Not a quick journey, but after driving 3 days across Tibet, bumping across the border in Zhangmu, catching up with the world and modern life in Kathmandu, and then flying some 8500 miles across the globe, we are all finally back home to spouses, friends, and hamro kukurs (our dogs).
While a tad grueling at times, we had some great experiences on the drive. There were goat traffic jams on the "highway", spectacular sand dunes lining th e banks of the mighty Yarlung-Tsangpo (Brahmaputra) river with the Kanjiroba Himal rising behind, lunches on river banks, views of Shishapangma, the world's 14th highest peak, surprise meetings with old friends like Mark Whetu, a legendary Kiwi climber and videographer, and even a special Dasain puja for our bus in the truck stop town of Banepa...without the traditional blood sacrifice to appease the goddess Durga - our driver sacrificed a coconut instead. (Dasain is one of the biggest festivals in Nepal and, while it is best known for the pulpati day - which entails blood sacrifice for Durga - the other four main days of the festival are wonderful occasions of giving and family time for Nepali Hindus. And, while the blood sacrifice seems a bit gruesome to our oft-naive senses, a client of mine put it well back in 1997: Well, it's shocking to see, but I guess they're just doing in public [killing animals for eventual human consumption] what we choose to do behind the doors of a slaughter house. And, at least they'll use the entire animal and not waste it! Perspective is always important...)
As wonderful as the trip was - fascinating peoples, brilliant cultures, lost kingdoms, and remote mountains - it is always a joy to get back home again. And, the long journey never fails to give me pause, time to reflect on my travels and go through the exercise I always go through after a mountain sojourn: to see what I learned.
The first item is the obvious one: I really enjoyed being on a lone, solitary peak, far away from other teams and the chaos which often accompanies Himalayan climbs. Our route on Gurla was not a first ascent, but in many ways it might as well have been. We had a map and a general idea of where the route went - but that much we could have seen from Mansarovar. But, the details were up to us, and that added a wonderful element of excitement, a tad of unknown, a bit of spice to the climbing experience. And, the fact that we were all alone put the onus on us and only us for our own safety and decision making. If we got ourselves in a jam, unlike on other mountains like Cho Oyu or Everest, there was going to be no rescue, no help from other teams. Get yourself in, and you gotta get yourself out again. So, again, I learned that I want to travel to more lone, solitary peaks and have a more unique climbing adventure.
The second main thing I learned on this trip came quietly to me as we drove across the barren plains of Tibet. It I was something I've known for a long time, but perhaps never completely verbalized to myself, so it appeared as a sort of epiphany to me: I love Nepal. Many of you are probably saying: Duh! You've been there 18 times, you've studied, written, worked, and spent more time in Nepal than some Nepalis. Of course you love Nepal! Well, good point. But, sometimes we have to be away from something to realize how much we truly value it.
For me, as we bumped along north of Dolpo, I gazed through the Landcruiser windows toward Nepal and longed to be there again. And, it was less selfish than just me wanting to be in Nepal because it is comfortable...I wanted to be there again to make a difference, to effect a lasting change, to, as Ralph Waldo Emerson (purportedly) wrote: to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived... this is to have succeeded.
While we trekked through the Humla, I saw firsthand a beautiful people that, simply by uncontrollable forces geography and economy, were stuck in a life of poverty. They work harder than most, are kind beyond belief, are wizened from the lives they lead but not from school as such niceties hardly exist in Humla. Throughout Nepal in recent years, I have seen a people ravaged by a corrupt and ineffectual government coupled with a violent Maoist insurgency, 25 million people who subsist on an average of $190 per year while their king buys $35,000 chunks of Tanzanite while visiting Tanzania. I have gained so much from Nepal and the Nepali people, they have taught me much of what I know and changed my life in ways I may never be able to express. I have had the opportunity to help by teaching English in 1998, by sponsoring - along with my family and friends - a young Tamang boy in school and in work, and by giving my time and money to Porters' Progress (www.portersprogress.org). But, my epiphany was this: it is time to do more. To create lasting, sustainable change. Nepal has given that to me...it is only right that I return the favor.
Upon our arrival in Kathmandu, this lesson became even more poignant: a week earlier, a Russian MI-17 helicopter was carrying the best and brightest conservation minds in Nepal from the eastern mountain airstrip of Ghunsa back to Kathmandu. They had just turned a groundbreaking forest conservation program back over to the villagers who had inhabited the region for centuries. Four minutes after takeoff, flying VFR in cloudy weather, the helicopter smashed into a mountainside. In a flash, Nepali heroes, self-made people who were actively giving back to their countrymen, were gone. Mingma Norbu Sherpa. Dr. Harka Gurung. Dr. Chandra Gurung. Yeshi Choden Lama. It was a tragedy beyond words, and a horrible blow to this country that is desperate for good news as it works through peace talks with the Maoists, parties, and monarchy.
But, through desperation often comes hope, and perhaps as the life stories of Mingma, Harka, Chandra, Yeshi, and the others are made known, they will posthumously inspire other Nepali youngsters to seize the day, to build themselves, give back, and build their communities and their nation. That is what I must hope and believe.
While it is difficult to motivate in these times of war and suffering around the world, hard at times to see how one person's contribution can possible make a difference, I am often reminded of a couple of quotes. First, the full version of Emerson's quote from above:
To laugh often and love much; to win the respect of intelligent persons and the affection of children; to earn the approbation of honest citizens and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to give of one's self; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to have played and laughed with enthusiasm and sung with exultation; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived...this is to have succeeded.
And, second, a classic Tibetan & Nepali proverb, which I use at the ending piece of my book What Is Your Everest?: