Things aren’t always easy to plan in Nepal, especially when the most basic commodities (by western standards) like telephones regularly fail to function. For this reason we were up at 7am having breakfast whilst Hari tried to call the drivers of the trucks which would be coming up the Kali Gandaki valley. We didn’t know when the truck would arrive nor if it would have room for passengers, but Hari (ever confident) assured us it would be fine and that we would get a truck at some point during the morning. By 11am we hadn’t spoken to any truck drivers and the decision was made to just make the 30 minute walk down to the riverside pick up/drop off point.

The Kali Gandaki is the lifeline for most, if not all, of the people in the Upper Mustang. It provides the only way for goods to be brought up from Jomsom, and it only allows trucks to drive it’s riverbed during the winter months when it isn’t swelled by melt-water  This goes some of the way to explaining why some guesthouses we stayed at had bottles of Coke promoting the 2010 world cup.

The pick up point was more of a goods base station. A single tent/building loaded with canned goods both inside and out. From here they were transported on back or on pony up to Charang and beyond to Lo Manthang. The price, freshness, and availability of goods are directly proportional (inversely) to the distance from Jomsom (as measured by hours traveled  not distance). The base station was only 3.5 hours from Jomsom so it contained Coke promoting Euro 2012!

IMG_5018

Base station for goods going further up the valley

Hari spoke to the bossman who explained that the truck wouldn’t be leaving until 5pm. They were only driving up and down the river very early or very late in the day due to melting snow causing landslides and rockfalls. Looking out across the 200-300m wide riverbed of the Kali Gandaki I didn’t entirely understand this, but I assumed there were sections where the truck had to navigate the cliffs above the river. So we had a whole day to kill, which wasn’t so bad as for the first time in days we were warm! The base station was a suntrap, free of wind, and we sprawled out on some palettes and soaked up the sun, only moving for a lunch of dal bhat and goat! Result!

IMG_5011

A warm wife is a happy wife!

Eventually the sun dipped behind the mountains at 4.30pm and we began loading the truck ready to leave. Now, it’s important to remember that these are goods trucks. They aren’t designed to carry passengers. Looking in the cab there was a drivers seat, a copilots seat, and then then a bench which looked like it would accommodate 3 people at a push. No problem. But then as we started to get in more and more people suddenly appeared. Eventually there were 9 of us, squished in, legs on top of legs, arms around strangers, and knees against backs. It would have been uncomfortable on the M1, but that was nothing compared to driving down a rocky but mostly dry riverbed.

IMG_5038

The journey started off with a short river crossing, providing a bit of excitement for us newbies. The dry sections were horribly undulated, ranging from fist size pebbles (which provided smooth going) to torso sized rocks that threw us around like basketballs – bouncing off each other, the ceiling, the walls, and the seats. It was during one of these bounces that I was thrown against a window and ripped my favourite down jacket on the frame. Feathers everywhere, but at least it was only feathers. Soon after another bounce smashed my head into the ceiling and I was offered a seat swap which meant I was at least sat next to Emily. However, right above my head was a sharp looking corner and my abs got a very hard workout as I stayed permanently hunched over, my left hand gripping Emily’s leg and my right hand wedged between the the drivers seat and a strangers rib cage. My right foot was on top of said strangers foot and my left foot was on top of my right. You get the idea.

We zig zagged down the might riverbed, making many river crossings, each seemingly deeper and longer than the last. The vast width of the river began to shrink in tandem with the sides growing ever more vertical.

IMG_5044

The least blurry picture I have!

As this process evolved, the walls getting ever steeper, their tops disappearing into the firmament, the last drops of sunlight ceased their journey into the depths of the gorge. The vertical walls were now so tall that even at noon the sun barely penetrated the valley floor, meaning the dry riverbed sections were now actually 2ft of snow and ice. The gigantic truck would fishtail around, the driver spinning his huge steering wheel frantically left and then right, somehow managing to stay upright and on track. The dark plunges into the icy river afforded me a sense of relief from the manic snow driving… until the water became very deep and the exit points invisible in the weak (and submerged) headlight of the truck.

At one point we ground to a halt in the river, forward momentum ceasing with the exit bank in sight. The driver rammed every gear stick in sight (a grand total of 3!) and the engine revved hard, the smell of gas poured into the cabin, and the truck lurched forward, slowly pulling us out of the freezing water and onto the icy snow. No water had entered the cab but Emily had felt the river gripping our rear end and slowly beginning to push us downstream. Tension was a little high at this point, but the locals seemed relatively calm, and I reassured myself that the driver made this journey twice a day, every day. I even began to think that this would make a great Top Gear episode. I started to draft a letter in my head explaining how the riverbed drive would prove a massive challenge and the area in which it weaves down would provide a real cultural narrative. My letter abruptly ended as we drove around the next corner.

Now we were driving in total darkness, the headlights dimly showing our trajectory, the might Kali Gandaki having shrunk all the way down to a puny 10m wide. Huge caves were just visible to our left and right, a sign of the latent power this river contained. One cave appeared to be a couple of stories high, with a flat roof and room to park at least several trucks. I joked that maybe it was the bus depot… thankfully it wasn’t. The narrowness of the river had one clear consequence;  we were spending less time on the dry riverbed and more time in the water. We would be hugging one gigantic wall, the wing mirror inches from the chossy conglomerate, then suddenly we would be doing a hard right across the river to pick up the opposite side.

Soon after this I couldn’t barely believe my eyes. The gorge narrowed even further, down to around 5m, and the left wall became an overhanging arch as the right wall provided an almost perfect mirror image. It was dark, we were at the bottom of a very deep gorge, driving down a riverbed with no sign of a track above water, and now we were about to enter what looked like a tunnel. I think I might have uttered “Is this really happening?”. On we pressed, the driver carefully navigating the hidden riverbed below us. He seemingly knew the river floor as well as the back of his hand, but the back of his hand doesn’t change as regularly… I did have confidence in his driving ability but at the back of my mind a very real fear resided.

As the walls had grown steeper I knew the snowmelt would be causing rocks to plummet down into the riverbed. Having seen the local landscape in the daytime I knew these huge cliffs were made from a very soft conglomerate. Sand holding together pebbles and rocks, ranging from 0.5m wide to car sized rocks. I’d seen the landslides on other days of our walks. I’d watched rocks tumble down only hours earlier as we had walked down to the river in a chossy valley. From a purely geological perspective it was actually fascinating, how these seemingly impossible structures were created from sand, rocks, and time. Some featured car sized boulders perched on a narrower tower of fist sized rocks and pebbles. With the relative safety of light and distance they were interesting. Now they were providing fuel for a nightmare scenario. I was a little gripped, but though back to my fear graph. Was I being irrationally fearful? What was the actual probability of a rock falling at the exact time we were driving down the riverbed? Then what’s the probability that it hits the small cab at the front of the truck? I reassured myself that the probability must be tiny. I told myself not to be irrational.

Then it happened. Less than 5m in front of us I saw a cubic foot sized boulder smash into the river. Immediately afterwards a loud bang emanated from the rear of the truck, a boulder of unknown size deflecting off in the darkness. My irrational fear became a whole lot more rational. The driver, perhaps frozen with shock, stopped and put his head out of the window, his neck craning upwards trying to see what was going on. At this point I couldn’t believe my eyes and I instinctively shouted “Just keep moving, FAST!”. Perhaps in a moment of panic humans are able to understand all languages, or maybe the tone of my voice made it abundantly clear, because the driver hit the accelerator hard and started tearing down the river. I knew that any falling rock hitting the roof of the cab would come straight through the thin sheet metal roof and cause untold damage. We sped down the riverbed and picked up a dry section. My fear hadn’t subsided but I could see the gorge walls were relenting slightly. Then the electrics started going funny, light flashing on and off on the dashboards as the headlights began to blink. As the gorge widened again we found a place to stop and the driver jumped out – mainly for a cigarette but also to check the damage. I got out, 10% to stretch my legs and 90% to just get on solid ground and out of the truck. It was hard to see where the rock had hit but there was a dent in the rear side of the truck, where it had perhaps glancing off, causing more panic than damage.

We had some distance to go, the truck didn’t seem like it was in good shape, but way up above I could see the stars and that provided some relief. We resumed the journey and the driver navigated the river, picking the entry/exit points remarkably accurately in the dim headlights. We were close to the mustang gate, the bridge across the river at Chelle. Once we passed this point the Kali Gandaki opened up to it’s grand width one again and our journey would only be uncomfortable, not dangerous. Only one section of unbelievably rocky terrain remained, with the driver sliding the truck through gaps which couldn’t have been more than 50cm wider than the truck itself as the left/right roll of the truck would cause the wing mirrors to alternatively tease but not quite kiss the sides.

I was ready for this journey to be over. I felt so bad that I’d put Emily’s life in this position. So whilst my probability calculation had told me the risk was minimal, it wasn’t one that I was comfortable with. I would have rather walked for 3 days through snow. Then all of a sudden, up ahead, I saw it. The mustang gate. Thank fuck.

All the way down I’d been looking at the incredible landscape in awe of it’s features. Witnessing the shrink from it’s mighty width down to a minuscule 5m and then open back up again was astounding. It’s unlike anything I have ever seen. I want to tell everyone to do the journey , to witness the landscape, but I’m not sure I can do that responsibly. Perhaps if there was no snow to melt the danger of rockfalls and landslides would be eradicated. I don’t know. I do know that these trucks drive up and down the river every single day, but I have no stats on how many break down, crash, or get crushed by falling rocks. I think that rationally I would have to say it’s probably quite safe, but hearing and seeing those falling rocks was quite scary. The height of the river must change dramatically with the season and melt-water  Trucks stop running in early April when the water must get too deep, so perhaps the safest time to take this incredible journey would be in December. It might also be sensible to do it at daytime. It might be possible to do it via kayak or canoe, which I imagine would be infinitely more comfortable.

Arriving in Chussang, sitting on solid ground, and not being jolted around felt wonderful. A sugary cup of Nepalese tea soothed the nerves and I was looking forward to a good nights sleep. The next day was our final day on the trail and signified our departure from Upper Mustang and, ultimately, from Nepal.

IMG_5076

The beginning/end of Upper Mustang

IMG_5101

This is how we came out looking at the end – not too bad right?

nextstopjapan

Next stop Japan!