Tibet has always been a dream for many travelers. Its giant snowy mountains, endless grasslands, lakes, rivers, as well as its unique local culture make this place like a magnet. It was a magnet for me too. Basically, I always try to travel to new places, to not repeat old trips. But there are some exceptions, and Tibet was one of them. I have been there several times and always want to explore it again and again.
Where is Eastern Tibet
But where is Eastern Tibet, and why "Eastern"? Most people look at the map and see the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China with its capital Lhasa and the Himalayas on its south-southwestern side. And they think that this is Tibet. But what they don't know is that it is only Western Tibet (and it is its name in Chinese- "Xizang", which literally means "Western Tibet").
The rest of Tibet, outside of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) is shared between the provinces of Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan. This is Eastern Tibet. And maybe just because it is outside of the famous TAR, it has remained more authentic, more natural and unique, far from the tourist crowds. At the same time it is much easier to visit, since it is free from the tightened travel regulations of TAR.
I have traveled on the best routes in Eastern Tibet, from Chengdu to Xining, also in Gansu and Yunnan. But its landscapes and unique culture let me desire to explore it more deeply, not just from buses, cars, tourist sightseeing platforms and settlements around the main roads. I wanted to "dive and disappear" in its endless grasslands, crossing valleys and summits, and feeling every step on this land with its fresh air, saturated with aroma of grass, streams and snow. And I knew that the best way is to trek.
Approaching Mt Genyen in Eastern Tibet
There are many trails in Eastern Tibet, crossing or circling around its snowy mountains. I focused on Genyen, one of the sacred mountains for the Tibetans, located in the extreme west of Sichuan province, southwest of Litang city. Its highest peak with the same name- Genyen, is 6204 m high. Being quite remote and isolated, its large part remains unexplored even until today. So I joined a small group of Chinese friends who had drawn a route for 6-7 days.
It was August, the peak season for Eastern Tibet. I met my friends in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, and we together got the early bus to Litang. From there, on the next day, we loaded our heavy backpacks on a car with a local Tibetan driver that one of the guys found, to take us to our starting point.
At first the group traveled on a narrow paved road, which later become dirt, passed several small Tibetan villages, and finally arrived at a newly-built monastery. The landscape was fantastic – a fresh meadow with a river and a herd of yaks beside it. It was in the entrance of a deep gorge, covered by gorgeous coniferous forest and glazing snow-capped peaks on its both sides.
I have trekked before, but it has been always at a much lower altitude. Or when I hiked mountains at high altitude, more than 3000-3500 meters, it was just short hikes with little or no luggage. But now it was different. This had to be my most serious trek, for a week with a very heavy backpack, at altitudes not lower than 3900m and up to 5000m "“ something that I had to do for the first time.
The other guys with me were well trained, so they didn't have too many problems. But I suddenly realized that this time I was not well prepared. Hiking with my heavy backpack, I felt like I had to bear furniture on my back. It was real suffering for me, especially when ascending on the path. If it was 500-1000m altitude, it would be much easier, but now it was 4000m. No, it was not altitude sickness (I have never experienced such a thing), it was just the normal condition of easier tiring in high altitude.
The first day I walked only 4 hours until the first camp. In spite of my "suffering", I still enjoyed the fantastic panorama of the grassland and Mt. Genyen, rising dramatically behind it. Finally the group reached a valley with dirt road and I installed my tent. Two Tibetans "“ a man and woman offered us some water and Coca Cola (we bought it from them, and they especially went to the nearby village to buy for us, riding their motorcycle), which was really delightful after the heavy trek.
I awoke to a fresh sunny morning and tried to eat as much as possible from my food, in effort to make my backpack as light as possible. This day I expected an easier trek, with a very slight ascent, so I hoped I could pass better. The whole morning was on a dirt road, oftenly meeting smiling Tibetans on their motorcycles or horses, who greeted me with "Tashi delek!", which in their language means something like "Hello, welcome, blessings!".
At noon the group arrived at a small settlement of a few nomadic tents. They were in a wide valley with stunning views to the glacier and snow-covered Genyen peaks. It was hot (yes, although we were on 4100 m altitude, the sun shines strongly there and can burn your skin) and we were thirsty. A friendly Tibetan family gave me a bottle of icy Coca Cola, and I stared at the sky and the small rolling clouds in hope that they could hide the burning sun. When it happened, I was thankful.
But the rolling clouds quickly started growing. They became darker, and I could hear distant thunder, which also were coming closer and closer. I could feel the aroma of the coming rainstorm. It was incredibly beautiful, majestic, and scary. After a short ascent over the valley with the snake-curving river, the rain quickly came to us. And with the rain "“ freezing cold with strong wind gusts. I was afraid mostly of the thunder and lightning "“ I was walking on a place where they were most likely to strike me. But I had no choice "“ just keep walking as fast as possible.
In such moments, I forgot my heavy backpack and tiredness, and just walked quickly. The rain mixed with ice and snow. I left the dirt road and found a path which lead us to the next camping point. Fortunatelly, the storm passed and the deep blue sky revealed itself again. Thankfully, I was not wet, mostly due to the good waterproof hiking gear.
I was worried about today. We were at 4150m altitude and the route was planned to cross a mountain pass at 4970m, then to descend to a village at 3890m. It was expected to be a difficult and long hike. It was useless to think too much. In the morning our group just left the campsite and started ascending on a valley with breathtaking views around us. First the path crossed a forest, then entered a high alpine tundra with a small stream curving beside us. Finally it became steep and we started attacking the summit.
Surprisingly, I felt much better than the first day. Maybe because my backpack was a bit lighter, or maybe because I began to get used to such a difficult kind of hiking in high altitude. But I was still slower than the others. At least it gave me an opportunity to enjoy the fantastic wild silence around me, mixed only by a distant stream's whisper.
The other guys reached the summit, and I reached it 30 mins after them. It is always exciting to reach such a summit. First, you feel like a "hero", and second, you are curious to see what is beyond. What I saw was another endless maze of valleys, and rugged mountains, covered by alpine forests, tundra and above "“ by snow and ice. Now we had to descend to the valley on the other side.
Descending was much easier. I almost ran downward and soon caught up with others. Down below we saw a nomadic tent and descended to it. There was a Tibetan woman with her two children, alone in the majestic wilderness. We said "Tashi Delek", but they were too shy. They didn't escape, but didn't dare to say a word. Just sat down on the grass, looking at us, waiting us to leave them.
I soon reached the bottom of the valley and two other nomadic tents. This time there were two Tibetan families, who welcomed us warmly and the kids were happy to greet us and even invite us to stay in their tent. But we were in hurry, we had to reach our destination for this day on time.
The path proceeded descending, reached another, lower valley and a gorgeous coniferous forest. Finally we arrived in our destination "“ Daxiukuo village. It was almost evening. My legs were tired, but I was happy because I passed this difficult section of the route successfully.
Our small group was scattered at last. Everybody walked alone, but this time I wasn't the last one behind the others. When I entered the village, a group of happy Tibetan children surrounded me. I gave them some of my dry food and a few chocolates. Yes, I was really glad to give them these things. First- I could made them happier. And second, I could free my backpack once again. They grabbed my chocolate and disappeared around the houses of the village.
At evening we installed our tents in a small arranged campsite, south of the village. There was a small local shop, and the Tibetans offered some delicious meals (believe me, after a heavy trek, everything looks more delicious than normal!). So I ate some of the yummiest beef noodles in my life (of course, with some Coca Cola and a chocolate).
One of the guys had a problem in his leg and decided to end his trek. He found one of the few trucks in the village and the driver took him to Batang, a small town on the border of the Tibetan Autonomous Region. The rest of us proceeded further.
The trekking section of this day had to be difficult too. We had to ascend to another summit on 4950m altitude "“ more than 1000m higher than our campsite, and to install our tents on the other side. About 80% of the route today was upward.
There were nomadic tents with Tibetan families on the road again. But this time, there were some angry dogs, so we tried to pass it quickly. It was again not easy for me and I had to rest often. At afternoon we reached two glacial lakes at 4700m, approaching the mountain pass.
My throat was dry. It is important to know that the air in the high Tibetan Plateau is much drier than in the lowlands. While gasping on the ascent, I could almost feel it painfully. So the thirst is a problem there. I didn't know it, and the food that I have bought was mainly dry. But now I discovered that it was very difficult to eat it. I needed water. Cold, fresh and in large quantity!
There was water everywhere around us. Streams, rivers, glacial lakes, ponds… it was very tempting to take out my bottle and fill it with this fresh water. But I knew that I should not do it. The waters in Tibet are clean, but there are some local bacterias which can cause serious problems in your body. Besides, there are a lot of yaks leaving their excrement, and pikas (a kind of rabbit-like mice, living underground and often playing outside of their holes).
Finally, we crossed the summit. It was a difficult crossing "“the summit was covered by large stones. In fact, the last 2 km to our next campsite was walking and jumping on stones, until we reached a nice meadow by a stream, where we spent the night at 4750 m.
Crossing another, smaller summit, I started walking on a long beautiful valley, slowly descending. It was a pleasure for me. I walked quickly. We met a Tibetan family at the path again, and the man, the head of the family, was happy to pose for a photo with me.
At noon we descended to Mengcuo Lake, at 4500m, where we had lunch. From there a new ascent was ahead, to the next summit at 4860m. Beyond it was a descent, then again another ascent to a next summit at 4920 m, then another descent to our next campsite. I felt great in the morning, but at evening it made me tired. The other guys were tired too.
Today was another long and difficult trek, this time crossing three summits of Eastern Tibet, one of which at 5010m altitude. I reached the first of the summits and suddenly saw a new paved road below, on the other side of the summit. I noticed that what I thought was the same what the other guys thought "“ let's finish our trek here, stop a car (or a truck) and descend to Batang. Obviously, the trek was too heavy not only for me, but for them too.
So, we started walking down on the paved road. There were some sections under construction and Tibetan workers did their job. We reached a nomadic tent with a jeep in front of it. There were two friendly Tibetan families inside, eating spicy potatoes with some beans. They warmly offered us their lunch, and it was the most delicious potatoe meal that I have ever eaten, especially with some cold drink!
The driver of the jeep agreed to take us to Batang. So we descent from 4600 to 2400 m. It was hot there. I and another guy in the group hitchhiked to Litang, where we spent the night. From there- by another car we reached Xinduqiao, where the other guy with the hurted leg waited us, and we spent the night in a Tibetan house of his Tibetan friend. And on the next day I alone made my way back to Chengdu. Thus this amazing trek was over.
Top of the World, Eastern Tibet
Still, the image of the wild mountains at the "top of the world" remains. I learned a lot of this area and how to hike it, and since then, I am training every day, preparing for the next trek. Yes, this is the charm of Tibet "“ it always makes you to plan to return!
Written by: Krasen Jelyazkov
Krasen is a travel blogger from Bulgaria, the voice behind the blog
Journey Beyond the Horizon. He is passionate to explore the Earth, enjoying our planet's geography and history. He has traveled in Europe and Asia, mainly in off the beaten path regions together with his travel mate and spouse Ying Ying from China. They are glad to share it in their blog, presenting valuable information and experience.
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