THE ASIAN WALL STREET JOURNAL Friday/Saturday/Sunday , July 21-23, 2000

Personal Journey
By Ruth Lor Malloy

Doddering Through the Himalayas

You're Never Too Old to Risk Life and Limb At High Altitudes

  I first thought about it when I turned 60. Some of my friends were having trouble with their knees. Several had hip replacements. Someday I won't be able to get up from squat toilets,   I worried.  Nor will I be able to carry 44 pounds of luggage up and down stairs in railway stations.Someday I'll have to give up writing guidebooks on China; I
won't be able to get around there myself.
  When I was 65, I started making a list of places to visit before that painful day arrived and wondered if my next book would be my last.  High on the list was Tibet's sacred Mount Kailash.
    Then my husband, Mike, said he wanted us to go  trekking in Mustang, on the north side of the Himalayas in Nepal.
    The thought of going to a tiny Tibetan kingdom of 6,000 people appealed as much to me as it did to him  Mustang had been available to foreigners only since 1992.  Fascinated by
Tibetan culture, I wanted to see temples that pre-dated the Dalai Lama's reforms of 400 years ago. Mustang was even better that way than Kailash.
   The agency organizing the trek was Toronto-based and we liked the idea of Canadian standards of hygiene.  But we discovered that we would not benefit entirely from the modern world.  Getting Nepalese permission to carry an emergency telephone was prohibitively expensive. If we had
an accident, we would have to send a runner to the closest police post, which might or might not be able to get us a helicopter.  It could take two or three days for help to arrive.
    While Mustang meant walking at 13,123 feet, we had previously survived Tibet with no altitude sickness.  We decided to chance it and started to train nine months before
the trip.  We spent weekends on eight-mile hikes.  We climbed stairs at every opportunity and began using a gym. Within three months, I was feeling euphoric--better than I had felt in my life.
   In May, we flew to Kathmandu and joined five other trekkers: Canadians, Americans and a Polish woman who had found the trek on the Internet.  We met our leader Chris Beall, a Canadian who had spent the last 16 years as a mountain guide in Nepal.  We felt confident that all would be well.
    Soon we were on a 20 seat plane to Jomsom, the administrative capital of lower Mustang, and had our last look at any wheeled vehicle for 12 days.  In Jomson we greeted our staff of 18--people who would set up our tents, feed us and boil our water to keep us from dehydration or being laid low by gastro-intestinal illnesses.  We met our guides who would interpret between Nepali and English, and would even carry our day packs.
   Our walk the first day was a short three hours along the half-mile wide bed of the Kali Gandaki River.  Then we arrived at the border of Upper Mustang with its forbidding sign. "Stop. Beyond this point, you must have a permit...."
The permit cost $700 for each of us and guaranteed that only about 1,000 trekkers a year damage the ecology.
   Aside from the millions of toe-stubbing rocks, the riverbed was a wonderful highway.  We saw nothing paved with asphalt, not even the runway of the airport at Jomson.  We smiled at the first of many donkey trains, bells of different sizes around each neck, a constant gently hum

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of different tones, growing louder as it approached.  The highly decorated animals took cement and metal windows into Mustang.   We saw porters carrying wooden beams--not an easy task in the valley's strong wind. We watched singing
children herd mules and goats.  We learned about the likes
of "High Altitude Flatus Expulsion,"-- how some of us humans produce more intestinal gases than usual at high altitudes.
   We decided on that first day that the dramatic scenery and exotic situation were worth all our efforts, but our high spirits collapsed later in camp when we couldn't find our pajamas and realized that our toilet tent covered only a hole in the ground.  Our promised washing water didn't arrive until the morning and we only got two quarts!  If we hadn't spent the money, bragged to our friends about the trip and traveled more than half way around the world, we might have given up then.
    The next day we started climbing 300 feet above the riverbed.   This path was narrow and covered with loose stones.  Suddenly my foot slipped over the edge and I almost fell off the cliff.  It happened so quickly I didn't have time to be afraid.  But then we came to the landslide.  It was over three feet wide and was rolling slowly down the hill over our path.  Padam, our head guide, jumped like a goat to the other side of the moving stones.
  "Dig the sides of your feet into the hill," he yelled.  I hesitated, but he was laughing and joking as if landslides were just like shallow rushing streams.    He grabbed each of us in turn and dragged us across.
   Mike had been assured by one of the previous Mustang trekkers that the paths were "like roads."  Yet here they were only a few inches wide.  A slip could mean a 300 foot fall.  Fortunately the paths got wider.
   The next day we started climbing in earnest "at altitude." I charged ahead as usual, but my lungs burned.
My thighs got so heavy I had to halt every 10 feet to catch my breath and slow my heart.  Chris grinned and said I was the slowest trekker he had ever accompanied in 20 treks--and that age was not a factor.  He had had a 75-year old trekker once who was faster than his companions.  The others in our group, including Mike, were doing fine.
   The fourth day, the guides found me a pony and life improved.  Instead of constantly watching the ground for holes and rocks,  I could absorb the wonderful scenery, the yellow bushes, the immense flocks of goats and the magnificent vistas.   I looked forward to the fluttering prayer flags at the top of each pass and the terraced barley
fields around the villages.

  

     By the time we reach the stone-and-earth capital Lo Manthang, we were wearing the same clothes day and night. We checked into a "hotel" mainly for a shower and a chance to wash our clothes.
   On the sixth day, like most other tour groups, we had an audience with the king.  The king's palace was modest with uneven pillars of logs and mud and stairways steep and so shallow we had to walk up sideways.  Two vicious chained growling dogs protected him.  Dressed in sneakers, a windbreaker and a knitted grey cap, the king spoke no English.  As his interpreter was out of town, he spent our 20 minutes looking bored and chanting deep down in his throat.  Om Mani Parimi Hum--The Tibetan prayer.  We handed him our kata scarves hastily bought that morning but he forgot to bless them and give them back.
   On the way back to Jomson we slower walkers hired ponies as we still had hills to climb. I kept thinking that ponies were part of the historic
experience we were having--we were traveling like the people here had done for thousands of years.
   Probably like them, we kept meeting some of the same
travelers.  Two teachers were carrying their three-year old child and luggage--a one week trip to their new job.  Twice we bumped into three young women going to the capital.  They each asked Chris to marry them and take them to England, until they discovered he was 46.   Another family was taking their frail grandmother to a doctor.  The old woman
sometimes switched from a pony to the back of her son.
    Walking back along the river bed, we were joined by a couple of sisters who were accompanying their parents to an eye doctor three days' walk from their home. The poverty appalled us, but except for one lame beggar, everyone was cheerful.  The sisters flirted with our guides.
   I arrived home with a feeling of accomplishment, pleased that nothing more serious than a cough had befallen us. None of my friends had ever met a king or climbed over a moving landslide.  None had covered 93 miles on horseback and foot or slept in two dollar a night "hotels." I was also
humbled by meeting people who lived happily with so little.
   I realized that my life didn't need to change just yet,
that I could still learn new tricks and that there would be people to help.  I decided to go ahead with my new Web site business, put Mount Kailash on my "To Do" list for next year
and signed up again at the neighborhood gym.

Ms. Malloy is author of "China Guide" a regularly updated travel guidebook on China.

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