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The sun dropped in the sky, and so did the temperature. In late December, daytime temperatures in the Kaka Valley can reach over ten degrees centigrade, but when night falls it drops to below zero. At high noon, the sun shining down on our backs and working up a sweat as we marched forward, we could strip down to our T-shirts and enjoy a gentle breeze, but at night we sat huddled in down-jackets to protect us from the cold.

After dinner we boiled a large pot of water and brewed some tea to enjoy by the campfire. Though around us was nothing but cold, empty mountains, we couldn’t help but feel warm inside and satisfied after the day’s exertion. The next day would be a much harder climb, taking us over a mountain pass at an altitude of 4,200 meters and into the Qizang Valley, but we were steeling ourselves at the thought of what tomorrow’s journey would bring.

Day Two: Changhaizi Lake

That day we planned to hike over 10 kilometers to see Changhaizi Lake, a long, snaking strip of icy mountain water that stretches for some four kilometers. Its name, “chang,” meaning “long,” and “haizi,” the local word for small alpine lake, is rather literal.

We got up at 7:00 am, full of anticipation for what lay ahead. In the camp the light was still dim, but the sky over the mountaintops was already a delicate blue, signaling the beautiful weather that was in store for us that day. Thinking of the spectacular pictures we could take of the crystal-clear mountain lake, as well as our own comfort, we were relieved that it was not going to rain.

Today our journey was less leisurely, and to save time we left without having breakfast, eating both breakfast and dinner on the journey, with just an apple and some flat cake for a quick lunch at noon.

Changhaizi Lake was right above our campsite. To reach it we had to climb halfway up the mountain. As we ascended the mountainside, the lake and the shadowy dress that surround it suddenly came into view. Being late autumn, the water level had dropped to reveal the white carbonate rock of the lake bed around its edge framing its brilliant turquoise waters. We peered into the water but couldn’t spot any signs of fish or other creatures.

We managed to tear ourselves away from the shores of the lake and began the climb over the Changhaizi Pass shortly before noon. At 4,200 meters, this would be the highest point on our journey. The powerful mountain sun had begun to thaw the ice and snow and our road had turned to slush, but as we climbed higher, the temperature got lower, the road became icy and the air became thinner. Walking became a mammoth effort, our boots became heavier, and every deep breath we took seemed inadequate. Keeping in single file, we moved slowly towards the pass.

Here, where we were almost overcome by mountain lassitude, our will was at its most challenged. At times we felt reluctant to keep going and wanted to give up and trudge back down the mountainside. Even taking our cameras out to take a picture seemed like a superhuman task. It was only the thought that this might be the only chance we would have in our lives to photograph such pristine landscape that pushed us through the ascent. When we reached the apex of the climb, I had no idea how long it had taken, but I was full of relief and satisfaction.

Day Three: Hongxing Lake

The next day we headed for a small, oval shaped lake named Hongxinghai, or Red Star Lake, less than one kilometer across at its widest point. The scene here was a far cry from the forested shores of Changhaizi, as the lake was surrounded by stark mountains bearing very little vegetation. The water here was so clear and still that when we peered into it we could make out the bottom of the lake through the reflected images of the mountains and clouds above us.

When we left the lake and headed higher we were suddenly confronted with a field of azalea on the verge of blossoming. Their vibrant green was a welcome splash of color in this wild land, showing how resilient life can be in the harshest of environments. It was a welcome reminder of how this planet can present us with something so full of both vitality and peace, as opposed to the noise and action of the city life we had left behind.

It was not far from the lake to the next mountain pass at an altitude of some 4,100 meters, but we were exhausted after the day’s walk. Each of us had one thing on our minds: the warm beds we would sleep in that night. I was struck by the irony of the situation, how so many mountaineers yearn to be off in the wilderness, but once they have undergone the hardships of the trail they instead yearn for the comfort and convenience of their daily lives in the city.

Perhaps we had all been stuck in this daydream too long, because as I and a few other teammates started to descend, we realized we had lost sight of the others. I was tired and aware that night would soon fall, and had to fight to keep calm. From their reactions, I couldn’t tell whether my teammates were worried or not, but I tried not to let my own disquiet show.

Their eyes on me, I fumbled for the walkie-talkie that I had expected to remain unused as I ticked it off my kit list just days earlier, and called ahead to Zhao. I heard his voice come crackling over the walkie-talkie, telling us that he would wait for us by a brook. By the time we caught up it had started to snow and the light was failing. The temperature dropped sharply and stung our faces, but I felt safe.

Zhao told us that we still had another couple of hours walking ahead of us, so I quickly replenished my water supply from the brook and we continued along the route. It got darker and darker, and it soon dawned on us that today we would have to walk during the night. We accelerated our pace.

As we descended below the snowline we entered a forest, but none of us was in the mood for pretty scenery. Zhao told us to hurry, but some of us were overcome with exhaustion and couldn’t go on. For the first time some of us began to feel agitated. But this wasn’t the time for resentment. We adjusted our attitudes and together decided that we would rest for a couple of minutes every half hour. With our headlamps lighting the way, we marched on in silence.

Then I heard a cry come from in front of me. Rushing forwards, we found that a female teammate had slipped and fallen off the path into a bush, which stopped her from falling into the stream below. We all breathed a sigh of relief after finding that her only injury was a small scratch and a fright. At nine o’clock, after 11 hours of walking, we finally reached our destination of Huanglong Town. Zhao quickly found us a guesthouse, and we all phoned our loved ones to report our safe passage through the Qizang Valley as its owner prepared a large pot of mutton soup. Huddling around the fire, we sated our hunger and laughed at the two scares we had had earlier that day that could easily have resulted in disaster, happy that we were finally off the mountain. Then we washed our faces and soaked our feet in warm water, before wrapping ourselves in warm quilts to dream of the beautiful scenery yet to come.

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VOL.59 NO.12 December 2010 Advertise on Site Contact Us