Sunday, July 10, 2016

Yading Big Kora trek diary - Day 5: Ampitheatre to "Rock's rock"

Summary: This was one of the most difficult days because it involved walking along a precarious trail above the vast Lawatong valley on the side of steep scree slopes below the notorious cliffs on the south side of Jambeyang. The walk culminates in crossing the fourth pass, which we nicknamed "The Shoulder" and this involves some scrambling along a scree trail that is quite exposed in places. The trail then turns abruptly north up the Yetchesura valley and crosses a mini-pass to arrive at an area of open pasture on which we find the landmark lump of rock that Joseph Rock photographed in 1928 and nominated as a resting spot for pilgrims.

I wasn't in the best of moods when I woke up on Day 5 at the ampitheatre. I'd had a rough night worrying about the rain and thunderstorm swamping the tent - and when I got up it was to grey mist and still no views of the nearby mountain peaks - so frustrating. I was also facing the day's walk with trepidation because I knew from my previous visit in 2010 that this was a  tough section on steep scree slopes. And the view of the track running along the base of the cliff line seemed to confirm the dangerous nature of the trail ahead.

After our delayed start from the Yaka Pass yesterday, we had rammed it home to the horse guys that we wanted an early start today - and this is what they delivered. I was up at 6am and we were pretty much packed up and ready to go by 8am. As usual the film team were carrying a lot of gear, and on this section they wanted to set up specific shots as we traversed the scree slopes.

Before we left, Gong Que went up to the stupa below the cliffs and added some prayer flags to those already strewn around it. Then our mule train set off up the steep zig-zagging trail up to the cliff walk. I lapsed into my slow-walk mode and lagged behind slightly - and was just getting into my stride when they all stopped for a rest. Frustrating, but at least we had great views back to the Yaka pass - and the route we had come down the day before.

Once on the trail, I was finding the going easier than on my previous trek - almost wholly because this time there was no snow on the ground and therefore route finding was straightforward (and there was no fear of sliding down over the edge into the Lawatong abyss).

We carried on over open hillside and the going was relatively easy at this point. I was walking along at my own pace, but it soon became clear that Qin Rey wanted me to film me walking behind Gong Que, as if he was leading the way. Maybe this was for the narrative of his documentary (to show the foreigner being guided by a Chinese expert rather than the opposite, which was closer to the truth). I didn't really mind this at first as we were on fairly easy trail.

However, when we reached the start of the steep scree trail section I was 'directed' to walk behind Gong Que and a horse he had been given to lead (artistic license? - it looked good on camera). Meanwhile the rest of the mules were lined up behind me and they were setting a fair pace - putting pressure on me to speed up. The first part of the scree section was the most exposed, and I started to feel irritated for being sandwiched between two sets of mules. There were some tricky bits of track with some exposed sections of steep drops on the left, and Gong Que kept stopping and starting walking arbitrarily. This left me perched on some precarious bits of path, unable to go forward or backwards as the mules were right behind me quite literally champing at the bit. This became both worrying and annoying for me, and I lost my cool a bit, yelling at Gong Que to get a move on. However our Tibetan guide appeared to be taking direction from the camera guys who had their telephoto lenses zeroed on us from ahead and behind.

Gong Que eventually pulled his finger out, so to speak, and our mule parade inched forward onto more open and less hazardous sections of the scree slope. I relaxed a bit, but was still stewing with frustration. With the cameras on me I started acting up like a truculent schoolkid, sticking my hands in my pockets and ambling along whistling and kicking rocks down the hill.  I carried on this way all the way over the scree section, which was mostly swathed in mist.

When we reached the end of the scree and climbed back up on to solid rock, I was interviewed by the film crew on camera - but when asked to say a few words about how this section had been, I just shrugged my shoulders. Better say nothing at all than blurt out something rude!

We had another break and the team consulted my Google Earth 3D views - they were quite amazed by them. With Google being blocked in China few of them had seen these remarkably detailed visualisations of the route.

After a Werthers Original I had calmed down a bit by the time we set off on the last section of the cliff walk up to The Shoulder. The trail angled upwards and a fair bit of exertion required to ascend the trail that led over broken rocks. There were a couple of false summits, the first of which involved an absolute bastard of a scramble up slippery mud and rock.

How disappointing to reach the 'top' only to find that the trail carried on for several hundred metres further round the corner and up into the mist. Above us loomed a series of crags and razorback rock formations - the last buttress of which proved to be the shoulder. The views down into the Lawatong valley were now stupdenous - but I was still a little wary of what lay ahead - it all looked a little too easy compared to what I remembered from my last visit here. Where was that scary final section I had written about?

Sure enough, as we skirted under the final crag, the trail led up to a cluster of rocks festooned with prayer flags - but the last 20 metres or so was a faint trail on an alarmingly sloping section of muddy hillside. It was an exposed section with nothing to arrest a fall down the steep slope should you slip or lose your footing. Everyone else had already cleared this bit, so I had to do it alone, with just Yue Qiang filming me from the distance. Not liking the look of the trail along the edge of the cliff, I erred on the side of caution and scrambled using my hands and knees in parts over a slightly higher section- it was steeper but at least it hand a semblance of handholds and footholds.

And with a few last desperate steps I strode onto the final rocks - I had made it!
All I could say was "I'm alive!" as I settled down amid the rocks, mentally as well as physically exhausted.

The views were tremendous - especially across the other side of the Yetchesura valley, where a hanging sub-valley harboured a beautiful green alpine lake that had its own island.

My sense of triumph was short lived as I saw the others were already moving out with the mules and disappearing into the mist. I was snacking on some crackers and cheese, but had to put my lunch on hold as I feared I would be left behind with no way of catching up - or finding the trail. The track had now turned abruptly north, and continued over flat, slate-like slabs. Compared to the cliff walk it was easy going, but it still proved to be a bit of a slog as we ascended up to a second mini-pass, beyond which lay the open pasture containing "Rock's rock". This circular area of open grassland was overlooked by a huge buttress - and I was surprised to see a cluster of huts in the distance off to the left (west) as we crested the 'pass'. I'm sure this little settlement had not been there on our last visit.

We descended from the 'pass' towards the big rock, having to cross a stream that flowed over slippery rock. It was by now mid-afternoon and as seemed to be a regular pattern on this trip, it started to rain.

The horse porters left up at the rock and they went off to seek shelter at the huts we had seen further down the valley. We were now at the rock famously photographed by Joseph Rock in 1928 with all his porters gathered around it - now we in turn clustered around it,  to keep out of the rain.

The first thing I did was to use the shelter of an overhanging bit of rock to set the stove up and make a cup of tea. The others were focused on getting their tents up, but I was in no hurry - hoping it would ease off a bit so that my inner tent wouldn't get too wet. I had to wait about an hour for this, and thus passed the time just crouching under the eaves of the rock, chatting with Gong Que and Qin Rey. We carried on our little social corner after I had got my tent up - the two younger camera crew guys were still feeling ill due to having colds and altitude sickness, whereas I felt fine - if a little tired.

It felt completely normal and yet absolutely weird to be spending a Sunday afternoon just standing under a rock in the rain in the middle of nowhere, chatting away in Chinese. The irrepressable Gong Que, as usual, saved the day - his witty asides and tongue-in-cheek bits of encouragement ("It's only  bit of rain! We're having a great time!") made me smile. And that's all we did for the rest of Sunday - just clustered under the rock for hours, chatting away and making more cups of tea, eating snacks and talking about everything from previous travels to plans for retirement. The rain poured down and when it started to get dark I retired to the tent to finish off my Alexei Sayle book. Happy days.

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