Rob and I have been walking for nine days from the nearest road to get to Samdo. Days of sunshine walking beside the River Gandakhi, gradually gaining height and getting closer to its glacial source. We have passed beyond the tree line and are now surrounded by high, dry land at more than 4000 metres above sea level.

I'm confronted with an amphitheater of jagged tips piercing the turquoise sky. Centre stage is Manaslu, the world's eighth highest peak that today is a playground for clouds that change from thick drapes to swirls of white, then thin to wisps and reveal the sheer stone summit. The mountains are stacked one after the other, a mass of ice towers and crevices. I imagine being in there amid shifting ice and cruel wind. However beautiful it looks from here, I know it's perilous among the steep slopes whose only imprints come from the shadows of lammergeier, bearded vultures whose diet is made up mostly of bones; they're perfectly suited to this high land.

We're two days' walk away from crossing the Larkya La pass (5200m) and have made camp below Samdo village, whose sixty or so houses are made of wood and mud and topped with heavy stone slates. Buddhist prayer flags flutter and fade: blues, whites, reds, greens and yellows against the grey of the houses. Samdo is the last and highest village before the Tibetan border, on one side, and the Larkya La on the other. Those who live here are dependent on the crops teased out of the dry earth over a short summer, the meat and milk of resident yaks, and supplies that have to be walked in.

While I'm strolling through an empty field a yak turns towards me, drops its head, and speeds up. I run for shelter and I'm met with laughter: two young girls are enjoying the sight of a woman frightened by what to them is probably a docile beast. The yak loses interest, and I stay and play with the girls, devising a yak chasing dance that leaves us all giggling.

The house I have run towards has an open-sided cattle shelter at ground level and a wooden ladder leading to the living space above. Later in the day Rob and I meet Lhakpa Tsering, who lives here, and we're invited to meet his mother, Kunsang Dolma. We sit on low benches in the house's single room beside the fire, which is kept burning all year. Slender strips of yak meat hang from the ceiling, shelves around the walls are stacked with tin and copper cups and pots, and an old radio offers the melodic but crackling sound of Tibetan music.

Kunsang came to Samdo at the age of one, carried by her family from Tibet across windswept plateaus and high passes. Many of the villagers here are Tibetan and have carried their culture, recipes and clothes with them. There is a regular trade in Tibetan goods as well as a strong connection with Nepal; Kunsang's second son walks for several days to a boarding school in the Nepalese town of Pokhara. She misses him, but wants to give him the opportunities a good education can provide.

We stay for salty yak butter tea and share stories of lives separated by more than miles; we're on the same planet, living in different worlds. Kunsang rummages through a trunk to find her best clothes, eager to put these on for a photograph, and presses rock-hard pieces of yak cheese into our hands. Outside, she looks proud in a shirt the colour of a high altitude sky, her thick-skinned work-strong hands clasped in front of her.

When we leave the warmth of Kunsang's house, mist is rising from the cold earth and the first stars are pricking an indigo sky. We have to ready ourselves for an early morning start for our final ascent to the pass. Little do we expect that we'll be back here in a few days. Our pass crossing is thwarted when we are engulfed by raging winds and snow, in a painful reminder of the respect and caution that these high mountains demand, and the hardiness of the people who live among them.

Words by Harriet Fraser,Photography by Rob Fraser

Add a comment