A Quest for 5000 Meters, Part One: Tagong, China

A Quest for 5000 Meters, Part One: Tagong, China

Tagong 5000 meters

A picture is worth a thousand words when it causes you to spend a thousand dollars. Or when it forces you to act, and spray thousands of words about your goal to anyone who’ll listen. In this case the goal was 5000 meters, and the town a Tibetan hamlet called Tagong.

My idea started with the picture above. It was simple and possibly quite stupid.

I wanted to get to 5000 meters, not on a mountain pass but on a mountain. I wanted to do it solo (or at least without a guide), unsupported, and without supplemental information about the peak. So when I saw this:

Western sichuan

I knew I’d found the one. Arranging transportation to Western Sichuan and Tagong the next day, I was ready to set off before I could psyche myself out.


First steps

Chengdu sits between 450 and 720 meters and the Kangding airport at 4280. The altitude creeps into your purview as the plane’s cabin is depressurized. It starts in your muscles before moving to your brain.

5000 meter tagong litang

Go high, rest low. I’m convinced this is the way. So as we descend to Kangding at 2700 meters, excitement wells. Rest for a day and then head to Tagong at 3700. But as my breath quickens and face begins to pulse I start to reconsider.

Will this really be so easy?


From afar, Western Sichuan seems like quite the get-away. I’m not plugging a synonym for vacation here; what I mean is it’s a good place to get away from it all. People, capitalism, foreigners, Chinese, whatever.

5000 meters tagong litang

Lo and behold, I was seated next to the only other American near my age on the plane. We had similar views and got along quite well. So much for the away.

At Zhilam hostel (the best in Kangding, see my guide to Western Sichuan here) there were Western volunteers.

Lo and behold, one was from Colorado (my home state). And not just that; Fort Collins, Colorado!

5000 meters tagong litang
Temple complex on a mountain in Kangding

There was also a troupe of blond-haired, blue-eyed children selling lemonade outside the hostel.

It became quickly apparent that this was a popular destination for foreigners. This didn’t irk me like I thought it would. My traveling buddy was coming by bus and I needed friends. While solo, it’s hard not to make them.

I had decided to suck all the high-altitude marrow I could from the trip. Grabbing the hostel dog, my new American friend (the one from the plane) and I set out to get high.

5000 meters tagong litang
View a few steps from the hostel

High up, to the grassland above the hostel.

The dog, tired from a previous trip that day and from getting us lost in a cow pasture, gave up halfway. Not that I wasn’t pleased; in fact, my physical state augured what was to come. Acclimation hadn’t started in earnest, and I felt bad.

The views made everything worth it, fortunately

5000 meters tagong litang

My friend arrived a bit later. He was gassed and forlorn, gray around the face from a food poisoning that had started in earnest on the bus. After a great dinner and few beers we all decided to hit the hay. The dorm room was loud a la squeaky beds and I slept terribly.

In the morning it was off to the bus station. Since the tickets were sold-out, we had to shell out extra cash for a personal driver. Face still prickling with altitude, half-wakefulness turning strange thoughts about my skull, we set out for Tagong at the price of 150 RMB per passenger.

5000 meters tagong litang
Around the Kangding bus station

Tagong

The sky was dismal. Weather forecasters had called for rain, all day every day, in this part of Sichuan.

Kangding had proved that forecast incorrect, which helped to lift our spirits. In the long-run, it would prove to be very wrong indeed.

5000 meters tagong litang
Lavender fields on the way to Tagong

We arrived in Tagong after 3 hours. The town was much smaller than I expected, but was truly differentiated from the other little townships we’d seen on our way.

This place really was about the grasslands – those rolling, uninterrupted expanses of green pastel, bumps on the womb of a nurturing world.

5000 meters tagong litang
Tagong and the surrounding grasslands

I stayed visually perky, an eye out for my summit. A dredge of clouds hung over the loftier horizon in every direction, obscuring our window to the alpine.

Distances were deceiving here. The altitude raged in the back of my skull. Though we’d taken the trip with my new friend, he would leave with the driver. My traveling companion was still food-sick and had demanded the driver to stop at a hotel near some kind of Western food.

Western sichuan
Without knowing the mountain’s height, we had a hard time judging its distance from Tagong

At the beginning of any adventure with a possibility of very bad things happening there’s excitement and fear. These things are nullified or enlarged by your experience. I had experience with mountains, but not with distant, unsupported expeditions. The stubby plains seemed to thrum with uncaring, with loneliness. Fear had usurped my excitement, altitude dampened my fitness. As I looked to the murky horizon I saw those clouds as an omen, but I dared not inquire what sort.


I trusted that my partner would get his s**t together in good time. Until then, I would wander and hope for my view.

It wasn’t long in coming. Rounding a wall of prayer wheel punctuated by devotees, I saw it for the first time. A spine of rocking culminating in two summit bumps.

5000 meters tagong litang
My first view of the peak after arriving in Tagong

No, not hard. Real mountaineers and alpinists do more with less. Yes, I’d be fine. But damn if it didn’t look far away from town…

Night saw my partner still convalescing. My faith in him was dwindling. I’d taken to boozing and playing cards with a some new Israeli friends (there were tons of Israelis in Tagong, for whatever reason). When I announced my intentions, i was met with incredulity and a bit of awe. That felt good, at least.

Morning. We’d both slept like death and my pal looked like it. Imagine my surprise when he shouldered his pack and said he’d try his luck on some of the more forgiving hills.

5000 meters tagong litang
They really do look forgiving on strained bodies

I had a tent, a pad, light meals, a headlamp, a few layers. My bag was far lighter than it’d been on Mount Rinjani. We planned for a long day on the steppe and one night of camping. An alpine start would get us to the scree field by daybreak.

The sun was bursting through our hotel window and the omens seemed to be shifting in our favor.

I’d visually taken stock of our route. My friend decided to trust me as he had no point of reference (though I didn’t either – I was winging it, totally). I decided it would be best to crest the hills early and ride the little summits all the way to base camp. This would also put us in contact with the nomads and keep the trails interesting.

5000 meters tagong

Nomad encounters

Supplies bought, we set off around 11 AM. One rather pretty Tibetan girl congratulated our courage as we described our plan (she’d seen the packs). Things were looking up as we plied along a road lined with yaks and took our first steps onto the grassland.

We bee-lined toward the first set of nomad tents in view.

5000 meters tagong
Nomad tents nearest to the road

Proximity was all it took. Before I knew it we’d been invited to lunch with a barefooted nomad fellow in a yak-wool shirt. He spoke basic Chinese and we could converse about life on this open tundra.

His kids ran horse tours and the family subsisted out here for half the year. He told us of his stock of motorcycles, yaks, horses, food, and tents. After attempting to engage the wife and kids I realized they spoke only Tibetan, and we settled to wait for lunch.

5000 meters tagong

Many Tibetans are traditionally pastoral, meaning they depend on livestock for an abundant lifestyle. Being a nomad is a byproduct of needing a wide range for your animals. Yaks are the lifeblood of Tibetan pastoralists. They provide meat, milk, butter, cheese, fur and skin for tents and clothes, and dung for heating the abodes built from their other parts.

We ate tsampa, which comprises barely flour and yak butter tea mixed until solid. There was no choice but to mix by hand, and my hesitance must have showed because our host promptly grabbed my bowl and proceeded to mix it with his own hands.

They were, I may add, considerably less clean then my own.

Hygienic nightmare aside, the food was quite good. The thickness of tsampa and yak butter tea serve to give long-lasting energy, which is also punctuated by caloric density. We set out satisfied, aglow with experience. Our host shouted for us to return.

5000 meters tagong
Our nomad host

Oh, right. Money.

I cursed myself for being so callous and gave the man a generous tip (though he hadn’t made it known he wanted cash in the beginning – no matter, he was part of a family of entrepreneurs).

We avoided other nomad tents along the way. Not, might I add, to avoid hospitality but rather the angry dogs that may or may not have been chained up – better safe then sorry when a rabies vaccine is nowhere to be found.

5000 meters tagong

The land was bumpy but we stuck to the summits. My partner was graying along the gills and I agreed that the walk was taxing. The sun raged against our layers. My heart rate stayed around 140 while moving, a sign of poor fitness or poor acclimation. I prayed it was the second though knew such was a bad sign.

Finally we reached a village that I hadn’t known existed. It’s altitude was roughly the same as Tagong’s which meant sacrificing every bit of hard-won square footage we’d gained on our desperate bid to gain elevation and keep it.

5000 meters tagong

When he saw it, my partner just sighed. I realized that my ‘self-reliance’ meant compromising our summit bid thanks to our walking instead of driving here.


Onward from the village

“Hello.”

“Hello!”

“Bluh bluh duh duh bluh duh duh bluh duh duh”.

The Tibetan man was flapping his tongue and cheeks about in mockery of our foreign speech. He followed our gazes with eyes of steel, daring us to retort. I laughed uneasily and we plodded on.

The village was authentic, and thus without any tourist infrastructure at all. People looked at us like we were martians or imperialists. Dogs raged at the end of their chains, salivating with all the fury of xenophobia.

5000 meters tagong
Beautiful, but felt unwelcoming in our sorry state

As badly as I wanted to explore, we felt the need to GTFO and quickly.

Onward and upwards, then. Skirting the hills would be pointless as there appeared a forgiving plain between our summit ridge and where we were.

O, the perils of terrain-borne naivety!

We were higher than we’d been all day. It was already 4:30PM. And, below us, flush with the elevation of where we’d started our day, was a valley between this hill and the one we needed to be on.

Tagong 5000 meters

All the climbing so far had been pointless.

Heading down and then back up for the last time that day, I felt the final hill was insurmountable. Already my partner had fallen behind; we’d decided to stick to the dirt-bike track and convene whenever (and wherever – we weren’t thinking very clearly anymore) we ended up.

Thought and sense had been abandoned for step-one-two. I didn’t want to eat or drink. I only wanted to roll back to the valley and submerge my head in the stream there.

And then, like a distant cowboy mirage bursting forth from the horizon, a Tibetan nomad appeared on a motorcycle. He asked in Chinese where I was going and I pointed upward.

Tagong 5000 meters
New friend and I, post-ride

Would I like a ride, perhaps?

I nearly cried. I could write off the ‘unsupported’ part of my journey to the pointless elevation I’d gained earlier. Damned I would be should this opportunity evade me.

Up we went, myself clinging timidly to dude’s waist, him accelerating way more forcefully then the hill ought to have allowed two grown men on a shoddy bike to.

I had him stop on the flattest and most weather-protected steppe we could find. The summit seemed reasonably close from here. It wasn’t cold. My altimeter (which always read 100 to 250 meters too low) declared 4400 meters.

Tagong 5000 meters

This guy was a diamond in the rough landscape. He helped me pitch my tent and organize my stuff before demanding I come to his tent (200 meters below) for lunch after the summit bid. He said he’d called a friend to look for my partner and put him on a horse to this camp.

I couldn’t believe the hospitality, and I swiftly demanded my new friend take my money. After some prodding he accepted.

Tagong 5000 meters
Lonely tent

The vista was utterly surreal. I waited for my friend in a dream of altitude sickness, fatigue, and exhilaration. The landscape reached for hundreds of nearly uninhabited miles, a place unchanged by centuries and possibly millennia. I felt small, I felt connected, unimportant, afraid, and whole. This conflict and reconciliation of emotion was what the journey was about – I now cared not whether we bagged the summit or not.

After some reconnaissance, though, I judged the venture possible. The scree field seemed to be just a few gentle kilometers away.

Tagong 5000 meters
Up close – or so I thought – at last

My buddy made it eventually, his arrival announced by the clatter of hooves. The next flattest spot was a few hundred feet away and he pitched there. Too tired to converse, we set our alarms and retreated to our tents to await 3:30AM.


The final push

Some general tips for the solo, uninitiated mountaineer:

  1. Remember what Messner said – it’s always farther and bigger than it looks. Harder, too.
  2. Try your sleeping back before buying it – a sleeping bag that’s too small means another fitful night of sleep (not great when you’ve had 3 in a row).
  3. Being properly acclimated significantly increases your chances of success and is the only way to actually enjoy the mountains.

If it’s not apparent, I didn’t exactly follow this salient advice myself. I hadn’t acclimated to even 4000 meters, and my partner’s body had been dealing with other nonsense. The sleeping bag I’d paid 100 RMB for was about 5’8 in length and pinned my arms to my side like a sarcophagus.

I nabbed a thankful hour of sleep before the ding. Hell, I was probably more thankful to just have the anxiety of sleepless waiting over with as I heated up breakfast. A light rain was falling, keeping me inside for 5 minutes. I trounced out in a haze of mist to find my friend.

He was up. Miraculously. Me, having a bad time? I had nothing on this dude. But up he sat, day-pack shouldered, ready to attack the ridge.

Tagong 5000 meters

We got up the small hill leading to the view slowly, our headlamps pooled in one direction. And there, unable to see exactly which direction to take, he made a declaration.

“I’m not going to do this thing”.

I was silent for a while before responding, nodding along fruitlessly in the darkness. Telling him to look for me by 2PM if I wasn’t back, I set off alone.

Clouds danced eerily as I descended to the gully with the supposed scree field. Shadows played tricks with the moon, sounds paraded through the hillside troughs. The only landmark that kept me grounded in the dark was a large triangular conglomeration of prayer flags on the hill next to our campsite.

Tagong 5000 meters
Only landmark I could descry

Before I knew it a dense blanket of clouds had covered the peak’s summit. The clouds having moved quickly from the ridge-line below I figured they’d dissipate as fast. I laid down to appreciate the joys of not walking while waiting for that.

And finally, at true dawn, all moisture seemed wicked from the air as the summit appeared. In the half-light it seemed close, laughable even. I’d caught my first wind (not second, mind you).

The world from a vantage can appear small. This is why planes confuse perspective, as do heights. Distance boggles because our brains navigate with proximity as a default.

Tagong 5000 meters
A Tibetan horseman, few hours after dawn

I’d been dead wrong. Climbing, step by step, now at 4600 meters, I saw just how far the scree was. Just to gain the ridge (if that would even provide access to the summit slopes) seemed herculean.

The accumulated fatigue of sleeplessness and lack of acclimation all caught up to me at once. My steps were awkward and the thought of a sprained ankle plagued me. I developed a productive cough. As an asthmatic, high altitude pulmonary edema is the worst of my mountain-related fears.

Lonely and feeling at world’s edge I gave it up. Instead of the will to trudge on I felt nothing but joy and relief. Yes, giving it up was the best option of all. Life was more precious than stone.

Tagong 5000 meters
Gonga Shan

The trek wasn’t without rewards. In the dredge between hill and ridge the morning opened up. In the distance, hundreds of miles away, was Gonga Shan, the highest mountain in Western Sichuan. The white, blue, and gray sky reflected the endless massif.

Between me and that impossible world stretched the small flames of innumerable lives reflecting the passion for a Tibetan culture and landscape. I was just grateful to be offered a glimpse.

Tagong 5000 meters


We napped. I was startled by a phone call at roughly 10AM, forgetting where I was for the modern world’s interruption. My nomad friend, who’d invited us to lunch, was calling to re-extend the invitation.

The slow process of disassembling camp led then to a downhill slog. When we finally reached our new friend’s tent we caught a whiff of the momos inevitably simmering inside.

We’d run out of food by 7AM.

Tagong 5000 meters
Our nomad friend’s tent

The tent was inhabited by our friend, his wife, and his three small children. All were shy and curious but only our friend spoke Chinese. He just smiled at our story, as if it was the most normal thing in the world. Then they produced a veritable feast.

Yak meat, yogurt, butter tea, regular tea, fresh milk, cheese momos. I never imagined I’d be so enamored with pastoral food. The surreal nature of it all, the societal-fringe example of life on the grasslands, was invigorating.

After lunch, we all sat along the hillside to admire the view. We could see that they were simply happy to be here, more than content to simply enjoy the landscape. This attitude toward beauty in conservation was refreshing after seeing so many examples of the opposite in China.

Tagong 5000 meters

When our friend offered to take us to the village on his bike, we wanted to decline. Our legs had other ideas and we accepted. Blasting down a massive hill on a motorcycle, sans helmet, was the most exciting part of the trip.

We got to top it off by seeing inside a traditional Tibetan home, in the village where we’d felt spurned the day before. Our nomad friend’s mother served us tea while his uncle chanted euphonious Tibetan from a leather book. Colors abounded from every wall, Buddhist enthusiasm from every word spoken therein.

I don’t mean to romanticize – only to say that I had high expectations for this place, and one is usually disappointed by those. We were not disappointed, not about the summit, not about the people, the food, anything. Every pound I’d lost was ceded happily in buying such experience.

Tagong 5000 meters

But again – I’d be damned if I didn’t achieve 5000 meters. With Litang in mind we hitched a ride back to Tagong. My friend and I would here go our separate ways.

Luckily, I now knew how to be alone on a mountain.


One Reply to “A Quest for 5000 Meters, Part One: Tagong, China”

  1. Very gutsy………..you are amazing and fun to follow. You go to way off places that are so interesting. Keep your stories coming! Humorous too.

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