Adventure Blog China expedition Featured Golok kyle obermann Nature & Culture Nyenpo Yurtse Tibet Trail Trekking Whistling Arrow

Stop and smell the flowers

A quest for a lake and lilac flowers takes a pair of adventurers into the coronary heart of the sacred peaks of Golok in japanese Tibet.

Story by Adrian Bottomley
Images by Kyle Obermann & Adrian Bottomley

“No special lake,” repeated Kelsang, our horseman, his bloodshot eyes holding my bemused gaze. “But a lake doesn’t just disappear – it’s called Fox Call Lake, and it’s right here on Google Earth,” I stated, pointing at my map and questioning what sound a fox truly makes. I additionally recalled another disappearing act the previous afternoon, when Kelsang had vanished into the thin mountain air, together with all our gear, by inexplicably selecting to make camp behind a distant bluff that had obscured him from view. I watched him slowly dismount, flashing his gold-toothed smile, and lie down on the carpet of wildflowers to mild a cigarette. Clearly, neither he, nor the sacred peaks of Golok, have been about to reveal their mysteries in a rush.

For numerous years, l had heard intriguing studies of a spectacular, unexplored mountain vary in western China, straddling the border of present-day Sichuan and Qinghai. Recognized in Tibetan as Nyenpo Yurtse, after its highest peak (5,369m), the labyrinthine range was steeped in the mythology of the Golok tribes of japanese Tibet. In line with some students, it was believed to be the birthplace of the legendary Gesar of Ling (a kind of Tibetan King Arthur and hero of the world’s last dwelling epic). The sacred peaks have been additionally seemingly worshipped as the topographical illustration of a secret mandala associated with the most necessary meditational deity in Tibetan Buddhism, Chakrasamavara.

Lamas Tashi and Gengga depart no stone unturned as they survey the Golok vary, the place wildflowers typically carpet the solution to the sacred peaks.

By July 2017, plans for an exploratory expedition to those fabled mountains had lastly coalesced and I travelled four days throughout Yunnan and Sichuan to satisfy up with my fellow explorer, and avid conservationist, Kyle Obermann, in Baimacun, a dusty, one road town northeast of the divine peaks. The lofty purpose of the expedition was to aim the first traverse of the complete range, a distance of roughly 40km. First though, we had more mundane matters to handle, corresponding to how a lot meals we would wish for our estimated eight days of trekking, and where to find a horseman and a horse to carry our heavier gear.

In the Tibetan creation fantasy, Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, incarnated himself as a monkey and mated with an ogress. In any negotiations, even Tibetans acknowledge that it’s their latter, fiendish inheritance that involves the fore. Having haggled for horses many occasions before, it’s nonetheless a painstaking process that always includes sitting by means of lengthy durations of feigned indifference and awkward silences. Any horseman value his salt will attempt and engineer a minimum journey cost at the most inflated fee potential, as opposed to a every day fee, in the hope of dashing you thru your planned schedule. There’s additionally little probability they may honour the unique settlement. When out in the wilds, the temptation for artistic extortion is often too tempting to move up, however we had a tentative deal a minimum of, including provisions of a sackful of potatoes, tsampa (roasted barley flour) and dried yak meat. With that to look ahead to, we sat down for our last proper meal earlier than heading off into the mountains.

Our dinner companions have been two affable Tibetan lamas referred to as Tashi and Gengga.

The surreal finials of the Golok mountains made it straightforward to think about the awe that have to be felt by pious travellers making this journey as a pilgrimmage.

Self-taught botanists, that they had quite remarkably compiled an in depth variety research of Nyenpo Yurtse over the previous eight years. Collaborating with nomadic households to determine uncommon and protected species, that they had meticulously documented over 700 styles of crops and flowers, including one extraordinarily uncommon, endemic lilac poppy; almost 200 birds, including the endangered Black-necked Crane and Tibetan Bunting; and roughly 40 snow leopards. Their goal on this was to encourage the nomads to value the variety discovered in their land. Keen to assist not directly, but figuring out how troublesome it’s to photograph birds and, properly aware of the elusiveness of the fabled huge cat, I took the safer choice and zoomed in on the poppy.

We set off the subsequent morning from Black Pig Lake, following a meandering stream up by means of a phenomenal glacial valley, framed by hills coated with an overnight dusting of snow. The valley flooring was yellow with wildflowers and, as we climbed larger, we began to spot tell-tale patches of purple and then purple. Meconopsis punicea, a blood-red poppy also referred to as ‘Sichuan Silk’, is held to be considered one of the most lovely flowers in the world, and while its main vary is described as being a couple of hundred kilometres to the east, right here it was flowering extravagantly.

We snapped a number of pictures and moved on, beneath strict monastic directions to remain laser-focused on lilac. Earlier, to our delight, Tashi and Gengga had requested us, to assist map the territory of Meconopsis barbiseta, a poppy that’s discovered nowhere else on earth. Purple, pendant-shaped and sometimes with a single flower gently hanging from a tall, slightly bushy stem, we had shortly encountered the endemic poppies, and excitedly took the first of many floral GPS fixes, before making camp.

Making an attempt to sleep above 4,000m isn’t simple. There are various impediments to uninterrupted slumber including an enhanced urge to pee because of the Diamox (normal problem for signs of altitude sickness). On this specific moonlit evening, it was the shut attention of numerous yaks that did the trick, seemingly hell-bent on munching each blade of grass round the circumference of my tent, and sounding like a herd of untamed hogs. I awoke cold and bleary eyed, startled by a type of fleeting, but crazily vivid goals acquainted to all high-altitude travellers.

I instantly set about looking for the coffee. Nonetheless visibly shaking, Kelsang kindly provided me his traditional maroon overcoat, with its comically long sleeves, and immediately started laughing as he tied the yellow sash round my hips. I might see his point. While they seemed wildly chic on a Tibetan, I seemed like I was sporting Liberace’s dressing robe!

Later that morning we got here throughout the first of the bemou hunters. The native nomads scour the ground for this prized medicinal herb, first finding its small smoke-coloured flower shaped like a lampshade, then digging up its marble-sized bulb. The white bulb is dried and administered to treat coughs and loosen phlegm. My chest was completely fantastic, but when provided a pair, curiosity obtained the better of me and I chewed and swallowed the bitter bulbs. Regardless of subsequent in depth research, I still do not know as to its English identify, but I can report that bemou can also be extremely effective at loosening the bowels.

That afternoon, after crossing a wild and spectacular move, we approached the ‘East Gate’, guarding access to the shark-toothed peaks that lay at the heart of Nyenpo Yurtse. Beforehand, Tashi and Gengga had explained learn how to most Tibetans natural landscapes are imbued with religious energy, and that in certain revered locations, deities are believed to reside in pure types. Specifically, in Nyenpo Yurtse, the vary’s internal sanctum is considered the abode of Chakrasamavara, centred around a lake of such readability that superior tantric practitioners have been capable of see their future path reflected in
its waters.

The concentric rings of mandalas shield the central deity, each requiring a heightened degree of purity and devotion with a purpose to move. Our topographical mandala appeared no totally different and so we entered from the east as belief dictates, tying two blue khatas (traditional ceremonial scarves) round the stupa that marked the spot and muttering a couple of mantras underneath our breath. A marmot peeked out of his burrow as we handed by way of the gate, seemingly unconvinced by our acts of piety.

As we trekked deeper into the mountains, the beauty intensified. There were no basic, hyper-prominent peaks to talk of, however moderately spectacular, labyrinthine ridges of serrated rock that towered above snaking valleys adorned with an extravagant mosaic of multi-coloured lakes. The guts of the vary lay over a remaining high cross and, so too we hoped, did the internal ‘lake’ marked on our map.

Tibetan ladies displaying kaleidescopic color and effortless stylish.

But these concentric limitations have been testing our resolve. Earlier than the prime of the rocky cross, we sat right down to admire and report another lilac poppy, this time outdoors of its recognized vary, and have been dive-bombed by two big bearded vultures who swooped out of the leaden sky. On the tough descent over giant boulders, Kyle slipped and badly twisted his ankle. And that night time, after we camped where Kelsang had dismounted, denying all existence of the ‘lake’, we have been terrorised by a wild Tibetan mastiff which, if it weren’t for the proven fact that he was on the other aspect of a stream, would certainly have elevated his horrific hole barking to all-out attack. I spent one other sleepless night time, gripping my trekking pole, desperately hoping he wouldn’t overcome his worry of water.

The subsequent morning, a younger lama wearing purple robes, rode up to our tents and, when asked the place he had come from, replied in impeccable Chinese language, “The pilgrimage lake, it’s just at the top of that valley”. I looked at Kelsang hesitantly. “Lake, no lake,” he stated nonchalantly shrugging his shoulders and once again lay right down to smoke. We have been each utterly foxed.

Climbing up via rhododendron bushes, my thoughts flew in all instructions making an attempt to make sense of it. Kyle hobbled on gamely behind, his ankle still swollen from the previous day’s fall. And then there it was. A lake, its aquamarine waters rippling in the breeze that blew up the valley to also flutter the prayer flags adorning a chalk-white stupa that marked the headwaters. I half-imagined massive cat royalty, flicking luxuriously long tails, gazing down at us from their snowy abode, as the candy smell of burning juniper wafted from a nearby offering that should have been lit by the young lama.

Above: Native monks make an enthusiastic
offering to the mountain gods.
Right: In the meantime, yaks cool themselves in the karmic, crystal-clear waters of ‘Fox Call Lake’.

A pervasive peace reigned over a scene so extraordinary that it seemed completely potential that it had impressed legends. Like that of Gesar of Ling: a warrior born of a union of a father who was both sky god and sacred mountain, and a mother who was the goddess of water. I felt a poignant urge to only sit by the water and mirror. The impulse to discover was gone for now, my restlessness stilled. Kyle was equally quiescent, transfixed by extra than just his heavily bandaged ankle.

There have been no profound karmic revelations to be seen, nor for that matter, any foxes to be heard. There was just awe-inspiring wilderness and vast open area, the sort that calls for you experience it with all of your being, and allows for a more pure frame of mind to emerge.

Maybe Kelsang hadn’t needed to encourage us to return to this religious place. Or maybe his level was more delicate: that there was nothing transformational about the lake. ‘Lake’ or ‘no lake’ was immaterial. Both method the place felt charged, its magnificence and tranquility all the more profound for the journey to succeed in it; learning to treasure the poppies alongside the approach. AA


When to go

Nyenpo Yurste has a reasonably extreme local weather. Even in summer time, temperatures can drop under freezing at night time. Additionally it is comparatively wet. One of the best time to visit, notably to expertise the wildflowers in full bloom, is from mid-June to late July. Winters are too chilly to enterprise out into the mountains – even for hardy Tibetans.

How you can get there

The primary gateway is Chengdu, with direct flights from most regional capitals. From there, the fastest method overland is by way of Aba which takes the greatest part of two days. Smart acclimatisation can also be required with even valley floors in Nyenpo Yurtse sometimes around four,000m. There isn’t any requirement for a Tibetan allow along with the traditional China visa.

Additional info

Full exploration of Nyenpo Yurtse, even for more intrepid and absolutely outfitted trekkers, will require a specialist expedition company, notably if you want to trek off the crushed monitor and keep away from the trickle of domestic vacationers that visit the designated nationwide park space in the far northwestern corner of the vary.


In July 2018, Whistling Arrow, a specialist Hong Kong-based adventure operator might be main a second business expedition back to these sacred peaks, to be headed by the writer, Adrian Bottomley, and photographer, Kyle Obermann.

For more info, take a look at

First revealed in Nov/Dec 2017 problem.