Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Cizhong to Dimaluo trek. Part 3: crossing the SheLaLaKa Pass (蛇拉腊卡垭口, 4165m) into the Sewalongba valley

The crossing of the She-La was a heavenly experience that later turned in to one of the worst days of the trek, thanks to my duplicitous guide. The day started well when I woke at daybreak (6.30am) in my tiny tent. I'd had a good night's sleep and the morning wasn't too cold - a light dusting of ice on the flysheet. The views up the valley towards the pass were fantastic - and the sky was completely clear - great weather for  a crossing of the She-La.

I managed to drag myself up and got the stove going in the stone shelter to make a cup of coffee and eat some muesli. Packed up quickly, but it still wasn't fast enough for my guide, who had upped and left about 15 minutes before me, at around 7.30am. This was to be a recurring experience with a hidden agenda that I didn't twig to until too late in the day.

I was annoyed when I set off as the guide had already gone so far ahead I could not see him. This was troubling because the trail was faint in parts where it went over rocks or along the course of a stream, and route-finding was difficult. In the cold of the early morning I had donned my jacket, but soon discarded it as the sun came up and I began to sweat up the trail. I only had one bottle of water (boiled from the fire last night) and I worried this would not be enough to see me over the pass. The scenery was superb as I gradually ascended from the bottom of the ampitheatre valley to the right (north) in a series of zig-zags up towards the ridge.

I walked through stands of giant rhododendron trees, and the grey crags that towered overhead were an epic sight in the early morning sun. After an hour or so I had worked my way up to a separate side valley that gave on to a whole series of minor peaks and crags to the north. But the trail did not go into this sanctuary, but carried on up to the west, past another decrepit log cabin and on towards the ridge. At this point I was passed by a dog that appeared out of nowhere and was intent on hurrying up tot he pass.

As I ascended further I gained even better views of the valley below that I had climbed out of - the track went steeply to the right and I lost the trail for a while - very frustrating as I could not see my guide for help, he had gone ahead with the horse (and my bag). I guessed the route upwards and saw what I thought was the pass above me as a cleft between grey rocks. This was a 'false summit' despite a faint track going up there, and I found the main track headed off to the left (south) and appeared to run beneath the main ridge. It then ascended again towards the broken rocks and turned over a major crag that had a few airy exposed sections: nothing to worry about in these clear conditions but it would be a worry if walking on snow and ice.

Once this high crag had been topped, the trail eased out and I could soon see ahead that the pass was close - the track eased up to what looked like a small cleft in the ride - and I paused here to take my final pictures of the Mekong side of the divide before crossing over to the Nujiang side. Once again, the views were awesome and I counted myself extremely fortunate to have perfectly clear weather.

Most of the pictures I'd seen taken by other trekkers have been in cloudy and snowy conditions. I had clear views of all the surrounding peaks. Intriguingly, however, there was no sign of the main peaks such as Miyetzimu or Kawakarpo that Rock claimed in his article that he could see from this point.

And so it was with great satisfaction that I arrived at my first main goal - the She-La pass - or Sila as Rock called it. In Chinese it is known as the Shelalaka Yakou (蛇拉腊卡垭口) and it is 4165m in altitude. This is how Rock described it in 1924:

The actual pass was a small gap in the ridge - perhaps only a couple of metres wide. The track descended steeply on the other side, but nothing like as scary as the Doker La pass further north. It was all quite walkable. The pass provided spectacular views down into the Sewalongba valley (Chinese: Sewalong Hegu 色瓦龙河谷) below, and also across to the rocky ridge on the other side of the Sewalongba valley.

The zig-zag track down into the valley was the one built by the French and Swiss missionaries to connect their churches at Cizhong and Baihanluo (then known as Tsechung and Bahang). From the pass i could see that much of the opposite slope was forested. And somewhere across there was the second, lesser pass, the Balagong La (巴拉贡 卡口), that I would have to cross to get to Baihanluo and Dimaluo.

My guide had been waiting for me at the pass, and I paused at the She La for about twenty minutes, taking photos and having a drink and a snack - it was late morning, about 11.30am. My guide didn't wait for me but headed down the zig-zag track into the Sewalangba valley. I followed him about 15 minutes later and was able to catch him up further down the switchback trail. It was here that I saw a group of Chinese trekkers on their way up. I passed them lower down the valley but they barely acknowledged my greeting. Perhaps they were as worn out as I had been during the ascent to the pass.

It took about an hour to reach the valley bottom, during which time I gained great views in both directions, including a small tarn on the opposite side of the valley. Looking back up to the She-La I could barely see the pass - and the track looked a lot steeper than it really was. I had been dreading this valley because Chinese trekker blogs said it was full of leeches. However, my guide said this was only during the rainy season (June to September). Leeches were not a problem during dry weather, and when there were no cattle grazing in the valley, he told me.

At this point I was expecting that we would have a couple of hours more walking before pausing for the day to stay in one of the stone shelters lower down the valley for the night. I began to wonder why my guide had been in such a hurry as we had already completed most of the day's walking by early afternoon.

When we reached the river at the bottom of the valley I expected we would pause for lunch - it was the perfect place to take a break. My guide had other plans, however. As soon as he persuaded the horse to cross a small log bridge he headed straight up the slop on the other side. I tried to call him back, but he ignored my calls. We were still at an altitude of about 3000m and I found it impossible to try catch up with him. When I eventually shouted myself hoarse and got him to halt he was evasive about why we did not stop for lunch. I should have been more suspicious, but maybe the altitude affected my judgement. He told me there was a good place to stop 'just a bit further ahead', and I trusted him. It was now about 1.30pm and I plodded very grumpily up the opposite side of the Sewalongba valley, desperate for a rest and a stop for something to eat and drink. I didn't realise it but I was exhausted and probably dehydrated. After a further 20 minutes  walking up though forest with no sign of a rest stop, I rebelled and shouted for a halt. We paused on a featureless part of the trail while I had a drink and ate a few crackers.

Then it was onwards again, and I dragged myself up the forest trail like a zombie, assuming that there would be a hut around the next corner. Of course there wasn't. This went on for about 90 minutes until we eventually arrived in a clearing with some derelict cabins and a stagnant pond. It didn't look like a pleasant place to stop, and we didn't. It gradually occurred to my altitude-fogged brain that the guide was planning to climb up to the next pass this afternoon. He had no intention of overnighting in the Sewalongba valley and intended all along to turn this pleasant three-day trek into a rushed two-day trip to Baihanluo. I continued upwards, dragging my feet one after another and trying all different breathing 'techniques' (counting breaths, one breath per step, hyperventilating ...) to try keep myself going. The forest thinned out and I realised we were now close to the Bagalong Pass.

In a clearing I gained good views back to the She-La pass, which already seemed a long distance away. I wish I had taken more pictures at this point but I was exhausted, grumpy and also believed  I would gain better views from the Balagong Pass. I had now accepted that we would make the second pass crossing today and descend to Baihanluo. I didn't mind too much as it would give me an extra day in hand to catch up with the trekkers I had intended to link up with further north in Tibet.
The Balagong (巴拉贡) Pass was an unspectacular high point of the ridge in the midst of fir trees. There were no views in either direction. It is said to be 3950m in altitude.

At this point my guide grudgingly admitted that we were going to Baihanluo, not the Sewalongba huts, and I was far too exhausted to argue with him. Descending towards Baihanluo we emerged into alpine meadows where a few horses grazed, and gained views of the familiar multiple ridges of the Nujiang valley. There was even a hint of a view of Baihanluo and other Nu settlements far below. They all looked within easy reach.

We walked down across these open grassy areas and my guide suddenly seemed hesitant and unsure of himself. After descending a short way into forest we came across some log cabins that local cattle herders used for shelter. At one of them we paused abruptly 'for tea'. This sudden attention to refreshment breaks was no accident. My guide announced he would not be going any further with me, but was going to return to Cizhong. He was short changing me and wanted his Y1200 fee for getting me from Cizhong to Baihanluo, even though he had done this in two days instead of three. And he had only delivered me within sight of Baihanluo, not to the actual village which was a long way below. The hut was occupied by several of his Tibetan cronies, a really rough-looking bunch and the situation was an obvious shakedown. Pay up or else.

Thoroughly fed up with the situation and uneasy at the tense atmosphere, I handed over the money without comment, and walked off alone shouldering my heavy backpack. The guide called after me that it was "only 20 minutes" down to Baihanluo. It actually took me a hellish three hours. The main problem was that the trail became mixed up with many local farmer's tracks. I soon find myself following dead-end trails and paths that led to wooden log cabins that harboured vicious snarling dogs - and worst of all most of these were unchained. The dogs would hurl themselves along the track towards me and start snapping at my legs. Sometimes they would back off or flinch when I raised a hand holding a stone or wielded a stick at them. But some were fearless and aggressive attackers that could only be fended off by vigorous swinging of the stick and loud shouting. Sometimes their owners would emerge from the cabins to call them off, but often these dogs seemed untended and uncontrolled in their attacks. After the first two or three such dog encounters my nerves were frazzled and this just added to my physical and mental exhaustion. I had been walking almost non-stop since 7.30am over 4000m mountain passes and I was absolutely worn out, not to mention thirsty and hungry. I tumbled down the trail, praying that I would soon get to Baihanluo, but it seemed to never get any nearer.

I continued to lose my way and find myself bush-bashing around farmsteads and log cabins - or turning corners to find the trail blocked by two or three dogs. I was utterly fed up. Then things turned even more surreal when I was chased by a horse down the track. I heard a sound-effects like whinnying and turned to see a large brown horse galloping down the trail towards me with a strange look in its eye. This was no shy creature, but seemed intent on driving me off the trail. I dodged as it went by, hooves flying, and it skidded to a halt and turned to face me, kicking with its fore hoof, as if to challenge me not to pass. I ducked into the trees and tried to crash my way beside the trail away from the horse. Each time I re-emerged onto the track the horse repeated its charges until I had moved on about a hundred metres. I can only imagine I was invading this horses'  territory and it had offspring it was trying to protect.

I stumbled on down the trail for what seemed like hours, dodging more aggressive dogs and also slipping and sliding down some sections where the trail seemed more like a steep dried-up water channel than a walking track. It was a tortuous, endless and tedious descent down towards Baihanluo, which I eventually reached at around 6pm, when the light was failing and my legs could barely support me. Bruised, scratched and filthy, not to mention sweaty, stinking and thirsty, I was greatly looking forward to finding a guesthouse, sitting down  and sipping a cold beer. It was not to be. Once again I was to be deeply disappointed.

My previous visit to Baihanluo had been at Christmas about four years previously, when the Nu, Tibetan and Lisu inhabitants of this Christian village were all out in the square by the church celebrating by imbibing their alcoholic maize-based shuijiu. This time when I stumbled into Baihanluo, the village appeared to be deserted except for a pack of growling dogs that followed and snapped at me. I dumped my pack outside the locked up church and went looking for people. Apart from a couple of young kids who ran away, I could find nobody about the place. It was spooky. I walked up and down the village paths between the wooden houses, calling out "Ni Hao", but there was no-one around.

After about 15 minutes an older woman swayed into the square, obviously drunk, and I asked her where the vilage guesthouse was. She didn't seem to understand basic Mandarin and I had to repeat the question several times before she mumbled that there wasn't a guesthouse, but I could try stay with a household at the top of the village, way up the hill. I was in no state to walk back uphill again, so I asked if I could get a drink of water at her house. She waved me away at first, but later relented and I followed her up the concrete path to a ramshackle wooden house surrounded by hens.

The interior of her house was dark and dirty, the walls covered with soot from the fire in the middle of the room. I collapsed onto a tiny stool and helped myself to a cup of the kaishui (boiled water) from the cauldron over the fire, to which I added a teabag. Within minutes I had guzzled two cups of the smokey-tasting water and began to feel slightly better, if a little queasy.

I then sat there like a zombie, lacking the energy even to get up from the stool as the old women staggered about the house and offered me various dodgy looking items of food such as mushrooms, grit-speckled yak cheese and dirty hunks of cured yak meat jerky. I couldn't understand much of what the women was saying because of her thick dialect and also because she appeared to be quite drunk.

After about half an hour, when it had got dark, a couple with a young girl arrived - her daughter and husband, I presumed, and they spoke passable Mandarin. They told me I could stay at this house for the night and they'd make me some dinner. I was so relieved just to have shelter and something to drink - I didn't mind the poverty of the surroundings or the absolute filth and squalor.

The husband brought in a chicken that he killed and plucked of its feathers, before holding the gutted carcass over the fire to scorch it. He then chopped up the remains and put everything - head, claws and all-  into a pot with a mixture of potatoes, mushrooms and chillies to make a casserole. This took what seemed like an hour to cook and I was ravenously hungry. Unfortunately, when I was eventually ladled out my share of this chicken broth with some rice in a bowl, I only had three bites of the rubbery meat before I was suddenly and violently sick. I rushed to the doorway, where, to my shame and horror, I retched violently on to the floor, bringing back all the tea and what little food I had just consumed. I felt terrible.

My host family seemed unsurprised, and the grandma kept up a refrain of "Don't worry, we are Catholics here ..." After my stomach settled (and I cleaned up the vomit) I managed to swallow and keep down a bit more of rice and potato, accompanied by a few sips of Dali beer from a can. I tried to tell this kind family about how I had walked over from Cizhong, but they seemed uncomprehending and uninterested. They talked among themselves and later pointed me towards a rickety couple of planks in the corner, covered with a stained and flea-ridden blanket. That was my bed for the night, and I actually managed to sleep quite well on it with the help of my Thermarest and my sleeping bag. I still got bitten by fleas though.

Here's a selfie taken by the happy trekker after arriving in Baihanluo:


Omer Raz said...

sounds like a nightmare. I also had a similar incident with a "guide" a couple of years ago in the Minya Konka range. I don't know if this is the chineseness that has gotten into the tibetans (Because I did encounter alot of these don't-trust-me-fellows that happened to be chinese...), certainly this kind of "betryal" by a guide has not happened to me with tibetans in India or Nepal.
Maybe this has to do with the status of the tibetans in china, even those outside the TAR, that has made some of them to be wary and so unhospitable to forgieners.

I hope the next leg of the trek was better...

Stephen said...

Thanks for writing this. It's the best and most entertaining piece of travel writing I've read in years. Mind you, it also sounds like hell.

Unknown said...

Thanks for that great description of the trek!
Is the trail really hard to find for an acclimatised and experienced hiker without a guide?
Being trustable a guide or not I can't afford it...

mutikonka said...

I would not attempt this trek without a guide. Most of the track is clear and easy to find but there are some sections where you could easily get lost, such as the ascent up to the She La, and also finding your way out of the Sewalongba valley up to the second pass. I was lucky to have good weather, but there can be snow and ice on the pass even in July.

cath said...

what a scary story but so interesting Michael - amazed you survived !

Rachel Worsley said...

Wow, that was one hell of a track. So glad that family at the end at least offered you some food and shelter!

mutikonka said...

Yes, that's why it's a three day trek, not two!

Unknown said...

Thanks for the answer Michael, safe travels to you!

mutikonka said...

I'm publishing a day-by-day guide with track notes for the kora soon, complete with maps. Watch out for it ...

Unknown said...

Great!! Thanks for sharing this precious knowledge!