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The Filthy Lucre Tour
Arriving at Karakul
25th Aug 2006
Mustagh Ata Part Two

Now we did some mountaineering stuff. After another evening of Beer Acclimatisation at 1500m, we all hopped onto two buses. "All" actually involved quite a few of us. There were only three people on the Mountain Madness trip I'd signed up for ( but climbing at the same time as us, and sharing a great deal of hardware and porterage, were a group of twenty-one from a company called Summit Climb. Including SC's two guides and the eight or nine Tibetans who were going to help us carting equipment between camps, the exodus from the Seman Hotel numbered somewhere near forty. As our bus pulled away from the hotel and Ted cheerfully called out "I hope you've all got your passports", I realised that I didn't have my passport. While we weren't actually intending leaving China, passports are required to cross the border into the Tajik Autonomous region. This isn't an autonomous region at all, but it's a part of a game the PRC like to play with its ethnic minorities where it pretends they get to decide some stuff when really they don't much. Anyway, after a last-minute check in the small bag I was leaving at the hotel we decided that my passport must be somewhere in the luggage I had on the bus, and off we went.

As we got to the border, it had become singularly apparently that my passport was not in fact in the luggage I had on the bus. Faced with the prospect of being sent home before the trip had even started, I was somewhat ashen-faced as we rumbled up to the opposing-looking Chinese border. I'd include a photograph of it, but photographs were quite definitely not allowed.

The border control worked in a reasonably standard way. There was a little office, with one door on one side of the border, and one on the other side. People were expected to file into one side, show their passport to a Chinese army officer who ticked their name off a list of expected immigrants, and exit from the other. Following a pre-arranged plan, all forty of us piled into the office as the poor conscript tasked with crowd control struggled to retain some order. Everyone swarmed the desk to show passports to the nervous-looking immigration officer, and after seven or eight legitimate passport-holders had exited from the Tajik Autonomous Region door, I slipped out too. After a brief period where we worried about them counting the people who'd been through, looking for the missing "Chris Rae" on their list, we gleefully hopped back onto our bus. I was at least getting to Base Camp.

Before base camp (just wait, the climbing stuff is coming) we spent another night acclimatising at Karakul ("black lake"), some five hours' drive from Kashghar on predominantly paved roads. This meant sleeping at around 3600m, which actually gave me a bit of a headache, but the superb view of Mustagh Ata more than made up for it. Karakul is surrounded by an amazing array of glaciers and flanked by two 7000m mountains - Mustagh Ata (7546m - and Kongur (7719m - Mustagh Ata is climbed very regularly during the summer but until 2005 Kongur had only been climbed once, by Chris Bonnington in 1981. In 2005 four separate Russian expeditions topped out during the summer, so perhaps that's the end of its Bonnington-dubbed reign as "Asia's Elusive Summit" (

At Karakul we were each allocated one tent (almost all ready-pitched by the Tibetans), and started on what was to become a familiar routine. Breakfast in the mess tent at seven, lunch at twelve and dinner at six. Apart from an occasional one-hour-later transpose, this was to be our feed schedule for the next three weeks. The food was on the whole very good indeed - spicy, which I like, though incorporating parts of chickens that I don't normally eat. Lots of lamb, lots of vegetables and lots of rice.

We ambled around Karakul for a couple of days. Acclimatisation is a strange business - in a nutshell the accepted modern method of summiting large mountains is "climb high, sleep low". The acclimatisation routine on Mustagh Ata is much the same as that on Everest - you move from base camp to camp one carrying some gear, dump the gear at camp one, then move back to base camp. After a day resting at BC you then go to camp one, sleep at C1, take some gear up to C2, dump it, then go all the way back down to BC. Then start from BC, sleep C1, sleep C2, dump at C3, back to BC and, after a few more days' rest, head up to sleep at C1, sleep C2, sleep C3, summit, back to C3 for a night and then back to BC (BC is a somewhat too far from the summit in a day). Everest is exactly the same as this but there are four camps, and obviously the summit is 1300m further into thin air.

Having said all this, Karakul wasn't actually base camp. Base camp was another 1200m higher, but Karakul was en-route and an ideal chance for us to acclimatise a little before heading to BC. It's worth bearing in mind that base camp on Mustagh Ata is at almost exactly the same height as the summit of Mont Blanc, which itself requires a few days of acclimatisation to realistically have a shot at.

Anyway, we ambled around the lake acclimatising and taking photos, though sadly no longer drinking any more beer. The Mountain Madness crowd had the advantage of a guide (Ted, just in case you weren't paying attention) who spoke both Chinese and Uyghur, and had several Khyrgyz friends who were herding in the area. It sounded like a splendid idea when he suggested visiting these friends of his, but I could barely believe the next part. We were to go on motorbikes! What sweet joy was this! Thinking I'd be deprived of internal combustion engines and beer from the moment I arrived in China, here I was being presented with a blast on a motorbike!

The next morning it turned out that I was in fact to be a passenger on a motorbike, ridden by one of the Khyrgyz. I couldn't hide my misery, and had to confess my misunderstanding to Ted and the Khyrgyz (sounds like a band). Five minutes into the trip we stopped on the road to fill up with petrol (in what appeared to be a private residence), and suddenly a gentleman appeared with a motorbike for me! For me! After a brief delay while I worked out that Chinese motorcycle gearboxes appear to go N-1-2-3-4-5 instead of 1-N-2-3-4-5 like everyone else's, we were off. I wasn't wholly sure of the legality of this whole operation. I believe foreigners are only allowed to drive in the centre of towns in China, and nobody had offered me a crash helmet. Like every other vehicle on the public highway in China, the speedometer and odometer had been disabled so I felt quite the explorer whizzing along the silk road on my borrowed steed. As we left the road and headed down rough paths towards the Khyrgyz' pasture grounds, people popped out of yurts (Khyrgyz' summer huts) to watch us pass. Apparently foreigners on the back of motorcycles were becoming a more common event, but foreigners riding their own were still rather unusual. I managed not to fall off spectacularly in front of any of the locals, though my attempt at steely composure probably didn't do much to conceal the fact that most of my bike-riding had been in central London which, whilst not without its dangers, doesn't have a lot of sand or streams.

Once up at the Khyrgyz pasture ground we were invited into a yurt for some yak's milk tea and bread. It's very difficult to describe this without sounding like one of these ghastly travel people who gush on about how humble the natives are in Peru, and how one simply must go elk-hunting with the dear Titbonk tribe of the Amazon, who've almost all been murdered because ghastly travel people used all the rain forests to print The Lonely Planet. Anyway, let's give it a go. Yak's milk tea is actually rather nice. I know you have to say that when you try something quaint and regional, but really, it is. If Sainsbury's had it, I'd buy some. It's nice until the point at which they put yak butter in it, at which point it doesn't become repulsive but simply tastes like some perfectly nice tea with butter in it. The bread was rather less delightful - western China seems to specialise in a sort of bread that resembles a nan bought in an Indian restaurant and left on the patio for a day or two. It's very hard indeed, and really too dry to get down unless you're drinking some liquid as well.

The Khyrgyz are a pretty easy-going lot. While the women sit in the yurts cooking and cleaning, the men get down the the important business of herding stuff. This seems to involve mostly riding around on motorbikes, eating and smoking cheap Chinese cigarettes. When we arrived at the yurt, a few of the men popped in for some tea, and to allow all of us a chance for some mutual peering at funny foreign people. Whilst I think the food and drink was offered out of a genuine sense of hospitality, we did get the opportunity to buy some knives and traditional Khyrgyz hats, and we politely declined both with no hard feelings. Ted showed the men a few pictures of Turkic people around other parts of Asia - there seems to be quite a strong sense of community among the Turkic-originating peoples, and they were all keen to hear Ted's tales of what the others had been up to. At least that's what I think his tales were about. It's quite possible they were about this unbelievable moron he'd ended up guiding, who'd somehow lost his passport during a two-day stay in a hotel.

Once back at Karakul we prepared for an early-morning start up to base camp the next day. I think everyone was ready to start on the mountain - although I'd been having a splendid time, I couldn't help but feel that I'd told all my friends I was going on a mountaineering trip, when really I'd just been drinking beer and playing on motorbikes. I'd barely had cause to wear anything over my T-shirt, let alone bring out the moutaineering boots and my down jacket.

Base camp involved an hour or so more of paved roads (in the buses, naturally) and then onto a dirt track. Some enterprising Chinese company had popped an impromptu toll barrier across the route and, after a brief argument with the gentlemen operating the toll, we drove over it in the bus. This resulted in another argument, followed by us driving up the road. I'm not entirely sure what the end result was.

A couple of hours up this dirt track, it was decided that the buses weren't going any further as the ground became a little marshy. We met various locals with mules and donkeys and, while they began the fight over whose donkey got to carry the sleeping mats (which were both rather large and rather light, so quite a prize for a man who doesn't want to wear out his donkey), we started the walk up to base camp. Yes, A walk! With hiking boots and everything. And carrying, umm, three or four kilos. Hey, we don't want to overdo it here.

After three or four hours we arrived at what was to be base camp. Some of the donkeys had beaten us to the camp, so quite a few tents were lying ready to be pitched. I pitched mine and dived inside. Most of us either had a headache already or were shortly to develop one - I had a rather more unpleasant reaction and had to lie very still for an hour or two, as otherwise I was pretty sure I was going to vomit everywhere. I know I always react badly to altitude initially but I tend to improve, so I wasn't overly perturbed by this. It would have been nice if my sleeping bag had been there, but one could argue that if I was that bothered about it I should have carried it up myself.

Our gear continued arriving on a steady stream of donkeys well into the night. There was a small chunk of glacier to cross on the path, and I have not the faintest idea how the donkeys managed it in what was pretty much pitch darkness.

After yet another rest day, I think everyone on both expeditions was pretty keen to get started. We sat down and had a Mountain Madness powwow about the equipment and supplies we needed to carry up the mountain. As well as having tents and stoves carried to each camp by porters, we were to have 10kg each carried all the way to C3. I have always had doubts about guided expeditions using high altitude porters, and I suppose to a large extent I still do. Can you really say you climbed something if someone else carried your tent? Of course, Edmund Hillary did - in fact, until very recently, Everest had never been climbed any other way. What if someone else carried your tent to base camp and no further? What if you flew to base camp? This can obviously be carried all the way back to "what if you were wearing boots", and "what if you brought some food with you". It all harks back to a vague idea I once had about trying to climb some mountain somewhere naked from sea-level, forraging for nuts and berries on the way up. Kiki wasn't mustard keen when I announced that it'd be a great thing to do during our holiday to St Lucia, and seemed even less happy when I appointed her official photographer. I don't recall her exact words, but in the end I didn't do it.

I've decried guided expeditions in the past. I think that the greatest challenges of mountaineering (certainly the sort I might pretend to do) are the planning of an expedition, and then making the right decisions at the right times - this usually means the difficult choice not to bother going any futher in a particular situation, or not to start at all on a given day. On a guided trip you're mostly robbed of this, and relegated to plodding when you're told to.

High peaks, however, are extremely impractical, perhaps even downright dangerous to climb without a guide. There are many potential hazards which will hit you the hardest on the biggest peaks, and some that only exist at high altitude. Of course you can train for these eventualities and, once you have a few high peaks under your belt, no doubt lead your own expeditions. But bear in mind that for any peak over 6000m it's going to take a good few days of travelling just to get to the bottom, at least a week to get to the top and a good few expeditions before you are well-versed in local weather and treating altitude illness. As a normal individual trying to hold down a job now and again, I personally think this rules me out for climbing anything about 6000m without a guide. And I haven't even got started on the red tape and logistics. How one would go about hiring twenty donkeys, persuading the PRC to issue the required permits, arranging for a live sheep to be brought up to base camp once a week or keeping the Tibetans in cigarettes is another thing entirely.

On top of all of this is the numbing inaccessibility of these peaks for rescue. Even in the wilds of Scotland or the Swiss alps it's rather unusual to lose mobile phone reception for more than a few hours. If you don't expect phone reception, you can leave notification at your hostel as to where you're going, and at 9pm they'll call out the mountain rescue with a helicopter to poke around for you. If you absent-mindedly get lost in a snowstorm above 7000m one evening, you have no mobile phone reception. However, don't worry too much about that, because there is no rescue - the well-oiled organisations we've come to rely on in Europe just don't exist. Even if you had a hotline to God, you're three days' walk from basecamp and a helicopter can't fly much higher than there. It's minus 40 at night and in a few hours you're going to start suffering from altitude-related illnesses which _drastically_ affect your judgement. I hope I don't have too many illusions about my mountaineering skills, and they're just never going to be that good.

A guide isn't a magician, but the advantage afforded by having someone with you who's spent a lot of time at altitude is a large one. When we climbed Orizaba in Mexico I'd say that Phil, Nev and I were amongst the best-prepared groups on the mountain, that including several guided expeditions. You'd have to have been there to realise that this wasn't necessarily saying a great deal. However, I also remember us nearly setting one tent on fire during a cooking accident, and I remember us having to slope back to base camp to try and find another expedition being dropped off by truck, because we'd run out of gas. Great character-builders these were, but unfortunately just not doable further away from civilisation.

I'm sure we were about to start climbing, but I've lost my track again. Climbing in Episode Three. I promise. The first paragraph will start with some climbing.

Next: Just married
Previous: Mustagh Ata Part One - Beijing and Kashgar

Diary Photos

Arriving at Karakul

A yurt

Biking with the Khyrgyz

And which part of a chicken is this? Ah

Ian Weir, Chris Rae, Brad Crawford

Arriving at BC

Weighing porter loads

The washroom

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