The Amnye Machen Entries, Part 2
Location: Amnye Machen Trailhead to Camp 1
Elevation: ~4,000 m (13,125 ft)
On the Road
Today was the first official day of trekking. We woke up in our tiny tent around 8. The guide and monk were loading up a 4x4 that would be taking us to the trailhead. The nomads invited us in for a hasty breakfast of stale bread from last night and milk tea. I jumped in the 4x4, second piece in mouth, as we really needed to meet the horses and yaks.
Kate, the guide, the monk and the horseman crammed in. Monk, Guide and I literally had 2 layers of gear across our laps in the back seat. Despite her protests, Kate would be spared this and a lot of other troubles due to her herniated disc. 15 km later, we drive by a ridiculous amount of prayer flags and a huge brazier for burning prayers to the mountain god. We had arrived at the starting point for the kora around Amnye Machen.
NOTE: The mythology surrounding Amnye Machen would prove to be a source of confusion. Most Tibetans are, of course, Buddhist, but then Amnye Machen was a god. An adjacent peak was his brother. Yet another was his wife. Another, a disciple. And on and on. There are 12 peaks on the mountain itself, each completing this microcosm of mythology. I could never really figure out how it played into Buddhism, so we theorized that it is leftover from the Bön tradition, of which certain aspects have blended with Tibetan Buddhism over time.
We unload the SUV and wait for the yaks. Soon, a woman that looked like a Chinese migrant worker (actually Tibetan, but her face was covered) with a mandolin strapped on her back arrived on horseback with three of them in tow. We stood back and contemplated for a while how the hell they were going to fit all of our stuff on them. So long, in fact, that the guide just told us to start ahead with the monk. Apparently he knew a lot of the route.
The big shame of this leg of the journey was that it mostly followed the dusty road that would become the new highway. We stepped down to a stream bed and hiked there to avoid it for as long as possible. We saw some of the famous Tibetan vultures soaring overhead, the very same that consume the flesh of the dead during sky burials.
We found a nice, grassy hillside by the stream to wait for the yaks. When they finally did arrive, we had lunch, which was basically just bread, jam and some other snacks. We still had a long way to go, so we didn't rest long.
We began crossing loamy hills next to the road. We could definitely begin to feel the breathlessness of high altitude when walking uphill. Fortunately, the scenery had begun to be spectacular. The snow-capped mountains of the Amnye Machen Range dominated the east for the first time while the smaller stone ridges were at our backs. And most importantly, the bulk of the construction had begun to dwindle in the distance. But then came the road...
There came a point in time that we had no choice but to walk on the dusty, shitty road. We tried not to get too disheartened, as our guide had said that camp was just over that hill in the distance. We should have known better.
What ensued was 3 hours of Kate, the monk and I breathing in dust from passing lorries. I dampened my buff and wore it over my mouth and nose, but then that made it difficult for me to get what little of the thin air I could at this altitude. The situation made it very difficult to enjoy the scenery. To make it worse, every hill we crested showed no sign of camp. People find it very difficult to accurately communicate times and distances here.
A lorry that had tipped over on its side lifted our spirits a bit. It wasn't a recent wreck, just an old, abandoned lorry. Score 1 for nature! Ah, the small victories.
Eventually, we came to a point that was super close to the mountain. There were prayer flags everywhere and a few stupas as well. To top it off was a small mountain pass near the glacier where pilgrims were tossing this mini paper prayer flags, chanting and ringing bells. How's that for your Tibetan mountain god atmosphere?
About 30 minutes after that, we finally make it to camp, which is on a flat plain sandwiched between two streams (one glacial and one drinkable) and the big grassy hill we would start out on tomorrow. The guide had ridden ahead to set up camp. We both had throbbing headaches from either breathing in the dust or altitude, and all we could do for ten minutes was lay down.
After a nap, we got around to setting up the tent and having dinner. Noodles with veggies were a treat. We didn't think we had any fresh veggies. It was impossible to linger in the mess tent and make conversation. We immediately retired to try and sleep away the dusty troubles of our first day, nestled under the mountain and the stars.