Between Heaven and Hell

Is there any place left where life still goes on separate and idyllic, uncontaminated by modernity? National Book Award winner Shacochis sets out for the hidden mountain kingdom of Mustang.

  • Byliner Original
  1. The Land of Lo

    One hundred and fifty million years ago, when there were not yet Himalayas to climb or die on, the air currents bouncing our little plane were a sea breeze, moderate or not, and these mountains lay darkly within the ocean floor, a chain of eggs laid by an underworld serpent, unimaginable in their future greatness, and no one to imagine them anyway except the gods.

    But in an expansive geologic minute, eighty million years later, the Indian subcontinent shuddered into wakefulness and began to butt its crown into the vast landmass of Central Asia. Where the plates met, the earth’s crust folded upward, ever upward, to the present day—Everest’s summit rose three inches last year alone—thrusting snow peaks through seabeds and into the stars, forming a virtually unbroken axis fifteen hundred miles long. Only in a few places along this axis, from Pakistan to Burma, did the Asian continent’s rivers breach the dam of the Himalayas, creating in one such place—like a cosmic ax-chop eighteen thousand feet deep between the Annapurna massif and Dhaulagiri—the second-deepest gorge in the world, cut by the Kali Gandaki River, which is where our little band of seven adventurers found ourselves flying this early morning in May 2001, the sheer flanks of the gorge thrusting far above our wings.

    One learns immediately that any traveler’s tale of Mustang begins with the cruel and ubiquitous wind, as this one did just over a decade ago. The tectonic instability of the Himalayas expresses itself in...

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