Zerky in the Himalayas


Map of Nepal

December 31, 1967

Dear Zerky, it is New Year’s Eve and we are at last alone in the Himalaya Mountains of Nepal. We have pulled off the road into a small clearing where we are going to spend the night. In the hour it has taken your mother to prepare dinner for us, only two trucks and a single barefoot villager have passed by on the road, neither of which stopped. What a relief to be free from the crush of humanity that is India.

We have been in Nepal for only a few hours now. Already we love it. Benares left us feeling drained by all the strange things we saw there. Since then, we have been spending the next couple days driving along the Ganges River through the state of Bihar, probably the poorest and most heavily populated area in India. The Ganges draws people as if it were flypaper because it is so sacred and because of the crop fertility the annual flooding of the river and its many attendant deaths. Each summer the wettest winds in the world blow in off the tropical Indian Ocean, only to be blocked by the highest mountains in the world. Here on the southern slope of the Himalayas, most of the wetness falls from the sky as rain and then eventually finds its way back into the Indian Ocean via the meandering Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers. Once these two giant rivers leave their birth places high in the mountains, however, there is little to contain them, the result being that once each year with the coming of the monsoon the banks of the various rivers at the base of the Himalayas overflow, turning the land in all directions into a shallow inland sea. People are often drowned in numbers that seem incomprehensible to us in the Western hemisphere.

We are now in the Terai, a narrow band of dense forest at the foot of the Himalayas, separating the mountains from the Gangetic Plain. The Terai is one of Asia’s most extensive and last habitats for big game. Elephants, rhinos, buffalo, leopards and tigers run wild in this tropical rainforest.

After another ten miles or so, the hills are beginning to close in on us. Now we are headed up a canyon and within minutes the road turns into a narrow sliver of asphalt, twisting its way ever higher into the mountains. We are following the only substantial road in Nepal, 138 miles long, connecting the capital of perhaps the world’s most undeveloped country with the outside world. Carefully, we claw our way upwards, into and out of more and more twisting canyons. Then we go up and over a succession of forested ridges, each of which is higher than the previous one. In a few hours, we are at the top where a weather beaten sign announces that we are now at Sim Bhanjyang, a pass lying at an altitude of 8,200 feet. There is snow on the ground.

Roughly speaking, the Himalayas of Nepal divide themselves into two parallel mountain chains running east and west, fifty to a hundred miles apart. To the North, the inner Himalayan Range corresponds roughly to Nepal’s border with Tibet, while to the South, insulating the inner Himalaya from the Gangetic Plain, runs a lesser parallel range, the peaks of which are rising up to about 15,000 feet. We are now crossing this range and the views are fabulous. In front of us, beyond several valleys and ridges, is a glittering crescendo of glaciers and peaks, culminating in Mount Everest on the horizon. At 28,756 feet, Everest is the highest mountain in the world. Beyond it we can see the Tibetan plain which is often known as the “Roof of the World.” Our guidebook has a diagram profiling the Himalayan crests, so now we can clearly pick out all the major peaks: Dhaulagiri, Annapurna, Manaslu, Cho Oyu, Nuptse, Lhotse, Makalu, Kanchenjunga. Scarcely able to contain myself, I get back into the car and we continue on our way until shortly before nightfall.

What a relief it is at last not to be continually on the lookout for rest houses and DAK bungalows to stay in at night. Here we can stop and spend the night almost anywhere. Our clearing tonight has all the makings of a first class wilderness campground: quiet, scenic, private.

This afternoon when our car started twisting its way through the mountains, Tarzan got so excited that we had to pull over to let him run around. Tonight he is in heaven, scampering away into the brush, chasing who knows what?

—Excerpted from Letters to Zerky

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