Tibet (Days 12 & 13) – “Peace Ridge” Expedition! 3 July 2009

According to Achi, we were well prepared for this trek with our hikes of the previous two days… Maybe, but these last two days, especially Friday, I believe may nearly equal a trek to Everest, because we were literally on the roof of the world, at somewhere around 17,500′, and really felt like it (although Everest, over 350 miles away, was not yet visible).

horses in courtyardThursday

On Thursday morning after an early breakfast, the five of us and Achi, plus 14 more support folks – 20 in all – collected in a nearby valley at about 14,000 feet (near the hot springs we visited Tuesday). The 14 consisted of his family and 5? neighbors from the village. From there the six Americans climbed onto small ponies, each with a handler (some were the pony’s owners), and two more ponies and a rider carried most of the supplies: food for two days and camping gear, including bedding, four beautiful new expedition-quality tents, and one traditional nomad tent (canvas, not yak hide). So we had six riders (the NON-acclimatized Americans), and 14 walkers – six leading the ponies, and the rest carrying more supplies…keep that in mind.

Wala & PintukWe rode the ponies uphill on a steep winding dirt/muddy road for about 2+ miles to a small nunnery that is being rebuilt after being destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. I had an intuition before I even mounted my pony “Wala” (which means Blackie) that he was spunky; someone commented on this a few moments after I got on, without my prompting! He was quite unhappy being behind any other pony, shaking his head and snorting and constantly nudging Pintuk, my handler and Wala’s owner, and Wala insisted on leading the group, rushing ahead. toilet viewPintuk had a very firm hold on his lead, but finally let him go around the others and after a brief rest/toilet stop overlooking the beautiful valley (left), we reached the nunnery a fair bit ahead of the others. Our support crew proceeded to set up camp about 300′ above the nunnery on a flat area on the side of the mountain next to a steep ridge. Here is our camp from the ridge.
camp setupSurrounded by peaks, valleys, pastures, dogs and YAKs, the views were just incredible. We all took short naps in our tents, such as some of us could at that altitude – some actually played cards and another Tibetan dice game. Lester and I had one of the new tents to ourselves, which was perched just on the edge of a gully with a commanding view; we had no success napping, so with a light rain falling, we took photos from the flap opening at the very edge of the gully. mtns thru flapAfter the rain stopped we wandered down the gully ridge and watch an eagle (we are pretty sure!) eyeing us from across the gully on the ridge above (it must have had at least a 6′ wingspan), and then watched Chodrub carry a 15-gallon water jug on his back up the gully ridge from the spring.

Finally around 5 pm (but really 3 pm, sun-wise) many of us headed down to the nunnery below, which was celebrating a special day in the Tibetan Buddhist calendar, where seven of the 17 nuns in residence (one is a relative of Achi, Chodrun and Tsewang, right) were chanting prayers of compassion from sunrise to sundown. nun & family They were dressed in the traditional red robes, seated on long thick cushions on the [cold] concrete floor in the corner of a building under construction, many of them with very heavy, fuzzy-wool-lined capes for warmth. All with shaved heads or extremely short hair, and all were quite lovely, as Tibetan women are.

We were invited to sit and observe the chanting for about an hour. High above on scaffolding, artists were painting the bright, primary-colored designs on the walls and ceiling, and occasionally they would laugh, sing, etc., which did not appear to faze the nuns in any way whatsoever…it was a challenge to my experience of how places of worship are typically approached, and actually refreshing, as if it were just part of that day’s life. It was amazing, sitting there with those nuns, hearing the murmuring and laughter above, as the nuns’ prayers ebbed and flowed, changing in rhythm, sometimes adding instruments, and smiling back at us from time to time, and not infrequently obviously joking with each other.

camp relaxingWe then headed back up to our tents, and as a soft rain came up again, we gathered in the nomad tent for dinner of – are you ready for this? – stinging nettle soup! It was actually quite good. Since the rain did not stop, we all crawled into our tents for an early night at 7:30pm – still quite light out – all hoping the rain would stop so we could see STARS! We sure enjoyed taking photos through the tent flap, though.

Well, the rain did not stop. Now, imagine this: putting on boots and jacket and getting out of the tent at 3 am during a lull in the constant rain to go down the gully in the PITCH DARK (at 15,000+ feet) to squat!! tent beddingThen afterwards, feeling MUCH better, Lester and I laughing in amazement over the fact that we were SLEEPING (or trying to anyway, with mild altitude headaches), snuggly and warm in a tent, listening to the rain and wind…at over 15,000 feet!!! I should emphasize that our bedding was totally luxurious – probably five inches of padding which included real pillows, sheep’s wool and brocade mats, *very* thick, heavy, SOFT, blankets, and a yak’s wool blanket on top.

Friday (now the photo views will get REALLY amazing!!)

achi belowUp just before dawn and watching the light play over the peaks through the clouds (no rain, just a few light sprinkles), we had breakfast of, again, yak meat & onion chapatis and hard boiled eggs and tea, and broke camp – the ponies were loaded up again and saddled. We took off, uphill, at around 8 am, the six of us riding again.

Andrea’s, Alexandra’s and my ponies were hustlers, and we and our handlers ended up far ahead of the others, heading up *very* steep terrain above the nunnery, hairpin lester off ponyswitch-backing back and forth over and over…I was so glad for my pony and not to be walking! Twice we looked down and saw Lester off his pony (right), and later learned that the saddle was not tight enough, and on the steep terrain he kept sliding back onto his rump!

hikers belowAfter about an hour, the hillside, which was now quite barren but for some sparse flowers, became SO steep that we managed to convince our handlers (with whom we did not share a common language!) that we should get off and walk. girlsThis slowed us down considerably, so the others finally began to catch up with us, Achi and his pony’s handler-owner cousin Chodrup in the lead.

We were gasping for air and VERY slowly approaching the same altitude as the peaks around us, and seeing farther and farther along the peak-saturated horizon. (Meanwhile, the other walkers – including Chodrun, who is about 42, and Achi’s nieces Chotsomo and Yangzum, were NOT switch-backing, but heading straight up the mountain, each of them carry something – a backpack, lunch – Chodrun was STILL carrying the tea thermos!!)

grassy restWe became more and more amazed at where we were, turn after turn, and now could not quite believe it and what we saw… The terrain became steeper and steeper, and after a lovely rest on a grassy flat shelf (left) rimmed with prayer cairns, Yulo’s husband Samten came along to hold my hand as we crossed a very long, *very* steep dark gray scree/mica slope that dropped away for thousands of feet! Though we could now almost see the ridge we were headed for, we still seemed to continue up and up forever, until above us, Achi finally said “you will not believe this – it’s gonna knock your socks off!”

crest!As we crested the ridge, the panorama did indeed take our breath away. We were on a knife-edged crescent, like a half-cone, sweeping away from us like arms outstretched in a hug to the left and right in brown and charcoal gray and tan tones, with deep green valleys below and red escarpments in the distance – and as far as the eye could see were jagged peaks in every direction. My photos simply do not do the view justice…it was too big, and too varied in colors, to capture.

last traverseThe ridge actually rose even higher to the left, and above us were hundreds of prayer flags attached to a pole; we could also see all the ponies and handlers at the far left end of the curve, across another very long, tan scree slope, just below some pinnacles (left). We headed up to the prayer flags, and while Chodrup did acrobatics on his horse, lester hanging flagswe hung our prayer flags in the wind, just shaking our heads at where we were…about 17,500′! I now understand, without a doubt, why Tibet is called ‘the roof of the world’.

After crossing that last, nerve-wracking scree slope, all climbing done, we [especially the Westerners] all crashed for a long rest on a saddle of the ridge (below), looking across a new valley at a monk’s cave retreat high on a rock wall (wondering how in the world it could be reached!). In front of us on the saddle were 50-60′ tall rock pinnacles, and the young men burned off more energy (who had energy????) climbing around on them. pinnacle saddleWe then began our trek downhill, starting with a ***very*** steep gravel slope (below right) off the saddle, mostly sliding on our bums, about 800 feet down. Samten had continued to hold my hand from the previous, ridge-top scree slopes, to the bottom of this slide, and I was EVER grateful.

down screeThe bottom of the slope found us at the very top of a long, narrow and deep grassy alpine valley, with streams, bogs, hundreds of prayer cairns, flowers everywhere, and steep walls on either side that were covered alternately with gravel flows and thick bush vegetation – the contrast to our previous several hours of hiking toward and down from the ridge line was startling. me

Before continuing, we all rested again from the effort and altitude, and I stretched out on my stomach to get a cool photo (as taught by my one-day photography class in DC!). Pintuk and the other pony handlers all started laughing at me, which gave me the opportunity to use a newly-acquired, hilarious swear word and associated hand expression that increased the laughter! yangzom

In my exhaustion and without thinking, I had plopped down just behind the pony Yangzum’s husband was leading, and she noticed that the pony (luckily!) moved away from me and was about to knock over an open milk-tea thermos. As she lunged for it, she went down on one knee into a rock and howled – everyone thought she was laughing (which she also was), but she was also in real pain – poor thing! We all had her rubbing her knee like crazy, and putting cold water bottles on it.

hike downFrom there the well-worn path flowed like wide gentle steps down and down and down the valley, and our party became strung out in a very long line, me near the tail end, and at the front of each ‘step’ Lester and I could see everyone stretched out far below, ponies and handlers leading the way.

Soon the rest of the tour group just below us had stopped – they had discovered, both nearby and across the river on a steep slope, huge herds of the famous and endangered ‘blue sheep’. Our colors and noise startled the close-by herd and they sprang across in front of us and disappeared down-valley and uphill. blue sheepThe farther, larger herd also was startled, and ran UP as if the valley walls were flat rather than about 85 degrees, but then stopped again to graze, and we sat and watched them for about half an hour. They are not exactly blue, but rather a granite blue-grey, and blend in so perfectly with the rock and gravel that you have to look very carefully to see them. (Zoom into this photo and look around the base of the ‘V’ shaped sandslides. >>)

We continued down and down and down (will it never end!?), following the increasing water runnels over spongy soft alpine-tundra grass, and finally stopped for a long picnic lunch rest. After lunch, we continued down still more, until I thought my legs would fall off. (19-year-old Yangzum skipped down and sang the whole way, reminding me of Heidi!) We finally came to the convergence of two valleys and a small old temple, and just when I could barely walk any longer, we rested momentarily and then climbed gratefully back on the ponies. ponies againAs soon as we left the temple, we crossed a river and turned onto another of those large-rock-strewn ‘roads’.

The terrain was gentle, but I was so glad to be on that pony, unable to imagine how my legs could have managed two miles of knee-twisting, ankle-turning rock stepping! It was absolutely beautiful – a really narrow (maybe 100′ wide) canyon, along a small but raging glacier-melt river, with huge granite boulders and formations and hidden canyons appearing with each turn. We saw birds with bright red heads and bellies and small grey and white strips on their breasts, and golden eagles (or vultures?) soaring in lazy circles. Om mani

And Chodrup and Achi told the story of how one of the house-sized rocks in the river is the legendary ‘key’ to Shangri La (not this rock, but many rocks were painted like this with the beautiful “Om Mani Padme Hum” (right), which invokes the powerful benevolent attention and blessings of Chenrezig, the Buddha of Compassion). My horse again really wanted to lead, but was not allowed to…Pintuk (who is about 50) and one of the other very young handlers (about 16) pulling Ali’s horse were in constant competition to let each horse be in front, joking and jostling each other (the handlers!) every step – it was hilarious!

Near the end of the road we encountered a very short steep hill, and were advised to get off our horses. In spite of my exhaustion, I had been working VERY hard to ride properly, keep my back straight and hips loose, and constantly stretching my knees as they became more and more painful. But as I got off, my right knee gave way and I nearly fell – both Chotsomo and Yangzum ran up to help me. We three ended up walking the rest of the way, about 1/4 mile, one of them on each side of me practically carrying me along!

hot springOur expedition ended up at the same hot springs pools we had visited on Tuesday, and I don’t believe a hot soak has ever felt so good – especially as we gazed up the steep, green wall of the valley, thousands of prayer flags waving in the breeze, hardly able to believe where we had been and what we had done today.

We estimated our distance on foot was about 20 miles, with about 2500′ of elevation gain and 3000′ feet of loss, plus another 4-5 miles on the ponies. And all at an altitude I never even expected to hike to on this trip!