We’d been trekking for five weeks. I was looking forward to a relaxing bus drive, followed by a shower and a comfy bed at a Kathmandu hotel.
The bus that arrived to pick us up was ancient – its tyres were polished smooth. I tried not to think about the steep drop to our left, as our driver skillfully negotiated the narrow mountain roads. I focused instead on the rhododendron bushes – shiny green leaves garnished with the occasional scarlet bloom.
Light snow began delicately frosting the green and red. It thickened and we were forced to stop and clear it from the road. At first, we tried just kicking it aside. Our cooks offered pizza tins to be used as shovels. We cleared a bit, drove a bit, cleared again. Progress was painfully slow but the work kept us warm. We implemented a system for calls of nature – men in front of the bus, women behind. The weather showed no sign of abating. Finally, the driver stopped the bus and announced, "I’m not going to drive any further. I don’t want to die!" Fair enough – we didn’t either.
Our Sherpa guides spotted a farmhouse deep in the valley below and we carefully picked our way down there. We were grateful for the dinner of plain lentils and rice that they shared with us. Eight of us stretched out top-to-tail on a hard wooden bed covered by a straw mat. It was too cold to sleep so someone found in their pack a large digital thermometer and placed it onto the sill of the glassless window. We amused ourselves by placing bets on how low the temperature would fall. It hung around minus four. I wondered where the couple who’d given up their bed for us were sleeping. I hoped they’d been well paid.
We resigned ourselves to the possibility of spending several nights there, but in the morning we were greeted by clear blue sky. We completed our journey uneventfully. We’d forfeited our night of luxury accommodation in Kathmandu but gained instead a precious glimpse of how other people live.
Note: A longer version of this article was published in The Age Travel section under the heading The Big Chill in 2005.