Yaks and Baijiu | Colleen MacDonald


The best way to recover after six hours of vertical hiking to heights of over 2,800 meters obviously involves several cold Dali Beers (2.5 APV) and a liter of Baijiu. Having clearly not learned our lesson on New Year’s Eve, the night’s Baijiu-fueled conversation (shared with several European architects) found us deciding, halfway through the bottle, to extend our two day hike into a four day hike with an easy climb to 6,000 meters. Since the paradise of Thailand and a lovely lady called to the lone Brit of our trio, Climber Man and I were left to make our own dynamic duo of fun (and venturing up mountains seemed utterly appealing). Fun, appealing decisions made whilst imbibing Baijiu can be both terribly bad life choices and amazingly good ones. Ours fell somewhere in-between.

Eight in the morning found us wheezing behind an athletic local guide in his fifties and dodging giant piles of yak poop whilst contemplating the genetic origins of yak verses domestic cows. One of the party (namely I) maintained that yaks are more ferocious and bigger than domestic cows, whilst the other (Climber Man) maintained that yaks are indeed smaller than domestic cows and are in fact rather docile “nice” creatures. It could be ascertained from this conversation that the altitude may have reached our heads, when in fact it had not.

After reaching 6,000 meters, we sat (fell) onto the ground and once again picked up a conversation about all things related to hiking, animal shepherding, rope bridges, epic adventures of small hobbits, and what dinner would consist of.

Several hours later, after being surrounded by a herd of yaks (not docile in the least), our guide fell asleep, and upon meeting our first yak shepherd, we were seated in said shepherd’s hut. The night fare consisted of intestinal sausage, various meats of unknown origin (it was guessed of genital origin, as rarely does nature produce round/dark chewy balls from yaks that are otherwise) and mugs of home-brewed Baijiu. Preferring to not know (exactly) what animal bits we were ingesting, we kept quiet. We hadn’t much to say anyway, since one hour into the hike had exhausted all my Mandarin abilities, which basically meant that our hiking conversation had consisted wholly of: No. Yes. Thank you. We are American. This did not prevent one of us (me) from trying to ask for suggestions on where to use the toilet, which resulted in the guide making a very convincing pantomime of taking a poo. Not sure weather to laugh or be puzzled, I simply ventured outside to brave the wind, darkness, and a steep 200 meter drop.

Consequently, the next hour in the hut was spent discussing (in low, muttered tones) the parameters of how to save oneself if one did indeed happen to take a tumble down a 200 meter drop with pants around one’s legs in the dark. Having not reached a satisfactory conclusion beyond dividing up expensive climbing/photography gear (with past lovers/current friends taken into account), it was time to retire for the night.

Accommodations consisted of an adjacent hut (several 2×4 boards nailed to tree trunks), one small Chinese child’s down jacket (which presumably was supposed to function as some sort of sleeping bag), one small Chinese adult sleeping bag, and a Yak fur blanket. Climber Man, displaying characteristic stoicism, was heard to mutter, “That’s, uhm,…small,” (in reference to the jacket) and I was heard to mutter, “I am not brave,” (also in reference to the jacket and the reality of having to construct some sort of head wrap to substitute for a sleeping bag). Gamely contorting ourselves into the smallest possible shape atop/alongside each other (for warmth) we slept in the times between overlapping conversations about zombies (my topic) and husbandry of animals (his; mostly yak-related, though dogs, sheep, and llamas earned honorable mentions), which were punctuated by cataclysmic flatulence (yak’s revenge) from both of us.

Waking and collectively deciding that surely in the history of awkward hikers on Haba Snow Mountain, none had spent such a romantic night, we managed breakfast (fresh Baozi from the Shepherd), a descending hike (decidedly much easier), a cramped bus ride (which smelled of rotten cheese, which was surprising given the general lack of cheese in China), and somehow ended up in Shangri-La.

Shangri-La disappointed in comparison to 6,000 meter hikes and yak-induced flatulence, but delivered in the areas of painfully blue skies (so beautiful one cried, both from cold and happiness), fresh Tibetan air, and China’s largest Buddhist Temple. So impressed were we that we stayed only two nights before slowly making our way back towards Dali, Kunming, and Hangzhou, all the while contemplating the mysteries of how certain cities obtained mythical status/fame/laudations based on a combination of grossly pandering tourism and woefully misinterpreted literary works.

Hangzhou greeted with predictably dreadful weather and shambling hordes of travelers; there would be no figurative or literal kissing of the ground this time. We had seen Karst peaks, snow capped mountains, and breathed the tantalizing air of the Tibetan plateau. My spider-infested flat, complete with creepy misogynist upstairs neighbor (who plays an unknown stringed instrument very, very badly indeed) and shagging feral cats, seemed both comfortingly and, maddeningly, normal.

To read the first part of Colleen’s holiday adventure, click here.

The hidden, derelict and marginalized attract her; with a desire for adrenaline rushes and a love of heights, Colleen MacDonald has photographed everything from abandoned highrises in Detroit to Particle Colliders in Russia. With an eye for portraits, a belief that everyone has a story, and a love of drains, she has been wandering through foreign countries since 2007. Accused of being a spy, a prostitute and a missionary; having repelled down elevator shafts, been caught up in political protests and nearly arrested, she has developed a fearless approch to photography seeking out the moments both violent and peaceful that give life meaning.

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