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.
“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.