In writing this entry I am reminded that each step of my journey has literally served as a primer for the next. First the marvel of Kathmandu with it’s mix of ancient and modern where temples to primitive monkey gods serve as foundations for giant banyon trees whose branches support a cacophony of bare and twisted buzzing sparking electrical wires that serve as a dangerously pulsing undependable source of energy as lights go on and off unexpectedly throughout the night. And its crazy life-threatening highways and precarious backstreets, filled with competing drivers of rickshaws, cars, motorcycles, and an occasional sacred cow, vying for position among the meandering throngs of thousands of colorfully dressed people. And even more revealing, its smaller roadways where the less fortunate live, whose sidewalks are littered with piles of garbage and an occasional public cremation bench where families burn their dead in teary smoky goodbyes as the smell of burning flesh mixes with cardamom sandalwood, saffron, and sweat. Yes, Kathmandu, where even in deep poverty one is humbled by the innovative resiliency of it’s inhabitants as they peddle with bright moon-like faces, everything from hand woven Pashmina shawls, to intricately carved musical instruments … all at prices that shame a westerner who makes more money in an hour than most here make in a month, to buy as an act of compassion.
And then the unforgettable Road to Pokahara with its deadly embankments and deeply spiritual villagers where one learns patience and a true hope that there is a higher power.
And as if that weren’t enough,
Then a climb to the top of the world on the Steps from Hell, which literally challenge one to the peak of their physical and emotional being, while at the same time even more profoundly introducing one to and deepening ones appreciation for, the loving and powerfully reverent nature of the people of the world’s highest mountains. And lastly, the shortcut back to Pokahara, filled with burning busses and angry demonstrators, where a choice to continue forward might well lead to violent beatings and even death.
And yet with all of these preparations, which strengthened both my resiliency and taught me to swallow even the worst of my fears, nothing, and I repeat, nothing, could have ever prepared me for the road to Helambu and my introduction to the people who live on the farthest edges of human existence above even the clouds themselves, in what may well have been the inspiration for the book, Lost Horizons … a true ShangraLa.
A People who literally live face to face with their concept of divinity, as they share powerful stories of the giant serpents that live in the icy lakes at 20,000 feet across from them nearly at eye level, on each of the four sacred peaks which protect them. And of the powerful village shaman who centuries ago ventured forth to battle the largest of the reptiles, when it was discovered that the beast was the source of all famine and disease in their villages, and who still to this day, grapples with the huge monster at the bottom of the lake, keeping it’s evil magic from returning.
But before I share the stories of the people I’ve come to help, let me first share the journey of the road itself!
The Road to Helambu isn’t infamous like the road to Pokahara. There are no tales of dodging busses or of cars flying off embankments being told in bars or back rooms. There are no stories at all and mine this very day, might well be the very first.
The reason there are no harrowing tales or frightful legends, is because the road itself, has only been in existence for the shortest of time. You see, the Road to Helambu is an ongoing project created by a partnership between the remote villagers and the government, to carve a rough dirt track up the sheer side of the previously un-accessible mountains, to allow a fragile connection between the civilized world, and those who previously were only the stuff of legend. And we in our desire to help build schools and provide education to those in need, had the unique privilege of testing the precarious track for the first time. In fact on the way up the grueling climb, we had to wait several times for a giant backhoe to carve a passage across a rocky face on a precipice or to backfill a deep crevice that opened uninvitingly, to a three or four thousand foot drop, should the freaky packed dirt not hold.
The road, if one could foolishly call it that, zigzagged in steep switchbacks upward for five or six hours as the spinning wheels on our four wheel drive sought even the slightest hint of solid traction. Gears gnashed, and transfer cases whined, as the angle of assent brought even the power of Toyota’s best to nearly a standstill. Even at full throttle, there were times when the engine’s power gave way to the rocky climb, and we inched backward toward the edge and certain death as the smell of hot radiator steam and burning engine parts filled our nostrils. Many of our team chanted Buddhist and Hindu mantras of protection as our guides threw large rocks behind us every time we’d make another foot or so of progress. And some let out gasps and closed their eyes tightly, waiting for that feeling of free-fall one experiences when speeding down the first big hill on a roller coaster. And then, as if things couldn’t possibly get worse, it started to rain, and soft dirt road turned into churned muddy ruts.
Now the struggling 4×4’s turned into nearly uncontrollable sleds, as forward motion changed into a deadly game of driving sideways in slick clay as the Land Cruser’s rear end tried to pass the front.
The driver now fought a constant battle with the steering wheel, like a sea captain at the helm of a foundering ship during a hurricane.
But in the end we made it to the top. Far up past the swirling clouds, past the tops of towering peaks and deep glacial valleys, and like a miracle, the sun broke through revealing intense green terraced hillsides filled with waving rice and corn, and frost resilient Himalayan potatoes. Helambu!
Precisely built stone huts dotted the steep mountainsides, and smoke from yak dung hung in swirls creating mystical patterns in the air. Shangrala does exist, and I’m there!