Challenges (Part II)

Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved. Helen Keller

Once Dr. Singh had meticulously inched his way across the downward moving Himalayan glacier, there was no thought even given to whether we would turn back or go on. Dr. Singh and Dr. Wangmo pressed forward to get me to the Spiti Valley, and more immediately, off Rotung Pass and the sixteen-thousand-foot Kunlom Pass. Between the passes we stopped amid the gigantic boulders of the bleak valley at a crude bridge that crossed the Chandra River. Some friends of the Singhs ran a “dhabz,” or roadside café, out there in the middle of no place. They weren’t out there to make a lot of money from the tourists, because there just weren’t very many silly people out there visiting Mr. Roger’s neighborhood. But the old weather-worn Hindu couple felt that someone needed to be available with food, fresh-brewed black tea, and matches for the “at risk” travelers going that way. By then, the frigid temperatures had plunged and the blue plastic tarps that served as the roof flapped furiously at the timbers to which they were tied. The walls were piles of stacked stones. There were no window openings, just one doorway in the front made of another flap of blue plastic tarp.

When the crusty old man saw how I was dressed, he quickly pulled off his coat and made me put it on. He told me I would need it in Kaza and to just return it on our way back down the mountain. The soup they served to us was dark green in color and thick in consistency. I could make out that beans were included in the ingredients, but as to what else I could not tell you. 

The hot, strong, black tea was also thick and sweetened like syrup, but it felt good as it ran its course from my mouth to my empty stomach. While the old man kept the fire going inside his stacked-stone stove, the old woman rolled out corn chapattis on a flat rock with a round smooth river rock and fried them on a piece of flat, blackened iron balanced atop the fire. 

We finished our lunch, thanked our gracious hosts, and resumed our journey. As we continued to gain altitude in our Gypsy 4x4, we moved from the bleak tundra landscape to mountain elevations that contained absolutely nothing but dark brown and black volcanic gravel. As we drove across one rock slide area of about a quarter-mile in width, Dr. Singh explained to me that they were probably the most dangerous areas on the mountain face. “You have to travel across them if you traverse the face of the mountain. You can’t go above or below them because some chutes were thousands of feet in length up the mountain,” explained Dr. Singh. But the idea was to never stop while going across a rock slide chute. Even if there was an obstacle in your way, you must never get out of the auto. The driver must always be behind the steering wheel and keep moving. The rock slide areas were extremely unstable and just the movement of the wheels could be enough to set the slide into thunderous motion down the endless mountain. 

It had turned completely dark as we rode on. We had to make it to Kaza, simply because there wasn’t any place else to stop and stay the night. Finally, Dr. Wangmo gave out a squeal of delight. We had just passed where they used to live and had their clinic. Even though there were no street lights or welcoming signs, we had entered the town of Kaza, where we would spend the night. It was 9:45 p.m. and all the lights were out. The doctors Singh and Wangmo were very good friends with the people who operated the only “hotel” in Kaza. Dr. Wangmo ran in and awakened the owner and his wife. They came out to greet us and hurried us to the frosty kitchen to fix us some more black tea. 

When morning came, I could hardly believe how happy the doctors were. They just kept talking about how important it was for me to travel to Kaza and the Spiti Valley. It was cold outside and I was glad for the musty borrowed coat. The view of the snow-clad Himalayan peaks was breathtaking. But the immediate surroundings of Kaza were pretty bleak and brown in color. Nothing grew there of its own accord. The people in the Spiti Valley were considered lower on the Indian caste system. We had crossed over Old Tibet the night before, and we were only two miles from China. Doctors Singh and Wangmo had lived there with the people for over six years, and the townspeople were thrilled to see them, and excited that in the future there might be access to increased medical care. 

After a breakfast of chapattis, rice, and black tea, we left the hotel. It was a bright and crisp morning and hard to believe that only days before I had been in the sweltering heat of 120 degrees in Delhi. We had to retrace every bump and rock and flowing waterfall we had crossed the day before. 

With it being dark as we entered Kaza, I had missed a lot of the grandeur. Just outside the town, plastered tightly against a rugged stone cliff, was an ancient monastery. Later, His Holiness the Dalai Lama would be there to teach and pray for world peace at the key monastery. A lot of people would make the pilgrimage to Spiti Valley for the occasion. 

The old Tibetan valley floor in Spiti was higher than any of the mountain peaks in Colorado. During the daylight drive back, I marveled at the road we had passed over the night before. In many places the road had been chiseled out of the granite face of the mountain and just hung there totally unprotected and without the hint of any guardrails. We stopped long enough along the Chandra River at the “dhabz” to return the coat, and had some more tea and a couple of biscuits with the old couple. As we approached Kullu Valley, I asked Dr. Singh how many times over the years he had crossed those two passes on his way to Spiti. “Well over 500 times,” he said. “Well over 500 times but never, ever, in the month of May.” 

Yes, we were able to successfully help deliver urgently needed medical goods to the doctors Singh and Wangmo on the northern borders of India, and as Robert Frost once penned, “Courage is the human virtue that counts most—courage to act on limited knowledge and insufficient evidence. That's all any of us has.” 

However, in dealing with the subject of challenges, I have personally decided that next time I am confronted with such a significant challenge, I will first try to expand my limited knowledge and insufficient evidence of the challenge, and especially try to stay away from moving glaciers on the face of twenty-thousand-foot Himalayan mountain peaks. 

(The full version of this story taken from Dr. Jackson’s TRAVEL JOURNALS from around the world will be published soon)