Ancient Himalayan Trade Route Choked With Modern Plastic

By Liesl Clark as part of the series: The Last Plastic-Free Places on Earth

Plastics are ubiquitous along the river, often found in drifts

We spent the better part of the day bumping around in a jeep on a dirt road up the Kali Gandaki River, the world’s deepest gorge, and we’re stunned to have arrived in a village that has wifi. It was just 6 years ago when my husband, Pete Athans, and I trekked up this deep river valley, carrying our children on our backs, ages 3 years and 18 months. We’d follow porters carrying goods, even live chickens trapped in cages, up and down the steep rocky trails. Fast forward to today, and that same trail is now a marginal road, overrun with trucks, jeeps, even buses, transporting locals and Indian pilgrims on their way to sacred Hindu sites at the headwaters of the Kali Gandaki.

Now a rare site, porters along the Kali Gandaki are a thing of the past

This river drainage is one of the precious few routes that cuts through the highest Himalaya, two 8000 meter peaks on either side, providing reasonable and yet sometimes treacherous passage for travelers.

Peaks in the Annapurna Massif, Photo: Liesl Clark

Just a few days before we passed through the narrows of the gorge, a landslide rendered the road impassable and several people lost their lives. Locals shoveled out the rock and debris to provide a track that a truck or bus could traverse, with only inches to spare as buffer between you and a thousand-foot drop down to the river below. The landscape here is ever-changing, but the movement of people through it is not. This trade route is at least 3000 years rich, and we’ve worked the past 6 years with a team of climbers and archaeologists to find the human and material remains of the earliest cultures that migrated and traded here, those who carried their precious goods with them from afar to ultimately settle here and thrive.

Donkeys carrying goods up river as seen out our jeep window, Photo: Liesl Clark

We’re headed back up to the northernmost village on the Kali Gandaki drainage, a forgotten corner of the Himalaya where only a handful of Westerners have been. Our aim is to begin an excavation of a promising series of cave tombs to learn more about the 1600 year old culture we’ve uncovered. They came here and buried their dead in tombs they painstakingly carved out of the earth, which are now caves high on cliff faces. Along with the dead, special belongings were buried, perhaps the most precious among them, many transported here on their backs or acquired through trade from the myriad peoples who traveled through here from distant lands.

Road warrior: Kali Gandaki truck drivers are also master mechanics

Today’s moving and bustling humanity up and down this river corridor similarly carries with it the goods needed to survive the ravages of the climate. But these goods are perhaps more fleeting than those of yore. Few are made to last and most will likely be used and disposed of within the next few months. Welcome to modern convenience, leaving its ever-growing trail of plastic detritus up and down the valley, along the riverbanks, and indeed in the sacred Kali Gandaki waters themselves.

What was once an ancient trade route populated with porters, donkey trains, and backpack-wearing hikers has been transformed, in a matter of 3 years, into a dusty, sometimes desperate highway culture catering to the increasing numbers of people and goods now traveling more rapidly up and down valley. Many of the changes have been positive for the locals: Now most of the villages have electricity and building supplies and household items are much cheaper, medical supplies are more readily available and the standard of living has certainly improved. But most of the goods that move up valley will stay here forever. There are no garbage trucks to remove the plastic from this high dry landscape. Household refuse is either burned, buried, or simply thrown down into the river to be whisked away on the currents. The wind plays a key role, too, in the distribution of lightweight plastics. Scientists on the Kali Gandaki clocked some of the highest sustained wind speeds here on Earth.

Weaving in Kagbeni, Photo: Liesl Clark

Tomorrow we enter the Kingdom of Mustang, the upper reaches of the Kali Gandaki and a restricted zone protected by the government of Nepal and the Annapurna Conservation Area Project aiming to keep the ethnically Tibetan culture intact and the fragile high mountain environment pristine. We sign in at a check post and must show the police our expedition’s list of food and expendables. When we return through the same check post in 2 weeks, we’ll show them our actual trash, proof that we carried out everything we brought in. If the trash doesn’t add up to the items on the food list, we can’t retrieve our $300 trash deposit. Our garbage will then be transported back down valley to be disposed of in Kathmandu. All glass bottles and aluminum will be recycled, and the plastic will be sent to a landfill 10 kilometers from the city where biscuit and ramen noodle packets, as well as plastic bottles are taken out of the fly-laden piles by rag pickers who stockpile them and sell them off to India for recycling there.

Roadside flattened bottles, Photo: Liesl Clark

We expect to find less plastic waste the higher we go, as the population becomes more sparse, and the aim is to find a remote corner devoid of plastic debris blowing in the wind, caught in the trees, and choking the waterways, but the presence of the road and the influx of goods coming down from China might bring surprises.

Dhaulagiri, Photo: Liesl Clark

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