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The Amnye Machen Entries, Part 1

Date: 7/12/14

Location: Rebkong to Village near Amnye Machen

Elevation: ~3600 m (11,800 ft)

The Endless Car Journey

We woke up ready to face the day with the promise of a beautiful drive to a village nearby Machen (the county, not the mountain), horse races and being there by lunch with an open schedule to enjoy and explore. The best laid plans...

Breakfast is just bread with yak milk tea, but I'm not complaining. We quickly load up the van and hit the road. Apparently a back-up driver and a random older lady are joining our party today.

The first leg of the journey was absolutely gorgeous. We wove our way between enormous, lush mountains covered in pine/juniper forests, their tops shrouded in mist. Kate mentioned that it reminded her a lot of Kashmir. There were so many golden stupas jutting from valley floors and the sides of mountains that we made a new variation of "Punch Bug", but with stupas. Nobody wins or loses.

Fairly abruptly, the mountains gave way to hilly grasslands and we were officially driving on the Tibetan Plateau at roughly 3,000 m (9,850 ft). We also get our first real views of the nomads and their yak herds. The grasslands literally extend as far as the eye can see, only to be interrupted by the rolling mountains and hills in the same shade of green.

It's somewhere at this point that the first frustrating thing happens, or China happens. Tibet happens? The road we needed to take to the village was blocked, or "interrupted" as our guide put it. So we would get there at 3pm instead of 1:30pm. But this initial frustration is offset by the fact that we are descending from the grasslands into a massive epic canyon and that Kate and I are now wearing our newly purchased, Tibetan-style cowboy hats.

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This canyon must be bigger than the Grand Canyon back in the States. It's certainly more impressive. But anyway, it's absolutely huge. The canyon itself is dry and dusty while the floor is lush and green with the yellow blooms of the latest barley crop. We feel like we're in Afghanistan rather than Tibet, and this illusion is completed by the traditional homes that are mud-walled in and blend in with the arid landscape.

Part 2 of our frustrating episode begins after we drive through a small village in the canyon. The route we are currently on is also blocked. We'll get there at 5 now. We started getting properly pissed because there has been no concept at all of stopping for lunch amongst our Tibetan and Chinese group (3 meals a day are included in the tour). Obviously, we will not be seeing any horse racing either.

Our guide seems constantly unaware as to what the fuck is actually going on. We blame the tour company more for this than the guide himself, who is actually awesome. The back-up driver is a typical maniac behind the wheel. The roads are almost non-existent. The scenery is grand, but we just wanted to fucking get there.

We emerge from the canyon and into another dusty village. Instead of two hours more, it becomes three hours more and our planned 6-hour journey becomes a 12-hour one. Seriously, what the fuck. I'm all for adventure and everything, but the general feeling in the car is not the Into the Wild "hooray spontaneity", crunchy backpacker variety. It's more like we haven't eaten since 7am and the driver keeps checking the fuel gauge vibe.

At this point we pretty much let our guide know that the lack of planning, especially for food, is unacceptable. Why would Jamyang (travel agency manager) even let us leave Rebkong if half the roads in Qinghai are closed? These are the important, yet simple questions that no one in China seems to think about.

It just goes to show that no concept of organization, no one having a clue of what is going on, trying to save face when, holy shit, something does go wrong is not only a Chinese phenomenon.

Wait, there's more! Again, 2 more hours. We get pissed and say we must stop for something to eat. This isn't unreasonable as we literally haven't eaten in 12 hours, which isn't exactly the most nutritious way to pregame for an 8-day hike at altitude. To rectify this, the driver stops in the dustiest shit-town I've ever seen. It's a shanty-town that has sprung up amidst a massive construction project that plans on linking Gansu, Sichuan and Qinghai provinces with a new highway. This construction and its consequences will be another theme of our trip.

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We look for a restaurant. Shit, piss and trash are mingled with stagnant water in the shallow gutters along the street. I put my foot down. We are not fucking eating in a place that has a 98% chance of poisoning us before we go into the wilderness for 8 days. I realize I sound like a spoiled drama queen when I say this, but I can't overstate how remote and far away from medical help we're about to be. We buy snacks from a shop instead.

The last leg of the drive was from hell. The rest of the journey was spent on the the currently under construction road to Amnye Machen. It was mostly dirt, and the constant traffic of lorries kicked up a perpetual dust storm that permeated the van and our lungs for the next few hours. Just what you need when you're going to high altitude for the first time in your life.

Soon, the jagged mountains that form part of the Amnye Machen Range come into view. We even got a brief glimpse of Amnye Machen's ice cap before it disappeared again. It would have been more epic if we hadn't needed to piss/shit/eat/sleep for the past 5 hours.

We continue on the dusty road for some time, the drivers stopping every once in a while to ask people questions. So we ascertained that, despite a million assurances from our guide, that they had no idea where they were going.

It's approaching nightfall. We pick up a lone man holding a watermelon on the side of the dirt road. He seems to know where we are headed to. Finally, we wind up in one of the most rundown villages I have ever seen in China. That's saying something. A huge moon hangs over the grassy hills in the background. We take our huge van down a street so narrow we can barely make it to the other end. Some old lady comes outside shouting something and the driver seems pleased.

We leave the village and drive 20 minutes further until we reach a couple of nomadic tents. Apparently this is the "village" we're staying at tonight. Actually pretty cool. We are rushed in to the main tent for dinner with no time to help the others unload. Our guide was still trying to save face from before and wanted us to eat.

A woman was waiting inside over a hub in the middle of the tent. It was surprisingly luxurious. A kitchen area, a TV, a main bed and two smaller sofas that also acted as beds. The woman served us noodles with yak meat and milk tea with bread. It was great.

Then, I assume her husband came in. He was wearing a blazer with matching slacks, surprising attire for a Tibetan nomad. It was pretty awesome. I asked if he spoke Chinese. Nope. So we sort of just sat and ate in silence with many smiles and polite nods. Then two other guys came in to make it more awkward. Awkward because our guide was nowhere to be found and there was really no way to communicate. We politely declined third servings and went to bed in our tent outside.

We were above 3,000 m that night, which was a pretty abrupt jump from Rebgong. Definitely higher than the recommended elevation gain per day. I had a massive headache while I was trying to sleep, along with weird thoughts and dreams when I finally did make it to sleep. Not sure if it was just the stress of the day or actually altitude sickness.

Continued in Part 2.

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