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Meili xueshan (snow mountain) in northwestern Yunnan by the China/Tibet border was the initial inspiration for my trip to China. In a sense, I wanted to reimmerse myself in the kind of beauty and purity that I’d found hiking the Annapurnas in Nepal back in 2014. And I also wanted to get a glimpse into Tibetan culture without having to go into Tibet, which now requires a separate permit that stipulates group tour option only.

My original plan was to leave Kunming for Shangrila right after arriving from Vietnam, go to Meili, then trace my way from Shangrila back to Kunming overland. I’d booked my flight to Shangrila but had to ditch at the last minute. I fell horrendously sick right before the trip. Ran a high fever for a couple of days and actually had to take pills (first time that I could remember in my whole life.) By the time I boarded the plane to Kunming, my coughing fits were still unstoppable and chest splitting. I decided I’d better go by bus, making a couple of stops along the way to buy myself more time to recover. Those 5 extra days were exactly what I needed. But although my cough did get better, it proved to be way more persistent that I’d expected. My lungs couldn’t handle much exertion. Whenever I started to walk uphill, they’d send up loud protestations.

From Shangrila, it’s another bus to a town called Deqin. I was really excited because we would go over the famed Baima pass. But it wasn’t passable due to snow, and our driver had to detour to take the low road. The 5 hour ride turned into 9 hours, not too bad in itself but really draining when you weren’t expecting it. It was also on this road that I first experienced the notorious Chinese public toilet. I’m very far from being squeamish and have also lived in India where hygiene is not a well-understood concept, but this was easily the most revolting I ever had to put up with in my life. By a far margin. All the shitty stuff (not so figuratively) that people use the toilet for gets exponentially more disgusting as it lies visible and accumulates instead of getting flushed away or properly thrown into trash cans.

The next morning, I took a van to the trail head and was relieved to find 3 other Chinese who planned to spend the same amount of time in Yubeng – the village that sits at the foot of the Meili – and then walk out a different way. This second trail I was told was much less used and less defined so I wanted to tag along with others. I didn’t quite want to walk in with them, however, afraid that I’d hold them up and they’d be too scared listening to me trying to spit out my lungs. But no they were not gonna leave me and patiently waited at each turn. I almost teared up at their thoughtfulness and really wished I spoke Chinese. Thankfully it was only 10kms – not 20kms like someone had told me.

I hadn’t seen proper snow like this since my New England time, which was already 6 years ago. I’ve never been a fan, but it was indeed a refreshing sight that brought back much memory. Prayer flags kept us company along the whole way, a sure sign that we were indeed in Tibet land. And at the top, they hang thick and heavy across tree branches in all directions. We walked around laughing delighted like little kids at the colorful fluttering fabric.

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Meili xueshan, Yubeng, Yunnan, China, hiking

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There are quite a few rest stops along the way because this is an important pilgrimage route, but this time of the year everything is closed. My companions were lively among themselves, but didn’t seem as inclined to socialize with the few other hiking groups. If we had a break and saw that others were coming, we’d get up and start walking again. And one of them even picked up litter along the way. I was so impressed! They truly shined after we got to the guesthouse, where they took out a dozen kinds of Chinese snacks, dried green tea, aloe vera face masks, and then promptly went to get hot water for the three plastic basins. And thus I was ushered to put my smelly feet into the hot bath and got my face pampered while sipping hot tea. I don’t think I’ve ever ended a day of hiking with such style.

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The last night in Yubeng, my Chinese companions had a lively discussion on where I should go next. My plan was to bus over to Sichuan to check out Yading, but I was a bit worried that it’d be too cold and snowy. Here in Meili xueshan, we could only hike up to about 3500m elevation where the snow was too deep to continue on (about waist high). Yading is even higher at 4000m, its main hiking destination at ~4700m. And during our hike earlier in the day it’d snowed the whole time; I was reminded once again of why I’m at heart a beach bum sun lover.

A few options were brought up, but all involved going south like Xishuanbanna in Yunnan, and most favorably Yangshuo in Guangxi – a place so iconic among the Chinese that its landscape is printed on the 20 yuan note. Frankly they didn’t interest me much. Going south means getting close to Vietnam; I’m sure the scenery is pretty but I feared it’d not be novel enough for my eyes. After more discussion in broken Chinese and English with the help of translation app, I picked the one that sounded the most fun: Mohe, the northernmost town of China – and that properly freaked the girls out. They promptly responded: Forget everything we’ve said, just go to Sichuan like you’d wanted to. Not really sure what I wanted anymore, I decided to go sleep.

Our hike out to Ninong along the Lancang river was beautiful, sunny blue sky, and my heart said: Yes, I’m ready for more snow mountains. Yading it would be!

The back road from Yunnan to Sichuan is served by one daily bus connecting Shangrila and Xiangcheng. I had not seen such a desolate landscape in years. For the middle half of the road, we didn’t cross any villages or see any vehicles in either direction. There was one single family that lives 2.5 hours from the last village and 1 hour till the next. I wonder if it’s much more lively during the summer.

Sichuan, Yunnan, backroad, China, bus, winter, Shangrila, Xiangcheng, Daocheng

Sichuan, Yunnan, backroad, China, bus, winter, Shangrila, Xiangcheng, Daocheng

Sichuan, Yunnan, backroad, China, bus, winter, Shangrila, Xiangcheng, Daocheng

Xiangcheng to Daocheng – the departure town for Yading – was another 2.5 hours by shared van. I actually bumped into a guy who just got back from Yading at the Xiangcheng bus station who told me not to go because it was too much snow and ice. But I went ahead and jumped into the van anyway. It started to snow, and soon was a white out.

Sichuan, Xiangcheng, Daocheng, winter, snow

Luckily the sun came out shining bright again the next day. It was off-season in Yading. Ticket was half price. And not too many people were headed in. All good for a thrifty crowd-hater like myself. A driver told me in the summer there are 8000 visitors per day and buses and electric cars run back and forth all day. Looking at all the big tour buses lying idle in the parking lot behind the ticket office, I totally believed it. But for us (me and 4 other from the same guesthouse in Daocheng), we only had to share the whole park with another 20 visitors or so. The not so convenient thing was that the buses only ran 2 or 3 times a day, depending on demand. If you miss the last bus, then keep walking. (From the park entrance to Yading village where you can spend the night is 6kms, and from the village back to the ticket office is +30kms. No outside vehicles are allowed past the ticket office.)

Sichuan, Daocheng, Yading, Aden, winter

The main attractions in Yading are the 3 snow peaks (Chenresig, Jampayang, and Chenadorje – believed by Tibetans as emanations of the 3 Boddhisatvas) and the 3 lakes (Pearl Lake, Milk Lake, and 5 Color Lake). Pearl Lake is easily accessible year round, but to Milk Lake and 5 Color Lake is a 6 miles walk round trip. I was doubtful I could even reach those 2 and was so sure I would miss the last bus and not be back till after dark. We headed out late and I lost much time because everyone in the park from visitors to staff once they heard of where I wanted to go held me up to explain why I should not. One guy spent a solid 15 minutes saying I didn’t know what; he was so into it he probably forgot I didn’t understand but a few basic Chinese words like “not safe” and “not good”. I have to admit I was a bit annoyed, but still appreciated their concern just the same. The only person that thought I was completely sane was the young Tibetan running the guesthouse in Yading village. But he did tell me to absolutely not go past the lakes as there would be no trails visible this time of the year.

Sichuan, Yading, Aden, Pearl Lake, Zhenzhuhai, Chenresig, Xiannairi, winter

Yet for all those forewarnings, the hike turned out to be a breeze. I kept wondering “is it gonna get tough soon?” the whole way till I suddenly got to the sign post that announces my destination. Quite anti-climatic. It was icy in parts, and I had to take more pauses due to the altitude, but overall really not bad, and surprisingly little snow left on the ground.

Sichuan, Yading, Aden, winter, prayer flags

Sichuan, Yading, Aden, hiking, winter, Milk Lake, Five Color Lake, Wusehai, Niunaihai

I was up above Wusehai at 2pm (started walking at 11:30am). 5 Color lake was now only 1 color, and Niunaihai (Milk Lake) was also entirely under snow. I could only imagine how breathtaking their colors would be later in the summer and fall.

Sichuan, Yading, Aden, winter, Milk Lake, Five Color Lake, Wusehai, Niunaihai, Chanadorje, Xiaruoduoji, Chenresig, Xiannairi, hiking

I was admiring all the panorama with not a soul around when it suddenly dawned on me that if I hurried, I could actually catch the last bus and go back all the way to Daocheng. We’d stayed one night in Yading. And normally I wouldn’t have minded another night in that quiet village, but there was no running water due to frozen pipe and I wasn’t too fond of carrying buckets to flush down the toilet. And a hot shower at the end of the day sounded irresistible. So I started jogging down. I did make it just in time. We said goodbye to Yading as heavy clouds rolled in and felt lucky for having 2 beautiful days in the mountains. But our luck didn’t last all the way. The power was out in Daocheng and by the time it went back, I was already ready for bed.

Oct 26, 2014

Ghalegaon, Lamjung

Annapurna, sunrise, Ghalegaon, Lamjung, Nepal, Gurung village

Annapurna, sunrise, Ghalegaon, Lamjung, Nepal, Gurung village, Lamjung Himal

If I were a poet or songwriter, I’d compose something along that line of inspiration at sunrise today in Ghalegaon. Watching the sun light up Annapurna and Fishtail, first orange and then that clear uninhibited view of white snow. Pure, untouched. Watching the soft unformed clouds, or more like moisture still, rise up to Lamjung Himal as sun rays fell on top of the hills spreading out in front of it, the interlayers of light and shadow.

I could just dance in the mountain.

For a moment, I wish I was all by myself in this morning quietness. (It was just the 3 of us, so still excellent.)

The mountains are imposing but the feeling is different from the Andes, even though they’re much higher here. Maybe because the village is much lower and not as cold.

I was super bumped yesterday when told about the ACAP permit that is single-entry only, which means I’ll have to pay again later. So my plan might change yet once more, after countless times already. But I’m ok with it now. Am reminded of the spontaneous nature of traveling not in a tour, doing things in the moment, deciding on feelings and weather. Not being sold on a fixed thing. Let go. Be with the flow. Enjoy what is there. Sure the girls slowed me down considerably, but we have such engaging conversations. And they help me to understand so much about culture and history. And I’m not in a race after all. I guess I also feel a bit responsible to push them to do “the most difficult thing they’ve done in life,” to see this beauty of their own country.

 

Oct 27,

Annapurna, sunrise, Ghalegaon, Lamjung, Nepal, Gurung village, Lamjung Himal

Annapurna, sunrise, Ghalegaon, Lamjung, Nepal, Gurung village

Last sunrise in Ghalegaon. We woke up a bit earlier to watch a true sunrise. Saw the first light hitting Annapurna and Fishtail, and then the sun rise from the right of Lamjung.

Compared to yesterday, I already lost some sense of wonder. Yesterday when I walked out of the house and was greeted with a clear view of Lamjung, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I kept saying OMG and touching my face. This is a reminder to be grateful, appreciative of the beauty that’s around each and every day.

Annapurna, rainbow, Ghalegaon, Lamjung, Nepal, Gurung village, Shangri La

Oct 31, 2014

Annapurna base camp

Yesterday had sound sleep till about 1am when woke up b/c so hungry. Munched off some chocolate and then fell asleep again. And then next time woke up vì mình mơ thấy bạn. Lần đầu tiên. Bạn và 2 người bạn của bạn CM và Đ. Not sure why those 2. Mơ theo đúng kiểu logic và trật tự kì quái của giấc mơ mà chỉ đến khi tỉnh mới biết là không thể. Chuyện kết thúc vào ngày 30/10 khi mà bạn thay đổi quyết định. Dĩ nhiên chỉ là trong giấc mơ. Tỉnh dậy, lần đầu tiên mình nhận ra là những ao ước mơ hồ của mình, đến giờ mới được gọi tên. Đấy là mình ước được ôm bạn một cái thật lâu và thật chặt. Thật lâu và thật chặt. Rồi mình sẽ buông. Chứ mình không dám giữ. Hôm nay trên đường đi, và cả lúc này nghĩ đến mình lại trào nước mắt. Một cái ôm thôi. Giữa núi rừng này mà mình lại thấy bạn. Hay nhỉ!

Annapura Base Camp, Annapurna Sanctuary, Himalaya, Nepal, trekking

gần nơi mình mơ

Annapura Base Camp, Annapurna Sanctuary, Himalaya, Nepal, trekking

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