Stop and smell the flow­ers

A quest for a lake and lilac flow­ers takes a pair of ad­ven­tur­ers into the heart of the sa­cred peaks of Golok in eastern Ti­bet.

Action Asia - - CHINA - Story by Adrian Bot­tom­ley Pho­tog­ra­phy by Kyle Ober­mann & Adrian Bot­tom­ley

“NO SPE­CIAL LAKE,” RE­PEATED KELSANG, our horse­man, his blood­shot eyes hold­ing my be­mused gaze. “But a lake doesn't just dis­ap­pear – it's called Fox Call Lake, and it's right here on Google Earth,” I said, pointing at my map and won­der­ing what sound a fox ac­tu­ally makes. I also re­called another dis­ap­pear­ing act the pre­vi­ous af­ter­noon, when Kelsang had van­ished into the thin moun­tain air, along with all our gear, by in­ex­pli­ca­bly choos­ing to make camp be­hind a dis­tant bluff that had ob­scured him from view. I watched him slowly dis­mount, flashing his gold-toothed smile, and lie down on the car­pet of wild­flow­ers to light a cig­a­rette. Clearly, nei­ther he, nor the sa­cred peaks of Golok, were about to re­veal their mys­ter­ies in a hurry. For a num­ber of years, l had heard in­trigu­ing re­ports of a spec­tac­u­lar, un­ex­plored moun­tain range in western China, strad­dling the bor­der of present-day Sichuan and Qing­hai. Known in Ti­betan as Nyenpo Yurtse, af­ter its high­est peak (5,369m), the labyrinthine range was steeped in the mythol­ogy of the Golok tribes of eastern Ti­bet. Ac­cord­ing to some schol­ars, it was be­lieved to be the birth­place of the leg­endary Ge­sar of Ling (a sort of Ti­betan King Arthur and hero of the world's last liv­ing epic). The sa­cred peaks were also re­put­edly wor­shipped as the topo­graph­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion of a se­cret man­dala as­so­ci­ated with the most im­por­tant med­i­ta­tional de­ity in Ti­betan Bud­dhism, Chakrasamavara. By July 2017, plans for an ex­plorator y ex­pe­di­tion to th­ese fa­bled moun­tains had fi­nally co­a­lesced and I trav­elled four days across Yun­nan and Sichuan to meet up with my fel­low ex­plorer, and avid con­ser­va­tion­ist, Kyle Ober­mann, in Baima­cun, a dusty, one street town north­east of the di­vine peaks. The lofty aim of the ex­pe­di­tion was to at­tempt the first tra­verse of the en­tire range, a dis­tance of ap­prox­i­mately 40km. First though, we had more mun­dane mat­ters to han­dle, such as how much food we would need for our es­ti­mated eight days of trekking, and where to find a horse­man and a horse to carry our heav­ier gear. In the Ti­betan cre­ation myth, Aval­okites­vara, the bod­hisattva of com­pas­sion, in­car­nated him­self as a mon­key and mated with an ogress. In any ne­go­ti­a­tions, even Ti­betans ac­knowl­edge that it is their lat­ter, fiendish in­her­i­tance that comes to the fore. Hav­ing hag­gled for horses many times be­fore, it is still a painstak­ing process that of­ten in­volves sit­ting through long pe­ri­ods of feigned in­dif­fer­ence and awk­ward si­lences. Any horse­man worth his salt will try and en­gi­neer a min­i­mum trip pay­ment at the most in­flated rate pos­si­ble, as op­posed to a daily rate, in the hope of rush­ing you through your planned sched­ule. There is also lit­tle chance they will hon­our the orig­i­nal agree­ment. When out in the wilds, the temp­ta­tion for cre­ative ex­tor­tion is usu­ally too tempt­ing to pass up, but we had a ten­ta­tive deal at least, in­clud­ing pro­vi­sions of a sack­ful of pota­toes, tsampa (roasted bar­ley flour) and dried yak meat. With that to look for­ward to, we sat down for our last proper meal be­fore head­ing off into the moun­tains. Our din­ner com­pan­ions were two af­fa­ble Ti b e t an l amas c a l l e d Tas hi and Gengga.

GRASS­ROOTS CON­SER­VA­TION La­mas Tashi and Gengga leave no stone un­turned as they sur­vey the Golok range, where wild­flow­ers of­ten car­pet the way to the sa­cred peaks.

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