Our directions were less helpful than a pirate’s treasure map – we didn’t even have an “X” to mark the spot. Just the name of a village deep in the Qinghai plateau: Xiadawu. Near there, so these clues suggested, we could find our way to one of the holy mountains, sacred to Tibetan Buddhists: A’nye Maqen. In all, I’d found two sentences on the internet, and they were a few years old. Not much to go on. But in one of my favourite novels, Professor Lidenbrock had made a Journey to the Center of the Earth with nothing more than a centuries old scrap of paper reading:
Descend, bold traveller, into the crater of the jokul of Snæffels, which the shadow of Scartaris touches before the kalends of July, and you will attain the centre of the earth; which I have done: Arne Saknussemm.
If a fictional Professor could do that, surely we could reach A’nye Maqen?
It was summer 2006, the next leg on our long journey through central China. A long haul by uncomfortable bus from Yushu brought us to the whistle-stop settlement at Huashixia, lost deep on the Qinghai Plateau and the first of our two clues. En route, we’d passed a place called Madoi. On the world map in my sister’s bathroom in far-away Sydney, Madoi appears right in the middle of China. To rate a mention on a world map, you’d think a town must be pretty big. But Madoi was nothing more than a few stores and workshops either side of the highway and a small settlement a bit further off. You stop there, as we did, for a pee and a bowl of noodles, and get moving again. Huashixia was slightly smaller still. We were the only people to disembark when the bus creaked in, more than eight hours out of Yushu. That’s how middle-of-nowhere this region is. And we weren’t even close to our destination. Our goal was a small mountain village named Xiadawu – those few scraps online by an earlier traveller said this place was a good base to trek to A’nye Maqen.
We found a small restaurant and ordered some food while we worked out how to keep going. A Buddhist monk was eating with his friends at the next table. He asked what we were up to. Looking for a ride to Xiadawu, huh? I’m your man. We paid, and left with him. So far, so easy. Yet again on this trip, I realised that there was more to monks than met the eye. Our friend was a wheeler-and-dealer, speaking in a mix of Mandarin and basic English. We bounced along a dirt road in the back of a minivan with a few other passengers all heading to Xiadawu. We were at the bottom of a wide flat valley, rocky scrubby ground racing past either side. It was cold, and beautiful in its own sparse way. Wild. The kind of place where you’d die in a day if you weren’t well equipped. If the cold didn’t get you, the wolves would. Or maybe a bear. At a small river crossing, our new friend pointed out a distant white peak. “A’nye Maqen”. Our first glimpse, but it was a long way away. As the long day came to its end. we passed through the very small settlement at Xiadawu and went further up the valley to the monk’s family home.
Over dinner, prepared by the monk’s mother, we discussed our goal of trekking to A’nye Maqen, and how we might do it. We were still new in China, with just six months’ experience, and if we were to do this today, I think things would be different. But back then, we didn’t have confidence that we could put together a several-day trek to the mountain and back. Our friend the monk, though keen, didn’t seem to understand our western need for the details to be locked down in advance. We, being new, didn’t get the Chinese way of agreeing the broad idea and leaving the details until later. Mostly, we wondered about food. He suggested we could eat momos, a kind of deep fried dumpling or pastry. We felt this was not going to keep us going for five days, and there other points of misunderstanding. In the end, we all agreed to call it a night. We slept in the family’s tent outside, wondering what would happen next.
The next day, we did nothing in particular. Hung out in Xiadawu, ate some noodles, and waited about. Later that night, our friend the monk returned to the house where we were awkwardly eating momos, drinking tea, and trying with our rudimentary Mandarin (back then, even Yon was a beginner) to engage the father, a stern man, in discussion. Horses and a guide had been arranged for tomorrow, and a price agreed without consulting us. We weren’t sure how or why this had come about and it was a bit unpleasant for a while as this was all hashed out. The food remained a major obstacle, logistically and even as a point of cultural misunderstanding. I think our refusal to eat momos for six days straight came over as fussy and maybe even rude (it was meant to be practical, as momos don’t seem to be ideal food for tough trekking). Again, I think we’d tackle it a different way if we knew then what we know now. But we didn’t, so instead we decided we’d do a day trip up into the valley, and move on the next day. Another beautiful sunset brought night to the lonely valley. I was deeply disappointed – I’d wanted to achieve this, but in the end it was my language skill and cultural knowledge that let me down. All we could do was sleep tight and make the most of the next day.
Next morning was glorious. A rich blue sky, deep and infinite, dominated everything. Blinding white clouds swirled and churned, alive and free-willed, not blowing in the wind but riding it, with purpose and with skill. That sky was alive. That sky made the mountains look small, and seemed to drain the colour out of everything else. At more than 4,300 meters above sea level, we were in the sky, not under it. The air was thin, though we were acclimatised by now. But looking up into that blueness, it felt like the sky itself was sucking the air from my lungs, straight out my throat and into the sky like a syringe drawing blood from a vein. Perhaps those willful clouds were the combined exhalations of hundreds of previous visitors, vacuumed from helpless lungs and set free.
Our friend the monk drove us a short way up the valley to a small camp. Here we met a friendly herdsman, our guide for the day. His Mandarin was almost as weak as ours, and his English as non-existent as our Tibetan. A quick translated introduction from our friend the monk, who sped off in his car, gave us the basics and we met our ponies and headed up the valley slowly. A peace fell over us both. The difficulties of the previous night vanished. The swish of a pony’s tail, or its snort, distant bells on distant mountain sheep, and the dull hum of the wind were all that we heard.
We stopped. Making small talk with hand motions and the few words we had in common, we lay on the alpine meadow and squinted into the sky. The ponies stood around quietly, munching on grass.
It was clear we would never get close to A’nye Maqen in a day. It’s more than 25km from Xiadawu and, pony or no, that’s still a 50km round trip. But I hoped we could at least see it. So after our break, we left the herdsman to mind the ponies and we struck uphill. Within a minute, we were straining for breath, each step seemingly raising our pulse by a few beats per minute until I swore I could hear my heart thumping and my jugular bulging under the pressure. But I didn’t care because I’d come a long way for a pony ride without a view. After a while we stopped as the grass gave way to scree, and we looked around.
And there it was. A’Nye Maqen, a Tibetan holy site for time immemorial. Known to the west only since 1921-22 when described by British explorer Brigadier-General George Pereira on his expedition from Beijing to Lhasa of 1921-2; for a while considered a possible candidate for highest mountain in the world; and first summitted only in 1981 by famous American mountaineer (and slide film maestro) Galen Rowell and his two partners Harold Knutsen and Kim Scmitz.
A’Nye Maqen. All 6,282 meters of it, or at least so we thought. In fact, what we could see was just one or two of its 12 lesser peaks (not unlike the 1949 Chinese mountaineering team, shown in 1980 to have climbed the wrong summit).
A’nye Maqen is the romanisation of its Tibetan name: ཨ་མྱིས་རྨ་ཆེན།. It’s sometimes also rendered Amne Machin. In Chinese, it’s 阿尼玛卿 which is a Chinese rendering of the Tibetan, itself romanised as ā’nímǎqīng, which sounds roughly similar.
The weather was coming in. A few drops of rain flicked our faces, nothing much but enough to think about turning back. It had been a good day, a meaningful day, in the way that mountain days can be. Peaceful. Not relaxing, but peaceful because of the knowledge that the mountains would be here for as long they had already, and then some, whatever our problems had been yesterday. Today we’d been lucky they’d allowed us to venture close. The changing weather was our cue to depart gratefully.
We turned for home.
Back on the Plateau
Next day we left. Our friend the monk drove us back down to Xiadawu, on another beautiful day. We passed Tibetan sites and saw antelope running across the flat landscape as we got closer to Huashixia. I felt sad, somehow foiled.
Back on the main road, our friend the monk waved down one of the hundreds of big blue trucks that trundle across the Qinghai Plateau towards Xining, the provincial capital. Rather than waiting for the only bus of the day, he said, give the trucker the same money and go in a bit more comfort. We left on good terms, paid for the rides and the food, and he suggested we come back next summer and do it for real. We said we would, one day, and maybe we still will.