Zev Ai, hailing from Chicago, likes mangoes and making faces at dogs. When he's not doing translation work he's usually freezing his bits off up in the mountains or chilling on some beach.
Following adventurer Joseph Rock's trekking trails often leads to fantastic views of stunning mountains, deep valleys, vast swaths of primeval forest as old as the earth itself, and hidden cultures of the people who live in these remote places. The Austrian-American Rock was the explorer who made Shangri-La famous wish his photos and essays published in the National Geographic magazines in the 1920's and 30's.
The Muli-Yading thru-hike is considered the "classic" Rock trek that adventure junkies challenge themselves with. It's a grueling 4-6 day hike, starting at an altitude of 2300m in dense and lush forest, that follows rivers of glacial waters up to barren mountain ridges of snow-capped mountains, crossing over half a dozen 4400-4700m high mountain passes, ending at the three peaks of the Yading scenic area. Rain, snow, heavy fog, altitude sickness, and sun-burning sunlight are all to be expected. While strong legs certainly help, the most important trait to have is a strong will.
Simply getting to the trailhead is an adventure in itself. The first couple of days are spent in buses. Getting from Chengdu to Xichang is fairly straightforward - about 10-hour sleeper train. Then, from the Xichang train station, a quick bus or taxi ride to the tourist transport station. Multiple buses leave for Muli each morning around 8am, rolling out after each fills up. This leg takes between 8-10 hours.
Muli is an interesting mountain town with a huge drinking culture. There is a vegetable market close to its bus terminal where you can stock up on provisions, including yak meat and butter. A bit further is a supermarket with all of your favorite processed and plastic-wrapped foods. Lodgings are cheap, basic, and plentiful. After months stuck looking at the gray skies and buildings of the big city, bumping into numbed people, the colors of nature and the expressions of happy people are a good sight for sore eyes. From Muli, there is a single bus that leaves for the hydroelectric plant at Shuiluo in the morning, another 10-12 hours over less perfect roads, where the views become more spectacular, and the forests start to feel old. Finally, from Shuiluo, hire a jeep to either Dulu Village or to the trailhead (1-1.5 hours, 400-600 RMB).
The start of the trail follows a raging glacial river upstream, a cascading force of water with a striking mineral blue color, through thick forests along a steep and narrow path. Along the way are river crossings with bridges that are sometimes just a felled tree suspended over the waters. As someone who has never been strong with balance, after seeing other hikers scramble over such a "bridge", I still took off my shoes to cross the icy waters barefoot. As I was putting my shoes on, a pack of horses started crossing, splashing me in all of the places that weren't wet before.
The designated campsites are large and relatively flat along the way, but you don't necessarily have to sleep there. They are the yak grazing pastures of herders who make their home here. At night, the smell of fresh piles of horse and cow manure are blown away by the crisp air, and you can fall asleep to the dinging of horse bells that wander about at night. The trail is well trodden, so I won't go into too much detail - pictures are better. Suffice to say, there's a completely different landscape and weather pattern over each mountain pass, from old forests, bright grassy clearings, the bluest rivers feeding crystal clear lakes, scree slopes in barren windswept valleys, and of course, my favorite, majestic snow mountains. In the springtime, the hillsides are covered with flowers. In the autumn and winter, the leaves change into fiery yellows and reds, making the whole mountain seem aflame.
The stars are magnificent when they peek out between the clouds. The moon is so bright that it hurts to look at. All is quiet except for the sound of your own breath, of trickling water and the wind as it whistles through rocky cracks and rushes past trees. The impatient security guards, angry bosses, aggressive salesmen, endless sounds of construction, work deadlines, cell phone notifications…none of those exist... Here, with no distractions, the mind at first races to occupy itself. But after a while, the world becomes silent and still, and there's nothing left that can disturb the boundless peace that has enveloped your heart.
After finishing the trek, getting out is easy, albeit expensive - follow the trail from the final pass downhill until you hit the Yading Scenic Area. There's a ticket office (at 4300m!) with workers who will hound anyone with a large backpack to buy tickets, which you'll need to get to Daocheng. From Daocheng, there are buses that leave for most of western Sichuan, as well as back to Chengdu, all through more incredible landscapes dotted with Tibetan settlements.
Excerpted from HELLO Chengdu December Issue
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