Taking the Yak Track

China

by | May 12, 2017

May 7 – 9, 2017

“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”    

                                                                                     -Ralph Waldo Emerson

(…but sometimes that path or trail…is a yak track.)

“There is a 5,000 meter (nearly 17k ft.) mountain pass that we could cross, but with the snow, we would need to buy a yak or some other animal to port our bikes. We have done it before. What do you think?”

This was the discussion over breakfast. We were eating thukpa, a traditional Tibetan pasta-like dish. It is not the first time Brigitte or Ivo has come up with what would seem to an ordinary, rational person as a ludicrous idea, in its most extreme form. After a few months of touring the Himalayas with them through India, Nepal, and now Tibet, I have come to look forward to this Disney Pixar cartoon-like creativity, and now actually expect it. My Swiss friends are amazing route finders. They use several off-line mapping apps, Google Earth, satellite images, and have recently discovered Russian maps of China from the 1980’s (who knew?), all in an effort to find the most exotic and remote path through the Tibetan Himalayas. Sure, there are plenty of roads on the map that we could choose, but we have mountain bikes. We’re mountain people. It’s in our blood. Maybe we’ve all read too many John Muir books…or maybe we haven’t read enough?

In Tibet I have learned that every day is a new day and I have no idea what is going to happen or where my bicycle will take me. That is the beauty and draw of bike packing. The mystical of the unknown. There is magic in the mountains and everything just seems to make sense up here. The air is cleaner, thoughts more pure, senses enhanced. The mountains we are traveling through are getting higher and more remote. We have not been below 12k feet in over 3 weeks. I feel like my lungs are the size of watermelons and I have more red blood cells than the Bonfils blood donation center back in Boulder. The difference between this route and last week’s misery slog through a high plateau mixture of mutant mud and shin deep rivers of slush, is that we know what we are getting into this time.  Well…sorta.

Ultimately we could not locate a guy selling a yak or other pack animal, nor could we find anyone interested in guiding us (shocking). At close to 17k feet, weather can turn in an instant and make the most benign of mountain passes a white-out death zone in the blink of an eye. We revised our route. We were told that there was an old road, going over a 15k ft. pass. It starts out briefly as tarmac, then turns to gravel, and finally to a foot path. About 4 miles from the summit the path stops. Locals take their motor bikes up to the end, leave them, then go forward on foot. The route would go over this pass, down about 2000 ft., continue up another 15k ft. pass (false summit) and climb again up and over a near 17k ft. pass on the other side, before dropping 5000 ft. to the town of Dege where if all went well, we would find a proper hotel to rest for a few days. It seemed simple enough.

Everything was going as planned. The road as expected quickly turned to a dirt foot path and I immediately felt miles from anybody, except of course the droves of yak that proliferated the hillsides. I exuberantly reached the end of the path and saw several motor bikes abandoned, with their owners somewhere further up the ridge. We learned that many of the locals who come up here are in search of the yarchagumba or its proper name: Cordyceps sinensis. It is a caterpillar fungi that is the result of a parasitic relationship between the larva of the ghost moth and the fungus Cordyceps sinensis. The fungus germinates within the larva of the ghost moth, killing and mummifying the insect. Over time, the fungus will grow out of the insect’s body and then grow into a small mushroom that can be used in many types of medicinal concoctions. This hand-collected, intact fungus-caterpillar body has been used for at least 2000 years for its reputed abilities to treat many diseases related to lungs, kidney, and cancer. It is also used as an aphrodisiac. They are reportedly sold for about $10 each.

Leaving the trail behind, I spent the next 6 hours pushing my bike through the grassy, overgrown, clumpy, yak meadow, straight up 2000 vertical feet toward saddle of the summit. Fortunately it was a windless, blue sky day with no imminent storms. In a simplistic, yet sadistic way, it was quite an enjoyable struggle. I have just never felt such a calm nothingness as being in the Tibetan Himalayas, far away from any person, road, or path. I am overcome with the realization of “being in it” as an inner peace washes over and cradles me.

Prior to cresting the summit, I stopped for a food break. Apparently the Snickers in my hand was too tempting for the adolescent Yak who would not give me any space until I let her lick a chunk out of my hand with her sandpapery tongue. Two hours later, just before 4pm, the clumpy yak meadow gave way to a loose scree field before abruptly transitioning into a shin deep snow capped peak as I crested the summit of the pass. I quickly layered up against the howling 35F degree wind and descended the backside of the pass where I was treated to one of the most amazing rides of my life. Initially there was no path, just an undulating, high alpine mossy grass, not unlike a golf course putting green. It was like backcountry skiing, but on a mountain bike. I could ride wherever I wanted and it all went down. There were no wrong directions, no lines, no rules. It was my choice, almost like the Choose Your Own Adventure books I read as a kid. After about 10 minutes, I was funneled into a ribbon of seemingly manicured single track, with canyon walls towering over me from both sides.  From here, I continued on, rolling through an open meadow where I gleefully pitched my tent next to a river for the night, permagrin plastered on my face.

Camping at 14k ft, on a cloudless night in the Himalayas during the Tibetan spring is something I will never forget. It was in the 30s overnight, which made the stars glisten like a million pieces of ice, so close that I felt like I could grab a handful to take inside to light my tent. However, that was unnecessary because the full moon shone so brightly that it was difficult to tell when the sun set and the moon rose. There is magic here.

I awoke well rested the following morning, eager to see where this yak track would lead. Gradually it descended into a tiny village before making a sharp right turn and vaulting up into a canyon on a gravel path toward the first summit at 14k ft. It was another cloudless day as I reached the first summit, marked by a welcoming tunnel of fluttering prayer flags. After a short lunch break, I ventured on, clawing my way up a series of 17 switchbacks on a broken single lane gravel road, with a muddy river of flowing ice water and slush attempting to deter my progress. Clouds and an approaching storm seemed imminent again yet only 30 minutes prior I was basked in a sky of pillowy clouds dotted against a sun laden blue sky. Nearing the summit is where my jaw dropped and I momentarily lost my mind. Off in the distance I got my first view of the 21k ft Chola mountain range.   I was paralyzed by the daunting grandeur of this magnificent formation and had to get off my bike for several minutes to fully take it all in. The towering snow capped peaks were mesmerizing. A few switchbacks later, I rolled over the summit of the near 17k ft pass and began the 45 minute, 5000 ft giggle inspiring plunge down the mostly well maintained, yet seemingly unused gravel road, to the town of Dege. Upon arrival, I was blasted by the culture shock of the first town I had seen in 7 days, but that impact was warmed by my first hot shower in 10 days. I’m already anxious to leave again, back to the mountains, where everything is simple, where everything makes sense and there are no paths.

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Starting out…

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Starting to tilt up hill a bit steeper

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Start of the Yak Track

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The place to park the bikes and begin to push.  It ain’t easy being green…

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Let the war begin

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See the trail?

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You can see the road at the bottom of the valley.  Seems like a lifetime ago

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Final push for the 1st summit at just under 15k ft

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Top of the first summit

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Zoom…

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Zoom zoom…

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Showoff…

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Approaching the 2nd summit on day 2

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Ok, so it was staged, but still pretty cool?

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Top of the 2nd summit

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Tunnel of prayer flags

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Final approach to the 3rd pass

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Descending the 3rd pass

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Views of the Chola range where peaks reach over 20k ft

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Yarchagumba

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Descending the 3rd and final summit, 5k vertical feet to Dege

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The World Spins By is an intimate journey of loss, curiosity, and love—recounted one pedal stroke at a time along Jerry’s two-year bicycle journey back to himself. 

1 Comment

  1. Yarchaguba. Bring one back if you can….a wild dream. But eat some while you are there. Wonderful days jerry