Monday, October 27, 2014
Kawakarpo trekking stage 2: from Gebu La to Laide
So there I was in the middle of nowhere in Tibet, getting away from it all. The scenery was superb and I was miles from away from the nearest road and villages. Sat in a rough camp almost 4000m up a mountain, sharing a fireside with some Tibetans. A million miles from care? Hardly. The long walk up to the camp below the pass had given me time to think. I had somehow assumed that getting physically away from the everyday routine and doing some prolonged and arduous physical activity would take my mind off everyday worries back home. It didn't.
As I dragged myself up the mountain track that day, the only feeling I had was that I had added physical misery and discomfort to my already long list of life woes. And as the sun went down and I settled down to try sleep at the Gebu camp lying on a sheet of old cardboard, I found I still had all the old nagging doubts and worries about bills to pay, kids acting up and stuff about the house that needed fixing. Same old shit, just with nicer views. I managed to doze off but woke up in the early hours with a dull headache and raging thirst and seemed to lay awake for hours on the hard ground, thinking and worrying too much. Being a neurotic hypochondriac with a vivid imagination just made things worse. What if I broke my leg, had a heart attack or got stabbed by some dagger-wielding Tibetan hardcase here? No roads or ambulances hereabouts, and no helicopter Medevac. It would be take two or three days being carried over high mountain passes on a stretcher to get to the nearest roadhead, then a long journey to the nearest rural clinic staffed only by nurses who probably knew less than I did about broken bones and clogged arteries. Don't get sick.
It was a long night and I was glad when the sky started to lighten at 6.30am and I was able to get up and stretch my stiff limbs and get myself some hot water to pour onto one of my Nescafe sachets. The Tibetan pilgrim women were also up at the crack of dawn and quickly packed up and unceremoniously departed while I was still rolling up my sleeping bag.
Stepping outside into the grey dawn, the sky was now clear of clouds and revealed the many different peaks on the horizon. To the west was the bulk of what I presumed to be Mt Kenyichunpo on the China-Burma border. The same range to the north had a more serrated peak, while directly to the north and somewhat nearer was the snowy jagged pyramid of the mountain that dominated the valley we had travelled up yesterday since crossing the Tangdu La pass. I sat round the fire with my guide and shared a bit of momo bread with him before we packed up and said farewell to the storekeeper and his son.
As we set off up the hillside covered with small trees and bushes I soon felt the impact of the altitude on my breathing, and slowed to a steady, lumbering plod while my guide raced ahead. I had thought we were almost at the Gebu Pass and expected it to be just around the next corner. I was to be sorely disappointed: it took me more than an hour before I finally crested the pass. It proved to be something of an anticlimax. Still in pine forest, the Gebu La was nothing more than a mass of prayer flags strewn among the trees. There was no vantage point or sweeping views - just a tantalising glimpse of the western peaks through the branches of the trees.
My guide was waiting over the other side, as usual sat on the track and playing with his iPhone.
And so after stopping to take a few pictures I continued on down, still in forest. The track descended at a steep angle initially, and it was difficult to concentrate on placing my feet all the time. Going down proved to be just as hard as going up, but in a different way. On the uphill sections I would struggle for breath - but at least it was possible to get into some kind of steady rhythm.
On the downhill section I found I was stepping over a random assortment of large stones and boulder outcrops, balancing on tree roots and descending step-like platforms constantly. It was tedious and frustrating because it was a stop-start kind of motion where I was always having to watch where I was placing my feet, or risk a tumble and broken bones. You can maintain the concentration to do this for an hour or two, but after a while you start to get careless and make mistakes. Dangerous ones. As well as being torture for the knees (even with my umbrella-cum-walking stick) this was mentally trying, and frustrating because I could not afford to let my attention lapse for even a second. When my gaze wandered to some sudden epic view through the trees I would find myself tripping up and tumbling, hands outstretched, onto the rocks. No wonder mountaineers feared the descent than the ascent. Complacency was dangerous.
The trees were festooned in the now familiar 'wizard's beard' of wispy light green vegetation, which the Chinese knew as muliusiu. The ground however, was festooned with an array of litter discarded by uncaring pilgrims: plastic bottles, food wrappers and Red Bull cans.
After some way the track turned rightwards (south) and skirted the contour of the hill, entering sparser stands of tall pines. I glanced occasional glimpses of the surrounding mountain ridges and of the deep forested valley below. In the distance, the peak of Kawkarpu was partly shrouded in cloud, and it dominated that end of the valley. On the opposite side of the valley a rough road had been hewn out of the hillside and followed the course of a river southward. My track ran parallel to this road, only a kilometre or so away as the crow flies, but it would no doubt take all day to reach it by crossing this vast canyon.
The track slowly descended towards a green ribbon of river, and wended its way around huge outcrops and spurs of the mountains. At one point it passed though a well-irrigated gully in which huge stands of stinging nettles grew, and I had to be careful to avoid brushing against them. Further on I took a serious fall down the hillside when the path beneath my feet simply collapsed and gave way without any warning, causing to to suddenly drop about three metres into the undergrowth. I reflexley grabbed hold of branches and bushes as I fell, which arrested my fall to the river but left my hands badly scratched and also left several painful wood splinters embedded in my fingers. These splinters were to prove a painful distraction for the rest of the day every time I flexed my fingers.
By about lunchtime I had almost reached the bottom of the valley, and could look back and appreciate the huge drop in height that I had made from the Gebu Pass. Below me I could see an isolated farmstead by the riverside, and even a few cattle grazing in the adjacent field. But I could see no sign of any human activity, either at the farm or on the road opposite. This was a very isolated valley.
My guide had tired of waiting for me and paced on ahead, leaving me alone in this desolate ravine. As I neared the river the track went steep again and I was faced with a choice of two paths: one went down to the water at a steep angle while the other skirted round a large craggy outcrop and looked very exposed. One slip off the track and I would end up in the raging white waters of the river. I chose the cliff track simply because it looked more well travelled than the path down towards the river,which I guessed might be an access trail for the nearby farm. I must have been right, because after I traversed the rocky outcrop over the river, the track descended straight down a landslide-prone gully in a series of tight zig-zags, until it reached the water's edge. There was no way a track could get around the outcrop at the water level, where the bare rock protruded out into the torrent. From here it was just a short stroll along the river bank through a makeshift 'gate' until a small bridge came into view.
The walk uphill to this small collection of about six houses was a tedious reversal of my recent descent, having to regain all that lost altitude. Having become accustomed to going downhill it was a painful re-introduction to the sweating, hyperventilating rigours of going uphill. Walking in the middle of the afternoon when it the hot sun beat down made it all the more difficult. But this was only a foretaste of what was to come. Laide was just the start of a long and miserable climb out of the valley, towards the Sho La pass.
The following four hours of uphill are boring to describe in writing because nothing much happened. It was the worst part of the whole trek for me because it was sheer hard work with no reward in the form of views or interesting sights. Just hour after hour of slogging up a track through the trees. There was nothing to see ahead and nothing to see below, except for an occasional view back over Laide. Every time the houses of Laide came back into view I felt like I was still on the outskirts of the place and not making any progress. It was a dull and depressing slog, pausing every fifteen minutes to rest, get my breath back and gulp some more dirty water down. One of the worst aspects was that I didn't know when it would end. Maps of the trail being hard to come by and signposts being somewhat lacking, it was impossible to know if the next rest stop was just round the next corner or another two hours up the hill. Sometimes I would think I could see a structure up ahead and think I was about to reach a hut or shelter, only to find it was a fallen tree or a large rocky outcrop from the ridge. No wonder asylum seekers go crazy and try to commit suicide in detention. It was hard enough facing uncertainty for one afternoon, never mind months and years of it.
When you tell your friends and family that you're going on a Tibetan 'trek' it conjures up images of a jaunty and active bit of walking through the great outdoors. Trek was the wrong word for that afternoon's activity. Trudge would be a better word. Trudging up a brown dusty track that seemed to never end. Again I had a terrible thirst and had consumed both my bottles of water within a couple of hours or so. There were no other water sources on this uphill section, so I finished the day hobbling in a weak and dehydrated state up to the final destination - the 'Laide Upper Camp' as I dubbed it. Another makeshift shelter for pilgrims, situated some distance below the Sho La pass.
When I first arrived at the hut I was exhausted and in a bad mood, and let out a torrent of abuse at some young Tibetan guys who mocked my final few steps to the doorway. Thankfully they didn't understand English, but I'm sure they got the gist of it. Within ten minutes though, we were good friends and chatting away as I sat on one of the sawn-off logs around the fire at the shelter and knocking back a whole can of cold-ish beer in one go. My rehydration had begun and the hut owner sold only beer and Coca Cola. There was no water to be had at this camp except for a slow trickle coming through a plastic pipe, which went into the cooking pot to be boiled up as kaishui. I settled into a corner, brushed away the spiders and other creepy crawlies in the soil, and put my feet up. Bliss.
The Laide upper camp was already occupied by a few Tibetan pilgrims, including a group of four monks. I was so exhausted that I did not venture out after I arrived, except for a brief sojourn to the door to take a picture of the distant snowy bulk of Kawakarpu in the distance behind the trees. Instead, I just lay on my sleeping bag on the floor and watched the shadows of branches play on the walls. Once again the thought came into my head; "The best thing about trekking is when it stops." Ahead lay the final goal - the Sho La pass. All being well I should arrive there tomorrow. Getting there would make all this pain and discomfort worthwhile. That was why the Tibetans did this pilgrimage, wasn't it? To acquire merit.