Morning comes with smoke and the sounds of “pops” on my sleeping bag. The smoke is from our still-burning fire which Ngawa kept burning all night. Aniè has slept only intermittently and Ngawa worried about our old lion so he kept the fire stoked. The tiny popping sound upon my sleeping bag is being made by miniscule pieces of ice coming out of the grey morning sky. Small, the tiny pieces of ice saunter down between the wandering branches of the rhododendron. The deities of the lake have sent them down, though I don’t know why. Do they want us to go? Do they want us to stay and keep them company?
Aniè looks gaunt and haggard with the lack of sleep, but is happy when Ngawa and I are both up…he has been waiting to drink tea and have some company. He is wrapped in layers of his coats and a double sleeping bag and his bottle of whisky is nearby as well. He tells us that the spirits kept him up all night and I wonder if they have tormented him about forgetting the route. When I ask which spirits, he simply nods at the nearby lake.
Around us the forest is still and smelling of cold earth and I don’t want to move nor do I want to leave our little quiet camp beside the lake. I feel as though we have all that we need: food, warmth, silence, and a sense of peace. I mention this feeling to Aniè and he nods, but warns that one must not overstay a welcome in such a sacred setting.
The sky above us is brooding and the little pellets of ice continue to slowly fall. Not even a breath of wind comes through the forest. Whatever this space is, it conveys a sense of complete and utter silence. It also communicates a sense that ‘it’ has all that it needs.
As we all slowly ‘wake’ (and this process is sometimes drawn out) I realize that the space around us changes how I perceive everything. No phones can ring up here and the geography forces us to interact with the elements around us as well as ourselves. There isn’t one piece of errant plastic, not one speck of garbage that doesn’t belong, and there are none of the sounds of anything man-made.
Hesitating and not at all sure that we will in fact depart, eventually we come to the decision that we must leave our little enclave of lakes. We are still not sure of the route to take to continue our journey west to Aniè’s home near Wujing.
Bellies laden and warmed with butter tea, we ease our packs onto our backs and slowly depart. I make a vow to return to this spot, though I know such vows are often only wishes. As we move past a thicket of thorns a sudden “thump, thump, thump” scares all of us into crouching positions and send the heart muscle racing. It is as though an enormous engine had suddenly been turned on only a couple of meters away. A white flash streaks off through the trees and Ngawa says simply “Snow Chicken”. This large ground bird – more a pheasant than a chicken – is rarely seen as its numbers are low and it resides above 4,000 meters, and Ngawa moves over to the spot where the bird took off, collecting a few gorgeous white downy feathers.
“We’ve been lucky. We found the lakes, seen the Snow Chicken…and we’re still talking to one another”.
Aniè had a reputation in the past for not always getting along with his fellow travellers, so this last proclamation is praise indeed. His force of character isn’t something that can be denied…it can only be tolerated and enjoyed for what it is and I imagine if his sense of direction has always been this off, I could sympathize a little.
Heading in a north westerly direction, we eventually summit a high ridgeline. We are searching for a pathway that Aniè remembers as spanning the mountain and leading to alternate pathways down into the Yangtze River Valley. The sky stays cold but windless and frequently Aniè stops to collect various medicines. Roots are dug up, flowers and leaves picked and even some fungus is scraped off of enormous tree trunks. The one little note here is that all of the very significant amounts of medicines, herbs and flora that is collected is carried in a large sack by Ngawa who at one point simply was told by our elder that he would be carrying it all.
Just as when we were searching for the lakes, Aniè’s memory of the route seems to have faded and he frequently seems more intent on finding medicines that in recalling the route. For whatever reason, even as we gradually get more lost, I don’t mind as I feel that this journey is far more ‘for’ and ‘about’ Aniè and his desires and memories than it is about Ngawa or myself. We are only along to observe, take part and when we can, aid with Aniè and his wishes. Even Ngawa mentions to me that we can make our way back up here at any point and that we are still relatively young, but for Aniè this is perhaps his last journey to this place of his distant memories. There is in me though, that satisfaction of having found the lake at all, and the joy that we bothered to find the two old ancient of water.
Eventually Ngawa sites a mere hint of a pathway heading to our left (west) and down a steep slope of green into what appears to be a valley. Our route, whether it be the correct one or not, hasn’t been travelled for ages as everything is overgrown as if nature has reclaimed her own terrain. While it pleases the mind and heart that we are treading along something forgotten and primordial, the path at times appears to be leading into an ever-steepening plunge into a deep green abyss. Aniè launches into a half-serious attack on Ngawa saying just loud enough to be heard that Ngawa wants to “finish me off”. At one point Aniè growls for Ngawa to slow down and demands to discuss our route…or lack thereof.
Ngawa is adamant that we continue down the valley and that at this point climbing back up to the ridgeline will take hours. What ensues is our first real disagreement, though even it is kept relatively gentle. Ngawa nods his head and listens but points out the Aniè cannot seem to recall anything of the route, to which Aniè sarcastically points out, “but I found the lakes didn’t I”? Thankfully I am kept out of the discussion.
Difficult as it is for Ngawa to argue, he simply slings his pack on, picks up the medicine bag and he presses on into a deep gulley which flows with water down a mossy embankment. We stay close together with Aniè still growling his discontentment. At one point the entire moss embankment we are gingerly descending upon gives way like a loose skin and we slide, skid, and plunge down about two meters, before the little landslide deposits us into a wet leafy recess.
Strangely, as we assess the state of our bodies and packs after our little ‘ski’ session, Aniè starts laughing and pulls out his bottle offering us all a little sip for “our happiness”. This little bit of exercise has somehow reignited his mood.
We happily take a little nip before plunging on, with Aniè’s spirits significantly enhanced. When his mood is good, Ngawa and I feel as though all is well.
There is a point in our descent when without warning and without perceptible change, I realize that the temperature has gone from cold and damp to warm and damp. The ubiquitous rhododendron forests give way to layers of thick bamboo forests that we must battle through, and the earth seems to release an altogether more pungent flavour. We are reentering the world of the ‘lowerlands’.
The heat isn’t welcome as I crave the fresh wind-blown heights. Off to our left, almost magically a small modest home appears and a long bent man with a cane makes his way towards us gesturing for us to sit for an inevitable tea. We have returned to the world of others.
It will take us another 4 hours, and numerous tea sessions at different homes before we get to Aniè’s home. When his son welcomes us home, Aniè tells everyone within hearing distance that “we found the lakes but they’ve moved. I couldn’t find them in their new location”.
There is a roar of laughter as he finds a bottle of local whisky to celebrate.