We started our three-day trek in the morning. We were already at a high altitude (about 15,000 feet) but, since we had already acclimatized, it did not seem strenuous. In fact, much of the trekking was up and down valley floors rather than the traditional peak-bagging of Colorado or even Nepal.
The landscape was tremendous, with short grasses, no trees, and many rocks. The 24,000-foot mountain we were circling was always on our right as we rounded its flanks, lending the trek a very alpine feel.
At one point, we hiked slowly up a valley until we came to a pass, at 17,100 feet the high point of our trek. There were two rock cairns
identifying the spot and we unfolded a prayer flag from our pack, stretching it between the cairns to mark our arrival and our appreciation to the gods for our safe travels.
Each day we only hiked about six hours and six miles. This was a very slow pace, in part because we were in no hurry and, in part, because we met so many local villagers. Our frequent conversations with them slowed our pace considerably.
We chose a flat spot each night for camping. Our first task was always to set up the main cooking tent so that either Jon, our local guide Kaldan, or I could start water boiling for afternoon tea. We then set up the remaining tents, wandered around our camp area for a short time, and eventually started to make dinner. Usually, we were near a village and word of arrival would have already spread to the locals. We often spent the evening in an interpreted conversation with the local Tibetans before retiring early to our pads and sleeping bags.
Each morning, we woke up to another beautiful day. One morning it had snowed the night before and there was a wonderful layer of white on our tents and the landscape. We took our time making and eating breakfast before packing up, loading the yaks, and starting the day's trek.
The people were, far and away, the best part of our trek. Our two yak drivers were young boys who were more than eager to make some extra money yak-herding with us. One had never been out of Lhasa, knew no English, and didn't really know what to ask us even when Kaldan, the local guide, interpreted. The other had been to Lhasa where he had picked up a few English phrases ("Let's Go!"). He was also more curious about us, although when we told him (through Kaldan) he could ask us anything he wished about America the only question he had was "What is the farming like?"
Even more fascinating were the locals we encountered on our trek. We passed a yak-herding or farming village every few hours and the locals would often shout to each other that we were coming. As we entered a village we were usually greeted by curious men, blushing women, and children hiding behind fences or their mothers' skirts. We often talked with them, played simple games, or gave them non-disturbing gifts such as kids? sunglasses rather than sugared candy or money.
As it turned out, we were correct that no one had traveled in this area before. We sat down to dinner one night with 12 faces peering through the door of our tent. After dinner, we had an interpreted conversation with the villagers. At one point, I asked them if they had ever seen a foreigner. None ever had. I then asked what they knew about America. No one had even heard of America! Having traveled all over the world, where Pepsi is ever-present, McDonald's are frequent, and many people yearn for a lifestyle such as we have in America, I was literally shocked. This was truly adventurous - and yet accessible - travel.
We eventually came to a final town, a place slightly larger and more established than the villages through which we had trekked the last two days. This village looked incredibly beautiful as it came into sight below us, nestled against a hillside and above a river. For a few precious moments, no one in the village saw us and we could soak in the life of the villagers as they herded yaks, tended fires, or played in the gardens.
We were then spotted and the cry went up: foreigners - with funny clothes, funny equipment, and yaks! We were quickly surrounded and spent over 30 minutes showing them our cameras, our food, and our maps. The locals asked Kaldan from where we had come and to where we were going, eventually offering to let us bed down in their fields for the night. We gladly took up the offer and were led by a village leader and a dozen screaming kids to an ideal spot next to the river.
We invited the leader to eat with us and played games with the kids all night. We taught them paddy cake, a few simple songs, and a few English words. They were enthralled and so were we. The next morning all 12 were back helping us to fold our tents, pack our bags, and eventually escort us out of the village. I will have memories of this idyllic town and the wonderful kids forever. This truly seemed to be a real Shangri La.
About the Author
Allan Wright is the owner of Zephyr Adventures, an adventure travel company based in Red Lodge, Montana. Zephyr runs active trips throughout the world, including a 13-day Tibet trip that includes a hike in the region described above. Allan has been traveling the world for 17 years and still counts his Tibet experiences as among the best of the bunch.