Alps of Tibet and Retracing Missionaries’ Trails

Exploring Valleys of Nyainqentanglha East Yunnan (Autumn 2004)

Tamotsu Nakamura

Part I : Alps of Tibet and Historical Temple in Kongbo Country

An unfrequented valley east of Lake Basong

This is our fifth visit to Nyainqentanglha East since June 2001. On 3 October 2004, we left Lhasa for lake Basong with Tashi, a Tibetan guide and spent the night at Bayizhen where we obtained a special permit from the public security police to enter an unopened area. Bayizhen is the third largest city in Tibet. On 4 October we were able to arrange for our caravan at Juba village (3500 m), an administration centre of Zhonggo district on the southern bank of Lake Basong. Lake Basong and its vicinity are the scenic spots on which the local government of Gongpojiangda (or Gongbo’gyamda) County places the most importance for developing tourism. There are four sizeable valleys, east, northeast and north of Lake Basong:

(1) A valley to the north from Zhonggo village at the northeastern end of Lake Basong.

(2) A valley to the northeast from Zhonggo village, an approach to climb the west ridge of Jieqinnaragabu (Namla Karpo) 6316 m.

(3) A valley called ‘Bena’ to the east of Lake Basong, which only New Zealand party entered in 1999. But they turned back less than halfway and did not reach a moraine lake, Pukalo Tso, in the headwater.

(4) A valley with a large lake called New Lake (Xintso), further east of Lake Basong. The main stream from New Lake flows into Lake Basong from southeast near Juba village. A stream from Bena valley joins the stream from New Lake about one hour’s distance from Juba.

Nyainqentanglha East
North and North East of Lake Basong

Nyainqentanglha East

The headwaters of all four valleys are encircled with 6000 — 6600 m fascinating snow peaks with glaciers and are located along the same mountain range, which shares the watershed with Yigong Tsangpo. Three out of the four valleys have already been explored and visited by foreigners, but the Bena valley has remained unknown to outsiders.

On 5 October, while it was raining, we started our caravan with six horses and three Tibetan muleteers. First we followed a vehicle road to New Lake, and then after one hour the caravan left the road at the confluence of the two streams and entered Bena valley. The entrance of the valley is narrow. But, as we progressed, the valley became wider and open. Fertile grasses promise that the valley is a good pasture for grazing animals. Both sides of the valley, covered with conifers and shrubs, are precipitous, and at intervals small V — shaped valleys descend to Bena valley. It rained all day. We got wet to the skin. We stayed at a hut (3790 m) for grazing owned by one of our muleteers, who has several yaks in this valley. Fortunately wood for fuel was abundant.

The west face of unclimbed Lumbogangzegabo 6542 m (left) and nameless 6534 m (right) peak viewed from Lake Basong, Nyaiquentaqnglha East. (T. Nakamura)

1. The west face of unclimbed Lumbogangzegabo 6542 m (left) and nameless 6534 m (right) peak viewed from Lake Basong, Nyaiquentaqnglha East. (T. Nakamura)

The west face of unclimbed nameless 6091 m peak northeast of Punkar, a view from Baga monastery, Nyainqentanglha East. (T. Nakamura)

2. The west face of unclimbed nameless 6091 m peak northeast of Punkar, a view from Baga monastery, Nyainqentanglha East. (T. Nakamura)

On 6 October, we marched up the valley. As the sky was showing a sign of improvement in the weather, we halted at a place called Lebong (3820 m). Magnificent snow peaks and glaciers in the headwaters were gradually being unveiled in front of us to the northeast. From east to west, Jainija 6586 m, Pukalo 6358 m in the centre and a nameless peak 6534 m with a breathtaking southwest face adorned with beautiful Himalayan fluted ice. We spent two nights at a similar hut in Lebong.

On 7 October, we went to Lake Pukalo, a glacier lake, called ‘Pukalo Tso’ (3900 m) in the headwaters. Three glaciers flow into Lake Pukalo from three directions. The weather soon became unstable and again it began to rain. On the next day we returned to Juba village.

A hidden valley along the Old Peking-Lhasa Road (Gya Lam)

The old Peking-Lhasa road is said to be the ‘Tang-Tibet ancient road’, which passes through Gongpojiangda County. The ancient road that comes from the north joins the current Sichuan — Tibet Highway (South route) at ‘The Ancient City of Taizhao’ 274 km distant from Lhasa to the east. ‘The Ancient City of Taizhao’, which is now one of the scenic spots of the County, was originally named ‘Jiang da’ and a relay station was first built there in the Yuang Dynasty. Then the city began to take shape. The Tang-Tibet road behind the city was built in AD 617. History tells that the king of Tibet, Songzangabu, welcomed the princess Wencheng of the Tang Dynasty who came by this road. In the late years of the Qing Dynasty, Taizhao was renamed Jiangda. Early explorers such as Pundit AK, George Pereira and F. Kingdon-Ward crossed a high pass over 5000 m on the ancient road from the north (Lhari) to Nyangpu / Jiangda. Pereira is the first westerner to have reached Lhasa from the east in 1922.

Two hours drive to the north from Jiangda along the Tang-Tibet ancient road takes us to Nyangpu district. Nyangpu (3790 m) is a base for visiting the historical Baga monastery in the fertile valley and exploring the unknown westernmost massif of Kongbo country. Imposing rocks and pinnacles soar behind the monastery.

On 9 October, we moved to Nyangpu from Lake Basong. It was quite fine on 10 October. The rainy season was over. We enjoyed a one day excursion to Baga monastery (Baga Si 4520 m). A trail to the monastery follows the wide open Baga valley with barley fields with good soil and in some villages there are remains of already ruined stone towers. A half day’s horse ride took us to the monastery, which was built by a high Lama in the 11th century and is now worshipped by local Tibetans as a holy temple. The monastery is a splendid lookout point to a panorama of lofty 6000 m peaks to the east beyond the Baga valley. These peaks are located very close to Punkar north of Jula. In particular, the west face of a nameless peak 6091 m indicated on a map 1:100,000 of PLA (China People’s Liberation Army) looks outstanding and challenging.

On 11 October, we entered a valley to the north of Nyangpu to explore two 6000 m peaks indicated on a Russian topographical map of 1:200,000. We got to a point at 4330 m three hours from the headwaters, but we could see no summits in front of us as we were too near to the peaks. Although on the way back, finally, the south buttress of rock and ice of 6065 m peak came into sight from a village near Nyangpu, more than 12 hours hard horse riding without taking a rest resulted in a lean outcome.

On 12 October, we paid a visit to Lungru monastery of Nyangpu, also a historical temple originally constructed in the 15th century. In the 17th century the 5th Dalai Lama came here. But this temple was thoroughly destroyed by the Red Army during the Cultural Revolution (1966 — 1976). This temple keeps Tibetan dogs. It is said that Tibetan dogs of pure stock are on the way to extinction. One of the monks told us that they would never sell the best dog among them even if five million RMB were offered. On the same day we returned to Lhasa and flew to Chengdu on 14 October.

Part II — Missionaries’ Trails and Veiled Mountain in the remotest Yunnan

On 20 October, we stood on a high pass, Se la, on a rocky ridge of Biruo Xueshan in Nu Shan range, which forms a watershed shared by the Mekong and Salween rivers. The altimeter indicated 4140 m. It should have been a moment, which touched me deeply as now I had reached a historical point highlighting the missionaries’ trails. Actually, however, I felt a sense of incompatibility. On the pass I could not find any Buddhists’ prayer flags called ’Late’, which flutter in the wind on any pass in the Tibetan borderland. I noticed that we had now entered a country of Christianity and a history of religious culture exists in such a remote region.

Missionaries' Trails — Yunnan 2004

Missionaries' Trails — Yunnan 2004

We arrived at Deqen (3250 m) of Yunnan on 16 October via Kunming and Shangri-la (Zhongdian) My old friend, Cheng-Shaohong (Tibetan guide) arranged for everything. Nakamura, Nagai, Cheng, Yang (English interpreter, Nashi) and Asong (cook, Tibetan) were the total members of our team. On 18 October, we drove down the gorge country to Cizhong along the left bank of the Mekong river (Lancanjiang). There is a famous Catholic church built in 1906 in Cizhong. We spent the night at a small village called Ronbasika between Cizhong and Tsekou on the right bank of Mekong. The villagers of the house in which we were stationed were Christians. They served us homemade red wine. Three muleteers and six mules had already arrived there from Demalo in the Salween basin. They are of the flock of Christ too.

Glance at a history of the French Roman Catholic in Yunnan

The History of the Ts-coo Mission may, from the date of its establishment, be traced in the blood of numbers of grave and noble-minded missionaries who have fallen by poison and the knife in the cause of their religion. Self-vanished to this country, without a hope of return, the French missionaries have worked on, and in spite of massacres by the savages, incited by the implacable hatred of the Chinese Mandarins, which even now often drives them to seek protection in the mountain wilderness, their devotion has been rewarded by hundreds of genuine converts.

(T. T. Cooper, Travels of A Pioneer of Commerce in Pigtail and Petticoats or, An Overland Journey from China to India, John Murray, London 1871).

The Ts-coo (Tsekou) Mission was founded in 1867 on an existing Lamasery. In 1905 the mission station was set on fire and destroyed by the Lamas and Tibetan mobs, and in the following year a new church was rebuilt in Cizhong 3 km north from Tsekou.

The story began in 1846, when the Pope Gregoire XVI decided to establish the ‘Tibet Mission’ in Tibet, Sichuan and Yunnan under the responsibility of the French Foreign Mission Society of Paris. They first tried to enter Tibet from Bhutan and Sikkim, but were not successful. The objective of the French missionaries was to convert Tibet to Christianity first in Lhasa and its vicinity. But instability between Tibet and China did not allow them to cross the border to the heart of Tibet. Therefore, they settled down as close as possible to Lhasa.

Three Rivers Country — NW Yunnan

Three Rivers Country — NW Yunnan

Alps of Tibet & Historical Road and Temple in Kongbo Country

Alps of Tibet & Historical Road and Temple in Kongbo Country

In 1852, an intrepid young missionary named Father Pere Renou, who was first in charge of the Mission, arrived in Yunnan and headed for its northwest corner via Zhongdian, Dongzhulin monastery and Deqen. Being disguised as a Chinese merchant, the young priest stayed in the monastery several months to learn the local Tibetan dialect. Having crossed the Mekong-Salween divide, Father Renou succeeded in settling in the small village of Bonga in Tsawarong of Tibet near to the border with Yunnan. This was in the year 1854, and marked the very beginning of the activities of the ‘Tibet Mission’.

The French missionaries succeeded in converting local tribes of Tibetan and Nu minority in Tsawarong of the Tibetan territory to a certain extent in 1860s — 80s, but it did not last much longer. They were forced to retreat from Tsawarong. Nevertheless Christianity in northwest Yunnan has remained among some Tibetan, Chinese and several minority people such as Nu, Lisu, Nashi, etc. till today in the Upper Salween basin. An analysis of the missionaries’ archives makes it possible to grasp the political situation of these border areas.

Retracing the missionaries’ trails from Mekong to Salween To the Se la, a missionaries’ pass

On 19 October, the weather was perfectly fine. The first day of our caravan started. Right from Tsekou (1980 m) the missionaries’ trail ascended steeply the enormous mountain slope at a terrific angle. Mules were gasping. It was exceedingly narrow and zigzagged through scrub oak and pine forest over the rocks and boulders. A glorious view unfolded. Far below us roared the Mekong, with a suspension bridge faintly visible in the distance; to the east rose the massive Baimang Xueshan range, which separated the Mekong from the Yangtze. As we ascended we emerged from pine forest into a deciduous growth of wild cherries, maples and rhododendrons. The trail became narrower leading finally to a small saddle (3070 m) of the first preliminary ridge.

Magnificent scenery surrounded us: far below, the mysterious Mekong in its V-shaped trench; to the west cloudless Se la, the actual Mekong-Salween divide, now with little snow; in front a deep, circular valley dissected by a torrent rushing toward the Mekong through a ravine. As in another world, we were overlooking a forest of fir trees with mighty trunks and more than 50 m in height. Great birch trees reared their crowns among the firs. It was a beautiful rain forest. All was in autumn tints of golden yellow and bronze colour glistening in the morning sunlight. Through this hallowed shrine of trees we descended to the riverbed of the valley streaming down from the watershed and then ascended the valley. At intervals an alpine pasture for grazing appeared. We camped in the upper pasture called Dowazatsu, which was wide open at 3410 m.

Catholic church at Baihanlu on Missionaries’ trail in the Salween basin, constructed in late 19th century. (T. Nakamura)

3. Catholic church at Baihanlu on Missionaries’ trail in the Salween basin, constructed in late 19th century. (T. Nakamura)

Historical Baga monastery at 4520 m in Nyangpu district, East Tibet. (T. N akaillura)

4. Historical Baga monastery at 4520 m in Nyangpu district, East Tibet. (T. Nakamura)

A village with historical defence towers (stone towers) built again st invaders in Dangba district, Sichuan. (T. Nakamura)

5. A village with historical defence towers (stone towers) built again st invaders in Dangba district, Sichuan. (T. Nakamura)

The southwest face of unclimbed Pukalo 6358 m of Bena valley east of Lake Basong, Nyainqentanglha East. (T. Nakamura)

6. The southwest face of unclimbed Pukalo 6358 m of Bena valley east of Lake Basong, Nyainqentanglha East. (T. Nakamura)

On 20 October, it was fine, very cold at 7:30 a.m. A steady climb brought us to the foot of the Se la. To the right of us were rocky peaks and an overhanging pyramid some 4000 m, and to the left a circular wall of gray limestone with pinnacles and turrets. The trail became harder and even dangerous for the pack animals. In one place we had to unload luggage from the mules and carry it by ourselves and sometimes we lost our way as the trail on the rocks disappeared. We reached the Se la at 13:30. To our surprise we found three young Chinese just 100 m beneath the Se la, who had come from Guangdong Province. We descended over a steep, well-constructed trail, which extends all the way to Baihanglu, two days away. Missionaries had built it, over a period of five years, employing Nu people (Lutzu tribe). At the foot of this range called Biruo Xueshan in Nu Shan range, flows the Sewalongba, a tributary of the Salween, and on its bank we camped at 3260 m near by a temporary hut for grazing. The Salween has two parallel tributaries flowing in deep trenches; the Sewalongba and Demalo river (Doyonglongba).

On 21 October, we climbed to another pass called Baragong (3970 m), which shares the watershed of the two tributaries.

A veiled mountain Kawakabu, 5128 m

A matchless panorama spread before us at the pass. We could overlook the Salween valley, while beyond rose a mighty range separating the Salween from the main stream of the Irrawaddy. We expected to have a good view of the east face of Kawakabu (F. Kingdon-Ward’s Kenyichunpo, 20,000 ft) from the Baragong pass. But it was too late as fleecy clouds had already begun hovering over the rock and snow peaks and glaciers. To the east lay Biruo Xueshan of the great Salween-Mekong divide. We descended a slope of the mountain ridge toward Baihanglu. As we descended in late afternoon, we could occasionally catch a profile of the rocky twin peaks of Kawakabu against the sun through the breaks in the clouds. The east face is a challenging rock buttress with ice streaks. We camped at Tanglatong (3040 m) in a small pasture on the ridge.

On 22 October, the good weather continued. I got up while it was dark. The Gods favoured me. I went up hurriedly about 100 m to take better photos of Kawakabu. The east buttress of the stunning peak was dominant, gradually being coloured by the rising sun and then became sharply outlined against a blue sky. To the best of my knowledge, the only available photo of Kawakabu is the one, which was taken in October 1923 by Joseph Rock from a valley east of Binchunglu on the Salween river bank.

We climbed the Salween-Irrawaddy Divide to get a photograph of the highest peak, Mount Kenychunpo (about 20,000 feet). One might climb the ridges opposite the mountain every day for many weary weeks and always find the peak in clouds. October and November are the only months when there is a chance to see it cloudless, and even then only at rare intervals. It was a crystal-clear morning, and we hastened higher and higher, ever watching the peerless peak. The glacier lay crescent-shaped before us and a deep, narrow, forested valley, with precipitous cliffs, opened out into the Salween beyond the marble gorges.

Up this valley leads a perilous trail for three or four days’ march over snow-clad passes to the Nmaihka, an eastern branch of the Irrawaddy. The region is as yet an unexplored, virgin field for botanist, geographer and geologist.

(Joseph F. Rock, The National Geographic Magazine Vol. L, No.2 August 1926 ‘Through the Great River Trenches of Asia’)

Yes, even today 80 years after J. Rock’s visit, the region remains unfrequented and is waiting for exploration. Kawakabu (Kenyichunpo) is the highest peak of the Gaoligonshan range, which shares the watershed of the Salween and Irrawaddy. Both F. Kingdon-Ward and J. Rock estimated the altitude as about 20,000 ft. But the actual height is 5128 m as measured by the Chinese authorities.

Baihanglu and Catholic Country

Catholic church at Baihanlu on Missionaries' trail in the Salween basin, constructed in late 19th century. (T. Nakamura)

7. Catholic church at Baihanlu on Missionaries' trail in the Salween basin, constructed in late 19th century. (T. Nakamura)

We descended once more through beautiful fir and spruce forests, deep down into a valley of the Demalo river. On a bluff of the ridge at 2410 m is situated the last outpost of a Catholic mission in the late 19th to early 20th century, now called Baihanglu (formerly Tibetan Bahang or Pehanlo of the Chinese). We arrived at Baihanglu at noon time. Before visiting the Church, we first went to a cemetery for Christians. Baihanglu is located around the hill, on the top of which a church and mission stand. When Joseph Rock came, there were 18 huts of Nu people, but now 70 families — 400 persons live here. More than half are Tibetan, 10 persons are Nu people and 4 families are Drung people. They are all Catholic Christians. The church was burned twice by the Tibetan lamas of Binchunglu (formerly Champutong), and twice intrepid Father Genestier had to flee for his life and find shelter among Lisu people farther south.

He was the only survivor of the massacre at 1905. The Red Army destroyed the church during the Cultural Revolution, (1966 — 76).

Joseph Rock wrote in the same magazine: To me this is the loveliest church station of which I know. Here lives, all alone, a young priest, Father Andre, who fought through the World War, from the very beginning to the bitter end. Now, in this remote spot, he has time to reflect on the futility of it all. From November till May, when the passes are filled with snow, he is completely isolated from the rest of the world.

Defence tower: Dangha district, Sichwan. (T. Nakamura)

8. Defence tower: Dangha district, Sichwan. (T. Nakamura)

Beyond densely forested valleys on both sides of the ridge, there is a recently built Catholic church. We descended to Demalo village (1870 m) on the river bank of Demalo river and stayed at a rest house owned by a leader of our muleteers. The caravan with mules was over and a Pajero awaited us at Demalo. This village has a population of 2,800 — 700 families. The composition of minority people is Tibetan 50%, Nu 40%, Lisu 10%, and Drung 0.3%. 90% of the total residents are Catholic Christian and remaining 10% are Buddhists. There are six Catholic churches in Demalo village, but other churches than Baihanglu are not so old and some of them have only recently been constructed. No priest lives in any church. Twice or thrice a year a priest comes from Dali or Kunming.

On 23 October, a 30-minutes drive took us to Salween from Demalo. We drove on a paved road to the north along the Salween. On the way we visited several Catholic churches. This remote place is being developed for tourism, since in 2003 the three rivers gorge country of Yangtze, Mekong and Salween are registered as World Nature Heritage Sites by UNESCO. Not only the natural wonders of the Salween and the variety of minority people but also the Catholic churches are good attractions for tourists. There are 16 Catholic churches and several Protestant churches in Gongshan County. Recently a vehicle road has been opened from Gongshan town on the Salween river bank to an isolated area of the Drung Jiang (the main stream of the Irrawaddy). It needed three days horse caravan to reach the Irrawaddy from Gongshan, but now five hours drive takes us to the Irrawaddy crossing the Salween-Irrawaddy divide. As is the same as other regions of West China, the marches of northwest Yunnan are also changing very fast, being supported by the ‘West Development Drive’ policy, and will accordingly be a hive of the tourism before too long.

What did happen regarding the permits to East Tibet in the fall of 2004?

‘Special Reasons’ given for the sudden cancellation of permits to foreigners for visiting unopened areas and climbing the mountains in Nyainqentanglha East were that several westerners had entered unopened areas and attempted the mountains without official permits. Mr. Dou Changshen of the Tibet Mountaineering Association (TMA) explained the situation to me at Lhasa as follows:

  1. Two Germans and two Americans entered the Tsangpo Great Bend area and crossed Doshong la to the southeast. Local people reported this to the public security police. For this illegal arrangement, a travel agent that had taken care of the foreigners was fined US$ 5000 and ordered to suspend their business activity for five years.
  2. Two British climbers ascended peaks in an unopened area.
  3. A Swiss mountain guide, Gabriel Voide, unofficially ascended Jieqinnalagabu (Namla Karpo) east of Lake Basong. This is the first ascent of the most famous and prominent peak in the region. A Kathmandu-based travel agent arranged for his travel.
  4. An agent at Lhasa used by the Kathmandu-based travel agent for Mick Fowler’s party intended to let their client climb the Matterhorn of Tibet — Kajaqiao — with no permit. Finally the agent asked Mr. Dou of TMA to help in obtaining a permit for Mick’s party, but this request was rejected.
  5. These cases stiffened the Lhasa authorities’ attitude and resulted in prohibiting foreigners from entering unopened areas and from climbing the mountains in East Tibet. A New Zealand party’s application to climb Birutaso (6691 m) and Chuchepo (6550 m) in the Lawa valley east of Punkar was rejected and our Autumn Plan of 2004 was turned down too. The NZ team of Sean Waters changed their objective and headed to the satellite peaks of Minya Konka in Sichuan.
  6. Mr. Dou mentioned, however, that as this measure would be a temporary one lasting about five months, the ban would be lifted perhaps in February or March of 2005. It was hinted to me that my plan to visit Yigong Tsangpo and beyond would surely be allowed in 2005. But frankly speaking, there always exists difficulty in communication with the Chinese people, since their information is insufficient in most cases.


Retracing French missionaries’ trails and visiting Catholic churches. Se la, a pass at 4140 m on the Mekong-Salween divide was crossed.


Tomatsu Nakamura (69 years). Tsuyoshi Nagai (72 years).


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