A reader recently asked on Facebook whether the trip to Bhutan will lead to a new book. It’s a good question, since I usually say that travel is where I get my ideas from now I’ve written so many books that I’ve used up all my ready-made life experiences. From time to time I have to go off and have some new ones, or else I’d have nothing to turn into fiction.
It’s true that we had plenty of adventures out there. The monsoon rains ended, and about three days later the snow came earlier than predicted. We were then at the farthest point from civilization, out in the high Lunana mountains, and in the beginnings of the blizzard our guide made clear that the two options open to us were:
1. to go for it, walking fast and hard, aiming to get over the passes while the snow was still not too deep to stop the ponies (and us).
2. not to go for it, which would mean waiting in Thangsa for an Indian Army helicopter to come and evacuate us. This is what happened to some members of a group following a day or so behind us.
We went for option 1, which was exciting, but also carried the real possibility that we’d get stuck in our tents somewhere even less accessible than Thangsa.
We’d have been cold and hungry.
Of course in the end we made it over the Rinchen Zoe pass at about sixteen thousand feet, and a couple of days later finally walked out below the snow line to valleys full of acacia, rhododendron and majestic hemlock pines. While we trudged through the drifts the skies were always cloudy but still the air was so thin, and the reflected light so strong, that we all got lip sores and burned cheeks as if we’d been to the south pole. More seriously, we all wore sunglasses – but some of our crew didn’t and as a result their eyes got scorched. For more than 24 hours the pain they went through was excruciating. Even though we had two doctors with us there wasn’t much they could do except offer painkillers. The yak men, though, didn’t suffer. They tied thick hanks of yaks’ tail across their eyes and peered through that, which filtered the light to a safe level.
All interesting stuff – but a novel? I’ve more or less covered that territory, in White and Sun at Midnight.
I’ve thought a lot about the tiger and the snow leopard, slinking through the forests. I’m sure they’ll crop up somewhere, either as themselves or as a symbol of wilderness in another context.
But the really knotty topic for me this time was the group itself. (Isn’t it always??)
Perhaps the constitution of it wasn’t ideal, being two long-standing married couples and me on my own. And the very cold conditions meant that almost all the hours in camp, from about 4 pm to 6 am, were spent inside our tents zipped up in our sleeping bags, they in their pairs and I in my solo state…. So for quite a lot of the time when not actually walking, I felt left out. No-one’s fault, of course. And on any expedition feeling a bit lonely and homesick has to be dealt with in exactly the same way as cold and tiredness, with food, sleep and Getting Over It.
But it was fascinating to note how finding myself on the outside of this particular group took me straight back to school, to feeling unpopular and awkward and lost, and consequently just as vulnerable now as the isolated adolescent I then was.
Hmmm. Something there, maybe? The knee-jerk emotional reaction although almost all circumstances are actually different?
It’s a roundabout answer to the original question. But travel does illuminate the unexpected fibres of that interface between the known and the unknown.
For me it’s right there, in the membrane that separates present reality from the imagined and the recollected, that fiction grows.