National Geographic : 2009 May
- e two-day climb to the pass starts at 7,000 feet, where the Lancang is broad and brown with mud and the hillsides are spiked with cactus---the valley so warm that farmers are growing grapes. Every thousand feet above the river brings a new ecozone: crackling decidu- ous forests, yellow leaves strewn on the trail like brooches; evergreen broad-leaved forests silent as a shadow; temperate coniferous forests with pungent, almost foot-long pine needles webbed in strands of lichen; alpine meadows with green grass kni ng up through snow. Above it all, Mount Kawagebo rises out of the mist like a monster, its summit ominously loaded with cornices of snow hundreds of feet deep. Seventeen Japanese and Chinese climbers died in an avalanche there in 1991. e moun- tain is now closed for climbing, not because of the danger but in deference to its religious sig- ni cance. Kawagebo is one of the most sacred peaks in Tibetan folklore. Every year thousands of Buddhist pilgrims circle the massif on foot on a two-week kora, or circular path, the pur- pose of which is to seek puri cation and thereby ensure a more propitious reincarnation. But times are changing. We can hear one group of pilgrims---all Tibetan youths, singing and giggling---before we see them. ey pass us like a circus troupe. No solemn, somber a air for these kids, a pilgrimage is a big party. One of them is waving a Chinese MP3 player, the volume turned up to a tinny blare. Dropping continuously, the trail becomes so steep it starts to switchback every 20 feet, the path a two-foot-deep trough worn into the so rock. Snow gives way to talus, then to trees, then to dense forest. At an overlook I peek down through a hole in the strands of gray lichen as if into another world. ousands of feet below us, wedged in the crook of a valley beside a steep, old-growth forest, is a tiny square of brilliant green---another vision of Shangri-La. It takes hours, descending hundreds of switchbacks, to reach the enchanted place. A man with a load of wood on his back is waiting. He leads the way beneath a giant walnut tree, down through skittish pigs and oblivious goats, over a stone fence, along a neon barley eld, to a whitewashed, fortress-like Tibetan home. Up a dirt ramp, we pull the leather thong, a little door opens, and we step into the 15th century. A shrunken woman in a red head wrap greets us with both hands, pours two cups of boiling yak butter tea, then disappears. e oor plan is traditional Tibetan: In the center is a large, open-to-the-sky atrium, warm sunlight dropping inside. A wooden railing--- set with planters of various herbs---boxes in the atrium on the main oor, keeping crawl- ing kids from falling to the ground oor, where pigs and chickens live in splendid squalor. Up a hand-hewn ladder is the roof, a at mud sur- face with the atrium cut from the middle. e roof is covered with stores of food and fodder: pine cones piled like pineapples, two varieties of corn, chestnuts spread across a plastic tarp, walnuts on another tarp, three varieties of chil- ies in various stages of drying, green apples in a basket, sacks of rice, slabs of pork air-drying, the carcass of what appears to be a marmot. Grandparents, parents, kids, and an uncle all share the farmhouse. All have their tasks: the scrawny uncle carrying sacks of corn and sorting horseshoes; the young mother, baby on back, tending the stove and preparing dinner; the patriarch slowly writing something in a led- ger in shaky Tibetan script. e sinewy woman who served us tea is the matriarch. She slops the hogs with a kitchen pail, dumping the contents over the railing, then goes outside, where she milks the cows and feeds the horses and churns the yak butter. rough pantomime she explains that she has pain behind her eyes and asks us for medicine. All I have is ibuprofen. At nightfall it is pitch-dark and frosty inside the house. A terri c screeching cuts the stillness. e patriarch is turning a metal crank mounted on the wall, winding up a cable. As he locks the World Heritage designation is meant to preserve environmental diversity, so it's ironic that the charter doesn't protect the rivers themselves.