In 1992, Brandon Wilson and his wife Cheryl were the first Western couple to complete the 1100-kilometre pilgrim trail from Lhasa, Tibet to Kathmandu. Here is how it began.
Maybe we approached the journey all wrong from the very start, gulping in its challenge in one gigantic breath, like diving headfirst off a cliff into some mirrored pool of unknown depth.
It was bound to be a great adventure, we argued, a chance to prove something to ourselves—especially to those who vowed it couldn’t be done. But any Western sense of toughing things out, of muscling our way across a land as complex as utter darkness, soon fell by the wayside like exhausted matchsticks.
Survival has somehow become mysteriously linked with the uneasy idea of letting go. Perhaps it always has been. But leaps of faith have never given me much personal comfort. Still, this is Tibet; it’s unsettling, yet reassuring.
When life is bleakest, magic appears, tenuous at first. It’s a strange, exhilarating force, a peace. Obstacles vanish and hurdles disappear. We find water where there is none. Someone arrives out of nowhere offering shelter. Another shares his meagre food. Another, his love.
At those moments we have a gnawing suspicion that there is something more to our thousand-kilometre trek, something more than just two weary travellers tracing an ancient pilgrim’s path from Lhasa to Kathmandu across the Himalayas.
And that sense of greater purpose, more than any personal tenacity or courage, ultimately keeps us moving.
Never Say "Impossible"
It all started innocently enough. Sure, my wife Cheryl and I had heard about “Shangri-La,” that legendary Himalayan paradise. Who hadn’t grown up with the fable? Then, one snowy morning, snuggled deep in a cozy leather armchair beside a library’s crackling fire, I became intrigued while reading about an ancient trail once walked by pilgrims from Kathmandu, Nepal to Lhasa, Tibet, home of the Dalai Lamas.
According to this account, no foreigners had seen the “forbidden” city until 1903. Borders were sealed after the 1950 Chinese invasion until 1979, only opening for brief periods since.
At that time, only 1200 foreigners had ever seen Lhasa, let alone the rest of Tibet, and half of those were with an English army campaign. Most of the others were on more recent, tightly controlled Chinese propaganda tours. Considering all that, I thought that maybe no Westerner had ever trekked this unexplored path. This was the challenge that initially convinced me to write to the Chinese authorities.
The same motivator that has sent other madmen traipsing off to some of the highest, least travelled, most remote corners of a shrinking planet.
Other folks I guess might have been content to stay in Colorado, especially at that time of year. After all, it was a cloudless afternoon. The type of day where the spruce trees, God’s own sweet air fresheners, scent the rarefied air with a promise of perennial hope.
Besides, who could have guessed such a simple action as opening a mailbox could change one’s life forever? Tearing open an envelope, not from the embassy but from China’s “authorized” travel agent, I eagerly read:
It is impossible to independently travel from Kathmandu into Tibetan Province, nor from Lhasa into Nepal on foot. As far as we know, it is impossible to get the permit to stay in Tibet for 60 or 90 days on your own. It is impossible to buy local food or find simple guesthouses every 300 km., let alone 30-km. You could hardly come across a soul within a couple of days, if you go on foot… Conditions in those high and deep mountains of Tibet are beyond your imaginations.
I was thrilled. Its string of impossibilities just made me more determined, especially their bullheaded insistence that it couldn’t be done. Still, we prepared for the worse.
“Look, if the Chinese refuse to give us visas,” I cautioned Cheryl, my wife and naive accomplice, “we’ll be forced to sneak in or bribe our way across the border from Nepal. We’ll have to hide in the mountains and slip from village to village.” Plus, I neglected to add, rely on the kindness of strangers.
By the time we’d committed to the challenge, there was so little time to prepare for something so unknown. We feverishly scoured bookshops and found a Lonely Planet Tibet Guide. But the book contained no topographical maps, no details on food or shelter, and it was anyone’s guess what the Communists would do if they caught us without papers. Then, unexpectedly, doors began to open.
The chance to become among the first Westerners to capture a bit of history, while beating the Chinese at their own bureaucratic game, convinced us. We’d give it our best shot.
Looking back, we should have taken a year to plan for our harrowing journey. There was equipment to buy, test and break-in; food and supplies to order; maps to study; lives to put in order; physical conditioning to achieve. But we knew if we were to complete our trek before the ominous November snows, we had only three months to prepare.
If we wait until next year, I figured, good sense will probably prevail. Physically, we’re in good shape, but we’re far from being mountaineers, I thought.
Still, when you get right down to it, there’s little we can do now to prepare for a 35-kilometre (22-mile) hike each day—which is exactly what we need to cover if we hope to make it to Kathmandu before the last 5182 metres (17,000 foot) pass is hopelessly blocked by a ton of snow and we’re stranded until May.
Kathmandu, Nepal: October 7-12
It’s easy to forget the subtleties of a place like Kathmandu. But, like meeting an old lover on the street, those exhilarating sensations and musky memories quickly stir and reawaken.
It begins with an on-rush of a dozen desperate urchins with their frantic curbside hustle, screeching, “Taxi, Misstah! Taxi, Sir?” Then there’s the ritual cramming of two size ten bags into a size five trunk. Once loaded, those taxis take off and swarm with all the frenzy and heated determination of wasps in a jar. Incessant bleats, peals and joy buzzer rasps of ten thousand horns punctuate fits of starts, stops and swerves. It’s an intricate ballet.
Motorized tuk-tuks, hand-pulled rickshaws and dilapidated heaps careen down crowded streets, blaring at gawking tourists, persistent hawkers and wayward cows. They follow a well-practised weave, fake and swerve through an orchestra of sheer chaos and overpowering odours. All that’s missing is a conductor’s baton to direct the symphony of shit.
The official trekking season attracts those who dream of Himalayan quests, like vultures to African roadkill. The French roam murky alleys, narrowly skirting ambushes by mock-gracious merchants. Brits scour streets in search of legendary cakes, while Americans suck cold brews to tunes from pizza joint jukeboxes.
Now, as if that wasn’t already enough to throw the typical traveller off balance, a two-week Nepalese religious festival added to the madness. Dasain, the most lavish of Hindu holidays, spilled frenzied throngs into already undulating streets.
During our last visit after a month spent roasting in Rajasthan’s summer desert, Kathmandu was an oasis fulfilling fantasies of food, comfort and relaxation. Yet, even then she was enigmatic. Her face changed like masks in a Balinese barong: one moment beautiful and enchanting, the next bizarre and revolting.
Unfortunately, since then, fame aged her more than centuries past, and her virginal innocence, an honest wanderer’s welcome, was deflowered. We were saddened by the loss, but this time Kathmandu was just a staging area. Its score of trekking supply shops, groceries, banks and one-star (or falling-star) hotels only promised to hasten our departure.
We needed all the help we could get since everything was uncertain. All except our steadfast determination. All we can do is have faith, I kept reminding myself.
Yet, at that point in my life, the concept of faith was abstract to me, ethereal, best relegated to love, religion and the life hereafter.
The travel agency that was recommended was set among a hundred other one-person shops in Kathmandu’s teeming Thamel district. We approached it reluctantly since after flying halfway around the world we arrived to find our hotel hopelessly filled. He had never reserved our room. Still, he was our only contact. Perhaps our last hope.
“Narayan suggested we see you when we arrived... We’re planning a special trip and your brother thought you could help.” N.D. grinned while his head bobbed back and forth in that unmistakable Nepalese wobble—like a plastic dog in the rear window of a ‘65 Chevy.
“Not to worry,” he chirped, already mentally tallying commission from another lucrative Nepal trek. “I will try.”
At this mere mention of business, our host sent the “boy” scurrying for more tea then leaned back with a confident smirk.
“Can we speak frankly?” I whispered, after turning to confirm the door was closed. Our plans had been shrouded in secrecy since that first meeting. Narayan’s hushed tones and wary glances made it seem like Chinese spies lurked right beneath his desk. Since then, we were extremely cautious about sharing our plan with anyone for fear the Chinese would catch wind and refuse us entry.
“Of c-c-course,” he stuttered, now becoming intrigued by his mysterious strangers. Exasperated by our laboured ritual, Cheryl impatiently blurted out, “We want to go to Tibet.” “We want to fly to Lhasa,” I added, “then, trek back to Kathmandu.”
“Trek back?” he clucked, shaking his head. “Nooo… Impossible!” After travelling so far, I refused to accept impossible as an excuse anymore.
“Why? Buddhist pilgrims have done it for centuries.” “But no Western couple ever has that I know of,” he replied, snickering at the prospect. “Do you know how far it is?”
“Over a thousand kilometres (621 miles),” Cheryl deadpanned, used to that tired old argument.
“Yes and it’s a long way between villages,” he reminded us, as cautious or frightened as his brother.
“We know,” my partner assured him, “but we have plenty of dehydrated food.” I nodded in agreement, although plenty was certainly stretching it. Actually, hoping to lessen the weight in our packs, we had foil packets for ten meagre meals.
“And we have maps, too,” I added, having picked up the 'very latest' showing the thin, ragged route from Kathmandu to Lhasa. Although the kid hawking them on the street promised it was “just five days old,” I had my doubts since travellers are expected to be mighty gullible in Kathmandu.
“Hey, maybe we can buy a yak or burro in Lhasa,” Cheryl suggested, figuring that hiking that far was hard enough without lugging forty-pound packs. “Or we can even hire a guide to lead us from one village to the next.”
Although N.D. was fascinated, his practical nature (or daily experience with the Chinese) warned him that our scheme was pure craziness. It took several glasses of creamy tea to finally convince him it was worth at least one phone call to China’s “official” travel agent.
One call and he could prove us wrong, get rid of us, and get back to his newspaper. As he slowly dialled the number, I almost stopped him. Reluctant to reveal our plans, especially to the Chinese, I was afraid we’d never get in.
“It’s still not too late to hop an organised tour,” I figured, “then disappear into the Himalayas.” But to be honest, I wasn’t anxious to run into some overzealous, pubescent Chinese soldier waving an Uzi, eager to shoot “spies.” While all those doubts crossed my mind, N.D. reached the airline office. Although neither of us speaks Nepali, it was easy to decipher his conversation with China South West Airlines.
“I have a couple who want to trek from Lhasa to Kathmandu,” he started. Then in a patronizing tone, he snickered, “I told them it was impossible, but…” He suddenly stopped. Our hearts raced. Were we finished? Did they just flatly refuse? “Yes, they know they’ll have to book a Lhasa tour, but… What? You’ll consider it?” Stunned, he shot us a quizzical glance. Then he apologetically blubbered, “Why, yes, yes, I’ll send them over right away.”
The staff at CSWA was surprisingly cooperative and more than surprised that two Americans were serious about trekking through Tibet. “Your timing is fortunate. Most fortunate,” the slight supervisor pronounced, sizing us up with wide-eyed curiosity. “You see, the border officially opened just yesterday... however,” he continued, “it is only open from the Tibetan side. You must first fly to Lhasa on our mandatory five-day tour.” Cheryl and I shot each other incredulous looks. Grins started to surface. “Afterwards, you can continue on your own.”
On our own? We nearly leapt from his sofa. Then, reluctant to let him glimpse our explosive, hallelujah-excitement, we calmly asked that one question, one last time. “Has this ever been done before?”
The pensive supervisor hesitated only a second, assuring us, “No. To my knowledge, no Western couple has ever walked Lhasa to Kathmandu.”
There, we’ve heard it three times, I thought. It must be true. But does that only mean that no one’s been so mad?
“It just hasn’t been possible,” he added, de-emphasising our luck. “The border’s been closed many years now.” Although he promised to send our request to the Chinese Embassy, we remained sceptical that they would issue visas for the sixty days we needed. Or that they’d allow two unsupervised Americans free rein to trek across “their” Tibet. That was unheard of.
Then, as if to allay all those unspoken fears, a displaced Tibetan clerk secretively shared something with us, a truth which eased our minds. “Why worry?” he asked, with a cryptic smile. “If it is meant to be, if Lord Buddha wills it, it will be.”
And so it was. One telephone call, a change in policy one day earlier, the unlikely consent of a few officials, and suddenly it was willed. It was pure synchronicity. If we had never stumbled into that Tibetan shop or had arrived in Kathmandu one week earlier, or never dared to chase our outlandish dream, our lives would be different now.
This is an edited extract from 'Yak Butter Blues: A Tibetan Trek of Faith' by Brandon Wilson. His other books in this series include: 'Along the Templar Trail', a Lowell Thomas Gold Award-winner for Best Travel Book, 'Yak Butter Blues', an IPPY award-winner, and 'Dead Men Don’t Leave Tips: Adventures X Africa'. Purchase a copy on Amazon or your favourite online seller or bookshop.
About the author
Brandon Wilson is an author and photographer, explorer and adventure travel writer. Brandon has travelled to nearly one hundred countries and has trekked many long-distance trails, including the Camino de Santiago, Camino Catalan, Camino Aragones and Via de la Plata across Spain, and twice the St. Olav’s Way across Norway and Sweden.
As well as being, the first Western couple to complete the 1100-kilometre pilgrim trail from Lhasa, Tibet to Kathmandu, Brandon was the first American to traverse the 1850-kilometre Via Francigena from England to Rome. In 2006, he and his French friend re-blazed the 4500-kilometre route of the First Crusades from France to Jerusalem, naming it the Templar Trail, to establish it as a path of peace. Follow his adventures on facebook.com/BrandonWilsonauthorexplorer
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