Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Meili Snow Mountain Adventures

We are back in Fei Lai Si, at our friendly safehaven of Sham Bala Hotel (complete with friendly English speaking hosts) somewhat worse for wear after a long dry day from the Lower Yubeng village. We have had a fantastic five days exploring the inner tracks on Meili Snow Mountain, the outer loop is a 12 day mission which locals do regularly to honour the mountain but we skipped on it to avoid the complications of going into Tibet.

Meili Snow Mountain or Kawa Karpo is an absolutely magnificent massif with a succession of amazing summits, from Miancimu in the south, to the crazy Buddhas heads and the elusive Kawa Karpo high summit to name a few. It was a privilage to explore part of this area.

Day 1: Hiking Chinese Style

It was drizzly and horrible on our rooftop in Fei Lai Si. We delayed packing, somewhat foolishly it turns out, hoping for a change in the weather. We had heard of a friendly hostel, the Sham Bala, so went there to drop off some excess gear, no problem, and they organised us a taxi to, 120Y to the hot springs on the other side of the valley, we were pleased to avoid the 1500m descent and 600m ascent to start the day. There was also a National Park fee of 83Y, a bargain for 5 days in this paradise, although I would preferif it went to some sort of environment programme. This consciousness doesn't seem to exist here, our first hostel had a genuine furry bear face pinned to a board while our second featured a stuffed red panda and mountain goat.

Our first day walking was very much trekking China style, we are learning to appreciate the regular sprite stops on the beaten track and when you are very lucky a lady cooking baba or fried bread on the side. Our favourite joint on the way over was located deep in a groove of massive trees. We relaxed, watching the lady cook and the squirrels rustle through the trees.

It was about 1000metres climb to the pass and we raced the limping old Tibeten man with Emphysema, just loosing out to him, although he stopped at the yak butter tea outlets on the pass to take a break. Every now and then we found ourselves walking through forests of prayer flags...

The descent was much more pleasant, just the occasional tinkle of bells as mules or dogs went the other way. Chinese seem to love horse trekking. Its strange. I imagine horse trekking where you are sort of trotting if not galloping, but this horse trekking consists of going on a horse which is being pulled along by a horse boy. I can't imagine anything worse, although they all seem very happy, "ni hau", "ni hau", "tashi deli", "hello". It was not long until we were down in upper Yubeng and had a bit of a mystery to solve, what are these things? (hint: they are the same just different technology.

We decided to stay at the Tibetan party hostel, which featured, terrible food and loud music. I quite enjoyed watching the Tibetan dancing to house music. The Israelis we had befriended, Eran and Adi made a good effort at dancing, and Penny put in a cameo before tripping over a bench. sleep was sweet.

Day 2: The Ice Lake and Adding a bit of Kiwi Style

From Upper Yubeng the established trek is to base camp and the ice lake. Base camp was where the ill-fated Sino/Japanese expedition set off from, their bodies were discovered a year later over the ridge in the Mingyong glacier. Kawa Karpo is now closed to climbers, a pristine, untrodden mountain into eternity, brilliant. We wandered up to base camp early in the morning, again passing many struggling mules, step by step up the muddy track with their placid riders. Base camp was all about noodles, big bowls of steaming noodles, watching the early risers arrive. Ice lake is another 30 minutes, a small lake beneath a big cirque. We had eyed up a bit of a loop from the lake up some slabs and around to a saddle on a ridge coming down from the mountain. Unfortunately the slabs were out of bounds for avalanche reasons, but we still ascended to the saddle up some alpine grassland then a bush bash through rhododendron forest to some open tops and awesome views.

On the return we skipped the rhododendron forest, but nearly lost Penny in a patch of colourful subalpine scrub.

Day 3: The Secret Lake

Travelling up the road from Cizhong I had eyed up a little grassy high point in front of the big beautiful mountains, “wouldn't it be awesome to go up there”. Again on the walk in it had caught our attention and by looking at the several maps we had (mostly pictograph) we figured that the little basin to the left of this peak was the home of the secret lake. The jewel in the crown of the Yubeng for more experienced hikers. A sub-alpine paradise in the middle of the alpine sublime.

We left the party house early, with all our gear, the plan was to drop it at a guesthouse in the lower village, grab breakfast, and get on up the hill. The sunrise was sweet as, the truly impressive Miancimu reared above the lower Yubeng.

After checking out several guesthouses we settled on the “Mystic Waterfall Hotel”, an awesome little spot, complete with functioning kitchen and most importantly guitar. They served us some steamed buns and a nice greasy omelette for breakfast...power food. To find the start of the track hang a left before the monastery and look for the little bridge by the prayer flags. Take a hard right straight after the bridge and follow your nose. The track sidles up to the right to begin with then heads straight up in zig zags through thick forest. It is easy to follow if you have done this sort of thing before.

After an hour or so we arrived on the ridge proper that descends all the way from Miancimu's Mr Whippy heights. For the first time we heard birdsong and spotted long tailed birds skipping away through the bamboo. Sunlight streamed in, highlighting the autumn colours and as we climbed the vegetation changed from fir to bamboo to more subalpine forest. Through gaps in the forest the occasional window opened in the clouds allowing us to see down to the 6000metre mountains near Shangri La or the wild ranges back behind Deqin or the barren hills of Tibet. What a spot. Only on the high ridges could the larch out compete the fir, strips of bright yellow running down the mountainsides. The little triangle peak, our destination beckoned.

Leaving the bushline the track sidled into the basin. First there was a primitive shelter, then after a succession of small dry basins the secret lake, a pleasant little tarn in our language. The omnipresent rock cairns and prayer flags lined the shore. We sat for a bit, eating our museli bar chunks before climbing higher.

We climbed higher and higher, developing a little plan to scoot around the top of the basin on the snowy ridges before descending to our summit. It was very beautiful, all the mountain ranges splayed around us like smashed pavlova (loving the diary metaphors today). We reached a point where we could see the southern flank of Miancimu and the dirty great glacier rolling off it, before suddenly the ridge got a little steep. Nothing for it but a little traverse through snow to some delightful yellow buttercups (maybe). Coaxing Penny who was feeling a bit woosy at about 4700metres.

We regained the ridge and traversed its sharp edge, great views back down to the lake and into the valley of the sacred waterfall. Our summit was reached and a quick break had as it started to snow. We could see all the way down to our guesthouse in the lower Yubeng, this proved useful as we relaxed later pointing out to fellow guests the little hill we had climbed.

Then down down down. Beautiful alpine plants, edelweiss, dwarf rhododendrons, crazy caterpillar fern, bright red leaves round and lush and small and pointy. Penny got away from me as I tried to take photos. Back down below the bushline and we stopped for a nap. Everything was looking like a picture. Decaying prayer flags strung up in the rhododendrons, bright rowan branches glaring above the canopy, you be the judge.

We still had a 1000metre descent in front of us, but we came up with a great technique. Pick up all the rubbish you find. We made a bag out of a discarded plastic poncho and set off down the hill on a spotting mission. Cigarette packets, red bull cans, plastic wrapping, and bottles (too big for the bag these were strapped on my pack, 12 of them festooned on me by the end). Before we knew it we were down, back at the guesthouse with a Dali on our table. China has fantastic beer 10% and delicious, lovely fruity after taste. I am starting to suspect our alcohol laws imposing more tax above 9% alcohol are a conspiracy to make sure we buy crap beer and more of it. Dinner was yak meat and spices accompanied by tasty plates of chilli onion and cabbage. Yummy! What a day.

Day 4: The Sacred Waterfall.

Despite all intentions we were up early again, the sunrises were getting better and better. Miancimu was joined by his friends the mighty Buddha Heads showing their craggy features.

A quick tastless and watery breakfast of rice porridge, steamed buns and green tea (Penny is over the oil but I say bring it on!) we were off up into the mysterious valley. After the pasture, great trees rose up from mossy boulders, the tinkling river running down to our left as we strolled up the well trodden pilgrims trail. We had eyed the valley up from above the day before and it had appeared flat from so high, but it rose steadily, emerging again in pasture and the first of the tuck shops. There was a family of Tibetans here on their pilgrimage and they cooked rice and babas (traditional bread) on the fire, roasting chillis on the edge of the cast iron stove. We sat around the fire for a bit warming our hands before moving on.

Futher up the valley the track steepened further into a series of zig zags rising beside some snow debris. The giant cliff of the waterfall reared above us with the snowy mountains peering down over it.

We had seen forests of prayer flags before but this was a jungle. They were everywhere and more were coming. Heavily decorated Tibetan women lay them out, burnt incense and prayed to the mountain. A beautiful scene and great time to contemplate and thank the mountain for our safe travels in the spray of the holy waterfall.

We were back at our guesthouse by 11am. A quite afternoon followed, washing, increasingly terrible guitar and a bit of an afternoon nap. The mountains kept us company for most of the day before their veils returned by evening. We celebrated the birthday of Richard an Englishman resident in Singapore we have got to know along with his wife Wendy, very interesting stories, of Wendys time as a principal dancer in Chinas top ballet company and Richard's Nepalese adventures. We are enjoying meeting other travellers given our inability to communicate to the locals. Great conversation, watching the sun go down over beautiful mountains.

Day 5: Out and Up

It was time to leave the paradise of the Yubeng, we had seen what there was to see and it was time to move on. The alternative route to the mountain pass we came over is a descent of the Yubeng river to its confluence with the Mekong and then up the Mekong by a variety of routes to Fei Lai Si. We had heard this walk described as the most beautiful in the Yubeng, but were sceptical, “maybe they hadn't seen what we had”, but it sure was pretty.

We got up early to leave before Richard and Wendy who were taking a guide along with a group of 5 Israelis and an Irish girl. Penny was feeling a little bit crook but she soon perked up after some watery rice porridge. Tasteless but hydrating (more on that later). I also ordered some extra steamed buns that Penny was stoked with, especially when we garnished them with our chilli sauce.

The walk down valley started in forest dotted with yak pasture and fallow land. We are growing used to stone buildings, ugly cattle (I still haven't figured out the yak/cattle thing its somewhat of a spectrum) and observing rural China. What an incredibly different world from the one we inhabit.

The river eventually gorges, and rushes steeply through massive boulders. An Israeli guy died here a few months ago when he slipped into the river while taking a photo. Rivers are beautiful but unforgiving. The track is good though, traversing high at times but well benched and its not long before it descends into a more open area complete with ruins and the remnants of maize fields (maybe they get a spring crop here). Walnut trees like always are sprinkled though cultivated areas. The river doesn't relax for long though, soon it begins its final plunge for the Mekong and here we leave it. Suddenly the track sidle on river left a narrow path following a water race. On one side is the gurgling water on the other an increasingly sheer and high drop down into the canyon. At times the dry path is only a plank, although there is always an option to wet ones feet in the ditch if the exposure feels too extreme. Amazing.

We round the corner and see far below the green of the Yubeng get swallowed by the brown of the Mekong. In the space of two hundred metres we have gone from Central Otago into Pakistan. Life is hard and hot and dry. On the far side of the river ruined earth walls and terraces show were people tried to make a living in this harsh environment. The water race still gurgles beside us a lifeline for the village two kilometres up river. We see the corn it feeds drying on their roofs from a distance.

We have chosen a hard route, we could follow the water race to the village on this side then walk a further couple of kilometres to the road end and waiting taxis, but instead we cross the Mekong on the first bridge and head intoo bandit country, erratic rocks and scraggly bushes on a barren river terrace. We follow tracks into a canyon, sidle up it and cross on an old wooden bridge. The village above the canyon is an oasis, laden fruit trees topple over ancient earthen walls. But no one is home, we had hoped for sprite and apples, but we are out of luck. As we leave we see one old lady scuttling around in her backyard but we don't disturb here.

The tale turns into pain and suffering now. We have the small matter of 1300metres up to Fei Lai Si. The track is a gash on a giant spur, off camber and the pebbles we kick tumble down the slope. It keeps on going we run out of water, although fortunately the rice porrdge is still working for me. It turns into a bush bash, our relationship is threatened, but finally we make it. Woohoo.

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