We revisited our most popular route in mid-June. The rainy season is theoretically under way by this time, but much of Yunnan was still gripped by drought and the forecast was fair. Read on for the dramatic consequences!

After breakfast at the Karma Cafe in Zhongdian, I map out the route for guest trekkers Jenny and Phyllis. The Karma Cafe is in a restored courtyard on a small square in the center of what’s left of the old market town. Only a few dozen such original buildings are left, which is a particular shame as this is, I think, the only remaining example of a pre-modern Tibetan market town. Next door’s house is literally falling apart – a section of its roof fell into the street while we were having breakfast one day last autumn – but nothing can be done about it as the co-owner is exiled in India. In the meantime, around the corner a concrete monstrosity that breaks every planning code in the local book has been erected, and no doubt there are more such to come.

I’ve got my photos out of sync here – this was dinner the night before the above breakfast, also at the Karma Cafe, which offers an eclectic mix thanks to its Tibetan-loving Taiwanese-American boss.

The Red 2nd and 6th Armies reached Zhongdian at the end of April 1935. They were travelling north to unite with the much larger Red 4th Army, which was stationed in and around Ganzi in northwest Sichuan. Our route on this trek follows the Reds’ trail backwards – from the Xiao Zhongdian plain over Mt Yaha and down to the north bank of the Jinsha River. Why backwards? Well, Mt Yaha was the first of the great Snowy Mountains crossed by this part of the Red Army. At the pass, Mt Yaha is 3,924 meters above sea level, while the Jinsha River flows past at little over 1,800 meters. When the Reds crossed, the top of the mountain was deep in snow, to say nothing of armed and unfriendly Tibetans, and many soldiers died from exhaustion, exposure and altitude sickness. Starting from the Xiao Zhongdian plain, however, the trek up is a mere 700 meters and we begin already semi-acclimatized after a day on the plateau. The hiking stages make better sense this way.

On the short trail towards Camp 1 at the foot of Mt Yaha, our team meets a group of Tibetan ladies heading back home to Tuanjie Village.

Jenny meets our mules, which had come over the mountain from Shangjiang to meet us at Camp 1.

Afternoon tea in the glorious evening sunshine at Camp 1, which was only about an hour and a half’s easy walk from our starting point, itself a short drive south of Zhongdian after lunch. This camp is within a few hundred yards of the broad grassy space the Reds used as their first camp on the Tibetan Plateau. They had been given a hot time on the mountain by Tibetan militia, and were prepared for plenty more fighting ahead – especially to take the large and wealthy Songzanlin monastery just north of Zhongdian. However, the senior monks had by this time held a conclave and decided to make terms, offering the Reds grain from the monastery’s stores and allowing them to trade freely with the locals. For the following month, the Red Army rested, resupplied, planned and propagandized in preparation for the march north.

At 3,200 meters above sea level, a churn of fresh yak-butter tea is just what the doctor ordered to stave off altitude sickness. If you served me this in Beijing, I would not be happy. Somehow, the environment of the Tibetan Plateau makes it not only acceptable, but thoroughly desirable.

Any ideas what this flower is called?

Or this?

I am pretty sure this is a Rhododendron wardii.

But I don’t know what this beauty is.

Close to the upper pasture at the top of Mt Yaha, the trail enters a primeval rhododendron forest. After rather a damp day, the sun burst through as we approached camp.

This alpine lake was within a few hundred yards of the pasture where we camped, more than 3,800 meters above sea level.

Jenny steps onto the highest pasture of Mt Yaha, where a handful of herders were looking after their yaks. Unfortunately, that meant Tibetan dogs to guard their camps, which meant an all-night cacofony. In theory, from here we could look across the Xiao Zhongdian plain all the way to Mt Haba, at more than 5,400 meters above sea level the fourth-highest mountain in Yunnan. The weather was closing in, however, and Haba remained stubbornly obscured by cloud.

We move on to the following day, which was mostly unrecorded on film because of the heavy rain that began during the night and persisted at varying degrees of intensity throughout the day. We waited most of the morning for the rain to ease, but as morning tea time approached our caravan leader, Lao Ding, became increasingly agitated. He insisted we set off as soon as possible, otherwise the water in the mountain streams might rise to the point where we would be unable to pass. Having experienced the main river crossing several times previously, we were in no doubt as to the wisdom of Lao Ding’s advice. Barely pausing for a snack after making the initial steep descent to the first bridge (now a more solid structure than in times past, I was happy to discover), we hurried on. With the rain having penetrated every part of our waterproofs barring the gaitors, it was a relief to descend to warmer air below 3,000 meters. Lao Ding took the mules ahead, knowing that they would have to cross a more difficult ford than the rest of us. About half an hour before we reached our own crossing, Lao Ding was back to hurry us along – the water level had risen to the top of the bridge, which was in imminent danger of being washed away.

Perhaps I should have been concerned, but I must confess to rather enjoying this race against time. It conjured up a satisfyingly Red Army-ish sense of challenge. When we reached the “bridge”, however, I did return rather abruptly to reality. On the one hand, I was relieved to see that the wooden planks were still there, and that they were much wider and more solid than had been the case on my previous visits; on the other, there was water rushing right over the top of the central span and the entire crossing was several yards wider than normal.

I do wish we had been able to video the crossing. Once I’d done it a few times, going back and forth to carry gear and help the others, I even started enjoying it, as it wasn’t nearly so scary as it looked initially. It did mean giving up even on dry feet, though. The river bed was quite stable and it was perfectly easy to ford with the aid of hiking sticks. Still, I don’t think we’ll be tackling this route in June again. For the rest of the way down, I expected any moment to see the bridge sail past on a frantic descent to the Jinsha.

Below the first village on the west side of Yaha, we established a kitchen and single bedroom in this hut, which also furnished multiple opportunities for hanging up our sopping gear. We tried using the shelter next door, as well, but that turned out to be infested with several million small bugs. At least there are no leeches here. As far as I know.

Undaunted by the testing descent, Yang Xiao revived spirits all round with a hearty dinner.

While Jenny occupied the hut, the rest of our small team camped out overlooking the Jinsha River, which can just be seen in the top right corner of this photo.

Five mules accompanied us on the trek. This trail was once commonly used by Tibetans from Xiao Zhongdian, who took produce down the mountain to market at Shangjiang. Now it is mostly kept open by villagers from the valley, who go up the mountain to forage for wild mushrooms and medicinal herbs. Our caravan leader, Lao Ding, has also started doing some business with a Kunming company, which brings tourists to experience a bit of “Long March spirit”. They do things the hard way, starting from Shangjiang and crossing the pass in one, lung-bursting day. Lao Ding is trying to get enough money together to build a proper bridge at the ford where we had so much difficulty.

Our group gathers for a final photo. Behind us is the first real bridge on the descent into the village of Fuku, where the mule team dispersed to its various homes.

Yang Xiao shares an au revoir photo with Lao Ding, who is undoubtedly one of the most capable caravan leaders we have worked with.

With the mule team having signed off, our gear travels the last couple of kilometers by tractor-cab.

After lunch in Shangjiang, we drove 70 km downstream to the small town of Shigu, where the Jinsha [Yangtze] River turns through almost 180 degrees to flow back towards the north. This chain suspension bridge is known as the “Red Army Bridge”, as at the time of the Long March it offered the only route north to various ferry points along the great river. The bridgeheads are, I believe, original, but the span was replaced after being swept away by a flood in the late 1930s.

Jenny stands at the apex of the “First Bend in the Yangtze”. From here, it’s just a couple of hours drive to Lijiang and the end of the road for this short journey.