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

Plastic is Forever

Found in 5 Minutes on Our Beach

Every Color, Every Shape: Its All There in the Ocean

Our material culture washes up every day upon our beaches: Thousands of tiny particles of weathered plastic bits mixed with large snarls of monofilament trapping bottle caps, fireworks parts and earplugs. To look at a list of what’s washed ashore on a single beach during one high tide is to step through a day-in-the-life of the average American citizen and take note of the hundreds of plastic items we use: coffee cups and lids, plastic stirrers, plastic straws, clamshell food containers, plastic pens, a toothbrush, hairbrush, mascara applicator, shampoo bottle, car door handle, paintbrush, cell phone holder, car bumper, plastic shopping bags, dog toy, tennis balls, juice pouches, paint can spray top, organic produce stickers, plant pots, shovel handle, flip flops, sunglasses, lip balm applicator, baseball cap visor, packing peanuts, ziplock bag, water bottles, refrigerator meats drawer, plastic champagne cork, toothpaste cap, and light switch cover. Everything on this list has washed up on a beach in Puget Sound for us to document.

Plastic is Forever is the name of our project, and it’s the brainchild of 5 children who can no longer play innocently on a beach, oblivious to the myriad plastics under foot. Ages 4-7, and for over a year now, the kids have masterminded their own inventories, marine plastics art exhibits, environmental festival projects, science fair displays, watershed educational booths, public library displays, and Earth Day exhibitions. They’ve even made a short film. Please watch their work and spread the news: We’re using way too much plastic and it just won’t seem to ever go away.

Think Locally, Act Globally

There are a few places left on Earth where cultures and individuals have not lost touch with their past, their knowledge of how to live in harmony with the natural world, rather than overcoming it and destroying it. As far as carbon footprints are concerned, these are the people who have perhaps a heel-p

rint on the environment, as compared to the ski-boot-size print we know we have upon the Earth every day we live our average American lives. This is the story of one family’s journey to seek answers to the myriad questions about what we can do to reach back toward our past and re-learn the ways of the people who still respect the gifts of the Earth, conserve them, re-use them, and ultimately have the power and education to refuse the modern products that are toxic to our environment. This blog is a snapshot of where things have gone awry and an offering of simple solutions to stop the flood of plastics and non-reusable garbage into our wild places.

We don’t have a blueprint for living the perfect zero impact life, but we can provide a road-map for an ever-changing journey toward a more mindful way of living, whether we live in the most remote villages in the Himalayas or on a both rural and suburban island 35 minutes by ferry to metro Seattle.

Filming large prayer wheel in Upper Mustang

I’m a documentary filmmaker, with 20 years’ luck making films for NOVA, the BBC, and National Geographic in the world’s wildest least inhabited places on Earth. My husband is an explorer/climber who became known at the turn of this century for his 7 successful summits of Mount Everest. You might say our combined experiences have aided our re-thinking of the everyday worlds we live in. We’ve lived the sparse mountaineer’s life, a modern-wilderness-caveman-style existence in all sorts of extremes and have analyzed it closely, paring down our essentials and power requirements to the absolute minimum. And we now know there can be great joy and satisfaction living a life more simple, far from the cough of motors, hours if not days from the nearest shopping center.

We continue to make films and do research in the remote places we love, but what has stunned us and inspired us to change our lifestyle at home and live more closely to the rhythms of the Earth is the amount of waste we’re seeing in the world’s highest watersheds and the trickle-down of those misguided waste disposal practices, those plastics and toxic chemicals, ultimately, into our pristine waterways and oceans.

Spring Snow in the Himalayas

3 Year Old Post-holing Over a 13,000 foot pass

We’re taking simple steps, as you’ll learn in this blog, to initiate pilot projects, both at home and abroad, to help both our local island townsfolk and the indigenous cultures we work with see waste in new ways: separating the resources from the toxics and opening up a dialogue about how to reduce the waste that is ultimately detrimental to us all. We’re re-learning what our great great grandparents practiced.

Mostly, it’s our children (ages 5 & 7) who inspire our work. They find solutions long before we do and adapt to every environment they face. But they can no longer enjoy the beauty of the highest Himalayan villages, for example, because their eyes are caught by the tree limbs wrapped in blowing plastic bags, the ancient mani walls carved with Buddha’s teachings and stuffed with ramen noodle packages, and the wild grasses glittering with sweets wrappers and water bottles thrown from the hands of their Sherpa friends.

Stopping For a Hug, 13,000 feet, Khumbu, Nepal

“Let’s try to do something about it,” are the words Finn & Cleo spoke last February when we spent a month in the Mount Everest region of Nepal working on a Magic Yeti Children’s Library we had established a year before. This short film is a brief look at the adventures we had in coming up with simple solutions for a beautiful village at 12,600 feet at risk of becoming another trash heap sending its waste down into the greatest watershed in the world. The people of Phortse are taking positive steps to prevent this.