Day 2, kora around Mount Gongga, Daxue Shan mountain range west of Sichuan.
We traced the river up this morning and found autumn withering in the shadow of winter.Overnight, icy halos had begun to crystallize around river boulders, forming a thin crust above the glassy water. Yesterday, trees bloomed orange amongst forests of green pines, their golden locks fluttered with the gentle breeze. Today, the world is frozen, drenched in white, bleached of life. A blizzard had swept across the valley, and we were caught in its vortex.
It began at one. First a few drops of ice touched the tip of my nose. Soon, a pale cloud descended upon us, carrying with it a flurry of snow. Then, like a symphony reaching crescendo, overflowed with emotion and wonder. It twirled and danced. Like a conductor in trance who grasped the wind in his left fist and held the snow with his right, he pushed and pulled, spinning furiously like a top. Like a dancer possessed, she huffed and puffed, swimming between chaos and harmony. Sometimes, the storm would suddenly become calm and quiet, her silver hair would settle gently around her shoulders like a smoky scarf, until, without warning, the ground quaked and tossed her naked into the freezing air. Her slender body arched back in a semicircle, she reached out and took flight, rode the wind through the valley, and shattered into a million icy petals in our faces.
I dared not close my eyes. The wind cut my face. Tears rolled down my cheeks. I tightened my hood and stared at the hooves trotting along the muddy trail. The red cap of our mountain guide flickered like a red sail caught in a raging tempest.
I crane my neck at the blue sky and remember my prayer. The storm had vanished with the last light. As we climb, even the ferns disappear under the harsh conditions of high altitude. What life remains is hidden below a fluffy white blanket that adorns the mountains eternal.
Caravans pass us, men lead their horses towards Kangding, from where we came. We nod in acknowledgement of each other’s existence and somehow find reassurance in our brief encounter. Our line is stretched long. We are a string of souls, each a tiny flame, witnessed by an audience of gods. They breathe softly on our necks.
We were only 4 and 4 horses when we started, now we are 11 and 12 horses. The storm had forced us to make camp at a lower elevation, 2 miles short of our objective for the first trekking day. There, we met the only other humans in the mountain. Now we are bound by instinct and share our frailty. I drift at the end of the line and remember the faces of my new companions. First comes the cantonese "princes" who wobbled about on their horses, bloated with pride and confidence. Behind them is a pack on foot, an odd fellowship of a bus conductor from Guangxi, an amateur mountain guide (who soon became a farmer) from Hebei, a yoga teacher, a man with small eyes and a rapidly receding hairline who sold fruit-flavored face masks online, and a young businessman who sought to cleanse himself of sins in the land of the pure. Then comes a lady and the only one persistent enough to clean herself twice a day, and a thin man, who spoke very little, ate very fast, and who at this moment, carried my lunch in our day pack. My stomach growls, but he is way ahead. I shrug off the disappointment and catch my breath.
I am an ant, I repeat to myself, marching in sets of 20 steps. My body grumbles in protest. I shall break in between every set, I find comfort in a lie. I know that at the end of every 20 is another 20. This is how I will reach the pass.
I was sleepless last night. The coffee was potent. Someone had discovered that instant stuff in his pack. So as the last ray of light vanished from the horizon and the final golden peak succumbed to purple and black, we huddled around a small fire and sipped sugared coffee.
Tiny flakes of snow drifted into our cups. I watched the black pool swallow them one by one. The fire crackled; tongues of orange and black danced on our skin. I remember the smoke that filled my nostrils and the searing heat on my palms. I prayed for clear skies to a starless night. We all did. Another storm would close the mountain pass, with snows deep enough to swallow a horse to its belly. I could not accept ending this trek on its second day.
Every step brings me to the verge of defeat, but with every breath, I find the courage to take another. A wall of snow looms ahead, the jagged spine of a slumbering beast. This is our ordeal.
The pass is marked by a single string of flags, so tiny they flickered like candlelight between the sun and the pale glow of the white earth. Some of our companions have reached it. One man stood on top, his back against the sun, a silhouette sculpted with bronze, unmoving and majestic. I walk to meet him.
The approach becomes steeper, reaching a 45-degree incline. I reduce my pace to sets of 10 and take quick, loud breaths, matching the movement of my legs and the counting in my head. “Andy, you are okay.” The words of my boxing coach echoes in my head. My breathing smooths and I am nudged forward step by step.
My eyes cross the ridge. Fleets of clouds race above me in a sprawling blue ocean. I press my palm on the black earth and lift myself onto the pass.
I push to straighten my knees. I stand on the knife’s edge. Below the clouds, mountains drenched in light and shadow roll likes waves into the horizon. A thin black line snakes down, into the deep heart of the sea.
A deep breath and a step. I cross the pass and begin my descent.
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