Scaling a peak and feeling new highs

December 18, 2016 - 11:02

Getting to the top of Chiêu Lầu Thi Mountain is hard, dangerous and scary, but the reward is memories for a lifetime. Thanh Nga recounts the experience.

Breathtaking scene: The sea of clouds at Chiêu Lầu Thi peak. Photo
Viet Nam News

Getting to the top of Chiêu Lầu Thi Mountain is hard, dangerous and scary, but the reward is memories for a lifetime. Thanh Nga recounts the experience.

We did not expect that climbing a mountain would be as scary as it was thrilling, but atop Chiêu Lầu Thi, we felt it was the Everest we were standing on.

I know that this a bit of an exaggeration, but making it to the top of this mountain in the northern proince of Hà Giang had become an adventure full of danger that we hadn’t reckoned with.

The mountain, said to be the second highest peak in Hà Giang, stands 2,402m above the sea level. It is located in Hồ Thầu Commune, about 52km from the centre of upland border district of Hoàng Su Phì.

Not many tourists visit this place because the district only opened the road to Chiêu Lầu Thi two years ago. The road has been damaged seriously by landslides and floods, and is accessible only on foot or by motorbike.

 “There are four milestones in my life. Getting married, two times that I welcomed my new-born babies and experiencing Chiêu Lầu Thi,” said my fellow-traveller, known to his friends as Mr Bean for his ability to laugh and make others laugh.

I could see from his face that he was not joking about the mountain.

The road snaked its way around the edge of several mountains as we covered about 300km from Hà Nội to Hoàng Su Phì.

Knows his way: We were very lucky to have a really good guide in Vũ Thế Phương. VNS Photo Trương Vị

A bath with natural water at the Sông Chảy Hotel in Vinh Quang Town refreshed us and we enjoyed a local meal at the 666 Restaurant.

There are two ways to reach the Chiêu Lầu Thi Mountain - from Hồ Thầu Commune or Nàng Đôn Commune. We chose the second one.

We were lucky to have a good guide. One of our friends, Vũ Thế Phương, a district official, was born in the central province of Thanh Hóa but grew up in Hoàng Su Phì and knew the terrain well, including roads that aren’t on tourist maps.

Up early in the morning, we breathed in the cool air of a mountainous town. It felt good to be in such a beautiful place, home to the good-natured ethnic people of Nùng, Dao, Tày, Mông, La Chí, Hoa Hán, and Cao Lan.

We hired four motorbike taxis for the trip with a fare of VNĐ600,000 per person.

“You shouldn’t flinch, because the price is well worth it, for the skills of these drivers and the risks they take,” Phương told us.

The 30km from Vinh Quang Town to Nàng Đôn Commune is asphalted road, but narrow, winding and steep. Of course, the scenery is truly breathtaking.

The rice terraces, evidence of the agricultural skills of the ethnic communities, are stunning at harvest time as they turn a golden yellow with ripened rice stalks.

As we passed high mountains, deep valleys and many streams, we also met and befriended several Mông, Tày and Red Dao families. Giggling school kids on wobbly bicycles paid no mind to the traffic as they smiled and waved at us.

On these roads, herd of buffaloes or goats are prone to putting in guest appearances, we discovered.

It took us more than two hours to travel just 30km on a decent road as we stopped frequently to admire the scenery and take photographs.

But we had no inkling that what lay ahead was the real challenge.

Sentinel: There are tens of thousands of precious trees on Chiêu Lầu Thi Mountain. VNS Photo Trương Vị

From Nàng Đôn to Hồ Thầu Commune, the asphalted road gave way to a very rough path hewn on a mountainside. On one side loomed the mountain-wall, and the other plunged into an abyss. It was scary, but we were expecting something like this.

Phương carried me on his own motorbike. Our progress was very slow as small and huge rocks on the path made riding a bike more tiring than walking.

This was a muddy road, courtesy flooding and erosion. A landslide had swallowed a small road, so there was no question of riding the bikes. We had to walk, and the bikes had to be pushed on after another. The tension on the drivers’ faces was palpable. However, the worst was not over.

Another landslide had occurred along the next stretch. There was nothing to cling on to now, and to make things worse, a Honda bike had a puncture.

Phương kept us somewhat calm: “Don’t worry too much. Đường (one of the drivers) is a native here. He will know how to solve the problem.”

There were four motorbikes left for our five-member group. Phương suggested that he would carry one more person on his motorbike. There was no other choice.

With two persons riding pillion, Phương showed he was an expert driver, consistently getting ahead of the group and waiting for others.

As difficult as this trip was, it did not prevent us from enjoying what a very diverse ecosystem had to offer. There were tens of thousands of old and precious timber trees like pơ mu (Fokienia hodginsii) that grows only on Chiêu Lầu Thi.

The mountain is also home to rare, valuable medicinal herbs as well as many kinds of orchids.

We saw many tea trees, too. Phương told us they are San Tuyết tea. I picked a leaf and chewed on it: bittersweet and then a persistent sweetness in the throat. The tea buds are covered by fog through four seasons and kissed by winds from four directions at a height of 2,000m. They have medicinal values, we were told, and we could well believe it.

Wild boars, monkeys, snakes and deer live on the mountain. One specialty is the dầm xanh fish which can be found in the high mountain creeks of Hà Giang.

Rocky path: The way to the Chiêu Lầu Thi peak is not easy. VNS Photo Trương Vị

The occasional sight of a flock of goats sure-footedly strolling on the mountain slope was also one to remember.

And as we took in the sights, one of us Mùa Quýt Chín would let out a loud cry and make us jump. She is crazy about wild flowers and fruits, and each time she saw a beautiful strange flower or small wild berry, she would scream in delight.

At the height of 2,200m, the weather was foggy and the temperature dipped to about 15oC. We stopped a while before trying to conquer the Chiêu Lầu Thi peak.

A trail led to the top, but it was hard to find it because not many tourists visit and the place is covered with wild growth, including big trees.

We took a stick to balance and support ourselves, but Phương didn’t need one, even though the ground was wet and slippery, the trees were bathed in dew and, as always on this mountain, a chasm on one side. No handrails.

Phương went ahead to guide us, stopping sometimes to help us over the difficult parts.

Then we reached stone paths like ladders at the height of 2,327m. Each stretch was about 10m. Crossing nine such stretches, we reached the mountaintop.

Elated embraces were shared, but it was a misty day, and we were not lucky to see the sea of clouds and the stupendous scene that would have unfolded before us on a sunny day. We would have looked over the whole district of Hoàng Su Phì, its neighbour Xín Mần, and a large mountainous area to the northwest of Hà Giang.

Phương assuaged our wistfulness: “I have reached the Chiêu Lầu Thi peak 10 times, but only twice have I seen the sea of clouds stretching out in paradise.”

Chín, the most romantic of us, pulled out yet another surprise, emerging from behind a bush in a pink áo dài. She must be the only one with a photo of herself on top of Chiêu Lầu Thi in an áo dài, the long, traditional dress worn by Vietnamese women.

Going up was difficult, but climbing down the mountain was even more so. It was scary, and one of us decided to sit and drag herself on her bottom. After falling once, I became even more careful, but still missed my footing and went into a free-fall. I can’t bear to think what would have happened if I had not crashed against Phương, who was standing in the middle of the path and stood firm.

“I could hear that you were taking false steps, so I waited to help you,” he said.

After we got to where we could get on bikes again, Đường, was waiting with the motorbike repaired. The joy of conquering Chiêu Lầu Thi safely was enhanced on knowing Phương wouldn’t have to carry two people any more.

Not that the 10km path down was easy. Riding pillion, all one could do was hold tight and be as still as possible. After riding for a while, we reached a newly-built stop station at 2,100m above the sea level.

Here, there was a natural lake covered by fog all day. Scrubby trees growing in the middle of the lake gave it a sense of mystery that we gazed into, bodies numb with cold and breath turning into mist.

It began raining when when we left the stop station, slowing our progress, but an hour later, we reached the warmth of the Chán-Mủi homestay in Hồ Thầu Commune and enjoyed a meal of local specialties like sâu tre (bamboo worm) and wild vegetables.

Soft touch: A tree covered by moss. VNS Photo Trương Vị

Nine ladder layers

At the homestay, we met former chairman of Hà Giang Province Triệu Đức Thanh by chance.

He told us the story of discovering the stone paths like ladders at the height of 2,327m.

“Chiêu Lầu Thi or Kiêu Liêu Ti means nine ladder layers. Nobody new where it was. Five years ago, I asked local residents to find it, but they could not.

“Last year, I asked my nephews Triệu Chàm Chán and Triệu Chòi Hin to come and climb the mountain from a height of 2,200m. We looked hard and finally found the path with stone steps in the thicket.”

Thanh said the French colonialist troops had used this stone path when invading Hà Giang in 1887. After 1954, when they left, the steps were forgotten.

“I hope Chiêu Lầu Thi will develop like Sa Pa town in Lào Cai,” said Thanh.

I wish I could agree with him. I don’t want Chiêu Lầu Thi to become another Sa Pa.

I like it the way it is now. Wild, beautiful and poetic. VNS


Shrouded in mystery: A natural lake covered by dew all day, on the way down from Chiêu Lầu Thi peak. VNS Photo Trương Vị