In the 1990’s, our Tibetan friend had once done the hike we were doing, though it was different. Back then, they had travelled on foot from their village for two days. They stayed with a distant aunt and prayed to the two fairies who lived in each of the lakes that we were hiking to, a part of a festival for the holy mountain and the mountain’s lake fairies.
This time,we took only two hours to get to the trailhead by car. Our driver was a local Han Chinese woman. She had adapted to life in this Tibetan area, wearing Tibetan jewelry and generally respecting the Tibetan way of life, but, in her seven years working as a driver and bringing many people to the foot of the mountain, she had never once climbed the mountain herself. After a minute of encouragement, she agreed to join us.
The hike was not long. One-way, it was only two and a half miles. But the hike started high and went higher. We had stayed the night in Huazangsi, a tiny town at around 9,000 feet above sea level. The drive had brought us up to 11,000. From there, the trail climbed another 2,000 feet to the top lake, ending at about 13,000 feet. Starting up the mountain stairway, we were already breathing heavily. “I thought I was just out of shape,” an Aussie who came with us said when he saw the rest of us gasping.
The beauty of Maya Snow Mountain reminded me of Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains or Utah’s High Uintas. Granite peaks towering over green hills, with shale breaking off into sharp pieces and pouring down into crevices. Being in Tibet added another layer to it. Tibetan legend claims that each of the lakes has a fairy that lives in them. The fairies do not like noise, and, if their lakes are not approached with respect and quietude, we were told the fairies would whip up rain to send visitors scattering to dryer ground.
We could see almost sixty percent of the trail’s route as we climbed slowly up the mountain path. It was infuriating being able to watch how slowly we were moving, how little we had progressed. The elevation hit us so hard, it felt as if we were wearing corsets. The hundreds of sheep walked briskly beneath us like fluffy white dots floating along the grassy mountainside, immune to the altitude.
After more than an hour of hiking, we crossed over a ridgeline, and the trail quickly turned, dropping down into a smaller valley. From a distance, we noticed a short man taking photos of us. Our Tibetan friend tried to talk to him, but he was not willing to say much. He seemed to mill about, watching us for a while. He was a Han Chinese person and did not seem to be there to hike. We assumed he was a cop, sent to surveil us. Like most government officials in China, he did his job half-heartedly. After a few minutes, he began talking to two Tibetan women with several hundred sheep, then he fell asleep in the valley’s lush grass. We left him behind.
We continued in the valley, but were soon overtaken by two Chinese men wearing cheap village suits. They came around the bend and shuttled past us, dropping their still-burning cigarettes into the grass.
Our Tibetan friend, who was adamant about the power of the lake fairies, asked them to keep quiet, out of respect for the Tibetan tradition. “The fairies will make it rain if you are too loud,” she insisted.
They looked at us for a moment, not comprehending, then the tall one in front yelled, “Cheat. You’re a cheat. We’ll show you. When I get to the lake, I’m going to yell as loud I can. You’ll see. Nothing will happen. Ha.”
The shorter one said nothing, only following the jerk. We simmered, but there was little we could do. “They are from somewhere far away in central China,” our Tibetan friend said, listening to their accent as they laughed between themselves, walking towards the gap that led to the lake. They were living here temporarily, probably working on one of the construction sites we had passed on the way up. The lake was only a few hundred feet above us. We watched them and continued on, hoping they would leave soon after we arrived at the lower lake.
I do not know if it was the curse of the fairies or something else, but, just before they reached the lake, we watched the shorter man pull back. “This isn’t fun. I don’t want to go.”
“What?” The jerk said. “We’re almost there. It’s just up here. You can’t turn back now.”
“It’s just not fun.” The shorter one said. “I’m heading back.”
With that, the shorter disappeared down the valley and back around the bend. The jerk went up to look at the lake, but quickly turned around after his friend, leaving quietly.
The lower lake was shallow, tinged with the ochre of the mud that made up the lake’s bottom. In the center of the lake, a small circle of blue marked where the water dropped off deeper. Above us the granite peaks thrust hundreds of feet up, gray crags protruding from rock faces all around. We snapped up marigolds from the pasture and sprinkled them onto the lake’s surface; the lake fairies appreciated flowers.
At one end, there was a three hundred foot rock face filled with broken pieces of shale. Our Tibetan friend pointed up to the lip. “The other lake is up there.”
Moving three hundred feet higher, we had slipped into a higher plain of sublimity. Vegetation had largely disappeared. We were in alpine territory, gray rocks surrounding us everywhere. The second lake was three times as large as the lower lake, one end pressing against the flat face of the tallest peak. The water was aquamarine and, unlike the lower lake, the bottom was dappled with smooth stones, no sign of mud. A tanka, a traditional kind of Tibetan painting, had been painted into one side of the mountain. An ovoos, a pile of stones with a flurry of prayer flags flapping from it, marked the spot for sacrifices to the upper lake’s fairy. A small stone-made pathway had been carved around the lake so that worshippers could circumnavigate the water, as Tibetan religion required. We just looked around and let the beauty sink in.
But we could not linger for too long. Above us, clouds were moving in, and several noisy Chinese men had made it to the lower lake. Our Han Chinese driver scurried up to the Ovoos for the lower lake’s fairy, making a small sacrifice, and then we moved quickly down the mountain, a line of dark clouds following us.
We made it down in a little over an hour without any rain. Slowing us down most was not the difficulty breathing, but our need to save our knees. The policeman had disappeared, probably too lazy to finish his assignment. The car ride back was quiet, with only one stop for our driver to buy a gallon-sized bucket of yogurt. I nodded off for a few minutes before snapping awake as we careened down the mountain road.
When discussing the conflict between the Han Chinese and the Tibetans, people often see things as black and white. The Tibetans are one way, the Chinese are the opposite. The thing that is sticking with me most from this hike, beside the Wyoming-like beauty of the granite peaks, is the fact that the conflict between the Chinese and the Tibetans is not so black and white. Our driver was Chinese, but she was respectful of Tibetan tradition, keeping quiet around the lake and offering a sacrfice to the lake fairy. It was only the two outsiders, the two guys brought in to work construction, who dumped on the local culture. It is not so much a conflict between Chinese and Tibetans but a conflict between outsiders and locals, people who just got there and people who have always been there.