Friday, March 27, 2009

Travel: The Snowman Trek (Part VII - Days 16-18)

Day 16

This was a long walk. We began by crossing the pass above Green Lake (Keche La – 4665m) and then began a long and steep descent into the valley of the Pho Chhu. It was not a particularly challenging descent and we came across some villages on our way down including Tega, where we stopped to take in the views of the valley and look at a local Chorten. Across the valley there were hanging valleys and waterfalls cascading down from the plateau above. Below was a sheer gorge with a raging river. It was quite relaxing!

(View into the valley from Tega)

From Tega we descended before coming across a bridge that took us over a waterfall entering the valley. It was loud and a bit wet, but another good place to stop and take in the views. Once we reached the Pho Chhu we came across two of the local girls who were collecting wood. They kindly posed for a photo. It was interesting to see the significantly different clothing they wore compared to the Layaps. We walked along a very rocky trail before climbing up the steep banks (about 20 – 30metres) to the village of Lehdi. It was raining now and there was a cold wind; we were glad to find some shelter in the lee of a hut where we could eat our lunch.

(Some locals near Lhedi)

All that was left was a long walk up the valley to Chozo. In our way we glimpsed the magnificent Kungfu Kung (7100m) as it appeared out of the clouds. This wasn’t a particularly steep walk; however the final climb up the valley through large boulders seemed to take a long time. I think we were all glad to see Chozo when we came around the final corner. The village was bathed in soft sunshine that was spearing in through the clouds. I looked to the east to see Table Mountain, however all I could see was a cascade of cloud tumbling down the west face, the summit and top half of the mountain being obscured. We had a rest day to look forward to and I was not going to waste it!

(Arriving at Chozo)

Day 17

I did very little on this rest day, other than wander around the village. Miriam and I persuaded one of our guides, Ash, to take us to look at the monastery. This was also a fortress, the only one in the Lunana region. It was the only traditional designed Bhutanese monastery we had seen, however we were not able to gain entrance as there was no caretaker around. It is said to be over 600 years old.

Some of the group, only two (perhaps three) went to visit the nearby village of Thanza, somewhat closer to the base of Table Mountain. Now…Table Mountain. This is an awesome piece of rock; there is no other way to describe it. It rises some 3km from the valley floor to its flat summit (approximately 7100m). The summit stretches for kilometres and has a cornice of snow on top that must be a couple of hundred metres thick. It dominates the view east from Chozo with its seemingly vertical west face. Simply magnificent!

(Table Mountain)

The locals came to visit camp and chat as best they could with us. The lad with the big purple hat was a standout among the locals! There was also a house blessing going behind the camp, so there was an opportunity to visit and experience this ceremony. I felt (rightly or wrongly) that I would be intruding so stayed at the camp.

I could have spent the whole day just staring at it, but I had washing to do and lunch to eat, as well as morning and afternoon tea etc. One of the guides showed me the route we would be taking the next day up on to the Lunana plateau. It didn’t look too bad. I ended up thinking that it was a good time to have a rest day.

Day 18

After a chilly start to the morning we crossed a short bridge over the Pho Chhu and began the long climb up to the Lunana Plateau. By golly it was tough! Even the yaks were puffing and panting when they finally caught us and left us behind. We climbed up over 1000 metres to Sintia La, and it took me about 5 hours. We stopped for lunch on some rocky outcrops not far beneath the final pass. Up here there were small glaciers coming down from the craggy plateau edge and a view back towards Table Mountain and Kungfu Kung that was ample reward for the hard work. We were even rewarded with a spectacular avalanche on Table Mountain. We had heard the rumbling of a few avalanches in the morning; however we only saw this one.

(Avalanche on Table Mountain)

Once we reached the plateau we came a across a beautiful, if barren, landscape. It was rocky and framed by snow-capped peaks, with small lakes and streams cutting through the rocks. There were more of the strange alpine plants unique to this part of the world, and we were blessed with clear, crisp weather. While our path was reasonably easy, off to the east were large craggy peaks beside deep valleys that had been incised into the plateau. We strolled with comparative ease across this landscape but the altitude did eventually start to tell. We were staying up at about 5000 metres for two days. By the end of the day, the campsite at Tsho Chena could not come soon enough.

(On the plateau)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Travel: The Snowman Trek (Part VI - Days 13-15)

Day 13

After a windy night we awoke to a cloudy day that proved to be a poor photo day. We climbed up to a valley that was quite open and it was here that we saw some of the rheum nobile – a cylindrical plant that was either red or yellow. It’s a strange plant and I am sorry to say that none of my attempts to capture it on film were successful due to the light (or perhaps my ability with a camera?). Another steep climb followed and we got tantalising glimpses of a big mountain high up in the clouds. A lot of the day involved climbing over moraine and rocks and it proved to be reasonably challenging. By this time we were at about 4900 metres. It was cold and I looked forward to having dinner and then climbing into my sleeping bag.

(Our yaks and yak herders appearing through the mist)

Day 14

I awoke on Day 14 of the trek aware that the tent felt rather warmer than it probably should, given that it was snowing when we went to bed the previous night. As I managed to focus my eyes I could see shadows on the side of the tent. At the same time as I touched them they moved with a ‘sssshhhhh’ sound as the snow slid down towards the ground. A cursory look outside the tent revealed a white landscape that was gloomy under the blanket of a thick mist.

After we had breakfast the mist lifted and we were treated to a magnificent view down the valley with the sun casting a soft light on the snow. We could see for miles. Many miles. There were peaks stretching off in the distance as we looked west towards Nepal. Opposite was Gangla Karchang, a magnificent, sheer rock that reached up to 6300 metres. It was difficult to understand that it was over a kilometre higher then we were – it seemed almost close enough to reach out and touch. The scale of the landscape was very deceptive.

It was a short climb up to the pass (5020 metres) during which time magnificent, if small, glaciers were visible, along with the seasonal deposition lines in the snow. After crossing Karakachu La we began a long descent. Very early on I was able to catch an avalanche on film. This morning was one of the most spectacular on the whole trek. The clear sky and crisp morning snow made the thin air much less tiring, and the view from the pass was awe-inspiring with 7000 metre peaks marking the border with Tibet. Below the peaks was a precipitous valley some 3km lower. These views made the 1000 metre steep climb down from the pass into the valley more seem easier than it actually was. There were plenty of opportunities to stop and admire the view and the rhododendrons.

(On the way up to Karakachu La)

(View from Karakachu La)

(Avalanche on way down from Karakachu La)

Once we reached the valley floor it was a three-hour walk along the flat valley floor to the camp. However, because we had spent so long talking to our Bhutanese guide, Sonam, about the flora of the area, we ended up reaching the camp in the dark using torches. It has been a hard day, but the views were easily the best yet and made the effort seem a small price to pay to see them.

Day 15

We started today walking through the bottom of a glaciated valley that had many large boulders strewn along its length. The river, Tarina Chuu gurgled happily beside us, making the walk rather pleasant, although there were some rather muddy patches.

(The Tarina Chu)

We then began a long climb up towards the village of Woche. This was, as usual, quite demanding and took up until lunchtime. At Woche we lay on the grass and had lunch in the afternoon sun, and watched the locals at work preparing their wheat. It was quite idyllic, however we did need to move on to the next camp.

(Kids at Woche)

We left the village and crossed a large moraine deposit which involved many short, steep climbs before we got to cross the Woche Chuu. As we came down towards the bridge one of our yaks fell in the raging torrents (it’s a reasonably wide river) and we watched as the yak herders kept their heads and managed to guide it back on to the shore. If we had lost the yak, we would have lost everything attached to it for good. However, I’m sure the yak was even more please than we were with its survival!

Just to finish off the day, then came to a very steep climb up to our campsite. It was at least 50-70 metres and proved to be a real effort. Just what we needed. The camp was right next to Green Lake and gave us a great view of Kangphu Kang (7200m) to the north. The lake was indeed green and provided a much-appreciated place to stop for the night.