Gold Pass - the Way Through the Sky
Jeff Fuchs, kora ambassador
Small pops sound as wind-driven pellets pile into my jacket; precipitation hardened into small flying shells. The snow and ice is coming from the northwest, as it always seems to do, being blown by channels of air from the not-so-distant Himalayas. Here amid the heights so much is dictated by the sky. Snuggly fit into the Hengduan Mountains of northern Yunnan, I rest within a cradle that acts as a sort of connector and eastern extension of the greater Himalayan Range
Spring at 4,000 metres is one of the most stunningly unpredictable times of year in the mountains. Twenty minutes ago the sky was clear with hard blues and a beam of sun and now all has gone grey as the winds pushed one weather system out and shoved another in. This world of valleys and peaks here in northwestern Yunnan lies on many borders. Burma is a small leap west, while to the northwest Tibet and its spires mark the sky with triangles of stone. It also marks an unofficial border where snow passes eased caravans and peoples from one geography into another. It is one of these passes in the sky that I’ve come to explore; a small break in the stone that once allowed caravans to pass. To the locals who can recall, it is auspiciously called ‘Gold Pass’. To the eye – even my now distant eye – it is just barely visible. A small round little opening amid the black teeth of stone is all that I can register.
Fred, Fik, and myself have been plunged from one geography into another in the thirty minutes it has been since we set up camp. The elements from above have masked the stones around us with a white snow covering. Our sky has disappeared and now the roar of wind has obliterated all other sounds demanding that we pay homage to it. Temperatures plummet and the world of the mountains begins its sermon.
We’ve nestled a camp beside a sacred lake, which lies cradled between peaks. This lake and its reflection, it is said, will reveal a yak in its dark green waters when seen at a certain angle from above. A view of the yak will bring eternal fortune to those who see it. At present the lake is half covered in a layer of blue ice not reflecting anything. At one end of the lake, our small tent resembles nothing but a small blur to my eyes as I’ve climbed and scurried my way up an east slope of stone. In summer months this valley (which is sacred to both Naxi and Tibetan peoples) yak come to graze in this isolated valley. The entire valley is encased in spires with only random access points for the intrepid or the fearless. As one ancient put it, “it isn’t a place that one can get lost, because one would have to find it first”. That same elder had described the valley as a “world away from others”. This “world’ was accessed by a pass once travelled by pilgrims and traders to access a shortcut to Tibet and it was this pass, that I’d come to find. Fred and Fik were keen to join so a solo journey to a lonely pass of antiquity became a journey of three. Even in the summer the pass shook with the winds, while now it is obliterated from view by the winds and what they bring. The white pellets that blast down are huge and ungainly, looking more like down than snow.
Fred and Fik are somewhere ‘down there’ and getting down there is what I must now attempt to do. Snow is billowing in to where I’m lodged and soon the benign rocks that lie beneath me will become obscured and risky, and gaps of space will be camouflaged in white. Snow and its blanketing comforts deceive the eyes, hiding danger under its veil.
Camp, when it is reached, is matted down in white. Fred is in the tent layering up while Fik ensures that our tent pegs are ratcheted down. A few metres away our small fire crackles away under the onslaught of white from above. I have that wonderfully potent sensation of autonomy that is so often stirred (and restored) within the mountains’ great spaces. All that is essential is close: warmth, water, and community.
Winds whip in from all directions, at times whirling in a giant spinning cyclone, and temperatures plunge. Our little world is encased in a white vacuum of intimacy, but that intimacy is now dipping into freezing temperatures.
Our dinner of noodles, tea, and chocolate is spent standing up trying to keep the blood circulating, with much of the meal ending up on our clothing and smeared inadvertently onto faces. Gloved hands fumble with spoons and chopsticks. Snow’s presence often eases the sense of cold, and sure enough the lessening of winds and snow only serves to enhance the brittle air. At one point, the winds cease entirely and the snows ease. The wind’s disappearance has odd consequences as suddenly we seem to be able to see and feel more clearly where we are and how utterly remote our surroundings are. Nature’s noise has given way to nature’s grand silence.
With this new silence, a new kind of cold creeps out of the sky and the earth into us. It is a cold that seeps into all things and into every corner. It is as though the very ground is exhaling it. Our sky has turned a clear blue-black.
Stuffing ourselves into the tent (and stuffing is the only way to describe what we have to do get actually get in) Fred jokes that we’ll be able to feel eachother’s every breath and sigh. Within minutes of getting settled into our little protective enclave, a thin sparkling layer of ice has formed on the inner skin of the tent where our breath has crystallized. Tomorrow morning - weather and fates willing - we will ascend Gold Pass, which sits at the far southern end of our protective bowl. Night comes from everywhere and shuts us all down. I think about the snow pass far above us and wonder if it too is as silent as here. The temperature has made it down to -20 degrees Fahrenheit.
Morning throws another wave of the sky’s character down upon us. We crawl out of the tent into air that is sharp and clear and while our little valley world is still cold with shadow, above us a hopeful sky hints of a huge sun. Fire as always is our first priority. Without its modest flames the morning doesn’t really begin. My ever-present supply of tea plus some boiled eggs, and pistachios make up our little breakfast in the heights. Nearby to us a smooth black coating of ice has now covered the lake’s previously open patch of water. Snow has softened the rugged lines of the valley and through sleep-swollen eyes it looks as if perfection landed sometime overnight upon the land. What stuns is the utter stillness of the place. No birds, no sounds, no smells. It is a kind of clinical magnificence where nothing beyond cold reigns, and visible life forms have taken leave of the place.
Fred tells Fik and I, that his left foot has been feeling numb and frozen now for a day-and-a half, and while worried he has his usual nasty humour which is reassuring.
To the distant south through the clear cold air, Gold Pass sits resting on high, beckoning. Fred and Fik will not attempt the pass, preferring instead to explore the surrounding basin and its nooks. Fik’s beard seem to have grown impossibly overnight, leaving him looking like someone else from the man who slept so soundly. Fik is a quiet man who is tough enough to still be visibly awed by the stunning world around us and wise enough to stay silent about. I’d always reveled in the mountains’ abilities to silence the tongue – whether by exhaustion or sheer power – and these moments could feed every possible need of the body and mind.
Our tent is a brittle piece of brown fabric that we leave behind. I tread south heading up upon fields of moraine. Higher up white crust takes over the duties of lining the rock and earth. Ascending ever higher my own sightline opens up and heat from a rampant sun starts to pound into my shoulders. The pass’s width opens up as well, appearing broader than its distant view hinted at. The force of the sun is annihilating the snow lower down around our camp but up here the hard-packed snow and ice resist with more will.
Through this narrowing bowl-shaped valley caravans passed led by savvy traders to cut their times reaching the ancient Tibetan kingdom of Jo (present-day Deqin) in northwestern Yunnan. From Jo caravans would then thrust westward deeper, onto the great Himalayan trading towns of Lhasa, Kathmandu, and Gangtok. For now though it simply rests (perhaps as it should) under the sky with not a wisp of anything to disturb its great meditations. Nonetheless I plod on, happy to gently intrude and pay respects, and to plod off again. It is another lesser known strand of the Tea Horse Road; a piece within the greater weave of one of the world’s great unsung trade routes. These little hidden strands are vital – but fast disappearing - details that provide a greater context for the physical dimension of travelling through the high altitudes.
Wind, sound, and all intrusions have withdrawn from the space I tread up through. It is as though the entire area is preparing for the next wave of elements from the sky. To the west on my right a slow moving body of snow powers its way to a stop on the slope. Not so much an avalanche as a gravitational migration of white.
When I reach the pass hovering above 4,000 metres, nothing has changed other than a vista and vantage point that allows me to float above a world that only an hour before was a world above me. I’ve no interest to see over the pass. I only want to take ‘it’ in and to see what remains of the ancient conduit, to its to enjoy it and perhaps to pay a little tribute to it.
After twenty minutes sitting upon the pass in the snow, a soft nudge of wind pushes itself onto the pass buzzing slightly and the sky subtly changes. A billowing cloud appears from the west creating a shadow upon the pass, that isn’t gold at all, but rather white.