November 19, 2006

Suddenly Saris

The steep descent into the Kathmandu valley from the Tibetan border is one of the most dramatic changes in landscape, people and culture I’ve ever seen.

As we meandered from the heights of Everest in its rocky and barren browness, and down through the cloud layer, I could feel life taking hold again. Leafy green plants apperared, accented by tiny brightly colored wildflowers. Water became abundant, with gushing waterfalls and raging rivers, and the company of trees made me want to cheer. How lonely and desolate the land was on the high mountain plains!

And yet, with nature and life at its lushest, we then descended into the unfortunate byproducts of “civilization”. We came to rest at Zhongmu, the last Chinese town on the border with Nepal. It is literally a one road town – the terrain is so steep that the roadway is the only street in town. Buildings rise straight up from the street, and the road is only wide enough for one and a half vehicles.

This makes traffic a snarl for miles leading to the border town, with goats, herds of sheep, yaks, shepards, motorcycles, taxis, Landrovers and tourist buses and dozens of Chinese trucks carrying cargo clogging the road. There was so much exhaust, and the cacaphony of horns! We stood in the light rain trying hard to not get run over, and wondering what the heck happened in the last few hours.

Then, immediately after crossing into Nepal, it was if we had stepped into yet another world. The weather went from cool and clammy to hot and steamy. Gone were the stiff Chinese officials and Tibetans in their subdued clothing. Suddenly brightly colored and patterened saris (traditional Indian garment) were everywhere, and the people looked more Indian than Chinese. Restaurants hawked dal bhat, curries and Nepali set meals. Bananas and mangoes were on sale, and layers upon layers of terraced fields of wheat hugged the sloping mountain sides.

The change was so dramatic, and so rapid that I (almost) wanted to go back and drive it again.

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