Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The final day: over the Sho La Pass (说拉垭口) at last

The uncertainty and seat-of-your-pants planning that had plagued this trek persisted to the very end. When I woke up at the 4250 metre camp above Laide I had no idea if my guide would be continuing with me to the pass - or even if I would cross the pass that day. In truth, I didn't even know where I was. I had no maps, only some printouts of rough screengrabs from Google Earth that suggested I was high up near the final track leading up to the Sho La pass. But as with the previous day, I wasn't sure if the higher plateau was ten minutes away or two hours up the hill. All I knew was that there was still a bit of  a walk up to the pass, which was the highest on this trek at 4815 metres (15,800 feet - higher than I had ever been). I also knew that there was another hut just before the pass, located in an exposed gully. I had this notion that I might walk as far as this hut (two or three hours away?) and stay there for the night, exploring the area around the pass. However, the 'manager' of this camp soon quashed that idea. He was a gruff Tibetan with a thick mane of hair, and told me he also 'controlled' the other hut, but that there was nobody there at the moment. It was locked up and not available to stay in. So it was the Sho La pass or bust.

The Tibetan pilgrims, as usual, were up before dawn and most of them left like a flock of chattering birds before it got light. The few of us remaining got up at 7am and I struggled through the motions of brushing my teeth, washing my face and finding somewhere to go to the loo.

Outside it was cold but the air was still and I got a great early view of the mass of Kawakarpo to the south, peeking up in the clear sky over the treetops. The view didn't last long though - within 20 minutes, thick fog had rolled up from the valleys. After just a few days of trekking my skin and clothes were coated with a thick layer of dirt, grease and dust. I stank of woodsmoke and sweat, and my hair was ragged like a stiff brush. I used a little of the local water trickle to make some coffee and to rehydrate the milk powder for my muesli. The water was brackish, gritty and tasted of smoke. When I asked the hut owner if he had any bottled water he shook his head and pulled out a box of Coca Cola - that was the only fluid he had except for beer. I took a can of each.

We set off up the hill early, with my guide saying he would accompany me as far as the pass - but he would not say what his plans were beyond that. I counted myself fortunate that at least I had someone to carry my pack that far. I reckoned I could lug it myself down the hill after the pass.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that we reached the crest of the ridge fairly quickly, within 15 minutes. There was another primitive log shelter and from here the track levelled out and skirted the side of the slope to the left, and into the final valley that led up to the pass. The track passed through stands of bushes and low shrubs, but there wasn't much of a view. Much of the landscape was still in dark shadows as the sun had yet to rise over the ridge.

As we skirted the contours, the valley below was still filled with cloud, and the landscape became bleaker as we rose above the vegetation line. Now the ground was almost martian - red and grey rocks and scattered boulders. After an hour we reached a small gully with a dried up creek, aside of which lay the final hut. As the owner had told us it was closed up and deserted. No place to stop.
The track took one final twist to the left and we hiked up into the final basin before the Sho La pass. This was it - the final destination.

 As if on cue, the sun started to light up the landscape, bringing a feeble touch of warmth to the red rocks. From here the trail to the pass could be seen zig-zagging upwards, culminating in a distant field of prayer flags. My guide stopped and prostrated himself and clasped his hands together in prayer.

It only remained to pick our way over the boulder field and choose one of the several faint trails that led up to the pass. There was no sign of the other pilgrims and nobody else about: it felt like we had the whole mountain to ourselves. This was the culmination of the trek and my excitement rose as I stumbled up the last few metres and caught site of the passageway through the mass of prayer flags that marked the pass.

A few more steps and I arrived at the pass, feeling triumphant. Walking through the mass of prayer flags, I gasped as I saw the epic view over the other side back down into Yunnan. In theory I was no longer illegal. The Sho La (Chinese: Shuola Yakou, 说拉垭口) pass marked the border between Tibet and Yunnan, the high watershed between the Nu Jiang river and the Mekong (Lancang Jiang). On the Mekong side it was sunny and bright, while much of the Nu Jiang side of the pass remained hidden in shade.

I spent about 15 minutes on the pass, savouring the views and taking a few photos. The views over to the Mekong were awesome - though many of the ridges and valles were already being hidden by rising clouds. Many of the pictures of the Sho-La pass I had seen on the internet showed it to be a bleak and inhospitable place, often covered with snow and ice. I was lucky - I had perfect weather for this crossing, the air was clear and still, if a little chill.

I felt like the conquering hero, having reached this new height of 4800 metres. However, just as I was priding myself on my ruggedness, I heard cooing noises and looked through the arch of prayer flags to see a group of Tibetan women arriving, carrying babies and infants with them. One woman even had a milk bottle and was preparing for a bottle feed. All of a sudden I didn't feel so special. Despite the cold wind the group of women were dressed in light clothing, as if out for a stroll on a spring day, while I was wrapped up in my windproof jacket and with my scarf around my neck. The women parked themselves on the sunny side of the pass and started to feed their kids. I had no idea where they had come from - there had been no sign of them at the hut  and I couldn't fathom where they had spent the previous evening - we were at least a day's hike from the nearest village in the valleys far below.

Meanwhile, my guide was looking restless. He gestured for me to take my backpack, and I paid him off for the last three days of portering and acting as a xiangdao (guide). He'd said he was going to return back down the mountain towards his home near Chawalong, but then a few moments later he asked if I wanted to pay him another day's fee and have him carry my pack down to the Mekong. I declined, and he said he would be walking down that way anyway.

And so I set off alone down from the pass, leaving Tibet behind, back into to Yunnan. It would be all downhill from here. But before I departed I left my can of beer among the prayer flags at he pass, along with all the offerings left by the Tibetans, as an offering to the mountain gods.
The path descended through the stone and scree fields towards the green and brown vegetation of the wide basin below, surrounded by ridges of orange and grey crags. All very beautiful.

As I pounded down the trail with my backpack weighing heavily on my shoulders for the first time, I pondered a  strange and macabre death that had occurred at this spot. About three years previously an eccentric Australian woman called Margo who lived at the Tiger Leaping Gorge near Lijiang had died near the Sho La pass after attempting a solo crossing. As I related in a previous blog post, her body had eventually been found near the pass and it was presumed that she had lost her way and died of exposure after being stranded overnight while unequipped for the extreme weather of the high mountains. Margo had been encountered earlier on the trail by another group of western trekkers who had been doing the kora at the same time. She had acted in a bizarre and aggressive manner towards them and threatened to have them arrested. While she had a guide, Margo had walked ahead and alone for much of the kora, and had gone missing while crossing the Sho La pass. The full story is here: (Wayback archive).

What puzzled me was how she had managed to get lost. Having just completed the crossing of the pass myself, I couldn't understand how Margo had gone off the trail because it was so obvious and well trodden, except for perhaps the final few hundred metres. I could only guess that she had deliberately gone off the trail or had become disoriented in poor light (and yet the other trekkers say the weather was not bad during the time of their crossing). And as the Tibetan mothers and babies had shown, even a lightly equipped trekker could cross the pass if they were lucky with the weather. It would remain a mystery.

I was luckier than I realised. During the same week of my trek over the 4800 metre Sho La pass, disaster struck a large number of western trekkers in another part of the Himalayas, crossing a similar pass on the Annapurna circuit in Nepal. A sudden snowstorm trapped scores of people crossing the Throng La, and at least 40 were killed by the cold conditions or avalanches.

I had no such problems on my descent. The weather was perfect and the track was good. I regained the vegetation zone and walked amid a pristine landscape of pine and spruce trees, down to a clearing where a small hut with a blue roof had a wisp of smoke coming from within. I didn't go in, but continued down into the forest. The trail followed a stream that grew into a strong torrent as it got further down.

At one point it formed a waterfall, and the Tibetans had turned the pool beneath into a kind of wishing well, with banknotes plastered over the rocks. It was an unlucky site for me, as I left my umbrella behind here and only realised much further  down the trail, by which time I had no intention of walking back down to retrieve it.

The walk down through the forest took many hours, including a brief stop for lunch by the river. I was alone for much of it, having left the Tibetan mothers behind a short distance below the pass.
By mid afternoon, however, I caught up with a group of Han Chinese trekkers who had been doing the kora for the last ten days. They were all very well equipped, and strode purposefully down the track wielding their trekking poles and shooting me quizzical looks as I passed them. I'd been told by the last hut manager that the descent from the Sho-La pass to the road would take four hours. That must have been the Tibetan high speed walking pace, because after leaving the pass at 9am I was still wearily plodding down the gorge at 1pm with no end in sight. I had emerged from the forest and entered a series of dry defiles and gullies, down which the track plunged towards the distant valley bottom.

By now the end was in sight, but still frustratingly far away. I could see the opposite side of the Mekong valley and even some houses and farms there, but each gully led only to another, and I seemed to be getting no nearer to the final strait. The sun was now high in the sky and my Coca Cola energy drink long exhausted. I had no other water so filled my bottles from the river and popped purifying tablets in them. This meant I faced a a thirsty 30 minute wait for the sterilising tablets to dissolve and take effect.

 The path crossed and re-crossed the river many times, and by mid afternoon I had also caught up with the Tibetan monks and nun pilgrims who had shared the hut with me the previous night. My ears popped many times with the gradual loss of altitude before I eventually started to see signs of encroaching civilisation: first a concrete bridge instead of one made of logs, then a water irrigation channel - and then piles of rubbish - and flies.

It wasn't until late afternoon that I turned round a large rockface and saw the end in sight - the road about half a kilometre away. Just a couple more descending loop sections of track and I arrived at a stretch of road by the brown Mekong river. There was nothing there at all to mark that this was the end of a pilgrimage, the terminus for an epic, 10-day journey that had begun in Deqin more than 240km and five high mountain passes away around the circuit. No signs, no markers, no shrines or visitor's books to commemorate the completion of this long walk. There were no signs of life or habitation at the end of the the kora trail - just the brown river and a generic concrete road sign advising to guard against forest fires.

I was lucky in that a couple of minivans had been waiting for the Chinese trekkers, to take them  back to Deqin. I was able to negotiate a ride, and thus avoid tan additional walk along the road to the village of Meili Shi about a mile away. There was little traffic on the road and I didn't think there would be much chance of a lift.

It took about two hours driving to get back to Fei Lai Si, along some spectacular sections of road that twisted up and down the canyon walls alongside the Mekong. But I was too exhausted to appreciate the scenery. I had had ten days of amazing landscapes and that was enough for me. All I wanted then was a cold beer and a lot of not walking. And that's exactly what I made sure I had when I got back to the hostel. It was as if I was in a different universe to the people around me - I was walking on air, having completed the kora.

The next morning I got up at dawn and joined the hordes to watch the sunrise over the mountain ranges. As they oohed and aahed over the first streaks of sun to hit the peas, I just took in the view and tried to comprehend that I had walked right around those mountains over the last two weeks. And felt quite chuffed with myself.


Stephen said...

What a mammoth effort. Can only imagine myself doing it and moaning all the way!

Omer Raz said...

Excellent trip!
I'm planning to go to the Kawa Karpo Kora next year. I've read that since next year is going to be the goat year, the Kawa Karpo Kora will get more pilgrims then usual cause, well, it's the mountain's sign, or something like that. Happen to know anything about it?

John Holmes said...

Well done, an epic kora.
Really enjoyable account of the trek. I think the locals in those parts will always make the visitors look like "softies" !

cath said...

I agree you should have felt 'quite chuffed' with yourself.

mutikonka said...

Thanks John. Yes the locals are fairly tough, but I'm still very unfit!

Phil E. Blunt said...

Amazing journey my friend. Inspiring! Kudos

Unknown said...

fabulous report- you're an inspiring fellow Michael.

mutikonka said...

Thanks Gillian!