Circumambulating Haba Snow Mountain, part II

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This article by author Pieter Crow is the second in a two-part series about ten days spent hiking, camping and generally taking in the wonderful views while walking in a full circle around 5,396 meter-high Haba Snow Mountain in northwest Yunnan. Part one can be found here.

Day 4: The Aqueduct

For more than two hours — some ten kilometers — we follow an aqueduct as it gradually snakes around and down the mountain. Boring, you might think, but no. For the longest time we enjoy the most wonderful and widespread views of the Jizhi Valley (鸡枝谷). We pass through Haibaluo (海巴洛村), a hamlet with a few homes and many tilled fields.

Other villages, near and far, cling to the slopes, narrow roads zig-zagging up to them from the depths below. We look down on major construction where a tall bridge will span a gorge and tunnels emerge from underground. I realize it's the high-speed railway from Lijiang (丽江) to Shangri-la (香格里拉), due for completion in 2020, or later.

But why do my hands itch so?

Finally it dawns on me. Sunburn! I cover my head, shade my eyes, mask my face, clothe my limbs, but this dummy forgets to protect his hands! All because I loathe sun cream. I hate that greasy-sticky-smelly-dirty-yucky feeling! Easy fix. I pull on a pair of gloves.

For these first four days, Haba Snow Mountain (哈巴雪山) watches over us, rewarding our upward gazes. When we trace the aqueduct around a corner of the foothills, the monarch disappears, not to reappear until the final day of the trek.

At midday, Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (玉龙雪山) comes into view, soon followed by the town of Qiaotou (桥头) deep down in the valley. We descend steeply to the Chong River (冲江河) and cross over a bridge at a factory. Hoofing it down the main road into Qiaotou, our mules retard traffic, forcing drivers to slow down, even stop.

Here the Yangs and mules depart. I thank them, and they walk home via the low path, the auto road through Tiger Leaping Gorge. They reach Haba several days before I do. I have realized one of my goals — traveling through remote country. For most of the first three days, I see no one outside our group. On the fourth we pass a few local villagers. We encounter no trekkers at all.

A rest in Qiaotou

Twenty-five hundred vertical meters of continuous downhill travel have pummeled my feet into oblivion. The soreness goes bone deep. Qiaotou offers nothing worthwhile, so say the travel guides. Maybe so. But oh, how I treasure these days of rest!

The descent destroys more than my feet. I casually check my boots and make a shocking discovery. The soles are delaminating, peeling away! Is the trek over so soon? Desperate, I walk through Qiaotou's business district looking for a rumored street cobbler. Fortunately, I find him and he hand stitches the flapping soles back in place. I gladly pay his 30 yuan fee.

I rest two days at Jane's Tibetan Guesthouse. Next door stands a school building, a landmark for trekkers beginning the journey through Tiger Leaping Gorge. Boys and girls from all over the region attend. Many live too far away to go as day students only, and the school serves as their residence.

Today is Friday and a large crowd of parents waits at the school gate. It opens at noon, and the children, loaded down with backpacks and suitcases, stream out. They return home for a few days, then it's back to school where they live and study for the next week or more.

Two days in Tiger Leaping Gorge

Even though it's my third time through, I never tire of the gorge. The rugged landscapes, breathtaking views, redoubt-like villages clinging to slopes plunging into the gorge —wow, tremendous! There may be crowds of trekkers, but for a couple of days I appreciate meeting people from near and far. Locals along the trail sell water, chocolate and fruit to passing hikers. I chat with them in Chinese about their lives and mine. They seem to enjoy the conversation, perhaps a welcome change from their normal interaction with foreigners.

Some aspects of the gorge disturb. Each time through I find a road extended here, a new bridge built there. Does Tiger Leaping Gorge have a trekking future? Perhaps not, according to the owner of one of the largest and busiest guesthouses. A tour group leader I met discussed the gorge's future with the owner and later related to me the gist of the conversation. Within a few years, the owner expects business to dry up as more and more of the trail is paved over.

I meet Zhao Yin (赵银), my new guide. He waits for me at the start of the Bamboo Forest Path (竹林小路), which branches off the standard trekking route near its terminus at Tina's Guesthouse. On an earlier trip through TLG, I traversed the Bamboo Path solo with heavy pack, training for an ascent of Haba Snow Mountain.

I didn't have a clue then how exposed the trail would be. More than once, the footbed narrowed to a ribbon hung on a precipice, and the heavy pack threw me dangerously off balance. Alarmed, I tried to phone my wife to ask for prayer. No service! The call wouldn't go through. I continued prayerfully — and without incident, thankfully — trying to overcome foreboding thoughts of doom.

Mr Zhao knows this country better than anyone. He should. Starting around the year 2010, he designed, laid out and built the Bamboo Forest Path. Provided your pack is light, it's a thrilling route winding through a narrow canyon with waterfalls.

He and I scramble up through whispering bamboo, descend a ledge with the help of a fixed cable, and cross the canyon stream on an inclined ladder. On my earlier trip, I clung tightly, my body splayed prone against the rungs, fearful the ladder would give way under my combined body and pack weight.

It goes better this time. Grasping a cable he has just installed along the length of the ladder, Mr Zhao walks confidently up the rungs standing upright. I copy his style and feel much safer crossing over. After two hours' ascent with superlative views, we arrive at Walnut Garden Youth Hostel, of which Mr Zhao is owner.

Here I meet an American-English couple, Troy and Jo, who live in Malaysia. Their Chinese companion, whom I'll call Mr Wang, is treking the gorge on vacation before starting a new job in Lhasa. On the spur of the moment, the three of them decide to join me for the next stage of my journey. I welcome their company.

Day 9: On To Ennu

Our party of four, led by Mr Zhao, quickly reaches the first landmark of the day, Thousand Year Walnut Forest (千年核桃林). The walnut trees, currently out of season, present a barren sight but won't for long. They flower in April and the nuts ripen in September.

Onward to the lofty perch called Empty Glad Platform (空欢喜观景台). Strange name. = empty, 欢喜 = happy, 观景台 = observation deck. "The 'empty-glad' part puzzles me. I resort to free association, which gives up a handy explanation — "Incredible view so high you feel like there is nothing beneath your feet". Reduced to three words: "Incredible Nothing Viewpoint". There, that's better.

In fact there's nothing here but one of the best views in Tiger Leaping Gorge. We take many group photos, which illustrate a typical cultural difference between some Chinese people and their foreign friends. Mr Zhao and Mr Wang stand stoically with neutral expressions. Troy and Jo beam thousand-watt smiles.

Few people travel beyond this point. We continue on because it provides the shortest path to Ennu Village (恩怒村). The trail becomes rocky, steep, at times difficult. When the trail forks, we go left. The right fork? Wiped out by a landslide, warns Mr Zhao. We ascend a steep, sandy gulley offering a real workout, "two steps forward, one step back". Someone had told me the trail to Ennu is impassable for mules. Mr Zhao disagrees with that assessment, but he admits riders would have to dismount at several places along the way, like this gully.

We finally reach the high point of the trail at around 3,200 meters. Although we glimpse patches of snow here and there, the ridges above remain hidden in cloud. From this lofty vantage point we enjoy uncommon views looking down — way down — to the lower reaches of Tiger Leaping Gorge. Upon exit from the gorge, the Jinsha River (金沙江) widens as if turning into a lake. There is no bridge. A ferry provides the only means across, giving access to the town of Daju (大具村).

We begin a long descent through open forests, passing many pink and white flowering trees. Near a dry spring that attracted thirsty tigers in times past, we rest among old stone walls. After eight hours on the trail, we reach the tiny village of Ennu. A private residence, the house of Mr Zhao's friend, provides lodging for the night. The family prepares a banquet of ethnic Yunnan dishes. Delicious!


Mr Zhao and I walk the road out of Ennu under a steady rain, the only significant precipitation during the entire trek. Troy, Jo and Mr Wang have hired a minivan and left for the city of Shangri-La. I elect to walk the soft and sandy ground next to the pavement— easier on my sore feet. Then it's off the hardtop and into the woods. Crossing the last ridge, we come face to face with a bull yak. He eyes us menacingly while guarding his herd. After a tense pause, Mr Zhao picks up a stone and lets fly. The beast wheels and retreats.

The clouds part. The sun emerges. I look down on sunny Haba Village. The circle closed. My feelings? Gratitude. Satisfaction. Weariness. My sexagenarian body craves a little rest. A final task remains, one I always cherish. After every adventure, every journey, seeking out the next.

Circumambulation of Haba Snow Mountain summary

Time: 8 hiking days, 2 rest days
Distance: 85 kilometers, including 20 kilometers on roads and paved trails
High point: 4,350 meters at Jizhi Pass
Low point: 1,850 meters at Qiaotou, now renamed Hutiaoxia Town (虎跳峡镇)
Elevation gain: 4,400 meters
Accommodation: tent, shepherd's hut, guest house, private residence
Itinerary: Haba Village (2,600 meters), Rhododendron Forest (4,050), Black Lake (4,100), Jizhi Valley (2,750), Qiaotou (1,850), Tea Horse Inn (2,300), Walnut Garden Youth Hostel (2,360), Ennu Village (2,600), Haba Village

Images: Pieter Crow

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