Wilderness of Ice
On the edge of the Tibetan Plateau, this remotest and wildest valley of the Siguniang Sanctuary, gives prominence to the mountains.
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By Kevin McFarland
Visited October 2017
The Haizi Valley, the remotest and wildest gorge of the Siguniang Sanctuary, proved that even the explored can be unexplored. On the edge of the Tibetan Plateau in a region of cultural variety, the mountains take prominence here. The locals revere them, the pandas abide in them, and international organizations have protected them. These are the Four Sisters Mountains of Amdo Tibet, know locally as Siguniangshan.
The day prior to this trek we explored the majestic Changping Valley, directly adjacent to Haizi Valley, juxtaposed by the Four Sisters Mountains. Changping Valley was a haven of unspoiled forests with personal views of the mountains, further inspired with fresh snowfall to make an ethereal atmosphere. Starting at the crack of dawn the next day, we looked outside to see a blanket of pure white all around us. This day of exploring the remoter Haizi Valley, coupled with a snowy blanket, promised the unexpected. Despite our legs feeling slow from the 30 kilometer hike the day before, our minds were excited as if experiencing a first snowy day on Christmas morning. From where our guesthouse was located to the start of the trail required a curving walk through the two villages of Siguniangshan - Changping and Rilong Villages. We, in all likeliness, chose the climb up the side of the mountain to bypass at least a couple of kilometers of trail. We joined forces with a solo hiker we met the day before, and we ascended the side of the mountain with relative ease, save for a slight miscalulation of the safest part to climb it.
Once we made it up the ridge, and essentially on the trail, we saw nothing but snow-covered wilderness. A group of yaks greeted us, only to be startled and move along. The Four Sisters equally greeted us, with a more welcoming gift of clear skies. For a brief moment that stopped us in our tracks, we stared into the expanse of the famous peaks, each ascending higher until their crescendo of the 'Big Sister' at 20,505 feet. For the first time, we saw the mountain sanctuary of Siguniang in its full glory. We rejoiced, laughed, shot photos, and stared at it's might, only for the Sisters to return to their selfish ways. That moment vanquished as the clouds rolled back, but we were grateful we greeted those shy sisters for that briefest of time.
Up on the ridge, I knew the route led us north through the valley, but we saw no trails and an open expanse of snow, so we just set off to see where we will be led. In reality, we chose to just follow the yaks - they call this land their home after all. We once again came face to face with the yaks - this time us being the greeter. We noticed some of the yaks dug through the snow to the earth for a sleeping pad - others just tolerated the snow perhaps because of laziness. The beauty around us, from a herd of yaks, towering peaks in all directions, and ancient religious structures of Tibetan Buddhism, overwhelmed. Sichuan, or Aba for that matter, in all its diversity, is a joy to experience.
As we trudged along through the snow, we came upon a trash can, our first sign we were on the right track. Several kilometers pass on by and we cross mini forests, precipitous ridges, trickling streams of snow melt, and open meadows. The sun has awoken for several hours, rising the temperature past the freezing point. Consequently, the snow slowly melted and the trail showed flashes of appearance. When we came upon a mountaineering lodge, a dog and several horses greeted us. By the end of the day, these horses walked back and forth on the trail, creating a muddy, almost unwalkable mess - for now though, the trail was still walkable. We had a destination in mind - the Dahaizi Lake - or Big Alpine Lake. Walking to the lake and back requires a long day, but in this beauty and solitude, trudging on and on never ceases to tire.
Nearing 1 pm - 7 hours after departure - the lake unfolded before our eyes. We have seen more beautiful and breathtaking lakes in our travels for sure, but the lake gave a lovely endpoint to this otherworldly trek. We ate lunch in an old stone house, resting our legs as a long walk back beckoned. Trekking through the Haizi Valley gave a glimpse of the uncharted beauty of Western China. For those travelers long ago to witness exceeding beauty for the first time - names like John Muir, Joseph Rock, and Eric Shipton come to mind - the excitement of discovery must have been overwhelming. In a day of age with consistency and monotony, exploring even charted destinations evokes that sense of awe and discovery in every person.
In this wilderness of ice - and then very slippery mud - we created our own sense of discovery, a memory that can never be taken away.