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

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Chapter 29: MULI AT LAST.

On the third day my destination was the town of Wachang. I did not know what I would find there, but according to my old map it was the site of the Muli monastery.

In his account. Rock described a trip over a mountain pass infested with brigands, and his map showed two peaks: Mt Gibboh and Mt Ladze. These were presumably the two peaks I had seen from my walk in from Youngning, and they still looked a long way off. Since everyone said it would take 12 hours to reach Wachang, I set off bright and early after a revolting breakfast of boiled rice and stale eggs. I bought a couple of bottles of 'Pilu' beer juice, a sticky sweet barley sugar drink, and paid the shopkeeper a whopping 20rmb for my board and lodging. I was too tired and impatient too argue with him. He assured me there was a primitive road all the way to Wachang, and sure enough, the switchback road headed up into the pine forest and around the sides of a steep valley.

I soon left the log cabins behind and was alone in the hushed forest, tramping to the sounds of rushing water, cuckoos, and the wind rustling the trees. With such a long walk ahead of me, I adopted the route march tactics my dad had told me about from his army days in Italy during World War II: a five minute break every hour for a smoke or a drink. Later in the day 1 would look forward to those five minutes and relish every second before I had to hit the road again.

Muli, Sichuan

As I climbed higher into the forest I began to feel nervous and lonely. What if there were bears or wolves about? Why were those men in the jeep carrying guns? Why were there no local people walking this track? Were the local Tibetans not friendly? I speeded up my walk and made sure the Tibetan knife was handy in my pocket. The only signs of human life were the remains of campfires in the middle of the road, and the many trees felled and left to rot.

Mid-morning I was passed by the jeep on its way back to Muli: it laboured past in a cloud of dust, the driver yelling 'Couldn't fit you in!' and the rest of them laughing. This transformed my nervousness into determination: I would show them I could do it. A couple of hours later I reached a pass, denuded of trees, which led through into a second, immense forested valley, blocked at the other end by the grey-blue crags of what I assumed to be Mt Gibboh. I could see the road, skirting the high sides of the valley, following every loop and spur for mile after mile. In the distance, a line ran across the top uf the mountain: was that the road or a geological fault? I was stuck on that track through the valley for what seemed like ages: trudging round each corner only to see another corner a mile ahead.

At one point I had to follow a large loop up a side valley: I could see the track emerge again a few hundred yards away, directly across the chasm, yet I had to follow the detour for an hour; the valley was too steep and densely forested to think about cutting across. I passed frozen streams and abandoned log cabins, and had established a good walking rhythm by the time I stopped for lunch beneath the crags of Mt Gibhoh. As I ate the last of my supplies: a pineapple, some peanuts and a fig cake, I gazed up at the road that disappeared through a cleft in the mountain: that was my next goal.

When Rock made the same trip in February 1924 his party spent the night near this place, sheltering from a blizzard under the crags as leopards prowled around outside his tent. When he crossed the 15,000 foot pass the next day he was on the lookout for brigands who were said to lurk behind the crags. But like Rock, I went unmolested through the pass, though I was quickly running out of steam. I had to go through the 'pain barrier' after lunch because my feet were now swollen and aching, and my shoulders painfully sore from the straps of my knapsack. By now I was almost level with a snow-capped ridge to the right, and I gulped in cold air and shivered in the increasing wind.

Just before I reached the pass I came across a wild Tihetan woman. wrapped in an animal skin cloak, who hurled abuse at me and pointed back in the direction I had come from. She disappeared into the forest, leaving me with an uneasy feeling about whai lay ahead. By the time I did reach the pass. I was so worried about the time thai I forgot to emulate the example of Rock's Tibetan guides, who had leapt into the air and shouted 'La Rgellah'' (The Gods are victorious!').

The pass was a corner in the road, which seemed to be on almost on top of the mountain, with a few prayer flags and some trousers flapping from the trees. And amazingly, after all this wilderness, there was a goatherd's log cabin with a jeep parked outside. On the other side, I saw what had captivated Rock sixty years ago: '...a sea of mountains, range upon range, like the furrows in a field, with a deep ravine from north to south, down which runs the Litang River...'

More immediately, I was face with a steep descent through a forest: way below I could see some cultivated terraces, which would surely take an eternity to reach if I stuck to the spiralling road. In my urgency, I struck out off the road, stumbling through banks of thorns, over fallen logs, and slipping in the soft soil. My progress was slow and painful, but I began to notice changes: the air became warmer and there were smells of grass and trees instead of the ice cold wind and nervous sweat of above. And the forest was different: deciduous beeches instead of the spruce and pine of the previous valley.

Down, down I went, for an hour and another hour, until eventually I came across the first signs of civilisation: a group of Tibetan woodcutters and their horses with tinkling bells. And then a forestry station, deserted except for a sprinkler system in its nursery. Then there was a road gang, fixing a washed-out bridge, who stared at me and said Wachang was three hour's walk away. I was exhausted and had no drink left, so I drank some stream water and washed my face. It was still a long plod, my mouth dry, my lips cracked and sore. the backs of my hands burnt red, and my feet tender. But there were encouraging signs: Tibetan chalets with brightly-painted verandas, and a clear stream running alongside the road.

I daydreamed about Wachang: a real town with roads and restaurants and guesthouses with soft beds. A plate of stir-fried pork and tomatoes with rice, and a bottle of beer... Just around the next corner perhaps. Meanwhile, sick of the sweet Pilu juice, I sucked on some dried plums to keep my raging thirst at bay, and came across my first Muli people. Somewhere in this vicinity. Rock had halted his caravan to despatch a messenger with his card to the King of Muli. 'It would not do 10 arrive in Muli unheralded,' he said. —Some of my Nashi men who had been to Muli several times were anxious that I give proper presents to the king, lest we be uncivilly received.' Rock noted that the Muli women wore *grey woollen skirts with fringes, and leather jackets. Their wealth of hair, much of it false, was decorated with garlands of gilded Sichuan rupees.'

In the 1990s, however, the Muli Tibetans had adopted contemporary Chinese attire. There was a shop in one of the Tibetan chalets along the roadside. The owner was sat inside drinking tea with his friends, all clad in Mao Zedong jackets and proletarian caps. He didn't seem too surprised to see a foreigner walk out of the mountains, and was more interested in my walking stick than me. There still seemed to be long way to go down the valley, but he directed me onto a path over a nearby spur, saying Wachang was only 20 minutes away.

My heart sank as I clambered up the hill: surely there was no way there could be a real town on the sides of this valley? I pressed on, utterly worn out, yet having to lob stones at some aggressive dogs that ran out from the nearby houses. Around the corner, I got my first view of Wachang. with a mixture of exhilaration and disappointment. High upon the side of the valley, below a crenellated mountain ridge that I recognised as Mt Mitzuga, I could just make out the roofs and white buildings of a walled village. Muli monastery!

wachang first

Or so I thought. I was excited because this was Muli. my goal, but disappointed because I knew there would he none of the soft beds or fried pork that I had set my heart on. Ah, well - it was evening and there was nowhere else to go. I would force myself on the monks and hope their hospitality was as good as that of Renjom Gompa. As it turned out, I needn't have worried: it wasn't Muli monastery, but the nearby village of Wachang. After struggling up a garbage-strewn hillside. I entered the complex through a door in the wall, and discovered I was in a village complete with main street, stores, pool tables, a market area and, inevitably, a Communist Party headquarters. Nevertheless, this was my big moment. I recognised that mountain ridge as the Mt Mitzuga from Rock's pictures. Therefore, I knew I had arrived in old Muli village.

Muli, Sichuan

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Medical writer, user of Rolleiflex and Leica film cameras, China-phile and Brompton bike rider. Editor of  Originally from Yorkshire.