“To be tramping under the stars toward a great mountain is always an adventure; now we were adventuring for the first time in a new mountain country which still held in store for us all its surprises and almost all its beauties.”*
George Leigh-Mallory wrote that in 1922 after his first reconnaissance of Mt Everest. He would die on its high and unforgiving peak two years later, just below the summit, to lie there frozen and unfound until the famous expedition of 1999 discovered his corpse, pale as alabaster, somewhere below 8,200 meters.
I wasn’t thinking of this as we climbed the considerably lower rock slopes of Borneo’s Mount Kinabalu – I just happened on that passage reading Leigh-Mallory’s book on the plane to Kota Kinabalu. But his words describe perfectly the feeling we had that morning, at 3,900 meters and still short of the summit, with a big moon directly overhead and the Southern Cross low on our left side. Pale clouds filled the sky below us, surrounding our little rocky island in the night sky.
A hundred vertical meters beneath the summit of Stok Kangri. Would I make it?
Continued from Part One
Just past midnight. It’s Summit Day.
Someone bangs a saucepan and yells “Good Morning Base Camp!” I feel well rested. It’s not too cold, and I put on my clothes and go into the homestay tent. Thankfully it doesn’t smell too badly of cheap fuel. Breakfast is porridge and there’s honey and I drink some tea. We’re given a packed lunch, too, all wrapped in foil. The others seem tired and they reveal they didn’t get much sleep. Poor Tom is suffering from a churning belly. Of all the mornings!
I feel strong, and I think I might just make it.
Stok Kangri – lower base camp
I stand on top of the mountain, arms thrust high, holding my ice axe. All around me, far below, the world spreads out. Valleys, ridges, some of them obscured by cloud. I breathe the thin air as deep as I can.
And then I stop daydreaming, snap the laptop shut, and get ready for the office. All this visualising success, all this planning; I just want it to end so I can get to India and try to climb Stok Kangri.
Yon with friends, December 2014
“Don’t worry”, said the old lady, “just relax, it will all be fine”.
That was the best advice we heard about giving birth. Simple, straightforward, and spot on. It didn’t come from a doctor, a midwife, or the author of any of the veritable library of pregnancy books around our place or any of the generous friends who’d shared them along with their own stories. Instead, it came from the woman in the blue apron in the photo above, a mother of two from a small rural village in China who, doubtless, had given birth in what most of us would consider spartan conditions. The lady spoke quietly, gently and wisely, but more than what she said, it was how she said it. Yon, by then more than eight months along, smiled, and relaxed. As the uncertain father-to-be, I felt the anticipation ease as well. It was almost the first time I really thought “we can do this”.
It’s almost a cliche, the wisdom of an old lady in a remote village. If a backpacker told me the story in a bar in Bangkok, I’d probably roll my eyes. If Hillary Clinton wrote a book about it, Oprah would give it a glowing review. But sometimes, people who do things the old ways really do know how to do them best. And all we need to do is listen.
Momentarily lost in the tiny village of Hemis Shupachan, I turned down a stone alley and bumped into an old local. He greeted me warmly and asked where I was from.
“Australia? Which city? Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra?”
“Wow, you know your cities. Have you been to Australia?”
“No! But Ricky Ponting is my friend!”
Tall green trees wave in the wind, blue sky behind them. The call to prayer rises, wafts in through the open window, alluring and mysterious. We lie on the bed, staring out that window, listening to the singing float on that cool wind. Later, as the sun sets over a huge white Buddhist stupa, we sip a fresh lime soda and stare at the Kangri Range. Stok Kangri’s summit, a grey wedge of rock streaked with snow, reaches up 6,137 meters above the range. It catches the last of the yellow evening light. We are in Leh, a mountain town in northern India, and after just one day we already love it. A happy, peaceful mix of local Ladakhis, Tibetan Buddhists, Kashmiri Muslims and a sprinkling Indians from down south, this place seems to us to show that people can just get along. It’s stark but beautiful, its people practical, hardy, but above all peaceful, friendly and refreshingly warm.
PAZU: “Laputa” is an island floating in the sky.
SHEETA: An island that floats in the sky?
PAZU: Yes. And although it’s said to be a legend… My father saw it!
Flashback of his father flying a dirigible through a storm; he catches a glance of a city high in the clouds and takes a photo
PAZU: It’s the photograph he took then. …Now, there’s no one living in the palace any more. But a lot of treasure is sleeping there. But nobody believed it. …But, my father’s not a liar.
PAZU: Now I’ll make it real — I will go and discover Laputa…
If you love anime, you’ll love Miyazaki. And if you love Miyazaki, you’ll love “Castle in the Sky“.
And if you love that, you’ll love Choquequirao, a real-life lost and ancient Castle in the Sky.
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? Continue reading