By Colin Thubron
Excerpted from the book To a Mountain in Tibet (Harper, 2011). Reprinted by permission.
The sun is rising to its zenith. Silver-grey boulders lie tumbled along the track among mattresses of thorns and smoke-blue ﬂowers. The storm clouds that hang on the farther mountains do not move. There is no sound but the scrunch of our boots and the clink of the sherpa's trekking pole. Underfoot the stones glisten with quartz.
These first hours have a raw exhilaration. The track shimmers ahead with a hard brilliance. The earth is young again. Perhaps it is the altitude that brings this lightness and anticipation. Within an hour we have flown from near sea level to over 8,000 feet, and I feel weightless, as if my steps will leave no trace.
Beneath us the little town of Simikot hangs above an abyss of empty valleys. Its corrugated-iron roofs flash among patches of green barley. It is slipping behind us. From its runway of parched earth the Twin Otter aircraft that carried us in has already turned and flown away between the mountains. There are no roads here. Humla is the remotest region in Nepal, little visited by trekkers even now. The nearest paved highway—the lowland route from Kathmandu to Delhi—lies hundreds of mountain miles to the south, and to the east the climbers' lodestars—Dhaulagiri, Annapurna, Everest—are out of sight.
As we walk, a dark-forested gully opens to the west, carving a giant corridor through the mountains. Its walls rise in vertiginous foothills towards 15,000-foot summits gashed with snow and clouds. Noiselessly far below us, through this immense gulf so steep as often to lie out of sight, the Karnali river is raging coldly down from the highest source of the Ganges. It is nowhere navigable, but for the next ten days it will steer us northwards. It twists ahead with a chill magnetism, mounting by icy steps higher and deeper through the western Himalaya, for a hundred miles before us, into Tibet.
By trekkers' standards our party is small and swift: a guide, a cook, a horse man, myself. We move scattered above the river, while lone traders pass us the other way, leading their stocky horse and mule trains between lonely villages. They are dark, slight men in torn anoraks and brimless headgear, marching to the clank of their animals’ tin bells and crying softly to the strays to keep in line. Their women walk alongside, sashed and scarved in magenta and blue, their sinewy wrists layered in bracelets, their nostrils and ears dangling golden discs. They look fierce and open, and laughingly meet your eyes. The delicacy of the plains has gone.
Next: "This is a cruel region in a poverty-stricken land."