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Minya Gongka: trekking at altitude

Sometimes its not enough to be out of office.

Nothing shakes jetlag and the residues of consultancy life than time at altitude and off the grid – hire a mountain guide and a pack horse, gear up for extreme conditions.

6 hours from Chengdu to Kangding to the village of Laoyunlin from where the trek, and the Tibetan Plateau begins – this map gives a sense of what’s (not) there – 20 peaks over 6,000 meters (~20,000 ft), including the magnificent Minya Konka at ~7,500 meters.

The first night is spent at 4,300 meters after a long ascent and with a combination of jetlag and exhaustion I slept 14 hours straight – after which the effects of altitude kick in and doze time is reduced to 2 – 4 hours per night. If you like to push the pace the guide Gong Que is happy to accommodate.

A fresh layer of snow changes the colour palette and draws 10 – 30% more energy from every step. Further down the valley the melting snows sucks 10 – 50% in conditions that were veritably Somme-like.

As with much of China – the investment in infrastructure in this part of the world is considerable – Kangding in particular is ~tripling in size and will be the gateway to a large hinterland – what is today only accessible through mud tracks and dirt roads will in due course be asphalted, cell-connected. A newly built cell tower, cough towers above one of the valleys – waiting to be switched on – and serves as a decent enough wedding photo vista (pic to follow). The physical extremes (thin air at altitude) will mean the region will avoid becoming just another Lijiang theme park (a World Heritage site that celebrates the notion of World Heritage sites – in China as elsewhere the experience is fucked by numbers). But the sheer volume of people wanting to carve out their own frontier experience will still change the ecosystem forever.

In the past week I’ve come across more than 2 dozen Chinese outdoor clothing brands that you’ve never heard of – worn by locals drawn here from across China, folks who are experiencing and defining their own very modern Chinese adventure. With the explosion of a robust middle class that is looking to invest in something beyond the crassness of the housing bubble, cheap air travel and a vast untapped hinterland – the outdoor/adventure market in China is set to grow and grow and grow and grow. Expect some of your favourite international outdoor gear brands to be headquartered out of China in the years to come – picked off by the companies that they used to outsource to, whose expertise is now serving their rapidly growing home market. A few international brands will continue to make headway (saw a slither of North Face and Black Diamond) but most don’t have the distribution network and more importantly, don’t understand the Chinese outdoor dream.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, on with the mountains.

Everyone has a reset, this is mine.