SUIT­ING UP

Action Asia - - WHERE’S HOT -

Be­cause life – at least some­times – is a beach, not just big hills and back­coun­try.

EVEN FROM THE AIR, THE HI­MALAYAS have the power to dwarf you. An un­bro­ken chain of peaks, sum­mits glint­ing white, al­lur­ing but nigh-im­pass­able on the ground. Brack­eted by the colour­ful planes of the In­dian sub­con­ti­nent and the high-al­ti­tude desert of the Ti­betan plateau, the might­i­est peaks in the world can only be at­tained with great ef­fort and at some peril. For the Ti­betans and Hin­dus that live un­der them, in re­mote and iso­lated val­leys, they cast the shadow of the sa­cred too: they are the un­reach­able abode of the di­vine, the source of all wa­ter and life. Our l i t t l e a i r pl a ne f l i e s t i midly f r om Kath­mandu to Nepal­gunj, a mul­ti­cul­tural city in south­east­ern Nepal, bor­der­ing the In­dian state of Ut­tar Pradesh. A trad­ing hub, there Hin­dus, Mus­lims, Bud­dhists, Sikhs and Chris­tians live and work cheek-by-jowl. Most im­por­tantly for me, this is the gate­way to the wilder­ness of Dolpo, long re­garded as Nepal’s ‘next fron­tier’. Ac­ces­si­ble only by foot or on horse­back – and that is when con­di­tions favour it – Dolpo has re­tained its Ti­betan iden­tity, un­trou­bled by the tri­als of its cul­tural home­land. Ti­tanic en­cir­cling peaks have shielded it from the outer world. In the past, the only vis­i­tors would be lamas, or yak car­a­vans bring­ing grain and other com­modi­ties over the high passes in ex­change for salt. To­day, its an­cient paths are ir­re­sistible to ad­ven­tur­ers look­ing for a dif­fer­ent Nepal and the sense of sep­a­rate­ness is only height­ened dur­ing win­ter when snow­storms make the moun­tain passes al­most in­tractable. Ja­gan Tim­ilsina, a Nepalese moun­taineer, and I have there­fore cho­sen this time for our cross­ing of the Hi­malayas via Dolpo. Our small ex­pe­di­tion is seek­ing the snow leop­ard, the elu­sive fe­line that haunts the wild ranges of Cen­tral Asia. We also want to ex­pe­ri­ence sa­cred places, in­grained in Ti­betan spir­i­tu­al­ity: the Crys­tal Moun­tain (of­ten called Ribo Drugta by lo­cals), Shey Gompa, and a li­brary dis­cov­ered a few decades ago, hid­den be­hind the wall of a monastery, and con­tain­ing a wealth of 12th-cen­tury Ti­betan manuscripts. The dif­fi­cul­ties of our win­ter cross­ing are wel­come. We are drawn to this en­deav­our pre­cisely be­cause we want to chal­lenge our lim­its and our re­solve. We set out re­bel­liously, against the no­tion that such travel is a thing of the past. Why should we set­tle for the safety and com­fort of crowded tourist-traps and clichés? Even to­day – es­pe­cially to­day – travel can be about pur­su­ing your pas­sion. In our age, we can equip and pre­pare our­selves for life-en­rich­ing ad­ven­tures that would have been re­served for only the most ex­treme trav­ellers just a few decades ago. The abyss that used to di­vide pi­o­neer­ing ex­plor­ers from the rest of us has been some­what bridged. It still takes a fair amount of met­tle to be out here in the dead of win­ter but there is a real op­por­tu­nity that I can re­trace the foot­steps of those that I ad­mire, to ful­fil my dreams, to pur­sue

the fuel for my in­ner fire. In 1973, Peter Matthiessen trav­elled to Dolpo, also seek­ing the snow leop­ard, among other quarry. He was ac­com­pa­ny­ing the nat­u­ral­ist Ge­orge Schaller on a two-month sci­en­tific ex­pe­di­tion. Matthiessen recorded his ad­ven­ture in The Snow Leop­ard, a book that has in­spired me, and countless oth­ers, and that serves as a model for our cur­rent ad­ven­ture. I want to know if such leg­endary trips are still pos­si­ble, 45 years af­ter the orig­i­nal. As the sun rises in Nepal­gunj, Jaga and I board a small plane. A mere gnat buzzing amid gi­ant peaks, ap­pre­hen­sion clutches at me as we skirt sheer cliffs and gusts buf­fet the plane, sway­ing it per­ilously to­wards for­bid­ding out­crops of grey and white. There are par­al­lels be­tween Matthiesen’s jour­ney and ours but also stark dif­fer­ences. For ex­am­ple, it took our hero over a month to reach Up­per Dolpo from Pokhara. The un­pre­dictable weather and the more pre­dictable stub­born­ness of his porters spice his nar­ra­tive. Air­planes and mod­ern gear al­low us to move faster and be in­de­pen­dent of oth­ers. We don’t need porters so don’t need to stick to their dol­drum itin­er­ar­ies. We travel light and fast. If we keep our pace up, we will reach Shey Gompa in three nights. Set­ting off in late Septem­ber, Matthiessen wanted to avoid the win­ter snows but in­stead found abun­dant rain and sleet. In late De­cem­ber, our jour­ney is all sun and blue skies. Bet­ter still, there is - sur­pris­ingly - no snow. We are on an an­cient trail that chases a glacial river. Steadily, the trail winds up a deep val­ley. The path is un­usu­ally crowded: fam­i­lies, to­gether with their yaks, have left the higher vil­lages to es­cape the ex­pected harsh­ness of win­ter. They will roam the trail for the next two months. They could go to bet­ter pas­tures at lower al­ti­tude, but then they would have to pay a tax. So they keep to these se­cluded val­leys. There is a vil­lage by the shores of Phok­sundo Lake: it’s been aban­doned. It’s al­ready late but mild enough that we don’t even bother to set up tents. In­stead, we find refuge un­der mil­lions of stars. Warm­ing up in­side my sleep­ing bag I am moved by a ‘pri­mor­dial in­tu­ition’ as Matthiessen calls it. It is a uni­ver­sal and time­less tra­di­tion, to un­der­stand what is mean­ing­ful by gaz­ing at moun­tains and stars. I am happy to reaf­firm this truth as sleep claims me. From a nar­row and icy side-val­ley, we ap­proach Khang La, a pass at 5,279 me­tres (17,320 feet). We are as­saulted by dark­ness and bit­ter cold. The fea­tures of the land­scape mimic the jour­ney of the mind. Only through an­guish and dif­fi­culty could you ex­pect to reach the gates of Sham­bala, the myth­i­cal king­dom that has long fas­ci­nated the West. In Hindu tra­di­tion, it is the birth­place of Kalki, the fi­nal in­car­na­tion of Vishnu. To Ti­betans it is where Maitreya will be born, and be­come Bud­dha.

“The abyss that used to di­vide pi­o­neer­ing ex­plor­ers from the rest of us has been some­what bridged.”

Light­weight three-piece car­bon/ fi­bre­glass pad­dles with length ad­justable from 180-210cm.

WALK­ING AMONG GI­ANTS The scale of the Hi­malayas has dwarfed mod­ern ad­ven­tur­ers and leg­endary ex­plor­ers alike – and kept Dolpo largely iso­lated.

WIN­DOW ON THE PAST Dolpo is prac­ti­cally un­changed since it was first colonised, some­where around the 12th cen­tury. It re­mains un­de­vel­oped, towns hardly ever larger than eight house­holds.

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