Our Gore-tex armour was effective only as a flimsy shield against the full force of the storm that tore through the enormous gorge. With each blast, the winds blinding cargo of grit and sand found its way deeper into the cracks and seals of our jackets to mix with the sweat of our bodies. Unhindered, it bit into our faces, filled our ears and nostrils, and made breathing the hot thin air extremely unpleasant. For hours we had stumbled along the rocky bed of the gorge without so much as a glimpse of the sheer cliffs and mountains high above us – the lack of visibility make the terrain seem like a never ending desert of stone, rather than the flood plain of the deepest mountain valley on earth.
Interrupting our monotonous advance, ghostly shapes loomed dark on the edge of our visible world. With no definition between earth and sky the ponderous forms seemed to float before us in the featureless maelstrom. Then, like some trick of a conjurer, they faded away behind another shifting curtain of sand. We squinted into the storm and once again the shapes began to take form. First a massive head, weighed down by a five-foot arc of horns, then a great body under a mat of hair that trailed in ringlets to the ground. Strapped to an ornate saddle on the creature’s back were colourful bundles. “Yaks”, cried Bloom – my fellow traveller – “My god they’re yaks”. Behind the first another appeared, then another – until a dozen of the great shaggy animals lumbered towards us. Behind them came their herders, heads bowed against the wind, but otherwise as unaffected by the storm as their charges. We made way for what was obviously a caravan coming down from the Tibetan plateau. As they drifted past, strong sun-blackened faces under tangles of black windswept hair greeted us with nods and lazy smiles.
Travelling through Nepal I’d given little thought to the reality of our expedition to the remote Tibetan border. Now, as I stood marvelling at these colourful dust-covered men and their animals, the realization of our journey filtered through the sand and the sweat. We had left our world behind and were now stepping into theirs, travelling to a kingdom hardly altered in a thousand years, cut off by almost impenetrable passes on the highest plateau in the world. We were trekking into Mustang – the last bastion of the ancient Tibetan culture – to an audience with the King and Queen. I watched as, like the time travellers they were, the caravan began to disappear back into the storm.