Thunder, tolling bell-like in richly resonant peals, vibrate boomingly around you with earthshaking force. Bolts of lightning fall missile-like from lowlying, weightily pregnant clouds above, striking rough talus and snowfields and peaks and valleys at random, both time and place unpredictable. A coarse hail starts to fall, first lightly, then heavily; large round balls of ice start fusillading your jacket as you descend the boulders, perched underneath you at an angle sometimes exceeding that of repose. Sky, earth, everything in between are attacking simultaneously in what feels like a wrathful, or perhaps even prideful, imbalance of emotions. A storm, emotional, physical, mental, from nowhere, a literal bolt from the blue, and all you can do is cache yourself in a sheltered place to weather out the tempest.
Such has been this nearly five-day holiday, which was our first in nearly two months. With stunningly beautiful weather nearly every morning, my work has suffered at the hands of my desire to explore. As morning dawns with crystalline skies, I shoulder a bag and walk up into the hills.
Which is all very romantic. Usually, in fact, I jump onto a motorcycle-taxi or into a minibus for a ways and then walk up into the idyllic countryside.
And it is idyllic. The mountains and grasslands are covered in blazingly emerald pastures filled with kaleidoscopic wildflowers and dotted with philosophically cudchewing yaks and sheep. The highest peaks remain gray, some even snowbound, but below all is life-filled. Summer has arrived, and it’s time to explore and adventure through the world.
As such, I decided to attempt Mt. Amnye Shachung ཨ་མྱིས་བྱ་ཁྱུང་། – the peak which rises to 4767 meters (15640 feet) just west of Rebgong. Before embarking, I knew this would be an odyssey of sorts; the peak lies guarded behind a spreading archipelago of subsidiary peaks and ridges; the geography is complex enough that one can safely assume that any route which looks feasible isn’t, or that the peak you see is not the true summit. To approach from the west, the ambitious hiker must ascend the valley of one of the Gu-chu river’s many western tributaries to the high plateau above, before redescending into the valley of a northflowing Gu-chu tributary and crossing several ridges and drainage basins. Finally, at this point, you may find yourself somewhere near the mountain, or perhaps in an entirely different county. I certainly didn’t know because my most reliable map, a county-level “topographic” atlas of Qinghai, had been mistakenly lent to a student by our sometimes hapless librarian. On second thought, however, this atlas wouldn’t have helped much; with an inch on the map equaling ten miles on the ground and a contour interval of 250 meters (and by “contour” I reference the map’s subtle variations in shading delineating elevation), this book is generally only useful for deciphering the general direction of a river system or mountain range.
As such, after traversing high ridges and climbing steep, grassy slopes dotted with caterpillar-fungus hunters, I found myself atop a low ridge overlooking the valley of a northflowing stream. It was cold, and the tundra was grey and dotted with patches of snow. Residual ice lined the sides of the stream. Ahead, at the top of the valley, loomed two triangular peaks of nearly identical height. Huffing and puffing from the elevation (well over 14,500 feet), I made my way upvalley, aiming for the pass between the two pyramids of rock and snow.
As I made my way up a snowfield on the final ascent to the pass (note to self: an ice axe would be useful here), dark clouds loomed to the north and west. Thunder growled ominously in the distance, then closer, slowly approaching the peaks in a beautifully stately yet terrifyingly threatening manner, then, as I reached the top of the pass, the clouds and thunder and lightning were suddenly directly above. The conductor, apparently, had waved his baton, and the sturm und drang commenced with a holy furor.
I paused to take stock of my current predicament. Atop a 15000-foot pass with a powerful storm of thunderhail raging around me. To either side, high peaks. Below, a field of loose talus tilted at a fearfully steep angle and seemingly ready to slide. Here, the possibility of getting struck by lightning.
The pause was infinitesimal; the decision was rapid. Loose talus it would be. I descended to the seemingly sheltered valley below via a slope that, if I was to lead clients down, would have surely gotten me fired from my Alaskan guiding job. Reaching the flat, bouldercovered valley floor, I suddenly realized – as lightning struck a rock a few hundred feet away – that this glacial cirque was not the safe haven I’d imagined it to be. I rapidly continued my descent as the hail and wind assaulted my jacket with a tempestuous rage.
After an hour or two, the storm let up, and I found myself in a southward-trending grassland valley. The storm still raged on the peaks above, but here I had descended beyond its reach. I walked along the stream, banks bedecked with wildflowers, until I ran across a family looking for caterpillar fungus. This was not a good season, they said. Today, the combined efforts of four people had found one small fungus, which was proudly displayed for my approval.
Together, we walked downvalley through a gradually lightening veil of rain and hail to a massive nomad camp, complete with tented monastery. The camp, which extended in a fitful manner for well over a mile, contained hundreds of tents; the hillsides were dotted with livestock and caterpillar fungus seekers. After a quick chat, I said goodbye to the family and headed downvalley along what was now a passable (if bumpy) dirt track.
After ascending above the increasingly narrow valley and crossing several low passes, the road broke out into one of the most beautiful areas I have ever seen. Ahead, a verdant grassland plateau stretched upwards towards forested hills, which then rose into towering snowflecked peaks. At the plateau’s edge, a shimmeringly turquoise river flowed through a thickly forested canyon of vertically fractured rock. Snow peaks rose in the distance, hovering majestically above the grassland plateaus. Tired but elated to have found myself in such a wonderful spot, I followed the dirt track as it veered off across the plateaus in exactly the opposite direction from the one in which I wanted to travel. Rather than traveling eastward towards the nearest settlement, or downwards into the gorge (where I knew there would be a road), the track headed westward across idyllically splendid terrain towards the extremely remote region of nearly 5000-meter peaks which marks the boundary between Rebgong, Tsekok (Zeku), Guinan and Guide counties. “Oh well”, I thought. “At least I have my tent.”
Which is approximately when, after several miles of westward travel, the road abruptly disappeared into the river gorge, where it met up with the main “road” to Zamao township. Two motorcycle-hitchhikes and I was back on the fringes of civilization.
After returning home, I immediately jumped on google maps to see how close I’d come to summitting Amnye Shachung. It turned out that the two peaks I’d seen were actually in an entirely different drainage; Shachung’s true summit was nearly a mile north of where I had hiked. I plan to go back for another try – with maps – this summer.
Two days later and having learned nothing from my experience of hiking sans maps, I decided to undertake a long run in the backcountry above the Maixiu Forestry Reserve (麦秀林场). From google maps scouting, I knew that the region between the main road to Zeku and Zamao was a high grassland plateau that could easily be traversed – which I decided, one afternoon of brooding thunderheads, to undertake.
Due to what I’ve been labeling Extreme Contruction, the 40-odd kilometers to the start of the run took two and a half hours to navigate. Starting at an intriguingly prayerflag-bedecked gateway of rock just off the main highway, I ascended a wideopen valley to a high pass where nomad families grazed their flocks of yaks. At this point, the dark clouds – which had been looming on the horizon (and on my consciousness) for the previous few hours – disappeared, giving way to fluffily unthreatening cumuli and patches of blue. I joyously ran across the grasslands towards distant peaks, past hill and dale and grazing yak and stupefied local, until I reached a valley that led downhill towards the yellowblooming rapeseed fields of Zamao.
After reaching the township, I searched for a ride to Rebgong. My search being fruitless, I wandered downvalley along the road, past several impressive monasteries and into the construction site for a sizeable dam being built just below the confluence of two sizeable rivers. I soon got a ride on a motorcycle from a young man who had been one of the Huangnan ETP’s first graduates. He was now a forestry official and, as we passed the village of Shibsha, took me up a narrow dirt path to check spruce and juniper trees for a beetle which has recently invaded the area. When he found evidence of insects, he daubed the afflicted spots with a red insecticide, a practice not unlike those I’ve seen in America.
When asked about his work, he grew philosophical. “My job,” he said in English, “is to care for the forest. Other people don’t – they throw rubbish and cut trees. But we must care for other living things.”
We eventually descended back to the motorcycle and made our way back towards Rebgong. Another mapless run completed, another adventure had, another experience to add to my overflowing stockpile of memory. How will I be able to remember all the details of my amazingly fascinating life here in Rebgong? The motorcycle rides with exquisitely curious locals, the peals of thunder and fierce bolts of lightning sending me running down boulderfields, the caterpillar fungus seekers, the indescribable delight of the teaching and the students, the flawless days of aquamarine skies which push me with seemingly physical force out the door to go exploring – will I become that old man recounting stories from a rockingchair of my formerly idyllic (sometimes) life, or will I forget? Is that why I’m writing this all down – a fear of losing touch with the past, a fear of forgetting the experiences which make me myself?