One component of my journey is to travel to various parts of the country to become familiar with both the people and the land they live in so that I might have a better sense of the larger scheme of things. As a result, part of the trip planned for us by Jimmy Lama who is one of the facilitators of our mission, is to trek into the Himalayas. So we rose early in the morning at the hotel and had a quick breakfast before loading our back packs and ourselves into a van, to venture out on the legendary Road to Pokara, our only route the the “sacred mountains”.
Last night at dinner was the first time I had ever heard about the road to Pokara and I actually thought that what I was being told was a joke because we had all been teasing each other about the snakes, spiders, wild dogs, and other dangers that we might encounter on our trek into the Himalayas. I also thought the tales about the road were fabricated because it had become in-vogue to try to frighten each another about such things.
The road it was said, was a seven-hour exhausting foray into the world’s highest mountains full of sharp twists and turns bordered by steep cliffs with long brake-burning, suspension crushing, uphill and downhill legs. It was also said that huge trucks full of stone from the mountains, and giant buses packed with passengers, both inside and on the roofs and bumpers, transporting not only human cargo, but produce, and chickens and other such commodities also took the route.
Supposedly, to make things even worse, drivers heading both directions vied for the highest speeds possible, using both sides of the road whenever possible, in an intense road-race like competition to see who could make the trip the fastest. This unique process was fueled by severe economic distress, where the quicker a driver could transport his or her goods or passengers between Kathmandu and Pokara, the higher their rehire value would be in an extremely challenging job market and the more likely the possibility that they would be hired back.
In reality, as our white diesel van filled with two porters, a guide, our driver, and six would-be mountain trekkers with backpacks hit the infamous road, it quickly became apparent to me that everything I had been told was true, and that our driving in Kathmandu with it’s chaotic bumper-car driving course, had been just a preschool exercise in Nepali driving. And that this journey to Pokara was the one that separated the men from the boys. Until you see it, it’s hard to imagine, but just picture yourself in the back of a van, driven by some unknown driver, screaming down treacherous mountain roads, often reaching speeds of sixty or seventy miles per hour on a road that has a posted speed limit of ten.
I might also add, that having now survived the trip to Pokara, I have for the first time really come to understand why one would want to embrace reincarnation.
Making the trip over the road to Pokara requires one to literally accept that death is eminent for us all, and that wether we die flying off a cliff in a grinding twisted ball of metal and flames trying to make it to the famed trails of the Himalayas, or wether we successfully make it through to old age really doesn’t matter, because we’ll get another shot during the next round. And this concept seems to be the presiding law of driving.
During the course of the seven hour trip, each of us became white-knuckled passengers as our van continuously crossed to the wrong side of the road as we passed huge trucks, slow motorcycles, and other slower cars hugging the cliff’s edge in the wrong lane while drivers coming toward us refused to give ground and honked continuously. I quickly learned not to hang my arm out the window, as we often passed cars with literally an inch to spare, and when I did put my arm outside, it became covered with dust from our periodical ventures off the road into the dirt medians bordering the cliffs.
Four times during that trip, we had to stop while less fortunate vehicles were towed out of the roadway after they had flipped, been sideswiped, or were being pulled back onto the roadway after tittering precariously over huge drop-offs after breaking through the flimsy barriers. I also observed a bus far below, that had obviously taken it’s passengers to heaven on some earlier trip.
I don’t know if anyone died in the accidents that took place during our journey, but I can tell you for sure, that if they survived, they’ll never forget the experience.
Enough of the challenging parts of the road, the bottom line is we made it in one piece, and even got a chance to meet a few villagers in the tiny impoverished hamlets along the way as we waited for accidents to be cleared.
Another interesting thing I observed, was that marijuana grows all along the road to Pokara, and both the villagers openly, and my guess would be that some of the drivers, more quietly, partook of the drug to survive the daily tension they faced.
Having survived the cliff road, the ” highway” rapidly deteriorated into a partial paved asphalt track filled with huge deep pot holes. This change in road surface didn’t seem to have any effect on our driver however, as he continued forward without slowing down. The trip from that point on was like being in a washing machine for the next hour or so, literally hitting the roof with every deep hole.
Eventually, and thankfully, we made it to the last outpost and the beginning of the trail into the world’s highest mountains. Without a rest as time was critical, we struck out on the trail to Gorapani in order to make it to our first planned accommodations before dark. One doesn’t want to be trapped between outposts and we were told that while we could still trek upwards in the dark with flashlights, safety was our highest goal. Of course none of us had any real sense of what lay before us, other than our guide and porters.
After about twenty minutes of gradual uphill incline on a beautiful dirt trail surrounded by lush green mountains, I began to feel somewhat exhausted and wondered wether or not I could make it. The altitude was already high, and just walking was somewhat taxing.
Just that thought was somewhat challenging because I consider myself in fair shape. I will however say, that shortly after my thinking that the trail was tough, we started up something far tougher which I fondly like to call … the steps from hell.
Imagine a steep mountain trail with an uphill wall of mountain on one side, and a cliff right at the edge on the other side, about four feet wide, with steps thrown together from loose stones. Now imagine that trail continually working itself upward at an angle, where some parts are so steep that they require you to take four or five steps and then stop for a minute or two for a rest. Now imagine those steps continuing onward and upward by the thousands and hundreds of thousands as far as you can see, until they disappear into the very clouds themselves. That is the trek to Gorapani!
What was unique and wonderful about the climb though, was that periodically there were small villages or inns with food and even places to stay if you just wanted to give up. Each small village had at least a family or two, and some even had
Fifteen or twenty people. Friendly children and adults greeted us at each tiny outpost with a warm Namaste, and I was moved by the loving attitude these high dwellers shared.
At one point high up the trek, we stopped at one such resting place and ordered roast chicken, Napali bread, and Napali Sweet-Milk Tea. We were starving and tired, with legs of rubber and so looked forward to a meal. As we sat waiting, our host started chasing a chicken around, and without ceremony quickly caught it butchered it and washed it under running water flowing from snowmelt. Then she threw it in a pan and served it an hour later. Thus we were reminded of the true nature of our meals at home, once one removes all of the curtains disguising reality. Nevertheless we all ate heartily, with only a few uncomfortable jokes about the chicken we’d met before eating it.
By the time it turned dark, we were still continuously climbing up using our flashlights to define safe footing. We decided as a group that we just couldn’t make it to our original destination, and so we elected to stay in the next available village. We found a small place which was quite simple, but clean, and had a tasty local meal and a reasonably decent nights sleep. Throughout the night, we could hear the constant barking and growling of the wild dogs along the trail, and I was glad for the simple shelter of my 5’X6′ room high on stilts overhanging the precipice and lovely gorge below.
The following morning we awoke sore and tired around sunrise. Our guide informed us that the trail was going to get more difficult and steeper now, and as hard as it had been getting to our present position, I had found a new kind of strength from just having accomplished the climb so far.
We worked our way up the mountain, passing above the clouds, now surrounded by dense green almost tropical growth. It all seemed so out of place considering how high we were. Wonderful flowers almost alien in their strangeness, like nothing I’ve ever seen before thrust out of sheer rock walls. And cascading waterfalls fell from towering mountainsides as they fell to the gorge far below. Colorful mushrooms and fairy moss clutching decaying trees, some eight feet in diameter. And strange mosses, perhaps ancient kin to those of the Everglades, hang along with huge leafed vines.
And to top it all, through continuously swirling and moving mists far above us, white primordial peaks reveal themselves and then disappear in an instant, making one question if they really saw them, or if they were just a hopeful figment of our imagination.
But with all this beauty, we still head up. Up beyond the stretch of the imagination. Up beyond the point where even those of brave heart and tenacious strength dare to proceed.
As the air becomes thinner, my breath becomes labored, but still we go up. Tiny villages with even higher dwellers still greet us with smiles.
I pass a local man and two women with heavy loads on their backs, supported with colorful bands around their heads, whose job it is to supply the tiny outposts of humans who live above us all. Soap, pots and pans, and a hundred pound sack of rice, all on one tiny woman’s pack, and her partner carries 20 live chickens and coops and feed on his. Just seeing them makes me ashamed of how little strength I have as a privileged man from a wealthy country, blogging about my phenomenal feat of climbing into the Himilayas. But even more humbling was the point when after trekking for two days up, when I was totally exhausted, I met a five or six year old girl who paused to say Namaste as she bounded past me on her way up the mountain to her home.
Nevertheless l know that what I am accomplishing right now, is a feat which other than present company, is unlikely to have been accomplished by anyone else I’ll meet in my lifetime.
In closing for tonight, I’d just like to say, that the sheer tenacity of these people, and their desire for dignity and equality stands out. And I am moved to share their stories and find ways to help them without quenching that special spark which makes them so unique.