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.