This is an incomplete, work-in-progress description of my travels from 1990-2009 in the China-Tibet borderlands, following in the footsteps of botanist Joseph Rock. Will be adding chapters and pics when they are ready - expected completion date November 2009. Contact me on mutikonka [AT] gmail,com

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

2004: Mutikonka and the Yalong river gorge


In an old copy of National Geographic magazine from 1930 I came across an article by the Joseph Rock, called “Glories of the Minya Konka: Magnificent Snow Peaks of the China-Tibetan Border…”

It described a trip he made from Muli to Kangding in 1929. His aim was to reach the then unknown mountain of Minya Konka, which he believed might be higher than Everest. But first he had to cross an enormous 9,000 foot deep gorge of the Yalong river. After what he described as "five terrible days" descending and then climbing out of the Yalong river gorge, he reached the Wadzanran pass on the western bank.

Surveying the canyon below him and the peaks of a mountain called Mutikonka behind him, he described it thus:


"The scenery hereabouts is overwhelming grand. Probably its like cannot be found elsewhere in the world. Where Mutikonka rears its eternally snowcapped crown 19,000 feet into the sky, the the Yalung flows 12,000 feet below..."


I was again intrigued and wanted to know more about this place, which he described as:

"A scenic wonder of the world, this region is 45 days from the nearest railhead. For centuries it may remain a closed land, save to such priviliged few as care to crawl like ants through its canyons of tropical heat and up its glaciers and passes in blinding snowstorms, carrying their food with them. And the cost of travelling in this part of the world is prohibitive for an ordinary mortal."

This was a challenge I could not resist. I consulted maps and guidebooks, but could find no mention of a mountain called ‘Mutikonka’, and little information about the nearest town he mentioned, called Jiulong.

For the next few years I concentrated on making trips to other places that Rock had written about: the former lama town of Muli and its impressive monastery; the sanctuary around the 7550 metre high peak of Minya Konka (Gonga Shan); and the great river canyons of the Yangtze, Mekong and Salween in NW Yunnan.

In the late 1990s I obtained copies of Rock's hand-drawn maps of his travels from the Royal Geographic Society library in London. Armed with one of these, I made a return trip to Muli and tried to follow in Rock's footsteps across the Yalong. I gave up after a week, deterred by the lack of roads, the huge scale of the landscape - and my lack of time. A warning from the local police that there were robbers in the area also made me wary of continuing.

Back home, I reviewed Rock's map and found that the route he took on the eastern side of the Yalong tallied with a road marked on a modern Chinese traffic atlas. The names of some of the villages he recorded also tallied with modern day Chinese villages: Rock's Sedjuron was surely Sanyanlong, Deon must be Diwan. These villages lay in a valley called Yangwe Kong that Rock passed through after climbing out of the Yalong gorge. After the scenic wonders of Mutikonka, it seem to have depressed him:

"No outlook in any direction! Here people live and die without the slightest knowledge of the outside world. How oppressive to be buried alive in these vast canyon systems! Or are they happier for it?"

I decided to try reach Jiulong from Kangding to the north, but my first attempt - after a trip to Minya Konka - was thwarted when I found the Kangding-Jiulong road to have been made impassable by floods and landslips.

In October 2004 I made my next attempt. I had found a report on the internet by botanists of a visit to a stand of rare trees, Acer Pentaphyllum, some 20km south of Jiulong. I would try for Jiulong too …

Taking a bus from Kangding, we climbed out of the damp, cold cloud to burst out into sunlight beyound the Zheduo pass, which marks the cultural divide between Tibet and Han China. I found the road to be in good condition and the scenery south of XinduQiao (where the Jiulong road departs south from the Sichuan-Tibet highway) was impressive. The road followed a gushing river through a valley, interspersed with fort-like Tibetan farm houses. It was forested by pines and other trees, giving a pleasing variety of autumnal colours, from green, to yellow to red.

chiprin rd

About 80km south of Xinduqiao there was a lamasery with high stone watch towers, similar to those portrayed in Rock's article. The few people we saw by the wayside were all Tibetan.

To reach Jiulong the bus had to cross what Rock described as the Chiprin La. He had crossed it with his horse caravan on his way to Kangding via Gongga Shan. On the modern map the pass was described as the Chizu Pass, and it proved to be a relatively low pass, ascended by a winding road over a treeless landscape.

On the southern side the scenery appeared greener, and the climate somewhat milder. By mid afternoon our bus had rolled into Jiulong, the town of Chiulong where Rock had rested for several days after his arduous crossing of the Yalong and its canyons. He had described it as a scattered hamlet with a friendly Chinese magistrate in residence "who could endure his post only by sleeping from one inebrious state to the next carousal".

At Jiulong, Rock also mentioned a collection of tall overhanging watchtowers called Taputzu, made unsafe by numerous earthquakes. But the local population lived in their shadow, apparently unconcerned by the threat of being buried alive if they collapsed.

Jiulong in Sichuan

The modern day Jiulong was a typical small Chinese town of grim apartments built in the ubiquitous style of white tiles and blue glass. It now appeared to be a modern town to rival Kangding in size. It is basically a one-street town nestled in a steep valley, with a large hotel at the top end of town forming a kind of square. The main street thronged with a mixture of Tibetans and Yi people, many dressed in their traditional costumes. There were also many Han Chinese in modern clothing, sporting mobile phones and looking like Chinese anywhere.

My aim had been to make a low key approach to visiting the Yangwe Kong valley, perhaps hiring a private jeep or horses. But my new found partner, Chongqing TV reporter Yang Shi, had other ideas. He dragged me straight to the five-storey Communist Party head office and took us up to the top floor to seek out the local party bosses. The interior of the building reminded me of the East German Stasi HQ that I had recently visited on a trip to Berlin.

We passed committee rooms where behind partly closed doors I could see groups of people smoking and drinking tea. With my backpack and hiking boots I expected to be challenged and thrown out at any moment.

On the fifth floor we were welcomed into the office of Mr Wang Lin Chong, the head of the Jiulong county propaganda department. A small man, he looked a little like Kim Jong Il, but his manner was jovial and down to earth, He had a picture of Mao Tse Tung sellotaped on the wall alongside maps of China and the world. Otherwise his office consisted of a large pine desk and a pot plant. Served tea, he insisted I sit in his comfy executive chair while he perched on a stool and perused some photographs I had brought taken by Rock of ther local area and people.

I told him about Rock's visit to the Jiulong area, and how he had described it as a "scenic wonder of the world". That seemed to get his attention. As he flicked though the pictures, his interest grew, and he started to comment on them:

"The local Yi people still wear this kind of jacket ... hey, you can only find that kind of old gun round these parts ... and that looks like ..."

He stopped and suddenly stood up to shout someone's name out of the window. "Wang Qi! Wang Qi! Come and see this!"

A short time later a burly Tibetan man in Chinese clothing came into the room, and started to leaf through the photographs. He stopped at one taken of a group of Tibetans stood in front of some old wooden shacks. He peered more closely and said:

"This is Mundon. That man on the right is my grandfather."

Wang Qi had himself been brought up in the Yangwe Kong valley and he told me he remembered the tales his grandfather had told of a foreigner passing though. But he had never known who ‘Rock’ was.

“Where did you get these photos?” he asked, incredulously. “How come we have never seen them?”

Wang Qi was now the director of education for Jiulong county, and when I told him about my interest in the travels of Joseph Rock, he made a decision on the spot to take me to Mundon and to visit his family - and to try see if we could get to Mutikonka, which he pronounced Maidi Ganga.

The next few days were a whirl of activity as we prepared for the trip. We attended numerous banquets at which we were the guests of honour, toasted with beer, baijiu (white spirits) and tea. We were urged to eat numerous dishes containing what appeared to be beaks, claws and tentacles.

We seemed to meet all the local dignitaries, and many visiting officials from the Sichuan capital of Chengdu. At each one Director Wang would say:

"Let our foreign friend tell us what Mr Rock wrote about this area". And he would repeat with pride Rock's phrases about the Mutikonka area being a ‘scenic wonder of the world’, and how there was nowhere else in the world with scenery quite like it.

We also drank endless cups of tea with officials who seemed to have some input to our forthcoming trip. But whenever we asked about setting off, the answer was always "wait until tomorrow".

In frustration at the delays, I made some short trips to other local attractions. Up a dirt road some 25km to the north west of Jiulong was the Wuxu Hai lake, situated at the foot of some grey limestone peaks known as the 12 Beautiful Daughters. Rock had passed through this area, but strangely did not comment on the picturesque lake.

There were already a few tourist log cabins at the lake, and it was an idyllic setting to spend a day watching the weather changing around the peaks further up the valley. The local Tibetans took Chinese visitors on horseback to a waterfall further up the alpine valley and said there were hot springs and a Holy lake, Tian Chi, six hours further into the mountains.

I spent a pleasant evening talking to the wife of the manager of the cabins, and their blind son who was surprised to find he was talking to a foreigner. A he stoked the open cooker fire, I wondered how he managed to avoid injury in the cramped interior.

Back in Jiulong there were more delays, so I made a visit to the '"Wild Man Temple" about 5km to the south east of the town, along anotherbumpy dirt road. Situated in a cave half way up a cliff, despite its name this temple did not refer to a Yeti. The local legend was that statues and temple strutures had appeared in the middle of the night in the cave, and had been atributed to a Wild Man. The small temple contained relics that purported to bear footrpints and handprints of the Wild Man.

"Zou Ba!" (Let's Go!) were the words of Wang Qi on a bright Monday morning. True to his word at last, there was a Landcruiser parked outside the hotel, loaded with supplies for a family visit. Also crammed inside the car were his wife Pema and his 20-year-old daughter Namu, a medical student in Chengdu. She had died bronze hair and a face like a serene Tibetan Buddha, and she relentlessly teased her father as we set off up the road to the Yangwe Kong valley.

"A-ba - will they have a horse big enough to carry you up the hill" she sniggered.

Later on she hummed songs and practised counting up to a hundred in the local Tibetan dialect:
"Dali, Nali, Songli ..." It didn't seem like we were setting off on an expedition to find a lost mountain.
"Have you got my handbag? asked Pema in the back. "I've got something special for Aunty Mera in it"

The road followed the familiar dirt track that went up to Wuxu Hai at first, but then split off to the west up a much rougher track. As we ascended up to what Joseph Rock called the Druderon Pass I clung on tightly to the handles inside the car, but still could not avoid being bumped and bruised as the Landcruiser rocked and bounced around.

There was little to see in the valley - fir trees and some old water races diverted to turn water wheels in little shacks tht were use to grind corn. But no sign of human habitation.

Then we neared the pass and rose above the tree line, the landscape could have been Scotland - brown moorland and an alpine tarn - and the imposing bulk of a grey limestone peak which Wang Qi told me was called Kangwo Shan.

The Druderon Pass [Kangwo Shan] from the western side

Over the pass the view was of wave after wave of receding hills. Somewhere in the distance, Wang pointed out a peak - that's Mongdong, where we are going today, he said. We descended into the Yangwe kong valley and the condition of the zigzag road became worse. On some landslips we had to get out to alow our driver Puncog to negotiate them alone. This was the pass where Rock's caravan had become stormbound, and where he had sought shelter at a lamasery called Deon Gomba.

There's a place caled Diwan down below, but no Miazi any more, said Puncog. When I mentioned that Rock said the pass also formed an ethnic divide between the Tibetans and the Xifan tribe, Wang visibly winced.

"Actualy the people on this side of the pass are Pumi. We are similar to the Tibetans but the language is different to Lhasa Tibetan," he explained.

I was curious to see the valley where Rock had commented:

"How oppressive to be buried alive inside these vast canyon systems! Or are they happier for it?"

But the Yangwe Kong did not seem particularly oppresive. In fact it had rather a pleasant climate and outlook. As we travelled down the valley in sunny weather we passed small villages settlements like Shigen and Bongbongchong where the main crop seemed to be maize. There were apple and peach trees, pigs and sheep roamed freely and the river flowed green and clear beside us.

It could almost have been a Meditteranean scene - like an isolated part of Crete. The local houses were of simple Tibetan style, made of stone but with practical sloped roofs of Chinese curved tiles - and of course every one had a satellite dish to pick up TV.

The local Pumi people wore Chinese style clothing - ex-army jackets, plain trousers and gumboots, and carried wicker basket backpacks. "The climate here is too warm for poeple to wear traditional Tibetan clothes" said Wang. The only item of clothing that Rock would have recognised were the yak hair cloaks with wide red seams that some men sported. As we bumped our way down the valley, we were suddenly brought up short by huge boulders blocking the road ahead. Another largish boulder bowled across the road ahead of us. I looked up to see about twenty Tibetan faces peering down over the edge of a cliff some hundred feet overlooking the raod. I had visions of being attacked by Tufei (bandits) - but Wang assured us it was just the local way of quarrying fro building materials.

After a few minutes of grunting work to shift the boulders under the curious stares of the locals, we were on out way again.



We paused briefly at a larger village of Sanyanlong where there were a couple of stores, a clinic and a sizeable, neat Chinese-style school. The students flocked out to see us, and Wang, being director of education went in to make a quick visit. I popped my head into the clinic, a simple treatment room where a demur female doctor in a white coat was inserting an IV drip into a woman's arm.

"Conditions here are very poor," she said apologetically. But I remembered Rock's 1929 comments: "Whenever we came to a village the peasants would gather about us and with folded hands would beseech me to dispense medicine to sick relatives. Often I could help. Sometimes I had to refuse". At least now they had a clinic.

By midafternoon we had reached the end of the road - Shantien. This was Wang's home village and there were many happy shouts as aunts and uncles and cousins were reunited. From the courtyard where cows and pigs grunted. we climbed up some steps hewn out of a log up to the first floor of balcony his ancestral wooden house. Inside the roomy interior we had a late lunch of fatty bacon and some bitter courgette type vegetable under the a picture of the Dalai Lama and Chairman Mao. And of course, bowls of suyou cha - butter tea.

Shantian relatives 2

"My dad's brother is a well known Huofo (living Buddha)" said Wang pointing to a picture of another maroon clad benign-looking monk. It seemed quite normal to have a Communist official and a leading member of the Buddhist clergy in the same household.

Shantian Mao and Dalai Lama

During the meal a toothless local man brought in an old flintlock rifle similar to one portrayed in one of Rock's photographs. Wang took me up to the roof of the hose, strewn with dried out maize stalks and flat wicker trays of red peppers to point out where we would be going. At the bottom of the valley was a large pointed peak called Sazanran, to the right of which flowed the Yangwe Kong river down a cleft towards the Yalong river. "We're going over that" he said. It looked impossibly steep.

The sounds of clanking bells heralded the arrival of our horses for the trip. The four handlers strapped on our bags and we were soon setting off up a steep rocky trail through the bushy hillside. Almost at once the handlers were urging me "Qi ma Qi ma!" (Ride the horse). At first I tried to walk but soon gave in and let the horse sweat its way more surely up the narrow and zig zagging trail.

Yangwe Kong valley

As we ascended an impressive view of the lower half of the Yangwe Kong emerged, along with a bird's eye view of the narrow cleft of a gorge that lead down to the Yalong river, far below. "Why did Rock take the trouble to come all thi way over the hills when he could have just gone down to the river there? I asked Wang. The simple answer was there was no place to cross the Yalong at that point and no settlements on the steep sides of the canyon there. "This is the only way to cross to Muli and Yunnan," he said flatly. Our track eventually crested and crossed over a cleft in a razorback ridge of Sazanran, to descend equally steeply to some more settlements in a beautiful steep sided valley on the other side.

On horseback going to Mongdong.

I marvelled at the view of the steep sided hills, which hung like crennelated brocade. We dismounted, drank from clear mountain streams and we went down, passing some houses at the bottoma only to begin another weary ascent as the day drew to a close. Up and up the poor horses strained, by now needing constant urging from the handlers as they paused every twenty steps, panting and sweating. It took what seemed like hours before we were able to "Fang Shan" (reach the top of the mountain).

When we did, it was almost dark. We were on top of a rounded ridge overlooking the Yalong river canyon. Even in the fading light, it was very impressive. Down in the gloom I could just make out a string of faint organish lights far below, presumably houses along the river bank in Muli county across the river. Above, a crescent moon gave a little light to guide us further up the ridge.

The horses stumbled on up the ridge track. By now I could barely see a hand in front of my face and was glad I could not see the steep drop I would face should the horse stray off the track. It was a surreal and marvellous experience to be riding under the faint moonlight, with the canyons far below and the long jagged ridge of the Muli mountains opposite marking the divide between earth and the night sky.

An inverted carpet of stars and the Milky Way lay above our heads The only sound was of the horse bells clanking and the occasional "Cho!" to stir them on from the handlers, shadowy figures who could only be seen by the orange glow of their cigarette tips.

Some time around 8pm we finally saw a faint light ahead. Mongdong! In the darkness we gathered outside the locked wooden gate of a Tibetan house on the hillside, and an incredulous old man's voice from within eventually replied to shouts from Wang Qi and the handlers. A dog barked, a faint light went on inside and a torch shone out in our faces. The old man mumbled the Tibetan acknowledgement of "Oh-ah-uh" and let us in.

Within the smoky dark scullery we huddled around the wood fired stove as Pema's uncle cooked us a late dinner of fatty yak meat, boiled potatoes and sour yoghurt. This was the house of Pema's father and uncle and they had a lot of news to catch up on. Recognising that the foreigner could not stomach much of the tough yak meat, they cookded me some baked potatoes. I felt dozy and dizzy and lay down on some yak hair blankets on the floor, pulling my sleeping bag around me. The walls of the room were covered in posters of "Distinguished Animals and Birds of Ganze Prefecture" and an official notice with a Tibetan monk on that pronounced "This is a Safe and Civilised Household".

The following morning I rose before the sun came up, from among a pile of snoring bodies in the wooden room. Our party of eight had quite taken over the Mongdong uncle's house. Tottering round in the cold, with my legs and thighs acheing from the previous day's long hours in the saddle, I somehow managed to find a flask of hot water (kaishui) to wash with and put my contact lenses in. There was just enough to make a weak cup of Nescafe to warm me up as I stood on the balcony and watched the sky lighten and reveal the Muli mountain ridges.

mundon up2

To my surprise the string of lights I had seen the night before were not houses along the river, but belonged to a settlement only half way down the canyon. This really was a massively deep gorge!

As the other's began to rise, Pema’s cousin, a rugged but cheerful looking Tibetan climbed up the the cow yard with a flapping chicken grabbed by its legs. "Morning!" he hailed, and pulled himself out a stoll to sit on. Before I realised what he was doing he had slit the bird's throat and was directing a stream of steaming dark blood into a bowl as casually as if he was pouring red wine from a casket. I moved away as he efficiently commence to pluck and wash the now lifeless carcass, that looked a very unappetisiing greyish white.

chook

Joseph Rock described Mongdong (Mundon) as a "dreary Hsifan hamlet" where water had to be hauled up by bucket from a thousand feet below. But as the morning sun rose over the peaks it seemed to me anything but dreary. The views across the gorge were superb and this colelction of four family houses semed to be a cheerful little community.

Drawn by the sound of chanting and the throbbing of a drum, I visted the small Black Hat (Bonpo) Buddhist monastery next door, outside which juniper branches sent up a trail of smoke into the blue sky. A couple of old men in ordinary clothes were conducting a morning blessing, impervious to a young boy and girl toddlers who gambled around them. The bumpy surface of the whitewashed interior wall was covered with fairly recently Buddhists friezes. On an exterior wall at the entrance there were more beautiful pictures of Buddhists figures in delicate faded sky blues, yellows and pinks. All their faces had been scratched off during the Cultural Revolution.

"Tai yihan" (What a pity) said Wang, by my side.

Back in the house there was a shout of "Breakfast!" and the sight of the whole household and visitors slurping bowls of fresh chicken stew with potatoes, bones and all. As I joined them, Wang winked at his wife. "If it wasn't for me you'd still be here, eh?" Her uncle said his father remembered when Rock had passed through and had talked about it often. "I must tell you a secret, though," he said to me.

He went on to tell me the tale of how the villagers had tricked Rock out of one of his large cameras by saying it was forbidden to photograph Buddhist ceremonies. But they didn't know the worth of the camera and eventually sold it for the equivalent of four sets of clothes.


Day 2: Mundon to Wadzanran/Chang Haizi

We were farewelled from Mundon mid morning by all the four families of the hamlet, many of them dressed up specially in their finest Tibetan clothes. At first I tried walking, but the high altitude was having its effects on me - sunburned arms and cracked lips, and I certainly wasn't fit enough to be walking up steep slopes at these altitudes.

"Qi ma!" urged the horse handlers, and I quickly complied. "Without horses you'd have no chance of getting to here," said Wang. And as Rock had noted:

"Merely walking or climbing over a steep trail at heights of 16,000 feet is difficult enough, without carrying 80-100 pounds on one's back. This feat was performed by the Hsifan peasants through fear of our lama, who represented the Muli king ..." This time it was our horse handlers who bounded up the hill in sports shoes, their singing of Tibetan songs seeming to grow louder and more enthusistaic as we climbed higher. Perhaps it was to do with the amount of Ara - spirits distiled from maize - that they consumed. By the afternoon they reeked of it.

Yalong lookdown

We ascended up the ridge, gaining fine views of Mundon from above, through fir forest that was regenerating from a 1984. In parts, whole swathes of the mountainside had been denuded of trees, while others seemed untouched. Ahead we could see the high ridge of the Wadzanran pass, and Pema warned that if it rained we would likely see many wenxue (leeches) emerging. "As big as fish some of them are," she commented. But the weather stayed fine and clear. We reached a plateau and clearing, ideal for camping, where we had fine views in three directions: to our right the serrated ridges falling gradually to the Yalong river and rising agin in Muli county.

To our left were the ridges that trailed off into the Yamgwe Kong. And ahead was the Wadzanran pass. "That's where the bandits used to lie in wait for the tea caravans that came up from Yunnan," said Wang. "They were tough guys - you wouldn't want to meet them!"

By now, peeping above the crest of the brown grassy hill ahead was the tip of a snow peak. "That's Mutikonka!" excalimed Wang. It was frustratingly near but I could see little of it. Then we skirted round the left hand side off the rounded ridge we were ascending, seemingly away from the Wadzanran pass. When I expressed my doubts, Wang told me: "We aren't going up to the pass - I've got something better to show you. Something Rock missed."

And as we rounded the ridge, suddenly the whole length of the Mutikonka ridge came into view. And what a sight its snow covered heights were. As well as the majestic main peak, there was a second snowy dome and in front of it a rocky knob, not covered by snow.

"Mutikonka is the yak spirit mountain," Wang told me. "The peak there is its horns, this ridge is one leg and the Wadzanran ridge is another leg. The pass is its knee," he said. The rounded second peak, Jachong, was Mutikonka's wife and the rocky knob, named Yandron Zemu, was its little sister. There was even better to come.

As we continued around the hill, suddenly the lower heights of the mountain came into view. And there, far below us lay the most perfect alpine lake, kidney shaped, with much of its 1km length hidden from view behind the forested arm of a descending ridge. On its near shore was a grassy plain where several tiny houses could be made out. It was like a scene from old Switzerland. The alpine lake beneath Mutikonka was known as Zumi Ho to the Pumi, or Chang Haizi [Long Lake] in Chinese.

We sat down to have a rest and one of the horse handlers, an older gentle man, told us of the legend of a monster in the lake's depths. He recounted how he himself had seen something spalshing around under the surface of the lake some twenty years ago, and the large waves it had created on the shore. It was like a whale, with the head of a horse, he said, matter of factly, sucking on his cigarette. No one doubted him.

We descended steeply though forest to the grassy clearing in front of the lake, and were welcomed by one of the two yak herding families who made a living there. As his dog barked at us, Tsampei invited us into his primitive house constructed of grey boulders, and inside the timbered interior it was surprisingly light and airy - quit a contrast to the mucky darkness of Mundon's dwellings.

As we settled down fro suyou cha, I looked around and wondered like Rock, how these people coped with the isolation. But even here, two days hard horse rise from the nearest dirt track, they had electricity from a hydro power station. And as with all Tibetan houses, they had a picture frame on the wall, filled with family photographs. Some of the older ones were of the family in quilted army-style uniforms - from the 1970s. The more recent ones showed them on excursions ot the Big Buddha at Leshan, down in the Han-dominated Sichuan lowlands. These were not people cut off from the outside world any more.

In a Tibetan house near Chang Haizi, Muti Konka, Sichuan

We settled down around the central fire, above which was suspended a wicker basket from which hung greasy black entrails of smoke condensation. Inside the basket were mounds of cheese. A yak's skull decorated with motifs took pride of place on the mantle piece and the lady of the house was soon preparing butter tea in the usual way by squishing a mixture of tea and liquid butter up and down a long wooden cylinder with a plunger.

For our dinner she first prepared Yumi Momo (maize bread) by cooking the maize dough in the ashes of the fire. When that was baking she took out and old metal kettle that appeared to have noodles inside. It was actually yak cheese, congealed on lenghths of tree twigs that had been put in the kettle. She unwound some of the stringly cheese and mixed it with green peppers to make a kind of macaroni they called Gyedon, or Xiulai, in Chinese. This was complemented by more fatty yak beef and thin strips of fried potato stir fred with chillis.

Nema, the town girl, surprised me by her quick adaptation to the primitive surroundings. With her mobile phone and trendy clothes I had expected her to be squeamish in this envionment, but she was obviously born to it. Looking incongruous in her city clothes, she expertly built up the fire, served up the tea and bantered with one of the young Tibetan horsehands, Tsemi. He seemed to be a bit of a jack the lad, but his ribald conversation and jokes kept everyone enthralled through the evening.

The ara spirit was passed around, and Tsemi was a good mimic: there was some joke about mispronouncing Jiujiu (uncle) that had everone in fits . Pema laughed until she choked, and I reflected it was a long time since I had heard such unrestrained laughter. I felt a bit excluded. The toilet arrangements were simple - you just went outside somewhere, not too near the house or the lake.

In the darkness I wandered some way off and turned off the torch. It was almost completely black except for the overbearing white presence of the mountain, like two arms of a ghostly cloak around the lake. I couldn't see the house at all, and I panicked. Without a torch, I felt that even from a few yards away I would not have been able to find the house again. I settled down in dusty corner and fell into a fatigued sleep to have strange vivid dreams. Was it the altitude, the fire smoke or something else?

Day 3. Muti Konka

There was frost on the ground as I emerged from the boulder shack and saw Mrs Tsampei milking a yak with a bright green plastic bucket. Above reared Mutikonka, still in shdow as the sun had not yet reached over the ridgeline. We were meant to have an early start but the horses could not be found.

While the others breakfasted on suyou cha and tsampa, I walked down to the lakeside. The water was crystal clear, showing the blue-grey stones on the bottom, receding into a pale sandy depths.

Chang Haizi /Maidi Gangga

The surface of the lake was absolutely still, and appeared to be covered with a fine coating of dust. As the sun started to appear, the surface of the lake appeared to be a perfect mirror reflecting the snowy mountain and autumnal forest colours of greens, yellows and reds and browns. But as soon as the suns rays hit the lake, the reflection was replaced by sparkling perception of its depths.

I threw in a small pebble and watched the concentric rings of its riples swimming and expanding as shadows on the bottom of the lake. If there was a monster down there it must be keeping very still, I thought.

My silent thoughts were interrupted by the clanking of bells. The horses had been located and when I returned were chomping at their nosebags of maize and being readied for the days exertions. Bags were strapped on, the wooden saddle frames covered with itchy yak hair covers, straps were tightened and then it was "Zabo!" - let's go!

It was another perfect clear sunny day as we headed downhill, our destination the village of Roni (Lawaling in Chinese) After farewelling the Champei family we haeded downhill into forest of firs and yellow leaved Qinggan shu whose branches were festooned with the hanging lichen known as old mans whislers or muliusiu. Birds flitted around in the undergrowth and bell-like blue flowers qiuhua paved the occasional clearings.

"You should come here in June, that's when the azaleas and rhododendrons are in bloom," Wang told me.

Later he suddenely urged us to be quiet and we dismounted. Creeping forward he pointed to a flock of large grey quails, that suddenly darted off into the bushes with much clucking and flapping. Ye-ji (wild chickens), he laughed. And as we ascended the ridge opposite Wadzanran he pointed out the songron mushrooms growing by the wayside.
"Good for cancer. Japanese pay a lot of money for them - but we don't have time to stop," he said.

It was a leisurely day's ride up through the sunny forest until we eventually crested the hill at lunchtime, and stopped to admire the view back to the Wadzanran pass, and away over to Muli. "It looks so close but it would take you half a month to climb down into the gorge and back out again," said Wang. "They used to do it in the old days, but why bother now? You can drive there in a couple of days from Jiulong ..."

After spying a Pusa ( Buddhist painting) painted on the summit rocks above us we descended through the forest until we suddenly came out above a neat village, situated on a flat terrace at the end of the ridge, high above the Yangwe Kong valley.

"This is Roni," said Wang. "They are all my family here." In the afternoon sun a couple of men were ploughing a furrow through a potato field with a unruly yak. An old man in a tattered grey cowboy hat waved us over. It was Wang's uncle.There was much to talk about, he hadn't seen his relatives here for five years.

Down in the village proper, among the stone and dark brown timbered buildings, we were ushered as guests of honour into the comfy chairs of the main room. We sat amid a mixture of farming implements and DVD players as the head of the house - Wang's cousin - rounded up the older relatives to drink tea with us. he looked strange dressed in a red silk Chinese waistcoat with an upturned Desert Storm pattern bush hat on his head.

Pumi couple in Lawaling, Jiulong, SW China.

Wang had to restrain him from killing a goat for us, so he compromised by sending his son to chase two unfortunate chickens over the walls and roofs of the cow shed, destined for the pot.

Ploughing potatoes at Roni

While Wang caught up with the family gossip, everyone wanted to have their photograph taken with me. Then I was taken on a tour through the old village to meet an old lama and see his corner of a house where he made peaceful supplications to Buddha while a vicious dog in the yard outside lunged and barked at me in seemingly rabid intensity, threatening to snap the home made chain.

Over another chicken and spud stew the 83-year old grandma, Yanzhong Lamma, told me how she remembered the visit of Rock and his strange entourage. He brought strange accotrements like photographic plates, pressed flower specimens and binoculars they had never seen before, and her father had the honour of guiding him over the hills to Jiulong. In an echo of this, the yunger people of the village marvelled at my LED torch and cooed as they stroked the plastic Australian dollars they asked to see.

Then Wang pressed a 100 yuan note into the protesting hands of his aunts and uncles and we headed off, past the older buildings with their iron tridents protruding from the rooftops and the yellow painted stone swastika motifs embedded in the walls. We passed a stand of old ash trees with a sweeping view of the Yangwe Kong valley, and began the last descent back to Shantian.

On the way I was glad I brought my torch because it was soon pitch dark and what little of the moon there was remained hidden by the ridge. The little beam lit the way for us, though the horses seemed to know their way. As we paused in the dark on the steep track down, near a thundering but unseen waterfall, I queried Tsemi about what Rock had said of the unbearable isolation and remoteness of this area.

"This place is cut off from the outside world - do you feel happy here, would you rather be somewhere else?"

In his nasal Sichuan accented Chinese he confidently and matter of factly dismissed the idea. "We've got everything here - good food, nice people, good weather and all this beauty - and plenty of booze! Why would I want to live anywhere else?" he said.

There was silence for a while as the others contemplated what he said. The tips of their cigarettes glowed in the dark. "Do you think you will you come back here?" asked Tsemi. "Definitely," I replied.

Postscript.

The next day after we had rested at Wang's house I received a rapturous reception at every place we stooped on our bumpy journey back up the Yangwe Long. The local Pumi people greeted me as if I had just returned from the moon. "Xinku! Xinku!"(hard going well done!) they said, smiling from ear to ear.

Muzzle loading flintlock gun - Shantian

At unscheduled stops I was plied with Qingke Jiu (barley spirits) and toasted endlessly. One of the local female teachers ushered me into a room where most of the staff had been ahstily assembles. With trembling hands she held a glass of fizzy beer up in front of me and sang a high pitched, ululating Pumi song of welcome, then draped a traditional white kata scarf around my neck.

sanyanlong school

"Welcome to come back here, please tell everyone about our little place," she said.

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Medical writer, user of Rolleiflex and Leica film cameras, China-phile and Brompton bike rider. Editor of http://www.chinesemedicalnews.com  Originally from Yorkshire.

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