If you want to know where we were, I'm not sure I can tell you. Maps weren't available, not even at a neighborhood yak station. "I doubt that they exist," said one of our leaders.
The few Tibetans we met after heading off into the wilds from the cliff-hanging commune of Zelun told us we were in the Changping Valley of Tibet. The Chinese who approved our trek placed us in the Qika Valley in the southwest part of Sichuan Province in the People's Republic.
"All the same thing," said She Qiang, the Chinese translator assigned to what at first seemed a long, wrong walk. "Politically, we are in China, historically, geographically and ethnically, Tibet, somewhere on the Tibetan plateau. But exactly where...?" He smiled a resigned smile. "This is my first time, too."
When the blizzard hit and the temperature fell well below freezing—almost as low as our morale—and we were soaked to the bone at 12,000 feet, it really didn't seem to matter what the dateline of the obit would be. The better known, more fashionable Tibet of Shangri-La, Dalai Lamas and high-rise monasteries, was perhaps 500 miles to the west, and we were plodding and cursing in the considerably less prestigious, almost never frequented Dawa mountains, a range lorded over by a 21,000-foot peak called Siguniang, whose snowy topknot looks like a billboard for Dairy Queen.
May 27, 1984
Not that we were in the low-rent district. While the Chinese are recent entries in the trekking business, neither as experienced nor as accommodating as the Nepalese, at least they're willing and cheerful—maybe because they charge about three times as much.
"Extortion," was New York ornithologist Ben King's word for the $200-a-day rates for a pioneering journey into the remote valley. "But the Chinese have the hottest tourist country in the world, and they know it." Still, King, considered by some to be the foremost authority on Asian birds, felt happy to pay, if only for the chance to see white-eared pheasants for the first time, rare creatures he spied one morning on a ledge about 400 feet above us. Summoning the group to his powerful telescope, he said, "We are most likely the only Westerners alive ever to see this sight, maybe the only people, considering that the Chinese government has only recently reopened this valley to foreigners, and ornithology is a very low priority here."
We peered at 20 large red-faced, though predominantly white, birds whose broad wings were tipped in black. But within minutes the show was closed to us forever by a curtain of mist.
It had been a moment of elation for King, an ornithological and personal milestone. "That was my 1,700th species of Asian bird"—seen, recognized and filed in his brain. A birdman couldn't have been more pleased than Henry Aaron was with No. 715.
"Worth the price of admission," said Jack Crawford of Weston, Mass., who heads an import-export business, with a congratulatory nod. "If we get out."
This was on the second day of either the second or third trekking incursion into these parts by foreigners—nobody keeps stats, or, at any rate, reveals them—and the prevailing mood was "How can I possibly be here of my own free will?"
Even the instigator, the rugged Crawford, a veteran of World War II combat, numerous Himalayan hikes and a hand-to-hand free-for-all with an intemperate Tanzanian lion (SI, July 25, 1966), was apologetic. "You can kill me now, I wouldn't blame you," he said. "Besides, I've had enough. But at least we've seen Tibet."
"Where is it?" responded Paul Chase, who runs Woodcraft Supply, a mailorder business in Winchester, Mass., speaking for us. "Relax, Jack, we won't kill you until the food runs out."
The mood didn't last, and we did, though none of Crawford's recruits would have believed it at dusk of Day One, which darkness made ominous instead of merely somber. I had a feeling of fear more desperate than I had experienced as a correspondent for the Boston Globe in Vietnam. I'd been scared most of the time during a two-month stretch covering that war, yet found some comfort in knowing that military and medical assistance were never far away.
But when we camped that first night beside the Gankaizi river, exhausted, waterlogged, bewildered, angry, the nearest relief for this lost patrol was a day's walk plus two days' drive over harrowing mountain tracks—if we could find somebody to drive. However, our trucks weren't due to reappear at Zelun to pick us up for nine days.
We must have looked like the Marx Brothers trying to erect a tepee, struggling in sleet to hold flashlights and put up tents we'd never handled before. Resembling drunks probing with door keys, we poked away with the plastic tubing that constituted the framework at the sleeves it was supposed to go into.
This wasn't what we'd enlisted for. Crawford's recruiting speech back in Boston depicted a glorious nature walk, a mere mountain stroll, marketed by a San Francisco firm called Tiger Tops International. We would be constantly and lovingly cared for by trail-wise Sherpas, making and breaking camp and, presumably, doing the walking for us as well, if that were desired. "They go on ahead," Crawford had said, "and when you've had enough walking, by midafternoon the camp is all set up and waiting."
All in all, his pitch lured two women and three men for the November 1982 trip. The Manhattan ornithologist and a seventh member, an Australian, heard independently of the trek. Crawford's spiel had been based on Nepalese treks run by men with years of experience catering to customers. The People's Republic is new to the game, either unequipped for or unconcerned about the niceties. At our jumping-off point in Asia, Hong Kong, Chuck McDougal, the group leader provided by Tiger Tops, cautioned, "There won't be any Sherpa types. This is what the Chinese call an egalitarian setup, although we'll have a cook and a few packhorses led by Tibetan yak herders to carry food, tents and sleeping bags. I've been in the region once before, but none of our party—which includes a Chinese mountain guide, the cook and his helper and a translator—are really familiar with the territory."
As we would learn, "egalitarian" meant eating standing up, among other things. However, the saving virtue of the uneasy days at the start, the spirit-rescuing Sichuan cuisine of aptly named chef Pan (Pan Hua'An), was well worth standing for. Spicy dumplings and stir-fried vegetables from his gasoline burner-fired wok prompted Marie Bolko of Boston to say, "If this is the last supper, we ain't being shortchanged."
Encountering brilliant cooking in the boonies was startling, but little more so than our incongruous welcome to the People's Republic: We were serenaded by the theme from The Godfather emanating from loudspeakers in a customs shed in Canton. Four days later, about 1,000 miles to the west, we were groping about in the Changping Valley, a half-mile-wide cleft that ascends 14,000 feet to the spiky alabaster skyline of the Dawa range. In this vastness, the only serenades are crooned by yakboys rounding up their shaggy beasts—Luciano Pavarotti variations on a theme by Gene Autry.
There had been no indication of subsequent travail on departing Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, in a comfortable Chinese-made van. Under an agreeable autumn sun the van had labored up and over forbidding one-lane, two-rut dirt roads toward Zelun, through craggy, heavily wooded panda country, with the majestic Siguniang shimmering in the distance. Wei Jingang, the skilled, intrepid driver, who would probably consider Indy boring after his days of running the ridges of muddy or ice-glazed ruts, overlooking precipices, stayed on the horn to deal largely with the considerable foot traffic.
When we reached the guesthouse in Zelun it began to rain. "It figures," said Chase, "that the sun would stay out only until the bus dropped us off."
"You never know," said McDougal. "There's no TV weatherman, no forecasts here. Nobody has been able to tell us what's the best season for weather, if there is one. A year ago it rained incessantly." Said Virginia Pierson, a free-lance artist from Milwaukee, "Now they tell us."
But Don Henry, a middle-aged lawyer from Middlebury, Conn. whose unflagging optimism is such that he must have no recollection of ever having lost a case, finished his rice porridge and chirped, "It's a beautiful day for a walk. Let's go!"
So we did, filing out of the commune through truck gardens, past pigpens and brightly bundled children into a moist, raw morning veiled by a mist that transformed what had been a glowing valley into a gray cavern. Soon we were strung out along a skinny, slippery trail, the long-term roadwork of countless yaks.
At times the yakway became a frightening lip hundreds of feet above the blustering Gankaizi river. At others it meandered lazily at riverside or hopped from tuft to tuft across a flooded plain. Then it abruptly veered away, plunging into brambles and woods, leading through waterfalls and thickets, dropping away into crevices and slime.
Once during the afternoon we seemed about to be overrun by a John Wayne-style stampede in a murky hallway. But leaping aside against an embankment, we dodged a yak herd, heralded by barking dogs, that rumbled through like a multi-horned freight train.
Occasionally the trail was gentle. The old come-on? Hadn't the beastly trail-blazers been really trying here? But within minutes the game resumed on stony jumbles and slick zigzags marked by the yaks' personalized bundles, cueing Chase to mutter, "This is an orthopedist's dream trail. Without end."
We paused often to rest, hoping to become accustomed to the altitude in a few days. "If we can't breathe, at least we're starting to freeze," remarked Chase as snow began to fall.
Five hours had elapsed, and we wondered if that wasn't enough trudging for an opening day. But the instruction was to move on to a better location, allegedly not far away. It was five hours farther—an error for which our leader did apologize—an interminable five hours of a long day's journey into nightmare.
After a couple of those hours, with the trail only getting rougher and nightfall becoming a consideration, the troops were feeling a little mutinous. "But what can we do?" said the stoic Aussie, Lawrie Barker. "The tents are somewhere up ahead with the packhorses, and there's no bloody way we can retrace our steps to Zelun before dark. Guess we just have to push on."
The temperature, which would plunge to 15 during the night, was sliding, and so were we. The hopscotching between boulders and tightroping across logs that bridged gushing streams was no longer a novelty. Weariness made it onerous, more demanding, dangerous.
"Where would you like to be?" inquired Crawford.
Chase answered, "Nowhere with you, but I'd settle for Valley Forge with General Washington."
It was after six. We made our frigid feet move. McDougal, an old hand at this who had stepped out well to the front to look for his co-leader, Chinese mountaineer Wang Huashan, and the horses, suddenly reappeared. "Sorry I misjudged the distance, but it's only about an hour to go," he said. This was as warming as Napoleon would have been if he'd announced near Moscow, "Sorry, guys, I didn't know it snowed around here." He knew, we knew, that nighttime was no time for continuing, but there was no alternative.
And no way around the worst of it, a vast yak pen mired with dung and studded with boulders. Abruptly one of the Tibetans materialized, carrying something. As he came close, the object was discernible, an unlit lantern. Diogenes he was not. Whoever thoughtfully sent him with a lamp neglected to light it. Still, he was helpful, piloting us as best he could through the blacked-out morass. We waded, wallowed, fell and wailed. It was suction city—sybaritic slop for a yak but for us a blend of quicksand and rock pile that eroded even the grin of the ebullient Henry. "This is the KO corral," he grunted when at last we reached the wooden perimeter fence of the yak pen and boosted one another over.
Shortly, the glimmer of flashlights and a fire penetrating the squall signaled that ordeal's climax, although one more balancing act remained. Two slender tree trunks spanned the churning river between us and camp.
Shaky with fatigue, somehow we lurched across, Crawford growling, "Don't cheer too loud if I fall in—you'll wake the yaks."
Next came the tussle with the tents, along with the forlorn contemplation of getting through the night. Because the organizers had neglected to provide tarps to protect the luggage strapped to the horses, most everything was waterlogged. Sleeping bags, fortunately stored in waterproof sacks, became lifesavers.
By daybreak the tents sagged with snow. What little landscape lay in sight beneath sooty clouds was creamy, speckled with foraging yaks. We were stiff but hanging in. The herdsmen built a bonfire over which we dangled boots and clothes from boughs. That takes a while longer than an electric dryer and isn't as much fun as a weenie roast. Crawford, in better odor among his recruits once it was determined they'd live, further enhanced his standing with a mountain prescription, hot tea with bourbon. "I can't stand bourbon at sea level," he said, "but there's something salubriously preservative about it at 12,000 feet."
Thus medicated, I felt a poetry reading from Chairman Mao's The Long March might be appropriate:
The Red Army fears not the trials of a distant march;/ to them a thousand mountains, 10,000 rivers are nothing;/...The myriad snows of Minshan only make them happier,/ and when the three armies have crossed, each face is smiling.
Chase asked, "What plastic surgeon did the Chairman use for those faces?...Isn't that the same guy who wrote 'A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step'? My downfall was taking that step onto the plane in Boston."
Pierson said, "More inspirational to me was whoever wrote The Little Engine That Could. That's what got me through yesterday. I kept telling myself, 'I think I can....' "
"Better days come," said Wang.
Wang was correct. More snow did fall, but three nights later the sky was flushed at dinnertime by our first visible sunset. A clear, crisp morning came with such a solid, serene coating of deep blue that we could only gasp at the revelation, the soaring grandeur of the valley: a dazzling stretch of whitewashed spires, humps, cones and pyramids. A jagged crowd of pinnacles dominated by the frosty, imperious Siguniang, they glittered above green and gold baseboards of pine and larch while propping the azure ceiling. "This is what we came for," said a beaming McDougal. "Only a handful have seen Siguniang, more than four miles high and seldom open like this, with all her 7,000 feet above us visible." The queen of outer Tibet, bending slightly at her crown like the Matterhorn, seemed to be bowing. We bowed in return while a thrush overhead guffawed at the tourists.
After that, the tramping was easy, a joy, in settled, sunny conditions. Returning to Zelun, we skipped over rocks that had been booby traps in the storm. The yak corral remained difficult, but no longer perilous in clement daylight. Parkas and sweaters came off. We picnicked in meadows dotted with bright blue flowers, nodded to yakboys who offered us cigarettes. Even the luxurious thought of a badly needed bath in the rushing Gankaizi didn't seem preposterous. Cleanliness was next to goofiness in water so cold it hurt. But as the Marquis de Sade used to say, it hurt real good.
When someboy asks why I listened to Crawford and schlepped around in such a desolate place, the answer is simply because it wasn't there. Not on any map I could find.