Monday, July 25, 2005

Fulfilling a dream: I finally reach Muti Konka (Maidi Gangga)

maidi gangga_1, originally uploaded by jiulong.

We were farewelled from Mundon/Mongdong mid morning by all the four families of the hamlet, many of them dressed up specially in their finest Tibetan clothes. Again I tried walking, but even a short stroll up this relatively easy slope left me breathless. I remembered we were close to 4500 metres high.
"Qi ma!" urged the horse handlers, and I quickly complied. "Without horses you'd have no chance of getting to here," said Wang Qi.

And as Joseph Rock had noted:

"Merely walking or climbing over a steep trail at heights of 16,000 feet is difficult enough, without carrying 80-100 pounds on one's back. This feat was performed by the Hsifan peasants through fear of our lama, who represented the Muli king ..."

This time it was our horse handlers who bounded up the hill in frayed plimsolls. Their singing of Tibetan songs seeming to grow louder and more enthusiastic as we climbed higher. Perhaps it was to do with the amount of Ara - spirits distilled from maize - that they consumed. By the afternoon they reeked of it.

We ascended up the ridge, gaining fine views of Mundon from above, through fir forest that was regenerating from a 1984. In parts, whole swathes of the mountainside had been denuded of trees, while others seemed untouched. Ahead we could see the high ridge of the Wadzanran pass, and Pema warned that if it rained we would likely see many wenxue (leeches) emerging. "As big as fish some of them are," she commented.

But the weather stayed fine and clear. We reached a plateau and clearing, ideal for camping, where the horses rolled on the grass and we had fine views in three directions: to our right the serrated ridges falling gradually to the Yalong river and rising again in Muli county. To our left were the ridges that trailed off into the Yangwe Kong. And ahead was the Wadzanran pass.

"That's where the bandits used to lie in wait for the mule caravans that came up from Yunnan," said Wang Qi. "They were bad guys - you wouldn't want to meet them!"

By now, peeping above the crest of the brown grassy hill ahead was the tip of a snow peak. "That's Mutikonka!" exclaimed Wang Qi. It was frustratingly near but I could see little of it. After our break we continued, skirting around the left hand side off the rounded ridge we were ascending, seemingly away from the Wadzanran pass.

When I expressed my doubts, Wang Qi told me:

"We aren't going up to the pass - I've got something better to show you. Something Rock missed."

And as we rounded the ridge, suddenly the whole length of the Mutikonka ridge came into view. And what a sight its snow covered heights were. As well as the majestic main peak, there was a second snowy dome and in front of it a rocky knob, not covered by snow.

"Mutikonka is the yak spirit mountain," Wang Qi told me. "The peak there is its horns, this ridge is one leg and the Wadzanran ridge is another leg. The pass is its knee," he said.

The rounded second peak, Jachong, was Mutikonka's wife and the rocky knob, named Yandron Zemu, was its little sister, he explained.

There was even better to come. As we continued around the hill, suddenly the lower reaches of the mountain slopes came into view. And there, far below us lay the most perfect alpine lake, kidney shaped, with much of its length hidden from view behind the forested arm of a descending ridge. On its near shore was a grassy plain where several tiny houses could be made out. It was like a scene from old Switzerland.

According to Wang Qi the alpine lake beneath Mutikonka was known as Zumi Ho to the Pumi, or Chang Haizi [Long Lake] in Chinese. We sat down to have a rest and one of the horse handlers, agentle older man, told us of the legend of a monster in the lake's depths. He recounted how he himself had seen something splashing around under the surface of the lake some twenty years ago, and the large waves it had created on the shore. It was hairy, with the head of a horse, he said, matter of factly, sucking on his cigarette. No one doubted him.

We descended steeply though forest to the grassy clearing in front of the lake, and were welcomed by one of the two yak herding families who made a living there. As his dog barked at us, Mr Champei invited us into his primitive house made of grey boulders. Inside the timbered interior it was surprisingly light and airy - quite a contrast to the mucky darkness of Mundon's dwellings.

As we settled down for suyou cha, I looked around and wondered like Rock, how these people coped with the isolation. But even here, two days hard horse rise from the nearest dirt track, they had electricity from a distant hydro power station. There were light bulbs and a dusty old hifi player.

And as with all Tibetan houses, they had a picture frame on the wall, filled with family photographs. Some of the older ones were of the family in quilted PLA-style uniforms - from the 1970s. The more recent ones showed them on excursions to the Big Buddha at Leshan, down in the Han-dominated Sichuan lowlands. These were not people cut off from the outside world any more.

We settled down around the central fire, above which was suspended a wicker basket from which hung black entrails of condensed grease and soot. Inside the basket were mounds of cheese. A yak's skull decorated with motifs like tattoos took pride of place on the mantle piece and the lady of the house was soon preparing butter tea in the usual way using a plunger to squish a mixture of tea and liquid butter up and down inside an elongated wooden bucket.

For our dinner she first prepared Yumi Momo (maize bread) by cooking the maize dough in the ashes of the fire. While that was baking she took out a black old kettle that appeared to have noodles inside. It was actually yak cheese, congealed on lengths of tree twigs that had been put inside the kettle. She unwound some of the stringy cheese and mixed it with green peppers to make a kind of macaroni they called Gyedon, or Xiulai, in Chinese. This was complemented by more fatty yak beef and thin strips of fried potato stir fried with chillies.

Namu, the big city student, surprised me by her quick adaptation to our primitive surroundings. I had been misled by my initial impressions of her pouting mannerisms and constant fiddling with her mobile phone. I had expected her to be squeamish in this environment, but she was obviously born to it. Looking incongruous in her trendy city clothes, she expertly built up the fire, served up the tea and bantered with one of the young Tibetan horsehands, Tsemi. He seemed to be a bit of a jack the lad, but his ribald conversation and jokes kept everyone enthralled throughout the evening. A bottle of ara (maize) spirit was passed around, and Tsemi was a good mimic: there was some joke about mispronouncing Jiujiu (uncle) that had everyone in fits. Pema laughed until she choked, and I reflected it was a long time since I had heard such unrestrained laughter. I felt a bit excluded.

The toilet arrangements were simple - you just went outside somewhere, not too near the house or the lake. In the darkness I wandered some way off and turned off the torch. It was almost completely black except for the overarching white presence of the mountain, like two arms of a ghostly cloak around the lake. I couldn't see the house at all, and I panicked. Without a torch, I felt that even from a few yards away I would not have been able to find the house again.

Back inside, I settled down in a dusty corner and fell into a fatigued sleep to have strange and vivid dreams. Was it the altitude or something else at work?

Farewell from the Pumi people of Mundon

mundon ladies, originally uploaded by jiulong.

mundon group2
Mundon people and our horse guides.
mundon group
Farewell from Wang Qi's family in Mundon.

Our last view of Mongdong from above

Mongdong from above, originally uploaded by jiulong.

On horseback, high above the Yalong canyon 雅砻江

Wang Qi and Pema going up from Mongdong

Horses going up from Mongdong, originally uploaded by jiulong.

Towards the Wadzanran Pass at 15,000 feet. It was hard to walk here even though the gradient was not that bad.

Last glimpse of the Yalong canyon

Yalong lookdown, originally uploaded by jiulong.

From the top of the ridge near the Wadzanran pass. Notice the cairn in the foreground. This must be about 15,000 feet - the highest spot reached on our trek.

Moorland near Wadzanran pass

Moorland near Wadzanran pass, originally uploaded by jiulong.

First glimpse of the sacred mountain

me wadzanran, originally uploaded by jiulong.

The tip of the peak of Muti Konka comes into view as we skirt the Wadzanran Pass.

The mountain slowly reveals itself.

mkhorses, originally uploaded by jiulong.

Lake like a mirror

lake mirrordk, originally uploaded by jiulong.

Chang Haizi

chang haizi pebbles, originally uploaded by jiulong.

Also known as Zumi Ho in Tibetan/Pumi. It is a beautifully clear lake that is reputed to contain a monster like that of Loch Ness.

chang mirror

Muti Konka - Jachong side peak

Mutikonka side peak, originally uploaded by jiulong.

This peak represents the mother yak.

mutikonka side
Muti Konka and Jachong.

Chang Haizi house

Chang Haizi house, originally uploaded by jiulong.

Where we stayed the night.

boulder house

In a Tibetan house near Chang Haizi, Muti Konka, Sichuan

Inside the "boulder hut" beside the lake. It was smoky but quite cosy. We stayed here the night before returning to the Yangwe Kong valley. One of the most remote and beautiful places in the world. Scenery to die for.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Mundon: a dreary hamlet?

Mundon wide ??, originally uploaded by jiulong.

Some time around 8pm we finally saw a faint light ahead. Mongdong! This was "Mundon", the "dreary Hsifan hamlet" where Rock stayed in 1928.

A cluster of shadows loomed out of the gloom – buildings? In the darkness we gathered outside the locked wooden gate of a Tibetan house on the hillside, and an incredulous old man's voice from within eventually replied to shouts from Wang Qi and the handlers. A dog barked, a faint light went on inside and a torch shone out in our faces.
The old man mumbled the Tibetan acknowledgement of "Oh-ah-uh" and let us in.

Hauling our weary saddlesore limbs up another notched log from the muddy courtyard, the handlers took care of the horses. Within the smoky dark scullery we huddled around a wood fired stove as Pema's uncle cooked us a late dinner of fatty yak meat, boiled potatoes and sour yoghurt. This was the house of Pema's father and uncle and they had a lot of news to catch up on. Recognising that the foreigner could not stomach much of the tough yak meat, they cooked me some baked potatoes.

The villagers pored over the old photographs that I had brought with me.

Wang Qi's grandfather told us he well remembered the visit by Joseph Rock to their village. As a five year old he had been intrigued by the silent foreigner, and was curious to hear how he spoke. So when the explorer bedded down for the night, he and his older brother laid a trail of dried leaves near his bed and set fire to it. Unfortunately, this worked better than expected, setting fire to Rock’s sleeping bag. The westerner jumped up, shouting at them as they hid behind a nearby bush. He spent much of the next morning sewing up his sleeping bag.

Later, when acting as a guide to the botanist, the young lad also tricked Jospeh Rock out of his camera. Finding it hanging up on a tree branch, he hid the camera in some bushes. Jospeh Rock became distraught when he could not find it and paid a handsome reward it was “found” by the young uncle, actually kissing the camera when he had it back in his hands. But the uncle was not to profit from his trickery. Unaware of the true value of the silver dollars he had received as a reward, he exchanged them on a visit to Muli for four sets of working clothes.

Perhaps it was the altitude, but I felt dozy and dizzy and lay down on some yak hair blankets on the floor, pulling my sleeping bag around me. The walls of the room were covered in posters of "Distinguished Animals and Birds of Ganze Prefecture" and an official notice with a Tibetan monk on that pronounced "This is a Safe and Civilised Household".

The others soon joined me to bed down on the floor.

“If it wasn’t for me you’d still be here digging up spuds,” Wang Qi teased Pema in the dark.

“If it wasn’t for you we’d have been here half a day earlier. You’re so fat your horse needs a rest after five steps,” Namu teased her father.

The following morning I rose before the sun came up, from among a pile of snoring bodies in the wooden room. Our party of eight had quite taken over the Mongdong uncle's house. Tottering round in the cold, with my legs and thighs aching from the previous day's long hours in the saddle, I somehow managed to find a flask of hot water
(kaishui) to wash with and put my contact lenses in.

At the time of Rock’s visit there had been no water here at all. It had to be “carried by the women from a thousand feet below”.

This time there was a little, thanks to a diverted mountain creek, enough to make a weak cup of Nescafe to warm me up as I stood on the balcony and watched the sky lighten and reveal the Muli mountain ridges. To my surprise the string of lights I had seen the night before were not houses along the river, but belonged to a settlement only half way down the canyon. This really was a massively deep gorge!

As the others began to rise, Pema’s cousin, a rugged but cheerful looking Tibetan, climbed up from the cow yard clutching a flapping rooster by its legs.

"Morning!" he hailed, and pulled himself out a stool to sit on. Before I could react he had slit the bird's throat and was directing a stream of steaming dark blood into a bowl as casually as if he was pouring red wine from a casket. I moved away as he efficiently started to pluck and wash the now lifeless carcass, that looked a very unappetising greyish white.

Joseph Rock described Mongdong (Mundon) as a "dreary Hsifan hamlet". But as the morning sun rose over the peaks it seemed to me anything but dreary. The views across the gorge were superb and this collection of four family houses seemed to be a cheerful little community. Drawn by the sound of chanting and the throbbing of a drum, I visited the small Black Hat Buddhist temple next door, outside which in a stone shrine some burning juniper branches sent up a trail of smoke into the blue sky. Within the dark and dusty interior a couple of old men in ordinary clothes were conducting a morning blessing, impervious to a young boy and girl toddlers who gambled around them. The bumpy surface of the whitewashed interior wall was covered with colourful Buddhists frescoes. On an exterior wall at the entrance there were more beautiful pictures of Buddhists figures in delicate faded sky blues, yellows and pinks. All their faces had been scratched off during the Cultural Revolution.

"Tai Yihan" (What a pity) said Wang Qi, by my side.

Back in the house there was a shout of "Breakfast!" and the whole household and visitors were soon slurping bowls of fresh chicken stew with potatoes, bones and all.

Dawn breaks over Mundon and the Yalong river canyon

Looking west over towards the highlands of Muli county. The terrain here falls from about 14,000 feet down to the Yalong river at about 7,000 feet. When Joseph Rock crossed this canyon in 1928 it took him "five terrible days". Nowadays few make the trip when you can do a more circuitous route via Jiulong to Mulli by road in three days.

Mundon [Mongdong] morning

Mundon [猛董] bright and early, originally uploaded by jiulong.

Mongdong and the Yalong canyon, 2004

mongdong 2_1, originally uploaded by jiulong.

View from above Mundon, 1928

Yalong1, originally uploaded by jiulong.

As seen in the National Geographic article by Joseph Rock of 1930.

View above Mundon in 2004

mundon up2, originally uploaded by jiulong.

Looking down into the Yalong river canyon.

The Mongdong house of Wang Qi's uncle

mongdong steps, originally uploaded by jiulong.

Wang Qi's relatives look at Joseph Rock's photographs of their village

Mongdong relatives, originally uploaded by jiulong.

They were amazed to see photographs of their remote home from 80 years before. They recognised many of their grandparents and uncles in Rock's pictures.

Mongdong temple

Mongdong temple, originally uploaded by jiulong.

IThis Buddhist "black hat" monastery serves the local Pumi people. It is perched at 4000 metres above sea level, overlooking the Yalong river in Sichuan province, China.

A Buddhist priest in the Mongdong temple

mundon int, originally uploaded by jiulong.

Mongdong Buddhist temple interior

Mongdong temple interior, originally uploaded by jiulong.

This "black hat" monastery is perched on the eastern edge of the Yalong river canyon at about 13,000 feet.

Mongdong Buddhist temple interior

Mongdong temple interior 2, originally uploaded by jiulong.

Mongdong Buddhist temple interior

Mongdong temple interior, originally uploaded by jiulong.

Mongdong man

Mongdong man, originally uploaded by jiulong.

Old man in Mongdong

Old man in Mongdong, originally uploaded by jiulong.


mundon building_1, originally uploaded by jiulong.

Mongdong temple

mongdong house, originally uploaded by jiulong.

Chicken soup coming up

chook2, originally uploaded by jiulong.

First, take one live chicken ...

Chicken a la Mundon

chook, originally uploaded by jiulong.

Mongdong and the Yalong canyon

mundon cow, originally uploaded by jiulong.


Mundon 5, originally uploaded by jiulong.

Pumi woman at Mongdong

Mundon woman, originally uploaded by jiulong.

Pumi people of Mongdong

mundon people_1, originally uploaded by jiulong.

These are Wan Qi's uncles and aunt.

Pumi people of Mongdong

mundon people, originally uploaded by jiulong.

Mongdong relatives

Mongdong relatives 2, originally uploaded by jiulong.

Pumi people of Mongdong

Pumi man at Mongdong

potsnpans, originally uploaded by jiulong.

Pumi people of Mongdong

mundon shadows, originally uploaded by jiulong.

Pumi people of Mongdong

mun woman, originally uploaded by jiulong.

Mundon [Mongdong] temple

mundon bw3, originally uploaded by jiulong.

Mundon [Mongdong]

mundon bw4, originally uploaded by jiulong.

Mundon [Mongdong]

mundon bw5, originally uploaded by jiulong.