18 May 2015
Expedition from Novosibirsk (Russia) to Katmandu (Nepal)
In spring 2005 a group of travelers from Novosibirsk supported by the travel agency “Altair-tour” organized a unique motor-car expedition of five Land Rover Defenders from Novosibirsk (Russia) to Katmandu (Nepal) and back. The expedition went through the not fully explored and remote areas of Central Asia and by the number of obstacles it faced it was more complicated than some world-famous rallies.
To organize an expedition of such a type is not an easy task. It requires a lot time and energy for advance arrangements and also there should be a team of skilled personnel and off-road vehicles to overcome all the hardships and obstacles along the road including the passes in mountains of up to 18 000 feet high. But sometimes an idea united with the enthusiasm and belief turns into a great power and can create miracles. The expedition was a global one, because it crossed a significant part of the Earth’s surface and had an international status. The expedition members had to drive almost on their own through the Altai, Mongolia, China, Tibet and Nepal on the route, which had never been traveled by any car before. The feeling of being a discoverer excited the imagination and retrieved from the memory the school stories about the Silk Road and the first European explorers who reached mysterious Asia. Also there were global problems with visas and other papers, especially from China. The route went through the off-limits regions of China and all the necessary documents were extracted from the Chinese officials only with great difficulty. At last, like twin brothers, the five identical Land Rover Defenders lined up next to the starting point in Novosibirsk. The five crews were about to drive them from Siberia to Katmandu.
Central Asia is another world. It does not share even a slightest hint or a track of general origin with the West that a person from the Western world finds in other cultures, traveling in the Eastern Mediterranean or Northern Africa. We felt this immediately at the Mongolian border. On the uninhabited rocky semi-deserts with huge stones on the rut, which is called a “road” according to the local custom the driver is encouraged only by the infrequent light dots of felt yurts. There is no one on the vast territories except the dust that marks off the leading car by a gray stripe. Guests are warmly welcomed and invited to share the meal in the yurt. The domesticated camels squint at the strangers with distrust and the low temperatures at nights make you hide deep inside your sleeping bag: you cannot forget that you are lost in Asia like a grain of sand by an ocean shore. Early in the morning the road calls you. The Mongolians measure the distance by hours. It is not important how far the nearest town is; the more relevant knowledge is how long it takes you to get there. The road runs forward at an altitude of 5400 – 7200 feet sometimes going up to 9000 feet on the mountain passes. The rare water-wells are faced with flat rocks. A water-well in the shape of a cylinder is said to look like a man from a distance and scares the wolves. Through the Russian habit we choose the shortest way to the border. It takes us 4 hours to go through the deep gorge. The cars are roaring, forcing their way through unbridled mountain streams. The eyes get tired of looking for a road on the stony semi-desert. The shortcut has cost us a lot and resulted in the first breakdown.
The first asphalt appears in China. The border control officers look suspiciously through our papers. Foreigners are exotic to them and the Land Rovers draw up a connection between us and the Western world, which is a source of a permanent threat for post communist China. You get a feeling that you have come back to the soviet period in a time machine. An old American visa is found in one of our passports. It puts the Chinese military into the state of shock and evokes new vigilance that prolongs the document checking for one more hour. A courteous officer of the Chinese security service joins us at the border. Although according to the famous slogan “Russians and Chinese are brothers forever”, the Chinese officials stick to another rule - “trust but watch out”. We are rushing at full speed at the altitude of 10500 feet along the mountain plateau that is as flat as a glass. The altitude is felt only through the rapid breathing and the muffled heart beats. Chinese villages flash by and you unwillingly receive the notion that the Chinese are similar to each other in their clothes, behavior and in their old motorcycles and tractors that are the usual means of transportation in this remote province. This feeling of homogeneous, faceless mass of people stays with you over the whole trip. Bright and multifarious from the North to the South, this region was once compared in its variety of nations, cultures and languages with the whole Europe from Ural mountains to Portugal, China has turned into a monotonous state of “comrades”, “workers” and “peasants” since the time of “Cultural revolution”..
We are approaching Tibet and the altitude is gradually increasing. There is a lack of air in the lungs. Every time you try to take the air with your whole chest you fail. The first icy peaks of 18000 feet mountains arise in front of us. As though having a rest the snow-white clouds lie on the mountain flatlands at the peaks’ feet. Captivating scenery of mountain summits puncturing the heavenly sphere seems to come from surrealistic paintings. The mind despite the clear evidence refuses to accept the truth that you are in Tibet, in the legendary country of tantra Buddhism. We are passing by the sources of the great rivers of Asia – Brahmaputra and Yangtse. The water in Yangtse is red and roaring, an unusual sight for the inhabitants of the lowlands. The road twines over the steep passes. On the way we leave behind long columns of military trucks. . No one knows what they are carrying under their covers, but all the food supplies and the manufactured goods are delivered to Lhasa from outside. The severe landscape is lightly decorated by flocks of grazing yak that seem to feel at ease at the altitude compared with us. Altitude sickness does not ease and the only thought circling in the mind is ‘Let us go down to Lhasa at the height of 10500 feet as soon as possible”.
Walking around Lhasa calms you down. Closeness to heaven seems to bring inner peace and quiet to Tibetans of all age, although another idea comes to mind – you cannot be hasty at such altitude, there will not be enough air for this. On the way we drop in to the local museum and make sure that the spirit of business undertakings is spread world-wide. The most interesting place in Lhasa is Palace of Potala, the former residence of the Dalai Lama. The palace building is being restored. The construction workers are doing their job and singing. Believers and tourists standing in a long snakelike line are waiting for their turn to sightsee in the palace. The temples’ dimensions are impressive. Mighty wood columns, roofs made of painted logs, luxurious stupas decorated with gold and precious stones make a bridge between the vain contemporary life and the glorious past of Tibet. Unwillingly you get charmed by Buddhism, make bows, roll the prayer drums sending your simple messages to heaven. The most educated members of the expedition get stuck in the palace library in search for ancient wisdom. Under the murmuring sound of translation from one language to another you make your wishes in front of the countless Buddhas. The bright colours of the temples, with the severe mountains in the background and the friendliness of local people, evoke the impression of something from childhood. This religion seems to be created by adult children for adult children and they have been playing this game for many centuries.
Leaving Lhasa, we climb up 15600 feet mountain pass and freeze for 5 minutes at the awe-inspiring panoramic view of 24000 feet mountains. Here the sky and the earth interlace with one another. It is impossible to stay longer on the pass. The scalding lash of the cold penetrating wind makes you go on driving.
The border of Nepal is the exact antithesis of the Chinese border. You do not notice how you have passed the passport control and plunged into the world of jungles. On the road we meet military patrols that examine the passing cars. Guerrillas are said to live in the jungles, but they do not threaten tourists. Tourism in Nepal is a source of stable income for the majority of the population, so the tourists are respected. Unbelievable bustle and jam reign in Katmandu. Unceasing car horns and people’s shouts rip the air. One huge traffic jam has sprawled out around the whole city and has become one of the symbols of Katmandu. The tour around Katmandu resembles walking around one enormous oriental market. The air is electrified by the human busyness, by local traditions and local retailers who skillfully change these traditions for real money. In the city center there is a mess of bright temples, decorated pagodas and stupas. A lot of pilgrims and omnipresent tourists besiege the buddhist and hindu temples and monuments. Some of them are following the sacred rituals in search for spiritual enlightenment, others come here to satisfy their curiosity. At last having tired of impressive images of the Orient you come back to the hotel to celebrate the end of the expedition. Tomorrow there will be the start of the long way home.