Khampa man in Daocheng enjoying conversation and tea with the owner's daughter.
As of right now, I have 8 full days left for my travels around Kham, before I must return to Chengdu and close up shop there. Additionally, I am having difficulty deciding where to go for these last 8 awesome days and how to get there when I decide! I know I do not want to spend much more time on a bus, simply because the bus rides between town are long and -- believe it or not-- exhausting. Even only 3-6 hours' worth of traveling feels like a full day. It is impossible for me to relax and let my head loll while spittle hangs from my open mouth like some locals can do! Nothing wakes them unless we hit a sink hole, screech to a halt, or nearly fly off a cliff. For me, there's so much to see on the drive; it becomes an incredible journey where my attention level is on full-alert. To the incredible scenery, add the stops and van-switches at in-between towns, where communication misunderstandings and all-out failures prevail due to the mix of three languages in one conversation. And lastly, let's not forget the bumpy, exciting rides over incomplete or destroyed roads, boulder-strewn diversions due to recent mini- or grand-avalanches caused by rainfall, off-road detours when there is no road (avalanche again), passing on curves, near-misses with other vehicles, and my side of the bus sometimes being withing spitting distance of a cliff (No, no guardrail. Don't be ridiculous!), the constant up-and-down over mountains combined with curves of gorge roads, and elevation changes of 500-2000m -- all during one trip!
My explanation that road trips through Eastern Tibet are exhausting is not a complaint, it is a fact! My food intake has been irregular as well: I am either skipping meals or eating a massive meal (what feels like a large meal to me, and yet my hosts keep encouraging me to eat more). Therefore, at the end of one of these cross-province trips, I am famished! Yet I still must hike to my hotel, check in, and then find a place to eat! But that's part of the fun of this adventure!
The 6th or 7th Dalai Lama's House (I must check my facts, apologies) in the old town portion of Lithang, still majority Khampa and not turned into a Chinese town... yet.
For more photos and narrative, click "Read More"!
"... raises hopes of euphoria that cannot be met and it’s time to return to reality. Euphoria is available in pharmaceutical form but it’s nothing to base a life on. It tends to lead to stupidity."
Prayer flags draped near a rebuilt Buddhist Temple (now degraded to a Chinese Tourist site) give a peek into the old town of Shangri-la, called Gyelthang by the Tibetan majority who reside here.
I plan. The Gods conspire. I pack. The Gods laugh. I get up early to depart. The Heavens open and the Gods piss all over my intention in the form of slate clouds overburdened with rain that begin their purge and release wet, wet, wet to the bone.
Dealing with various package delivery companies, finding my dependable SF does not deliver to the remote towns of Kham, I finally discover one who will -- for 4x the usual price. Grateful, my resupply provisions are on the way to Bathang. Begrudged, I am not.
Pack is ready, my mind is not, my body is impatient. The rains come. I've spent too long in preparation, too long in Shangri-la. I've spent too long moving between doubt and determination.
I finally found some route guidance through these mountains in the form of -- unknown to me at that time -- a well-renowned author*. Trek routes and maps are near impossible to find within such a secretive state; search results consist mainly of Chinese tour companies; no published routes are available. One spark in the Google black hole came from a source expert on the Tea Horse Road. When I glanced at his site, quickly noticing his trek through the mountains of Yunnan and along the tea road, I read no further, but simply sent a desperate email, not even expecting a reply. Yet reply he did and quickly, giving me some route ideas. I felt elated and ready, once again. Turns out he has written two books, works with a well-regarded tour company, and has work published in numerous magazines, including NatGeo! When I later read his bio, I was surprised that an IT MAN so famous responded, and felt grateful.
I was supposed to leave yesterday, but the whole shipping extravaganza took up so many hours and so much mental energy, that I postponed one more day, berating myself, but relieved that my provisions, clothes, and laptop would make it safely to Bathang. Looking for information on a Tea Horse Caravan Museum of which I had read and planned to visit, Serendipity led me to another site, that of a local expat outfitter and guide** in town. He also responded to my WeChat enquiry so quickly that I was once again taken aback. I received more in the way of explicit instructions on routes leading north from Shangri-la, which was so helpful. After this exchange, my hope rose again and my confidence increased proportionally, even feeling a bit euphoric that I could finally begin. If I hold only a teaspoonful of local mountain knowledge in shaking hands, I feel much more comfortable about upcoming movement into the unknown. I felt I had not wasted another day, my Goddess Serendip coming through for me once again.
But some God higher than Serendipity is usurping her authority-- the rain acts like it was invited. If the damn rain stops, I can take action on the advice i received yesterday. I really, really do not want to take a bus north. I really, really want to trek an overland pass through the mountains and reach the Yangtse. And I stubbornly adhere to this plan, delay or not. Conversely, I stubbornly stand firm in my decision not to start this phase of my trek in a downpour. That would create such a dispirited inner attitude that it might cause a landslide in the area around me. If I accept defeat and take a bus north, I will escape the rain. But if I wait one more day, I might be able to begin on a sunny day. And the third damn inner voice reminds me that I will have to begin my research in earnest again of another area. Damnit, I just want to strap on my pack and go.
Why don't I?
Can't recall the source of this map, but it shows the Tea Horse Road leading north up through Shangri-la and splitting west through Markham in Tibet (it's actually all Tibet, culturally) and heading toward Lhasa. The eastern split leads toward Dartsendo (Dardo), now called Kangding.
*Jeff Fuchs of Wild China Tours:
** Nathan at Turtle Mountain Gear and Outfitters, Shangri-la, Diqing County, Yunnan Province, China
In the Bai-dominant areas of Dali and Xingyu, there are incredible murals that guard the portal gates of most housing compounds; these complexes include a courtyard and one or more two-level house structures.
I am becoming more solution-oriented as each week passes during this attempted trek.
These are concepts upon which I relied less and less during the 16.5 months I spent at my former "teaching" job in Chengdu. The SOLUTIONS I came up with were brushed away like irritating mosquitoes. And at that job, I didn't need to think at all, so PROBLEM-SOLVING went the way of the mosquitoes, CRITICAL-THINKING SKILLS were not encouraged (this possibly rampant throughout the entire country, as observed in driving skills construction, overall planning, and administration), and CREATIVE THINKING... well, I'm pretty sure that was added to the list of an offense punishable by death or torture back in the 50s.
What I did learn during my year at that so-called school (hahahahaha), was to focus on problems. For that's all I encountered, and I watched in terror, sitting atop the highest drop of the roller coaster that had become my emotional life, screaming downward at light-speed into an abyss of stress and anxiety. The faster and more often the falls came, the more my emotional resilience was beaten down as well, which is why I decided to take a sabbatical and get all my "healths" back in order: mental, emotional, physical, spiritual. For although I mentally and emotionally avoided the crash (barely!) at the bottom of that derailed coaster, my health did not survive the Crash of '19.
Moving beyond that dramatic digression, and one more Complaint About Big Red Brother, I'm becoming very solution-oriented during my trek. The resulting feeling is empowerment; something else that was stripped away during the last 17 months in China, where managing quotidian tasks was a frustration, and empowerment is not something doled out to the bulk of citizenry here.
"There can be only one!"
When I am able to solve even the smallest problem, I experience a "Beam me up, Scotty!" warm spotlight of success shining from within that straightens my shoulders and makes me feel a couple of degrees more capable than I did a few weeks ago.
My two biggest problems are actually that: my pack is too heavy for my fitness level at present. Bluntly put: both my pack and my body are overweight! Happily, my pack is fatter! I left Dali with a pack weighing 47 frickin' pounds, that is TEN POUNDS over my max.
Thou shalt not carry a backpack weighing greater than 30% of one's body weight.
My pack is 21% overweight, and my body is 18% overweight. I could downgrade my 2-person tent to 1-person tent, but it's already ultralight at 4.5 lbs, and I would only save one pound. The same with my sleeping bag. It's ultralight down and rated to the arctic temps for alpine elevations-- cheaper, less warm bags actually weigh more! The bulk of my pack weight originates in consumables such as food and fuel. Since I'm not trekking for weeks at a times (yet!) as I originally planned, it makes sense to decrease both. Further, with each additional day of hiking completed my body will continue to release its own excess. Consequently, what I have learned thus far is to offload most of my consumables, keeping only 2 days worth. Everything fits in the pack well enough now, but I still have to work on keeping the weight to a manageable 35-37 lbs. max!
Also, I've been feeling exceptionally run-down and low energy-- symptoms that had left me once I left Chengdu. But I've also been living on cortisol, caffeine, and wine, since the last few weeks have been anything but the stress-free vacation of which I had dreamed for months! The past few days (or longer, perhaps since I first reached Dali; but I have denied it with more coffee), I just feel so friggin' tired! I gave in, and decided to listen to my body. Two days ago, I received an amazing massage and cupping treatment; however, the cupping left me quite sore directly on the spots where my backpack straps will place weight. Ugh!
I decided to stay in Xingyu Village a few more days. It's a pleasant place and the guesthouse is beautiful and inexpensive. Of course, next door is a F***ing construction site. What did I do to earn this karma? Or is it because China is still developing and the building and growth plague has spread to all small corners. Damnit, I am sick of hearing construction vehicles rumble and the crash and screech of "necessary growth". Part of me regrets not flying immediately back to Chengdu and starting my trek from the known point of Dartsendo. But I wanted to experience a different area in China, and so I have. What's the point in regret? What I can do is spend my next 3 nights starting Tuesday --for which I have already paid-- in Lijiang, get the hell of out of that Tourist Trap (I visited previously last spring), and move farther north. I will then be in temperatures for which I had planned and packed, and hopefully feel a bit more relaxed. The constant moving of locales and hotels causes more stress and fatigue, I have discovered.
In the meantime, I am applying for long term house-sits in Oceania and Europe, and simply hoping that the right one will come along. I want an engagement that lasts at minimum two months, preferably three, and one that is not in the snowy spheres of chilly Europe.
Click "Read More" to the right for more photos and information about Bai culture!
On the way from Eryuan to Xingyu Village.
One of many ancient elders. She wears a basket-like fringe on her back, but the bottom is open, so it may be more part of the traditional clothing. At first I thought it was constructed of horse tail hair, but was told it is woven from fibers of a local plant. Many of these women appear near or beyond 100 y.o.!
This number surprised the heck out of me!!! That's almost 2000 people looking at my blog! That is nearly double the amount that it was a few months ago! Yay! Thank you for reading my blog! I'd love to read your comments! But why do I only have 127 IG followers? It moves between 125-129 and won't go higher? I'll have to figure that out!
It's Thursday, and I continue my battles with self-doubt, determination, fear, excitement, second-guessing, postponement, and weather. Why am I fighting the beginning of this journey so much. I was just about ready to go yesterday, but managed to procrastinate myself to death. I was so sick to my stomach the night before with anxiety, I cancelled my start. Again. Last night, I spent second-guessing myself to death.
I have too much crap, and yet I've minimized so many times, there's nothing left to dump expect food and tent. A bad idea. I have packed and unpacked and re-packed almost every day in the week I've been NOT enjoying Dali. One of the causes for doubt is that I have NOT enjoyed much at all during the first few weeks I've my vacation. Week One was spent back and forth to the Chinese Visa Center. And since then, I've been obsessed with trying to reduce my anxiety and packing and re-packing. Not fun at all. This morning, I FINALLY sent the rest of my stuff forward to Lijiang--what remains is the necessities with which I will hike the next 5 days. I managed to procrastinate my Phase I down to 5 days, from 13. My mind is full of castigation, my gut churns with anxiety, and my heart feels a complete lack of thrill and anticipation for any of this. Self-doubt LOVES self-critiicism, and they gang up on me and soon I am questioning this entire trekking trip, my ability to find writing work, the opportunities availalbe for housesits... and I am left wondering WTF am I doing and why?
I really need some encouragement. I need someone to grab me and shake me and remind me who I am and of what I am capable. But my two companions, Doubt and Self-Criticism, are the only ones available. I suppose if no one is here to shout at me that I CAN DO THIS, I must scream into my own mind to step out of the Waiting Line, cut in front, and Begin.
Gina, you CAN DO THIS!
What's the absolute worst that is going to happen?
Well, it's monsoon season and it's constantly raining.
Then hike a few hours, pop the tent, and wait it out.
I'm getting a late start and won't make it over the range before dark.
So, what. It's only 8 miles. Pop the tent and start tomorrow.
I'm afraid it will be really hard to carry my pack the first few weeks.
You will build your strength and endurance--isn't that part of the reason you are doing all this in the first place? To regain your physical strength, endurance, and knock off some pounds?
I delayed the start one more day... not feeling mentally ready and continuously undecided about a route to take since arriving to Dali. Starting in Yunnan instead of Kham has thrown me off, because I'm completely unfamiliar with the terrain and towns and people here. In Kham, I would have started started walking across any random field and mountain following a compass course; I've studies the ranges there and that's my comfort zone. My Kham Khomfort Zone! I will start in Eryuan, a village north of Dali, to reach Lijian. I'm following a river course well off main roads. If I left directly from Dali, I would have faced an immediate steep climb up the Changsan range, which hovers over Dali like a Tim Burton nightmare mountain, ascending 2000m over 7km... no thank you! That's too much the first day out! Plus, on the other side of Tim Burton's nightmare is an ugly highway to clump along; I'll say it again: No thank you!
Above, you can see the overall Phase I course of my 215km trek (starting at the small lake, and heading west toward blue and white icon). I cover one shallow range that barely reaches 3500m and is only 15km (8mi) wide, heading due west from Eryaun. This is The Beginning of the UltimateKhamTrek2019 and will count as Day One. I expect this portion will lack arduousness as I follow tributaries and ridgelines. There are several backcountry homes on top of ridges along the way. Once I reach the bifurcation of the Heihui River, I'll head northwest.
Although I'm not hiking along main roads, I'll pass many small villages along the way. Of course, I reserve the right to change course at anytime, being Invictus, the captain of my fate. My desire is to hike in the mountains, not along roads of drudgery and cars. But, I want to make the first phase very, very, very easy! I will veer as far away from main roads as possible, but I also need to be close to a water source. Since there is a complete lack of emission controls here, I'll be breathing puffs of black truck deisel fumes on main roads, ugh. No thank you! If I want to breathe 100% pure cancer, I'll move back to Chengdu. No thank you!
Right now, I'm on the west side of Erhai lake, slightly south of the West Gate of Dali Ancient Town. I leave manana, after taking a week to figure out my route; well to be honest, that and figure out the GaiaGPS app I'm using to map it out. Tomorrow morning, after SF Express picks up my carry-on for shipment to Lijiang , I'll endure a 1 1/2 hour long bus ride to Eryuan, then a taxi west to the non-existent trailhead, otherwise known as Gina's Entry Point Trailhead Mile 0. Most of the range crossing will be at 2500m if I stay in the valleys.
Friends and Fam, please remember how entirely safe I am in China, whether in the wilds or the among Beijing's 20-30mil people. I do NOT, I repeat, I do NOT have to worry about being attacked, raped, or murdered. This is not the US where everyone wants to rape and kill people. My biggest fear is being cold at night and the damn popo saying I can't camp somewhere because I'm a helpless foreigner. For the first, I have seriously warm jammies, a silk sleeping bag liner, a -5 to -23C rated down sleeping bag, an inflatable air mattress, a closed-cell foam sleeping pad to go under those, a 3-season tent, and a tent pad. I may actually get too warm! As far as popo, well that's why I want to avoid big towns and main roads. Besides, I didn't come out here to walk on effing roads! I came to traverse mountains. So once I'm in a groove and go my confidence, I will literally take to the hills. Oh, I suppose there's a Number Three: rain. It's monsoon season in Asia, and damnit, I only had a few days of rain last summer, but it is raining HARD every single dang day here in Dali and Kunming! Hard rain, for hours! I have an excellent rain jacket, but I may have to set up tent mid-morning for a few hours and wait it out. I didn't come out here to be miserable 1/4 of each day either. I believe that once I reach Kham, I'll be beyond the daily rain boundary.
So once again, Peeps, I will not be interned in a post-Mao work camp nor will I be attacked by insane Tibetan nomads. The worse they'll do to me is invite me into their yak hair tent and make me drink too much butter tea and eat tsampa. Did I mention how much I LOVE yak butter tea and tsampa!!!! After Phase I, I'll buy some for the next leg of my trip. Oh, the other horrible thing that might happen is that I meet one of these gorgeous, tall Khampa men and we get married and live in the mountains. Darn! Okay, I'll admit, I don't know how to work around the lack of wifi, but with a gorgeous Khampa man, I may not need it.
I promise to listen to my instincts and remain safe. I will check in when I am able. Rest assured, I'll be having the time of my life... again! Or I'll be wet, cold, and miserable, having the time of my life... again!
Local map of northern Yunnan; my starting point of Dali in the center. Crossing the mountains, heading west from Erhai Lake, I will trek northwest toward the Tibetan border, with stops in Lijiang and Deqen (Shangrila) to resupply. Continuing north into Kham Tibet (Ch. W. Sichuan), I want to summit one of those 5000+ m. peaks so I can reach my elevation goal of 16,000 ft. (5000 m.)!! Maybe I'll do something crazy like border-cross to summit Kawakarpo!
The "Bad Beginning" of this trek has not been fun--more like an organizational, logistical, travel non-stop sprint. To be more specific, the pre-trip portion has not been fun, since I haven't actually started the trek. I've been consumed with planning and packing and re-packing and organizing and re-routing and minimizing; freaking out about reducing pack weight and shipping gear and buying gear and finding new boots and creating feasible time schedules. I've been in two amazing new cities, Hong Kong and Kunming, with little time to enjoy them; there's a To Do List every morning. In the evening, I can't fall asleep for the stress of it all and the internal questions that will not stop: What the hell am I doing? Can I do this? Can I carry that pack for days on end? Is this even going to be fun?
Filled with doubts, I wonder if this trip is such a grand idea anymore. I still want to do it--I am determined--but my mind is filled with conflict about whether I should have just stuck to day hiking instead of a long-distance trek.
In Hong Kong, I focused on getting my visa and trying to organize some of my gear. I also had to deal with getting the last of my gear shipped from Chengdu to Kunming. Now, in Kunming, I've organized the gear that arrived from Chengdu, and forwarded that on to Dali. I've slowly been paring down what I will carry in my pack. The biggest challenge I face is weight and pack space (or perhaps, my own negative self-talk). The plan for this trek I am about to commence was birthed in 2013, when I lived near the Appalachian Trail, and began dreaming of a long-distance trek (and here I am in China, 6 years later, facing the precipice of that goal; about to begin the journey and about to achieve the goal! I want to feel excitement rather than worry!). In all my research about trekking -- which included reading numerous trek blogs-- I learned not to trek while overburdened with a massive pack. Ideally, the pack should not weigh more than 30% of one's body weight. I read story after story of people trekking with 50-70 lbs. of gear... that's insane! That sounds miserable, no matter how fit and strong a person may be. Thus, I am determined to keep my pack weight a maximum of 40 lbs.: 25 lbs. for gear and 10 lbs. for consumables (food and stove fuel). I simply don't want my days filled with drudgery and pain caused by a heavy pack. And to be entirely transparent, I'm not in top form physically at present, and a heavy pack will wear me down physically and discourage me mentally. It's going to take several weeks to one month to regain the strength and endurance I've lost this year. That is one of the reasons I am doing this: to get physically strong, fit, and thin again. I am seriously out of shape and overweight.
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At a nearby park, the elders dance, play cards and Chinese Chess, strum musical instruments; all the while the men chain-smoke.
The Hong Kong skyline, viewed from Hong Kong Island, gazing north over Victoria Harbour.
After more than 12 hours of travel and travel-related stress, bureaucracy, or general international-travel drudgery yesterday and after plodding like a pack mule overburdened with bags from Hong Kong to Shenzhen to Kunming, I am still exhausted. The past few days in Hong Kong, I have caught my mind whirling it's problem-solution wheels, as it seeks to sort out the challenges of this upcoming trek I have planned; beginning its calculations in the moments of waking and distracting me throughout the day, as if I have my own built-in mental mosquito which I can't seem to fend off, buzzing constantly and causing me to fret. I'm coming up against the inevitable murmers of doubt-- what took them so long to speak up? I thought I should be way more panicky about this trip than I have been for the past month or so; and yet, the details did not seem to be overly daunting until this week. In my attempt to ignore and stifle natural fears about this trip, I have coped through procrastination. Now, here I sit in Kunming, after successful application of the Chinese visa I have been so worried about obtaining -- due to my loose, rebellious tongue that repeats so many anti-communist rants on this blog.
Kunming is the Staging Point for my 1210km/751mi (I hope!) trek, where I will organize gear I need for the First Leg of my journey (I suppose I need to decide exactly what distance will comprise Leg #1), and eliminate gear unneeded until the Second Leg (perhaps starting in Bathang). On Friday, while I was in Hong Kong, a co-worker friend help me out tremendously by shipping a load of gear from Chengdu to Kunming; it arrived intact this morning! Yay, SF Express! And only 115rmb to ship three >10 kilo boxes (that's about 17usd)! Yay, friend! I was going to complete the rest of my shopping and prep here, then head to Dali and have that area serve as my Jump Point between wormholes. However, the forecast for rain has me reconsidering not only my entire route, but timing of the entrie trip! It's monsoon season. Last year, I hiked and traveled throughout Kham, and only recall a few rain days. But looking at the forecast (although it's hard to get accurate data in China--they don't want their weather secrets leaked, apparently), it shows a deluge for a month, throughout the entire area where I am supposed to be camping! Last year, I experienced a sun-drowned trek through the mountains, requiring sunscreen and lots of hydration! With the rain, comes the hazard of landslides and flooding, although my research shows not too much flooding will endanger me. The landslides are another story though, with Yunnan being a province with a propensity toward these muddy destroyers, and Sichuan carrying its weight in mud as a locale for both landslides (fewer) and earthquakes (more).
I've vetoed the idea of starting my trek in the rain: this trek is a major endeavor, and I must keep both my morale high and spirits up, especially at the beginning. Too many setbacks or problems at the outset may mar my outlook for the duration. Ideally, I want an easy start of a 5-10 miles each day in fair weather. I still do not have a planned route through Yunnan, as I consider my knowledge of the area sparse in comparison to my geographical familiarity with Kham region of Eastern Tibet (Ch. Western Sichuan). The terrain is similar but the altitude is much lower. I do not yet have a grasp on water sources as I have not had time to research tributaries and rivers running through the area (except for the Jinsha), running north-south through both provinces). Simply put, I had months to study the geographical features of Kham, and also feel a comradeship with the land since I have visited so often-- but Yunnan is unknown to me. Add to that the fact that I changed the Jump Point from Kangding/Bathang in Kham to Kunming/Dali in Yunnan. Simply not enough time was available to me to research the area and potential routes, since during the past few weeks I have been focused on moving, packing, and storage.
I will take a rest day today, since yesterday was an arduous travel day between Hong Kong, Shenzhen, and Kunming ( more on that experience later). I'm also overwhelmed with the decisions that need to be made, along with the minimizing of my packed gear I will carry. Later, I'll work on route and plans and rain contingencies. I also need to get the last few pieces of necessary gear (or possibly unneccessary, but I believe I need them), so I'll wander around the city tomorrow and check out the outdoor gear stores. I need a Chinese Blind Massage and foot scrape before I start my trek; I'm still experienceing rib pain and my feet need to be prepped. Between the research and errands, I might extend my stay in KMG (Kunming) another day or two.
For those concerned about my health and safety, I will file a Flight Plan, aka POP (Personal Outdoor Plan)... hehehe ... love that! "Flight Plan" is more accurate than can be realized! ... with friends and family that includes route plans, stopover locales, and directives if I fall off a mountain. Hey, I am simply being realistic! Last year I escaped both a pack of wild dogs and HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema)! This year, who knows what's in store for me out in the wilds! My current plan is to trek until my 60-day visa entrance expires on September 27 -- or day hike when I'm tired or overwhelmed from my personal Walkabout (look up Australian Aboriginal culture) -- then fly somewhere for a house/pet sit gig for a few months while I wait out winter. I'm leaning toward a farmhouse in the Loire valley of France or someplace equally EPIC!
My I-Got-My-Chinese-Tourist-Visa Celebration dinner in Hong Kong at Olive, a Mediterranean restaurant.