Nowadays, the argument goes, there isn’t anywhere left to explore. And when you can look down on the world’s remotest corners on the Internet, what would be the point? Mighty Everest is crowded and there are travel agents who can fly you to the South Pole – if you have enough cash. Television adventurers jostle for our attention, but have to work harder than ever to stop us changing channel. The world just doesn’t seem that exciting anymore.
That’s the theory, anyway. And given that tomorrow I’m setting off on another journey – at an age when I should know better – it’s obviously not a theory I believe in. For me, it’s not enough just to watch the world on a screen, or follow a guidebook – I want to see it for myself. I may not be Chris Bonington, but you don’t have to be to have a real adventure. My duffel bags are packed, the last few crucial bits of gear have been found and I’ve put my passport somewhere I won’t forget it. The sense of anticipation is almost unbearable.
The plan is straightforward enough. With two companions, Julian Attwood and Martin Johnson, I’m flying to Kathmandu, en route for the Tibetan plateau and a little-known range of mountains some 200km north of the Nepali border. Some parts of the Himalaya might be familiar ground, but this is a vast area and it doesn’t take much to escape the crowds. It’s not that we’re some kind of rare breed who must do something for the first time. It’s just fun sometimes to take the road less travelled. We don’t even have a proper photo of where we’re going.
Our mountain, Kedang Kangri, has hardly been visited since Sven Hedin passed this way at the start of the twentieth century. The local population aren’t typically Buddhist, but follow Tibet’s other spiritual practice – Bön. Recognised by the Dalai Lama, this mysterious, little-known tradition stretches back into Tibet’s shamanistic and animist history. Our peak even has its own Bön name, Tsebon Ri. That feeling of being somewhere truly obscure, even to Tibetans, is incredibly exciting.
The first part of the journey is familiar enough, up the Friendship Highway and into Tibet at a crummy frontier town called Zhangmu. It will be my fourth trip to what was once called the Forbidden Kingdom. From there, travelling in jeeps, we climb up to 3750m to reach the town of Nyalam. Nicknamed the ‘Gate of Hell’ by Nepali traders, Nyalam still deserves that name, partly because it makes Zhangmu look good, and partly because it’s the altitude where I begin to feel ill. We’re planning to camp outside the town for two nights to help prepare our bodies for what comes next.
From Nyalam we travel northwest for around 500km, past Lake Paiku with its forgotten monastery and views of Shisha Pangma, to the town of Saga and then Cocquen. We’ll be crossing passes over 5000m high, so we’ll need the acclimatisation. From there we turn due west, off-road, past another remote lake called Chabyer Caka, passing a region of saltpans to the north. Salt is still traded from here into Nepal on caravans of yaks. Last year, we explored the other end of that trade route, in the remote Nepali district of Mugu, so it feels right to heading for where it all begins.
Kedang Kangri lies beyond this, reaching around 6700m. If we have time and our health is good, we hope to trek some way up it. To be honest, I’m not really sure what’s going to happen. If I did, it wouldn’t be much of an adventure, would it? Living in that state of uncertainty is a great way of putting life in perspective. Nomads in this part of Tibet know all about that, which is why their religion is so important to them. My biggest fears? I have a well-founded terror of the mastiffs the nomads use to protect their camps. And from previous travels in Tibet, I know how harsh the landscape is, the dust and dryness in your throat can make you ill.
If all goes according to plan, I’m going to be posting short updates each day on Rohantime as our journey unfolds. But there are no guarantees. Given the region’s political tensions, anything could happen. We may get blocked by strikes in Nepal, or find ourselves turned back by overzealous local officials. I know how tenuous travel has become in this part of the world since the Tibetan uprising of 2008. But I doubt it will be dull.
Read Ed’s daily updates to Rohantime on the journey so far