Muddy Road to Heaven

Back in my Peace Corps days, I had the nickname of Posh Corps. Somehow, despite living in a village amidst the mountains of Cameroon, I managed a rather posh life (relatively speaking – Internet connection in a house without running water is pretty posh, no?). It didn’t take me long to acquire a personal moto driver who would come pick me up within minutes’ notice. When my friends talked about hiking Mount Cameroon, I gave them the “are you serious?” look. Nevertheless, two years of living in the mountains somehow instilled a love of the outdoors within me. On a recent visit to the San Francisco Bay area, I discovered just how much I enjoyed the mountains. I then decided that I would take this love one step further, and signed up for an 8-day hiking trip in the Tibetan region of Sichuan, China.

I signed up for the trip two months in advance, and as the days were approaching, I began to wonder just what exactly I was thinking. I knew virtually nothing about hiking/camping equipment. I went to Decathlon and was wandering around with the biggest dazed and confused look. I then simply went down the packing list and picked up one of everything, and hoped for the best.

I adopted the same motto I had for the Peace Corps on this trip – low expectation, high satisfaction. I went in not knowing what to expect, and decided to take everything in stride, one moment at a time.

Mt. Sigunian Sichuan Tibet

The trip was organized by Yejo Circle. I had attended a wonderful yoga retreat with them several months back, and decided to give them another go. This time, however, had quite a bit of false advertisement. I went in thinking the trip would be a group of 14, but they combined two separate groups, and we had a whopping total of 23 people. Suddenly, I felt a bit like a cattle being herded around Sichuan.

As with all things in life, there are pros and cons to everything. The big group made traveling rather difficult, but it was also a fascinating group of individuals. It was a mini-UN. We had Iranians, French, German, American, Chilean, Argentinian, Chinese, etc. and spoke languages ranging from Farsi, Turkish, German, French, Chinese, Spanish, to English. My French got an unexpected refresher, and it was rather good to know that just like riding a bike, it does come back relatively quickly after a few hours.

Mt. Sigunian Sichuan Tibet

Nothing creates camaraderie quite like sharing challenging and, well, ridiculous situations together. Yejo circle trips strive for simplicity. Yet, when you are in the middle of nowhere China, simplicity becomes very rugged, very quickly.

Since it’s a Shanghai based organization, most of us are from Shanghai, but we flew in to Chengdu separately and met up there to embark upon the journey. We split into 3 vans and departed at 5am for a 8-10 hour bus ride towards Mount Siguniang (四姑娘山), the first mountain range that we were to hike for the week. As the bus climbed the windy mountain roads, the elevation quickly reached near 3,000 meters (9,800 feet) or more. Thankfully, given a mixture of TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) and Advil, I did not experience much altitude sickness.

Sichuan Tibet

I love nothing more than zoning our to music on a long drive, and observe the world as it passes by my window. I spent so many hours in crowded buses in Cameroon, yet now, I rarely have that kind of chance to totally zone out and be alone with myself. These days, data service allows me to check my email and multi-task as I am on the go. For this trip, I chose to turn off my data service for the most part, and gave myself the chance to live mindfully, and to take in in the incredible scenery that passed by.

We arrived in the village at the bottom of Mt. Siguniang just a few hours before sunset. Somehow, we ended up in a VERY basic hotel, so basic that some rooms didn’t have electricity; some didn’t have proper running water. And so began our 4 days of no-showering journey.

Sichuan Tibet

The next morning, we packed up the mules that would carry our big bags, and we took off on the hike in the mountains. We spent the next 2 nights and 3 days in the mountains, finding our inner peace. This journey marked many first for me: first trip outside of the Shanghai region, first hike in the mountain of such high elevation, first camping experience in freezing temperature. The universe didn’t give me an easy way into this adventure. The morning that we took off, it rained non-stop. Within minutes of our journey, my boots were immersed in mud. Remember those mules that would carry our stuff to the campsite? They also took the same routes, so mud + poop – what lovely combination.

I quickly remember why I had a personal moto guy when I was in Cameroon, where elevation was only half of what I was experiencing at 1,500m. My heart sort of hates this level of cardiovascular activity. It’s the same reason why despite trying multiple times, I still fail as a runner. While others were just having a tough trek, my heart was constantly beating as if I was running sprints.

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But, you know what they say – what doesn’t kill you only make you stronger. I never truly grasp meaning of this phrase until this trip. Each stop, I could literally feel my cardiovascular muscle strengthening. It’s actually quite an impressive feeling. Needless to say, I was almost always quite a bit behind from the rest of the group. It’s a journey of finding inner peace, right? So I fought against my usual competitive self, and was okay to be dead last at times. As long as I make it in the end, that’s what it matters.  I could kill myself more and keep up with the group, or I could just take my time, and actually enjoy the incredible view along the way.

It’s not the destination, but the journey that makes an adventure remarkable. This trip was not a relaxing vacation by any means, and while I struggled to warm myself in a freezing tent in the middle of the night, I questioned why I ever thought spending money to torture myself was a good idea.

Mt. Sigunian Sichuan Tibet

The muddy roads mixed with horse crap might have sucked, but when you arrive at 4,168m (13,674 feet), things begin to feel pretty darn heaven-esque. Like my Peace Corps days, this journey was a deeply personal experience that put me far out of the comfort zone, allowed me the time to truly reflect on my existence, and reminded me that nothing is impossible - with one baby step at a time, I too, can reach the destination.

Finding my inner peace. Namaste.