This snowy pass is one we travelled over on the drive out. We went by road from Shigatse, along the Freedom Highway across the mountains down to the Nepalese border at Zhangmu. It took two days. When the weather is fine, it is one of the most beautiful trips on Earth, with wonderful views of Everest. When we did it, there was a lot of snow, as much as they usually have three months later in the year. It was still pretty spectacular, climbing up over the Thang La pass at 5,200m – 400m higher than the summit of Mont Blanc. Then endlessly down again, the longest road descent in the world, on rough winding roads, like taking a spiral staircase down from the Roof of the World. Below the snowline there was green alpine scenery with waterfalls everywhere, which seemed magical after the barren grandeur of much of Tibet.
This one is of our group sitting in the minibus going nowhere. We all look a bit tense, don’t we? We have been pulled over to the side of the road by the Maoists who control most of the Nepalese countryside. They are demanding money before they will allow us to continue on to Kathmandu. Elke is telling them that we have just come from Tibet, and have not had a chance to change money into Nepalese currency. For some reason they don’t come back with the obvious retort: “Okay, then we’ll have your euros, dollars or whatever currency you do have.” Still there is a stand-off. They won’t let us move; we won’t pay. Eventually, after an hour, they decide that kidnapping a busload of westerners will be more trouble than it is worth. They opt to let us go and try their luck with the next bunch of foreigners to pass by. (Thankfully, overall the political situation in Nepal is improving, and the truce between the King’s followers and the Maoists is holding.)
Here Vijayamala and I are sitting in a taxi at a traffic junction near the Royal Palace in the centre of Kathmandu. We are heading back to our hotel to meet people for supper. However, as you can see, the whole area is gridlocked with traffic. This snarl-up seems largely to have been caused by one man, a spectacularly inefficient traffic policeman. Perhaps his brain isn’t functioning very well, because it is drenched in carbon dioxide and particulates from the hundreds of vehicles revving impatiently around him. He completely ignores our stream of traffic for more than five minutes. Finally he imperiously beckons in our direction. Our wall of vehicles rushes forward, trying to make up for lost time. We are a motley mixture of cars, taxis, buses, motor bikes, motor rickshaws and bicycles. Then to my amazement, I see a man crossing the road, right between the wheels of the onrushing traffic. He has no legs. Being so low to the ground, he is almost unnoticeable in the melée of traffic. Doggedly he moves forwards, swinging his body along on his arms, never looking at the oncoming tyres and bumpers. Miraculously, he survives crossing five lines of traffic.
This one is the check-in desk back at Kathmandu airport. Vijayamala looks a bit shocked, doesn’t she? We have just been told that our tickets were for the flight that left the previous day. To make matters worse, glancing surreptitiously at the baggage scales, I see that our combined luggage is 25 kilos over the permitted allowance.
Thankfully I don’t have the space here to explain the mix-up (entirely our fault) that caused us to arrive a day late for our flight. The overweight baggage is easily explained: two traditional meditation tables, four Buddhist images, and various presents for people back home. This could all become very expensive… But no, the supervisor smilingly finds us two empty seats back to London, and not a word is said about our baggage, though the porter pulls a face as he hauls it off the scales.
Somehow, it feels entirely natural that everything should go well. At the end of the journey, I feel blessed. For us, this hasn’t just been a trip to Tibet; it has been a pilgrimage. We may not have prostrated all the way to the Jokhang, but still we made the effort to take ourselves across the world, to put up with rotten headaches from the altitude, to be jolted across the rough tracks that pass for roads in much of the country, and to eat far too many greasy noodles. I would have put up with much more than this for the privilege of seeing a land that has cherished and nurtured the Dharma for over 1200 years, where Buddhism is carved into the landscape, and etched in the hearts of many of its people – etched so deeply that fifty years of Chinese oppression has not been able to rub it out.
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