Our second week along the Mighty Mekong was equi-parts movement and stillness, the latter being more state of mind than physical. We finished our home-stays in Bucan in a ceremony of fire, allowing pieces of our past and present to be engulfed in flame, and taking projections of our future with us through the scent of cedar and feel of beads in our palms.
Our time in Bucan was more stay, less home, due to the busy nature of harvest time. Each of our families spent their days harvesting grapes on family vineyard plots, which they then sold locally or internationally to be made into juice or wine or to be eaten. While we were there a Frenchman shared the village, selecting grapes for his French-based wine company. We spent time wandering through the rows of fruit, picking up walnuts and apples that had dropped from old, gnarled trees that stood high on the hills. One afternoon we harvested corn and carried it to storage, after which time we took sickles to the grasses that impeded the crops’ growing space. Those went to the cows.
Our last morning in Bucan, Kawagarbo came out to wish us a safe journey. The highest peak in its range, at 6,740 meters (22,112 feet), Kawagarbo is one of Tibetan Buddhism’s most holy peaks. Kawagarbo means Mountains of Medicinal Herbs in Tibetan. The Chinese refer to it at Meili Xue Shan, The Snow Mountain. Tibetan Buddhists believe that it is the spiritual home of the warrior god, and thousands of Buddhists around the world make a pilgrimage there each year. In 1991 a group of Japanese mountaineers attempted to climb this sacred mountain, but a few hundred meters from the summit they perished from an avalanche. It is illegal to climb this mountain—and others in the range nearby—and no one has attempted since.
Crossing westward over the muddy Mekong we wound our way into the mountains and began our trek to YuBeng from a parking lot full of Chinese tourists, Land Rovers, and empty plastic bottles. The hike was hard. Hours of steps uphill, we metered our way to the pass, while others motored past. It was hard to keep track of the cars that spun up the mountain side and we lost count of them after 12, 13, 14. What was once a single-track path that wound through forests of rhododendron and conifer covered in great lengths of old man’s beard was now a ‘proper’ 12 kilometer roadway transporting wealth of all kinds on this ancient pilgrimage route.
Nanzong Pass stands at 3,700 meters and is edged and covered with thousands of prayer flags, marking the passage of time and prayer. We stopped there for tea and noodles and a rest by the fire. Some wove through a prayer flag tunnel and came upon a solitary home, in which a monk spends his days. He has views in all directions of the snow-capped peaks and when asked if he gets cold in winter he animatedly exclaimed that the joys of electricity and the kindness of others keeps him warm in the coldest months.
Dropping down into YuBeng we met Niancimu peak, Kawagabo’s partner. At sunset we made it to our guesthouse and ate warm food as the darkness absorbed the mountains and the stars came out.
We spent two days in Lower YuBeng village, which has around twenty full-time households and a smattering of large guesthouses managed by folks who came from the urban centers of the west and south. Throughout the days, cars from afar dropped off and picked up scores of tourists. We, like them, were there to visit the sacred waterfalls that fell from cliffsides high in the YuBeng valley, past the villages. Three waterfalls cascade from the glaciers that recede each year from the Kawagarbo range. In the heat and hail we walked through and under these cold waters, honoring those who came before and asking for longevity of life.
Our travels away from YuBeng were as slow as our hike in. We paralleled the bright blue glacial YuBeng river by foot, boarded a bus, and traveled south along the brown milk-chocolate Mekong by wheel. As we descended from the Plateau we left behind the Himalayas and steep, erosive mountain sides and entered golden rice paddies and dam country. We passed buildings drowned in the reservoirs of the dams, and dead tree tops sticking above the stilled, blocked up river surface. Lessons and conversations about development, conservation, and economic impacts of these dams will come soon.
And now we are in Dali. A city of three plus million, that sits between the Cangshan Mountains and Erhai Lake. Currently the students are on a challenge to find the oldest tea shop in the city and write postcards to people they love. We are resting our bodies, nourishing our stomachs, and testing our minds.