Travels in a cold, wet land

the mountain is out! horses below Amnye Machen ཨ་རྨེས་རྨ་ཆེན། 阿尼玛沁雪山

Being on holiday and theoretically work-free has ironically caused me to fall behind on my blog posts. I am likely to fall just as far behind in the coming weeks as I continue to travel (locally) while beginning to prepare for school. Thus before I journey out once again into the vast, internet-less expanses, I wanted to give a straightforwardly nonphilosophical update free of the emotionlaced romanticism that, like wilted flowers or an especially pungent pile of dung, often liberally adorns my blog posts. Or at least I can try; what with me being a lateborn romantic I sometimes find it hard to keep the crap out and keep Hemingwayingly dry and terse and to the point.

Anyway, school ended with a frightening rapidity. One day it seemed as though the term stretched endlessly into the future; the next, we were rapidly pulling together the frayed ends of the term, as one crams together strands of challah at the end of the loaf into a loose messy ball of dough, for some sort of closure. Class parties and exams were crammed into the space of a week and suddenly the students were off – and we were left in a suddenly quiet Rebgong.

part of the Amnye Machen range

Though not for long. Even before the students left, the school commenced work on their summer construction projects. They plan to build a new dormitory and classroom building, as well as to redo the agricultural canal running through campus, the same canal which had been flooding the basement of my apartment building with sewage on a daily basis for weeks. By the time the students left, the school entrance had already been torn up and construction vehicles were plowing their way up and down the school driveway.

So we soon went to Xining, where I spent a pleasant few days seeing friends, running errands and not purchasing a bicycle. Friend and VIA co-vol Kailah arrived in Xining from two years in Shangri-La and, at the last minute, decided to join us three on the adventure I’d been planning for quite some time: a trip to Amnye Machen.

Whenever the subject of Tibet@n sacred mountains is broached among foreigners, the topic of conversation usually makes a beeline for Mt. Kailas (Gang Rinpoche to Tibs), ignoring the fact that Amdo has its own mountain of similarly important sanctity: Amnye Machen. This range of snowy peaks rises to 6282m (about 20,600 feet) from among the jumbled terrain of Qinghai’s Golog prefecture. It is the highest mountain for several hundred kilometers in any direction; the glaciercapped domes truly dominate the landscape and the mentality of the region. And ever since I first saw pictures of the place, I’ve wanted to walk the kora around the mountain. After waiting for two years, I finally decided to plan a trip for mid-July. Brooke and her Tibetan sister decided to come along, as did Kailah. And so, one Monday evening in July, we found ourselves on a sleeper bus to the town of Dawu, the capital of Golog and the gateway to the sacred mountain.

near the beginning of the trip

The trip, needless to say, was spectacularly damp. Though there was (surprisingly) no snow, it rained ferociously several times a day. We only really had one “sunny” day, a three-hour period of an afternoon during which (of course) the entire group received vividly painful sunburns. Weather aside, however, the terrain was fantastically gorgeous. Lushly greencarpeted hills rising into snowdomed peaks, from whose cliffringed ampitheaters bulbous tongues of glaciers flowed, oozed, spreading gelatinously onto the broader plains below, where wildflowers of every imaginable color (and then some) eyepoppingly Seuratspeckled the landscape. Idyllically grazing yaks, cantering horses, the occasional white nomad tent nearly lost amidst the grandeur of the surroundings. For five days we walked through this stereotypically Shangrilaesque (yet livingbreathing) image of the plateau, through all types of frigidity and wetness and (a one-time) blazing sun and across all imaginable walking surfaces (at times atrocious a la Alaskan muskeg) and yet – at least for me – enjoying every moment. Nearly.

up the valley

nomad caravan on the move

at the lab rtse at the top of the pass

the sun comes out!

One special moment from the trip, just to provide a brief sketch, occurred when we had to cross a widebanked fastflowing river. As we started to cross we heard the flap of leathery wings; looking up, we saw a gigantic vulture, wingspan probably upwards of eight feet, swooping across the valley ten feet above our heads, then returning to a resting spot on the mountain opposite. Looking more closely at the mountain, we discovered it was covered in irregularly shaped animals awkwardly hopping upslope. I counted about forty vultures on the mountain before giving up my survey. Needless to say, the hovering presence of these massive, carcasseating birds as we made a dangerous river crossing was nervewracking; yet, we crossed the river, met a vast caravan of nomads moving their yaks and horses and tents and lives upvalley and continued wandering up an idyllic valley, through occasionally driving rain, for the rest of the day. The occasional hardships of the trip all worked themselves out; the snowy domes of sacred Amnye Machen appeared floating wraithlike above pillowy hillclinging clouds and emerald meadows, as beautiful and imaginary and unlikely as any hallucinatorily beautiful altitude-induced dream.

below Amnye Machen

Returning from Amnye Machen involved hiring a primary school teacher to drive us from the truly frontierlike town of Xiadawu to Huashixia, a trip which involved fording several large rivers and waiting in a traffic jam on the highway for a tractortrailer whose cab had fallen off the highway to be pulled back onto the pavement; then, after a rollicking meal in Huashixia where our food was paid for by friendly construction workers, sitting on stools in the aisle during an overheated smokefilled allnight bus to Xining. Except I wasn’t going to Xining; I was off to visit a school in Xinghai county. Just after midnight, I was shunted off the bus at a remote intersection; down that road, the pointing driver said, lay Xinghai town. Screw the town for a moment, I decided as I stumbled into the nearby grasslands, set up my tent, and rapidly fell asleep.

The remainder of the trip went well, with a successful school visit and trip back to Xining. And thus ended part 1 of my summer travels. I stayed in Xining for several days waiting for my father to arrive from the America – my travels with whom will be the subject of my next post.

nomads visiting our tent on the Amnye Machen kora

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