IT ALL BEGAN IN YUNNAN I was born in Tokyo and grew up during the second world war. My interest in the outdoors started as a teenager but it took until university before I could join my friends in mountaineering. From early on I was fascinated by the exploration of unknown territories and, in the 1960s, I was lucky to be part of a Japanese expedition to South America. There we undertook several first ascents of peaks in the Cordillera Blanca, in Peru, and in the Bolivian Andes.
A key turning point in my life was moving to Hong Kong (Nakamura was sent to the city by the tunnel-building company he worked for and lived in Sheung Wan from 1989 to 1994). It was on holiday in Lijiang, Yunnan province, that I experienced a deeply touching moment: I saw for the first time the Yulong Xueshan, the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. The mountain was the spark for my personal odyssey through western China, which lasted for more than two decades.
PEAK PERFORMANCE In the beginning I travelled mostly to the provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan, then gradually moved my interest to eastern Tibet, where a lot of areas remained blank spots on the map. I found hundreds, maybe thousands, of unknown and unclimbed peaks bordered by the Himalayas in the west, the deep gorges of the Yangtze and Mekong in the south, and the Chinese plain in the east. In search of new discoveries I have returned to this area again and again on more than 37 expeditions in the past 25 years. The uniqueness of the area lies in the variety of its landscapes: many peaks tower into the sky, not unlike the Alps; others are glaciated and resemble the mountains of South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula. I was also fascinated by the minority people that live in these remote valleys – the unique cultures of the Khamba, Kongbo and Pome people on the eastern Tibetan plain or those of northwestern Yunnan that live along the Mekong and Salween rivers.
The main reason this area has remained so remote is that the logistics to get there are often very complicated – Chengdu, Kunming and Kathmandu provide the main access points. But the tricky part is the red tape; permission has to be obtained from up to four organisations and often there is no official procedure or tariff and the process is subject to negotiation and the goodwill of the local government representative. In 1999, my partner and I were arrested in Nyingchi prefecture, in east Tibet, for not having a travel permit, despite having obtained all the correct papers. We were released a day later but the incident put me on a black list for more than a year and a half and it took a lot of effort, money and good contacts to get the travel ban lifted.
PRINCIPLES OF AN EXPLORER In my opinion, an excellent mountaineer or explorer has to do three things: practise (visit the places), read (build on other explorers’ work) and write (publish articles and maps). “Slow and steady” and “continuation needs power” are my key mottos. It’s important that all my expeditions are self-funded. I have never had any sponsors or financiers. This has allowed me a free hand, but not always made it easy to publish my work. My journeys of discovery through eastern Tibet have provided me with a second life after retirement.
While I am way too old to climb all these untouched peaks – I am 82 – I see myself more as a source for other mountaineers. I provide information, maps, photos and knowledge freely to anyone interested in the region. Climbers such as Mick Fowler, Mark Richey, Richard Jenkins and a recent expedition by Hong Kong-based mountaineers have followed my information and suggestions.
TERRA INCOGNITA The 2009 expedition (to Tibet) stands out. The objective was the exploration of four valleys across gorge country: two in the upper Yigong Tsangpo, one in Botoi Tsangpo and one in Kangri Garpo West. One day, my team attempted to cross a pass by horse, but heavy snow blocked our way. We were probably the first people for almost 90 years to attempt this feat. British explorer Brigadier-General George Pereira recorded that pass in his journal in 1922: “There was a regular jumble of high mountains in every direction. But towering over the rest was one in shape like the Matterhorn, which must have been well over 18,000 feet in height.” I was deeply moved by the breathtaking prospects of the snowy peaks – range after range to the east and south – from the pass and was very excited. I was entering terra incognita.
Japanese climber who lost nine fingers in 2012 Everest attempt abandons fresh bid for summit because he ‘wouldn’t come back alive’
We climbed up to an ideal lookout point, at 4,070 metres, from where I looked down onto a beautiful lake. What a magnificent view! Lake Jambo Tso was born in recent years due to the receding Maraipo Glacier and is surrounded on all sides by unclimbed stunning 6,000-metre peaks. A Russian topographical map, more than 35 years old, does not show the lake. I was probably one of the first people to see it.
MOUNTAINS TO CLIMB There has been immense change to the region, which I have had to witness over the past 25 years. New roads and access to electricity have changed the local life in these remote areas rapidly. Horses are being replaced with cars and motorbikes. Locals watch TV and video, through which news of the outside world can be learned. On one of my last expeditions, we had problems accessing a remote valley as no local herders had any knowledge of the area. They used to venture there on horses but nobody is accessing these valleys any more as there are no motorcycle tracks. Technological advancement has lead to certain areas becoming even more remote.
In January, I published most of my findings, maps and photographs in the book East of the Himalaya Mountain Peak Maps – Alps of Tibet and Beyond (in English, Japanese and Chinese). It’s the culmination of my work for all these years and should be the new reference for the area. But I am not stopping yet. Later this year, I am going back to Yunnan. There are still a few mountains that need to be checked out.