Joseph Rock starts off his October 1930 National Geographic article "Glories of the Minya Konka” with a typical flourish of exaggeration:
"Strange as it may seem, hoary old China still holds within its borders vast mountain systems wholly unknown not only to the western world, but to the Chinese themselves."
He goes on to describe his epic journey to visit what was then a remote mountain of sublime beauty. In particular, Rock describes a tiny monastery that sat in an isolated valley above a glacier at the foot of the mountain. He said this monastery was cut off from the rest of the world for six months of the year, but that its views of the mountain were so spectacular that a visit was said by Buddhists to be equivalent to ten years of meditation!
In fact, by the early 20th century, Minya Konka had long been known to the Chinese, and had already been visited by several Europeans, including Rock's fellow botanist Edward Wilson.
Rock says he first saw the 'mysterious' peak from a distance of about a hundred miles away, while exploring the Konkaling mountains near Muli in 1928.
"I decided then and there to spend the following year exploring Minya Konka," he declared.
And so it was that in the spring of 1929 Rock mounted an expedition from his base near Lijiang, to Minya Konka. Unlike his 'quick dash to Muli', this was a major undertaking, and he travelled in a caravan with 46 mules, 20 Naxi men and with supplies for seven months. To get to Minya Konka, Rock had to travel northwards, via Muli, in a journey that would take several weeks, crossing the vast canyons of the Yangtze and Yalong rivers. He then had to surmount several mountain passes until he arrived in the domain of the 'Minya' Tibetans. Unlike the 'uncouth, impudent' and aggressive Tibetan robber tribes that he had encountered so far around Muli and surrounding areas, Rock found the Tibetans of the Minya region to be 'a gentle race'. The Minya lived in fear of the marauding Xiangcheng Tibetan pillagers, and had built fortress-like solid stone houses to resist attacks.
As a springboard for his visits to Minya Konka, Rock based himself in the Yulongshi valley named after its major village. Although this valley ran parallel to the valley containing the Minya Konka peaks, the mountains were hidden away behind a high ridge that had to be crossed at the Tsemi pass to gain access - and views - around the Minya Konka range.
"Anyone unfamiliar with the geography of the country could, even with the latest maps in hand, pass up this valley without suspecting the existence of the Minya Konka range, crowned by one of the loftiest peaks of western China," Joseph Rock wrote at the time. "And yet, these majestic snow peaks lie just beyond the high eastern valley slopes of Yulongshi."
Unlike my trip to Muli, there were some modern maps available for the Minya Konka region. They suggested two ways of getting to the mountain - either directly from Kangding, via a valley beginning at a village marked as Lao Yulin, or from the west, via a settlement called Liuba. This would entail a long drive west from Kangding, crossing a high pass called La, and then turning south on a minor road for about fifty miles until reaching a turnoff for Liuba. None of the modern maps showed a settlement called Yulongshi, but there was a valley there, in the place where Rock described Yulongshi.
And so September 1995 found me landing back in Hong Kong, with a plan to try re-trace Joseph Rocks’ journey in reverse, from Kangding (or Tatsienlu as it was then known), via Minya Konka, all the way to Lijiang via Muli. My idea of repeating this epic journey was a wildly overambitious plan that had no chance of succeeding. Rock had spent months doing the journey and with a retinue of porters, mules and bodyguards. I thought I could do it by myself in a couple of weeks taking my own tent, sleeping bag and supplies in a backpack.
I didn’t linger for long in what was still a British Crown Colony. Even in September, the city was hot, crowded and uncomfortable. I dropped my passport off for a China visa at China Travel Service in Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon and took off to the relative calm of the hills of Lantau Island, where I camped out for a night on Sunset Peak. It was still hot up in the hills, and thanks to Hong Kong's smog-laden air, I saw neither sunset nor sunrise, just a soupy gloom. Down below, in the murk, the new airport was being built offshore at Chep Lap Kok. On the bus back to the Mui Wo (Silvermine Bay) ferry terminal I sat behind a couple of foul-mouthed working class British lads, who were presumably working on the new airport construction site. I cringed, and felt embarrassed to be British.
After a couple more nights in the eight-bunk rooms at the STB Hostel in Yau Ma Tei on Kowloon side, I had picked up my China visa and was on my way to Kham. I flew into Chengdu and stayed at the Traffic Hotel. From Chengdu, getting to Kangding involved an arduous two day bus journey, grinding up from the plains of Sichuan over the Erlang Shan pass. The first night was spent in the grim lowland town of Ya’an. On the second day we really started to gain altitude as we followed the winding road up to the Erlang Shan pass. Up through precipitous gorges, carrying cascading torrents of rivers past some hideously ugly and primitive 1960s-era cement factories and hydro-electric dams that had been plonked unsympathetically onto this epic landscape.
The bus groaned and wheezed up the switchback road, up into the clouds, and past sections where whole chunks of the hillside had come away, causing the bus to detour around massive slabs or rock and mud in the middle of the road. The going could be excruciatingly slow, and some times our bus was halted along with many other trucks and buses as long convoys of green PLA trucks were given right of way to pass us.
The road, ostensibly one of the main highways linking with Sichuan and Tibet, became something of a switchback dirt track as it rose to their heights of the mountains. We passed over the summit of Erlang Shan road in mist, and began an equally tortuous descent towards the Dadu river and the famous town of Luding. In the late 1990s the Chinese bored a long tunnel through Erlang Shan, cutting out the worst parts of the summit track, and also cutting the travel time between Chengdu and Sichuan to a single day. But in 1995 I was still doing it the hard way.
Our bus paused briefly in Luding, and drove through town slowly enough for me to catch a glimpse of the famous old iron-chain bridge. According to the revolutionary legend, this 18th century structure was supposedly captured by the Communists from the nationalists in a bold attack in 1935 during the Long March. It was an essential river crossing to allow the Red forces to escape northwards away from Chiang Kai Shek’s forces. In the Communist telling of the story, the bridge had been captured by a daring squad who braved enemy bullets to crawl along the chains above the river and capture the eastern side.
More recent historians have discovered that the feat has been dramatised and exaggerated. In reality, the bridge was defended only by a small group of men armed with old muskets, who were in the pay of a local warlord, Liu Wenhui. Liu had been paid off by the Communist envoys, and agreed to put up only token resistance
From Luding, the road to Tibet rises again, and ascends an increasingly narrow canyon alongside a small river that cascaded over huge boulders. At one point there is a Tibetan stupa by the river – the first sign of Tibetan cultural influence. And then, after another hour or so, we finally arrived at my jumping off point of Kangding.
In his writings, Rock has very little to say about the town of Tatsienlu. He barely mentions it in the text of his article about visiting Minya Konka, except to say that he sojourned there for nearly two weeks, overcoming his disdain of western 'holy rollers' to stay at the China Inland Mission. In Kangding he was able to replenish supplies, develop his color negatives and give his animals a rest. One of the photographs accompanying the article shows the town clustered along the banks of the river, looking little different in layout from the modern Kangding, although all the building appear to be single story traditional Chinese houses with curving tiled roofs. Standing out from them is the imposing structure of a Christian church, built in the European style with large arched windows and an ornate Gothic façade complete with spires and towers. It is certainly as Rock describes it: “one of the most imposing Christian churches in this part of the world”.
The church was one of several built in the region by French missionaries such as M Ouvrard starting in the late 19th century. This particular one was the Church of the Sacred Heart, completed in 1912 by Ouvrard, who we shall meet again later in relation to his activities in the Salween and Mekong valleys further west.
The mission stations were built one day’s distance from each other, and there were mission stations in remote places such as Batang, hoping to convert the heathen Buddhist Tibetans to Christianity. There were several missionaries in Tatsienlu at the time of Rock’s visit, as well a few western traders. Despite running schools, hospitals and orphanages, the missionaries failed to win over many Tibetans. There is now a gaudy rebuilt Catholic church in Kangding, said to be host to 200 practising Christians. I visited the church on one of my later trips through Kangding, and was given a tour of the place by a friendly caretaker. Unlike the exterior, the interior was a restrained and quiet place, with wooden pews dotted with hymnals decorated in the pre Vatican II style.
At 2600 metres, Kangding reminded me a little of Arthurs Pass in New Zealand. A small town squeezed into a narrow, steep-sided valley between two sets of high mountains, Kangding is still the cultural border between Han China and Tibet. While most of the town’s population is Han Chinese, in 1995 there were enough Tibetans in town to make it feel like I had finally arrived at the gateway to Tibet. And that has always been Kangding’s position: as the final frontier of Han China. Founded on the confluence of two rivers, Kangding has for centuries been an important trading place, where tea and tobacco were brought up from China, and where Tibetan herdsmen brought in their leather, furs and wool wares to trade from the hills.
In 1908 the American consul described it as a small town of 9000, mostly Tibetans.
“A large trade is done here in rhubarb and musk, the latter taken from the small hornless deer plentiful in this part of China. Of the exports of this district musk is the most valuable … Next in importance of exports is wool. This trade of late has diminished, owing to the disturbances on the border. The coarse sack-like wool cloth '' mu-tsz " is worn by all Chinese coolies, while a fine
grade dyed red called "pulu" is the clothing of the higher class of the Tibetans. The lower classes, such as yak and pony drivers, wear entirely undressed sheepskins. About 45,000 pounds of wool is received annually in Tatsienlu.
Gold was also traded in Tatsienlu, but as the consul noted:
“The Tibetan confines mining to washing the alluvial sand in the river beds. He is averse to outsiders mining in his country, his antipathy to them being very
great. The Tibetan wishes to be let alone and strongly resents foreign intrusion.”
Kangding was also a key link in the tea horse road. Trade in the bricks of tea was a major business for Tatsienlu, the tea being brought up from where it was grown in Sichuan by coolies:
“The tea packages are made up in rolls about 3 feet long. Each carrier will take on his back from five to thirteen, according to his age and strength,” the US consul noted.
Kangding is now part of the Ganze district of Sichuan, but at the time of Rock’s visit it was part of a now defunct province known as Sikang, which essentially comprised the Tibetan borderlands adjacent to Sichuan. These had come under Chinese jurisdiction several decades before the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1951.
Kangding was then known as Tatsienlu, the sinicised version of the town’s Tibetan name of Dartsendo – or Dardo for short.
It was and still is one of the most important centres for the Kham Tibetans. Of the many different tribes of Tibet, the Khampas are renowned for their aggressive cowboy-like spirit. Elsewhere in Tibet they have long been feared as violent bandits, or admired as tough warriors. And when I arrived in Kangding in 1995 you could still see the Khampa men swaggering through town in their Tibetan chubas, exposing one shoulder to the cold mountain air. They wore their hair long and shaggy and many had the traditional bits of red wool tied into their hair. And of course they wore the ornate daggers carried by all Khampa men. Some wore them prominently on their belt. While others – even those wearing western style suits, would occasionally give an unintended flash of their knives while bending over or when opening their jackets.
In 1995 I stayed at the only place in town that was open to foreigners - the gloomy and bureaucratic Kangding Hotel, located next door to the Anjue Si monastery. I spent a day pottering about the town, walking down along the riverside and poking my nose into the many little shops and restaurants. I bumped into a friendly group of monks who had returned form living in India, they were escorted by a young English-speaking women from Sikkim, who invited me to join their group in a trip out to the hot springs at Er Dao Qiao.
Later in the day I visited the other big monastery, Nanwu Si, on the outer edge of town. In Rock's article he calls it the Thunderbolt Monastery, and it appears to be set in almost open countryside. In 1995 the monastery was crowded out by four-storey apartment blocks, an army barracks and messy truck repair workshops. The monks there were friendly, though, and reacted eagerly t my pictures from the 1920s - pointing at the old images of the Konka Gompa and telling me it was still there.
Day 1 Kangding to Djesi La
At first, I planned to take a bus around the western side of Gongga Shan to a village called Shade, from where I hoped to be able to get to a turnoff at Liuba, which would take me up the valley parallel to the Minya Konka range. But I chickened out. Stood in the cold, dark and intimidating Kangding bus station at 6.30am in the morning among a horde of shouting Tibetans and Chinese piling on the rickety bus, I lost my bottle, and decided I simply could not face another day on a bus. I trudged back up through the still pre-dawn town, along the river and decided I would walk out and have a look at ways of approaching the mountain form the east. By the time I reached the western end of Kangding, kids were setting off for school, and they laughed and taunted me, with the usual cries of "Allo! Laowai!"
It was an uphill hike out of town along the main Sichuan-Tibet highway, and I missed the turnoff for the valley to Lao Yulin village, were the trek to Gongga Shan starts from. I was put right by an old Chinese woman, who pointed me back down the hill in the right direction. The side track took me up the left hand side of a small river, and the valley was dotted with a few decrepit buildings and shacks, until they eventually petered out and I was walking on my own and got my first glimpse of a row of rounded snow peaks to the southwest. Now I was in mountain country!
After an hour or so I arrived in what must have been Lao Yulin village. It was a depressing sight. It seemed to consist of just the concrete skeleton of an abandoned woolen mill, some slum apartments blocks and an array of stone shacks dotted about the riverside. One of the shacks turned out to be a bath-house built around some hot springs, and the people added to my pessimistic mood by saying that I was on the right track but that it was impossible to get through to Gongga Shan because of heavy snows at this time of year.
I continued up what became a country dirt track towards a higher village of stone houses, struggling under the weight of my backpack. It became apparent that despite my ambitious hopes, I would not be able to trek by myself to Gongga Shan. The altitude and the weight of my load were just too debilitating. I stopped for a breather outside one stone house, which had some mules grazing in the backyard. When a man appeared, I asked him out of interest how long it would take to get to Gongga Shan on foot. He sneered at the idea.
"On foot? Ha! Nobody goes all the way on foot. It's too far. You have to take a horse!"
So I asked him how much it would cost to hire horses to go to the mountain.
The answer that came straight back was 15 yuan a day for a horse for me, and 20 yuan a day for his services as a guide, plus 20 yuan for his horse. Did I want to go?
I was taken aback by this sudden offer and asked how long it would take to get to the mountain. And was it possible to get to the monastery?
Yes, he knew the monastery - he called it Gongga Si.
"Three days to get to the monastery from here, so six days there and back. Including a horse for me it would be around 400 yuan in total," he said.
I liked the look of his horses so I agreed on the spot for him to act as my guide. The man was short and stocky, with yellow teeth, wild hair and deeply tanned brown skin. He said his name was Gerler.
He invited me into his house and told me to wait in his spartan living room while he got the horses ready. There was little in the room - just some solid wooden chairs and tables, and a few family portraits of his Tibetan relatives - stuck in a picture frame. Some of the older ones dated back to the seventies, and showed Tibetans dressed in Mao suits and caps, looking serious.
A small crowd of kids and other youths gathered to watch as Gerler selected two ponies and started to hammer horse shoes onto their hooves. He then brought out two Tibetan saddles, which were wooden A-frames covered with thick rugs. My horse riding experience was limited to donkey rides along the beach at Bridlington and Scarborough. What am I letting myself in for? I wondered.
Before I had time to ponder too much on this, Gerler was strapping my backpack onto one of the saddles and urging me to get on the horse. He held out the stirrup and I inserted my boot and swung myself gingerly into the saddle. What an odd feeling, to have what seemed to be a huge, lurching and unpredictable living and breathing beast as your mode of transport. I grasped the reins nervously, and Gerler told me that if I wanted to stop the horse I should pull the reins in, thus pulling the horses head back and upwards. And if I wanted to make the horse go? He lifted up the tethering rope, which was red at the tip, and flicked the horse’s rump with it. "Cho!"
And the horse seemed to shoot out from under me, lurching forwards along the dirt track, dragging me along, bobbing and tilting and trying to keep my balance on top. It was not a pleasant experience, and I didn't feel like a natural.
Gerler saddled up and followed after me, soon catching up and passing me as he spurred his small horse to a canter by digging in his heels and waving the red tipped rope. My horse started to speed up as well and I groaned in fear as I held on for grim life.
"Don't let the horse see the red rope," shouted Gerler as we cantered crazily up the rocky trail. "When he see the rope he will try to gallop."
I gathered up the rope and concealed the end in my hand. Eventually our horses settled into a steady walk, but I still felt my tenure in the saddle was extremely precarious.
As we headed up the lane, past the houses of Gerler's neighbours, he called out a greeting of "Gadoh!" to those he saw in the yards, and told them where he was going.
"Taking the foreigner up to the Gongga Si - back in a few days!"
One guy asked how much he was getting paid.
"Four hundred!" said Gerler proudly.
The reply was a rising and falling "Oooh" that I was to hear used many times by the local Tibetans, and which seemed to be a way of saying "Yes, I hear you."
The first section of the road was quite good, and was in fact part of a motor road being constructed to go over to the Hailuoguo glacier on the eastern face of Gongga Shan. After some ascent, however, we left the village behind us and forked off on a smaller mud track to the left and over a bridge. We were getting out into the hills. It was spitting rain as we continued up a gloomy and barren valley. The treeless landscape resembled the moorlands of Yorkshire, but on a much greater scale.
Occasionally we passed the greasy black yak hair tents belonging to herders. As we plodded on for hour after hour I became a little more confident in the saddle but also a lot more uncomfortable. The stirrups were far too short for my long legs, which were bent back at almost 90 degrees, making my knees and calves very painful after a while.
There was little else to see except the walls of the valley and the occasional black dots of yaks or dzo (a yak-bull cross) grazing high on the hillsides. Gerler led the way, wearing a cowboy hat and plimsolls.
He would turn around in the saddle and give me a smile from time to time, asking if I was alright. I wasn't. My horse seemed very skittish and unco-operative. It would stop from time to time to munch at grass or take a drink of water, and when I tried to spur the beast on again it would bolt off at a canter at the first sign of the red rope, with my tugging grimly on the reins until Gerler could catch up and rein in the recalcitrant nag.
By the late afternoon I was wondering where we were going to be staying for the night. The bare hills had no sign of houses, and I wondered if I would be pitching my tent somewhere out here in the wild. Then as we reached what seemed to be the top of the valley, Gerler started whistling, and I saw a black dot ahead that turned out to be a yak herder's tent as we got nearer. The occupants - two young men and a woman - came out and stared at us, and Gerler called out to them.
Around the tent there were piles of branches for firewood, and also a large mound of yak dung - presumably to be used as fuel for the fire. There were also a couple of very vicious barking dogs - Tibetan mastiffs - tethered up to a wooden bar outside the door of the tent. The dogs were going crazy, working themselves up into a rabid frenzy at the sight of us. I prayed that the chains used to tether them would not snap.
"This is my brother's tent," said Gerler. "We will stay here for tonight."
It was a blessed relief to dismount and walk around on my numb and aching legs - I didn't realise how saddle sore I was until I got off. I stepped warily around the barking dogs and we were ushered in through the doorway of the dirty black yurt-like tent.
Inside, when my eyes adjusted to the dark and smoky interior, I saw that the tent had a earthen floor, pressed smooth and dry by constant pressure from the tent's inhabitants. The layout was centred around a fire, on top of which sat an iron frame holding a large sooty black cauldron. There was a hole in the tent roof immediately above the fire to let the smoke escape, but this was not a very efficient ventilation system. Quite a bit of smoke lingered in the tent, forming a grey-blue layer above waist height. All the more incentive then to squat down on one of the several greasy hard cushions on the floor. If you raised your head to high it pierced the smoke layer, provoking an instant bout of coughing and reddening of the eyes.
So I squatted on the floor and looked around me. The sides of the tent were packed with sacks of what looked like straw or twigs. There were also some pew-like low benches, on which were laid dirty rolled up mattresses, so presumably these were the cots. A few kitchen utensils were hung up around the fire - a ladle, a few metal pots, and a poker. And the five humans now in the tent now shared it with several yak calves that were herded into one corner, and kept in place by a rope as they scuffled and peed.
I was glad to be near the fire. It was almost nightfall and it was getting cold. The weave of the yak hair material of the tent was quite loose - leaving gaps that looked big enough to poke a stick through. Nevertheless, it seemed to act as a block to the wind, and also stopped much of the rain that now seemed to be falling.
I started to unpack some bits and pieces from my backpack and soon had an array of billy cans, cups, bowls, knives and forks and packets of food arranged them around me, which proved to be utterly fascinating to the Tibetans. They watched as if mesmerised, as I used the boiling water from the cauldron to make up one of my dehydrated sweet and sour chicken-with-rice meals in a bag.
It all seemed so much more fussy than their simple fare of potatoes and noodles boiled up in a large pan. The Tibetans spoke their own Kham dialect, which I did not understand, although I was able to tell Gerler a few things about myself and my Auckland home, which he translated for the benefit of the others. They passed around the few pictures I had brought, uttering admiring cooh and ahhs as they fingered pictures of the beaches of New Zealand. Gerler told me they were about to strike camp and move back down the valley. This was their summer pasture, he said, and in the first few days of October the weather was becoming too cold for the yaks. The young female Tibetan woman spoke quickly and melodically to the others, and they told me she said she had been working in the wool factory down at Laoyulin until it shut down. Now she was out of work, and there was little else to do but go back to herding yaks again.
It got dark and the Tibetans started to talk quietly among themselves, no doubt catching up on family gossip. One of the young guys produced a cassette player from somewhere, and they played a few wonky tapes of Chinese karaoke music as we sat in the dark. They smoked, took a swig or two of baijiu from a bottle, and we sat around the crackling fire.
By 9pm it was time for bed, and I decided it was way too cold to be sleeping outside in my microlight tent. Instead, they arranged a couple of old rugs on the earth floor for me, and watched again in fascination as I unpacked my sleeping bag and Thermarest and prepared for bed. They were gobsmacked when they saw me taking out my contact lenses, and asked me what part of my eye I had just removed.
I settled down in my corner of the tent, with a puppy tethered near my feet and the yak calves huddled just a couple of feet away, still peeing, and giving off a very distinct bovine aroma. And thus I fell asleep, despite my thirst caused by the smoky atmosphere of the tent.
Day 2 Djesi-Yulongxi
It snowed overnight, but I slept surprisingly well on the floor the yak herder's tent, thanks to my Thermarest. When I went out of the tent the next morning I was amazed to find myself in a snowy landscape, with clear sky revealing many icy peaks that I hadn't been able to see with the low mist the day before. The early morning sun lit up the tips of the peaks with orange rays, and as I stamped my feet and pounded my arms by my sides I pitied the horses and yaks for having to have stayed outside overnight in such icy conditions. I made some porridge for breakfast in the tent, and my hosts made butter tea and rice porridge.
Then we saddled up and were on our way up the gentle incline of the valley again. Ahead of us there was a neat pyramidal peak, which Gerler told me was called Jiazi Feng - Rock took a picture of the same peak and called it Chiburongi. We plodded through the brilliant white landscape of the valley and saw more snowy peaks both ahead and behind us. We were approaching the Djesi La pas, but first the valley assumed a Y-shape, and our horses took us up a trail to the right hand fork. I was glad to have a guide with me as I would have become hopelessly lost at this point. At the top of the 'pass' we entered another Y-shaped valley, and I saw the left arm headed into the midst of the snowy peaks and looked like a very lonely and desolate place to be. This must have been the Riuchi valley, which had been explored by Rock almost as an afterthought to his visit to Minya Konka.
He described it as running almost parallel to the lower inhabited valley, and running directly into the mountain peaks. How I admired Rock's daring at this point. I couldn't imagine anyone venturing into that wilderness by themselves, especially at a time when there were no maps of the area. Interestingly, Rock also notes that it is these lower snow peaks of around 20,000 feet in altitude that can be seen from near Kangding - not Minya Konka itself, as many people falsely believe.
As we ascended it became colder and the biting wind blew harder. I had to put on my jacket and pull down the earflaps of my cap. There was a small amount of snow underfoot, but nothing to stop us crossing the pass. And there was still wildlife up at these high altitudes - I saw a flock of grey doves, a black flycatcher-like bird, and there were a few bluebell-like flowers poking out of the snow. We bore to the left in this plateau valley, and soon the tip of what must have been Gongga Shan came into sight - a most impressive and daunting vista. Behind us now all we could see was range after range of snowy peaks. We were well and truly into the Minya Konka massif, and approaching the crest of the pass.
With Gongga Shan passing in and out of view our horses jigged up to the flattish summit of the Djesi La, marked by the usual cairns, Mani stones and prayer flags. I wanted to stop and take photos but Gerler hurried me on, saying that we had a huge distance to travel today. We dismounted and led the horses down out of the snowfields and into a long, curving valley, which seemed very green but was absolutely deserted.
In 1929, Rock had encountered deep snow on his first, northbound, traverse of the Djesi Pass.
"Our mules and horses suffered terribly as they floundered belly deep in drifts," he wrote. "On the northeastern side of the pass the snow lay still deeper. Our yaks, however, seemed to enjoy the situation greatly: although fully laden, they would lie down in the snow as if it were the most comfortable place in the world! These yaks and their owners seem to be kindred spirits. They behold the same dreary landscape, bare hills, and grassy valleys; endure long winters and short summers, with no spring or autumn to speak of. Ignorant of the outside world, these people seem entirely contented with their hard lot. They are born, live and die, not only in the same skin, but, one might almost say, in the same clothes, with those insect associates from which the Tibetan is never free. The minute a nomad enters a room, the air smells of yak butter, sour milk and yak dung smoke, to say nothing of the fragrance peculiar to an unwashed Tibetan himself."
Heading downhill beyond the pass, I felt a sense of exhilaration - the green landscape, surrounded by white peaks and topped by the blue sky was utterly beautiful and other worldly. And there was something mesmeric about the tinkle of the horse bells. As we walked on for hour after hour I began to think I could hear voices in the distance. I looked around but we were still all alone in this desolate valley. Then I imagined I could hear faint music or singing coming from somewhere - but again it seemed to be an auditory hallucination. When I stopped and listened hard the only sounds were the horses bells and the wind.
Gerler set a relentless pace, and it wasn't until late morning and we reached lower down in the valley that he relented and allowed us a brief stop. We halted near a small stone wall shelter, in the lee of which I tried to get my hexy stove lit to brew some water for a cup of tea. While I was still faffing around with my lighter, Gerler gathered together a few twigs and sticks of wood, and soon had a vigorous fire burning that put my weedy flame from my fuel tablet to shame.
Within a few minutes he had water boiling in his blackened pot and threw in a few lumps of brick tea to make 'Da-Cha' - a surprisingly thick and pungent form of green tea. He also gave the horses a break, taking off their bridles and saddles, after which they harrumphed and rolled about on the grass, as if to rub their itching backs, before wandering off to graze the fresh and untouched grass. When it came time to set off again they were reluctant to leave and we had to chase them up the hillside, panting for breath in the thin high altitude air.
It was near this spot that Rock had also paused near a large cairn to take photographs of Minya Konka. He had climbed up the side of the valley to a spur at 16,500 feet, fro where Minya Konka appeared as a triangular peak, not unlike one of the pyramids of Egypt."
As we continued on down, the weather ahead of us didn't look too good. Further along the valley we could see sheets of cloud dumping grey curtains of rain in the lower valley. As we set off these clouds reached us and it started snowing lightly. The weather seemed to make the horses unsettled and mine started playing up as soon as I got back in the saddle. Gerler was in a hurry and started flicking his mount with the rope and trotting off ahead at high speed. Mine followed, but in a wild gallop that threatened to unseat me.
I reined the horse in but Gerler urged me to keep up, and gestured at me to whip it with my rope. When I did so, the horse went berserk, cantering off at hair-raising speed, and before I knew what had happened I was thrown off to the right hand side and landed on my elbow in a pile of yak shit. I was badly winded, but luckily nothing was broken except my camera strap. I wiped myself down and quickly remounted, thanking my lucky stars that the fall had occurred in a turfy area and not on one of the rocky patches of ground. I wouldn't want to break an arm here, two day's travel away from the nearest basic hospital.
We continued on down the dark and increasingly boggy valley, past a few cairns and some prayer flags. Up ahead I saw some small animals hopping about and thought they were rabbits. Then as we got closer I saw they were vultures, very scraggy creatures that were flapping around and squabbling with each other over the carcass of a crow. They didn't seem nervous of humans as we passed them.
As if this was an omen of bad luck, I was thrown from my horse again after it bolted in response to Gerler's cries to speed up. Once again I was shaken, but lucky not to break anything. This time I refused to remount immediately, but walked alongside for a while, which made me realise what a fast pace the horses were making compared to human walking speed. No sooner had I done this though than Gerler urged me back into the saddle. Behind us a menacing dark grey cloud loomed over the pass, the wisps of vapour spilling over and curling towards us as dramatic as anything in a Steven Spielberg film. I remounted and we hurried along, but we could not outrun these scudding clouds. Soon we were enveloped in a grey-out and could barely see a few yards around us. It started to snow heavily, the tiny pellets stinging my eyes, so I dismounted and started to walk.
Gerler hitched the two horses together and lead them through the blizzard, but the one behind (my horse) panicked as he adjusted the straps and pulled away violently, snapping the tether. It went crazy, bucking like a bronco and trying to shake off its load of saddle and my backpacks, and then ran off into the mist and was soon engulfed in the grey murk. Oh great, I thought. The horse has just bolted and taken my gear with it. Here we are, stuck in the middle of oblivion in a snowstorm, and I have nothing but what I am stood up in.
Fortunately, the blizzard-cloud blew over, and the mist lifted as suddenly as it had enveloped us. The errant horse circled round, still spooked, but now a little less wild, and it galloped towards me as if intent on running me down. Gerler leapt towards it as it passed, grabbing the rope and pulling in the reins, until it had been brought under control. Storm over, we continued on foot down the valley, but the little storm episode had left me exhausted and uneasy.
We aimed for a spur, around which we descended in a narrow defile into another wider valley. Still no sign of any other people. As we plodded on through the relatively milder climes of the lower valley, Gerler became talkative. He asked me about he costs of cattle and sheep in New Zealand. He told me he had 60 head of yak. Did we all have guns in New Zealand, he asked. You needed to have a gun if you were a yak herder because there was so much cattle theft, he told me. He knew a lot about this because one of his brothers was a policeman. Another was a driver who plied the route to Lhasa and back. The rest of his brothers and sisters were yak herders in Lao Yulin.
He kept up a brisk walking pace, and told me we had to crack on as we must reach the village of Yulongxi by nightfall.
It was now mid afternoon and we still hadn't seen any sign of other people or any buildings. We passed a roofless stone shelter, where Gerler said he had camped on a previous trip he had made, as one of several guides accompanying a group of nine Americans with twenty horses.
As we reached more level ground he urged me to remount, but almost straight away the skittish horse bolted again, bucking wildly and throwing me onto a patch of stony ground, and leaving with a badly grazed and bruised right hand. Then Gerler did what he should have done right at the start, he let me ride his horse, which was much more placid, to the point of being dull. I bumped along, nursing my sore hand, the other holding the reins and the red tipped end of the rope. Gerler struggled with my restless horse and we continued on round another spur, and saw our first sign of human life this side of the Djesi pass - a stone house.
Although it was a plain and simple building, what a pleasant sight it seemed after a whole day of desolate valley. There were yaks and sheep grazing on the grassy slopes of nearby hills, and the scene reminded me of the wilder corners of the Yorkshire Dales, with the dry stone walls and grey stone buildings. Soon we saw another such house, and Gerler told me we had reached the upper reaches of Yulongxi, where we would be staying for the night before crossing the ridge over to the valley containing the Gongga monastery.
I was now exhausted and tired after a day spent walking and in the saddle, but to my frustration by early evening we still weren't there. Finally, just after 7pm, Gerler pursed his lips and pointed his chin over a deep and fast flowing river. I didn't fancy fording this on horseback, so he led us to a place where a couple of logs had been thrown over the rushing water, and I was able to wobble across them to the other side. Gerler stayed in the saddle and led both horses across, the waters coming the horse’s flanks to his knees.
Soon we were stood outside the walls of a large Tibetan house, and Gerler was calling out, shouting to the occupants to let us in. When the wooden door-gate was dragged open and we entered the courtyard I almost collapsed with fatigue on the steps of the house doorway. We were welcomed by a cousin of Gerler, who helped him take off the saddles of the horses and remove my pack, allowing the horses to bray and roll around on the grass and mud of the courtyard after their long haul of the day.
When Joseph Rock first arrived in Yulongshi - as he called it - from the south, he stayed at a house that had once been the home of the late king of the Chiala region. In 1929 it was occupied by the local chief, a 'good natured Tibetan' called Drombo, who welcomed Rock and acted as his somewhat reluctant guide for the brief period of his first visit.
The house we stayed at was no palace. It was built in the style most Tibetan dwellings, with the ground floor used to house the animals - some young yaks and a pig sty located beneath the long drop toilet, from which the pigs greedily and noisily devoured the human droppings. From the dry mud surrounds of these animal rooms we climbed up a notched log to the first floor, which housed the extended family. It was very dark inside, and everything was wooden. The large room was centred around the open fireplace, where everyone sat around on dirty hard cushions or small ankle-high wooden stools. The few windows were shuttered or blocked up with thick polythene sheets, and there were just a couple of candles for light.
The house was supported by thick wooden beams, but the Tibetan's skills in woodwork did not seem to extend from the walls and floors to furniture. Apart from the tiny stools there was no other furniture apart from some low tables to hold food and stores. As I squatted around the fire, the other family members were oblivious to my presence. There were two younger Tibetan women, both in traditional Tibetan skirts and with tanned, hard-working faces. They looked poor, and I mused on how land similar to this in the Yorkshire Dales would support a farmer in relative affluence of tweeds and a Land Rover, but here the same land was literally dirt poor.
Gerler's cousins got the ladle out and I poured water into my bowl to make some dehydrated lamb and vegetable rice dish, while they ate boiled noodles and the obligatory tsampa and butter tea.
Gerler told me that we would have to be prepared for some serious exertion and climbing the next day, as we would go over the steep Tsemi Pass to reach the Gongga monastery. I started to have second thoughts. I was already worn out from my efforts of today, and wondered if I might have a rest day tomorrow, or even just stay in this valley and continue down to Liuba instead. Gerler, however, insisted we had to press on. He wanted to get in and out, so he could return home.
After dinner I felt a little better and passed around some of the old photographs of the Minya Konka area taken by Joseph Rock. One of them was a portrait of a local chief called 'Drombo'. The old lady of the house got quite excited when she saw this and told me "This looks like my father when he was young".
Expecting another day, I had an early night. This time I had the relative luxury of a flea-ridden yak hair blanket on which to lie on, and I was able to settle in a dark corner with my water bottle handy this time to quench the seemingly ever present thirst and dry mouth and lips that I had at this altitude.
Day 3 Yulongxi -Tsemi
When I woke up in the Tibetan house in Yulongxi on Monday 25th September, 1995, I was a little bit puffy eyed and stiff, but as soon as I looked outside I was raring to go. The sight of the blue skies and the white snowy peaks dispelled the previous day's impulse to 'bug-out' to the nearest road. Now I wanted to go to Gongga Si. I had Coco Pops and Earl Grey tea for breakfast and then had to wait around impatiently for Gerler until mid morning. He wouldn't leave without getting a re-supply of cigarettes before we headed off into the wilderness over the Tsemi Pass. At 10-ish we saddled up and started initially to head down the valley, southwest, in the direction of Mudju. I was still very uncomfortable in the saddle and had to shift around constantly until I could find the least uncomfortable position.
After about an hour's ride, we forded another shallow river, passed a few yak herder's tents (one of which had a large pile of yak dung beside it) and started to head up a side valley leading up to the ridge. As we went up we entered a realm of sweet-smelling flowers and singing birds. The weather remained pleasant and I was feeling more confident in the saddle. The horse slowed down to a slow plod as the gradient increased, and it was certainly better than walking up. It was a long, slow trek up to the pass, and I still had a niggling fear in the back of my mind about the track ahead, as Gerler said we would have to climb very high and cross the 'Da Xue Shan' (Big Snow Mountain) to get to Tsemi.
I needn't have worried. The going was easier than I thought - well, at least on horseback. We stopped for morning tea just before we reached the pass and I lay on the grass in the sun after brewing up some water to make a cup of instant vegetable soup with croutons. My face was sunburnt, my lips were dry and cracked and the backs of my hands were also very red and burnt.
When Rock had first come to Yulongxi, he had followed a similar route up to the top of the ridge in the hope of seeing Minya Konka. He was guided by the local headman Drombo up this hillside, but the Tibetan was worried about the deep snow and 'kept up whining laments', according to Rock.
We carried on, up through rockier terrain, towards the snow line. The horse was really struggling now, and I felt quite guilty getting a free ride. Gerler lit up a cigarette and started singing Tibetan folk songs, his ululating voice echoing off the rocky walls around us. And in no time we came to the snowy flat section that was the Tsemi Pass. As we crested the last bit of track, Gongga Shan came into view - and what a magnificent sight it was. We were fortunate to have great weather and a completely clear sky, giving us a perfect view of the massive peak rising up across the other side of the valley, and the large glacier that swept down into the side valley.
Joseph Rock's first impression on seeing Minya Konka was ecstatic:
"And then suddenly, like a white promontory of clouds, we beheld the long hidden Minya Konka, rising 25,600 feet in sublime majesty. I could not help jumping for joy. I marvelled at the scenery which I, the first white man ever to stand here, was privileged to see."
We stopped and dismounted and, like Rock, I was so impressed I wanted to jump for joy and shout "La Rgellah!" - so I did. There was an amazing view of the array of peaks that made up the Minya Konka range, and the views down into the valley were also quite dizzying.
The valley was called 'Buchu' by Rock, who also details the many other subsidiary peaks surrounding, most rising to heights of around 20-22,000 feet, with names such as
Nyambo Konka, Longemain and Daddomain.
"The scenery was superb. In fact, words fail to describe this marvellous panorama," Rock wrote. But Rock did not cross the pass on his first reconnaissance visit up from Yulongxi. He thought the weather was still too cold in early spring, so he went back down and continued on his way to Kangding for the time being, to wait for milder weather. It was only on his return from a two week sojourn in Kangding that he made the crossing of this pass, accompanied again by Drombo and another local Tibetan from Yulongxi, called Jumeh.
We descended into the Buchu valley. Going down in an elated frame of mind, we followed the zig-zagging track and entered a sanctuary of natural beauty. There were rhododendron bushes and spruce further down. Birds flitted in the undergrowth and the warm sun warmed our faces. It really was an idyllic spot.
As we descended we gradually lost sight of Gongga Shan again, and it was only when we reached the Tsemi valley that I realised exactly how high up we'd been on the pass.
As we walked down the steep track I had to be very careful where I put my feet. At one point Gerler pointed out a steep drop off the track and told me this was where one of the Americans he'd guided had slipped off the track. "He broke his leg and was in such great pain he cried like a baby," said Gerler. "We had to strap him on a horse just like he was sack and take him back to Yulongxi and out to Liuba to get him to on a truck to hospital in Kangding," he added.
We eventually reached the bottom of the valley, where we found a beautiful meadow and a fairytale village of sturdy stone Tibetan houses, the T-shaped window frames finished in pretty bright colours. It was all set amid pine-clad slopes and next to a gushing river, with the snow peaks in the background. This was Tsemi, and it seemed to good to be true.
We stopped for the night in Tsemi, but the dingy interiors of the Tibetan houses there were just the opposite of the beautiful outside environs. The house we stayed at was gloomy and filthy. I was again ushered upstairs onto the first floor to sit by the fire, while they stir fried some potato slices to make chips. I ate a few of these in the local fashion, with some chilli powder, but started to feel sick. Then as I became more accustomed to the dark surroundings I saw the eating bowls were crawling with flies and weevils, and there was a piglet snuffling around, sticking its little snout into all the plates and bowls as well. The floor was gritty and sooty, and the water they gave me to drink also tasted smoky and had small bits of grass and dirt in it.
The local people of Tsemi were a curious bunch in all respects. They crowded around the windows and doorways to get a peep at the foreigner. They were friendly and smiled at me, and oohed in aahed to each other in their own strange form of speech that sounded sometimes more like yodelling or singing than talking. It was a very secluded place and they still had busts and pictures of Chairman Mao on the display and old muzzle-loading musket hung up on the wall - and not as a relic, but as a working rifle for hunting.
Rock says little of Tsemi village in his article. He passed though, but only notes that it lies in the Buchu valley, near the junction of a side valley that contains the glacier running down from Minya Konka - and the mountain's monastery, or Konka Gompa as it was known to Rock.
"For six months in the year this monastery is shut off even from that remote world represented by the yak herders of Yulongshi, for the Tsemi Pass is snow bound and impassable," he notes.
I didn't sleep well in Tsemi, partly because of my stomach worries, but also because I had an almost sub-conscious feeling of being trapped in this valley. Gerler had repeated the concern that Rock had expressed in his article - that if we stayed too long we risked being trapped by heavy snows that could block the pass. I slept in my sleeping bag on a hairy mat on the sooty floor, and rose the next morning feeling terrible. I hadn't had much sleep and felt listless and jittery. I went through the motions of making breakfast, but had to repeat the whole tea-making process when I found a fly in the water I was boiling. I was already extremely weak and tired and didn't feel up to the journey.
When I climbed into the saddle at 9am I felt like I was going to faint. We'd gone only a few hundred yards when I told Gerler to stop, and that I wanted to go back. I just didn't have the energy to go on. He took me back inside the hose and plied me with some butter tea. I wanted to retch when I first put it to my lips, but at Gerler's insistence I drank the muddy brown and salty liquid sip by sip until I had finished the bowl.
When I told him I was worried about my health and wanted to go back over the pass to Yulongxi, he refused. "It is my duty to take you to the monastery and that is what I will do," he said solemnly. After another bowl of butter tea I started to feel a lot better - it was almost like a miracle cure.
"When you go on a journey like this you must drink lots of this tea," said Gerler. "You needs lots of energy. I don't think this western food is very good for you," he added, pointing with his chin to my packet soups and dehydrated meals. I had to agree with him.
"Come on, try again," he said. "It's only about two more hours to the monastery."
Still feeling a little queasy, I agreed, and this time I walked alongside the horses for a while instead of riding. We crossed a meadow in the sunshine and then crossed a large creek by a wooden bridge, following a track up through a magical forest of beech. The track went up, passing lots of Mani stones and cairns, and the whole place had a very spooky atmosphere about it. There was an almost physical presence in the woods, and I could feel we were nearing a special place. Even the horses seemed to be possessed by a new spirit, and raced each other up the track. Birds were singing, a stream tinkled by below us and there were fresh mushrooms and fungi growing along the track.
After an hour or so we reached a fork in the rack, with the left hand pathway going back towards Kangding, according to Gerler. This track would go down to a place called Riwuqie, he said, the other branch of the Y-shaped valley we had gone through on the way up to the Jezi La. We did not travel along this route because it was higher and more snowbound than the longer but passable Yulongxi route.
A short way ahead our horses stopped to drink from a water trough, and as we rounded the corner and emerged from the forest I saw some small stone outhouses and realised we were there - we had reached the Gongga Si monastery. The monastery's whitewashed walls appeared above the bushes, and I was pleased to see it looked just like the building in Rock's old photographs.
There was nobody at home at the Konka Gompa monastery when we arrived. The wooden door in the side of the wall was bolted shut and when we peeped through a gap, all we could see was a dog chained up against a wooden banister. No sounds except the flap of some prayer flags in the wind and the trickle of water along some primitive guttering installed to collect and channel water from a small mountain stream. Gerler called out in Tibetan and there was a distant reply - but not from inside the monastery. We turned around and saw the tiny red and yellow clad figure of a small lama ambling down the hillside towards us. He had a big bunch of sticks tied to his back.
He dumped his load and nodded at me in recognition, as if foreign visitors were an everyday occurrence. The little shaven-headed lama bade us welcome and gestured for us to go into the courtyard after he unlocked the padlock on the door. He wasn't one to stand on ceremony - he helped us unstrap our bags from the horses and take off the saddles, and then led us into his smoky scullery. There, he immediately got some boiling water from the cauldron and started making butter tea by pouring t into the long tube with some yak butter and tea leaves and then pushing a plunger in and out to mix it all up, all accompanied by squelching noises. It's a familiar routine in any Tibetan household.
I just felt so elated to actually be in this place at long last. I thought back to how I had first read about this tiny monastery in one of Rock's articles in Auckland, and now here I was in the very spot. And it seemed hardly changed from how Rock had described it.
"We were escorted into a square house, having a courtyard filled with mud, and up over an old sagging stairway to balcony which led to a chanting hall and a narrow room with a chapel on one side. A small window overlooking the glacier valley permitted a perfect view of Minya Konka under favourable weather conditions."
I showed the lama some of Rock's photographs of the place and he recognised the old building, which had been smashed and demolished during the Cultural Revolution. The present building had been rebuilt in the same style, he told me. The lama, whose name was Ding Ri Zhu, also recognised the picture of the headman of Yulongxi, Drombo, and he pointed to Rock's photo of a picture of the mountain god, Dordjelutru, and said that it was still there.
After he had finished his tea, he took me on a tour of the monastery. He didn't speak Chinese, so I couldn't understand what he was mumbling about when he showed me the various little rooms. Most appeared to be guest rooms, or store rooms. The lama told me that on some special occasions they have 20-30 monks come up from the lower monasteries in places like Liuba to put on special ceremonies to the mountain gods. I asked him if it was true, as Rock had claimed, that the monastery was cut off from November through to April due to heavy snow on the passes, and he said this only happened sometimes. It was still possible to get over the pass during winter, he said, and it was also possible to walk down the valley to Hailouoguo and Moxi on the eastern side of Gongga Shan, he added.
The lama showed me the small chanting hall, with its golden statues and the bright murals of fierce-looking deities surrounded by skulls and bolts of lightning. Then he took me into a smaller back room that was very dim. He lifted up a cloth on the wall, to reveal the picture of the mountain god Dordjelutru similar to the one photographed by Rock. This was obviously one of the most sacred relics in the monastery, and the monk expected me to be impressed. I found it hard to be very reverent though, because the picture was so small - only about one foot wide and three feet long. Somehow I had expected it to be much bigger, covering a whole wall.
Rock described an inscription that accompanied the portrayal o Dordjelutru:
"on the gate to the chapel in my room hung a long strip of hempcloth with a Tibetan inscription. It declared that there is no more beautiful spot on earth than Minya Konka, and that one night spent on the mountain is equivalent to sitting ten years in meditation in one's house and praying constantly; that one offering of burning juniper boughs [here] is equivalent to hundreds of thousands of prayers."
The inscription also said that the Indian founder of the red hat (Karmapa) branch of Buddhism had pronounced that this god, Dordjelutru was the equivalent of the prime deity Shenrezig, that all the deities of Tibetan Buddhism dwell within this scared mountain "and anyone gazing upon the peak will have all his past sins wiped off the slate so he may begin life anew!"
After lunch of some chicken soup in the dirty scullery, I wandered round and snapped away with my camera, trying to take pictures from the same places as Rock had taken them. Unfortunately the cloud had really closed in, and there was little to see of the mountain, which remained hidden in the mist just above us. All we could see was the foot of the glacier moraine. The little lama disappeared into one of the back rooms and soon I could hear him chanting away continuously in the background, occasionally banging on a drum a few times, or ringing a discordant little bell.
In contrast to these displays of piety, I busied myself with a bit of mundane housekeeping. To the accompaniment of chants and gongs I washed my smoke and soot-laden hair with some of the sachets of Head and Shoulders that are so popular in rural China, and then set about scrubbing my socks. Later on, at the gateway of the monastery, the lama appeared and pointed up the at the glacier, from which some of the mist had lifted. He said, via Gerler, that there was a special shrine located a little higher, and he pointed his bony brown finger at it. I couldn't see anything, until Gerler also gestured at a small red dot among the snow and rocks. They both said it was a very special place where all the prayers could be said directly to the mountain god.
It didn't look far, so having nothing better to do, I decided to go have a look. Taking just a small pack with my camera in, I set off down into the gully that held the glacier, and followed a faint track that took me down to the moraine. I kept looking up at where the shrine was supposed to be, but it was difficult to keep track of it because of the tree branches obscuring the view, and also because I lost sight of many of the reference points as I headed down into the glacier valley. The shrine had looked deceptively close, but I was to learn how distances can deceive at high altitudes perhaps because the thin clear air makes everything look so vivid and close enough to touch.
I struggled for a couple of hours up the glacier moraine and got nowhere near the upper shrine. I was floundering among the rocks, still unaccustomed to moving at high altitude, and I was constantly having to stop to get my breath back. I didn't seem to be making any progress towards the shrine, and I began to wonder at what time I should turn back. This little problem was solved for me when I foolishly tried to cross a mountain stream. It was just too deep to get away without swamping my boots, so I took off my boots and socks and tried paddling over with my trousers rolled up to the knees. The icy cold water, fresh from the glacier, was colder than anything I had very experienced before.
The water was so extremely cold that it felt like it was scalding my exposed skin when it came into contact with it. I skipped over the stream in just ten steps, but had to stop and sit down on a boulder once I had got across, to rub some feeling back into my chilled feet and toes. Now I understood just how easily it would be to die of exposure and hypothermia in waters such as this. I was tired, thirsty and disoriented, and so I turned back, disconsolate, to the monastery. It was late in the afternoon by the time I got back, and I had to really struggle to climb back out of the glacier valley and to get back up to the monastery perched on the side of the ridge. When I looked back at how far I had travelled it looked like a 15 minute walk.
When I got back into the monastery I was absolutely famished, and slurped down a quick cup of tomato instant soup. It tasted better than anything I could remember for a long time.
I passed the remainder of the day and the evening in the smoky but warm little room that the lama used as a kitchen and living room. The lama showed me a collection of notes and postcards left by previous international visitors - Americans, Germans, Japanese - mostly mountaineers, who had used the monastery as a base camp during their attempts on the peak. One such Japanese expedition had lost seven members killed in an avalanche near the summit. The lama also brought me a plastic watch that had been given to him by one of the Japanese. He said it had been very useful, but now it had broken, and could I fix it? I had a cursory look but could find nothing obviously wrong with it, and assumed the battery must have worn out. I handed it back to the lama and told him, with regret, that he would need to try get a new battery in a place like Kangding - if he or any of his fellow monks ever made it to the 'big smoke'.
After stir frying up some more potato sliver chips, the lama showed me to a bare wooden room that would be my bedroom for the night. I got myself settled in but something about it freaked me out. I felt cold and claustrophobic - and just plain lonely. It had started to rain heavily and when I turned off my torch I was simply scared of the dark. After just a few minutes of this I picked up all my gear and moved back into the dirty smoky scullery where the lama and Gerler were still squatting around the fire. I dossed down in a dark corner of the room and tried to sleep there, but without much luck. I would find myself dropping off to sleep, only to wake up with a start, to find that I had stopped breathing. Then I would start hyperventilating and also salivating so much that I was drooling.
It was all very weird and unsettling. I later learned that this might be the medical phenomenon called Cheyne Stokes syndrome, in which the lack of oxygen in the thin high altitude air upsets the body' usual automatic regulation of respiration. I didn't know this at the time, though, and believed I was simply unable to breathe properly, and that if I fell asleep I would simply stop breathing and die in my sleep. I spent much of the night gazing at the ceiling, thinking about home, and how far I was away from everything.
Joseph Rock also had an unsettled night at the Konka Gompa. He was given the chapel room to sleep in, which contained a golden chorten (shrine) encrusted with jewels, which contained the remains of a previous living buddha at the monastery. Under the title of 'a weird night with a mummy for companion', Rock paints a dramatic picture of how he lay shivering in his cot as thunder crashed all around the mountain, rain lashed the monastery and lightning flashed as "Dordjelutru staged an electrical display in this weird canyon".
"Here, all alone, in the presence of a sacred mummy in a hoary lamasery, I listened to the tempest breaking over the icy peak of Minya Konka. Was this the year 1929 or had time been set back a thousand years?"
The gods were eventually kind to Joseph Rock. After his stormy night in the Gompa, the weather cleared the next morning, and he was able to set out and explore higher up the ridge. He reached a height of 17,200 feet, from where he was able to take a panoramic photograph looking back down into the valley, with the monastery just a tiny patch on the side of the ridge. He was also able to take some excellent close up views of the mountain and its glacier.
Almost sixty years later, in 1995, we had no such luck. We woke to find that while the skies had cleared somewhat overnight, the peak of Minya Konka was still stubbornly hiding in cloud. In the cold light of dawn we also found tat the valley below us had filled with cloud, obscuring the hamlet of Tsemi far below. Gerler was also up early and was impatient to leave. After a quick breakfast of porridge, he had been chasing around with him on the hillside, trying to locate our two horses, which had wandered off in the night after being put out to graze. It was only after much looking around and panting up and down the hillside that we were able to locate them, by the sound of their bells.
Back at the monastery the lama had taken up his interminable chanting, but he came out to see us off. After taking a last few pictures of him and the mountain ( and assuring him I would publicise his need for a watch battery), he gave us a small wave and we set off leading the horses back down the track to Tsemi. The sun was still only just coming up, and its yellow rays were just touching the tops of some of the surrounding peaks. I looked back towards the monastery and saw the monk walking back to his lonely routine of chanting, and I felt a twinge of regret at leaving this isolated place.
We re-traced our steps back down the trail of Mani stones to Tsemi, me hobbling behind because of blisters on my feet and also smarting from sunburn on my nose and the tips of my ears. My lips were cracked and I was constantly thirsty. Back down into the 'Buchu valley', where we passed through Tsemi with only a brief pause this time, as Gerler was anxious to get back to Yulongxi as early in the day as possible. We mounted our horses and set off up the hill to cross back over the Tsemi La. It was hard going for the horses, mine pausing for breath every twenty steps or so, and sweating like a pig.
I felt so sorry for the old nag that I got off and tried walking for a bit, but I soon tired out. Gerler urged me to get back in the saddle, and we continued on up, making good time and reaching the pass by 11.30am. No awesome views this time - the great mountain was hidden by cloud, so we did not linger. We dismounted and plodded back on down towards Yulongxi. Gerler started singing again, his wailing seeming to reach right across the valley.
It took us a couple of hours to reach the bottom of the valley, where we had to ford the river on horseback again. This time the river seemed to be even deeper, and both my feet and part of my pack got a soaking. By now I didn't really care. Then we were back amidst the scattered settlements of the Yulongxi valley. This is where I would part with Gerler. Rather than repeat the two day slog over the Djesi la, I decided I would walk out in the opposite direction to Liuba and the roadhead, from where I hoped to be able to get a bus back to Kangding.
As we sat down for a late lunch of soup and what remained of my Toblerone, I handed over 450 kuai to Gerler for his services over he last five days. I felt quite sad to be leaving my trusty guide. He had been honest and reliable, and had gone the extra mile, pushing me to continue when I was wavering and feeling sick in Tsemi. My appreciation waned a little when he started to plead with me to donate items of my kit that I "wouldn't be needing any more". Gerler was particular taken with my waterproof overtrousers, and I promised I would bring some for him on my next visit.
At 1.30pm we parted ways and I headed of down the flat valley towards Mudju and Liuba. I soon realised how lonely and vulnerable I felt when travelling by myself. I had become used to the reassuring presence of Gerler, and his automatic introductions to people and places to stay along the way. Now I was alone and I became the subject of curious stares and aggressive, almost taunting, questioning from the Tibetans around the small hamlets I trudged through. "Where are you going?" When I said Liuba, they would snigger. "You alone?" After being asked this a few times I started saying that I was with a group and my 'three friends' were not far behind, with our 'guide'.
The hamlets were all composed of the solid stone fortress-like Tibetan houses. I saw lots of Tibetan women working the land around them, and lots of snotty-nosed kids. The houses looked grand but their surroundings were squalid - muddy and stinking of cow and pig shit.
The scenery gradually changed from being open grassland to a steeper-sided valley covered with pines, and a rough track became evident, that was obviously passable by the Jiefang trucks, one of which was parked outside a house. I tramped for hour after hour, but with no sign of Mudju or Liuba. Following the river I passed a rough logging camp, with makeshift tents made from tarpaulins, and Tibetan guys loafing around a battered pool table, some with guns hanging on straps over their shoulders. I started getting jittery and praying inwardly that I would soon reach the civilisation of Liuba.
It was to be a big disappointment. Although marked on the map as a village, Liuba was little different from the many other settlements I had passed through, just with a few more houses. It was a muddy dump, with just a tatty little hole-in-the wall store and a noodle shack to make it stand out from the other villages en route.
I had been hoping to make it to the main road, but it was now 5.30pm and starting to get dark. A Tibetan woman in Liuba told me it was 12 km to the road, and I began to feel quite desperate. I ended up cadging a place to stay after striking up conversations with a ragged looking Tibetan kid who was walking along the road. I told him I was looking for a place to stay, and he took me to his family's house, just outside the village, further down the road.
It was real Tibetan hillbilly place. They had barking dogs on chains outside the door, and the interior of the house was really primitive - just plain mud floors and a few of the now familiar hard greasy cushions around a fire. I could barely understand the thickly accented Chinese spoken by the old man in the house but I had no choice but to stay. There was nowhere else to go. I sat round the fire and made up some of my dehydrated meals, while a fifty-something year old man asked me lots of questions about myself. As they ate sickly-sweet smelling maize porridge, they asked me about New Zealand and whether it was allowed to be an independent country. Could we elect our president? My answers were met with slight nods. The old man was very pleased when I replied to a question about the Dalai Lama, saying he was very famous around the world. That seemed to satisfy his curiosity, and I was able to get an early night, and slept better at this low altitude, again dossing on the floor using my Thermarest and my now filthy sleeping bag.
I was off very early the next morning, before most people had got up, and it took me only two hours to walk out down the wooded valley along the river to the 'main road'. Unfortunately, there was no road at the main road, only another dirt track, showing no signs of any traffic, heading north-south. There were a couple of log cabins at the junction, and at one of them a surly woman told me there was no bus and no traffic going to Kangding. I waited round for what seemed like an hour, and she was proved right on the latter - there was no traffic, just a few Tibetans wandering past now and then, and a definite air of menace.
There was a bad vibe about this place. Eventually a 1930s era truck came rattling down the road, almost falling to pieces. There were a few rough-looking Tibetans on the back and I flagged it down to ask for a lift to Kangding. After a bit of too-ing and fro-ing, it became clear it was only going as far as the next small town, called Sha-de. That would do. And the driver wanted 30 kuai for the 20km trip. I paid up, glad to escape this forlorn place.
It was a rough ride, with a rough crowd. Some of the Tibetan labourers on the back of the truck had full-face balaclavas, which they pulled down while on the road, making them look like terrorists. We passed a couple of slow tuolaji tractors along the road, and the Tibetans on them yelped and shouted at me when they saw the foreigner. I was glad I was on the truck and not walking alone.
Eventually I got to Sha-de, where after a bit of looking around and waiting I was able to negotiate myself into a minivan that was making the trip back to Kangding. My visit to Minya Konka was almost over. Just a ride through the valley dotted with of ancient stone watchtowers, and then on to the paved Sichuan-Tibet highway, which took us up and over the ??? La pass, while long convoys of PLA trucks strained up in the opposite direction, heading towards Litang and Lhasa. I made it safely back to Kangding, where I re-enacted the Ice Cold in Alex scenario, with a nice beer at the Kangding Hotel.
Shortly after his visit to Minya Konka, in one of the most embarrassing episodes of his career, Joseph Rock cabled the National Geographic to say he had calculated the height of the mountain to peak was more than 30,000 feet in height - higher than Mount Everest! Rock might have been a meticulous botanist and a fastidious recorder of the flora and fauna, but he had a record of overestimating the heights of mountains he visited. He had previously miscalculated the height of Amnye Machen and had also been wrong about the heights of the Konkaling peaks. Despite these errors, he had rejected suggestions from staff at the National Geographic society that he undertake a course in the technical aspects surveying, and the result was yet another embarrassing gaffe with his height estimation for Minya Konka.
His figure of around 30,000 feet for Minya Konka was far in excess of all previous estimates of heights for the mountain. Minya Konka had been marked on the Chinese Imperial Atlas as being 24,900 feet high (accurate to within ten feet, as it turned out) and had also been recorded at a similar height on the maps of the China Inland Mission, whose missionaries had been active in nearby Kangding since the turn of the century.
Joseph Rock waited until he left China to inform the National Geographic society of his sensational 'discovery', perhaps fearing that news would be leaked out in advance. Not surprisingly, given his track record, the National Geographic Society were sceptical when they received his telegram from Indo-China claiming that Minya Konka was 30,000 feet high. The society made no public announcement and waited until Rock made a return visit to the US later in the year to check his figures. When staff reviewed his surveying techniques and calculations, his estimate was quickly downgraded by almost a mile to 25,00 feet - and this was still way off the mark.
Rock was extremely embarrassed about this higher-than-Everest claim, and never talked about it.
Minya Konka didn't stay "wholly unknown" for much longer after Rock's visit. In the following year, a Swiss surveying team led by Eduard Imhof spent several weeks at the Konka Gompa taking measurements and estimated the height of the peak as 7590 metres. Two years after that, in 1932, the peak was climbed for the first time in an extraordinary achievement by four young American climbers from Harvard, led by Terris Moore and Richard Burdsall. They recount their experiences - including the long voyage to the mountain up from Shanghai - in the classic book Men Against Clouds.
One of the most interesting accounts from this period is by the Australian war correspondent George Johnston (who later went on to write the classic Australian novel My Brother Jack). In 1944, he hitched a ride in a US transport plane that was flying into western Sichuan to bring in a US Army supply team. The Americans wanted to acquire Tibetan horses to help General Vinegar Joe Stillwell's fighting against the Japanese in Burma and around the Salween river along the border with Yunnan. Johnston travelled up to Kangding, where he was told that the Konka Gompa was the inspiration for the Shangri La valley of Lost Horizon.
He found a Tibetan guide and travelled up to Minya Konka with another correspondent, but found it to be a huge anticlimax. While he was most impressed with the mountain scenery. Johnston thought the Konka Gompa was a squalid place, quite unlike the 'Shangri-La' he had been led to expect. His laconic Australian cynicism is quite a contrast to Joseph Rock's rapturous prose that tries to engender a sense of wonder and mystery around Minya Konka. To Johnston, the Konka Gompa was a drab architectural monstrosity ("looks like someone started to build a small weekend shack as cheaply as possible ... jerry built and completely devoid of all beauty ..."), although he was impressed with its setting. He says the Gompa was then inhabited by around forty monks, a village idiot and an old nun. Johnston describes the Buddhists rituals in detail, but he found them to be superstitious and often plainly ignorant rather than enchanting.
He reserves his greatest scorn of the two head monks, who he says were virtually conmen - putting on elaborate and industrious Potemkin village displays of ceremony to impress the visiting Tibetans who made large donations. When they were off duty he found them to be idle, boastful and most of all exceedingly acquisitive. While they claimed to be seeking enlightenment, and paying homage to the mountain gods, he found they dropped all pretence of piety when he and his companion started buying trinkets as souvenirs. When it cane to bargaining he discovered the monks spoke Chinese and had a large stash of us dollars and Indian rupees.
On his last day at the Gompa, Johnston also found a female Chinese Buddhist disciple living in the only clean room at the Gompa. She claimed to have lived in the room for three years without leaving, and that the mountain air had kept her younger than her 47 years. Johnston says he was reluctant to write about this women because she conformed almost too much to the stereotype of the Shangri-La stereotype. She claimed to have arrived at the monastery after fleeing to Chengdu from the Japanese occupied Peking. The woman told Johnston that she had become bored at the monastery because the lamas were not very learned, and she planned to move to Lhasa to continue her meditation and study of Buddhism.
Whether she made it, we never find out. Within four years of Johnston's visit, the Minya Konka area would fall behind the 'bamboo curtain' for more than 30 years, as Kangding and Tibet became subject to 'peaceful liberation' by Chinese Communist forces. We know from another western resident of the area, the George Patterson, that the Khampa Tibetans put up strong resistance to the Chinese, but in the longer term it was all in vain. Despite its isolation, the Minya Konka area was not spared the ravages of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. The few monks still remaining at the monastery were harassed and dispersed, one of them telling me that he had to become a farmer' for twenty years.
It was only when Deng Xiaoping came to power in the 1980s that foreigners started to return to the area. At first the only visitors were mountaineers, and the mountain took a terrible toll on those who tried to reach the summit. A massive Chinese expedition reached the summit in the 1950s and lost one climber. A Japanese team had a disastrous time on Minya Konka in 1981 losing eight members to falls and avalanches. Since then, many climbing groups have attempted Minya Konka and its neighbours. Although 22 climbers have reached the summit, something like 16 climbers have died on the mountain. And it's not only climbers who have died. In 2008, an experienced Australian hiker, called Clem Lindenmayer, perished when he was walking solo and went off the beaten track near the Djsi Pass. Clem, who wrote trekking guidebooks for Lonely Planet, had been caught out in a snowstorm in May.
Minya Konka is changing. In the 1990s, the monastery at Minya Konka was still quite a remote place, visited by just a handful of westerners every year, and also by local Tibetan pilgrims. Now, with the increasing prosperity and modernisation of China, large numbers of Chinese trekkers make the journey from Kangding to the 'Gongga Si' every year. In 2009 I paid a brief visit to Lao Yulin while passing through Kangding. The old dirt track road leading up to the village was now a smooth highway, connecting Kangding to Moxi and Hailuoguo. It was lined with a series of brand new condominiums (Heavenly views! Only 3000 Yuan a square metre!) And the decrepit wool mill had been demolished and replaced by a series of grandiose civic building such as the new Kangding and Garze district law courts. The old hot springs building is still there - but now looks lost and forlorn amid the brand new structures.
On the other side of the mountain, the muddy log cabin village of Liuba has now been spruced up, and there is an archway that proclaims it is the official gateway to 'Gongga Shan Nature Park'. The road up the Yulongxi valley has been surfaced, and extended up the ridge, reaching all the way to the summit of the Tsemi La (Zimei Yakou), where there is now a large shack for shelter.
Kangding is also changing fast. The old wooden buildings around the Anjue Si were being demolished when I visited in May, 2010, and even the entrance gate and monk's accommodation block of the monastery itself had been torn down. The town has a shiny new bus station and even an airport, out of town. It has a five star hotel and plastic palm trees lining the icy cold waters of the river. With the building of the tunnel through Erlang Shan it is now possible to take a comfortable bus from Chengdu in the morning and arrive in mid afternoon. As you will see from the next few chapters, I was to pass through Kangding several times en route to other places that Rock visited further afield, such as Yading.