Travels in the world of F. Kingdon-Ward

Tamotsu Nakamura

Return to Gorge Country 2007

In spite of a chilly wind, I sat for some time gazing at this colossal chaos of mountains flashing in the sunlight, deep valley of the Wi-chu at our feet, and then range beyond range to the Salween, and beyond that again more mountains. Why yes! I must be looking at the very sources of the Irrawaddy itself, and there in the south-west, one, two, three, I know not how many ranges away must be the gorge of the Taron, and beyond that Burma. Wonderful!

(The Mystery Rivers of Tibet)

My voyage of discovery to the 'East of the Himalaya - Alps of Tibet' was first inspired by Frank Kingdon-Ward's enchanting narratives of his travels to the remote parts of Tibet; northwest Yunnan and southeast Tibet. A paradise for plant-hunters, it is also a land that attracts mountaineers with stunning, unclimbed peaks. Throughout the areas of east of the Himalaya there are about 255 unclimbed 6000 m peaks.

(1) 200 peaks in Nyainqentangla east

(2) 30 peaks in Kangri Garpo range

(3) 20 peaks in the deep gorge country of the Hengduan mountains

(4) Five peaks in the Sichuan west highland of the Hengduan mountains.

Among them, the deep gorge country has fascinating scenery. Here some of the longest rivers in Asia intersect and erode the Tibetan plateau. These rivers have changed this high plateau, not merely into a land of steep mountains, but also of deep valleys with gloomy shadows and forbidding gorges. This was the field where Frank Kingdon-Ward worked, and I have been tracing his footsteps since 1990.

A wave of change, however, is sweeping over China, reaching even the isolated frontiers in western China. The deep gorge country, now called the 'Three Rivers Parallel Streams' (Salween, Mekong and Yangtze), was given world heritage status by UNESCO in 2002.

Taking advantage of Shangri-La of James Hilton's Lost Horizon, the Chinese Government has highlighted the Meili snow mountains on the Yunnan-Tibet border and the Mekong river valley for tourism development. Nevertheless, there remain many unfrequented and little- known mountains and valleys to attract an old explorer. I have had that good fortune.

In the autumn of 2007, I led an expedition of six members to the gorge country to revisit an isolated borderland of particular interest and sentimental value. The expedition was rather hard and uncomfortable.

Our original plan was to go up the Salween river (Nu Jiang) northwestwards from Tsawarong, but the muleteers refused to proceed as the trails were too narrow and dangerous for load carrying pack animals. We were forced to choose an alternate route along Yu qu (Wi chu), a tributary of the Salween, which I had already traced twice.

Mid-November saw extraordinarily heavy snowfall closing high passes forcing us to change our plans of crossing two high passes of 4900 m and 5300 m. In addition all six members had caught a serious cold from the smoke in the Tibetan houses we stayed in.

Nevertheless, we did have a satisfactory trip having explored two 6000 m mountain massifs and a 5700 - 5800 m massif. These peaks are in the following mountain ranges.

(1) Baxoila Ling: The northern part of this large mountain range is on the Lohit -Parlung Tsangpo - Salween divide, the southern part is on the Irrawaddy-Salween divide in the Tibetan Autonomous Region and the name changes to Gaoligong Shan in Yunnan province. There are three distinct mountain massifs of Yangbayisum (6005 m), Chagelazi (6146 m) and Mukong Xueshan (6005 m) (Xueshan means snowy mountains).

(2) Range on the Salween -Yu Qu Divide: There are three massifs of Geuzong massif consisting of 5700 - 5800 m peaks, central massif of 5700 m peaks and northern massif of peaks between 5400 - 5600 m.

(3) Nu Shan / Taniantawen Shan: This is also a large mountain range on the Salween-Mekong divide. The southern part of Nu Shan has the famous holy peak, Meili (6740 m) with well-developed glaciers. Taniantawen Shan stretches north of Nu Shan and has the rocky massifs of Damyon (6324 m) and Dungri Garpo (6090 m) but no major glaciers.

The Salween river (Nu Jiang) - Tsawarong

On 6 November 2007, we arrived at Ruiku, the capital of the Nu Jiang Lisu Minority Autonomous Prefecture, which is on the Salween river, from the ancient city of Dali in Yunnan Province, in three Land Cruisers. The grand canyon of the Salween starts from Liuku and stretches northwards to the upper Salween. The scenery was full of variety: magnificent gorges, great bends, rope bridges, rapids and pools, beautiful forests, friendly inhabitants in colourful costumes, their elevated floor houses and Catholic churches and vegetation varying from sub-tropical to dry river beds. Enough to any attract visitor's attention.

There is a paved road from Liuku to Bingzhonglou, 40 km north of the capital of Gongshan county and a new vehicular track was opened, 56 km as a crow flies, from Bingzhonglou to Tsawarong on the left bank of the Salween a couple of years ago. This new road is a part of the ambitious West Development Plan. It is connected to the Sichuan - Tibet Highway from the south passing through Tsawarong, the deep gorge country, along the Salween and then its tributary, Yu Qu. On 8 November, thanks to this new road, we reached the administration centre of Tsawarong in six hours from Bingzhonglou. The old path would have taken us four days on foot.

Tsawarong, the location of the historical village of Mengkung is where one starts to explore the neighbouring upper Salween area. One can go up the Yu Qu valley to Zhogang county capital. Tsawarong is a warm and fertile land for its Tibetan inhabitants who live on a cold, arid high plateau. It is said that Yu Qu, with its pine forests, is the most beautiful valley in eastern Tibet. In addition, Yu Qu is a valley of pretty females as Kingdon-Ward described. We found the people to be very hospitable. We were welcomed in Tibetan houses in Dino, Do, Bake and Meila villages en route, where we were given the best places in their houses to rest and sleep.

Tswarong was a place to remember Kingdon-Ward. He visited it three times; in 1911, 1913 and 1922. He loved the people and culture of Tsawarong.

To return to Tsa-wa-rong. I have asked myself why it that the men of Kam (Tibetan) are so highly civilised in this dour land and the answer I found was, because they are great travellers; their horizon is unbound. They go far into China to trade, and far into Tibet to worship. They see other civilisations - China, India, even Burma, and other people; exchange goods with them, bring back new ideas. They go to Lhasa to pay homage to their pontiffs and visit their own holy places. They are a pastoral people who have settle down to an agricultural life without ever loosing their nomadic instinct.

(The Mystery Rivers of Tibet)

Mystery Rivers of Tibet

We were overwhelmed by the breathtaking grandeur of the first bend of the Yu Qu gorge of which we had a birds eye view while descending the trade path (pilgrim trail) from Tongdu la (3340 m) to Zaji village. This was the first highlight en route northwards along the Yu Qu, and the second is the mysterious sight near the Tong la (3270 m). The trade path crosses the Yu Qu at Gebu village and ascends about 300 m. We then proceeded northward along a well-maintained trail, looking down on the meandering turquoise waters of the Yu Qu to the left. To the west, we saw prayer flags on a pass on the ridge separating the Yu Qu and the Salween. If you stand on the pass, you can see the same river flowing northward on the right side and southward on the left side. The Yu Qu forms two loops at the first and second bends. The same scene is also seen at the Tong la near Razun village (2880 m) near the second bend.

Kingdon-Ward wrote,

Now we see the Wi-chu at our feet, flowing southwards, plunge into thicker forest, and climbing steadily soon reach a low pass Tong-la. Wonderful! We have just this minute turned our backs on the Wi-chu and certainly it was flowing due south; yet here it is at our feet again, this time flowing north! Surely I must be dreaming! I ask pointing at the streak gleaming like a sword blade in the dusk. [The Wi-chu], replies one of the Tibetans. We are standing in a notch of the high ridge which northwards separates the Wi-chu from the valley of the Salween. Round the base of this bluff the river races; flowing on one side due south, on the other side due north...I went up towards the pass we had crossed the previous evening to get a glimpse of Orbor (Mukong Xueshan).

(The Mystery Rivers of Tibet)

An examination of the tilted rocks led Kingdon-Ward to conclude that this extraordinary loop of the river was made up of the fragments of two or three older rivers, which had been gradually forced into merge with each other as the result of head erosion.

Before Kingdon-Ward, F. M. Bailey crossed the Tong la in June, 1911, on his way from China to Assam. Rather laconically he wrote,

We climbed up to a pass, the Trong La, from which we could see snows to the south and southwest. Below the pass bears and goral (Indian antelope) are to be found. From the top of the pass we saw below us a stream flowing to the north. This turned out to be Drayul Chu, the river which we had just left the other side of the pass, where it had been going southwards. The river, as can be seen from the map, some extraordinary bends, and the Trong La is on a spur of these loops.

(China-Tibet-Ass am, Journey 1911, see Bailey's route map)

Exploring Mukong Xueshan

I woke up at dawn of 13 November and went out from Razun village in the dark. I could at last take a full picture of the Mukong Xueshan (Orbor) (snow mountains). Kingdon-Ward had also seen the peaks near the same place. Unfortunately there are no pictures of Orbor in his book. He wrote:

The sun was setting behind the twin crystal peaks of Orbor, and black cliffs crowded up one behind the other from Wi Chu to the Salween, their feet in the curdled mist, their heads amongst the brilliant stars. Darker and darker grew the shadows, the crimson faded from the sky, and indigo dusk curtained a scene of savage grandeur... .1 went up towards the pass we had crossed the previous evening to get a glimpse of Orbor (Mukong Xueshan).

(The Mystery Rivers of Tibet)

Kingdon-Ward called Orbor, Mukong Xueshan, which is a large mountain massif with sizeable glaciers. The north peak at 6006 m, is the main peak of the twin peaks while the south peak is at an altitude of 6000 m. The northeast faces look magnificent, guarded by precipitous walls of snow and ice. It would only be a slight exaggeration to say that Mukong Xueshan is the mountain of my obsession. In November 2007, the Gods finally blessed me. I saw the main peak from Wobo village and the entire northeast face appeared in front of me at Razun village.

South face of Damyon (6324 m) on the Yu Qu-Mekong divide. (Tamotsu Nakamura)

South face of Damyon (6324 m) on the Yu Qu-Mekong divide. (Tamotsu Nakamura)

Mukong Xueshan northeast face. Main peak (6005 m) on right and south peak (6000 m). (Tamotsu Nakamura)

Mukong Xueshan northeast face. Main peak (6005 m) on right and south peak (6000 m). (Tamotsu Nakamura)

South face of 5800 m peak, southeast of Damyon (6324 m). (Tamotsu Nakamura)

South face of 5800 m peak, southeast of Damyon (6324 m). (Tamotsu Nakamura)

Mountains of Goddess Damyon

The Meili Snow Mountains are now famous among tourists, whilst little attention is paid to Damyon. which has long been worshipped as sacred by local Tibetans and the Naslii minority. Damyon andDungri Garpo massifs, located at the southern end of the Taniantawen range, are 50 km long from south to north with five unclimbed 6000 m peaks. Kingdon-Ward first saw Damyon from the east in 1911 and went there from Yangjing (2680 m), a place of salt wells, on the banks of the Mekong river in 1922. For my part, I had a perfect view of the east face of the two massifs from Hong la (4200 m) on the Mekong-Yangtze divide in 1998, but the south and west sides of Damyon remained unknown until 2007.

After two days of extraordinarily heavy snowfall, our 12-horse caravan departed on 13 November from Do village (3350 m) to reconnoiter Damyon from the west. We ascended primeval conifer forest along the Do chu, a tributary of the Yu Qu and camped at 3560 m. The following day we reached a summer pasture for grazing yaks at 4140 m. The snow-covered pasture was surrounded by outstanding lofty rock peaks of about 5800 m, starting from the south with the main peak of Damyon. If we had come in the summer, we would have found a fairy meadow. We returned from the pasture because of the snow.

We should say that we were very lucky to be able to photograph the entire vista of the south and west faces of Damyon soaring into the blue sky from Do village. This was the first photograph of the challenging Damyon taken from the south.

Geuzong massif - Salween-Yu Qu Divide

If you travel north-westwards from Yakalo (Yangjing), you

meet with snow peaks at every turn, growing ever more lofty.

There is a perfect botanist's paradise in that mountainous and

little-known country beyond the sources of the Irrawaddy.

(From China to Khamti: Long Journey, 1922)

After his reconnaissance of Damyon, Kingdon-Ward entered Pitu crossing Beda la (4542 m) on the Yu Qu-Mekong divide. The above paragraph is a scene that he saw at Beda la. In mid- November 1998, I crossed Di la (4581 m) northwest to the Beda la and saw the same panorama of the mountains on the Yu Qu-Salween divide that Kingdon- Ward wrote of. Eric Teichman stood on the Di la in late December, 1918, but he did not mention the view from the pass.

One of the objectives of our 2007 journey was to collect as much information as we could on the mountain range between Salween and Yu Qu. This range is not well known and receives little attention as it has no peaks over 6000 m and there are only very small glaciers.

This part, a deeply eroded country of southeast Tibet, is the most beautiful in the Yu Qu valley. The river flows in a narrow gorge between two snow-clad ranges of the Salween-Yu Qu and Yu Qu-Mekong divides. When Eric Teichman traveled along Yu Qu southwards in mid December, he admired the landscape. He wrote:

The scenery of this part of Tsawarong is exceedingly beautiful. From the summit of Do La there is a good view down the Yu Chu, which flows in a pine-clad valley between two snow-capped ranges on either side. An enormous massif is visible.. ..From the Do La we descended to a group of firms called Di (Do village).

(Travels of a Consular Officer in Eastern Tibet, 1918)

The Do, a village (4580 m) on an old trade path is now almost abandoned since a new trail and motorable road pass along the left bank of the river.

Our journey to seek unknown mountains ended in Jomei, where muleteers from Jino and Do villages had a farewell party for us. This was a first for me in 17 years of travelling through the East of the Himalaya. We were deeply moved and felt great warmth for the people of Tsawarong.

On 26 November we left Jomei in three Land Cruisers for our return journey. We went up the Yu Qu to Zhogang and then took a long route of the Sichuan-Tibet Highway to Batang, a historical town in west Sichuan. From Batang we drove south along the 'River of Golden Sand' (Upper Yangtze) and safely arrived at the Yunnan, our expedition ending on 29 November. The following day we flew to Kunming.

Members: Hengduan Mountains Club - Tamotsu Nakamura (leader) (72),Tsuyoshi Nagai (75), Eiichirou Kasai (67), Tadao Shintani (64), Ms. Sonoe Sato (48).


Following F. Kingdon-Ward's footsteps in remote parts of Tibet.