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Alpine-Style in the Tschang-Tang

Alpine-Style in the Tschang-Tang

A long pulk through Tibet

by Frank Kauper


“It’s torture—the hands cannot be used, the map rips, and one asks oneself if one can make it alive to the next camp! The lips are swollen and split, and at the nails the skin is blistered so that the fingertips bleed! [...] One wishes oneself away, away—just away out of the Tschang-Tang!”

Thus wrote the Swedish explorer Sven Hedin in a gripping report about his 1906 Tibet expedition. Ninety-one years later, nothing has changed. The Tschang-Tang has lost none of its hostile nature.

Ahail-and thunderstorm unloads itself directly over our heads. Stefan Simmerer and I cower on the wide plain, 100 meters from our carts, which are placed on the ground as lightning rods. We pray that the lightning hits someplace else. We have been underway for three weeks already, walking seven to eight hours every day. We have not met another human being for more than a week…and we haven’t even arrived in the middle of the Tschang-Tang.

Sven Hedin’s descriptions make for fascinating reading on long winter nights in a warm room. Through his writings we first came upon the crazy idea that we could also cross the Tschang-Tang. But not on one of the many roads that now cross Tibet—rather, like 90 years ago, on a path of personal choice through the unexplored vastness. We chose the northern Tschang-Tang, an area twice the size of Germany. No roads. Practically uninhabited. Average altitude 5000 meters. We quickly found the general route on our map “The Mountains of Central Asia (1:3,000,000).” A south-north crossing appeared the most feasible.

As a treat we also wanted to try and climb the unclimbed Zangser-Kangri (6644 meters), which lies in the center of the plateau. We differed from Sven Hedin in that we could not afford a large expedition with hundreds of pack animals. We tossed around the idea of an expedition with the simplest of means—the Tschang-Tang, “alpine-style.” Reinhold Messner introduced this style in the 8000-meter peaks of the Himalaya. We wanted to transfer the renunciation of everything superfluous to our expedition. In addition, we needed to be completely autonomous, independent of food drops, porters or animals. The pastures on the Tschang-Tang were too uncertain for yaks. We set up a simple calculation: for a distance of 1000 kilometers, at 20 kilometers per day, we would need 50 days. Since there was no possibility of re-stocking during the trip, we would need to take about 50 kilos of supplies with us. Including equipment, we arrived at a weight of 80-90 kilos—unthinkable to carry.

We recalled the Messner/Fuchs expedition. They had pulled 250-kilo sleds to the South Pole. There certainly was not enough snow in Tibet for such a pulka; however, if one put the whole thing on wheels...?

Many a night we tinkered over blueprints, clarifying what such a pulka on wheels should look like. The parameters were set: as little dead weight as possible, large wheels that could roll over obstacles, 30-centimeter ground clearance, not longer than two meters (so that it could be transported in an airplane), and, of course, stable enough to carry 80 kilos of food and equipment. Our pulkas were ready a week before our planned departure—far too late to test them substantially. Still, we put full faith in our construction: a two-and-a-half kilo titanium-pipe frame forms the core piece, while two “Speedtec 26” wheels with 2.5-inch-wide mountain bike tires carry the frame. We divided our 80 kilos of equipment into three watertight packbags and one backpack.

Shortly before our departure to Nepal, I could not imagine that the undertaking would be successful. There were too many uncertainties, not the least of which were questionable water sources, and the big question of whether we could even pull the pulkas across the Tschang-Tang. We had been warned about the swampy permafrost, about the deep ditches in the Yak grass steppe, and our most exact map (Scale 1:500,000) showed a number of mountain chains running northwest. I was sure we had bet too high this time, and that our preparations for such an undertaking were simply too dilettante. But we still wanted to try.

June 2. Kathmandu. Our equipment arrived safely in Nepal. Now our carts stand fully packed in front of the hotel driveway. Unbelieving stares and scornful grins of the Nepalis are everywhere. Even here, only the poorest of people would pull such a cart through the streets, and then only to earn their livelihood.

After a 200-kilometer bus ride, we reach the border with Tibet. On June 12, we arrive in Dongco, a tiny nest on the northern road from Lhasa to Ali in western Tibet. We have needed 11 days on foot and on trucks to cover the 500 kilometers to this point. Dongco is the last connection to civilization for us. From this point on, we will have to rely on ourselves. One thousand kilometers across an unexplored steppe. The next contact with people will come in perhaps seven weeks.

As we leave the road at a right angle and bear toward a chain of hills which is, according to the last GPS bearing, exactly to the north, I am overcome with a dull feeling in my stomach. It is best not to think of everything that could be awaiting us. Just walk, walk, walk…. There is only the monotonous “clack, clack” of our poles, and occasionally a jolt from behind when the cart rolls over a big rock. I am still everything but confident. Why should we, of all people, succeed at crossing this pathless plateau, especially in light of our laughably constructed donkey carts….

But with every kilometer that we cover, my doubts become smaller. It is amazing how well we progress with our carts. We are not fast—we do, at best, three kilometers per hour; still, up to this point we have been able to overcome every hurdle. In addition, for the first week, we continue to come across evidence of truck ruts that lead north.

And in the beginning, we continue to stumble upon occasional Tibetan nomads. These meetings, with people who likely have never seen a white man before in their lives, are impressive for both sides. This must have been the way the white men were received in North America hundreds of years ago. Initially, fear prevails; women and children hide themselves in their tents at the sight of us. But curiosity about these strange people, who pull their carts themselves, is stronger in the end. The most courageous of the groups steps toward us hesitantly, and we also approach a bit, waving and trying to laugh. This is always the most effective means of establishing contact. A smile is understood everywhere, especially by the humorous Tibetans.

Once the ice is broken, we are taken in heartily. Butter tea is stamped, Tsampa is distributed. An ancient double-barreled shotgun usually stands in the corner. Nothing has changed here since Sven Hedin’s day. How sad it is that we cannot communicate; how much we would have to tell one another….

After about 200 kilometers in a northerly direction, the last traces finally disappear into the sand. We no longer meet even Tibetans. We are, at last, alone.

The walking becomes easier, and often is like a meditation. Our thoughts are far away— at home, with friends and girlfriends, in the past and in the future, least of all here and now. But at some point, every thought has been pondered at least once, and the past has been looked over for the nth time. What I wouldn’t give for a book.... The landscape simply holds too few charms; every day, we walk and walk in this unending vastness. If we didn’t have our GPS, we would often not believe that we were making headway.

Of course, walking is not just meditation; more often than not it is hard work. With 80 kilos, even the slightest incline (not to mention sandy or softened ground) is noticeable. It is nearly impossible to move forward in the swampy permafrost. The carts often sink to their axles in mud.

But such segments are mercifully rare. In the evenings, in the tent, while the gas stove hisses, the challenges are quickly forgotten. Generally, we treat ourselves well once the tent is up. An example of our festive menus: noodles with ratatouille and pemmikan, and for dessert, chocolate pudding and fruit brandy.

On July 3, we have reached our first stage. We stand at the edge of the overwhelming glacier of Zangser-Kangri. We have never seen such a mighty glacier in all of our lives. Even the great glaciers of the Swiss Alps seem tiny in comparison. And what seems even more incomprehensible to us: This grandiose massif, standing here only for us, has perhaps never before been seen by a human being.

We feel like aliens, like intruders in a perfect and untouched Nature. In all our amazement, however, we do not forget that we want to climb this mountain. If we are successful, we assume it will be a first ascent. We establish our base camp at 5700 meters. We leave our carts behind with the majority of our equipment. Who would ever steal them?

On the first day, we make good progress on the glacier. Maybe even a bit too good: As we reach our camp in the evening at 6200 meters, I am hit with altitude sickness. It is impossible to eat or drink, let alone get up. How sad, I think, that after five weeks of toil and only 500 meters from the summit, I can’t continue. Curious: One would think that this would be the greatest disappointment of one’s life. But on the contrary, I am happy to have come this far, the summit does not interest me in the least at this point. Of course, I still swallow medication in order to counter a possible pulmonary or cerebral edema, and the next day, I actually feel better.

The old ambition announces itself, and I decide to attempt the ascent. For the first time in a week, it is foggy. We see no more than ten meters in front of us. We find the southeast ridge of Zangser-Kangri only with great difficulty. I am dizzy again; I am still a bit dehydrated and have eaten little. Thirty to 45° com snow. No vision. I walk as in a trance, very slowly, the air thinning….

At some point, the ridge becomes less steep and, finally, level. We must be on the summit! Quickly, a GPS reading and a few photos. As proof of our presence on the summit, we pound a one-meter-long titanium tube, meant as a replacement part for our carts, into the ice. At base camp, we had engraved into it: Simmerer/Kauper, 7/97, Erlangen, Germany.

After half an hour, we must descend. I do not feel well. We take down our high camps after a short break; I need to get to lower levels. As a doctor, I know very well how dangerous it is to ascend in spite of having altitude sickness—yet also how easily such thoughts are repressed when the summit is within reach.

Shortly before sunset, we reach base camp. I have never been so exhausted and drained in my life. The next day we spend simply cooking and dozing. In order to exit our base camp in the Zangser-Kangri massif, we “only” have to cross a pass at 5900 meters. Climbing a 20° snowfield with 50 kilos of equipment at this altitude is not the greatest joy, but we are slowly becoming less pretentious. At least the weather is excellent. And in some ways we feel so regenerated that we decide to make a second ascent: Directly next to our camp rises a beautiful pyramid-shaped mountain (N 34° 27, 7', E 85° 56, 7'). It is unnamed; we estimate it to be about 6400 meters in altitude. This day tour compensates us for the effort and bad weather on Zangser-Kangri. The ascent is pure pleasure. The views from the summit are breathtaking: To the west and the south we overlook the entire Zangser-Kangri massif, to the north and east to the horizon, nothing but endless rows of hills. We realize as we stand on this summit in the middle of the Tschang-Tang how tiny and meaningless we are when faced with such dimensions. A fearful but also healing insight.

July 10. The strains of the last week have marked us. With hollowed-out cheeks, furrowed faces and hands, we look ten years older. But the Tschang-Tang has not just left its traces externally. Psychologically, I also feel burnt out. Another 500 kilometers north to the Silk Road? Walking every day to exhaustion, day after day, with the uncertainty of whether we will find water tomorrow, whether we can cross the next mountain range.... We cannot motivate ourselves for this intense tour.

We decide on a short cut: After ten days’ walking in a northeasterly direction we should, according to our map, meet up with a military road. From there we could catch trucks to the Silk Road. Fortunately we had no idea at this point what would await us 200 kilometers to the northeast.

In the following days we take things easy: Only six hours of walking, and double meal rations. In our thoughts we are already in the next-closest city, letting ourselves be spoiled in restaurants. Our mood becomes increasingly better. The night before our expected last day I am already writing a summary in our travel log.

On July 17, the catastrophe: We find ourselves at N 35 degrees 16 minutes and E 87 degrees and 10 minutes. Precisely here, according to our map, should be a road. East of us is a giant salt lake. We came from a westerly direction. We certainly hadn’t crossed a road, but just as certainly there is no road in the east. We despair. Yet still we try to see the situation rationally to avoid showing the other what we really feel: fear, plain and simple, that we will never get out of the Tschang-Tang. In spite of all our precautions in the last weeks, we have maneuvered ourselves into a dead-end. We blindly relied on the road. Through our unrestrained feasting of the past days, we find ourselves with enough supplies for only ten more days. Even worse, we have only seven liters of water left per person. The last spot we found water is two days back; going north, we will not hit the next river with running water for another 80 kilometers. Around us is nothing but salt swamps and salt lakes.

Since our scant supplies make it appear risky to go back, we decide to try and find water in a northerly direction. The mood this evening is tense. We hardly exchange a word. I think about everything I will do if I get out of this damned area. The trip has reached a new dimension at this point. Neither of us reckoned with the true risk of death.

July 18. Three liters of water left. We need to find water today. In a dry river valley, we split up: Stefan looks up-valley while I look in the other direction. After a frustrating search, I find a small puddle the size of a plate. The water is only slightly salty. I scoop out about half a cup—and the water slowly seeps back in. We are saved! We spend the whole day filling our water sacks cup by cup. In the evening, our carts are 40 kilos heavier.

Now we know that we will make it, but the following days are among our hardest. We need to overcome two more mountain ranges, the Samarsa Gya Ri and the Hoh Xil Shan. That means 11 to 12 hours of walking with only two to three short breaks. Marching strictly along the compass needle is impossible in this terrain. We continually need to cross smaller chains of hills, and we lose our way in the whirl of ridges and valleys. Nonetheless, we achieve our daily ten degrees north, which is about 20 kilometers as the crow flies. On July 22, we reach the first river. At any rate, we won’t die of thirst...

Ahead of us to the north lies at least another 250 kilometers to the first road. Between us and the road rises the mighty Kun Lun range. We only have five kilos of dry food supplies per man—at best, enough for six days. The prospect of a few days of fasting is not particularly edifying; however, we probably won’t starve, either.

July 24. We stand on a pass at 5500 meters, the water table between the Tschang-Tang in the south and the Taklamakan Desert in the north. This pass also forms the border between Tibet and Xinjiang. Even though Tibet now lies behind us, nothing changes. We still walk 11 hours a day, day after day. Physically, we are emaciated to our bones, we are already at an end. The only thing that keeps us going is the prospect of the road to the north.

We are hardly satisfied by our reduced rations anymore. We are constantly freezing because of our hunger. On July 29, we festively consume the last Power Bar. Now our supplies are completely gone. Is it a coincidence that at this very moment an equally hungry wolf slinks around us?

August 1. We reach the road. Three hours later, the first truck filled with women, men, children and sheep pulls up—the first people we have seen in five weeks. We all eat, sing and laugh. It is a normal day for these people, who go to market in Quiemo every week. I sit on the loading platform squeezed between two Uigurs who hand me bread and meat. I have never been so relieved in my life; I have never felt so safe as in the midst of these strangers.

One thousand kilometers lie behind us since we left Dongco, 50 days in this uninhabited, unwelcoming high-plateau, the Tschang-Tang. I would not have missed one day. It is precisely its inhospitable nature that creates a contrast to our over-satisfied and hectic life here in Central Europe. To quote Sven Hedin once more: “Everyone needs a bit of desert now and then.”

Summary of Statistics

AREA: Tibetan Plateau

FIRST ASCENTS: The southeast ridge of Zangser-Kangri (6640 meters, N 34° 23' 29'7", E 85° 51' 18'4"), July 4-5; Peak ca. 6400 meters (N 34° 27'7", E 85° 567"), July 6, Frank Kauper, Stefan Simmerer

SOUTH-NORTH CROSSING: South-north crossing of the Tschang-Tang (1000 kilometers, on foot and unsupported), June 12-August 1, 1997