Wednesday, November 05, 2014

How to do the Kawakarpo Outer Kora - a trekking guide

by Michael Woodhead  
A guide to the Kawakarpo Kora trek (Meili Waizhuang 梅里外), with track notes for “pilgrims” (朝圣 ‘chaosheng’)


My photos and trek diary of the Kawakarpo outer kora are here:

Part 1: (Southern, Mekong to Nujiang):

Part 2: (Northern, Nujiang to Mekong):

The Kawakarpo Kora is  one of the best treks in the world, but done by surprisingly few westerners. It is a traditional pilgrimage route for Tibetans, that involves a 150km trek around the sacred peaks of the Kawakarpo mountain range. The main peak of this range, also known as 'Kawegebo' or Meili Xueshan (beautiful snow mountain) is 6740 metres in height and is revered by Tibetan Buddhists. The trek usually takes about 8-10 days and involves crossing seven  mountain passes including the main ones known as the 4080m Doker La (east to west) and the 4800m ShoLa (west to east). The track starts near Deqin, in the north west corner of Yunnan province and traverses across the Hengduan mountain range from the Mekong (Lancang Jiang) river in Yunnan to the Salween (Nu Jiang) river. Half of the circuit involves a crossing into Tibet, and this may be a reason why few westerners do the trek - it is difficult to obtain a Tibet entry permit for the trek. However, most of the trek is on un-policed mountain trails and it is possible to avoid the only security checkpoint on the road into Tibet (more details later).
The trek is not particularly difficult but it is quite strenuous and requires stamina and a reasonable level of physical fitness. The good news is that there is a well-trodden track and - unusually for China - a network of simple guesthouses and shops along the trail, so you don't need a tent or to take 10 days worth of food. However, this walk is not to be taken lightly - the weather conditions can turn treacherous, especially on the passes, and you must come prepared with warm and waterproof clothes and good boots. It is also a very remote trek - you can expect to be away from civilisation for days on end, with no mobile phone access and walking in remote valleys where the nearest basic medical facilities are two or three days walk away. There are no mountain rescue teams and no authorities available to help you out if things go wrong - you must be self sufficient and flexible. On a positive note it is a safe area and you will be trekking alongside Tibetan pilgrims who are invariably friendly and helpful.
It is possible to do the trek without a guide, but I would strongly advise against this. A local guide is essential for routefinding in some areas and also as a go-between in dealing with other Tibetans and helping arrange accomodation and transport. You can arrange guides in Yongzhi or even with the van drivers at Fei Lai Si, many of whom hail from Chalitong. Speaking at least some Chinese will obviously be helpful. Local Tibetans do not speak English, and many don't speak  Mandarin to a high standard so you must be prepared to improvise use sign language. Alternatively, you can do one of the commercial guided treks around the kora such as the excellent one run by Adrian Bottomley of Whistling Arrow.

If you want to see my blogs of the two kora treks I've done click here and here. If you want to see photos from each day of the trip, try this Chinese language blog here.

When to go
The best times to go are spring (May-June) and late autumn (September-November), when the weather is dry and settled. Avoid summer as this is the wet/monsoon season, while in Jan-April the high passes may be closed due to snow.

Getting to the start of the track
The start of the kora is at a village called Yongzhi, just above the Mekong (Lancang Jiang) river, about 25km south west of Deqin. Hire a minivan in Deqin or at the Fei Lai Si viewing point for the mountain, where most tourists stay. Cost will be about 300 yuan. The road goes down to the river and follows the right (east bank) through a small town called Yunling (云岭), and crosses the river at a place called Chalitong.
There are actually two alternate routes  to start the kora, the upper and lower tracks. The upper track starts at Yongzhi (2480m) and skirts the upper side of the Yongzhi gorge as it ascends the valley. The lower track starts at the river near Chalitong and follows the tributary river up through the Yongzhi gorge. The two tracks merge further up the valley. There are no shops at Yongzhi except for perhaps the most basic supplies (water, instant noodles) so make sure you do your final shopping in Deqin.

Day 1: Yongzhi 永久to Yongshitong camp永是通
 From Yongzhi the track ascends a track across fairly open hillside to the south until it reaches a corner ‘pass’ (the Duola Yakou多拉) and turns into the Yongzhi gorge. There are good views of the Mekong below. After the pass the track levels out somewhat and enters thicker forest so the views are more limited, except for occasional views down into the Yongzhi gorge. 
The track passes some shrines and sets of prayers flags including one place called A-se Jialang(阿色加朗) where pilgrims have left offering such as clothes and items of clothing. The track passes a place called LongNa (隆那) continues in this way through the forest, passing the first of many ‘rest stations’ at a place called Qu Xia (曲夏). This is a rather gloomy spot in a gully, and it best to continue on to the camps further on. The rest stations typically comprise a wooden shack containing a small shop selling noodles, drinks and basic commodities such as lighters and cigs. They also have a fire with a pot of boiling water. 
The larger stations also have a ‘dorm’ which is basically just a large flat area sheltered with large sheets of heavy duty polythene spread over logs. Pilgrims cram into these sleeping areas and spread out their sleeping bags on old bits of cardboard on the bare ground. On the first day the camp to aim for is at Yongshitong (3340m) which is next to a small river, higher up in the valley.

Day 2: Cross the Duokela 多克拉(4080m) to Zansutang camp 咱俗塘 (3630m)
The second day involves  a strenuous hike over one of the highlights of the trek – the Doker La pass or Duokela as it is called in Chinese. From Yongshitong the track ascends through thick forest for several hours, following the course of the river until it comes out into a wide valley surrounded by high mountain ridges. The views here are superb and there are waterfalls and may peaks to be seen. 

The track continues to follow the river, passing more shacks, until it reaches the Duokela Base Camp(多克拉口下). This camp an be reached by early afternoon from Yongshitong. From the base camp’ the track turns left and ascends steeply up the western side of the valley up towards the Doker La.  After an hour or so the track comes out into a wide basin, where the track can be seen zig-zagging up to the Doker La. From here the forest is left behind and it is another couple of hours walking up an increasingly steep track  to the pass. 

The final stages of the track up to the pass are over windswept scree and rock. The pass itself is festooned with hundreds of prayer flags with only a narrow passage through which the track crosses the narrow ridge. 

It is a sacred place for Tibetans and also marks the border of Yunnan and Tibet – once over the pass you are in Tibet (illegally if you don’t have a permit). 
The view from the pass are great in both directions. On the western side of the pass the track descends in very steep and quite exposed zig zags into a bowl-like basin, gradually easing off in angle with descent. The track then veers off to the left and follows the valley down in a twisting path that later follows the right hand side of the valley down towards a river. 

The Zansutang camp is ‘round the corner’ and located by the  side of the river. It is quite a sizeable camp with a shop and most pilgrims stop over here after crossing the Doker La.

Day 3: Zansutang camp咱俗塘 to Qunatang camp 曲那塘 2460m
The third day walk is mostly in forest and involves crossing only one lesser pass, the Lu-a Sen La yakou (阿森拉, 3840m). The track follows the river is mostly fairly level and passes through a place called Zhangqie Lu(章切路) before ascending to the Lu-a Senla Pass. This has many bowls of tsampa and other offerings such as clothing strewn about. After the pass there is a steep descent through forest to a bridge and rest station/camp at a place called Qunatang. There is a second camp some way further up the side of the hill, in a pleasant gully next to a stream and small bridge.

Day 4: Qunatang camp 曲那塘 to Aben village (Abing,阿丙村2290m)

The first half of the day is spent climbing up through forest to the  Xinkang La pass (辛康拉, 3740m). There is little water en route, but there are a couple of rest stations and shops further up. The ascent is quite arduous and dull because of the lack of views – but the views from the pass over to the Nujiang are very good. The Xinkang La is a large pass in forest, as usual strewn with prayer flags. From the pass you can look down and see the destination of Aben far below. The second half of the day is spent on the long and knee-hammering descent to Aben. The track goes through pine forest before emerging into more open farmed land lower down.

Interlude: Getting past the Tibet checkpoint from Aben to Chawalong.
Aben is a Tibetan community of about twenty houses and is a major waypoint on the kora. It has several guesthouses and shops, so is a good place to rest and stock up on basic supplies. However, the next stage presents a problem for westerners without permits as it follows the motorable road up the Nujiang, with a police checkpoint at a place called Quzhu (曲珠)The only way to get round this is to get a local with a motorbike to take you past the checkpoint after dark. The road barrier is closed so only bikes can get past. 
It takes about an hour by motorbike down to the checkpoint and a further hour or so beyond to the Tibetan town of Chawalong (察瓦, which the Tibetans call Chana). Some drivers insist that you get off the bike and walk through the checkpoint alone, as they fear being caught in the act of helping a  foreigner through the checkpoint. There are warning signs on the road saying that foreigners  are not permitted, even though the actual border with Tibet is about 10km further south.

The dirt road is quite rough and hazardous, often with steep drops into the river.  The landscape along the river is awesome, mostly uninhabited and quite barren with cactuses, and there is a major landslide that has to be crossed before reaching Chawalong. The driver/guide should be able to arrange for you to stay in a house in or near Chawalong. As Chawalong is in Tibet, you may be reported to the police and expelled if you try stay in an official guesthouse. If you do get caught, expect to be detained, fined and then sent to the nearest town in Yunnan, Bingzhongluo, which is a day’s drive in a 4WD along a treacherous road through the Nujiang canyon that will cost you 1500 yuan or more.

Day 5: Chawalong (1910m) to Gebu (格布村, 2340m)
This section is optional. Many trekkers get a lift straight through to Gebu, about two –three hours further north on a road that crosses the Tangdu La pass (堂堆拉, 3352m). If you decide to walk it is about 15km on the road from Chawalong up through a village called Longpu (普村) and some sparse pine forest to the Tangdu La, passing a small monastery called Zhatong. There are short-cuts of track between the zig-zags of the road up the steep hillside. The pass is just a cutting through the high point of the ridge, in forest, with an ugly electricity pylon, though with some views back over Chawalong. There is a small shop here and a place to get boiling water.
The road descends from the pass through more forest, down past rice fields of Tangdu village and then into a spectacular canyon of a river called the Wichu (Chinese: Yuqu, 玉曲). There is a great view of a high mountain to the north. The steep-sided canyon is quite arid  and devoid of vegetation compared to the more fertile land around Chawalong.
The road passes a settlements called Zhagu (扎古) and Reda then continues down a barren and rocky trail around a dramatic bend in the river to a settlement called Lada (拉达) which has  a small shop and more rice terraces and then on a dusty road.  The river is crossed by a bridge beyond Lada, and the road continues to the village of Gebu.
The village of Gebu has a guesthouse and a shop, and is the jumping off point for the next major pass – the Dagu La (达古拉), but more often known just as the Gebu La.

Day 6: Gebu to Gebu Pass Hut (3900m).
A zig zag road ascends steeply out of Gebu up to a ‘shoulder’ hill to the north, on top of which is a wooden shack with a shop and rest station. Some pilgrims take a motorbike taxi up to the shack and stop there for the night rather than in Gebu.  There are great views back over Gebu and down the Wichu canyon towards the Tangdu La. 
From the shack the track leaves the road  and goes up through arid worn channels into forest, from where it levels out and follows a gentler gradient north along the hillside through open forest towards a second rest station reached in about an hour. This is the last shop before the pass, so stock up on fluids here as there is little water to be had for the rest of the day.
The track leaves the hillside and its views of the river and climbs up through forest towards the pass. The path is good and there are occasional fine views to the west and especially of a snowy peak that may be Kenyichunpo on the Burmese border. The track is not steep but it is quite a hike up to the next shack and rest station, which is situated about an hour’s hike below the Gebu Pass (also known as Dagu La, 达古拉)
This is a very simple shack with space for about twenty people to sleep outside under the plastic sheeting. There is a basic shop and fireplace, but water is limited to a trickle from a nearby pipe. There is a lot of rubbish here and no toilets, so beware of sanitation and drinking water. There is a small viewing area just above the shack with great views over the valley.

Day 7 Gebu Pass hut to Laide (来得 3090m)
From the Gebu Pass hut it takes about an hour to hike up to the Dagu La (达古拉) through forest. The pass is covered by forest, but there are some views to be had to the west of the snowy peak. The track then descends, steeply at first, over a trail into another loop of the upper reaches of the Wichu river canyon. There are some nice views to the north but soon the track turns south east and descends more gradually through the thick forest towards the river following the contours of the hillside. There are no rest stations or water sources on this part of the trail.
After a long descent the track stays fairly level for an hour or so of walking then  emerges from the forest and skirts some curves around the hillside. The river can be seen below and the ridges on the other (eastern) side of the valley come into view. The mountain Kawakarpu (Meili Xueshan) dominates the southern section of the valley. The track passes through fertile glades and gullies as it descends to the river, on the other side of which a crude road can be seen. As the track reaches the river a sharp switchback trail down a gully needs to be negotiated after a cliff walk, until the riverside is reached. A level track passes through a gate and comes out at a bridge to a couple of Tibetan houses at Laide bridge or Long Xicun.
From the bridge it is a further two hour walk up a zig zag track through scrub and low bushes to the small village of Laide, nestled in a side valley. There are informal guesthouses at Laide, including one at a large house with a shop that is set apart, about five minutes higher up the valley on the way up to the Sho La pass. It may also be possible to camp here.

Day 8: Laide to Sho La Pass hut (4300m)
From Laide the track ascends up through forest up to a ridge and then on up to a set of huts in the “Meiqui Bugong” (梅求)valley that leads up to the highest part of the kora – the ShoLa pass or Shuola (). This can be a very tedious and strenuous  section to hike, with little variety to the endless zig zags up through the forest. There is also no water en route and  no rest stations etc until you reach the hut just below the  plateau. The hike takes about four hours, with only occasional views back over Laide and the Wichu valley to break the monotony. 
However, once you have reached the plateau hut you have done most of the vertical climbing for the pass.  There are two sets of huts close together, the first is  in the forest and is where most pilgrims stay. A second more primitive hut is about fifteen minutes hike further up, in more open terrain. From here some Tibetans ferry pilgrims on motorbikes over the last kilometer or so up to the base of the Shola pass. 
The track turns east and skirts gently upwards over more open terrain, towards a basin that forms the beginning of the Shola pass. There are good views of the north side of the Kawakarpo range from here. The track ascends through scrub after leaving the treeline, and eventually reaches the final hut before the pass. This is located in a shallow gully, but is very exposed to the elements and is often left locked and unattended. Don’t rely on it being open. 
From here you have a choice of staying before the pass or crossing the pass later in the day and staying at the hut on the other side. The latter is preferable as the sun does not rise over the mountains until after 9am, and so the scenery is  not very impressive if you make the early start that is necessary to walk from the pre-pass hut to the end of the trail.

Day 9: ShuoLa Pass (4800m) to Meili Shi (梅里石)
From the ShoLa huts the trail enters more windswept and barren alpine terrain, culminating in the red rocky basin devoid of any plant life that leads up to the pass. There are some good views of Kawakarpo on the way up – make the most of them as this is the last you will see of the peak on the kora.
The track is obvious for most of the way although there are several smaller tracks leading up o the final section of the ridge. The going is straightforward in good, clear weather but could be treacherous in fog, snow or ice – and thus good visibility is needed, as well as weatherproof kit. The final few metres of trail to the pass is not too steep, and it culminates in the usual sea of prayer flags. The views in both directions are excellent, although Kawakarpo is not visible from the ShoLa. The views to the east towards the Mekong are especially impressive. The rocky ridges on either side of the pass are also awesome.
After enjoying the pass, which marks the Tibet border, you can descend the track into Yunnan and head back down towards the basin and the vegetation zone. The track is easy to follow and mostly good, and within an hour you have left the scree slopes and entered a zone of trees and shrubs, out of the worst of the wind. The track heads right and follows a valley down to a clearing, called Dulongtong (杜隆塘) where  there is a small hut with a blue roof next to the marshy beginnings of a stream. There appeared to be other [abandoned] huts nearby.
From this point it is about a four-five hour descent to the road, along a track that stays mostly on the left side of a mountain river that gushes through the forest. The descent is not difficult but can seem never-ending and onerous. About half way there is a sacred waterfall where Tibetans leave banknote offerings. There are also some clearings by the river further down, which would make good camping spots. Water is not a problem because of the river (if you can boil/sterilize the water). 
 The track crosses and re-crosses the river many times and eventually enters a series of narrow, steep sided gullies. At this point the lower valleys of the Mekong/Lancang river come into view, but there is still a long way to go to reach the end of the trail. The track winds down a series of defiles and gullies, with each one seeming to be the last, but always leading to another. After a long ear-popping descent, signs of reaching civilization appear, such as metal bridges and concrete water irrigation channels. The final few kilometres of the kora are a series of rock-strewn paths through gullies in what can be very dry terrain as the sun beats down in the afternoon.
The end of the trail finally comes in sight and there is nothing to mark the end of the kora but a milestone on the quiet highway running along the Mekong. There are sometimes minivans waiting for hire to take pilgrims beack to Deqin. If not, it may be possible to hitch, or it is about a kilometre walk right (south) to the village of Meilishi (梅里石) which has shops and possibly a guesthouse. The cost of a minivan for the two hour journey to Deqin is about 200 yuan.


Alex Lam said...

How to you create the map? it looks wonderful!

mutikonka said...

Simple - it's just a screenshot of the Google Earth 3D view of the route. Route can be plotted in by dragging the marker tool in GE.

Phil E. Blunt said...

Do you know if there are paper maps available or something electronic on the net? Congratulations for your journey...such a good read.... a true adventure.

mutikonka said...

The only paper maps I've seen are really simple hand drawn sketch maps sold in the shops of Deqin and Bingzhongluo. There are a few that you could print off online, but I don't think any give a decent 3D view of the twists and turns of the canyons.

Anonymous said...

Excellent and beautiful guide. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

This is simply phenomenal. You wouldn't happen to have the map uploaded onto google maps?

mutikonka said...

Sorry, no Google map

Unknown said...

Waou!!! This is exactly what I was looking for! Do you think it's possible to bypass the checkpoint through the bridge after Aben and by the montagne opposite quzhu? I see two bridge, one before quzhu and one after.

Is it a fixed or mobile checkpoint?

thank you very much for the really great information.


mutikonka said...

Yeah it's possible to get past the checkpoint after Aben like I did - at night, on a bike. I didn't see any other checkpoint after that. There's one just after Bingzhongluo on the way to the river but you can get through that one if you say you are going to Qiunatong.

Unknown said...

thank you Michael for your reply!

Anonymous said...

thanks for the very good description! the best i found so far. hope to do the kora late spring this year. isa