I still remember the look of pure joy on Mor’s face as we hugged each other that morning in October in the heart of Kathmandu. I remember that scene just as a whirlwind; I remember my own feelings of joy. I was in the middle of a long solo trip across Asia, and Mor, a very good friend of mine from university, had joined me for a trek in the Himalayas. Beyond studying programming together (which was definitely a bonding life-changing experience), we had also learned how to dive together. With all of our shared experiences, we knew we would get along well while backpacking by ourselves. Surprisingly, traveling with friends can be challenging and tricky, even with your best friends. Besides, I had been traveling by myself in some tough areas of the world, and until that moment I hadn’t realized how much I had longed for that feeling of “home” only your loved ones can give you.
As we laughed loudly, a passersby smiled at us. Mor and I are as different as can be.She’s tall and I’m short, she’s thin and athletic while I’m muscular and rather stocky. Furthermore, her hair is straight and blonde at waist length and mine is dark, curly and cut short, she is as white as an Ashkenazi (eastern Europe jews) whereas my sun tan reflects my Maghrebi roots. Yet, we get on perfectly well, and the first hike on our list would be the Langtang/Gosaikunda Frozen Lakes Trek. The original itinerary is popular, but not too overcrowded. This involves going up a valley to the east, admiring the surrounding peaks and then backtracking to join another valley southeast before going south through lowlands for a few days. In order to avoid backtracking, I had suggested another possibility: crossing the mountain range toward the southwest through a 5100 meter high pass, then walking the second valley up instead of down, thus also skipping the boring last south leg.
The plan depended on finding a guide to take us across the pass, which was not frequented enough to be marked and was said to be somewhat technical, depending on snow conditions, but as good Israeli backpackers (who are known for not planning anything) we decided not to arrange for anything ahead, and simply “see when we get there.”
So that’s what we did. We packed our bags, added extra snickers and climbed on a local bus to Sabryubesi, the starting point of our journey. The ride was unforgettable – it was an overcrowded, shabby bus from the 70’s. We drove out of the Kathmandu valley up into the small, muddy “roads” of the Nepali countryside. People were climbing in and out the bus, off and onto the roof at every “stop” – there was no real need to stop, not even to slow down – the cruising speed was that of a fast jogger pace, no more. I vividly remember the horns, the voices, the colors, the perfumes, the sweat, and the spices from this journey. Moreover, the earnest faces staring at us, especially at Mor’s golden hair, are faces that I will always remember, especially when they broke into huge smiles at the moment our eyes would cross. Then, Subrayesi.
I had been trekking at high altitude for a few months by then, but Mor had to get acclimated to the thinner air and to the weight on her back, so the easy track of the first few days was more than welcome. It was already late in the season, and the flow of walkers was thin, especially since Langtang, even though well-known, didn’t “enjoy” the crowds of Everest or Annapurna circuits. As the weather was just getting colder, villagers and hostel keepers became warmer. We would spend most nights with just a few other travellers and the tenants’ family, sipping tea huddled around the stove as temperatures dropped outside.
As we drew closer to the Langtang village, at the foot of the pass. We went to a small, shabby place held by a Tibetan refugee called Pema. We were welcomed by two sunburnt-cheeks, snotty-nose, laughing girls, the kind you see on Himalayan postcards. We were instantly adopted. By that time, I had caught a severe cold, and was becoming quite weak. We were travelling on a very tight budget, since we didn’t know how much the crossing would cost us, so the luxury of purchasing boiling water sold across the valley was not an option for us. But Pema and his family did not even think about it, they kept pouring me cups of ginger lemon honey tea, one after the other, for two days. And one evening, they even offered me pain relievers. Pema’s wife had spent the day hailing at other hikers to get some “western medicine” (aspirin) which thankfully they did.
Pema had happily agreed to take us over the passing. In exchange, we had offered to pay the maximum amount we could afford, as a thank you for the care they gave me and also as a “scholarship” for the oldest of the little girls – that sum, not large by western standards, maybe 200$, would be enough to allow them to send her to school for another year.
On the eve of the departure, Pema had told us to be ready at 6 in the morning. So here we were, Mor and I, getting ready in the dark, under the starry sky, out in the crisp, cold air, feeling the crushing mass of the mountain towering above us. Everything was silent. Then we realised: everything and everyone was silent. The others, Pema and his son included, were still fast asleep! Nepali time goes at a different pace, and since of course, this was no Everest attempt, the timetable was actually quite loose. We ended up leaving at 8:30, just as the sun started to pierce the wall of mountains surrounding us.
We started to climb. At first, Pema said it would take three days to cross, then two. Then he said he could take us over the pass in one day and that we would sleep on the glacier on the other side of the mountain, and he would turn back as we would continue by ourselves. The only restriction was the chance of altitude sickness: as we were starting at 3500, and going up to 5100. We would have to go down to 3900 at least before sleeping, in order to avoid life-threatening altitude sickness.
Ganja La is a very technical trail for regular hikers, with a narrow corridor of ice as a path, and without a clear vision. It is seldom taken, only by a few trekkers each season, and these usually have a whole expedition team with them. But we had been told it could be done, and we knew ourselves well enough to gauge our abilities. So we climbed, and climbed,and climbed, and climbed. It seemed endless, the bags were heavy with food supplies for the upcoming no-man’s-land crossing, the slope was steep and progress was slow. Everything became covered in dry ice. The weather was cold, but snowfall did not start yet – we had been told snow came much later these years, and much less frequently too. We hadn’t taken much water to stay light, as based on old reports, strong, steady streams were supposed to be trickling down all year round from the top – but they were dry. Pema shrugged : local people said snow had been scarce these last few years, scarcer than ever before. We moved slowly through huge boulder fields, trying to avoid unstable rocks while sucking on dry chunks of ice. At some point we saw Pema drink some transparent liquid from a glass bottle : vodka!! Mor and I exchanged worried looks and he laughed it off, saying that Tenzing Norgay had been drinking “water” too as he climbed Sagarmatha (Everest) with Hillary… oh well. As we crossed the icy corridor, holding the rocks with our hands as Pema had shrugged off the need for a rope, his steps seemed much surer and lighter than ours, even though he had taken Mor’s bag on top of his.
We had hoped to reach the passby 11. It is always safer in the morning to avoid landslides and falling rocks dilating under the sun. We got there at 15:30, utterly exhausted, extremely thirsty but content. Just taking the time to grab a snickers and to enjoy the breath-taking panorama, we felt the wind whipping our faces and the satisfaction and humility that comes with any summit or high pass, and off we went. We had little time to go down a moraine more than 1000m. This was again technical, and very tough on our already tired legs. At some point, we reached a stream of dark water from the glacier above us. God, it tasted good. We filled our bottles.
Eventually, we put our bags down well after dark, as Pema pointed at a flat stone with a hollow space under it, just enough room for 4 small persons to lie side by side. That was the shelter he had talked about, the place where we would spend the night. We were too tired and happy to be surprised at what he had called a “hut”, or to wonder if that really was as low as it needed to be. We ate some noodles, sleepily drank the best tea we ever had in our life, and slipped into our sleeping bags. We slept as sardines in a box : if one wanted to turn, everyone had to given our proximity. It was a funny night, spent under a flat stone in the heart of a desert valley at 4000m, surrounded by peaks and glaciers, hidden from civilization.
At dawn, we emotionally parted with Pema and his son, promising to do our best to send other travellers their way. Mor and I started walking down the valley, having relatively recovered from the previous day’s fatigue – or so we thought. Pema had said it would take us 6-7 hours to the next village, we figured it would take us 9. Well… Here’s what happened. We walked. A lot. We knew we were going down, but we didn’t know how – there were virtually no maps for this part of the country. The route was in seesaw: down 200, up 300, down 400, up 200, down 400 and so on and so on. I think we must have gone up 7 or 8 mini-passes on that day. Each time, we went up the snow-covered north side, gloved hands, sucking on dry pieces of snow snatched from the ground, and down the sun-bathed south side, occasionally adding some sunscreen to our sunburnt faces. Once again the reports about water sources on the way happened to be obsolete – everything was dry. We kept looking for some legendary (as far as we were concerned) but elusive spring named Dukhpu. Where is Dukhpu?
At some point we passed two Japanese guys, accompanied by a team of 5 locals (guide, porters, cook…). They had left the village 3 days ago. That was reassuring, but they didn’t have any water to spare. We kept walking. As we arrived at the last crest in mid-afternoon, we finally were able to get a glimpse of the next village, far far below on the valley floor – at least another day of walking.
As we crossed the Japanese again, the guide told us there should be a spring (Dhukpu?) a few hundred meters from there. We did see a muddy puddle alimented by a trickle of water, but we thought that there must be another “real” one later. As it turned out, there wasn’t, but we were too exhausted to turn back.
Our thirst was getting severe. As night drew closer, we decided to make a yak house our shelter for the evening. The house was only used in the summer and empty for the rest of the months. It still smelled of yak, but it was much warmer than the forest. We forced food down our mouths, half a snickers and a small slice of yak cheese… Mor was edgy so we stayed silent, I could feel the tension in the air. The lack of water was taking its toll on us, in spite of the relatively near presence of the Japanese men and of the village nearby.
We woke up very early, and very thirsty. We didn’t want to lose time. That day, we were walking relentlessly, but by now very slowly. To cut a long story short, in the afternoon we reached a huge field of lush green grass, onto which a dozen of yaks were leisurely grazing. And then we spotted… A group of women with kids. “They must have water!!!”, we thought to ourselves. So we tried to ask for some, but they kept pointing down at the village, at least another four hours of steep descent away… We looked at each other, quite desperate by then. We gave one of our last snickers to the kids, gathering strength from their joy (we’d probably jump as high when we’d put water on our lips), and went on, without having even taken our bags off. As we went into the woods, we saw one of the women pouring clean water from a jug to wash her hands… Hypnotized for a few seconds, we then walked into the woods as zombies, our legs so painfully tired that we were jokingly calling each other “Grandma Clem and Grandma Mor”.
Suddenly, a sound. “Shhhh”, we exclaimed to each other. A sound like that of water trickling down a pipe. Was this real or was I hallucinating ? I put my bag down, started to look around. A ribbon tied to a trunk. Another one further, and then a buddhist scarf. A path? We followed the sound for a few meters, and here it was : water, clean, pure water flowing down from the mountain. We looked at each other. Happiness. Relief. Water. Life.
We sat down and drank slowly, like a ritual. We saw our dry, parched skin literally come back to life. That was one of the most intense moments I have ever lived. I have reflected a lot about that day, and the days after that. I thought about nature, about water. About how we use it every day, specifically in the Western World, and especially how we take it for granted, without ever really thinking about it. Without understanding what it means for us, how much we depend on it. I remembered the stories of my grandparents who had to go to the well every day, the documentaries about some African women walking 20 kilometres every day to fill jugs for the family, the open-air sewers in the Indian slums I had seen just a month before. I remembered what I had been told about the weather patterns changing ever so slightly in Langtang too: the summer lasting longer, burning harder, the winter starting later, too late, the higher sources drying up, the glaciers receding way too quickly.
I had been pro-environment for years, but in an “intellectual” way. I had not witnessed the damages, not understood the possible consequences. This journey permitted me to connect the dots. For a day, for two days, I had experienced what it was like to actually be thirsty. I had had a glimpse of the reality of a dry world, a world where sources dry up because the weather is too hot for too long. A world with not enough water for all. This is the reality we are now shaping for our children, by not taking concrete measures, not taking enough steps to stop global warming, to stop over-consumption, to stop waste, to stop overpopulation. This adventure had taken an unexpected turn. I had gone on this trip to see nature’s wonders, but I had unwittingly witnessed man’s damages.