As far as the eye can see the stones of the Kali Gandhaki riverbed stretch north, bordered on each side by tall brown cliffs and with the tips of snow capped mountains dotting the horizon. Walking along a path through the stones, worn by travelers – both local and international, horses, mule trains and now cars, tractors and motor cycles, you find yourself searching the stones to find one of the magical saligrams, fossils of fish, shells and other creatures that inhabited the Tibetan plateau thousands of years ago and now wash down with the river waters. To the Hindus and Buddhists, these fossils are not only sacred, a symbol of Vishnu, but a source of income from sales to tourists and pilgrims.
As you walk, there is no shade at all and the path alternates between steep climbs up onto the river banks and alongside stone and dirt walls and sandy unstable sharp drops back onto the riverbed. The dominant color is brown, brown walls, brown sandy dirt dotted with black stones. The only other colors, aside from the clothes of the hikers and animals is the bright blue of the sky with an occasional white peak of a mountain top.
Suddenly, far in the distance, you begin to see the brown and white Tibetan style houses and fields of wheat that signal a small village – an oasis in this dry desolate area. By this time, the fierce wind that blows through the Kali Gandhaki gorge has come up, and dust and dirt are everywhere – in your teeth, your hair, your bags, your clothes. The wheat fields that are finally beginning to line the side of the path are in constant motion – waving stalks of green dancing at your feet.
As you pass through the town, there are donkeys and Tibetan ponies lining the narrow streets and if you do not look down, without doubt you will find your foot in a pile of droppins. Women are washing clothes in the water canals that parallel the path or where there is a fountain. Men are sitting in the sun talking, their faces lined and brown from the wind and constant sun.
We picknicked in an apple orchard – a rare spot of green along this dry desert route – a delicious lunch of dal rice, green vegetables, salad and potato curry all prepared in a corner of the orchard on gas cooking stoves by our staff.
Then it was back to the brown, but this time on a Tibetan pony, perhaps the best way to travel this desert region with its difficult ups and downs. Again, the path led across the river bed, sun beating down, wind blowing in never-ending gusts, making it difficult to keep any hat on one’s head. Finally, around a turn, high up on a hill, we could see Chele. The horse picked his way through the stones and sand of the river. Suddenly, another horseman cantered by. Inspired, the horse picked up his pace, cantering along the stones, despite the shouts of the horsemen, afraid their precious client would tumble down onto the rocks. The horse turned uphill after the other horse, and began climbing through sand, stones and on a sharp uphill. Walking, the hike would be 45 minutes of steep unbroken sun and sand. On horseback, it took about 10 minutes.
Finally, arriving at the top, the horse knew exactly where camp was, a small enclosure, lined with flowers and now filled with 4 red tents. We had done the first leg.
Toni Neubauer – President