Thursday, July 07, 2016

Yading Big Kora Trek Diary: Day 4 - Yaka Pass to the Ampitheatre

Summary: on this short day we hiked from Camp 3 across the Yaka Pass and into the magical surrounds of the 'lost valley' of Lawatong, passing from the domain of Chanadorje (5958m) to that of Mt Jambeyang. We camped at an awe-inspiring location we called 'the Ampitheatre', surrounded on three sides by cliffs and right under the south side of Jambeyang.

I was slightly dreading the fourth day, expecting it to be tough because of my previous experience of an arduous crossing of the snow-bound Yaka Pass in 2010. But that had been done at the end of a long day when we were exhausted: this time we faced in it reasonably fresh condition. The day started with a frustrating wait at our pre-pass camp. We woke to beautiful clear weather and blue skies, but our porters failed to show up at the agreed 8am start time. Having already packed up, I mooched around impatiently, and was annoyed to see that the clouds and mist were starting to close in again. Our chances of hiking over the Yaka Pass in clear weather appeared to be diminishing rapidly. In any other circumstances it would be an idyllic place to spend a few hours, gazing up at the awesome twin peaks of Zambala and the sunlit pass above us.

However I was still in a shitty mood when the porters eventually showed up at closer to 10am - with no explantion for the delay. Even when we hit the track they appeared to be in no rush to get up the pass, constantly stopping for breaks, while I was itching to get to grips with the slope. On my last crossing six years earlier I had been almost doubled up with exhaustion - so weak I could not even carry my daypack. I'd had to trudge up, step by painful step. This time, however, I seemed to be leaping up the pass as if it was a walk up Malham Cove.

The trail led up the side of a waterfall, where we had a long rest, and then continued up a more rocky trail that the mules struggled with - but it was no problem for agile humans. I was feeling OK but the two young camera guys from CCTV must have been feeling the effects of the altitude because they rode on horseback most of the way up. They didn't look too good, and Yue Qiang in particular looked very sick with a bad cough.

Feeling impatient, I walked on ahead with Gong Que, who scurried around like a terrier investigating flowers and plants - and darting off on side trips to explore nearby areas. The director Qin Rey had to call him back a few times and remind him that he was supposed to be helping set up shots with me, rather than encouraging me to plough on in front before the cameras were ready to film me.

Feeling like I was in restraint, I dawdled along and whistled to myself. For some reason I couldn't get the song of Hartley the Lion from my childhood TV series the Herbs out of my head ...

After a bit of a slog up the trail we eventually reached the top of the northern side of the Yaka Pass, where Gong Que strung up some Tibetan prayer flags. There were nice views back down the Saiyo Katso valley from where we had come the previous day, and our flood-prone campsite of the previous night. However this wasn't the true pass, which was actually a vaguely defined spot a little higher up. This was because the Yaka Pass is not the 'knife edge'  ridge that it appears  to be from a distance. In fact, the pass was a broad expanse of open plateau big enough to put a football field on - if it was for all the huge boulders and outcrops. We paused here for a while as the porters had a smoke and I explained to them the story of how Joseph Rock had come here all the way from Thailand in the 1920s in his quest for plants. There were certainly plenty of alpine plants still in evidence around this 4500m pass.

We then began the descent into the huge Lawatong valley - and towards a test of my nerve, to a scary exposed part of trail where I would have to face my demons again. The trail was a gentle descent to some flooded meadows, from where we had epic views of the cliffs below Jambeyang, along which tomorrow's trail could be seen. The trail runs high up the side of the Lawatong valley, just beneath the top of the cliffs - and it appears that if you tumble down you will roll down the slope and over the edge of a precipice to fall about 1000 feet into the Lawatong valley. The thin line of path looked highly exposed on the steep hillside, but I knew that this was an illusion, and that it was actually not so steep -except for one or two scary bits.

But first we had to splash our way through the marshy grass and traverse a long scree slope below one of the glacier moraines of Jambeyang's south east side. At this point, tucked under a rock buttress we came across the famous 'traveller's rest' shrine that was photographed by Joseph Rock. Six years ago this collection of stone chortens and wall paintings looked little changed from when Rock photographed in in 1928. In 2016, however, the shrine had had some improvements - and there was now a fancy golden chorten had been installed, along with lots of prayer flags. Pilgrims circumambulating the three peaks had left offering of ivory and jade bracelets, necklaces and wads of Chinese currency. Qin Rey filmed me doing a spiel here, and I tried to mumble some serious answers to his questions about religion.

After the shrine and the crossing of the scree field I found myself back in the spot where six years ago we had a major drama - our emergency camping spot. It had been on this bit of mountainside that we had been forced to stop for the evening when our know-nothing guides had failed to find anywhere suitable to lodge for the night. It was a terrible place, with no level ground and no running water - just a patch of fir trees for a bit of shelter from the wind. We had pitched our tent on the track itself - the only bit of level ground - while our guides in 2010 had revealed they had brought no shelter - and had just built a fire and huddled round it for the night!

This time we breezed through because there was simply no reason to pause there - I don't know why they ever chose it as an overnight spot - there was a much better campsite just around the corner.

However, there was a catch - to reach the 'ampitheatre' campground  you have to traverse around the top of some cliffs that leave you exposed for a dramatic fall into the Lawatong valley. At one point the trail narrows and for about ten metres you have to skirt a few sections where there is nothing between you and an almost sheer vertical drop. The path is only one foot wide and I remembered it as being terrifying - had I been imaging this? I quickly found that the answer was a firm no.

When I got to the hairy bit I lost my nerve and had to call Gong Que back to give me a helping hand. There actually wasn't much he could do except provide a steadying hand and the advice - just focus on the track, don't look over the edge!' I staggered over and was relieved when I reached the mini pass at the top of the slope, where a broad trail led down into the ampitheatre. This was another patch of pasture in a spectacular setting. Again there was a small stone shelter where our porters had already settled in and got  fire going. We quickly put up our tents in the lee of a big chorten - and right on cue it started raining.

After dinner I explored the surrounding area and walked up the nearest stream to try get some cleaner water. This magical place seemed so secluded - was this the ultimate Shangri La? Is this where you could ponder the meaning of life? Jambeyang's dagger-like peak loomed above - but the only meaning I could find in this seldom visited spot  was a poster of Audrey Hepburn that had somehow found its way to be discarded in the stream bed!

The magic of this isolated place  was also marred by the large number of camping gas canisters that had been dumped here, presumably by other hikers. Why would you come to such a special place and then despoil it? How hard is it to take your rubbish away? I had a bit of a rant about this to the Chinese film crew for my daily video diary - after I collected about 20 empty canisters from the surrounding grassy area. I laid them out in the shape of the Chinese character Bu! (No!) - to try send a message to other would-be gas canister litter louts.

That night was another stormy one. This time the rain and wind hit so suddenly at about 1pm that I woke up and panicked, thinking the tent had collapsed. It hadn't - just one of the guy ropes had come loose - but the mad flapping of the tent and the heavy drumming of wind-blown rain made me nervous. I was so convinced that my tent was going to blow down that I got out of my sleeping bag and put on all my wet weather gear, in preparation for instant evacuation to the stone hut. However, the worst never came to pass, and I finally managed to nod off about 1am.

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