A Quest for 5000 Meters, Part Two: Litang

A Quest for 5000 Meters, Part Two: Litang

Litang 5000 meters

If you haven’t already, now’s a good time to check out part one of this report. My whole plan for this Western Sichuan trip had been to climb a random 5000 meter peak in Tagong with no guide or logistical support.

My partner on that expedition and I did not succeed. We gave up at different points and decided to play it safe with descent because we weren’t well-acclimated or well-slept.

Litang 5000 meters
The objective that evaded my friend and I on the left

It was after we’d gotten back to town that I had to leave him behind, as he had other obligations.

Alone now, I fanangled the bus seat of a traveler with altitude sickness who was dining at Khampa Cafe, the best restaurant in Tagong.

There’s a fine quote I picked up from another traveler on this trip: When you travel alone, you’re never really alone.

It turns out that that traveler, a 60-something Swiss guy, had fanangled the seat of the sick guy’s girlfriend. And just like that I had another companion to go at it with.

Litang 5000 meters

Now, this fellow wanted nothing to do with my personal, vertiginous adventure. He was culture tripping, which I figured would be fine for day one.

The bus ride from Tagong takes 5 to 7 hours. The highest pass usually leaves the whole bus gasping for breath (4500 meters), but i felt it now. I was acclimated. I’d even slept a full 8 hours the night before after a string of 1 to 4 hour nights.

It oughta be said that I’d truly given up by this point. I now just wanted to relax and retain the rest of my muscle mass. But the pass got me thinking; Litang’s even higher up and has plenty of peaks, so why not nab one?

Litang 5000 meters

Why not indeed...

Litang City

Litang is replete with all the cultural stops. It’s got one of the biggest, baddest temples; it’s got sky burials; it’s got fashion that exists nowhere else in the world; and it’s got some of the nicest people in China.

Litang 5000 meters
Litang monastery up close

Though not unique to the Tibetans, they’re the culture most well-known for sky burials. Instead of disposing of bodies beneath the unforgiving permafrost, Tibetans transport the dead to a ritual site where bodies will be fed to birds (atlas obscura link). Vultures are common in Tibet and are attracted by burning juniper to their carrion meals. Bodies are sometimes left, sometimes hacked up during the ‘burial’. If you’re lucky (maybe unlucky…) you can ask around in Litang and find out when and where the burials will take place.

From the timid and boisterous alike came cries of ‘Hello!’, ‘Ni Hao!’, ‘Tashi Delek’! Monks encouraged us to take pictures and the young ones in training let us watch their basketball game. One even walked up to Jean-Claude (the Swiss guy) and forced a rubber snake in his hand before running away and laughing maniacally.

And the temple, O god, the temple!

Litang 5000 meters

The Buddha inside was big. The temple was big. The hill it sat on was big. It was easy to feel dwarfed by a strange majesty inside. Upstairs, chanting monks could be heard through a decorative doorway, some on the drums and some throat singing.

This was exactly the kind of cultural wham I’d been looking for. The traditional houses, the spontaneity of monks, warm welcomes. Litang was looking up indeed.

Except when it came to food and lodging.

Litang 5000 meters

Our hostel (referred to here in my Western Sichuan guide) was run by Chinese and seemingly for Chinese. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. However, the owner’s friends conglomerated in the sitting room, chain-smoked, drank, and ate hot-pot without acknowledging us or anyone but their group. The whole thing seemed rather unfriendly, which is my general experience with all-Chinese hostels.

As far as food goes you’d better just get comfortable with noodles, fried rice, and dumplings.

It can’t all be great or it’d be too easy.

Litang 5000 meters

At night we tried to catch a concert that was supposed to happen, but instead chanced on Tibetans of all ages dancing in a public square. People publicly dance in China all the time, but this was different. Children spun with 20-somethings who reached over to pirouette grandma. The community was obviously strong and tight-knit.

At the hostel, a Korean guy (who I mistook for Chinese because his Chinese was PERFECT) raved about his altitude sickness. I nodded in real sympathy while nurturing my little pretentious glow from having gotten rid of mine.

And, with that, i slept like a dream again.

Setting off

Don’t be fooled by the ease of public transportation and tours. It’s just as well to do things on your own and rent yourself a scooter.

Litang 5000 meters
Face mask optional.

You’ve never driven one? Litang’s wide-open roads are a great place to teach yourself how.

When morning came I walked to the closest auto-shop and nailed down a gas-powered scooter for 100 RMB a day. Gas was roughly 50 more, and with that I drove between 100 and 150 KM.

I just wanted to get to the base of some mountains. The map was, unfortunately, basically useless for actual navigation. Thus armed with misinformation I gunned it down one of the roads leading out of town.

Litang 5000 meters
And ended up somewhere nice

I’m glad I did, because this allowed me a glimpse into how things are done in sensitive Chinese minority areas. Needless to say they don’t F around when it comes to ‘containment’.

Next to the grounds where the annual horse festival is held (where a decade ago a Khampa famously grabbed the mike and launched into a ‘free Tibet’ tirade before being promptly arrested) drove a military convoy of 20 armored vehicles. Each carriage held three soldiers with shouldered AR’s.

Thanks to other blog posts about this area I was worried about being stopped, but nah. I passed unmolested and gunned it around some switchbacks in hopes of encountering mountains.

Litang 5000 meters

I didn’t find any, but instead ran across Zha Gar rock. Decent enough, and not far enough out of town to damper my quest.

The plan was to hop on the scooter and stay on the damn thing until I found some mountains. So I took the road that seemed closest to the biggest ones in my visual field (GS-318) and sped off.

Litang 5000 meters
Zha Gar from the side

Haizi Shan National Nature Reserve

Litang 5000 meters

Haizi Shan is a weird mountain. Why? Because it’s got 3 names for no apparent reason, that’s why. Haizi Shan, Yala Xue Shan, and Zhara Lhatse. The first two are Chinese meaning ‘child’ and ‘??’ snow mountain respectively. The third is Tibetan.

The even weirder thing is I’m almost certain Haizi Shan isn’t actually in this reserve. I mean, I’d just driven 7 hours from Tagong (where you can see the 3-named mountain) to Litang and I was now going the opposite direction.

Litang 5000 meters
Back toward Litang from the Haizi Shan roadway

Maybe it loops around. I don’t know folks, I just don’t know.

Anyways, this was exactly what I’d been on the hunt for. A left turn led to the reserve and the road just kept plodding upward in elevation. There was almost no vegetation left to be seen among the altitude and alpine vistas.

If you scooter this road you’ll have most of it to yourself. I never imagined such isolation possible in China but here it was, moon-like in desolation.

Litang 5000 meters

After an hour on the road I reached a pass, my watch reading 4600 meters. This was my previous high-point in Tagong and now, without all the spirit-numbing work, I’d driven to it.

Thanks be to the Tibetan deities that my body didn’t protest. No; I was acclimated and there were now a row of non-technical looking summits around me.

Though I just had two energy bars and a bottle of water (plus I hadn’t eaten lunch), the feeling that this would be my last shot consumed me. The skies were a little murky but it’d been like that all day. How long could the scramble take?

Litang 5000 meters
Another unnamed peak, from the road

There’s not much better than meandering a safe class 4 route up a mountain. It’s just enough oomph to be fun and adventurous but is just shy of being deadly. However, the fact remained that I was now fully alone. No one knew where I was. No one expect maybe a nomad or two was around. And had I gotten hurt it would have been one hell of a crawl to safety.

It was this very small margin for error that, ironically, kept my mind from straying. Any attention paid to such thoughts would increase the chance of something happening, so my focus was total – this allowed for the clarity that I sought, the flow of movement, self, quiet, and mountain.

Litang 5000 meters
Looking back at my scooter, barely visible, from the mountain

After 3 false summits I finally crested, 2 hours after beginning the climb. It felt more like thirty minutes and even the relatively rapid gain in altitude hadn’t slowed me down. Though I was still gassed from my attempt in Tagong, the training I’d done before had paid off. My altimeter, 150 to 200 meters off on the low side, read 4950 meters.

Litang 5000 meters

I could see every bit of the surrounding landscape, all the way down into Litang. The glaciated 6000 meter peaks in the distance beckoned from afar – I knew this would be the last time I would be assuaged by an objective of this height. Doing it alone had satisfied my requirements, but goals are as fleeting as good-weather windows.

Litang 5000 meters
Litang visible far in the distance

A goal is like food: once it’s passed from your sight you have but a brief window of satisfaction before your stomach rumbles for the next meal.

Regardless, I’d finally seen the province in exactly the way I wanted to and on my terms.

Litang 5000 meters

This method of exploration isn’t for everybody. I can’t in good conscience recommend hunting for random mountains with no beta and forsaking guides. However, doing something of this nature necessarily brings you away from the beaten path. It forces you to face up to yourself and be wholly responsible for the consequences of your actions.

Litang 5000 meters

7 Replies to “A Quest for 5000 Meters, Part Two: Litang”

  1. Wow ,Cole, you don’t look that old to have so many adventures under your belt. You must have had awesome parents.

    1. Thanks Simon. They say the best Mountaineers have the worst memories lol. I’m not great, but I now understand the adage..

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