One of the many strange things about travelling is the sudden change of circumstances and climate that happen to the traveller. Yesterday we woke up with a slight shudder in a bunkhouse in a high, desolate, zero-horse village in a valley on the roof of the world, watching dawn break (at half past eight in the morning!) and denouncing a very tall mountain for hiding its true size. We breakfasted on poorly translated pancakes and fried foods which turned out to be soup, in a room thick with the smoke of a hundred Tibetan men’s card games, heated only by the warmth of dried yak dung.
Today, we woke up with the light inside a very comfortable canvas safari tent, situated halfway down a steep river gorge in a lush subtropical semiwilderness. Breakfast was eggs made to order & coffee from a snow white porcelain cup. I am typing this from a hammock strung under dappled shade, with the roar of cicadas and a cold banana lassi my only company.
We left Tibet yesterday, completing our thousand-kilometre Land Cruiser sojourn over the Himalayas, seeing (from afar) some of the highest mountains in the world. The previous night we had overnighted just below the Everest Base Camp at over 5200 metres; unfortunately we were so racked by altitude sickness we barely slept a wink and had to retreat to a lower altitude immediately the next morning, missing out on the walk from First Base to Second Base (no, really). We saw some ‘traditional’ (read=poor verging on squalid) Tibetan villages and then zoomed to the border on the smooth new Chinese roads. The last pass we crossed, at 5100 metres, gave us impeccable views of Xixibangma and the accompanying range, and then we started down, down, down. We sped through the high, flat, ancient river beds, down into the parched permafrosted scrub zone, down along the start of the cathedral river canyons, down through the alpine zones of green conifers and fresh, thick air. So much green, everywhere we look! We drank it all in.
Somewhere between 2000 and 3000 metres we reached the China(Tibet)/Nepal border, the ‘Friendship Bridge’ over the canyon. We jostled with Nepalis hunched double under bundles of clothes and blankets more than a metre a side wide, changed our money, and seemingly changed the continent we were in, let alone the country. The Chinese side was anally ordered; armed military hurried us along when we stopped for 30 seconds to read the saccharine propaganda regarding the ‘Friendship Bridge’.
“Can we just read this?”
Shakes head, waves assault rifle.
We crossed over into subcontinental chaos; the sing-song rounded vowels if not yet the breathy consonants of the Indian languages; potato and pea pakora and bright orange sugary jilebi for snacking, not dumplings and buns; wee children with huge, dark eyes accented all around with kohl; squalor and good smells; buses with musical horns; the delightful version of the Queen’s English that only survives in this part of the world, lost forever in England. Together we jump over the red line demarcating China from Nepal; we turn around to take a photo from the Nepali side but are immediately surrounded by five aggressive Chinese plainclothes policemen. OK, OK, we'll delete the photos...
I am excited and somewhat apprehensive, while Mrs P is bubbling almost to the point of hopping from foot to foot, 25 kilos of baggage notwithstanding. We pass quickly through the old-fashioned politeness of the visa office (America, take note – it’s quite nice if people feel they are wanted in your country) into the anarchy of the bus station, manage to procure the prime seats (next to the door) on a bus leaving for Barabise in a little over an hour, get some snack food, and wait. Over the next hour, the bus fills up. And fills up. And, just when I thought it was impossible, fills up some more. In the end every seat is more than taken (except for the half dozen earmarked as cargo and literally full to the roof with thick bundles of clothing and cheap Lhasa beer), every armrest is sat on, every square inch of standing room is accounted for. Latecomers, mainly energetic youths able to clamber up and down with ease) are directed to the roof, while the conductor hangs precariously to the open doorway, flattening his body against the press of humanity bulging out the door whenever we squeeze past another bus, or a cliff face. I don’t really envy this young man his job; not only does he have to maintain control (and secure payment from) over every contradictory person in or on this bus, but less than a metre behind and below him the road ends and the canyons drops down to boiling blue icemelt a hundred metres below. Within ten minutes of the bus leaving, we have each acquired a small Nepali child on our laps; they spend most of the ride happily asleep and drooling while we have a small moment of cardiac arrest when the mothers are both ordered off the bus during one of the periodic inspections, unconcernedly walking out of our sight and leaving us with their leaky progeny. A weatherbeaten Nepali roadworker quizzes us for a long, surprisingly unfrustrating (for him) time about where we are headed to, and offers me a roasted corn husk when he is satisfied.
Somehow the young conductor tells us when it’s time for us to get off; with a few more stubbed toes and gentle shoves we extract our bags from a dense pile crowned with more children. We walk cautiously across a gently waving chain link bridge, and we have arrived, in this seeming paradise. We are in a sort of ‘adventure resort’, meaning a place which offers a large range of adventurous activities along with a beautifully relaxing place to recharge between them. The resort spills down the canyon side across from the main road, a smorgasbord of small lawn and garden areas, shady benches to sit and ponder, and beautifully appointed safari tents for sleeping.
Over a few days we have tried several adrenaline-filled activities; from canyoning (abseiling down a running waterfall – excellent fun!), to white-water rafting over quite fierce rapids, to (scariest of all) taking a ride on top of a Nepali public bus as it weaves its way along a steep river canyon. We thought about it long and hard but rejected the idea of doing the bungy though. That's just daft.