We’re so pleased to introduce the first guest post from our new friend Lesley Junlakan, an active member of the All Things Tibet Facebook community and an experienced Tibet hand who began her extensive travels through the region in 2012. Lesley has whetted our appetite for trekking in Kham with this story and photo gallery of her recent adventure on the Minya Gongga trek in Kham.
Guest Post by Lesley Junlakan
At the end of October 2017 I spent almost three weeks in Kham doing two treks with my guide Gonkho. The second of these was in the Minya Gongga massif: through the following words and images I hope to convey something of the mystique of this most majestic of mountains.
Minya Gongga Trek Photo Gallery
Minya Gongga: A Short Introduction
Minya Gongga (also spelled Konka) is the highest of around fifty peaks in a vast granite massif situated to the south of Dartsedo (Chinese: Kangding), in the Garze region of Kham. Minya Gongga translates roughly as the White Snow Mountain of Minya. The word minya is derived from the name of the ethnic group of around 15,000 people who still live in the shadow of the mountain.
At 7556 m (24,790 ft), Minya Gongga is ranked 41st on the list of the world’s highest mountains, and is the 3rd highest of those to be found outside the Himalayan and Karakoram ranges. It is visually stunning, far more so in my eyes than Everest which, in geological terms, is Minya Gongga’s “line parent.”
The Classic Trek
Although treks of various lengths and strenuousness are possible in the area, the classic trek on which I embarked was 5 days/4 nights. We started at Rotan, above Laoyulin, and finished near Tsemei Village in the Buchu Valley.
I have to state at the outset that our little party was unable to complete the trek, due to severe weather which made it too dangerous to blaze a trail over the high pass. Reluctantly, we turned back at the end of Day 2. However, by arranging for transportation to the end of the trail, we were able to salvage the original final day by trekking in to Gongga Gompa and then back out again the following day.
The trek is not particularly strenuous although it does require prior acclimatization: the starting point is at an altitude of approximately 3200 m (10,500 ft) and there is only one high pass to be crested, the 4850 m (15,912 ft) Riwoche La. Days 1 and 2 are a gradual ascent up through the valley of the Gyazer Chu River. As I did this in reverse as well due to our needing to turn back before the pass, I can affirm that the best views are at your back when you are climbing. The peaks of the Wuse Range form a dramatic cluster at the bottom of the valley.
On the left for much of these two days is the pyramidal Little Gongga (5928 m/19,448 ft), more authentically known as Chiburongi or Rongyi Gongga (after the Tibetan Ji-bu-rong-yi).
The ascent and descent of the Riwoche La is the challenge for Day 3 while Day 4 apparently consists of a series of gradual ups and downs as the trail goes among shrubs and bushes, predominantly rhododendron, finishing at Gongga Gompa (Gongga Monastery). From there it is less than two hours to the road…and the waiting transportation!
Accommodation is available at the end of Days 1 and 4 in the newly-built stone huts in Amba Lhe and the Gongga Gompa guesthouse respectively, while camping is the only option on Days 2 and 3.
- The weather on Minya Gongga is notoriously changeable at all times, but particularly at the beginning and end of the normal trekking season (i.e. late May-June and October). Make sure you come well-equipped for extreme conditions and ideally have a few extra days at your disposal in case of unforeseen circumstances.
- Discuss with your guide in advance what options are possible should you encounter severe weather en route and make a tentative Plan B in case of need.
- Consider staying in Laoyulin, rather than Dartsedo, before setting off on the trek: it is a little higher and thus aids with acclimatization and the horse guides and their animals are based in this area anyway. But the real attraction is a very rural hot spring hidden along a winding path. As there is just one small pool for everyone and skinny dipping is the order of the day, it is not a place for the prudish but a soak in the hot water is a wonderful treat on a cold evening.
- Arrange to have 36 hours (i.e. two nights) at Gongga Gompa rather than arriving one evening and leaving the next morning. I did not plan for this and regret not having had a day just absorbing the monastery’s atmosphere and exploring its surroundings. The monastery guesthouse is basic but more than acceptable. (You can get hot water for flasks but no food is available.)
- If you are not a trekker, or even a walker, all is not lost. It is well worth arranging a guide and driver to take you from Dartsedo over the Zaha La, along the Yulong Valley and up to the Tsemei La. Accommodation is available in various small lodges throughout the Yulong Valley and, I believe, in Tsemei Village on the other side of the pass. The scenery is superb and, weather permitting, there are magnificent views of the Minya Gongga massif from both passes. A visit to the Hailuogo Glacier on the eastern side of the massif could also be included in the itinerary. Accessed from Moxi Old Town, it is very touristic but still extremely impressive.
- For anyone wishing to read Joseph Rock’s articles, they are reprinted in the two China on the Wild Side volumes published by Caravan Press.
Discovery and Early Exploration
Minya Gongga remained virtually unknown to the Western world until the American botanist and explorer Joseph Rock made an expedition there in 1929 from his base in Lijiang, Yunnan. A cable Rock sent to the National Geographic in which he claimed the summit of Minya Gongga to be over 9000 m (29,527 ft) and thus higher than Everest caused major ripples throughout the mountaineering world.
In October the following year the magazine published Rock’s article, The Glories of Minya Konka, along with his superb black and white photographs and colour plates. Rock wrote of Minya Gongga that it “rose high above its sister peaks into a turquoise-blue sky. A truncated pyramid it is, with immense lateral buttresses flanked by an enormous glacier many miles in length.”
In 1932 the Sikong Expedition consisting of four young Americans—Burdsall, Emmons, Moore and Young—set out to explore, survey and climb the mountain. Their story is chronicled in the fascinating book Men against the Clouds. The expedition was successful and two men made it to the summit on 28 October without the aid of Sherpas or oxygen. To put that in context: at that time it was the second highest peak (after Kamet, 7756m, on the border of India and the TAR) ever conquered, although expeditions had climbed higher on Everest and Kanchenjunga; and it remained the highest peak summited by Americans for 25 years.
However, Minya Gongga is as dangerous as it is alluring to mountaineers: since the Sikong Expedition more climbers have perished in their summit attempts than have succeeded.
Minya Gongga and Tibetan Buddhism
One of the holiest mountains in Eastern Tibet, Minya Gongga is revered on a par with Amnye Machen (6282 m/20,610 ft) in Amdo and Kawa Karpo (6740 m/22,112 ft) in Kham.
The focal point for worship on Minya Gongga is Gongga Gompa, a Kagyupa (Black Hat) institution reported to have been originally established at the end of the thirteenth century. Situated in the depths of the mountains at a little below 4000 m (13,123 ft), sadly even its extremely remote location did not protect it from destruction during the Cultural Revolution: it was subsequently rebuilt.
Pilgrims still circumambulate Minya Gongga in the belief that doing so will earn them spiritual merit. The complete circumambulation (kora) of the massif takes a sturdy Khampa about 9 days. Trekkers require more than double this time!
According to Tibetan belief, one night spent in prayer and meditation on the holy mountain is the equivalent to ten years elsewhere, while a single offering of juniper at the monastery evokes hundreds of thousands of prayers. One Tibetan inscription even states that simply gazing on the mountain erases the sins of a lifetime.
“A Tug at My Heart:
As I am actually far more of an incurable romantic than an intrepid trekker, I would like to end not on a practical note but with pure, unabashed emotion. The bulk of Men against the Clouds is written by Arthur Emmons who, due to a hand injury, could not make a bid for the summit of Minya Gongga. He also subsequently suffered from severe frostbite in his feet.
Emmons’ last view of the massif was from the Tsemei La Pass. So eloquently do his words describe my own feelings as I also said goodbye to the mountain from the Tsemei La Pass and subsequently the Zaha la Pass, I can do no better than to quote them here:
An hour before sunset we breasted the pass. I turned in my saddle and gazed for the last time on Minya Konka, rising in supreme majesty above the clouds—again a Being of indescribable beauty and mystery, aflame in the golden light of a dying day. I felt a swelling in my throat and a tug at my heart as I waved her farewell and dipped over the divide.
Text and images © L. D. Junlakan 2018.
About the contributor
Lesley is a native of the UK who has spent the last 30+ years living in Japan and Thailand and is currently based in Bangkok. A self-confessed lover of high mountains, she has been journeying extensively in both Western and Eastern Tibet along with the adjoining regions since 2012, recording her experiences in words and images. Lesley can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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