They say never judge a man until you’ve walked in his shoes. Well, I’m walking in a pair of Chinaman shoes and all I can tell you is that it’s damn cold. That may have more to do with the fact that I don’t have any socks on though.
Actually, the shoes aren’t half-bad. They’re a far cry from the dual density molded foam, waterproof $200 wonders we Americans like to purchase for that one weekend of hiking per year. But still…not bad. They’re camo-green hightops—if you can call a piece of fabric tied around your ankle with some string hightops. The sole is hard, black plastic and features the only logo visible on the shoes—some stamp from a Chinese rubber company. Best of all, though, they’re lined with synthetic wool, which is the only thing keeping the circulation going in my feet.
I purchased the shoes in a small street-side store that, besides shoes, sold everything from cheap, plastic thermoses to Tibetan fur hats. The woman drove a hard bargain at ¥25, or about two bucks, but seeing as I was bargaining in flip-flops and it was nearly zero degree outside, I think she had the upper hand.
The funny thing is, I was just put to shame by a group of Tibetans wearing these exact shoes. They just hiked 20 kilometers more or less straight up and then straight down a mountain—in the rain, mind you—while I sat coldly perched on a mule that one such Tibetan was leading with one hand while smoking a cigarette with the other. But now we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Kunming is as a good of place as any to start recounting this story, for it’s there that we got the idea come to the place where we find ourselves now.
We had just spent an enlightening week in Kunming wandering around the wholesale tea market, being shown around by our friend Scott who lives and works there. A thousand cups of tea later, Julie and I began looking—as we always must—to the next location. Knowing both that we had just a few weeks left in China and that one of those weeks happened to coincide with National Week, or Golden Week as it’s referred to here in China, we once again had to get moving.
Golden Week is heaven for the Chinese and hell for the foreign traveler. Golden Week coincides with National Day, which celebrates the formation of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949. In 1999, in an effort to expand domestic tourism and improve the national standard of living, the Chinese government turned the National Day into a Golden Week. Essentially, Chinese employees are given three paid holidays, and weekends are rearranged so that seven consecutive days off are given to workers across the country.
Needless to say, the Chinese are not complaining. Golden Week is the time that millions of Chinese take-off in all directions of their country, armed with new backpacks, still-plastic-smelling hiking boots, and let’s not forget the trekking poles. Mind you, most Chinese stick to cities and shopping, but that doesn’t stop them from buying the gear. Like the REI yuppie back home, the emerging Chinese middle-class is hungry for adventure, or at least their wardrobe says so.
One of the joys of Golden Week is that prices across the country more than double. Rooms that can be had ¥70 are over ¥200 for Golden Week—and that’s if you can find one that isn’t already booked.
Now, I’ve had my share of run-ins with Chinese tourists at Yosemite, and I can tell you it’s not pretty. The anticipation of having to deal with millions of Chinese tourists—plus the price shock—was more than both Julie and I wanted to deal with. Thus, we consulted our friend Scott—a well-traveled guy, especially within Southwest China—and asked him where he would recommend going to escape the droves. He unfolded our large map of the country, scanned it for a few minutes with the tip of his finger, and stopped it on a small point somewhere near the border of (Myanmar) Bhurma and Tibet. Here!, he proclaimed.
The place he was pointing to was a tiny town called Deqin. You could go here and trek around the famous Melie Mountain. Once you get past Zhongdian you won’t see anybody_.
Some trekking sounded good. Five weeks of traveling in China—almost entirely in cities—had left both of us yearning to get away from the ceaseless noise and commotion and experience some wilderness and solitude. I had been especially sad when we left Chengdu without having had a proper mountain experience, as the Himalayas lie in Chengdu’s backyard.
The journey to Deqin from Kunming is long—over twenty hours by bus. The first leg of the journey is getting to the mountain town of Zhongdian. An airport now services Zhongdian but, of course, we were going the cheap route, which meant an overnight ride on a sleeper bus.
The term sleeper bus is a bit deceiving. These buses, rather than seats, have bunk beds. Through engineering prowess—or maybe just sheer determination—they’ve managed to squeeze three bunk beds per row, sleeping six in a space that should barely be able to seat four. The beds are so narrow that my left shoulder overhangs from the bed several inches. Grateful for the bottle of Baijou purchased just before boarding the bus, we each throw back a few shots and settle in for a night of sleepless dozing.
Twelve hours later our bus drops us off at the long distance bus station in Zhongdian. It’s a clear, crisp morning, and I can see my breath as I step off the bus. Being a stranger here, even I can tell that change is in the air. It’s that time of year when nature hasn’t quite decided which season it wants to be—summer or fall. The temperature is noticeably cool here, which it should be as we are at an elevation over 3300 meters.
Feeling wrecked from lack of sleep, stiff muscles, baijou-induced headaches, and altitude, we grab a taxi and head for Old Town, where we grab a room, close the curtains, and grab a few hours sleep.
In 1933, James Hilton wrote Lost Horizon. More memorable than any character in the book is the setting in which the heart of the story takes place: Shangri-La the mythical utopia lying in the Himalayas where residents live in peace of mind and learned hearts. Four years later, Frank Kapra’s film took the mountain utopia to the big screen, forever cementing the mythical paradise in the imagination of westerners and spiritual wanderers.
Shangri-la, of course, is based on the Tibetan belief of Shambhala mystical kingdom hidden somewhere beyond the snowpeaks of the Himalayas. Here, perfect and semiperfect beings live out their lives while simultaneously guiding the evolution of humankind. Shambhala is thought to be where the Kalacakra comes from, which is the highest and most esoteric branch of Tibetan mysticism.
Shambhala is a tough place to reach. Not only is it located somewhere between the Gobi Desert and the Himalayas, but it is protected by a cognitive force that prevents anyone from finding the kingdom that isn’t meant to. For 900 years Tibetans have studied the Kalacakra, and much of a Tibetan lamas life is dedicated to preparing himself for the journey to Shambhala.
So it is with some surprise and a lot of amusement that I learn, upon waking in the early afternoon from a restful nap, that I now find myself in Shangri-La. I guess I should have tipped the cab driver better.
In the late 1990s China sponsored a group of experts in different fields to conduct research into the actual location of Hilton’s famous Shangri-La. An group comprised of archaeologists, botanists, literary experts, religous scholars, and more concluded that Shangri-La is the valley wherein Zhongdian lies.
The evidence is circumstantial but convincing nonetheless: The local dialect of Yunnan has the only known translation of Shangri-La; the ancient Tibetan name of Zhongdian literally translates to “city of the sun and the moon of my heart”, which is the known meaning of Shangri-La; topographic features are strikingly similar to the ones described by Hilton; a multitude of religions and cultures exist in the area, including a French-built church. There was even a plane crash in the area around the time that Hilton’s story takes place, as described in the book.
There’s just one problem: Hilton never visited China, much less Shangri-La. Nevertheless, China is convinced Zhongdian is the real Shangri-La—or at least the inspiration. Both the town and the county of Zhongdian have been renamed to Shangri-La. The reality is that the discovery of Shangri-La is a huge a tourist magnet—one with the potential to bring in millions of tourist dollars.
Up on a hill on the outskirts of town is a huge prayer wheel, glimmering gold and spinning slowly in the afternoon sun. At twenty four meters high, it’s the tallest prayer wheel in the world. This prayer wheel was put in as part of the Shangri-La renovation efforts, and beside it a new monastery is still in construction. Below the hill the prayer wheel rests upon lies the real beauty of Zhongdian: Old Town. Here exists a collection of houses and storefronts that appear as though they have been untouched since they were first erected. They are mostly constructed of raw earth and protected from the elements by rough wooden shingles with large rocks placed on top to prevent them from blowing away when the high winds come. Elaborate wood carvings decorate the homes, and the cloud motifs remind Julie and I of the ones we saw back in Bali. The streets are made of cobblestone, and deep canals run parallel on the sides. The residents use the water transported in these canals for brushing their teeth and washing their hands, hair, and dishes. Woolly, scraggly Yak and small, spotted cows walk unfettered in the streets. Locals in brightly colored headdresses walk with woven baskets hanging from from shoulder-yoks filled with fruits and dried corn. Small horses in bright halters are led by their owners. Testament to the rugged landscape, horses were the main form of transportation here until the 1950s. Even today, far more people own horses than cars.
Zhongdian was once a stopover point for horse caravans carrying tea from the fields of Yunnan into heights of Lhasa. This could be the very route that Pu-erh tea originated on—fermenting on the backs of horses and mules as it was transported over the misty mountains many centuries ago.
Just a few kilometers outside of town lies what many guidebooks call the best reason for coming to Zhongdian: Songzanlin Monastery.
The monastery was built under the direction of the fifth Dalai Lama, who himself chose the location through divination. The monastery is built in the style of Potala Palace in Lhasa, it’s many buildings and staircases rising up the slopes of a steep hill. It was nearly destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, but has since been rebuilt and today stands as the most important Tibetan monastery in Yunnan.
146 steps lead to the main prayer hall, and at this altitude, you feel everyone of them. I’m in a bad mood after learning that there is a ¥30 entry fee and that we’re not allowed to take pictures in certain halls after being scolded by a monk for doing so. Who gets scolded by a monk? It doesn’t help that the Chinese tourist invasion has made it to the monastery on the same day as us. Apparently, Shangri-La is a nice place to visit during Golden Week.
The monastery takes care of itself though, and once you leave the main rooms, you can loose yourself and the crowd in the narrow hallways and small, dark rooms illuminated only by window light and yak oil candles. Each room carries the calming fragrance of burning incense, and large mats and wool blankets lie piled in most rooms—extra supplies for long winters of quiet contemplation. I open the door to one small room and find a monk sitting in the nook of a large window. He is deep in meditation and unaware of my presence. Respecting the wishes of the monastery, I close the door without taking a photo.
Perhaps my favorite scene, and one I’m able to photograph, is on the roof of the main prayer hall, where I find a clothesline strung with various bright orange, silk robes blowing lightly in the breeze. Apparently, even Tibetan monks have dirty laundry to deal with. The bright, mid-morning sun gives the cloth a golden glow. I touch one, and realize it’s the softest silk I’ve ever felt
After over an hour of wandering, Julie and I emerge into the bright sunlight. We wander off down a narrow alleyway that leads to more buildings. We come across a group of young monks, sitting on the the doorstep of an old building. I offer them some honey-glazed rice snacks, which they take with a guilty smile, and they allow me to snap a few photos.
Further down, the alley turns to dirt and I see an old man working on the porch of his home, tending to some potted flowers. Over 700 monks make this monastery their home. This particular monk seems curious in us, as Julie catches him staring between two plants as we walk by. He smiles, disappears into his home, and we hear footsteps descending to the street level. A worn, red door opens, and out steps the monk, dressed in maroon robes and black-rim glasses, which I note are taped together at nearly ever joint.
He leads us through the door and down an old stone pathway. Sunflowers and yellow and orange marigolds line it’s path. He takes us up a set of steep, rickety stairs that lead to the upper-level of his house. Inside is dark, and he flicks on a single light switch that turns on the dimmest light bulb I’ve ever seen and does little to dispel the darkness.
He brings us to the kitchen, which has large, built-in cupboards along the walls made of a wood I’m not familiar with. The cupboards appear even larger than they are due to the fact that nearly every shelf is empty—a few bowls and cups placed haphazardly are all that is held.
On the opposite end of the room is a small window that illuminates a small, pot-belly stove that rests on the cold, stone floor. Smoke rises, backlit by the window. The monk invites us to sit around the stove, and he sets about pulling down glasses from those bare cupboards.
After dusting out the glasses with an old rag, he fills two of them with hot water and offers them to us. He then pulls a plastic jar down full of raw sugar, and motions for us to add some to the water. He takes none.
Hanging above the stove is a basket, that has a few large pieces of what I assume to be extremely moldy bread, until I look closer and realize that it is cheese. I’ve seen this same cheese in the markets back in town, and know it to be Yak cheese, which is the sourest tasting cheese I have ever tried.
The monk sits in front of the window, so that he is backlit and I can’t see his face. I can see that he is smiling though, and the years have claimed quite a few of his teeth.
He speaks Tibetan, and we only have a Mandarin phrasebook, so we literally can’t say a word to each other. He seems a lot more comfortable sitting in silence than Julie and I, which really shouldn’t be surprising. After a while, I get the idea to turn on my iPod and see if he likes listening to music. I hand him one of my earbuds, which he sticks in his right ear, indicating he can’t hear anything in his left. He’s lukewarm about Coltrane, but is quite fond of Baka Beyond, and listens to several songs—laughing occasionally—before handing me back the earbud.
After we finish our hot sugar water, he insists we take more. This cycle happens several times, before Julie and I, overfilled with sugar water, take our leave.
After a few days in Zhongdian, Julie and I are feeling acclimated and ready to move on. There are really only two options for heading deeper into the mountains: a long bus ride or a hired car. We opt for the latter, as we have heard that the scenery on the drive is spectacular, and buses don’t make stops for tourists to take pictures.
We let our hotel know we are looking for a driver, and they put us in touch with a group of Chinese tourists who are also heading to Dequin and have already hired out two vehicles to do so.
There are eight of them in total, Julie and I make ten, so we have two very filled vans. To our relief, none of the eight smoke, which is almost unheard of in China.
In our van is a man who calls himself Rick—his Western name—and we’re happy to find he speaks very good English. We learn they are from Suzhou, and members of an internet travel group. One of their members, who is riding in the other van, has recently completed a trip from Beijing to Lhasa via bicycle.
Our vans climb up and out of Zhongdian, and begin the long wind through the mountains that will drop us in Felai. In the few days that have passed since arriving in Zhongdian, the season seems to have resolutely decided to be fall; autumn colors of red and yellow pepper the green slopes of the mountainsides.
Melie Snow Mountain
The Tibetans believe that once all the snow is gone from their mountains, the world will end. There may be more truth to this than they know, and it’s hard not believe them, especially when gazing upon Melie Snow Mountain for the first time—it’s main peak rising like a white cathedral into the thin atmosphere above.
Melie Snow Mountain is located just West of Deqin. The peak—known as Kagebo—ascends to 6,470 meters, making it the highest peak in Yunnan.
For the people that live here, the mountain is a dominating and omnipresent force, and they hold the mountain in great reverence, referring to it as the “Virgin Mountain”. Indeed, it’s peak has never been set upon by the foot of man. While each year hundreds of climbers reach the summit of Mt. Everest at over 29,000 feet, Kagebo is unconquered. This, however, is not for lack of trying. Many climbers have attempted to reach it’s peak, but all have been rejected. The most ill-fated attempt occurred in 1991 when a Sino-Japan joint climbing team attempted to summit the mountain. Details are unknown, but all of them—six Chinese and eleven Japanese—died in the attempt.
Melie Snow Mountain is part of the Hengduan Mountain region, which lies at the eastern end of the Himalayan range. These mountains are still being created, as the Indian continent collides into the Eurasian plate. The mountains rise steeply out of arid canyons and valleys, the extreme change in elevation creating seven distinct climactic zones and a tremendous amount of bio-diversity. Over nine thousand species of plants exist here, including a quarter of the world’s known rhododendron species. Asiatic black bears and red pandas roam the countryside, and even Chatwin’s elusive Snow Leopard is known to live in the ever-white slopes higher up. On the 5,000 meter high Tibetan Plateau, four of Asia’s great rivers make their first turns—including the Brahmaputra, the Salween, the Mekong, and the Yangtze.
In short, this is a special place and none know it better than the Tibetans: Melie Snow Mountain is the holiest of their eight holy mountains. Every year, Buddhists that live near and far make a pilgrimage here. Over the course of a week, sometimes two, pilgrims walk around the base of the mountain, leaving offerings in the many holy spots along the way, and stopping to gaze up at Kagebo Peak whenever it makes an appearance through mist and clouds.
The caravan from Zhongdian delivers all ten of us—our eight Chinese friends and Julie and I—in the small town of Felai, which is really just a collection of guesthouses West of Deqin with unobstructed views of Melie. As the peak is often shrouded in clouds, visitors are considered lucky to see it. Dusk is falling as we gather our bags from the roof of our minivan, and a storm seems to be brewing as evidence by the clouds gathering around the base of the mountain. The peak, for now, remains hidden.
Our friends already have reservations—Chinese travelers always plan ahead—so Julie and I wander until we find a guesthouse with a vacancy. Even here, Golden Week has brought an influx of Chinese tourists and rooms are scarce and overpriced.
After getting settled, our Chinese friends join us at our guesthouse for dinner. It’s a small restaurant with a dark interior but large windows facing West towards the mountain. A warm fire crackles in a large pot-belly stove as an enormous kettle of water steams from it’s spout on the hot, iron surface. There is a mixed scent of smoke and acrid yak butter.
We grab a table in the corner of the restaurant. Night has nearly fallen, but I can just make out the blue hue and dark cracks of a glacier descending the lower slopes of the mountain. It may be an illusion, but I swear through the window I see a large chunk of ice break off the glacier and crash down the mountainside. Rick orders dinner for everyone, and we are treated to Yak hotpot.
The next day we meet up with our friends once again for breakfast. They inform us they will be leaving Felai that morning, and heading for Yubeng, which is a small village that lies closer to the base of the mountain. There are no roads leading to the village, so we must hike or take horses. Julie and I had thought we might spend a day longer in Felai, but as the view of the mountain is still obstructed by clouds, and we really have no idea what we’re doing here besides escaping, we decide to join them.
Two hours later, after descending several thousand feet down from Felai on a steep, windy road, we find ourselves crossing a bridge across the Lancang river. After following a gravel road through a small village, we pull into a makeshift parking lot filled with Chinese tourists.
Now, back in Zhongdian, I had nearly laughed myself into hysterics when I saw a Chinese tourist wearing a bright yellow North Face Gore-Tex® jacket, insulated waterproof hiking pants, gators, and cramp-on ready hiking boots while walking through the cobblestone streets of Old Town. Best of all, he had been donning a pair trekking poles. For a brief moment I thought he had just returned from a hike out in the countryside, until I looked down at his boots and saw they didn’t have a scuff on them, and then watched as he entered a jewelry store. A few minutes later, he emerged from the shop, set his trekking poles into the worn grooves of the cobblestone, and set forth, to the next jewelry shop five feet up the road.
Here, I believe, I found his brethren. To their credit, at least they are standing in a dirt parking lot and not a cobblestone street, but spread before me is a kaleidoscope of brightly colored jackets and backpacks fresh off the rack, several with tags still hanging from the zippers; leather hiking boots with shiny black soles; insulated rain paints that would leave me sweating were it twenty degrees colder; and, of course, trekking poles.
The local Tibetans are having a field day, offering guide services and pack mules to the barrage of tourists. Rick informs me the price for a mule to Yubeng is usually ¥120, but in honor of Golden Week the Tibetans have raised the price up to ¥200. Buddhist or not, business is business. The Chinese don’t seem to mind, as is apparent by all the smiles—Golden Week only occurs once a year and in many respects its a source of pride among the Chinese to be able to pay for a trip such as this.
The overwhelming amount of Chinese tourists huddled in groups, speaking loudly, and smoking cigarettes, combined with the chaos of the Tibetans hoisting heavy packs on the backs of donkeys and mules becomes a bit much for Julie and I. We’ve come all this way to escape the crowds of the cities and insanity of Golden Week, and here we find ourselves at ground zero for a caravan of tourists with more gear than an Everest expedition.
We talk with Rick—the only one we know that speaks english—to try and get a better understanding of what we’ve gotten ourselves into. He confirms that all of these people are heading to Yubeng, and says he’s a bit surprised at how many people there are as well.
One thing about your average Chinese tourist is that they don’t go anywhere without due diligence and planning. Rick and his group aren’t any different in this respect. Each member of the group literally has a printed itinerary of their entire trip, down to where they’ll eat, sleep, and shit. A few extra tourists aren’t going to change plans that have been months in the making. For Julie and I, we aren’t so certain.
To make matters worse, it appears we’ve grossly underestimated the hike we are about to undertake. We expected a few kilometer hike to the next village down the river. Instead, Rick informs us we’re looking at a 22 kilometer hike—14 kilometers up, and 8 kilometers down into the next valley. I look down at my Keen walking shoes, and begin looking a bit differently at the myriad hiking boots collecting their first coating of dust on the Chinese tourists around me. The Chinese are always prepared.
After conferring together for a few minutes, however, we decide we don’t have any other option than to continue forward. An expensive minivan—as there are no other passengers to share the ride costs with—could take us back to Yubeng, but then we’ll be just be sitting in restaurants looking up at a mountain we can’t see. There’s no way we’re hopping an eight hour bus ride back to Zhongdian after just arriving the night before. And from analyzing a crappy hand-drawn map we picked up in Felai, we don’t see any other options for hiking, and we don’t have the proper gear for camping anyway.
So we join the caravan of Chinese tourists and set out for Yubeng. Rick and his group have rented several mules to carry their packs and several more that a few of them will ride. There’s room for one extra bag on one of the pack mules, so we place Julie’s on it, which has gained weight since Zhongdian in the form of a large, handmade copper and brass tea kettle she couldn’t say no to. I’m stuck with an 18 kilo pack, which has slowly accrued weight as we have traveled through China as well. Rick suggests hiring another mule, but at this point I’m feeling both arrogant and stubborn, and don’t feel like dropping twenty bucks on a floppy eared mule. Screw it, I tell myself, _I’ll show them hiking is more than Gore-Tex and Vibram. A kilometer later, I’m bent over on the side of the trail, sucking in air from the 12,000 foot alitutude. A happy Chinese man passes me on a mule, singing a song and waving as he goes. A few kilometers later, it starts raining, and doesn’t stop for three days.
We reach Yubeng an hour before nightfall. Over the course of the six hour hike, our group has grown greatly disbanded. Six have already reached the village, including the five who took mules plus the guy who rode his bike from Beijing to Lhasa. Rick and his girlfriend are a ways behind us on the trail.
Yubeng is not large, but it’s separated into upper and lower villages. Lower Yubeng is nestled into a deep valley that glows gold in the dusk. Mist swirls out of green valley floor, and meets the raindrops on their descent from the heavens. Upper Yuben, which we reach first on the trail, is a collection of homes built into the steep hillsides that ascend out of the valley.
Most of the villagers have made makeshift guesthouses out of their homes, so beds are easy to find, but we have no idea which guesthouse our group intends to bed at that night. The big decision to make is whether to stay in the upper or lower village. Julie and I are both tired enough where if we descend to the lower village, we know there’s not way we’ll ascend back to the upper village should we realize the rest of our group is not there. None of this would really matter, except for the fact that Julie’s backpack is with the members of the group that have already arrived. If we don’t find them, we don’t find her backpack.
With night falling, we decide to descend to Lower Yubeng, which turns to be the right decision. Shortly before crossing the river that stands between the two villages, we come to a lean-to structure where local Tibetans and Chinese tourists have congregated, most drinking baijou, beer, or both. Here, we see one of the more gregarious members of our group—he calls himself Tiger—who offers us a large grin and points to Julie’s backpack lying at his feet.
Exhausted, we finish the remaining fifteen minute hike, and grab a room at a family’s house called the An Zhui Guesthouse.
The next morning, stiff and sore, we manage to pull ourselves out of bed shortly after sunrise. Pulling on our clothes, we can see our breath. Our room has two beds, and in between the two beds is a window. We pull back a piece of fabric hung by line of tie-wire to discover there is no glass in the window. I poke my head out and see several chickens running down a narrow, dirt alley.
Once again, we join our friends for breakfast, this time at their guesthouse, which is several homes down a muddy road full of hoof prints. They inform us they’ll be ascending to Upper Yubeng that day, and then hiring horses to take them to a place called Ice Lake. There is a waterfall in the valley we are in now; they had hoped to go their yesterday, but underestimated the time it would take to reach the village so have decided to cross it off their itinerary. Julie and I are in less of a hurry than they are, so we decide to hang back and tell them we’ll try to meet them that night in Upper Yubeng.
After breakfast, we set out to explore Lower Yubeng village. The village is simply comprised of several intersecting dirt roads—now muddy from yesterday’s rain and torn up from hooves—and a collection of small homes. The homes have stone foundations and rough, hand-cut wooden shingles. As in Zhongdian, large rocks have been placed on the shingles to keep them in one place. Large wood doors break-up white earthen walls, stained with motley splatters of mud. Most homes are separated by large expanses of pasture, segmented by fences constructed of tree branches. These are presumably for animals, but they seem fairly ineffective as small cows, yak, pigs, and chickens run freely through the streets.
In the yard of one such home, we see a Tibetan woman hobbling the hind-legs of a cow. She’s wearing a bright pink headdress and smiles us at us when we wave to her. She’s milking the cow into a wooden bucket. In one corner of the yard, a black yak eyes us uneasily. In another, a group of pigs are making a racket, and we look over to see one of the males mount the lone female. Julie and I are amused by this, as is the Tibetan woman, as she knows more pork is on the way. When the male pig is finished, another takes his place.
As the morning grows late, I convince Julie to make the hike with me to the waterfall further up the valley. It’s still raining, and she’s tired from yesterday’s hike, but comes along nonetheless.
On the outskirts of town, just as we’re crossing a small bridge over a small creek, we meet a Chinese man who introduces himself as Albert. He speaks very good english, and we learn he’s from Tonghai, where he runs a cafe and teaches english. He’s been in the middle of a debate with himself over whether to go the waterfall himself or not. At the prospect of company, he decides to join us. As we hike, he tell us he has son back in Tonghai, and he wants to make it back there for the Moon Festival in a few days.
The trail is wide, easy to follow, and for the most part flat. It leads through a pine forest peppered with deciduous trees and follows the contour of the creek we crossed setting out of town. Oak-like trees, far smaller in diameter than the ones I’m used to back, have bright green moss growing on the trunks and branches. The rain and canopy of tree is comforting to me as I walk—reminding of walks in the redwoods where I once lived for a spell—and I note the percussion of the raindrops as they land on the hood of rainjacket.
Several kilometers up the trail, we come to a clearing in the trees. On the banks of the creek, which has grown wider as we walk, thousands of rock ducks stand piled. I ask Albert if he knows about them, and he tells me the Tibetans build them as offerings. On the other side of the trail is a large rock covered with various offerings from Tibetans: coins, wood beads, pieces of fruit, and various strips of fabric and prayer flags. This is one of many holy places in the area, and pilgrims make these offerings as they walk the base of the mountain. I look up, hoping for a glimpse of Kagebo—this as yet unseen presence that draws so many to it’s base—but all I can see are dark rain clouds and green, yellow, and red trees disappearing into the mist on the steep slopes ascending out of the valley.
Further along the trail, we cross a group of Tibetan women. They wear brightly colored headdresses and carry umbrellas. Through Albert, we learn these women, not one of them younger than forty, have been walking for ten days around the mountain. They expect they have another four days to go. I watch them as they set out, and see one, easily in her sixties, jump spryly from rock to rock, so as not to get mud on her shoes.
Shortly after noon, we reach the waterfall. It’s actually two waterfalls, each cascading hundreds of feet off a steep cliff, the streams of water turning to mist as they fall. Thousands of Tibetan prayer flags are strewn at the base, and they make loud cracking sounds in the wind. We have essentially come to the end of the valley, which is shaped somewhat like the inside of U, and the waterfall lies where the valley curves. There’s a low-altitude glacier here, the end of which lies below the waterfall. Water gushes out from underneath the glacier, clear evidence that this glacier is receding, and I realize the stream we followed for most of the trail is created from the melt-off.
The high winds and cool air at this high point in the valley chase us down from the waterfall before long. We descend back down the trail. It’s early afternoon, and we’re all hungry, so we stop at a makeshift shed along the trail several kilometers down. Sheds such as this are setup at various points along the trail, providing a place for tourists and pilgrims alike to warm themselves over an open-fire and refuel on hot tea and soup.
Albert greets the man there, and makes arrangements for us to have noodle soup. Albert informs us that in these places, it’s best to cook the food yourself, or you never know what you’ll end up with. Albert is eager to cook for us, as he’s been telling us about his cafe for much of the walk. He slices up some bacon that is un-refrigerated, but the temperature is cool enough where it’s not necessary. He also throws in some chopped green onions, a few eggs and, of course, noodles. Julie and I sit inside the shack while Albert cooks the meal just outside the door over a wood-stove. Inside the tent, a giant maroon liver lies on a wooden table, steaming from the warmth it still holds. Whatever animal donated this liver was breathing just a few hours ago.
Lunch is warm and delicious. Simple food takes on new properties when consumed while wet and cold. When we’re finished eating, we pay the man for the ingredients, and head off down the trail.
Arriving back in Lower Yubeng, the three of us decide to grab our main packs and continue to Upper Yubeng. All three of us are tired from the day’s hike and aren’t looking forward to another forty-five minutes up a steep trail while burdened by heavy packs. Albert, however, is eager to get to Upper Yubeng so he can set off easily for home the next day, and I feel we should meet our other Chinese friends as promised, as they have gone so out of their way to help us during the past few days.
We arrive in Upper Yubeng as night falls, and take up residence in the agreed upon guesthouse.
As I’m standing outside my room, I notice three chickens roosting in for the night on a woven basket that has been haphazardly placed against a wall. The three birds are in a sort of struggle for prime real estate, as the basket is only wide enough for two birds. The odd bird out balances on the back of the other two birds, attempting to force itself into the position of one of the other two birds. The positions rotate for several minutes—always one bird on top and two on the bottom—and the pattern reminds me of those Chinese health balls—known as Baoding—that you rotate in your hand to ease tension. Just as the positions change once again, a Tibetan man comes out from the kitchen, and grabs a chicken by the legs that happens to at the top of the pile that moment. Thirty seconds later, the chicken’s neck is broken and is floating in a large pot of boiling water over an open-fire outside the kitchen.
I’m not sure what it is that strikes me about this sight. Here are three chickens, simply attempting to settle in for the night, and one is suddenly dead in less than thirty seconds. Perhaps I’m just startled by swiftness, or by the nonchalance displayed by the Tibetan, who does the whole thing as casually as picking a carrot out of the ground. It makes me realize how separate we Westerners have become from our food source. Meat is simply something we see at our local grocery store or butcher, neatly packaged and wrapped in plastic. A commodity. Sure, many of us have small gardens where we grow various herbs and vegetables, but I would wager that the vast majority of us rarely, if ever, kill the food we eat. The only time I have ever done so is when fishing with my Dad as a kid. But even then I only caught the fish—my dad did the killing and cleaning. As I watch the man snatch the boiled chicken out of the water and begin plucking it’s feathers, I wonder whether I would be a vegetarian or not if I had to perform the same ritual each time I craved a bit of protein.
Thirty minutes later, I’m eating the chicken, which has been sauteed in oil along with green bell peppers and chillies. We’re in the kitchen of the guesthouse, which is filled with smoke as there are several open fires burning but no chimney. The whole kitchen is just a wood structure with a dirt floor. In one corner is a table setup as a chopping block, along with two giant woks fueled by a wood-fed open flame rising out of a stone stove. Various tables and benches are strewn about the room, and another open fire roars in the middle of the room, which everyone is using to dry various garments over—pants, socks, and so forth—that have become wet and soggy from the day’s rain. The only thing in the room that seems to have any planning is the Buddhist shrine in a corner opposite the cooking area: it has various small statues of Buddha, myriad pictures of different monks and lamas, and small offerings like those we saw back on the trail to the waterfall.
It’s a packed house: in addition to Julie and I, Albert, and our other eight Chinese friends, another group of Chinese tourists has called this guesthouse home for the night. There’s also half-a-dozen Tibetans in the room, assumed friends and family of the people that run the guesthouse. By this point in the evening, everyone has had their share of food, beer, and baijou. A lamb roasted on a spit outside kitchen is brought in. Singing ensues, initiated by a young Tibetan who’s had a bit more to drink than everyone else. He teaches everyone a Tibetan drinking song, and soon the whole kitchen is singing along. This is followed by two other Tibetans who bring out a pair of Erhus two-string fiddles—and play us several Tibetan songs, with quite a bit more beauty and harmony than the drinking song. Soon, the Chinese are taking turns singing various nationalist songs—Alber tells us most of them are leftovers from the Communist days of Mao. Julie and I don’t escape, and give them several performances of American songs, ranging from Christmas carols (which the Chinese love) to John Denver and Woodie Guthrie.
The Ice Lake
The following day we say goodbye to Albert, Rick, Tiger, and the rest of our Chinese friends, all of whom are taking the long twenty-two kilometer trail back to the next village where they can then get minivans to their respective destinations.
Julie and I are both feeling a bit worn out from two days of heavy hiking and now a night filled with drinking. The rain, which has not stopped in three days, is beginning to wear us down as well. We simply don’t have the clothes we need for this weather. Last night’s events haven’t helped: during the festivities, Julie’s shoes, which were drying by the fire, got a little too close and one of the soles melted.
Nevertheless, I’m antsy to go and see the Ice Lake. It’s one of the holiest locations on the mountain and I know we’ll be leaving Yubeng the next day—so it’s today or never. After quite a bit of prodding, I convince Julie to follow me—melted shoes and all—and we set out.
What was a bit of mud the first two days has transformed into soup that is ankle deep in most places along the trail. The heavy amount of horse traffic of recent has added to the mess. We’re able to dodge most of the it as the trail starts out flat, walking along the edge and through the moss-covered trees. As the trail steepens, however, we’re forced to converge on the main trail. It gets slippery enough that we both cut pieces of bamboo growing beside the trail to use as walking sticks. The rain increases.
Several hours of climbing up a steep trail, often using our hands to pull ourselves up with tree roots, we reach the top of a ridge that provides a saddle between two steeper peaks. Looking due west, a large valley spreads out before us, and further out, a large glacier clings to the slopes of Melie Mountain. By our estimates, we’re at the midway point. We follow a trail down, this one steeper than the we used to climb up. Fortunately, rocks have been placed along the trail, which act as steps and eliminate the mud. Reaching the valley floor, we cross a gurgling stream via a makeshift bridge of fallen trees. From here we set out along the valley, winding through trees and pulling away from the stream. A short while later, we come to a small collection of wood shacks, which signal that we’ve reached a place known as Basecamp. We step into one of the shacks, and are greeted to a warm, roaring fire and two Tibetans crouching around it. We take off our wet out clothes and dry them by the fire. The Tibetans offer us small benches, handmade and no taller than our kneecaps, which we accept gladly. A small cat is near the fire, lulled by the heat. Julie scoops her up and places her in her lap.
I check my watch and note that it’s two o’clock. The Ice Lake is reportedly another hour hike from Basecamp. That leaves plenty of time to make it there, but cuts the return to our guesthouse close as night falls around six. I tell Julie we should get going, but a warm fire and a purring cat in her lap have taken any motivation out of her. I can tell by the look in her eyes she’s done, and she tells me as much.
I throw on my wet rainjacket and gloves and tell her I’ll be back in no more than two hours.
Setting off from the the shack at an ambitious pace, the rain is steady and I weave paths around the various mudholes along the way. I can squeeze water out of my gloves if I clench my walking stick. I check a thermometer I have attached to a zipper on my jacket, which reads 8 degrees centigrade.
The trail meets up with and crosses the stream once again. I pass a few tourists returning from the Ice Lake. Farther along, I come to a group of Tibetans loading Chinese tourists onto mules. From looking at the trail, I gather this is as far as the mules go, as it begins to get quite a bit steeper and narrow as the trail rises over a small ridge. An Italian tourist tells me the Ice Lake is just on the other side. As I walk past, one mule snorts a cloud of mist as it accepts the weight of it’s new burden. I give it a sympathetic look and continue up the trail.
Fifteen minutes later, I’m standing on a high ridge looking down at a bright blue reservoir collected at the base of the glacier: Ice Lake. Checking my watch, I note I made it in forty minutes, which leaves me with time to spare. The rain and clouds, combined with the high winds at this altitude, make the lake difficult to see even though it’s just a hundred meters off. The weather gives the lake an ethereal quality. To my joy, I’m the only one there.
I scramble down the ridge, making my way carefully as the terrain now is just a giant collection of loose, football size rocks. This is known as an end moraine: a loose collection of sediment and rocks that is deposited by glaciers are their slow and powerful slide down a mountain. As I approach the edge of the lake, I notice that hundreds of these rocks have been stacked into ducks, similar to those i saw along the stream that lead to the waterfall.
Under better conditions, I can tell the lake would be a shimmering display of green and blue. In this grey light, it’s a subdued turquoise. I remove my glove and put my hand in the lake. Even though my hand is wet and cold, I can’t resist touching something so pure. Looking up, I’m overwhelmed at how steep the glacier is, rising almost vertically above me. In places it appears as if it is arching over me. The glacier is a tangled mess of cracked ice and trapped rocks, and myriad small streams flow down the mountainside.
As I’m looking up, a car-size chunk of ice breaks off the glacier a thousand feet up, and shatters as it careens down the mountain. Small pieces of ice land in the far side of the lake, creating ripples in the water that reach me where I stand on the opposite shore. Some ten thousand feet up, above the ice, mist, and clouds, Kagebo peak stands directly above me. I wonder to myself if somewhere beyond that lies Shambhala, waiting for the next one worthy of finding it.
Whether simple curiousity, biology, or pure carnal instinct, there is a wanderer in all of us: Shambhala is the reason. We need the idea of Shambhala more than Shambhala itself; it represents the most simple yet most powerful idea that should we strive for it, there is a life better than this one. What unseen force propelled me into the series of random events that led me to this moment, I do not know—all I know is that it feels right to be here, and yet I’ve never felt farther from home. I make a small duck out of loose stones around my feet—a gesture I don’t fully understand but one that feels required—and turn back to reach Julie at Basecamp.
I find Julie exactly where I left her. From the smile on her face, I can tell she feels no regret at not having gone farther. She informs me that the kitty has not left her lap since I departed.
A Chinese man is drying his socks over the fire—he is one of the tourists I had passed on his way down as I ascended the trail. He has a Tibetan guide—one dressed in all black—and says they’re heading back to Upper Yubeng. Julie and I join them.
Ascending the first ridge is quick and uneventful. We look back at the glacier before descending to the next valley. A hole in the clouds reveals a large area of the glacier, I know the Ice Lake rests at point blocked from our view. At the sight, the Tibetan guide presses his hands together in prayer form and gazes until the clouds have filled in the hole. The four of us turn, and descend into Upper Yubeng valley.
If possible, the trail is even worse than earlier in the day. The final caravan of mules has further turned up the earth, and enough rain has fallen that standing water now runs down the trail. In places, the mud is up to our knees and, despite our best efforts, we all find ourselves slipping and sliding at down the trail. Even the Tibetan finds himself face down in the mud eventually. I can tell Julie is cold and tired, but hurrying just isn’t possible as every step has the potential to send you sliding ten feet downhill, or losing your shoe in a deep vacuum of mud. Ultimately, she gives up on grace and simply sits down in the mud and begins sliding downhill back to our guesthouse. Before long, I’m doing the same.
The following morning, we hire two mules to take us out of Yubeng and back to where we were dropped four days before. Gone is any pride about hiking out under our own steam: all of our clothes are wet, as are our shoes, and Julie’s is missing a sole. We each put on every layer we have, knowing our body heat will dry the clothes, and fours hours on the back of a mule will be bone-chilling in this weather with little blood-flow to warm us.
From the outer village, we meet two fellow traveler’s who have also just made it out of Yubeng, and split a minivan with them back to Deqin. It’s here I find myself standing in a pair of Chinaman shoes, recently purchased at a store down the street from our hotel to replace the muddy and wet one’s I’ve worn for four days straight. Julie has on a pair of knock-off One Star’s, and we set off down the street to look for a pair of socks.
The following day, we board a dank and crowded bus to take us on the long, winding road back to Zhongdian. As we rise up and out of Deqin, the sun breaks through the clouds—the first appearance it’s made in five days—and, for the first time, we catch an unobstructed view of Melie Snow Mountain.