Close to the edge (down by the river)
19 Nov 2004
|Wednesday: Up early and off to the Airport again, weather doesn't look good, and I'm thinking - let's go anyway, isn't that what radar is for?. Another six hour wait, and then the green light. A 19-seat twin-prop plane, the smallest I have ever been on. The good thing is we fly above the clouds, and the mountains are awesome, huge and very present. But then everything went a bit awry.
The turbulence was terrible, like I have never experienced. And after a while the valley was getting narrower, turning into a gorge really, and we seemed to be too close either to the sides or periodically to Mountain spurs for my liking. So far I was coping fine, when with no warning at all, we just plummetted straight down like a fucking stone - only for about a second - just long enough to think "I'm going to die", but not long enough to write letters to my children apologising for being such a poor parent, or to wonder what Bruce Willis would do in this situation - but it still scared the crap out of me. I was one of the few people with a seatbelt on, and as a result one of the few still in their seat after this drop, though I did hit my head on the ceiling. People and stuff went flying, the air hostess was yelping, etc.
We just (to my reckoning) scraped over a mountain spur, and then almost immediately did a very tight 180 degree turn. This was deliberate to line us up for landing, but this was not clear at the time and did not inspire confidence after the big lurch. Neither did the way the front of the plane was going all over the place as the pilot struggled to keep control, all of which I could see from where I was. The only good news was that we landed (smoothly) within minutes. That was certainly the most exciting plane ride I have ever had, and I really appreciated why they refused to do it in fog.
Maybe it was all the adrenaline still sloshing around in my system, but when I got off the plane I was blown away by the mountains towering above us. At the time I didn't know that was pretty much the last I was going to see of them, which is why you have a range of undramatic pics aimed at giving a sense of what I could see rather than what was hidden by the almost constant cloud.
There were a bunch of Japanese who had been waiting two days to get out of Jomsom, but our pilot refused to take any passengers back after what happened to us. And I could appreciate the problem - there was a downright gale blowing, funnelled right up the valley. It was also blowing loads of dust into my face. The Japanese were a bit put out until a few of us talked to them, and then most of them were for walking out instead.
I was several hours behind my planned schedule, so set off to get as far as I could before dark. After three hours of attractive, interesting and pretty easy - albeit very windy - walking I made it to Lurjang, still quite high up, still pretty bleak, though trees starting to appear as we dropped below 3,000 metres. And no problems at all with alititude, I think I still had some of my Tibetan tolerance. And a great little guest-house, with an evening spent freezing in the family living-room while they watched abysmal Nepali TV. Travelling light seems to be working OK, as everywhere has bedding, their are guesthouses at least every 90 minutes, sometimes a dozen in each village, no need for maps really, and even more places to eat than there is to stay.
Thursday: Up early and off on the road. I am still in Mustang, another of these mythical kingdoms, though it looks a bit like a Nepali version of Tibet (except cleaner and less cold) to me. It blows me away when I stand in the guest-house doorway with my coffee and see the mountains towering above us (last I'll see of them today!)
I saw a porter today carrying the biggest load ever - they could show those Chinese coolies a thing or two. I think it was 5 or 6 single mattresses all tied together with a few other things to give it weight. It was huge. And all this is supported on a head-strap. Also everywhere are mule-trains, a bit of a menace on narrow paths with big drops. They have these great bells though and do look good. And as well as the high, crumbly and vertical drops - which I am generally getting used to and blase about - there are bridges of a similar nature, with the added bonus that some of them sway wildly as you walk across them.
One entertaining interlude involved trying to get a flock of sheep across one of the higher bridges. They were not at all keen, and kept freezing in the middle. In the end it took about fifteen people to get sixty sheep over - good job it was one of the bridges with sides. I thought that was quite enough weight on one bridge, so left them to it and waited until they were all off before I swayed across.
As I drop down it becomes less bleak, and more forested, and later and lower, more like jungle. It goes up and down a lot though, and after I have gone a total of 2,000 metres down, I change my mind about going up those 2,000 metres again just to catch a potential glimpse of the mountains. This may also be because after nearly ten hours virtually non-stop walking my ankles are aching a lot. Bit of a slog for the last hour or two, but I do make it to Tatopani and back on schedule.
Friday: Again, beautiful in the morning to stand in my hotel doorway and look back up the valley at the layers of mountains that I have come down through. Off I go again, for another six hours of walking to Bene, where I can pick up a bus. It is on this streatch that I am expecting the Maoist rebels to want a contribution. Maybe I got up too early for them, as I never did see them. I confess I was mildly disappointed.
However, as well as the usual quota of uunnerving paths, I did cross the worst bridge yet - completely falling to pieces. Several mule trains were lined up, but only two mules going at once - partly due to weight, but mostly so their drivers could watch their feet and stop them falling through the many holes. As this was also one of those bridges without sides, any mules falling in holes would probably have just tipped straight over the side into the ravine. After a while I realised no-one was going to hold the mules up while a softy Westerner wobbled across, so I set off against the flow, which led to hanging on to the side guide rope while two mules tried to push me into the ravine. More funny than dangerous really, or at least I thought so.
And then five hours on an absolutely heaving local bus visiting every mountain community in the area on every mountain road, some of which were very high indeed, toe-curlinigly so, though as I said I am getting much more relaxed about heights. A word of advice: the driver's side is usually less exposed, whatever country you are in. However, the bigger the drop the better the views, so if you have no fear, always go on the other side.
And then a much needed shower, a fab curry and on the PC. Disappointingly, no news from home, so cut Nepal short, back to Khatmandu tomorrow, and first flight I can get out. So I will be back home within the week. Weird!