On Friday 26th September 2014 I set out from Sydney with the aim of hiking the pilgrimage route around Mt Kawakarpo (Meili Xueshan, 梅里雪山) in Yunnan and Tibet. However, unlike most people doing the outer kora (circuit or waizhuang, 外转, in Chinese) I would not be doing the east-west crossing from the Mekong (Lancang Jiang) to the Salween (Nu Jiang) via the Doker La Pass. I had already done that crossing two years earlier and I decided instead to cross via the more southerly She-La (蛇拉山口) pass from Cizhong (茨中), home to the now famous French Catholic mission church to Dimaluo (迪麻洛). This route would also take me in the footsteps of the explorer Joseph Rock, who used this way to cross from Cizhong to the mission station of Bahang (Baihanluo, 白汉洛) in the 1920s. According to his account, the crossing would involve crossing two passes: first the She-La at around 4200m and then the Balagong Pass (巴拉贡) at around 4000m.
I flew from Sydney to Guangzhou overnight and transferred to a domestic flight to Lijiang in Yunnan on the morning of Saturday 27th September. The weather in Lijiang was mild and sunny - shirtsleeve weather. I had not been sure what kind of weather to expect and had packed for freezing temperatures on the high passes.
For the completists, here's an incomplete kit list:
Western Mountaineering Ultralite Sleeping Bag
One-man lightweight tent
Microlight gas stove plus billy cans/cup/bowl
Macpac rain jacket/fleece/rainproof overtrousers
Broad brimmed hat
Macpac 50L backpack
Head torch + spare batteries
Toiletries bag containing toothpaste etc plus aspirin/paracetamol/sunscreen/Band Aids
Compass with mirror (useful for putting in contact lens)
Plastic A4 folder containing maps, journal and some photos of family/home and photos of locals from previous trips
Cameras: Sony A7 + spare battery. Rolleicord and 30x 120 film
Leitz 8x32 binoculars
Long umbrella (as walking stick)
Five days' supply of dehydrated dinners
Muesli + powdered milk (in ziploc bags, of which I took many)
Vitawheat + salami (lunches)
Teabags and sachets of Nescafe coffee instant mix (bought in China)
Jelly snakes/mini Snickers bars for energy
My bag weighed about 15kg on check in and proved too heavy for me to carry at altitudes of around 4000m – hence I had to employ a guide (xiangdao) to carry it for me or to bring it on a horse.
Things I didn't take: Thermals, gloves
Things I didn’t use: tent (except for one night), warm hat.
Things I wish I had taken (more of): sunscreen, more books loaded on to Kindle.
In Lijiang I stayed at the Old Town YHA, which cost about 48 yuan a night. On arrival, I went out shopping and got myself a China Mobile SIM card for my iPhone from the local Apple dealer (loaded with 100 kuai credit). I changed about 5000 yuan ($1000) at the Bank of China, using my Mastercard for about half that amount (there are no foreign exchange facilities in Deqin or beyond).
In Lijiang I also met up with my old Kiwi friend and local tour guide Keith Lyons, who runs a trekking and guiding agency in the town. From him I picked up a lot of useful local tips, such as that the Weixi-Deqin road was being rebuilt, and therefore I decided to get to my jumping off point of Deqin via Shangri-La (formely Zhongdian). I was able to buy a bus ticket to Deqin for about 150 kuai for the following morning. I also tried to buy some of the altitude sickness treatment Diamox at the local pharmacies, but none had ever heard of the diuretic, even by its Chinese name. Instead I was offered ‘energy-boosting’ Chinese patent medicines, which I refused.
Lijiang was horrible – the old town now just a maze of gift shops run by Fujian traders and the cobbled streets throng with Chinese tourists taking photos of the gift shops. The old town also has many bars featuring Chinese karaoke showbands. Every year Lijiang seems to have a different souvenir theme – this year it is bongos (tom toms), ukuleles and fake brand-name scarves. I hung out at a place called the 'N Café', which did decent food and also had wifi that worked, just)
On Sunday28th September I took the 8am bus from Lijiang to Deqin. It was a pleasant trip on a good road, with some spectacular scenery. The bus even had wifi. We stopped for lunch somewhere beyond Shangri-LaMany of the passengers were Chinese tourists with similar ideas to mine, to trek in the area of Meili Xueshan. Most of us intended to stay at the mountain viewing area of Fei Lai Si, about 10km from Deqin and the Chinese tourists persuaded the bus driver to continue on there after Deqin (for a fee of 10 kuai each).
Arriving in Fei Lai Si at about 4pm I checked in to the “Feelings” YHA hostel, where the staff were helpful and friendly (but the hostel was surrounded by half-finished hotels that tower over the ingle-storey Tibetan building) . Perhaps not surprisingly, being unacclimatised to the 3500m altitude I noticed that I was quickly out of breath when walking the 100 metres uphill to the hostel from the road. I also had a bit of an altitude-related dull headache.
Fei Lai Si is literally a one street town – just a few hostels, restaurants and stores strung along the roadside at a spot where there is a grand view over the Mekong valley and the mountain vista of Meili Xueshan/Kawakarpo. I was the only westerner in town and that night I had dinner at the Chengdu Restaurant, which did some OK Sichuan dishes for about 50 yuan a meal.
On Sunday night I went to bed accompanied by a bottle of water for the inevitable dry mouth and thirst that invariably strikes me at night whenever I stay at high altitudes.
On Monday 29th September I woke at 6am and got up with all the Chinese tourists to see the sunrise on the mountain. On this day there was quite a lot of mist and cloud, so little of the mountain could be seen at sunrise of around 7am. This didn’t deter the crowds of Chinese tourists (many if not most on 4WD driving tours of the area) from lining up to fire off thousands of photos and selfies.
After a late breakfast of doujiang + youtiao (dough sticks and soya milk) and a quick walk out to the tiny Fei Lai Si monastery, I hired a minivan to take me to Cizhong. Most of the Chinese tourists were planning to do the short one-two day hikes around Yubeng and the Minyong glacier, for which they would have to pay a park entrance fee of about 150yuan.
My minivan trip to Cizhong cost me 300 yuan and took about two hours. The route took us back through Deqin and down through the ‘new town’ section where massive and new modern government buildings have been erected, including law courts, police HQ, Party offices and a hospital and gymnasium. The road then twisted down towards the Mekong, which flowed brown and dirty through a barren landscape of huge steep and twisting canyons. Much of the road was being rebuilt, but there was little traffic on it beyond Deqin.
The road followed the river south along the side of the gorge, though scrappy Tibetan towns like Yanmen. We passed Chalitong, the jumping off point for Yongzhi the traditional start point for pilgrims doing the Kawakarpo kora circuit. Chalitong now has road signs indicating a road to Gongshan – the first road in this area connecting the Mekong and the Nu Jiang rivers. This road seemed to go through the terrible precipitous Lonjdre gorge and over the Biluo Shan pass to Dimaluo. However, the locals said the road had not yet been finished and was not driveable. I would be going the same way on foot.
Cizhong was also quite a bit more developed since my last visit a decade earlier. There were now more buildings and a concrete pillar bridge was under construction over the Mekong. The scary old gravel road above the Mekong had now been obliterated and replaced with a much smoother and safer highway higher up the hillside.
At Cizhong village the old French Catholic church looked unchanged, but it was now obviously seeing more visitors. The church now had a resident Chinese Catholic priest and he treated me as just another annoying tourist when I had a look around. I was offered a glass of the locally-produced wine from the church vineyard, but the priest was otherwise indifferent and seemingly bored by visitors such as me. The church now has a makeshift museum in one room, with many pictures of the old French clergy on display.
I found a much warmer welcome next door at the Cizhong ‘wine centre’. The female head of this friendly family home offered me a clean and airy room for the night, and I was soon settled in to the courtyard where I chatted with the local guys about the prospects of walking over the Si-La or She-La pass to Dimaluo. I had pre-arranged a guide across the mountains with a Tibetan tour operator Aluo, who runs a trekking agency out of Dimaluo. However, when I arrived at Cizhiong the guide was nowhere to be found, and a phone call to Aluo revealed that he had not set one up for me, despite confirming my request by phone and email. Instead, I turned to the local guys who said they could arrange a local guide for me, no problem.
And so it was that I spent the rest of the day sat in the sunny courtyard talking to the local guys, sharing their Dali beer and Cizhong wine and getting pleasantly tipsy. To clear my head I took a walk down to the Mekong and photographed the local people gathering in and threshing the rice harvest from the fields.
I also revisited the village square’ where I had taken a photo a decade earlier with some elderly locals. Sadly all of them had died in the intervening years, I was told. I also walked about a mile upriver, where I was surprised to find a newly-built posh guesthouse located next to the Buddhist stupa overlooking the Mekong.
That evening over dinner of pig’s head meat, rice and potatoes (and more Dali beer) I arranged a guide for the three day trip over to Dimaluo, for a price of 400 yuan per day. The whole trip would therefore cost me 1200 yuan for a guide and horse to carry my bag. I was set to go.