Idyllic Wild

新年快乐!Happy New Year!

The road from Feilaisi (飞来寺) is long and winding, with concrete under foot or wheel. Towering on the opposite side of the valley is Kawagarbo (6740m) and Yunnan province’s highest point. The roads bend and wind up and down to a checkpoint. At this point, one must surrender 27.5RMB. This gains you access to the Yubeng village scenic area (雨崩村). Starting an ascent at Xidang Spring (西当温泉), my colleagues Javier and Carmen headed up alongside me. We were to follow a trail marked by green bins. The spring of the village was rather an anti-climax.

Javier surveys the spring.

Those green litter bins and new saplings littered the pathway upwards. The path would zigzag across numerous dirt tracks and one under construction concrete road. For the entire ascent, I stopped only once for hot milk and some water in a tiny rickety-old-shack. The pleasure cost me a staggering 130RMB. The man had seen me coming. Each half litre bottle of water was 10RMB and the milk was 110RMB. The man charged 200RMB for noodles to a group calling by. In the future, always enquire about prices before accepting goods. I did wonder how at least 500 noodle pots stacked up at the wooden lodge’s side hadn’t improved the roughness of the building.

The route up had a positive gain of over 1100 metres. At its highest point, my lower legs enjoyed some much needed respite. At which point, a Snickers chocolate bar, not my favoured choice, tasted marvelous. I’d passed through some great panoramic viewing points before reaching Yubeng Upper Village (雨崩上村). Nazongla Yakou (那宗拉垭口) wasn’t too dramatic, but the views on entering Yubeng certainly brought a beaming smile to my face. A good 6 hours from Xidang to YuBeng was needed. On arriving, I checked into the Yak Butter Inn.

The Yak Butter Inn has a flowery name. It should be renamed to something feline like a cattery. The lodge has numerous large moggies strutting around. Young long-haired fuzz balls can be seen curled up in various baskets and cushions. A lone dog limps around, evidently resigned to being shy of any further pack members. The pleasant warmth of a wood stove heats one corner of the room, as the sun licks through windows at another. A busy kitchen emits fragrances of common Chinese cuisine and piping hot teas. A young cat thwacks my leg with its paws seeking attention.

Yak Butter Inn cattery

I elect to stay at the Yak Butter Inn for one night. A night in a shared dormitory reminds me that I no longer want that kind of experience. Farting, belching, snoring and a roundabout of lights-on, lights-off motions are one thing. Hearing Douyin/TikTok at every hour is another. With my colleague Oliver and his entourage arriving the following evening, I changed lodges. Two nights later, we changed lodges again. No rooms at the second inn, due to New Year bookings. The kind Tibetan owner had served us great Pu’er teas (普洱茶) and good hearty hiking food.

Before Oliver arrived, Carmen, Javier and I wandered upwards to the Sacred Waterfall (神瀑). A gain of 600 metres altitude. It being winter, the waterfall was mostly frozen and receding. The valley walk up from Yubeng Lower Village (雨崩下村) was gentle with a solid pathway built to guide tourists slowly in one direction and back again. CCTV and Chinese good luck shapes marked the route making it impossible to go off the beaten track. Walking poles needed a soft base and were generally of little use. The five hour round trip was pleasant enough with sweeping chains of prayer flags coating the latter stage of the route. Overflowing green rubbish bins and hundreds of scattered Red Bull drinks cans added shame to such a holy route. Chipmunks, adventurous and cute, sought treats amongst furry green moss-coated ancient trees. The cool fresh air a certain reward for stretching your legs out.

Sacred waterfall valley

Prior to walking up the valley, our trio had a few jumps and twists around the flowing streams that sit just above Lower YuBeng. The great boulders and pebbles are home to a logging camp which causes the water channels to splinter like roots from a tree. The transition into the old woodland beyond is chilling and in the shadow of the mountain. Like many places, frozen snow regulates the ambient temperature, giving a dark murky cool feel. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Master Yoda lived here. An icy world in opposition to the sun dried bank over the gentle flow of the stream. Perfect for Jedis in hiding.

A six to seven hour walk from Yubeng Upper Village (雨崩上村) via Xiaonong Base Camp (笑农大本营) gets you to the cold dry icy landscape of the Ice Lake (冰湖) at 3900m, nestled beneath Kawagarbo. The great overhanging peak condensed with snow from seasons of snowfall and heavy wind looms overhead. The wind reminds you of nature’s power, driving in, swirling and biting sharply. Remnants of receding glacier shelves and loose looking snow shelves linger menacingly. They will fall one day. The Ice Lake lived up to its name. Some of the ascent (around 800m gain) that day necessitated crampons. My tough boots bore the brunt of careful footwork and one walking pole, as I climbed the challenging route. No crampons for some. The donkey tracks and frozen soil pathways before it zig-zagged up and down various forestry climates battering my boots into disrepair on the return journey. Rhododendrons, pines, cypress trees and other green species reflected various browns, reds and greys. It was a real rainbow of a route.

Great place to lay down and look up

Mother Nature has been busy here. The valleys around YuBeng are dramatic. They’re microclimates with epic visual proportions. Each has a mysterious feel to which evidently religion has become attached. They’re places of stories and tales, entwined to folklore and legend. As a devout daydreamer, they’re a place to let the mind go and wonder as you wander. Every twisted tree, shadowy rock or distant sound could start a new story. Farming, the traditional Tibetan ways, mixes with a blend of the modern and the local wooden builds make way for tourism-aimed metal and concrete lodges. Glamping has arrived, but the Tibetan pilgrimage routes remain. New stories will yet be told.

Abandoned cabin

Beyond the idyllic setting of managed walking routes, it’s possible to trek along an ancient Buddhist pathways. That pathway leads to a glacier, snuggled beneath Kawagarbo. Remembering that climbing the mountain is banned and ill advised, it’s possible to follow an ancient trail through woodland, across a grass plain into a kind of Alpine tundra. The evident altitude cools much of the area and ice watetfalls, streams and ponds are frequently found higher up. The thickness of mosses, lichens and bearded trees drape on wilder routes. The mountain hinterland maintains a natural ecological state, and away from the beaten track, it’s the best place to witness it. Leave only footprints. Certainly don’t attempt the long walk to Myanmar. But enjoy the diversity of fungi and lichens.

The Northwest of Yunnan has quickly become my favourite place in China. YuBeng is itself a piece of heaven on Earth. Perhaps the nearby city of Shangri La should hand over its adopted name to the village of YuBeng. This growing tourist hotspot will see many pilgrimages, changes and challenges in the coming years. Will it sustain its beauty? Only time and UNESCO status will tell. I was told around twenty households made up YuBeng in the last decade. Now, there’s a Guangdong restaurant, Hong Kong style guesthouses, plenty of Sichuan options and even a family from Shandong (Eastern China). It will be tough to retain the Tibetan charm and character. Like much of the world, this corner of Dêqên is becoming quite samey-samey. The same old KTV can be heard by a shattered water prayer wheel. Up the way, steamed Cantonese food can be ate, with an ancient Stupa baked under a solar powered streetlight. Mani stones hide behind new hotel signage. The old ways are slipping from sight.

I’ve experienced a little altitude sickness, for most of the region is over 3200m. Discomfort in sleeping for the first few days, some muscle exhaustion, breathlessness at times and minor headaches resolved mostly yesterday. Enough so to enjoy a light Shangri La Beers lager or two, with delicious fresh yak meat, at the insistence of our lodge owner.

Hung out to dry

This morning when I walked into dining area of the lodge, I thought the weather-beaten looking Tibetan men had all had an argument. The dozen men, that seem to be ever present within the lodge (under renovation and expansion), were sat one per table at various parts of the room. On getting my door key, I spied that they were all head down and deep into Mandarin Chinese writing and reading textbooks. I left them to study in peace, passed the hanging yak meat, locked my door and joined Oliver, Piotr and Benedict for breakfast at another lodge.

Piotr works for shell. Oliver had met him and others on the way up from Xidang. Sociable Oliver teaches to travel and travels well, making friends as he goes. Knowledgeable as he is, he can be a little loud, as is the Australian way for many. He’s a sound lad with a keen eye to see more, do more and learn more. It’s a pleasure to have him as a colleague at Tungwah Wenzel International School. He met Piotr and you’d think they were best friends. It’s pleasing to see. The two entered the ice cave, skidded on the ice lake and galloped up the glacier together. Some people are more astronaut than astronomer. I’m happy flirting between active and observer. The mountains are familiar and here I feel relaxed. Wandering around watching jays feeding in the undergrowth satisfies me just as much as ascending ridge lines. We did enjoy a little camp fire and tea though.

Somewhere like this

Sat reading Roald Dahl’s Someone Like You, on a moss covered rock, shaded from the bright sun, as it dropped below the mountains overhead will no doubt remain my favourite place to read for many years. The gentle stream underneath that feeds into either of the three great rivers makes me feel dreamy and sleepy. The Jinsha (later Yangtze), Lancang (later Mekong), and Nujiang (soon to be known as Salween) rivers come from the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau. People from roughly 22 ethnic groups (Naxi, Lisu, Tibetan, Bai, Yi, Pumi, Nu, Dulong etc) live in and around the starting areas of these great rivers. One drop of rain water into this relatively narrow area of basins could end up in the Andaman sea by Myanmar, or flow by Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City, or slip through Tiger Leaping Gorge towards Jiangsu and Shanghai. I look up from my book, watching a clump of ice break up and drift downstream. What a pleasant little journey.

Until next time…

Spiritually thunderstruck.

How do! / 你好 (nĭ hăo) / Namaste / Welcome!

A kind of swishing sound, only just perceivable to my ear, was what I heard. It happened in such a microscopic space of time that I had no time to react. My instinct said the sound was to be alarmed at. My brain had the signal. The computations were in process. It didn’t add up fast enough. As soon as my central nervous system was signalling peril, it struck. It skimmed more than struck, gliding over my head and landing with a thump two metres to my left shoulder. My head had slowed its momentum and the rock landed with a dull thud. The snow around it had remained intact. It sank into a hole maybe a leg’s length deep. As I peered into the hole, one eye was facing up the slope, making sure this rock’s bigger relatives weren’t coming down to flatten me. The slope was still enough. I gave a little more time to viewing the rock in the hole.

It was slate in colour, crumbly around the edges, rough and worn underneath but jagged and unforgiving on the top. The size, well, it was close to that of a red house-brick. I reached down to touch it. It weighed as much as two bags of sugar, if not a little more. I thought to myself, if that had landed on me more directly, I’d be as good as gone. Game over? I assessed my injury. It was a bump and no bigger than two (or three) that I had experienced earlier in the trek from headbutting low roof rafters and doorframes. It’s a habit I have tried to avoid since being a kid, but as my Mum will agree, I am clumsy. It’s in the genetics somewhere.

With that new bump obtained between Bhratang, the beginnings of the huge western face of Pagunda Danda, I just carried on to Upper Pisang. Not much I could do but knuckle down and see how it panned out. Initially that day, I was fine and later that day, I was still okay. The next day, as we departed the lodge and started our walk onwards, I started to feel an ache spanning from the bump back to rear-right of my head. After an hour of trekking that ache became near agony. It was either the rapid onset of altitude sickness, or that injury was playing up. Livia, Srirang and I trekked through deep snow, and eventually Livia and I stretched ahead a little, but not much. As we reached the mani stones, just shy of a very snowed over river with two bridges, I took a moment to try to understand my pain.

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We had opted for the path up to Ghyaru and Humde, because the views would look back across the valley at the Annapurna Masiff. The great mani stones, stood on a ridge overlooking the raging river below, and the smaller tributary that was would have to cross. Many slabs, rocks and smaller carved models carried one simple message, ‘Om mani padme hum. The beautiful artistic Sanskrit writing curved and glimmered in the various levels of light: ॐ मणि द्मे हूँ. Om/Aum/ ॐ [white] is a sacred syllable. Mani/ मणि [green] is a jewel (or bead). Pad/प [sky blue] plus me/द्मे [red] is the lotus flower – a flower sacred to Buddhism. Hoon/hum/ हूँ [dark blue] is the spirit of enlightenment. It can also be found in Chinese as 唵嘛呢叭咪吽 and Thai as โอมฺ มณิ ปทฺเม หูมฺ, amongst many languages and cultures.

Right here, on the pathway, the stone plates featured the six syllabled mantra as a form of Tibetan prayer. Some had clearly been painted, but most were natural earthly colours. Decades and possibly centuries of devotion made up this wall, like many other walls throughout Nepal and other countries. I’ve seen many mounds and cairns in similar fashions. Each one, I believe, offers prayer to the locality and beyond. The time and effort for each creation could be seen. No corners had been cut. Devotion had been placed on each faithful stone. This wall was around about two metres high and sagged just a little. It was long as coach and as wide as a wardrobe. You always walk around a Mani wall, the same way the Earth rotates. Buddhism has rules. Against the backdrop of the Himalayas, spiritualism and nature hugged each other. Lichens and mosses covered what surface they could, and birds occasionally perched on the walls, looking down at the snow, trying to find the little food available. At this moment, I assessed the bridges. Livia and I decided the lower bridge route would be the safest option. We set out.

After crossing the lower bridge, we scrambled upwards a few and awaited Srirang. He chose the upper bridge and we met once again. I walked up one gentle wide path and Srirang and Livia chose a steeper more direct route. They met me as I was sat down. My head was pounding inside – and I felt a little sick. There was dizziness. I ate some biscuits and drank plenty of water. Srirang and Livia were concerned. They suggested a rest and we discussed the injury or whether it could be altitude sickness. We were about 3500m up and we had never rushed the journey so far. Ghyaru (3730m) lay just a few metres upwards. After an hour, I decided I had to descend. Livia and Srirang disagreed but we all agreed, “if I feel better tomorrow, I’d head back up.” With that I scuttled back to Upper Pisang, and enjoyed the views of the frozen lake below on the plains, and the ever-angry flows of the Marshyangdi River. I was welcomed back into the same lodge. Even to this day I cannot recall the name of the lodge. It had a Sherpa-Tibetan family and they were ever so nice. I said about my discomfort and they said that I did the right thing.

After an evening of talking with trekkers on their way from Manang, and a few individuals heading upwards, I slipped off to bed. The dal baht power didn’t seem to be shifting my headache and numerous litres of water made me get up during the night several times. Peeing into a frozen toilet with no water to flush it, isn’t a nice experience, at 4am in the freezing cold. Still, it beat watching celebrities on mind-numbing television shows. I’d also spent hours on Wi-Fi trying to talk with customer services at Trip.com – for the second night running, to see if I could move a flight to Hong Kong, because of the growing seriousness of the COVID-19 outbreak in China. Many airlines were cancelling flights and by this time Nepal had apparently closed its borders to China and reportedly banned Chinese tourists. In my anxious mind, it made sense to be proactive and try to remain in Nepal. The border crossings between China and Hong Kong were rapidly becoming fewer too. Why fly to absolute uncertainty?

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I awoke a little refreshed but still with a headache. I made the choice to descend further. I set out just before 11am and walked back. I wasn’t sad. I wasn’t relieved. I just had a pain in the head that wouldn’t go away. The walk back was tough as the walk up. The deep snow and occasional blustery winds made it a slog of a day. As I rounded the cliffs and the path led through to The Farmhouse at Bhratang, I spotted a jeep. The driver helped me get to Chame. At Chame, I met a doctor who looked at my head, tested my reactions and concluded concussion. He said no need for emergency treatment and suggested I head back to Pokhara or rest for several days in a warmer village downhill. I was in luck, the jeep driver took me as far as Besi Sahar! Back to the beginning. Here I was dropped at the hotel Manaslu and booked onto the first coach to Pokhara that morning. It felt sad but I had a mix of emotions in my head, anxiety and a head injury.

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The U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office advised against all travel to China but didn’t state a clear reason why. The outbreak seemed to be mostly confined to Hubei and a few other areas. The U.K. wasn’t even screening passengers on arrival from any Chinese city. Was it really that serious?! Could I return to China or not? Would I have to head to the U.K.? Could I stay in Nepal by extending my visa? I had a tight budget and worry had been with me for days. Worry and concussion are not ideal bedfellows.

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The cumbersome coach clumped along, bouncing and bumping, throwing passengers here and there, and visited countless villages on the route back to Pokhara. At one stop a toothless elderly man sat on a step. He had no shoes on and his clothing looked unkempt. His face crinkled from years of exposure to the sun. He looked at me. He smiled. He gestured with his fingers the shape of a smile, over his face. That’s what it is all about. Experiences, moments and smiles. I smiled back, greeted and waved goodbye as the cumbrous coach continued headlong. I could take much from this journey and experience.

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Looking back at the day where the rock had hit my head, I’d been clicking away like crazy on my camera before that. After that, I’d rarely taken many photos. It clearly marked a change in my behaviour and my general health. The physical and mental challenge had just been knocked out of me. Yet, I experienced many great moments, even on the jeep journey back down. It isn’t every day a herd of goats gets in your way! From then on Nepal would still give me more great moments, but the trek had finished.

So, what next?

Thai Pride.

Sawasdeekhap / Namaste / Welcome!

The fan on the external wall of the bathroom rattled in the wind. Its guards occasionally lifted an dropped with each passing breath outside. The inactive power let the blades of the fan spin around silently. Beyond the cubicle-shaped bathroom an air conditioner whined gently through the thin plastic doors. The shower unit to the left of the toilet pulsated hot water into the mostly cold feeling tiled room. Steam rose and applied condensation to the mirror over the cumbersome ceramic sink. Two towels, used in a rotation of beach bathing, swimming outside and showers within the room hung lifelessly from two polished metal pegs. They faced the sink, a sink surrounded by soaps, cheap bottles of fragrance and shampoos. Not the worst place to have a pooh on a toilet.

“Good times, bad times, give me some of that” –  (Edie Brickell – Good Times)

I’m in a land where music, dance, the arts (I watched a bizarre Hua Hin 2: The Musical at the Cicada market last night), and creativity really flow. There are more things that could be classed as unique, than that of most places that I have travelled. People here really embrace their nation with real love and care. No chewing gum on the streets and little litter. This is a place that really takes pride in itself. The fact that the market is named after an unglamourous insect is a sense of greatness too.

The people of Thailand are visibly in love with their nation. There’s a soft heartfelt passion for flag and monarchy. There’s not a touch of aggression towards it.  Pictures of the Royal hierarchy are throughout the land. Vajiralongkorn AKA Rama X has been on the throne since October 2016 by crowned only as of May 2019. His pictures and that of former flight attendant and now Queen Suthida are everywhere. The apartment we have has one, and one of the previous King and his Queen. Chakra, the weapon of Rama or Vishnu comes from an old Sanskrit word Chakri. It belongs to the Thai King. The monarchy therefore hold the position as the guardian of civilization. Lord Rama co-exists with Ayutthaya (the light of Thai civilization). The respect for the royal family here is tremendous. King Bhumibol Adulyadej composed around 48 pieces of jazz music. Now that’s a contribution to culture! Throughout the lands of Thailand there are countless places funded by the Royal House to improve agriculture, health, and the environment. Unlike many other Monarchs around the globe, here was a King dedicated to improving the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable. Thailand take their monarchy very serious and some of the laws reinforce this. I have no reason to insult these welcoming lands that I have landed upon, so I am unworried about the Articles 490 and 491 of the criminal code govern lèse-majesté. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Their gaff, their rules, as Al Murray’s Pub Landlord would say.

Actually, finding that it is illegal to leave the house without underwear, was my biggest worry! No commando today. Up there with shirtless drivers and vaping (electronic cigarettes). Totally illegal. I’ll just concentrate on showing my Wai greeting – and not my lack of underwear.  On top of this, my shorts must sit below the knee for visiting sacred sites. That’s not a problem. I carry spare trousers (winter ones) for such occasions. Putting your hands together and bowing slightly in the form of Wai, is similar to the hand greeting of Namaste in Nepal. This is great, because I prefer both over shaking hands and not knowing what germs or bogies are now on my hand from the person who shook my hands. The handshake was started to show vulnerability in that no swords could be grabbed easier. With the Wai, there is no chance a sword will appear and eye contact allows you to feel the genuine warmth of a greeter.

Unlike Nepal, the form of Buddhism is a little different. Theravada Buddhism is everywhere and clearly the dominant religion without being practical. A few million Thai Muslims help keep the meat industry rolling.  There’s an odd balance between meat and two veg here. That isn’t a comment on the nightlife, which is globally known for its liberal attitudes. Thailand, so far, is a swirl of saffron-clad monks and neon signs.  Very colourful indeed.  You cant kill. Yet you can eat that of something which was killed by others.  At shrines, fizzy drinks can often be seen alongside other offerings. All very different from the rocks, papers and carvings found within Nepal’s Buddhism. Very interesting contrasts, in my opinion. Here there is a real tolerance to people and their sexuality, choices and lifestyles. It seems very laid back and relaxed. People are people and that’s great. The world is a better place in the land of smiles.

Until next time.