Amne Machin – A Rush of White and a Kora

Amye Maqen (Amne Machin, Anye Machin) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amne_Machin), the stout, the muscular, and for much of time, the utterly hidden from the outside world…our first glimpse of it is of a snow capped wonder that appears far closer than it is. There seem to be as many ways of spelling it as their are potential descriptives. Neither wind blown sand nor a haze can obscure its brilliant bulk. It seems to hang from the sky as we come in from the northwest towards the makeshift town at its base, Xiadawu (or in the more flavoured local Tibetan ‘Da’wurr’‘Place that is difficult for horses’). In Joseph Rock’s accounts of the mountain and bandit ridden regions back in 1930 he estimated the broad peaks of Amne Machin to be 30,000 feet, a guess that was later proven to be 3,000 metres off.

Amne Machin from the northwest

The Amne Machin range itself is an eastern extension of the greater Kunlun Mountain range, one of Asia’s longest most legend laden mountain chains. Located in the Golog Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture it is here that the Yellow River (so named because of wind-blown loess that is carried in from Central Asia) rises before winding eastward. At its rounded and almost friendly white peaks it achieves just over 6,200 metres.

Snow bound glory

Mountains cannot be compared to other of their kind in my eyes. Mountains are landscapes, heaps of stone and snow unto themselves and each has their own thin-aired identity. Sacred to the Golog (Golok) nomads, Amne Machin is due east of our pristine salt lake near Mado (Mardo) that we’ve most recently left. It also lies on the route that nomads from southwest took to access their precious salt. Few nomadic caravans would pass up the chance to visit and circumambulate the sacred Amne Machin range while undertaking a perilous journey to source salt. Ever practical, the Tibetan traders saw the value of doing both trade for a revered commodity and a little cleansing of past ills.

Trader's satchel

 

This mountain that has long played a role in local nomad’s worship of the divine, has withstood weathering seasons and has become more iconic in the eyes of men over time. The fact that it lies as a northwest-southeast diagonal throughway for traders only increases the curiosity for Michael and I. How much is left in memory and physicality of the salt route legacy? How much of any trade route – seldom acknowledged, documented or discussed – will survive? It is in this way that these journeys and explorations are truly ‘exploratory’ with nothing being guaranteed.

Nam Chu (Nam River)

The town of Xiadawu, sits in a small cupped valley and is a dusty mess of pool tables, remarkably shabby huts and a main square of errant apathetic dogs that have forgotten their roles. Xiadawu’s decrepit appearance serves as an entry to something far greater than itself, Amne Machin, which erupts to the east. Flowing west out of the mountains past the town, the swerving breadth of the Nam Chu (Nam River) wanders through, over and around valleys in a never-ending search.

Nam Chu 2 (Nam River)

Our host, Tsering, is to be found out of town – it is he who will arrange our kora/ circumambulation around the great mountain. The ‘kora’ or clockwise circumambulation literally refers to a pilgrimage. For many eastern religions this act is believed to be a physical way to cleanse or clear away one’s past sins.

Xiadawu and Michael

If in fact this is the case it may well take a few more than one rotation for Michael and I to wipe our collective slates clean.

Around us the landscape ripples with Spring’s pending arrival – ridges verging on going from ochre to green. Still though, the high peaks remind in a glance that up here at over 4,000 metres winter isn’t really ever truly ‘over’.

Spring cometh

Our host Tsering tells us that, yes, the salt traders came through here as part of their annual travels – more specifically nomadic traders, who, coming from further east, would add the kora of the mountain to their travels to the salt lakes. A kind of double-pronged travel plan: salt for need and profit, kora for life-cleansing benefits.

Nomad

We will not waste much time here in Xiadawu – we crave the wind and the active components of searching and ‘hearing’ about places. It only serves to wet our appetites and to apply this knowledge to actual physical locations. Tangibles rule here in a land of tangibles. Michael and I share this need to keep the bodies in motion, particularly in such landscapes, where in order to partake in a geography one must actually ‘be’ there.

 

Our intention is to get onto the road and begin tomorrow early in the morning. We will have two yaks as our beasts of burden, one guide on horseback and will travel as light as possible, with mobility being preferred to bulky loads. There is snow still on the ground and we want all bodies to be unburdened. Here in Spring animals are weaker, lighter and not yet fully ready for long-haul travel. The route we will take will be approximately 150 km’s and be the long or ‘outer’ kora route taking anywhere from a week to ten days at four thousand metres or higher. It is early in the ‘season’ and the annual spring migrations of nomads into the mountains’ valleys have not yet begun.

 

Piling a meal of mutton, rice and cabbage into us at the headman’s home, we shuffle off to bed – me on the floor and Michael and a makeshift elevated mattress. The sky outside is the clear blue-black that mountains host so well, though there is a cold front moving in from the east where the gleaming bulk of Amne Machin lies waiting for us.

Interior of a nomadic dwelling in Spring

A skittish sleep ends with a shattering white light from outside. It is not the brilliant warm beams of sun that crash in through the window but rather a cold clear light that can only be caused by snow. Outside the world is a diagonal bombardment of massive snowflakes driving down into the turf. Our day of departure starts with snow and a few giant cups of tea. The headwoman of the village is already out, wrapped in her wools fearlessly issuing orders.

Morning welcome on trek day

She flashes a reckless smile at Michael and I as we make our way out into gust and wet flakes. These people know well the importance of a departure…and our pending departure is being coloured by a veil of white.

Women are as tough, if not tougher, than their male counterparts and are equally capable of loading and organizing caravans.

 

About JeffFuchs

Bio Having lived for most of the past decade in Asia, Fuchs’ work has centered on indigenous mountain cultures, oral histories with an obsessive interest in tea. His photos and stories have appeared on three continents in award-winning publications Kyoto Journal, TRVL, and Outpost Magazine, as well as The Spanish Expedition Society, The Earth, Silkroad Foundation, The China Post Newspaper, The Toronto Star, The South China Morning Post and Traveler amongst others. Various pieces of his work are part of private collections in Europe, North America and Asia and he serves as the Asian Editor at Large for Canada’s award-winning Outpost magazine. Fuchs is the Wild China Explorer of the Year for 2011 for sustainable exploration of the Himalayan Trade Routes. He recently completed a month long expedition a previously undocumented ancient nomadic salt route at 4,000 metres becoming the first westerner to travel the Tsa’lam ‘salt road’ through Qinghai. Fuchs has written on indigenous perspectives for UNESCO, and has having consulted for National Geographic. Fuchs is a member of the fabled Explorers Club, which supports sustainable exploration and research. Jeff has worked with schools and universities, giving talks on both the importance of oral traditions, tea and mountain cultures. He has spoken to the prestigious Spanish Geographic Society in Madrid on culture and trade through the Himalayas and his sold out talk at the Museum of Nature in Canada focused on the enduring importance of oral narratives and the Himalayan trade routes. His recently released book ‘The Ancient Tea Horse Road’ (Penguin-Viking Publishers) details his 8-month groundbreaking journey traveling and chronicling one of the world’s great trade routes, The Tea Horse Road. Fuchs is the first westerner to have completed the entire route stretching almost six thousand kilometers through the Himalayas a dozen cultures. He makes his home in ‘Shangrila’, northwestern Yunnan upon the eastern extension of the Himalayan range where tea and mountains abound; and where he leads expeditions the award winning ‘Tea Horse Road Journey’ with Wild China along portions of the Ancient Tea Horse Road. To keep fueled up for life Fuchs co-founded JalamTeas which keeps him deep in the green while high in the hills.
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7 Responses to Amne Machin – A Rush of White and a Kora

  1. Pingback: Blog posts from Mei Zhang and others about China travel - WildChina

  2. Gen says:

    Pictures are stunning. For the seven to ten days that you are trekking, what do you pack for food and how much water must you bring? How do you ensure that you get your proper vitamins and minerals? How wide are the trails and how physically demanding is the trek?

    Gen and her grade 10 class

    • JeffFuchs says:

      Thanks for the comments and questions – this ‘response’ is for both Gen and Peter. Our food supply is spartan to say the least – this is partly to keep the loads light and partly due to our location – getting fruit, veg and other ‘treats’ is almost impossible given where we are. We have a huge sack of apples, muffins and biscuits….I am often (and now is no exception) am craving cheese as it is my ‘fantasy food’ when in the mountains. Not surprisingly, we are going through a lot of green ‘raw’ Puer tea – we are using mountain streams for our water supplies and in my experiences the high altitude water sources are always good provided water is fully boiled. We haven’t had to use snow to melt as of yet and plot our camp sites according both shelter and available water.
      We have an abundance of noodles that we eat two or even three meals a day. One little addition for this trip is a large bag of dulse – like kelp it is loaded with potassium, sodium, iodine and other necessities that we are burning off in heaps. Michael is keeping track of how many calories we are going through daily. It is roughly 2500 + per day and we know for a fact that we aren’t taking in nearly that amount so we must pace ourselves.
      We are both taking multi-vitamins and I take heaps of fish oil, morning and night.
      As for the physical aspect of the journey we are averaging close to thirty kilometres a day and that is taking us anywhere from 8-12 hours, depending upon how much ascending is being done. The trails in certain areas are no more than wisps, while in other portions we travel in wide valleys kilometres wide. Most fascinating are the portions that have been worn deep into the soil and earth from centuries of pilgrims, traders and migrants…it is here in these areas that we feel the weight and history of the route we travel. The trek isn’t too strenuous. What makes each day potentially different or more difficult is the weather and altitude. Surprisingly it is the intense sun and heat that slows us more so than cold…though the cold saps our strength and drains our reserves. Snow along the path can also slow us down considerably and Michael and I both prefer going up to descending. Descents test the joints and bones more intensely than ascents.
      Hope this helps.

      Jeff

      • Peter says:

        Great description of some of the logistics and challenges of your adventures Jeff.

        Thanks!

        Best wishes,
        Peter

  3. Peter says:

    Like Gen above, I too am curious about the logistics of your expedition, Jeff. Any details that you could provide would be welcome.

    Thanks.

    Best wishes,
    Peter

  4. Pingback: Blog posts from Mei Zhang and others about China travel - WildChina

  5. dima says:

    Hi. Great pictures and interesting text.
    We r planning a trip to Amney Manchen in June, wondering how to arrange for the guide and transportation.
    if u have any contacts left it would be much appreciated.

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