Sunday, February 1, 2009

Pilgrimage around the holy Mt. Kawa Karpo / Meili Xueshan Massif — January 2009

For years it has been my dream to hike around the impressive mountain range of Kawa Karpo — one of the holiest mountains in Tibetan Buddhism. Its main peak is the Mt. Kagebo with a height of 6740m. Due to religious reasons as well as varialble climate in this area all of the five summits are as yet unclimbed.

The mountain range is placed in the heart of the UNESCO World Heritage Park of the “Three Parallel Rivers”. Those are
the Yangzi Jiang — here at his upper reaches called Jinsha Jiang or in Tibetan Dri Chu, the Mekong or Lancang Jiang, and the Salween or Nu Jiang.

The entire region is very remote and not easily accessible. Departing from Chengdu/Sichuan, it took me four days to reach the starting point — a small village in Deqin County, and another four days to return through the deep north-south valley of the Nu Jiang .

Li Jiang - Lashi Hai
The first stop of my journey was the old town of Li Jiang — one of China’s most developed tourism spots. However, compared to Sichuan the weather in Yunnan Province was sunny and dry, as expected during the cold season. Thus, at the near Lashi Lake I was lucky to enjoy the first colourful sunset for months. An event that was accompanied by the sound of thousands of ducks, some cranes and other birds spending the winter months here in the warm sun of Yunnan.
Black-headed Greenfinch

From Li Jiang I first had to cross the Jinsha Jiang which is the most easterly river of the three “companions”. Here is a picture of the Jinsha Jiang near Benzilan Township:

Jinsha Jiang

The water is fairly blue and clear in winter. However, on both sides of the river and even higher up hardly any vegetation can be found. This is a very characteristic syndrome seen on almost all slopes of big river valleys along the eastern border of the Tibetan High Plateau (as we will see later on), and it simply is the result of unsustainable animal (goats) keeping and disastrous forestry management.

Slope above Jinsha Jiang

After a whole day on the road I arrived in Deqin County. Another 15 km on a road which at the moment is altered into a wide highway took me to the Feilai Temple. Only here it is possible to get a panorama view of the mountain range of Mt. Kawa Karpo (no doubt what the highway is designed for). The next morning I finally was rewarded with this stunning view:

Mt. Miancimu, 6054m, the most southern peak

Mt. Kagebo 6740m

Kagebo is a god in Tibetan Buddhism who resides on that mountain. His wife and children are personified in the peaks next to him. The place these photographes were taken is about 3200m above sea level, staight above the Lancang Jiang River.

Descent to the valley bottom

The Lancang Jiang or Mekong

...and with a village beside

To get on the other side I had to descent 1200m to the river side of the Lancang Jiang and walk to a bridge which is the “official” start of the outer pilgrimage (there is another, shorter circuit called inner pilgrimage).

On the descent I spotted another beautiful mountain far behind the Tibetan border — a view that may induce a vague imagination of how it looks like on the “roof of the world”.

Prayer flags are placed on sacred places all along the course

The entire pilgrimage usually takes nine to twelve days, crosses six high alpine passes and almost offers no accommodation. It is an easily walkable path with many places to camp where all the (Tibetan) pilgrims gather and rest overnight. Some of them are said to be able to finish the circuit within seven days - which I easily believe as there was a crew of six men passing my tent at 4am and praying “Ohm Mani Padme Hum”.

Nice meadows and old trees in a 100% natural environment

As soon as I left the cultivated areas via the first pass forest and vegetation were growing highly and densely. Primary forest with many birds and plants spreads along a huge and long valley.

The first pass is visible but still 2-3h to climb

On the pass, 4473m

This pass is at about 4473m above sea level. It is the highest point of the southern part of the trek from the Lancang Jiang Valley into the Nu jiang Valley. If you walk quickly and if you are acclimatized to the high altitude you can make it in one and a half days from the starting point.
Dragons on the Way

Giant trees with moss and fern growing on the stem are standing everywhere. This one attracted me in particular as its shape looks like a dragon.

Chestnut-vented Nuthatch

Here is a chestnut-vented nuthatch that tries to find edible things on a pile of rotten clothes left at a praying site. By the way, this is kind of a riddle to me. On nearly all places with prayer flags around and with particularly sacred meaning Tibetan pilgrims are used to leaving lots of their clothing behind, hanging them on trees or simply everywhere.

Oak Forest

One of Kagebo's children, the next peak to the south beside him (6000m).
While walking up through a quercus (oak) forest the back (=west) side of the marvelous mountain range could be spotted occasionally.

Late in the afternoon I reached a pass above the Tibetan village Arbin and had a spectacular view on a much lower mountain range. However, it is the border between the Tibetan High Plateau and the Indian Sub-continent. It thus functions as a climatic division between the high plateau and the Bay of Bengal: Masses of clouds were visibly kept out of this arid country.

Village Arbin

Steep rock formation on the way to River Nu Jiang

After a short march from the village I finally deserved the long desired view of River Nu Jiang: Blue water, narrow canyons, great biodiversity, and remote, forgotten areas.

River side of Nu Jiang
Indeed, it is an awe-inspiring feeling to stand next to this water, although I could not see very much difference compared with the River Salween in terms of biodiversity: On its upper reaches — the section that flows through Tibet — the river side slopes were completely deforested.

Last and nice view on a great mountain into the direction of Myanmar

I did not complete the pilgrimage, but left the region through the magnificent gorges of the Nu Jiang. Behind the Tibet-Yunnan border there are less Tibetan residents but more Nu People and other ethnic groups.