Rough beginnings can foreshadow and inoculate against greater adversity, building resistance and toughness for an unknown event horizon. Extremes of Nepal come at travelers from every direction and measure, from external and colossal (Himalayan titans capped with snow, ice and life-swallowing crevasses) to internal and microscopic (giardia and bowel-shaking dysentery) and many variations in-between, including night buses, dreaded by most foreigners, if not local travelers. My recent Himalayan odyssey began as a demanding night bus road journey of thirty-plus hours and was turning out to be exceptional in nearly every category.
The juggernaut known as a Night Bus spun down the highway into the dark maw of dense jungle at nighttime. Adrift on this black sea of the Tarai (Nepal’s southern, sub-tropical lowlands where long ago a boy was born named Siddhartha Gautama--later known by the title of Buddha), we were crammed into a sardine can on wheels masquerading as long-distance transport. It was transport through the savannah homeland of exotic wildlife including the Elephas maximus (Asian Elephant, largest mammal of the Indian subcontinent), Panthera tigris tigris (Bengal Tiger) and Rhinoceros unicornis (Greater One-Horned Rhino) among other fancifully named creatures. Although overcrowded, the mood on the bus was merry and accompanied by non-stop dohori (folk music) booming through broken speakers at full-volume despite an enclosed space and advanced hour.
My travel companions were eating up with relish the joys of roadway travel while I overdosed on the shrill music, cramped seats, and bone-rattling potholes that felt big enough to land an Airbus jumbo jet. In the narrow aisle between the main seats, a few of the lucky overflow passengers sat upon loose footstools while unluckier ones stood leaning against the rows of fixed seats and encroached on the luckiest of all sitting in them. A few riders half-dangled out the opened bus door and more were seated up on the rooftop. Still, the driver sought out more customers along the way. Each newcomer folded into the teeming matrix of passengers and cargo, somehow sharing the diminishing space with little to no fuss at all.
The dilapidated transport roiled through a murky night with relative ease resulting from good-natured companionship and not any extra creature comforts as there were none and never were there any on night buses that have taken me through lonely stretches of roadway out yonder in Nepal.
The intensity of Himalayan travel can sometimes become overwhelming even for seasoned veterans, and I reckon that the price of physical distress is often taken along the way--a toll in exchange for transcendental blessings that reward semi-heroic patience and humor. I desperately desired a whit of these premier qualities on such bus journeys.
Along with abundant discomforts, Nepal readily dishes out heaps of extraordinary experiences including all-out adventures available to all-comers. From first-time visitors to long-time Himalayaphiles, there is always something refreshing to discover or be discovered by in Nepal. Encompassed in this banquet feast of Nepal’s outdoor Nirvana are natural treasures from luxuriant lowland plains home to rare wildlife to fertile hills surrounded by emerald and golden paddy fields to snow-clad peaks spiraling into the lofty heavens with frosty slopes prowled by snow leopards.
Greatest of all in this Himalayan nation are its welcoming people, particularly the people living off the land in rural areas—typically all heart. They might have little to give and still give as much as they can, as if there is no other way but sharing, from a heaping plate of vittles and mug of tea (or, preferably Himalayan firewater) to a cozy place to sleep overnight.
Assembling the Team
Expedition organizer Man-Bahadur Khatri had made the same long-haul bus ride earlier in the week and was already setting up at Base Camp, a universe away from overloaded vehicles rambling through jungle lowlands. He was high up on the icy flanks of Sisne, a remote, skyscraping peak at 5911 M/19,393 ft in western Nepal awaiting stragglers like me to join after the bus ride and a half-week’s ascent through the backcountry.
Man-Bahadur is a lion-hearted type of guy, wiry as a meth-addict and tough as a Mixed Martial Arts cage-fighter. I first met him in a stale office in the treeless jungles of Kathmandu while working on a calendar and small guidebook with maps to promote tourism in his rugged home district of Rukum, part of Nepal’s Wild West. He was astonished that a lone foreigner had recced his off-the-map district and was intent on promoting it to other travelers. I was more astonished by the area’s breathtaking landscape and cultural wealth that goes virtually unnoticed by the tourism industry. Then again, maybe it is not too surprising with Everest, Annapurna and Langtang casting long shadows through this enchanting Himalayan land. Beyond these giants, the secrets of the Himalaya are full of lesser known treasures and attractions awaiting visitors.
Rukum District has recently been infused with funds from Maoist politicians. The district was a recruiting hotbed, training ground, wartime hideaway and ultimately, seat of a breakaway government during Nepal’s ten-year insurrection (1996-2006). Maoist leaders have been favoring it since the civil war ended when they joined the mainstream and gained power and access to the state’s coffers. It is a mixed blessing when funds go toward rapid road building. Local people are eager enough to literally plough ahead into the deep hills without proper engineering and thorough environmental considerations; benefits are dubious in areas that have never previously seen vehicles. The hastily-built dirt tracks require continual maintenance, especially after monsoonal washouts on steep slopes.
Man-Bahadur and I talked of towering, solitary Sisne at that first meeting. The mountain looks down on tranquil subsistence fields epochs away from the fast-paced, modern, wired lifestyle. From certain vantage points, Sisne resembles another sacred Himalayan colossus, Machhapuchhre (aka, Fishtail Peak, 6,997 M/22,956 ft), a highlight of the revered Annapurna Sanctuary, a trekker’s mecca, and one of Nepal’s most iconic mountains that is off-limits to mountaineers as an abode of deities.
“Climbing Sisne has been my dream since I was a boy,” Man-Bahadur confided in me. At the time, we both believed it was unclimbed, having heard no tales of such a feat, it significantly increased Sisne’s allure. Later, we were to find out from Ang Tshering Sherpa, President of The Nepal Mountaineering Association, that at least one European party had been on it. Details of that expedition and previous climbing quests, if any, are not well documented.