Now back in traffic jammed, forever noisy Chengdu it’s hard to believe that for the majority of the previous week I barely saw any people other than Joe, my two friends and a Tibetan guide. Having escaped on an 8 hour coach ride from Chengdu bus station we had a great few days of solitude in the Tibetan Prefecture of Western Sichuan and undertook the longest walk I perhaps ever hope to go on. Returning with knackered legs, a hilariously sunburnt nose and a couple of requisite blisters it’s safe to say I am pretty sad to be back although trading grotty bunkhouses and tents for my clean double bed has been bliss.
The first stop on our trip was Kangding, a town that snakes along the bottom of a valley and is surrounded by some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen from within what is essentially an urban area. Here Tibetan is the first language for the majority of the population and the nondescript concrete blocks of China are interspersed with far prettier Tibetan-style buildings. This was where we spent 3 nights to acclimatise to the altitude. Sitting at 2,500m above sea level, Kangding was a good entry point to adjust to thin air and steep hills. We stayed at the fantastic Zhilam Hostel, run by an American couple who are basically living my dream…although I suspect I have severely underestimated how stressful running your own hostel in China is. Eager to break in our hill walking legs and get our bodies producing as many extra red blood cells as possible, we spent our two full days in Kangding hiking up hills, eating endless amounts of biscuits on grasslands at 3,800m and of course, photographing the millions of beautiful prayer flags as ‘artfully’ as possible.
On our third morning we packed up our rucksacks and decked out in our recently purchased ‘outdoor gear’ headed off on the ‘big adventure’ part of our holiday – a 6 day, 5 night trek around Gongga Shan. Standing at a towering 7,500m Gongga Shan (known as Minya Konka in Tibetan) is reputed to be more dangerous to climb than Everest. Obviously we were not planning on actually climbing it! Instead we were off to follow part of the circular route around the mountain. Considered holy by Tibetans, many make the pilgrimage around the mountain each year and it was this pilgrimage kora that we were to follow, although we were falling roughly 4 days short of completing the full loop. Expecting it to be tough we’d arranged through Zhilam to hire a Tibetan guide and 4 horses to carry our packs, food supplies and tents. Having not camped (except from in a drunken haze at music festivals) since my Duke of Edinburgh schooldays it’s fair to say that I was feeling both excited and nervous as we set off from the hostel in very rainy conditions.
As is always the way in China things did not run entirely to plan at the beginning. The first roadblock we encountered was a literal one – 2 hours into the drive we arrived at a small tourist town to find that the road on to our destination was closed for another 3 hours while repairs were made. With no alternative route available we had no choice but to kill 3 hours in the rain. After a breakfast of noodles we wandered around the town’s very pretty but completely closed up ancient street before sheltering from the elements in a coffee shop and taking it in turns to make the most of the last toilets we’d see for almost a week. Caffeine ingested and calls of nature answered we finally got on our way and arrived at a fairly grim bunkhouse where we were met by our very jolly guide. Here it transpired that due to the rain, our guide had decided for us that we weren’t going to begin the hike that day and instead we were to sleep in one of the very dirty rooms before setting out early the next morning to make up for lost time. Disappointed and more than a little irritated at our guide’s reluctance we all decided to head out on a walk ourselves and made our way to and from a lake a couple of hours away before cooking our dinner on the wood burning stove and heading for a very early night in our damp room. Terrified of rats and general lack of hygiene I did not have a great night’s sleep.
Thankfully on day 2 our irritation at our guide was forgotten as we woke up to the sunshine and blue skies he had promised and headed out for our first full days walking. It’s pretty much impossible to describe just how beautiful the scenery was, it seemed like every time you turned a corner another scenic box was ticked as we walked past mountains, through forests, by crystal clear lakes and snow capped peaks and over meadowlands. In total we walked around 7 hours and ended our day at Gongga Monastery. This 13th century monastery was a little dilapidated but very atmospheric and had the most incredible view of Gongga Shan which we photographed endlessly at dusk and then the subsequent dawn, when we were woken up by a gong banging at 5.45am to call the monks in for their prayers. Admittedly this did not wake me up from a deep sleep – having spotted a rat run and evidence of recent rats on the windowsill right by my face, huddled in my sleeping bag on a tiny bed I spent most of the night rigid with fear and wide awake!
Our second full day of walking passed in the same way as the first, with the addition of a short jaunt over a river on horseback. Unfortunately at the end of the day I began to fall foul to the altitude and coupled with lack of sleep I felt distinctly unwell as we pitched our tents for the first time. This feeling of nausea continued into the next day which brought on a fair sense of trepidation as I was already braced for a very tough walk. It was the day of the Riwuqi Pass – standing at 4,900m it was by all accounts the toughest part of the whole trek and according to my prior research, also the most beautiful.
Setting out at 7am it didn’t take long for the climb to start and real altitude sickness to set in. I’d expected this so popped some painkillers which unfortunately had little effect. It turns out an altitude headache basically feels like your brain is trying to squeeze its way through your skull. Teamed with nausea that surpassed the worst hangover I have ever had I was feeling very sorry for myself as we scrambled up scree slopes and flopped on the ground gasping for air every 30 seconds. Despite wailing at regular intervals to Joe that I couldn’t do it I finally made it to the top where I had the dignified reaction of sobbing with relief that I hadn’t died and swearing to everyone that I was never, ever doing that again. Thankfully the views we were met with were completely mind-blowing. Crossing the pass felt like stepping into a new world – we went from grassy meadows surrounded by snow capped peaks to apocalyptic looking scree slopes, glaciers and jutting mountains. As usual anything I write really won’t do the scenery justice so just look at my photos instead!
Having made it to this point by early afternoon we optimistically assumed that we’d be camping for the night on the yak dotted fields that stretched out below us, just a short walk away. Unfortunately our guide had other ideas and having promised us we had only 2 more hours to walk (this already seemed like a nightmarishly long time) we finally arrived at our next sleeping spot 4 hours later – a 10 hour walking day in total.
Arriving at a nomadic campground, which it transpired was our guide’s summer settlement, we were ushered into one of the tents where we awkwardly sat around a stove and drank yak butter tea with the full family before politely excusing ourselves to pitch our own tents outside. This is where we spent the next two nights as the weather turned and torrential rain rolled in for the next 48 hours. Our guide and his seemingly clairvoyant ability to predict the weather had seen this coming so he had pushed us on to reach this camp a day early so we could be slightly better sheltered from the elements. As a result we had a slightly frustrating ‘rest day’ on Day 5 which, aside from a 3 hour wander up a nearby hillside, we largely spent lying in our tents napping or playing ‘Stop the Bus’ in the family tent.
Despite the slight boredom, it was fascinating to get an insight into the lives of our host family, a lifestyle that really couldn’t be more foreign to us Brits who are so used to our home comforts such as mattresses, sofas and just a watertight roof over our heads. On our first night we massively enjoyed watching the whole family work together to herd in their yak…although it once again did not make for a great nights sleep to have them herded in to the immediate vicinity of our tent – death by night-time yak trampling seemed like a real possibility at times.
By the time our sixth and final day came round, it’s safe to say my enthusiasm for walking had reached a low point. Damp, cold and in unbelievable need of a shower I was ready to be finished and am now slightly ashamed to admit that I stomped most of the way along the home straight cursing the rocks we had to climb over and streams we had to pick our way across. Arriving at our pick up point by late morning, I think it’s fair to say we all felt a great sense of achievement as well as collective relief that we were finished and soon en route to hot showers, dry beds and lots of delicious carbs.
To sum up Gongga Shan I can safely say that it’s the hardest thing I have physically ever done but also the most incredible. It was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience and one that I feel so privileged to have had. A relaxing holiday it definitely was not but thankfully we have 18 days in Malaysia fast approaching to help us recover!