If you want to know where we were, I'm not sure I can tell you. Maps weren't available, not even at a neighborhood yak station. "I doubt that they exist," said one of our leaders.
The few Tibetans we met after heading off into the wilds from the cliff-hanging commune of Zelun told us we were in the Changping Valley of Tibet. The Chinese who approved our trek placed us in the Qika Valley in the southwest part of Sichuan Province in the People's Republic.
"All the same thing," said She Qiang, the Chinese translator assigned to what at first seemed a long, wrong walk. "Politically, we are in China, historically, geographically and ethnically, Tibet, somewhere on the Tibetan plateau. But exactly where...?" He smiled a resigned smile. "This is my first time, too."
When the blizzard hit and the temperature fell well below freezing—almost as low as our morale—and we were soaked to the bone at 12,000 feet, it really didn't seem to matter what the dateline of the obit would be. The better known, more fashionable Tibet of Shangri-La, Dalai Lamas and high-rise monasteries, was perhaps 500 miles to the west, and we were plodding and cursing in the considerably less prestigious, almost never frequented Dawa mountains, a range lorded over by a 21,000-foot peak called Siguniang, whose snowy topknot looks like a billboard for Dairy Queen.
Not that we were in the low-rent district. While the Chinese are recent entries in the trekking business, neither as experienced nor as accommodating as the Nepalese, at least they're willing and cheerful—maybe because they charge about three times as much.
"Extortion," was New York ornithologist Ben King's word for the $200-a-day rates for a pioneering journey into the remote valley. "But the Chinese have the hottest tourist country in the world, and they know it." Still, King, considered by some to be the foremost authority on Asian birds, felt happy to pay, if only for the chance to see white-eared pheasants for the first time, rare creatures he spied one morning on a ledge about 400 feet above us. Summoning the group to his powerful telescope, he said, "We are most likely the only Westerners alive ever to see this sight, maybe the only people, considering that the Chinese government has only recently reopened this valley to foreigners, and ornithology is a very low priority here."
We peered at 20 large red-faced, though predominantly white, birds whose broad wings were tipped in black. But within minutes the show was closed to us forever by a curtain of mist.
It had been a moment of elation for King, an ornithological and personal milestone. "That was my 1,700th species of Asian bird"—seen, recognized and filed in his brain. A birdman couldn't have been more pleased than Henry Aaron was with No. 715.
"Worth the price of admission," said Jack Crawford of Weston, Mass., who heads an import-export business, with a congratulatory nod. "If we get out."
This was on the second day of either the second or third trekking incursion into these parts by foreigners—nobody keeps stats, or, at any rate, reveals them—and the prevailing mood was "How can I possibly be here of my own free will?"