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The Path to Shangri-La: Eastern Tibet’s Unclimbed Peaks

Climb hiker-friendly 16,000-foot summits--and maybe nab a first ascent--on a shoestring budget, plus get an unchaperoned glimpse of Tibetan culture.

We got a late start the following day, and with loaded packs hiked up Ya La pass again and dropped down into a new watershed. We only met one person along the way, a Tibetan yak herder on a pony so short the man’s legs almost touched the ground. He looked surprised to see us, but spurred his stunted white steed right by without a word.

Joel tried to figure out where we were from our hand-drawn map, but ultimately abandoned the effort. We simply followed the trail downhill. After four hours of hard hiking, we came upon a vast condo complex, unfinished and abandoned. It was snowing again, and I was starting to limp from blisters. Joel was starving. Having expected to find Tibetan camps along the way—yak butter tea, yak meat, yak yogurt—we’d only brought three days’ worth of food, all of which was gone. We kept walking. Near dusk, with snow falling so densely we could hardly see, we reached a highway. We didn’t know where it led, but it didn’t matter. Within seconds, three Tibetans on two small motorcycles roared up and offered us a ride. Nothing short of a miracle. Joel climbed onto the motorbike with just a driver, his pack hanging out over the rear wheel. I squeezed in between the two men on the other motorcycle, the man behind me obligingly hanging my heavy backpack on his shoulders. And we were off. Tibetans are cowboys by nature and upbringing. They’re fast and fearless riders. In the past decade, they’ve exchanged horses for motorcycles, and are just as wild on their motorized mounts. At first, it seems they’re reckless, but they know exactly what they’re doing. We flew through the snowstorm, through the mountains, through the mud. In the next few days we would visit more monasteries and mountains before shooting back to Chengdu for our flight home—but for thrill-a-minute adventure, nothing, nothing at all, would compare to this ride. I was reminded of why we seek adventure in far-flung countries in the first place. After all, you can find plenty of peaks worth climbing in North America. But your maps will be too good. You won’t dance with Buddhist monks on the way up. And on the way home, the journey won’t be as exciting as the climb itself.

Zooming along side by side, I saw that Joel couldn’t stop grinning. His driver was whooping and kicking his motorcycle as if we were in a horse race. My driver, the long sleeves of his Tibetan chuba curled over the handlebars, gunned his engine.

Snowflakes were shooting at us like a spray of tiny white parachutes. Then my motorcycle driver began to sing in a loud, high-pitched voice. The Tibetan behind me joined him and together they crooned a sweet, melancholy song. I listened to the duet in stereo, the words unknown but the meaning clear. They sang with full-throated passion, for themselves, for me, and for the joy of being free in the mountains.

Mark Jenkins wrote about surviving repeated attempts on Nyambo Konka in the October issue (backpacker.com/risk).

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