News in the local media about the opening of the road to Rara Lake was a calling for the Yeti Travels adventure team; thirteen days of body aching, nerve wrecking jeep trails as the Nepal Army continues to blast large sections of the hillside to try and open it up to vehicles into this virgin territory.
I always considered myself well travelled when it came to Nepal. I travelled in the comforts of my father’s wings when I was young, pampered myself with a urban holiday lifestyle when I travelled later with my friends. My life in Kathmandu was all about women and parties while travel wasn’t a priority. My desire to see life beyond the comforts of my existence has set my life on an endless journey where I try to capture pristine beauty, adventure, smiles and the harsh realities of life in the Himalayas.
Treading along mountain trails has helped me find a better me; I can hardly remember my urban self. My mind wanders with happy thoughts of the golden touch on icy mountain caps and those warm smiles that makes me want to go back before I have even returned. Some journeys though go far beyond the beauty of the Himalayas. Some make me understand how distant I am from my own land and people; and my four-wheel drive exploration trip with Yeti Travels was just that.
Days before the trip, I watched houses burn in Nepal’s mid-west. From the the comfort of my couch, it hardly affected me; it was just another natural calamity. Arriving at the scene in Babai, the very place I had watched on TV, my first impulse as a photographer was to walk through the ruins of the 90 odd burnt down households. With the sharp smell of charcoal and ash in my nostrils, I asked a lady passing by with a little boy to pose for my camera. Curious, I started a conversation with Ms. Bhadrakali Basnet who had lost everything she had in the fire. Help was a distant dream for her. Her story and tears filled my heart. I was lost for words. I had nothing to offer other than to capture the grief that she alone felt.
Observing the treacherous topography from my four wheel drive’s window, I realized that it leaves little room for subsistence farming. Why do people choose to live here, I asked myself. The little infertile land could hardly provide a full meal for a family. Breaking rocks to clear the highway is possibly the only real job available. I am happy to the prospect that my pictures bring a smile as they try and dodge the flies look like moles on innocent faces.
The promised tarmac highway seemed to come in small stretches and we were moving at snail’s pace towards our lunch spot. Just as we started our climb from Serighat to Manma, I forced a stop although my empty stomach begged me to move on. I looked through my viewfinder, found my focus; a 6 year-old (the older brother I presume) was carrying a boy barely 2 years old, with open wounds all over him. My heart skipped a beat with the loud Pentax 645d shutter. Tears blurred my viewfinder while I asked myself if I was simply going to take a picture and walk away. My thoughts turned to my son who likes to sing ‘I want to break free’, knows how to download the latest apps and delete old ones while enjoying pizza and chocolate milk shakes at his favorite pizzeria in Kathmandu.
The narrow jeep track from Manma is exactly what our local guide Bhanu had promised, extremely dangerous. Drivers who frequent this trail are hardly 25 , driving carelessly with half their tyres over the edge of the steep cliff that falls into the river 300-400 meters below. As we waited for a backhoe to clear a patch, I dropped a rock off the cliff, happy not to be it. My exposure to the near danger sent a chill down my spine, but that is exactly what draws me, and many others like me to come back for more. While we call it adventure – locals call it reality.
The Sija Valley is a delight, the place where the Nepalese language is said to have originated. The earliest examples of the Devanagari script from the 13th century were found on the cliffs and in nearby Dullu. Bumpy roads, the melody of ‘the Moon Represents My Heart’ playing in the background, a warm evening sun and the soft wind rippling through the lush green paddy fields, creating a wave in the endless green ocean – I wondered if this place was heaven.
The jeep was on 4WD mode all the way. Since the road was so bad it took us almost an hour to get through 10-meter sections. The trail required serious driving skills and with Vivek Basnyat, MD of Yeti Travels, an experienced 4WD enthusiast on the helm, we were surely among the first few to have reached Lake Rara on wheels. The joy of a successful journey is immense and more so, the emerald blue waters of this pristine lake proved to be the icing on the cake.
All journeys’ come to an end but memories remain forever. After ten long days of overcoming the rough trails of the mid-west, our lead jeeps’ springs gave away and as our second jeep went to the nearest town of Manma to get fixed, the four of us were left to bear the scorching heat for the next five hours. To make use of time, I prepared instant coffee in the portable gas stove, fried some sausages stored in our portable deep fridge, and some chilli pickles and watermelons brought all the way from Kathmandu. As we were finishing up, two little children noticed the leftover greens of the watermelon, picked it all up and ran up to their home only 10 meters away. Curiously, we followed to see what they were up to. To my dismay and complete disbelief, the entire family was gathered on the front porch, devouring the leftovers in a feast of spirit and leaving me completely in tears.
Till today, months after my return from Rara, I am still unable to enjoy a watermelon without guilt in my heart, the open wounds of those little children with sad watery eyes continues to haunt me. Today, I cease to enjoy being in the center of an urban lifestyle, to continue life unaffected by what I experienced. The end to one adventure has become the beginning of a search into what lies beyond, I went looking for adventure and came back with a soul.
GauravMan Sherchan is a travel and adventure photographer and the official travel photographer for Yeti Travels P. Ltd and Pentax in Nepal.