, and asked me what part of my eye I had just removed. I settled down in a corner of the tent, with a puppy tethered near my feet and the yak calves huddled just a couple of feet away from me, still peeing, and giving off a very distinct bovine aroma.

And thus I fell asleep, despite my thirst caused by the smoky atmosphere of the black tent.

Trek Day 2: Djesi Pass -Yulongxi

When I emerged from the tent the next morning I was amazed to find myself in a snowy white landscape, with a clear blue sky revealing many icy peaks that had been hidden by low cloud the previous day. The tips of the peaks were orange from the early morning sun rays, and I stamped my feet and pounded my arms to ward off the cold. I pitied the horses and yaks for having to stay outside overnight in such icy conditions.

Back in the tent, our hosts offered me butter tea and rice porridge for breakfast, but I preferred a bowl of cereal made with milk powder, and a cup of Nescafe. Then we saddled up and were on our way again, up the gentle incline of the valley. Ahead of us there was a neat pyramidal peak, which Gerler told me was Jiazi Feng - Rock had taken a picture of the same peak but called it Chiburongi. We plodded through the brilliant white landscape of the valley and as we gained altitude saw more snowy peaks both ahead and behind us. As we approached the Djesi La pass, the valley divided into a Y-shape, and our horses took us on a trail up the right hand fork. I was glad to have a guide with me, as I would have become hopelessly lost at this point. The left arm headed into the midst of the snowy peaks and looked like a very lonely and desolate place to be. This must have been the Riuchi (Riwuqie in modern Chinese) valley, which had been explored by Rock almost as an afterthought to his visit to Minya Konka. He described it as running almost parallel to the lower inhabited valley, and running directly into the mountain peaks.

How I admired Rock’s daring at this point. I couldn’t imagine anyone venturing into that wilderness by themselves, especially at a time when there were no maps of the area..

As we ascended it became colder and the biting wind blew harder. I had to put on my jacket and pull down the earflaps of my cap. There was a bit of snow underfoot, but not enough to stop us crossing the pass.

And there was still wildlife up at these high altitudes - I saw a flock of grey doves, a black flycatcher-like bird, and there were a few bluebell-like flowers poking out of the snow. We shifted over to the left in this plateau valley, and soon the tip of what must have been Gongga Shan came into sight above the hills - a most impressive and daunting vista. Behind us now, all we could see was range after range of snowy peaks. We were well and truly into the Minya Konka massif, and approaching the crest of the pass.

With Gongga Shan passing in and out of view, our horses jigged up to the flat, exposed summit of the Djesi La, marked by the usual array of stone cairns, Mani stones and prayer flags. I wanted to stop and take some photos but Gerler hurried me on, saying that we still had a huge distance to cover that day. At the top of the pass we dismounted and led the horses down out of the snowfields and into a long, curving valley, which seemed very green after the bleak pass - but absolutely deserted.

In 1929, Rock had encountered deep snow on his first, northbound, traverse of the Djesi Pass. “Our mules and horses suffered terribly as they floundered belly deep in drifts,” he wrote.

“On the north-eastern side of the pass the snow lay still deeper. Our yaks, however, seemed to enjoy the situation greatly: although fully laden, they would lie down in the snow as if it were the most comfortable place in the world! These yaks and their owners seem to be kindred spirits. They behold the same dreary landscape, bare hills, and grassy valleys; endure long winters and short summers, with no spring or autumn to speak of. Ignorant of the outside world, these people seem entirely contented with their hard lot. They are born, live and die, not only in the same skin, but, one might almost say, in the same clothes, with those insect associates from which the Tibetan is never free. The minute a nomad enters a room, the air smells of yak butter, sour milk and yak dung smoke, to say nothing of the fragrance peculiar to an unwashed Tibetan himself.”

Heading downhill beyond the Djesi pass, I felt a sense of exhilaration. The green landscape, surrounded by white peaks and topped by the blue sky was utterly beautiful and other-worldly. And there was something mesmeric about the tinkle of the horse bells.

After we had walked on for several more hours I heard voices in the distance. I stopped and scanned the landscape around us, but we appeared to be all alone in this desolate valley. Then I thought I heard faint music or singing coming from somewhere – but when I stood still and listened carefully, the only sounds I could hear were the beating of the wind and the clanking of horse bells. I was having auditory hallucinations, but didn’t have a chance to ponder on this. Gerler set a relentless pace, and it wasn’t until the middle of the afternoon when we reached lower down in the valley that he relented and allowed us a brief stop. We halted near a small stone wall shelter, in the lee of which I tried to get my hexy stove lit to boil some water for a cup of tea. While I was still faffing around with my lighter, Gerler gathered together a few twigs and sticks of wood, and soon had a vigorous fire burning that put my weedy flame to shame. Within a few minutes he had water boiling in his blackened pot and threw in a few lumps of brick tea to make ‘Da-Cha’ - a surprisingly thick and pungent form of green tea.

He also gave the horses a break, taking off their bridles and saddles, after which they harrumphed and rolled about on their backs in the grass, as if to rub their itchy manes. Then they wandered off to graze the fresh and untouched grass nearby. When it came time to set off again they were reluctant to leave and we had to chase them up the hillside, gasping for breath in the thin high altitude air as we lunged and grabbed for the reins.

It was near this spot that Rock had also paused at a large cairn to take photographs of Minya Konka. He had climbed the sides of the valley up to a spur at 16,500 feet, from where Minya Konka appeared as a triangular peak, “not unlike one of the pyramids of Egypt.”

As we continued on down, the weather ahead of us didn’t look good. Sheets of grey cloud were dumping curtains of rain in the lower valley, and soon after we set off we entered the mist and it started to snow. The weather made the horses unsettled and my horse started to get jumpy.

Gerler was in a hurry and started flicking the flanks of his horse with the rope and trotting off ahead at speed. My horse followed, but in a wild gallop that threatened to unseat me. I reined in the horse but Gerler urged me to keep up, and gestured at me to whip it with my rope. When I reluctantly did so, the horse went berserk, shooting off with me at hair-raising speed. Before I knew what was happening I’d been thrown to the ground, landing on my elbow in a pile of yak poo. I was badly winded, but fortunately with nothing broken. I wiped myself down and quickly remounted the horse, thanking my lucky stars that the fall had occurred in an area of springy turf and not on one of the rocky patches of ground. I wouldn’t want to break an arm here, two days from the nearest hospital.

We carried on down into the dark and increasingly marshy valley, passing some stone cairns and prayer flags. Up ahead I saw some small animals hopping about on the ground and at first thought they were rabbits. As we got closer I saw they were vultures - scraggy creatures that were flapping around and squabbling with each other over the carcass of a crow. They didn’t seem at all afraid of us humans as we passed them.

As if this was an omen of bad luck, I was again thrown from my horse when it bolted once more in response to Gerler’s cries to go faster. As before, I was shaken but lucky not to have broken anything. However, this time I refused to remount, and instead walked alongside the recalcitrant horse for a while, which made me realise what a fast pace the horses had been making compared to human walking speed. It wasn’t long, though, before Gerler was gesturing for me to get back into the saddle. Behind us, a menacing soup of dark grey cloud spilled over the pass like a pan boiling over, the wisps of vapour curling down towards us like tentacles, as dramatic as anything in a Steven Spielberg film.

“Qi ma!” urged Gerler.

I remounted and we hurried along, but could not outrun the scudding clouds. Soon we were completely enveloped in a thick “grey-out” and could barely see more than a few metres around us. The cloud brought an onslaught of tiny hard pellets of snow that stung my eyes, forcing me to dismount because I could not see ahead. Gerler also dismounted and started to hitch the two horses together so he could lead them through the blizzard. My horse took fright as he was adjusting the straps and jerked away so violently that it snapped its tether. The driving snow sent it into a frenzy, it started bucking and kicking like a bronco, trying desperately to shake off its load of saddle and backpacks. After cavorting in this way for a few moments the horse ran off and was swallowed up in the thick mist.

“Oh great,” I thought. My horse had just bolted and taken all my gear with it. Here we were, stuck in the middle of nowhere in a snowstorm, and I had nothing except for what I was stood up in.

Gerler seemed unfazed by the sudden turn of events.

“Deng yixia (wait a minute),” he said.

And sure enough, the blizzard-cloud soon blew over and the mist lifted as abruptly as it had enveloped us. The errant horse came into view, cantering in a circle some distance away, still spooked, but now a bit less hysterical. On seeing us, it turned galloped towards me as if intent on running me down. Gerler leapt out and grabbed the reins as it passed and soon had it back under control.

Crisis over, we continued on foot down the valley into clearer skies, but the little storm episode had left me exhausted and uneasy. We aimed for a spur, around which we descended in a narrow defile down into wider valley. And still there was no sign of any other people.

As we plodded on through the relatively milder climes of the lower valley, Gerler became more talkative. He asked me about the costs of cattle and sheep in New Zealand. He told me he had 60 head of yak. Did we all have guns in New Zealand? You needed to have a gun if you were a yak herder, he told me, because there was so much cattle theft. He knew about this because one of his brothers was a policeman. Another was a driver who plied the route between Kangding to Lhasa. His other brothers and sisters were yak herders in Lao Yulin. Gerler told me all this as he kept up a brisk walking pace, insisting that I had to keep up the pace as it was imperative we reach the village of Yulongxi by nightfall.

By now it was already late afternoon and we still hadn’t seen any sign of human habitation, nothing except for a roofless stone ‘sheep pen’.

As we reached more level ground Gerler urged me to remount once more. I complied, but was thrown from the skittish horse almost immediately. Third time unlucky: this time I landed on stony ground and badly grazed and bruised my right hand in the fall. Gerler then did what he should have done right at the start, swapping mounts and letting me ride his horse, which I found was placid to the point of being dull.

I bumped along, cradling my bruised right hand while trying to hold the reins with the left. Gerler struggled and fought against my rebellious horse, whipping and kicking it without mercy. We continued on round another spur, and saw our first signs of human life this side of the Djesi pass - a dirt track and a stone house. Although it was a plain and simple building, what a pleasant sight it seemed after a whole day of desolate valley.

There were yaks and sheep grazing on the grassy slopes of nearby hills, and the dry stone walls and grey stone buildings reminded me of the wilder corners of the Yorkshire Dales. Soon we saw another such house, and Gerler told me we had reached the upper reaches of Yulongxi. And yet we still kept on, and to my frustration by early evening we still hadn’t arrived at wherever we it was we were supposed to be staying for the night.

Finally, just after 7pm, Gerler pursed his lips and gestured with his chin towards a shallow but fast-flowing river. “Across the river is where we are staying,” he said.

He led us to a place where a couple of logs had been thrown over the rushing water, and I was able to wobble across them to the other side. Gerler followed on horseback, leading both horses across, the swirling waters reaching up the horse’s flanks to his knees. On the other side we were soon stood outside the walls of a large Tibetan house, and Gerler was called out to the occupants to let us in.

The wooden door-gate was dragged open by a young Tibetan guy, to reveal a grassy courtyard where I almost collapsed with fatigue at the doorway of the house. The guy was a cousin of Gerler, and he helped remove my pack and took off the saddles of the horses. Relieved of their loads, they brayed and rolled around on the grass and mud of the courtyard.

In 1929 when Joseph Rock arrived in ‘Yulonghsi’, he was put up at a grand house that had once been the home of the former ‘king’ of the Chiala region. The house was occupied by a local chief, a ‘good natured Tibetan’ called Drombo, who welcomed Rock and acted as his guide for the brief period of his first visit.

The house we stayed at was no palace. It was built in the style of most Tibetan dwellings, with the ground floor reserved for animals. Small yaks were stabled in the gloomy interior and a pig sty was located directly beneath the long drop toilet, from which the pigs greedily and noisily devoured the human droppings. From the dry mud floor of the ground floor we climbed up a notched timber log to the family quarters.

The first floor consisted of a huge room, which was dark due to the few windows being shuttered or covered with thick sheets of almost opaque polythene. The living area was centred around an open fireplace, around which was an iron frame holding pots and kettles.

Various members of the extended family were squatting around the fire on dirty hard cushions or ankle-high wooden stools. They beckoned me to join them “kao huo” (sit by the fire), and I was offered a stool. Looking around, everything about the house seemed to be made of wood.

- wooden floors, ceilings, walls, and the roof was supported by circular beams like tree trunks. But the Tibetans’ woodworking skills did not seem to extend to making furniture. Apart from the tiny stools and a low table on which the food was placed, the room was devoid of fittings. I was offered a bowl of yak butter tea – suyou cha – but otherwise, the family seemed oblivious to my presence. Two younger Tibetan women sat opposite me, both wearing traditional ankle-length skirts and with tanned, hard-working faces. They looked poor and overworked. Life here was hard, no Shangri La.

Gerler’s cousins ladled out some smoke-flavoured water from an urn into my bowl so I could make my dehydrated lamb and vegetable trekker’s meal. As he slurped a bowl of noodles and pawed the obligatory tsampa and butter tea, Gerler warned me that we’d have to be prepared for some serious exertion the following day. To get to the Konka Gompa we would have to climb up to and cross the 4500m Tsemi Pass, he said. However, I was beginning to have second thoughts. It was only the second day and I was already feeling worn out. I floated the idea of having a rest day tomorrow, but Gerler, dismissed this out of hand. He wanted to get to the Gompa as soon as possible, so that he could get back home within the week.

After dinner I felt a little better and passed around some copies of Joseph Rock’s photographs that I’d brought with me. One of them was a portrait of the local chief ‘Drombo’. The old lady of the house got quite excited when she saw this and exclaimed: “This is my father when he was young! I remember he wore these same clothes when I was a girl …”

The picture was handed round and provoked coohs and sighs of admiration. Not for the first time (or the last) I was asked how I had managed to get hold of pictures that even local people had never seen before.

Afterwards, anticipating another strenuous day, I had an early night. This time, in welcome contrast to the previous night’s tent situation, I had the relative luxury of a flea-ridden yak hair blanket on which to lie on, and I was able to settle in a dark corner with my water bottle handy to quench the seemingly ever-present thirst, dry mouth and lips that plagued me every night at this altitude.

Trek Day 3: Yulongxi valley - Tsemi village

When I woke up in the Tibetan house in Yulongxi on Monday 25th September, 1995, I was puffy-eyed and stiff, but as soon as I looked outside I was raring to go. The sight of blue skies and white snowy peaks dispelled the previous day’s faint-heartedness and my panicky impulse to ‘bug-out’ to the nearest road. Now I definitely wanted to go to Gongga Si.

I was keen to get started and wolfed down some Coco Pops and Earl Grey tea for breakfast. Gerler, however, was in no such hurry and left me pacing around impatiently until mid morning as he wouldn’t leave until he got a re-supply of cigarettes.

At 10-ish we saddled up and started initially to continue down the valley, southwest, in the direction of Mudju. I was still feeling uncomfortable in the saddle and had to shift around constantly until I settled on the least uncomfortable position. After about an hour’s ride, we forded another shallow river, passed a few yak herder’s tents (one of which had a large pile of yak dung beside it) and started to head up a side valley leading up to the ridge.

As we went up the hill, we entered a realm of sweet-smelling flowers and singing birds. The weather remained pleasant and I was feeling more confident in the saddle. The horse slowed down to a slow plod as the gradient increased, but even at a crawl it was certainly better than walking. It was a long, slow trek up to the pass, and I still had a niggling fear in the back of my mind about the track ahead: Gerler had made ominous-sounding statements about how we would have to climb very high and cross the ‘Da Xue Shan’ (big snow mountain) to get over to Tsemi.

I needn’t have worried. The going was easier than I thought, at least on horseback. We made good steady progress up the track and stopped for morning tea on a sheltered section of hillside just below the pass. There I lay on the grass enjoying the warm sun on my face after brewing up some water to make a cup of instant vegetable soup with croutons. My face was sunburnt, my lips were dry and cracked and the backs of my hands were also very red and burnt. But I was happy.

During Rock’s first traverse of the Yulongxi valley, he had followed this same route up to the top of the ridge in the hope of getting a glimpse of Minya Konka. The local headman Drombo had guided him up the track but according to Rock the Tibetan ‘kept up whining laments’ because he was worried about the deep snow.

No such worries about snow during our visit. We resumed our climb up through rockier terrain, and when we reached the snow line it was patchy and little impediment to walking. My poor horse was really struggling now however, because of the steeper slope and high altitude, and I felt guilty for getting a free ride. Gerler lit up a cigarette and started singing yodel-like Tibetan folk songs, his ululating voice echoing off the rocky walls around us. And in no time we came to the snowy flat section that was the Tsemi Pass. As we crested the last bit of track, Gongga Shan came into view - and what a magnificent sight it was.

We were fortunate to have great weather and an almost completely clear sky, giving us a perfect view of the massive peak rising up across the other side of the valley, and the large glacier that swept down into the side valley. Joseph Rock’s first impression on seeing Minya Konka was ecstatic:

“And then suddenly, like a white promontory of clouds, we beheld the long hidden Minya Konka, rising 25,600 feet in sublime majesty. I could not help jumping for joy. I marvelled at the scenery which I, the first white man ever to stand here, was privileged to see.”

We stopped and dismounted and, like Rock, I was so impressed I wanted to jump for joy and shout “La Rgellah!” - so I did.

There was an amazing view of the array of peaks that made up the Minya Konka range, and the views down into the valley were also quite dizzying. The valley was called ‘Buchu’ by Rock, who also detailed the many other smaller peaks surrounding Minya Konka. Most were around 20-22,000 feet in height, with names such as Nyambo Konka, Longemain and Daddomain.

“The scenery was superb. In fact, words fail to describe this marvellous panorama,” Rock wrote. But he did not cross over the pass on this first reconnaissance visit up from Yulongxi. He judged it still too cold in early spring to make a visit up to the monastery on the mountainside, and instead he returned to Yulongshi to continue on to Kangding, where he would await milder conditions. It was only after his return from a two-week sojourn in Kangding that Rock would finally make the crossing of the Tsemi pass, accompanied again by Drombo and another local Tibetan from Yulongxi, called Jumeh.

We, however, did not have weeks to spare. We continued over the pass and headed down the other side along a zig-zagging track into the Buchu valley. It was steep at first and I had to be very careful where I put my feet. At one point, Gerler pointed at a steep drop beside the track and told me this was where one of a group of Americans he’d previously guided had fallen down.

“He broke his leg and was in such great pain he cried like a baby,” he said.

“We had to strap him on a horse just like he was a sack and take him back to Yulongxi and out to Liuba to get him to on a truck to hospital in Kangding,” he grinned.

I was in an elated frame of mind as we descended into a sanctuary of natural beauty. There were rhododendron bushes and spruce trees below the snowline. The sun warmed our faces and birds flitted in the undergrowth. It really was an idyllic place, so different from the bleak emptyness of the Yulongxi valley.

As we lost height we also gradually lost our view of Gongga Shan, and it was only when we reached the Tsemi valley floor that I realised exactly how high up we’d been on the pass. The track spilled out into a beautiful meadow next to which was arrayed a fairytale village of sturdy stone Tibetan houses. They had T-shaped window frames finished in pretty bright colours. It was all set amid pine-clad slopes and next to a gushing river, with the snow peaks in the background. This was Tsemi, and it seemed too good to be true.

We stopped for the night at Tsemi, and again I found the gloomy, smoke-filled and dirty interior of the Tibetan house to be a jarring contrast to the light, airy and clean natural environs outside. Ushered upstairs into the first floor room to sit by the fire, the host family stir fried some potato slices in a black wok to make chips. I ate a few in the local fashion, with some chilli powder, but soon started to feel sick. Then, as I became more accustomed to the dim interior surroundings, I saw that the eating bowls were crawling with flies and weevils, and there was a piglet snuffling around in the room, sticking its little snout into all the plates and bowls as well. The floor was gritty and sooty, and the water they gave me to drink tasted smoky and had small bits of grass and specks of dirt in it.

The local people of Tsemi were a curious bunch. Villagers crowded around outside the windows and doorways of the house, peering in to get a look at the foreigner. They were friendly and smiled at me, and ooh-ed in aah-ed to each other in their own strange form of speech that sounded sometimes more like yodelling than talking. As well as having Buddhist icons, the living room had busts and pictures of Chairman Mao on display and there was old muzzle-loading musket hung up on the wall - not as a relic, but as a working rifle for hunting.

Rock says little about Tsemi village in his article. He passed through here, but only notes that it lies in the Buchu valley, near the junction of a side valley that contains the glacier running down from Minya Konka - and the mountain’s monastery, the “Konka Gompa”.

“For six months in the year this monastery is shut off even from that remote world represented by the yak herders of Yulongshi, for the Tsemi Pass is snow bound and impassable,” he notes.

I didn’t sleep well in Tsemi, partly because of stomach spasms, but also because of an incipient dread of becoming trapped in this valley. Gerler had repeated the concern that Rock had expressed in his article - if we stayed too long here we risked being trapped by imminent heavy snows that could block the pass, he told me.

And thus I turned restlessly through the night in my sleeping bag laid on a hairy mat on the sooty floor, and rose the next morning feeling terrible. The lack of sleep made me feel listless and jittery. I went through the motions of making breakfast, but had to repeat the whole tea-making process when I found a fly in the water I was boiling. When it was time to depart, I was still feeling extremely weak and tired and just didn’t feel up to making the journey to the monastery. I swung myself up into the horse’s saddle at 9am, but immediately felt like I was going to faint and fall off. After setting off, we’d only travelled a few hundred yards when I asked Gerler to stop, and told him I had to go back. I just didn’t have the energy to go on.

He said nothing but took me back inside the hose and plied me with a bowl of butter tea. I wanted to retch when I first put the muddy liquid up to my lips, but at Gerler’s insistence I continued to sip and swallow the lukewarm tea until I’d finished the bowl. When I told Gerler that I was really worried about my health and wanted to go back over the pass to Yulongxi, he refused.

“We have come so far and it’s my duty to take you to the monastery and that is what I will do,” he said solemnly. I was too dazed and weak to argue, which was just as well because after another bowl of butter tea I started to feel a lot better. The suyou cha had worked like a miracle cure. The Tibetan high energy drink.

“When you go on a journey like this you must drink lots of this tea,” Gerler lectured me. “You need lots of energy. I don’t think this western food is any good,” he added, gesturing with his chin to my packet soups and dehydrated meals.

“Come on, try again,” he said. “It’s only about two more hours to the monastery.” And so, still feeling a little queasy, I agreed, and this time I walked alongside the horses for a while instead of riding.

We passed through the meadow in the sunshine and then crossed a large creek over a wooden bridge, following a track up through a magical forest of beech. The track wended its way up, passing lots of Mani stones and cairns, and the whole place had a very spooky atmosphere about it. There was an almost physical presence in the woods, and I could feel we were nearing a special place. Even the horses seemed to be possessed by a new spirit, and raced each other up the track. Birds were singing, a stream tinkled below us and there were fresh mushrooms and fungi growing along the track.

After an hour or so we reached a fork in the track, with the left hand pathway going back towards Kangding, via the Riwuqie Pass, he said. That was along the other branch of the Y-shaped valley that we’d gone through on the way up to the Jiazi La pass. We did not take this route because it was higher and more snowbound than the longer but passable Yulongxi route, Gerler explained.

A short way ahead our horses stopped to drink from a water trough, and as we rounded the corner and emerged from the forest I saw some small stone outhouses and realised that we were finally there - we had reached the Gongga Si monastery. The monastery’s whitewashed walls appeared above the bushes, and I was thrilled to see that it looked just like the building in Rock’s old photographs.

Trek Day 4: The Konka Gompa

There was nobody at home at the Konka Gompa monastery when we arrived. The wooden door in the side of the wall was bolted shut and when we peeped through a gap, all we could see was a dog chained up against a wooden banister. No sounds could be heard, except the flap of prayer flags in the wind and the trickle of water along a primitive timber guttering channel that diverted a ribbon of water from a small mountain stream.

Gerler called out in Tibetan and after a few moments there was a faint, distant reply from somewhere beyond the monastery. We turned around and saw a tiny red and yellow-clad figure ambling down the hillside towards us. It was a dwarfish lama and he was carrying a sizeable bunch of sticks tied onto his back. When he arrived, he dumped the load of firewood at our feet and nodded at me, as if he had been expecting us and as if foreign visitors were an everyday occurrence at this remote monastery.

The little shaven-headed lama bade us welcome and unlocked the padlock on the door with a key that he summoned up from the folds of his robe, gesturing for us to go into the courtyard. He wasn’t one to stand on ceremony - he helped us unstrap our bags from the horses and take off the saddles, and then he led us into his smoky, soot-stained scullery. There, he immediately got some boiling water from the cauldron and started making butter tea. He did this by pouring the steaming water into a long wooden tube, followed by some yak butter and tea leaves, and then he pushed a wooden plunger in and out with great sucking and squelching noises, to mix it all up. It’s a familiar routine in any Tibetan household. I just felt so elated to actually be in this place at long last.

I thought back to the first time I’d read about this tiny monastery in one of Rock’s articles, several years previously back in Auckland, and now here I was, in the very spot. And even more surprisingly, the place seemed to have barely changed from how Rock had described it:

“We were escorted into a square house, having a courtyard filled with mud, and up over an old sagging stairway to a balcony which led to a chanting hall and a narrow room with a chapel on one side. A small window overlooking the glacier valley permitted a perfect view of Minya Konka under favourable weather conditions.”

It was still just like that.

As we sat around the fire, I showed the lama some of Rock’s photographs of the gompa and its surroundings, and he recognised the old building, which had been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. The present monastery had been rebuilt in the same style during the 1980s, he told me. The lama, whose name was Ding Ri Zhu, also recognised Rock’s photo portrait of the headman of Yulongxi, Drombo, and he pointed to a picture Rock had taken of a wall painting of the mountain god, Dordjelutru, and said that the painting was still here.

After he finished his tea, the lama took me on a tour of the monastery. He didn’t speak Chinese, so I couldn’t understand what he was mumbling about when he showed me the various draughty guest rooms and dusty storage rooms. The lama told me that on special occasions they had 20-30 monks come up from the lower monasteries in places like Liuba to put on special ceremonies for the mountain gods.

I asked him if it was true, as Rock had claimed, that the monastery was cut off by snow on the passes from November through to April, but he said this was only the case during very heavy snowfalls. It was still possible to get over the pass during the winter months, he said, and it was also possible to walk out in the opposite direction, down the valley to Hailouoguo and Moxi on the eastern side of Gongga Shan. So much for Rock’s claims of a monastery cut off for half a year in its “isolated mountain fastness”!

The lama showed me the gompa’s small chanting hall, with its golden statues and the bright murals of fierce-looking Tibetan Buddhist deities that were portrayed as surrounded by skulls and bolts of lightning. He then took me into a small, gloomy back room and lifted up the edge of a cloth hanging on the wall, to reveal a picture portraying the mountain god Dordjelutru, similar to the one photographed by Rock.

This was obviously one of the most sacred relics in the monastery, and his manner suggested I should be greatly impressed by it. However, in a Spinal Tap moment, the tapestry that I thought would cover a whole wall was actually the size of a teatowel. I found it hard not to giggle, never mind show reverence.

Rock described an inscription that accompanied the portrayal of Dordjelutru:

“On the gate to the chapel in my room hung a long strip of hempcloth with a Tibetan inscription. It declared that there is no more beautiful spot on earth than Minya Konka, and that one night spent on the mountain is equivalent to sitting ten years in meditation in one’s house and praying constantly; that one offering of burning juniper boughs [here] is equivalent to hundreds of thousands of prayers.”

The inscription also said that the Indian founder of the red hat (Karmapa) branch of Buddhism had pronounced that this god, Dordjelutru, was the equal of the prime deity Shenrezig, and that all the deities of Tibetan Buddhism dwelled within this scared mountain “and anyone gazing upon the peak will have all his past sins wiped off the slate so he may begin life anew!”

After lunch of chicken broth taken in the dirty scullery, I wandered around outside and snapped away with my camera, trying to take pictures from the same places that Rock had taken his from. Unfortunately, the low cloud had really closed in around the gompa, and there was little to see of Minya Konka, whose summit and ice ridges remained hidden in the mist just above us. All we could see was the foot of the glacier moraine.

Back at the gompa, the little lama had disappeared into one of the back rooms and could be heard chanting away continuously in the background, occasionally banging on a drum and ringing a discordant little bell.

In contrast to these displays of piety, I busied myself with more mundane housekeeping chores. To the accompaniment of chants and gongs I washed my smoke and soot-laden hair using the little sachets of Head and Shoulders that are sold in strips in rural Chinese stores. Then I set about scrubbing my socks and undies in the trickle of water from the mountain stream, hanging them up next to the prayer flags to flap in the breeze sending who-knows-what message skywards to the gods.

In the middle of the afternoon the lama re-appeared in the courtyard of the gompa and gestured out of the doorway up at the glacier, from which some of the cloud and mist had dissipated slightly. He told me, using Gerler as translator, that there was a special shrine located a little higher up the mountain, and he pointed his bony brown finger at it. I couldn’t see anything, until Gerler pointed out a small red dot among the snow and rocks. They both said it was a very special place where all the prayers could be said directly to the mountain god.

It didn’t look far, and having nothing better to do, I decided to go and have a closer look. Taking just a small pack with my camera in, I set off down the slope into the massive gully that held the glacier, following a faint track that took me down to the glacier moraine. I kept looking up at where the shrine was supposed to be, but it was difficult to keep track of it.

The shrine had looked quite close to the gompa, but I was to learn how distances can be deceptive at high altitudes - perhaps due to the thin clear air making everything look so vivid and almost close enough to touch. I struggled up the glacier moraine for a couple of hours, floundering about among the large rocks, still unaccustomed to moving at high altitude, and constantly having to stop to get my breath back.

I didn’t seem to be making any progress towards the shrine, and I began to wonder at what time I should turn back. This little problem was solved for me when I foolishly tried to cross a small glacial river. It was just slightly too deep to get away without swamping my boots, so I took them off and tried wading over in bare feet with my trousers rolled up to the knees. The water, fresh from the glacier, was shockingly, painfully cold - worse than anything I had very experienced before. The water was so chilling it felt like my exposed skin was being scalded.

I skipped through the river with just ten painful steps, but had to stop on the other side and sit down on a boulder to rub some feeling back into my deeply-frozen feet and toes. Now I suddenly understood just how easily it would be to die of exposure and hypothermia in waters such as this. My little excursion up the glacier had left me tired, thirsty and disoriented, and so I turned back, disconsolate, to the return to the gompa.

It was late in the afternoon by the time I turned back, and I had to really struggle to climb back out of the glacier gully up to the monastery perched on the side of the ridge. And yet when I looked back to see how far I’d travelled, my four hour return trek looked like a 10-minute walk. Back inside the gompa, I felt absolutely famished, and slurped down a cup of tomato instant soup. It tasted better than anything I could remember for a long time.

I passed the remainder of the day and the early evening sat in the smoky but warm little room that the lama used as a kitchen and living space. He showed me a collection of notes and postcards left by a handful earlier international visitors - Americans, Germans, Japanese - mostly mountaineers, who had used the monastery as a base camp during attempts to climb Gongga Shan. One such Japanese expedition in 1981 had lost seven members killed in an avalanche near the summit. The lama brought out a cheap plastic watch that had been given to him by one of the Japanese climbing team. He said the watch had been very useful, but now it had broken, and could I please fix it for him? After a cursory look, I handed the watch back and told him that he’d have to try get a new battery from a place like Kangding - if he or any of his fellow monks ever made it as far as the ‘big smoke’.

After stir-frying up some more potato sliver chips, the lama showed me to a bare wooden room that was to be my bedroom for the night. I got myself settled in, but something about the room unsettled me. I felt cold and claustrophobic - and just plain lonely. Outside, it had started to rain heavily and when I turned off my torch I found myself feeling scared of the dark, like a child. After just a few minutes lying in the creepy blackness, I fled the room, picking up all my gear and moving back into the dirty smoky scullery where the lama and Gerler were still squatting around the fire.

I dossed down in a dark corner and tried to sleep there. I found myself waking up with a start after just a few minutes of sleep because it felt like I’d stopped breathing. Then I’d start hyperventilating and salivating so much that I was drooling. It was all very weird and worrying. I later learned this was probably “Cheyne Stokes syndrome” where the lack of oxygen (and CO2) in high altitude air disrupts the body’s automatic regulation of respiration. I didn’t know this at the time, however, and believed I was simply unable to breathe properly. I was convinced that I would die in my sleep if I stopped breathing and didn’t wake up. And so it was that I spent much of the night gazing at the ceiling, thinking about home, and about how far I was away from everything.

Joseph Rock also spent an unsettled night at the Konka Gompa. He was given the chapel room to sleep in, which contained a golden chorten (shrine) encrusted with jewels. This sarcophagus contained the remains of a previous living Buddha of the monastery.

Under the heading of ‘A weird night with a mummy for companion’, Rock’s article paints a dramatic picture of how he lay shivering in his cot as thunder crashed all around the mountain. He says that rain lashed the monastery and lightning flashed as: “Dordjelutru staged an electrical display in this weird canyon”.

“Here, all alone, in the presence of a sacred mummy in a hoary lamasery, I listened to the tempest breaking over the icy peak of Minya Konka. Was this the year 1929 or had time been set back a thousand years?” he wrote.

He may have been exaggerating, but I could now understand what might have inspired his feverish imaginings.

Trek Day 5: Returning via Liuba

The mountain gods were eventually kind to Joseph Rock. After his stormy night at the Gompa, the weather cleared the next morning, allowing him to explore higher up the ridge behind the monastery. He hiked up to 17,200 feet, from where he was able to take a panoramic photograph looking back down into the valley, with the monastery visible as just a tiny patch on the side of the ridge. He was also able to take some excellent close up views of Minya Konka and its glacier.

Being a botanist, Rock also spent time collecting samples of the rhododendrons and other alpine plants around the Gompa, as well as documenting the area with his camera and its novel colour plates.

Almost sixty years later, in 1995, we had no such luck. I woke to find that Minya Konka was still stubbornly hiding herself, shrouded in clouds. The valley below us had also filled up with cloud, obscuring the hamlet of Tsemi in the distance. Gerler was up early and he was impatient to leave.

After a quick breakfast of rice gruel porridge, he was off chasing up the hillside, trying to find and retrieve our two horses. They had wandered off in the night after being put out to graze. It was only after much panting and scrambling around in the scrub that we were able to locate the horses, by the sound of their bells. Back at the monastery the lama had taken up his interminable chanting again, but broke off to come and see us off.

After taking a last few pictures of him and the mountain (and assuring the monk that I’d try help him get a replacement watch battery), he waved us off, and we led our horses back downhill on the track to Tsemi. The sun was still only just coming up over the ridge and its rays added a touch of yellow to the tips of some of the snowy peaks. As we descended the track I cast a final look back towards the Gompa and saw the monk walking back to his lonely routine of chanting, and I felt a twinge of regret at leaving this isolated place.

We re-traced our steps back down the trail dotted by Mani stones, to Tsemi, with me hobbling along behind the horses because of the many blisters on my feet. I was also smarting from sunburn on my nose and the tips of my ears, while my lips were dry, cracked and I was constantly thirsty.

Bypassing Tsemi we mounted our horses and set off to ride the trail up the hill to cross back over the pass. It was hard going for the horses, with mine pausing for breath every twenty steps or so, and sweating profusely through its dark hair. I felt so sorry for the old nag that I got off and tried walking for a bit, but found myself exhausted and unable to walk after just a few steps. Gerler urged me to get back into the saddle, and thus we continued on up, making good time and reaching the pass by 11.30am.

There were no awesome views this time - the great mountain was still hidden by cloud. With no reason to linger, we descended and were soon back amid the scattered settlements of the Yulongxi valley. This was where I would part ways with Gerler. Rather than retracing our route back over the Djesi la, I decided to walk out in the opposite direction to the road head at Liuba and get a bus back to Kangding. As we sat down for a late lunch, I handed over 450 kuai in crumpled renminbi notes to Gerler for his services for the last five days. I felt quite sad to be leaving my trusty guide. He’d been honest and reliable, and had gone the extra mile, pushing me to continue when I was wavering and feeling sick in Tsemi.

I soon regretted dispensing with his services when I set off down walking the flat grassy valley towards Liuba. I’d become used to the reassuring presence of Gerler, and his automatic introductions to people and places to stay along the way. Travelling solo, I felt vulnerable as I became the subject of stares from wild-looking Tibetan youths hanging aboutin the small hamlets that I trudged through. They fired aggressive questions at me in a tone that was both mocking and aggressive.

“Where are you going? You alone?” After I was asked these same questions several times, I started bluffing and saying that I was part of a group and my ‘three friends’ were not far behind, with our ‘guide’.

The Tibetan settlements of the Yulongxi valley were squalid and poor. From a distance the stone houses looked grand, but close up they seemed to be sunk in a swamp of churned-up mud festooned with yak shit and detritus. Kids with snotty noses played on the doorsteps, while unkempt women tended the surrounding plots of land. Groups of idle young Tibetan men eyed me as I passed. The atmosphere was of palpable boredom and frustration.

I started getting jittery and picked up my walking pace, hoping I would soon reach the ‘civilisation’ of Liuba. When I eventually got there in the late afternoon, it was to be a huge disappointment. Liuba seemed to be no different from the many other primitive settlements I’d passed through. As I trudged along its muddy main ‘street’ it appeared to be a dismal backwater, with an end-of the road feel to it. Apart from a decrepit hole-in-the wall store and a noodle shack there was little else to make it stand out from the other villages in the valley.

With no guesthouse evident in Liuba, I ended up cadging a place to sleep on the floor of a local Tibetan family house. They were welcoming and their house now had the now-familiar features of Tibetan dwellings - barking dogs on chains by the door, and dark, smoky and very basic interior. I spent the evening squatting round the fire on hard greasy cushions and being offered yak butter tea and noodles.

The next morning it was a two hour walk along the river to the ‘main road’. Here, more disappointment awaited me. There was in fact no ‘main road’ at the T-junction, just another rutted and rough track running north to south. I waited by some log cabins for about an hour and not a single vehicle went by. A few Tibetans ambled past on foot, eyeing me with a definite air of seedy menace. There was a bad vibe about this place.

I was now heartily wishing I’d stayed with Gerler and gone back to Lao Yulin with him. But as I paced up and down, weighing up what to do next, a beat-up old truck came rattling down the hill from the south, and I flagged it down. The driver seemed annoyed to have been stopped, and only grudgingly admitted he was heading towards Kangding. I could see he was calculating how much money he could make from me. Desperate to get away, I agreed to his outrageous fee and climbed up on the back to join a group of rough-looking Tibetan peasants and workers who were already passengers.

The road was terrible and it took me the whole day to get back to Kangding, switching trucks in small settlements of Shade and Xinduqiao. The ride up the river valley was very scenic, with clusters of traditional Tibetan houses, watchtowers and temples dotted on the surrounding hillsides above the swirling river. But I was in no mood to appreciate them – I just wanted to get back, away from this wilderness.

I knew my visit to Minya Konka was over when we finally emerged on to the smooth tarmac of the Sichuan-Tibet highway and turned eastwards, with the road taking us up and over the 4500m Zheduo La pass. Now there was traffic, including a long convoy of PLA trucks straining over the pass heading towards Litang and Lhasa. By late afternoon we had negotiated the switchback loops of the higher pass and I made it safely back to Kangding.

Disgorged from the cramped van onto the street, I stretched my aching limbs in the raucous bustle of what now seemed like a major metropolis, and then headed off to re-enact the famous final scene from Ice Cold in Alex, downing a nice beer at the Kangding Hotel. Worth waiting for.

Gongga Shan: Postscript

Joseph Rock’s visit to Minya Konka led to one of the most embarrassing episodes of his career. Shortly after his visit, Rock cabled the National Geographic Society in Washington to tell them the mountain was higher than Mount Everest - over 30,000 feet in height, according to his survey estimates. Unfortunately, while Rock may have been a meticulous botanist and fastidious recorder of local flora and fauna, he was a terrible surveyor.

The staff at the National Geographic Society were justifiably skeptical of this claim. Rock had a poor track record of miscalculating heights of mountains in his reports to the Society. In the past he had wildly overestimated the height of Amnye Machen in Qinghai and had also got the heights wrong for the Konkaling peaks in Sichuan. After these previous blunders, Society staff had suggested to Rock that undertake a course in the technical aspects of surveying, but he had rejected the advice.

The result was yet another humiliating gaffe, with his 30,000 feet figure for the height of Minya Konka far in excess of any previous estimate. The Chinese Imperial Atlas showed the mountain as being 24,900 feet high (accurate to within ten feet, as it turned out) and the maps of the China Inland Mission showed a similar height for Minya Konka.

The National Geographic Society made no public announcement about the height of Minya Konka, but waited until Rock returned to Washington later in the year to double check his figures. And sure enough, when they reviewed Rock’s calculations and methods, they quickly downgraded his estimate of Minya Konka’s height, to around 25,000 feet - almost a mile lower. Rock was extremely embarrassed by the incident, and never again mentioned his “higher-than-Everest” claim.

In the meantime, Minya Konka didn’t stay “wholly unknown” for long after Rock’s visit. In the following year, 1930, a Swiss surveying team led by the artist and topographer Eduard Imhof spent several weeks at the Konka Gompa taking surbey measurements and making a much more reliable estimate of the height of the peak, of 24,900 feet (7590m).

Two years after that, in 1932, the peak was climbed for the first time as part of an extraordinary lightweight mountaineering expedition mounted by four young Harvard climbers. The group, led by Terris Moore and Richard Burdsall, wrote about their experiences - including their epic voyage through China from Shanghai to western Sichuan - in the classic book “Men Against The Clouds”. I later wished I’d read this before setting out on my own visit to Minya Konka, because it contains much practical advice. The Moore and Burdsall group followed the same route as I did and their book offers many tips about travel in the region - advice that is lacking in Rock’s more florid descriptions.

The climbers give an interesting account of their voyage in from Chengdu, via Ya’an (then known as Yachow) and Tatsienlu (Kangding). In those days it was a 10-day journey from the lowlands of Sichuan to Tatsienlu, and the ‘road’ was actually a path, suitable only for mules and the coolies who carried huge loads of brick tea up to Tatsienlu. In modern times, Sichuan tourism authorities have started to use the label “Old Tea Horse Road” (Lao Cha Ma Lu) to publicise the trails in the west of the province.

In their book, Moore and Burdsall give a good portrayal of what Tatsienlu/Kangding was like around the time of Rock’s visit. They describe the same small town hemmed in by mountains, but with a notable missionary presence, in the form of the China Inland Mission, whose staff helped supply the climbers and even sent them cakes they had baked.

The American climbers spent several months around the Minya Konka massif. They travelled from Kangding via the Djesi Pass, to Yulonghsi, where they were helped by the same headman, Jumeh, mentioned in Rock’s account. Two of the climbers spent most of August at a ‘Camp Alpine’, above Yulonghsi, from where they surveyed the heights of many of the other peaks in the Minya Konka range. In an offhand comment they remark that they found little information of practical value in Joseph Rock’s article on the area, though they did admire his photographs. Interestingly, while Rock’s article portrays Minya Konka as a remote and hard-to-reach destination, the US climbers relate how they were visited there by American missionaries from Tachienlu, including a certain Mrs Peterson, who brought them pancakes and accompanied them over to the Konka Gompa for a picnic!

The 1932 US climbing group set up a base camp above the Konka Gompa monastery, but had little to say in their book about the monastery - except to note it was filthy and the monks in residence showed a high degree of devotion and superstition (the Living Buddha was apparently away on an extended visit to Lhasa). After an epic ascent up the north-west ridge, Moore and Burdsall reached the summit of Minya Konka on 28th October 1932 - the highest point ever climbed by Americans at that time.

Another interesting account of a visit to Minya Konka during this era comes from Australian war correspondent George Johnston (who later went on to write the classic Australian novel My Brother Jack). In his book “Journey Through Tomorrow”, Johnston describes how he hitched a lift on a US transport plane that flew into Sichuan from Burma in 1944. The plane was carrying a US Army supply team on a mission to acquire Tibetan horses for use in the joint US-Chinese army campaign against Japanese forces in Yunnan and Burma.

Johnson had been reporting on the Burma campaign, and had decided to travel up to Kangding to seek some Tibetan ‘colour’. He’d heard about the Konka Gompa being the inspiration for the Shangri La valley of “Lost Horizon” fame and he decided to pay a visit. Using a Tibetan guide, Johnston travelled to Minya Konka on horseback and was most impressed with the mountain scenery. The Minya Konka monastery, however, proved to be a huge anticlimax. Johnson found it to be a squalid place, quite unlike the ‘Shangri-La’ idyll that he’d been led to expect. In print, his laconic Australian cynicism comes through in his description of the Konka Gompa (“looks like someone started to build a small weekend shack as cheaply as possible ... jerry built and completely devoid of all beauty ...”). His down-to-earth realism is glaringly different to Joseph Rock’s rapturous and dramatic prose, which tries to engender a sense of wonder and mystery around Minya Konka.

Johnston found the Gompa had about forty monks in residence, along with a ‘village idiot’ and an old nun. His account describes the monastery’s Buddhist rituals in detail, but he portrays these activities as superstitious and ignorant rather than enchanting. Johnson reserved his greatest scorn for two head lamas at the monastery, who he believed were conmen. According to Johnson, the lamas put on elaborate ‘Potemkin village’ displays of religious ceremony to impress gullible Tibetan pilgrims and elicit large donations from them. When he observed these monks ‘off duty’, Johnston found them to be idle, boastful and rapacious. Ostensibly seeking enlightenment and paying homage to the mountain gods, the monks abandoned all pretence of piety when offered the chance to sell off religious trinkets for cash. The Tibetan lamas revealed themselves as astute businessmen with a large stash of US dollars and an uncanny ability to bargain in Mandarin.

One of the oddest people Johnson encountered was an enigmatic female Chinese Buddhist disciple who occupied the only clean room at the Gompa. The woman told Johnston she was 47 and had been living at the monastery without a break for three years. She claimed the mountain air helped preserved her youthful looks. In his book, Johnston says he had been reluctant to write about the Chinese woman because she appeared to be an implausible embodiment of all the Shangri La myths of ageless residents of a remote, idyllic Himalayan monastery. When questioned further, the woman said she was from Peking, but the Japanese invasion of China had forced her to flee to Chengdu. She said she had come to the Konka Gompa in search of peace and to study Buddhism, but now felt bored there because the lamas were “not well educated”. Because of this, she planned to move to Lhasa to continue her meditation and study.

Whether she made it or not, we never find out. Within four years of Johnston’s visit, the Minya Konka area would become a closed land for three decades due to the Communist takeover of China and Tibet. After 1949 the Kangding area underwent ‘peaceful liberation’ by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and would remain off-limits to westerners until the 1980s. We know from another former western resident of the area, George Patterson, that the Khampa Tibetans put up strong local resistance to the PLA, but it was in vain.

Some Khampas fled to Nepal. Thee Tibetans who remained became citizens of ‘New China’ and experienced the benefits of socialism with Han Chinese characteristics. Independence and deviation from the Party orthodoxy were systematically and ruthlessly obliterated. Tibetan monasteries and lamas were stripped of their local power and influence, and many monasteries were dissolved. In the 1960s, Mao’s Cultural Revolution saw all the ‘old’ things smashed - culture, superstition, relics, books and buildings. Despite its isolation, the Minya Konka area was not spared these ravages. The Konka Gompa monastery was razed to the ground and the monks still remaining there were ‘struggled against’, harassed and dispersed, with some even forced to marry. One of the monks told me how he’d had to ‘become a farmer’ for twenty years. It was only when Deng Xiaoping came to power in the 1980s that the rigid and oppressive subordination of Tibetan life began to ease off.

From 1984, a trickle of foreigners began to return to the Minya Konka area, now known in Chinese as Gongga Shan. Most of the early visitors were mountaineers, and many did not survive their attempt to reach the summit. A Japanese team had a disastrous time on Minya Konka in 1981, losing eight members to falls and avalanches. Since then, 22 climbers have reached the summitbut at least 16 have died in attempts to climb the mountain.

Into the 1990s, the monastery at Minya Konka remained a remote and unvisited spot. To get to Kangding required an arduous two-day journey on terrible roads from Chengdu. Things began to change with the construction of the Erlang Shan tunnel, which slashed this journey time to just one day, and coincided with the increasing popularity of outdoor activities among the newly prosperous and independently-minded young Chinese.

Nowadays large numbers of Chinese trekkers make the journey every year from Kangding to the Konka Gompa - known as ‘Gongga Si’ in Chinese. A visit to the monastery is now on the itinerary of many outdoor adventure travel operators based in Chengdu. But trekking in the Minya Konka area can still be a dangerous activity, especially for solo travellers. In 2009 the Lonely Plant guidebook author Clem Lindenmayer went missing while trekking around Gongga Shan. His body was later found off the track to Riwuqie. It seems that Clem had gone off the trail and been caught out in an unseasonal snow storm and died of exposure. Clem was a highly experienced and well-equipped trekker, and his death highlights the risks of trekking alone in the remote terrain and fickle weather of Gongga Shan.

In 2013, I paid a return visit to the Gongga Si monastery. Much had changed in the 18 years since my first visit. Kangding was booming, in part due to tourism, and much of the old town had been razed to make way for new cafes, shops and hotels. A whole new town of high rise apartments and grand governmental buildings had sprung up in the valley leading up to Lao Yulin. At a hostel run by an American couple I arranged a guide to take me to Yulongxi in a van along a new road that ran from Jiagenba near Shade on the western side of the mountain.

I found the dirt track that I’d hiked through the Yulongxi valley had been upgraded to a road and was now busy with Land Cruisers carrying Chinese adventure tourists. New Tibetan-style stone dwellings had sprung up in the valley and many had signs outside saying they were guesthouses, offering horse hire and Tibetan food. The path that I’d travelled up to and over the Tsemi La (Zimei Yakou) had also been upgraded to a track suitable for motorbikes and tractors.

I travelled to the monastery by a different route – the Yulongxi Pass, a few kilometres to the north of the Tsemi Pass. The monastery was mostly unchanged, with a couple of additional outbuildigs added to the original temple. It was no longer off the beaten track – it catered to a steady stream of Chinese trekkers, and had signs up reminding visitors that admission was 20 yuan. It was a further 40 yuan for a place in one of the monastery’s two-bed rooms. The old monk who’d hosted me on my first visit had died a long time ago, I was told, and I was just another tourist to the current monks in residence.

The monastery was still a beautiful spot but it had lost some of its unique atmosphere. I spent another cold night at the monastery in mid Octber,a nd it snowed heavily overnight. We returned to Yulongxi through foot-deep snow, navigating my way back up to the pass in a white out by following the footsteps of my young guide who had pushed on ahead with the horses. At least I had disproved Rock’s claim that the monastery was cut off from the outside world by heavy snow.

The route down to Liuba was now a sealed road and I was easily able to hitch back to Kangding in a day. The once-wild river valley on the way north to Xinduqiao and the Sichuan-Tibet highway was now showing signs of rapid development. The hillsides were dotted with electricity pylons and the road was being widened and improved with tunnels to cut out the more precarious sections alongside the still raging river. Ugly gravel processing plants had sprung up at regular intervals, with squalid workmen’s huts to accommodate the Sichuanese migrant labourers who manned the conveyor belts and crushers turning quarried rock into road-building material.

And so back to the bright lights of Kangding and its many attractions. The Himalaya café was offering mocha or imported Australian beers for almost 50 yuan. Hoary old China didn’t seem to hoary any more. Dartsendo became Tachienlu and then it became Kangding. What will it be like in another 50 years?

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