Monday, August 10, 2009

Ryan Pyle Blog: MeiliXue Mountain Trek on Resolve


A few months back I completed a grueling trek around a holy mountain in Southeastern Tibet. The work is unpublished which is why I've only left a teaser image from the series. No slide show at the moment. But a few week back this blog was published on the Livebooks Resolve Blog. I am now a regular contributor to the Livebooks Resolve Blog and I'll try to make everyone aware of new postings. Read the blog below.
A Short Walk in to Tibet
By: Ryan Pyle

For years I’ve been hiking in China, and just about anytime I can squeeze out a few free days I jump on a plane to Sichuan or Yunnan province, in Southwest China, for a bit of nature. I always shoot during my trips and have grown adept at both executing these treks and managing to come back with images that have the potential to become a published story. In other words I’m well versed in extreme altitude, extreme weather, and cameras.

So it was with utter delight that I took an assignment in June to document the religious mountain of Meilixue in Southeastern Tibet. The “holy mountain” is scared to Tibetan Buddhists and is home to a kora or “holy trek” that is ranked China’s most difficult trek by the China Mountaineering Association. Pilgrims make the trek around the holy mountain, a complete circumnavigation, and the process is said to cleanse the soul. Sitting in my apartment in Shanghai, it was difficult to contemplate a ten-day, 300-kilometer trek through Tibet. A series of questions began running through my mind: How was I supposed to walk 12 hours a day and still make strong images? Was there a road? Was there mobile phone access? Was there electricity?

My first decision was to shoot film -- digital just wasn't going to cut it for this trip. Not only would electricity be scarce, but extreme temperature fluctuations would further drain the batteries and potentially just be too tough for my Canon 5D MII’s. So I dusted off my Canon 1Ns and bought 200 rolls of Fuji Provia. Luckily I already had all the gear, clothes, and footwear needed to attempt such a journey, so I didn’t have to scramble at the last minute. Excitement was beginning to sink in.

A few days later, fear began to sink in, too. When I began my research in earnest, I was disturbed by how little information existed about this trek, including crucial details: the length of the trek, it’s difficulty, and possible villages along the route. I was able to dig up two resources: a China Trekking site compiled by a person who had obviously never trekked in his/her entire life and a travel website built by two German hikers who had done the trek about 3-4 years earlier.

The Germans had charted the kora (pilgrimage) as being somewhere in the region of 300 km (185 miles), meaning that I needed to cover roughly 15 to 20 miles a day to complete the trek in a reasonable amount of time. That meant I probably needed to sleep in a tent every night, cook my own food, walk for eight-to-ten hours a day -- at altitude -- while stopping as often as possible to document and record the journey. This was starting to sound like mission impossible. Did I mention that each day was a vertical assent or descent? And that there are three passes over 4,500 meters (15,000 feet)?

With gear sorted, and research done, I still needed to find a local guide. You never go wondering into Tibet without a Tibetan. And you never go climbing around on a mountain without someone who has been on that mountain since they were ten years old. In this part of the world, people die on the mountains -- the only safety you can count on is experience. Finding a guide proved to be difficult, and in the end I decided that I would find the right person in the village where I would start my journey. That was a potentially risky move, but like everywhere in the world, you can usually make things happen once you are on the ground. Half the time –- no matter how well organized you are –- everything changes once you are on location anyways.

My flight to Zhongdian, now named Shangri-la, was easy enough. Zhongdian is the first town on the Tibetan plateau in China’s Southwestern Yunnan province. I decided to fly in and rest there for two days; at 3,200 meters (10,500 feet) it would be an ideal place to acclimatize before making more aggressive moves into the mountains. Taking the time to acclimatize in this part of the world is as essential as remembering to bring film for your camera. Without spending the first day or two resting, you are setting yourself up for attitude sickness and possibly worse.

From there, getting to the mountains was easy enough and as the initial adrenaline rush gave way to reality, the trek revealed itself to be the most visually beautiful, emotionally rewarding, and physically and mentally challenging experience of my life. And all that was crammed into just nine days.

Without giving away too of a story that is not yet published, I can say that the Germans were wrong in their calculations -- the trek is around 400km (250 miles), when taking into account the switch backs and detours. That made for about thirty miles a day. My writing partner and I completed the journey in nine days and suffered some of the most extreme weather conditions I’ve witnessed in my decade of traveling in the region. We were rained on, snowed on, hailed on. On the last day, it was 25C (77F) when we woke up and -20C (-4F) just seven hours later, at 4,900 meters, with wind strong enough to knock you off your feet. I lost about twenty pounds in the process and gained a completely new respect for our Tibetan guides who floated effortlessly over high passes and across windy plateaus.

As far as the gear was concerned, the Northface tent, sleeping bags and jackets performed wonderfully, especially with violent temperature fluctuations. The Canon 1Ns held up beautifully in rain, snow, and sleet. The Fuji Provia was, as always, the right color film for the job. And after walking up and down mountains for ten hours a day in the remote Himalaya’s, I feel as though I could face down Michael Phelps, on dry land at least.

Ryan Pyle

No comments:

Post a Comment


This is Ryan Pyle. I appreciate you adding a comment to my blog and I hope that this space has offered you something useful and interesting. I look forward to staying in touch and I'm glad you took the time to comment.

Ryan Pyle