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  • Jeff Fuchs

Memory of a Memory – The Sacred Lakes in the Heights Part l

*This article will appear in Mandarin on North Face’s adventure website in the coming week as part of our collaboration

A seventy-year-old medicine man, two remote sacred lakes, and a journey

Legends, like the people who carry the memory of them, sometime need revisiting. The legend of the twin sister lakes of Tso Ka Tso Na (White Lake, Black Lake) came from a man who was (and still is) a legend in his own right. Known affectionately as Aniè (uncle) to those both in his Tibetan community near Wujing Township in northwestern Yunnan and beyond, at 70 years old still carries the weight of someone who has both lived and breathed in life with full and fearless breaths.

The face, the being and force that is Aniè

He is riveting in the way that truly authentic people are and his memories are of a time when people took time to communicate with eachother face to face. The first time the almost lyrical Tso Ka Tso Na entered into my ears, I was sitting with Aniè speaking about the ancient trade routes that still trace through the mountains heading to all points of the compass. Aniè has the gaunt good looks of an ageing rock star, and much like the mountains around us, there is little about him beyond the lean basics. Yunnan’s mountains, passes and deep hidden valleys are rife with legends of the Tea Horse Road, and other meandering trade paths that sourced and accessed some of the most remote regions. In fact there seemed no place that wasn’t accessible by way of paths.

Aniè, Ngawa, and Jeffers

In his younger days – and he proudly explains that those days are not so far in the past – Anè would climb into the mountains to source precious high mountain medicines. Using these paths which fearlessly access every cliff and nook in the great heights, he would also reach the sacred lakes which lie “over the great ridges of stone”. Generations of his elders would climb paths to the lakes that lie over two thousand meters higher than their town to ask the lakes and the deities within for help. Aniè then tells me a tale that would stay in my own mind long after our first discussion.

Bullet-proof and a throw-back to the old days of travel by foot, the irresistibly tough Ngawa

He speaks of an ancient tradition that is barely recalled by any but the most elderly; it is a tradition of ascending to two sacred high mountain lakes that are tucked away deep in forests to pray for rain. If the deities regarded the visitors as having a good soul and honest intentions (the legend goes), the deities would open the skies and gift the communities with much needed rain for the suffering crops. The lakes were not easily found, nor were they for the faint of heart. The desolate location of the lakes and this kind of tribute to nature’s powers go beyond any Buddhism or faith of the ‘modern world’; the worship of stone, wood, and water deities go back to a time when animism and nature worship ruled the land. As Aniè tells the story of the lakes and the isolated and long abandoned route to access them, his lined and sun-ravaged face looks to some distant spot in his mind and tells me in a voice that is almost a whisper how much he would give to travel there once again. His wanderlust stirred in me a call to revisit a time and a place of sacred lakes.

Almost a year later that little wish of Aniè’s to travel to the lakes (which had become an almost obsessive wish of mine) is beginning in the present tense. It is early November and winter is tightening its grip on Shangri-La in northwestern Yunnan, where my little loft cracks under the assault of the Himalayan winds.

Before any lakes can be taken in, a world of stone must be passed through

Winds which originate in the west – where the Himalayas lie – are always to be feared, say locals. Much as I have looked forward to the trek itself, there is a kind of reverent expectation of travelling with Aniè and his memories. Typical of the local custom it is difficult to nail down a firm departure date and time. Without warning one day I am called and ‘told’ by Aniè that we will depart “the day after tomorrow”…which is today.

Hitting a high altitude plateau, our route changes from stone, to forests, to a grand expanse of emptiness

A team of three of us – Aniè, myself, and a local iron-man of the mountains, Ngawa, – is bent under the weight of our respective packs as we trudge west from Xiao Zhongdian, south of Shangri-La straight into westerly winds. It is an area which still requires the humble foot to access as the region we are interested in have no routes which any vehicle could ever access.

The crucial time of day for all travellers in these parts, the butter tea break…here within the confines of a summer yak herder’s home.

High above, within the mountains’ grand spaces our route will take us due west…and straight up. Winter mornings here at close to four thousand meters have the ability to carry cold into the bones like few other places. The only option for dealing with it is to move and keep moving. Above us, the brutally blue winter morning sky brings sun but no warmth, showering us in bleak light. The cold singes up into the sinuses with its sharp teeth. Beneath us the earth is frozen solid, and the warm tones of the earth deceive. Snow hasn’t arrived but the cold hits us in the teeth.

Stunning, but not one of our two sacred lakes

Ngawa is dressed as he is almost every day. Leather boots, a woolen suit coat, five layers of vests, shirts, etc, and topped off with a woolen hat above his handsome features. Built wiry and tough, he and I have travelled many routes together and there are few more necessary assets to have in the mountains’ corridors. He is someone who can create a fire out of nothing, forage for food in the most remote location, and is a quietly fearless titan who I suspect could hunt down beasts if we went hungry.

Aniè and Ngawa ascend into a high altitude forest of giant pine

Beside him the loping, and still strong Aniè, who seems to stalk rather than walk upright. He is like an ageing lion who has been given fresh legs, and he insists on leading. Lean, with huge callused hands he has the body of a hunter and he needs no introduction to the rigors of the mountains. I notice too, that he holds some vanity left in him, which I love. He often preens his hair and tugs his long errant beard as if wanting to be presentable for the mountains and his memories.

Aniè takes a break with his variation of a mountain pack….using a simple but brilliant quick release knot system his rice sack was pulled on and off in just seconds

Our packs carry only the absolute necessities as we wish to travel light and fast, though we have no definitive timetable nor schedule. We will take as long as we need to, to find the lakes. There is another reason we carry our own packs: we cannot find any horsemen who will risk the health of their mules at this time of year. With the prospect of ice, leaden temperatures, and little or no grazing any beast of burden would not have a happy journey. Apart from Aniè we haven’t encountered anyone who even remembers the ancient lakes and when they do, they’ve only heard tales of the “lakes above”. We are entirely on our own with only a rough idea of how long we’ll be in the mountains. Elders have spoken of the lakes being “up in the heights” making them seem as though they are otherworldly. Even the yak herds have long since descended down out of the mountains; we be alone with mountains…and Aniè’s memories. Our dietary supplements can be summed up as pork fat, tsampa (barley powder), butter (for the crucial butter tea), bricks of Puerh tea, biscuits, and a few sweets…and to finish it all off, a rather daunting amount of whisky for Aniè, who explains with a wicked smile that he needs it “to stay warm”.

Shacks like these in the high altitudes often provide a respite from the relentless winds

Aniè’s pack isn’t a conventional pack at all but rather an old rice sack that is tied with an old style knot and slung over his shoulders. Everything about him is old style but there is an elegance too, as if from another time. A little over four hours into our walk as the skies become grey and threatening as we push further into the mountains and giant pine trees that make soft sounds in the wind. Eventually the skies clear and more blue pours out of the sky and we realize very slowly, that we are entirely lost.

Aniè listens as Ngawa explains where he thinks our hidden lakes might be


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