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Mount GENYEN the 13th goddess

THE British explorer William Gill, who was the first Westerner to visit Mount Genyen in 1877, wrote in his journal of the massif: "No words can describe the majestic grandeur of the mighty peaks."

That was also how I felt when I stood at the foot of Mount Genyen for the first time in 1996. From then on I was besotted with this sacred peak.

To the Tibetan people, Genyen is the 13th goddess of the 24 sacred mountains in Tibetan Buddhism. The mountain is situated in the Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan Province and is accessible by road from the villages of Lamaya and Zhamla.

At 6,204 meters, Mount Genyen is the tallest in the Shaluli range and is surrounded by fellow giants - more than 10 of its neighbors are over 5,000 meters high.

This cluster of mountains forms the source of many rivers in the Kham region between the Tibet Autonomous Region and Sichuan Province. The snow and ice on the mountains act as a massive store of water, releasing snowmelt that nourishes the 2,000-year-old Kham civilization.

The northern slopes of Mount Genyen are steep, with exposed bedrock and massive boulders; the southern slopes are permanently covered in snow and ice, with plenty of ice pinnacles called seracs; the eastern slopes are full of glacial lakes and moraines (glacial debris); while the mountain base is surrounded by dense highland forests, lush marshlands and fertile pastures. This variety of natural beauty has also made Mount Genyen a sacred haven for photographers - myself included.

Hair-raising roads

My first "pilgrimage" to Mount Genyen was harrowing. Conditions in Litang County were a lot tougher in the mid-1990s than they are now. The roads were narrow, winding and treacherous and vehicles sometimes plunged over the edge and into a valley. This was just the start.

After two days of driving, I finally reached the town of Litang. After a short break I continued by jeep to Lamaya, a village at the foot of Mount Genyen. It was so bumpy that my insides were all churned up, and my head kept slamming against the roof.

Ahead was a stream with a dilapidated bridge, but it looked so dangerous that the driver ventured across the rocky riverbed. On the other side, the road ahead was even tougher - some sections were so steep that I had to lean my body out to help balance the jeep. Finally, when we were clear of the "car-wrecking road," I continued on horseback into the heart of Mount Genyen.

I had another terrifying experience on the grasslands on the eastern slopes. Some nomads had sold me a freshly slaughtered goat, which I shared with my fellow horsemen. We feasted on half and saved the other half for the return journey.

That night I was sleeping in my tent when I felt something on my chest. I opened my eyes to see a wolf grabbing the half-eaten goat that was hanging next to me. And he wasn't alone.

"Wolf! Wolf!" I screamed, desperately scrambling out of my sleeping bag. One wolf managed to snatch the goat and fled, with the rest of the pack not far behind.

When I had gotten my wits about me, I peeped outside the tent. In the distance I could make out the wolves fighting over their prize. Two horsemen went after the wolves with their hunting knives and after a long time, returned with half a goat leg that they had wrestled from the wolves. It was fortunate that the wolves found the goat a lot more appetizing than me and used me only as a stepping stone.

Picture perfect

In October 2007, I visited Genyen for the third time. We made camp at the foot of the mountain. The night sky was dazzling; the stars were so bright that I could actually still see them through the roof of my tent. It felt as if I could reach out and touch them. That night I dreamed I was strolling along the Milky Way, in a vast ocean of stars.

This time I roped in my friend Wangdui to lead the expedition. Supporting him was assistant Zedeng, three horsemen and seven horses. Early in the morning we set off from Lamaya town.

That noon, we came face to face with the imposing facade of Mount Maikelong. No snow or ice could accumulate on the sheer face, thus it appeared as a huge gray pyramid that formed a striking contrast to the colorful autumn landscape.

A flock of argali sheep were grazing on slopes further on. Then a glacier came into view and Wangdui told me this was where the American mountaineers Christine Boskoff and Charlie Fowler met their end in 2006. I prayed for the souls of these two brave explorers and other heroes who had perished on the mountains.

At foot of the gods

The area was once a major hub on the ancient mountain roads between Sichuan and Tibet. But the National Highway 318 bypassed the area, which preserved its traditions and customs.

There was a quaint village at the foot of Mount Genyen - Naiganduo, whose name in Tibetan means "the village at the foot of the gods." It has a population of 170 people in 30 households, plus 500 head of cattle.

I remember the village basking in an ethereal gold at dawn. A river runs through it, banks lined with lush birch and fertile pastures. The landscape is dotted with distinctive Tibetan-style houses and wooden bridges.

However, change is coming. On my fifth visit in July 2008, heavy machinery had arrived and road construction was in full swing. Equipment was spewing thick smoke. Telephone lines had been erected.

Elderly folks were clasping prayer beads as they watched these strange monsters, while children were chasing these "big toys."

I met a young man called Gejiecinai, a cattle herder with a lucrative sideline of digging for cordyceps (caterpillar fungus), a valuable herb. In the past he could earn 10,000?20,000 yuan (US$1,500?3,000), but now the same amount can cost the equivalent of up to US$7,500.

Not only the villages are changing - so is the environment. Once there was a round lake on the eastern slopes of the mountains, called the "Bowl of Genyen."

On my first visit the water was blue and crystal-clear, perfectly reflecting Mount Genyen. But today the lake has totally dried up, leaving only clumps of weeds.


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