Amnye Machen means ‘grandfather scar,‘ which refers to the scar on forehead of the God Amnye Machen. The story goes that Nyenbo Yurtse, another mountain God, stole Amnye Machen’s daughter. Then during Amnye Machen’s fight to retrieve his daughter, Nyenbo Yurtse cut Amnye Machen in the center of his forehead.
Today, Amnye Machen and Nyenbo Yurtse stand as two holy mountains in the Golog Prefecture of southern Qinghai province. We embarked on a six-day journey around Amnye Machen’s northeastern side.
Of all the mountains in China we’ve trekked around, Amnye Machen and Yading stand as our two favorites. What makes Amnye Machen so great is the combination of breathtaking sights, the interesting Tibetan communities you meet along the way, and the fact that you can do a vehicle-assisted trek around part of the mountain.
That’s right, vehicle-assisted. Entering Amnye Machen from the northeast through the village Xia Dawu / 下大武, you can follow a dirt road that goes about 1/3 of the way around the mountain. Starting from the northeastern side, the trek will take you to what is known as the first gate, which is typically where many begin a full kora around the entire mountain.
Given our trip’s time constraints, we opted to do a 4-day hike along the dirt road. The first 3 days we hiked along the northern side of Amnye Machen and the last day we hiked out the valley toward Dawu / 大武, also known as Maqin / 玛沁.
We’d never done a vehicle-assisted hike before. Our hardcore side felt like it was a complete cop-out, but the 30-year-old side thought otherwise. Ultimately, having a car with us was great. Though we did feel like utter slackers when we ran into a 70-year-old guy from Virginia who had just completed an 8-day trek around the whole mountain with a Tibetan guide and a horse. So you absolutely could do the hike without a car or with a horse instead. Basically, the car ended up carrying all our heavy gear and would drive up ahead each day to our campsite. Then we’d just hike with some water and rain gear. Being at around 4,000 meters, the hiking was tiring, but nothing crazy. And not having a heavy pack made it all the more enjoyable. We averaged about 6-8 hours of hiking a day, and that was at a snail’s pace, since we’d stop to take pictures, talk with people on the road, and generally chill-out.
Throughout our trip we were accompanied by our driver/guide, Nanjit (though that’s just our own English transliteration of how his name sounds). He was more than a guide and really became our friend over the six days we spent with him. And while we probably exhausted him every morning and night with all our questions, it was fantastic to bond with him. We found Nanjit through Tibetan Connections (see review of at the end of this post).
Day 1 – From Xining to Xia Dawu
We left Xining at around 8am for the 7-hour drive down to Xia Dawu, known as Tawu Zhulma in Tibetan. Most of the drive is on a nice highway. Then by about the 6th hour you hit a small dirt road that takes you to Xia Dawu. As soon as you hit the dirt road you start to see the landscape change, as the mountains around you get bigger, and bigger, and bigger.
We eventually made it to the village, which is a mud pit of a town. The people here live tough lives, making a living serving as a supply stop for the nomads further up the road. We drove around for a while in search of a guesthouse and eventually found a place maintained by a local family.
That night we sat around with the family, drank tea, and played with the family’s adorable daughter. The daughter was perhaps one of the happiest kids we’d ever seen. She was bouncing around the large room only stopping for a couple seconds here and there to let us attempt to braid her hair. Her parents were away working, and you could tell the grandmother doted on the girl – just going to show that a little TLC is all a kid really needs to be happy.
Day 2 – A Humble Temple and a Sunny Amnye Machen
The next morning we woke up to an amazing sky. You can almost never see Amnye Machen from Xia Dawu, but on this day it was so clear that the holy mountain stood out crystal clear. We said goodbye to our hosts and the little girl who we wanted to steal.
We drove a short distance to where we’d actually start the hike. Outside the car window Amnye Machen greeted us. Through a telephoto lens, the haze caused by the heat turned the mountain into what looked like a beautiful oil painting.
Before starting the hike we stopped at a charming little temple called Guri Gompa. Nanjit found us the monk in charge, who was good enough to give us a tour of the grounds. The monk’s father had been the head monk and was apparently a Living Buddha (活佛) as well.
Guri Gompa is home to 55 monks and a 40 year-old-mule. The monk slowly took us around to each temple, showing us all the different thangkas. A particularly popular thangka in this area is one depicting Amnye Machen in the center with all the other nine holy mountain Gods around him. The depiction corresponds to the geographic layout of the nine main peaks around Amnye Machen.
At one point the monk sat down on a rock and took out a super-small spoon from his pocket. It almost looked like the picks we (i.e. Chinese people) use to clean our ears. He then opened a little baggy and scooped out a small mound of brownish crumbs. Then he brought the spoon up to his nose and snorted it. We later asked Nanjit what was going on. He explained that the brownish crumbs were yak dung patties mixed with tobacco. I thought chewing tobacco was nasty, but this takes it to an entirely different level. However, we are finally coming to terms with the idea that yak patties, when dried in the sun, are very clean. At least that’s how the Tibetans view them.
In a room near the top of the hill is a wax statute of the monk’s father. The statute looks like something straight out of Madame Troussards. The workmanship was incredibly lifelike. And, honest-to-God, the nose on the guy’s face is the largest most bulbous nose you’ll ever see. The monk actually told us that in real life his dad’s nose was bigger, but the wax artist took some liberty in making it smaller.
While looking at the eery wax statute (which we didn’t photograph out of respect), we ran into another guy who had the most bad-ass dreadlocks we’d ever seen on an Asian person. Not only were they thick, solid locks, but he wore them coiled around his head like a hat. He was also super friendly and happy to take pictures with us.
Guri Gompa is a nice visit, especially since the monk will tell you all about Amnye Machen and the other holy peaks. Having Nanjit with us was essential and heightened our cultural understanding of the region, as he was translating Tibetan into Mandarin for us. Without Nanjit, we really wouldn’t have been able to communicate with the monk at all.
Just down the road from Guri Gompa is a brand new concrete temple. While it looks quite picturesque with Amnye Machen in the back, it is somewhat overstated in terms of its gaudiness, and really looks almost vulgar next to the wooden authentically aged Guri Gompa.
A large row of prayer flags marked the true starting point of our hike. We filled our water bottles and bid Nanjit farewell (though he’d never be far). We’d catch up with him later at the campsite. This first day was the best weather we had for the entire trip. The latter days were rainy off-and-on, so having a really clear view of the mountains on the first day was a blessing.
The first wildlife we encountered were these little Tibetan nose voles. They looked like adorable little round gerbils. And they were literally everywhere. The ground was constantly in motion with voles darting in and out of holes. Nanjit would later explain that these guys are the most hated pest in the area, because they destroy the grass with their nibbling and tunneling. Indeed, the uneven ground around their holes was surrounded by dead grass. They also breed like rats, which explains their numbers. But for our purposes, they were adorable and we enjoyed watching them dart across the road.
Along the road we were occasionally passed by motorcycles and the odd truck. One truck was scoping out the terrain for a new road. A Chinese guy popped out of the truck and explained to us that in the next 5 years the dirt road would become a paved one. Who knows if that schedule will be met, but if and when a paved road does come to Amnye Machen, beware the tour groups.
Mostly the people passing us were Tibetans bringing supplies to the people looking after the yaks higher up in the grasslands. As usual, they were all extremely friendly. Many of them stopped their bikes to say hi and to shake our hands. They all seemed very pleased to hear that we were circling their holy mountain. And of course we began to pass more and more yaks, horses, and sheep.
On this first day we were roasting. It must have been at least 30 degrees Celsius (90-ish F) under the sun. In the riverbed below horses and yaks were even taking refuge in the water.
As we passed more tents occupied by nomads, we started seeing more and more dogs, who, although domesticated, are still very wild. And in this case, wild means wild. These dogs are amazing watchdogs and they are super aggressive. Now, most of the time the dogs are tied up. But, occasionally they aren’t. So we learned very quickly to carry rocks whenever a barking dog was in earshot.
As you get closer and closer to Amnye Machen and its glaciers, the view in front of you of course gets better, but the view of the valley behind you also becomes equally stunning.
By sunset, we were literally at the foot of a massive glacier on one side with a vast valley on the other. Views of nomads herding sheep home for the night were topped off by falcons stopping by to say hello. This really is an amazing place.
We were then treated to an epic sunset. Though while we were gawking at the beautiful clouds, Nanjit was concerned. He warned us that tomorrow was going to be very different. And he was right.
That evening we were visited by two Tibetans on a motorcycle. They had seen our tent perched next to the road and had something for sale – 冬虫夏草 or 虫草 (chóng cǎo) for short, also known as caterpillar fungus. Basically it’s a ghost moth larvae that has been infected by a fungus. The fungus infects the larvae and explodes out of the head of the larvae. Chinese people then eat the larvae + fungus, which is famed for its medicinal properties.
Chong Cao has been around for decades and we’ve seen it all over China. It’s well known for being super expensive. The guys offering them to us were selling them for 50RMB per worm. If you buy it retail from a fancy department store, expect to pay anywhere from 125,000 to 500,000 RMB per kilogram.
In recent years, because of the massive demand from rich Chinese, Chong Cao harvesting has ramped up, which means there are less of them, which means they are getting even more expensive. It’s hard work to find them, as you’ve got to get up to super high elevation – over 4,000 meters – and battle the hoards of other Tibetans harvesting the same thing. Lucky people who own land with Chong Cao simply rent out the land to others, who in turn hire people to search for Chong Cao.
On this trip we learned more about the Chong Cao ecosystem then we ever planned on. Nanjit himself had harvested them when he was younger, but admits that it’s a young person’s game, as living in a tent for two months at 4,000 meters searching for worms for 10 hours a day among thousands of others is not easy work. The harvesting season is only about two months long, so there is a massive rush of harvesting in the Chong Cao rich areas. And apparently for years scientists have been trying to grow Chong Cao in high elevation labs to no avail.
When you’re in places like Rebkong and Maqin you’ll see Huizu people with scales sitting on the side of the road. These guys are waiting for Tiebtans to sell them Chong Cao. The Huizu then go into the larger cities and sell them to another middleman. About ten middlemen later the Chong Cao arrive in a downtown department store in Beijing. This process of middlemen buying and selling Chong Cao is truly remarkable – and no one could clearly explain to us why it’s necessary. It amazes us that anyone actually buys these things at full retail cost, as the markup is absolutely ridiculous. Somewhat ironically, Tibetans and Huizu do not traditionally eat or believe in the health properties of Chong Cao, despite their close-knit involvement in the market.
In any case, it was a beautiful sunset.
Day 3 – Dark Skies & Furry Friends
The next day, Amnye Machen was like a different world. The sky was dark and it was pouring. The temperature dropped significantly and we were suddenly wearing every article of clothing we’d brought. However, under those four layers was bright red skin from the prior day.
A 6-hour trek at 4,300 meters in the rain was definitely a challenge. But being able to throw our tent, sleeping bags, and food in the car was a godsend. Many parts of the dirt road were washed out, which made for exciting water-crossings. There were however some crossings that would’ve required us to get very wet – which again was why having the car was awesome.
To our right through the clouds, was Amnye Machen and its glaciers. Every now and again when the rain let up we’d get a peek through the mist of the massive mountains at our side.
By the late afternoon the rain had let up a bit and some new wildlife was out and about. We started to see a lot of rabbits and marmots. The marmots were adorable, though a later Google search revealed that apparently these Tibetan marmots are carriers of plague-like viruses and should absolutely be avoided. Too bad, as they looked like something you’d want to cuddle with.
That night we started to get to know Nanjit better. He told us about his daughters and how proud he was of them. He was not educated himself, but has one daughter in college and the rest are college-bound. He also told us about his arranged marriage when he was in his early twenties and how marrying essentially a stranger that he didn’t love was difficult. Though they made it work and today he loves having a big family (but he did admit that taking around tourists, even on overnight camping trips, was a nice break from the chaos of teenage girls at home).
For an uneducated man, now in his forties, Nanjit was very open minded. He just wanted his daughters to be happy and to have options in life. He acknowledged the low status of women in Tibetan culture, but was proud to say that his daughters would be more empowered. He also lamented the fact that young Tibetan men, especially the more wealthy, can tend to be lazy and particularly chauvinistic.
Of course Nanjit also held onto some old ways of thinking. He would under no circumstances allow his daughters to marry a Muslim Huizu, even though he said he had nothing against them. He also didn’t believe that any gay Tibetans existed, simply stating that Tibetans have no gay people.
It was hard to fault Nanjit for these prejudiced opinions, as like so many from his generation and socioeconomic class, he grew up thinking a certain way, which is hard to change now. Moreover, he was a genuinely kind and thoughtful man.
He was also full of fun and hard-to-believe stories. For example, he explained that Tibetans do not eat the marmots because they share a special connection with the animal. According to him, the marmot has no hair under its armpits. The reason is because it gave that part of its body to us, which is why we have hair under our armpits. And we in turn gave our hairless armpits to them. Therefore, we both share each others’ body, which is why we should refrain from eating marmots lest we want to partake in some cannibalism.
That night we had a particularly flat and soft campsite, which after a long day of hiking in the rain made for a particularly restful sleep.
Day 4 – A Temple in the Grasslands
Day four was cloudy again, but the rain had let up a bit. During lunch we hopped into the car and Nanjit drove us to a stupa that apparently a French guy built decades ago. The stupa looked like any other stupa, but at least we got to drive up the mountain and get a view looking down into the valley we’d been hiking.
Near the road to the stupa was a small temple that we spent a bit of time exploring. Again we saw the thangka featuring Amnye Machen in the center surrounded by the other holy mountain Gods. Nanjit helped us read the Tibetan and pointed out the names of the mountains.
As we were leaving the temple we saw a bunch of gigantic birds, which turned out to be Tibetan vultures. Across the stream they’d found a yak carcass and were visibly stuffed from picking at it. On the less scary side, as we continued walking through the Yongri Valley we saw marmot after marmot, which couldn’t help but make us smile each time.
By later afternoon the sky had cleared up and some blue was even shining through. The valley was truly breathtaking and we passed one little home after another. While life up here definitely isn’t easy, at least from afar it does look romantic and makes you want to pack up and move out onto a farm.
Passing all the wild dogs was definitely invigorating, especially when one particularly large and ugly dog calmly walked through the fence that we thought was holding him in and started coming towards us. In an instant the dog started barking ferociously and jumping up and down. With rocks in our hands ready to throw we briskly kept walking, our hearts nearly bursting out of our chests. Tibetan kids would probably have laughed at us, but man, to us these dogs were really scary. I did manage to take a picture of one dog (which looked like it wanted to kill me) that was chained up, all the while praying the chain wouldn’t break.
As we approached the last leg of that day’s hike, we caught some mountain rams in the distance. Superbly camouflaged, these rams made navigating a sheer rock cliff look literally like a walk in the park.
We passed 第一门, which is the entrance to Amnye Machen that most take when doing a full kora around the mountain. Circling the mountain from this side means no vehicle assistance as there is no road. A full kora takes around eight days for non-Tibetans / non-hiking superstars (we were told Tibetans can do it in half the time).
The hills in this area are covered with yaks and tents. Most of the people working here are not the owners though. Many are young men hired to look after the various owners’ yaks. It’s hard work to live up here and herd hundreds of yaks, so it makes sense that those who can afford to outsource the labor do so.
Behind us the clouds parted for a second to reveal Amnye Machen at our backs. That night, the weather began to warm up again and a warm sunset with hot bowls of instant noodles put us to sleep.
Day 5 – Cow Portraits and a Local Gathering
The next morning we woke up to something shaking our tent. We unzipped the front door to find a group young yaks examining our fluorescent green tent. I spent the morning chasing these guys around and creeping up close enough to take some portraits when their mothers weren’t looking. Yaks are very used to people and are generally very friendly. If you walk slowly enough, they’ll let you get right up next to them.
We slowly made our way out of the valley before getting back into the car to drive to Dawu. The valley is extremely green and it’s hard to image that dozens of glaciers are only a couple miles away.
Once back in the car we came upon a group of Tibetans sitting on a hill. We parked and got out to investigate. Nanjit quickly found out that two villages who had a bit of a rivalry had come together with some local monks to listen to what basically amounted to a sermon. The monks spoke about helping your neighbor, settling disputes peacefully, and working together.
Some of the locals noticed us and walked over to show us pictures of the Dalai Lama on their cell phones. One of the most striking things to us was the fact that all the men (and there were only men in attendance) who had assembled were driving new SUVs. Toyotas, Mitsubishis, and Hyundais were strewn across the grasslands. These were definitely Tibetans who had been reaping the benefits of renting out land for either Chong Cao harvesting or as grazing land for yaks.
As the meeting broke up we drove off and made our way to Dawu, where we’d spend the night. Day 6 would be spent driving back to Xining.
In all, this trip was amazing. For anyone who wants to experience the natural beauty of Qinghai and learn a little about Tibetan culture, Amnye Machen should be high on your list.
Tibetan Connections Review – We setup this trip through the travel agency that sits above the Lete Hostel in Xining. The Lete is by far the most popular hostel for foreigners in Xining, so Tibetan Connections is very used to working with foreigners. They’ve got people who speak most of the major languages and are super friendly. For those on a budget, you might find Tibetan Connections a bit pricey. Though in all honesty, compared to other travel agencies geared towards foreigners, Tibetan Connections is very reasonable. Nonetheless, even if they are too pricey for you, they’re nice enough to offer free basic advice about traveling in Qinghai. For those young professionals who can afford to spend a little, I would highly recommend Tibetan Connections. Tashi, one of the main operators of the agency, knows the area intimately and has a real passion for setting up authentic experiences.
Looking back on our own experience, we absolutely could have done it on our own – without going through Tibetan Connections. Sure it would have been a much bigger headache to setup everything, but it would be possible. The only downside is that finding a reliable and nice guide/driver is no trivial matter. For us, it was 100% worth it to use Tibetan Connections because they hooked us up with Nanjit, who really enriched our trip. Going through a new area is always enlightening, but having an informative guide who is also easy-going and generally pleasant to be around makes the whole experience so much better.
In sum, if you’re really strapped for cash and doing Qinghai on a budget Tibetan Connections probably isn’t for you. But if you’re willing to spend a little, Tibetan Connections is very competitively priced (compared to other foreigner-facing travel agencies) and they really know their stuff. We were super happy to have booked a trip with them.