The Last Plastic-Free Place on Earth. Well, Almost.

Riding into the Village of Samdzong, Upper Mustang, Nepal, Photo: Liesl Clark

It was a plastic bag, of all things, that spooked the young Tibetan horse into a bucking frenzy. We had just saddled him up and tied some snacks onto the already-packed saddle bags. Our 9-year-old son, Finn, was his rider. Something about the unfamiliar sound of crinkling plastic set the horse off and 10 seconds later Finn miraculously threw himself from the saddle, landing onto his back. He stood up, immediately, and faced everyone to say, in a shaken voice, “I’m okay.”

Plastic bag caught in a pile of kindling, Tamagaon, Upper Mustang, Photo: Liesl Clark

Ironically, this was the only plastic bag I had accepted from a shop keeper in 10 days and my misjudgement felt like a slap in the face. Plastic bags don’t belong out in the wilds of the Himalayan high steppes — even the 2-year-old gelding knew that.

We were at 13, 300 feet, just outside the royal city of Lo Manthang in the Kingdom of Mustang, Nepal. Finn’s horse galloped away down a rough stretch of canyon, the saddle bags now dangerously tangled between his hind legs. He had ripped himself, twice, from the grips of Tashi Wangyel, his owner, the former horseman of the Raja, or king, of Mustang. Tashi was devastated by the sight of the abrasions across Finn’s back. Finn is like a son to him, a dear friend of his own son, Kunga, who is one of the youngest monks at the nearby monastery. Luckily Tashi had a spare horse Finn could jump on as we had a 5-hour hike ahead of us to the Tibetan borderlands village of Samdzong.

“Dolma,” Reliable Steed, Photo: Liesl Clark

We had 6 days to excavate 6 caves for the remains of a 1600-year-old people who once buried their dead in cliff-side shaft tombs. We also had a waste audit to conduct, researching how a traditional village at the end of the trail handles the influx of modern plastic packaging in many goods that are now available due to the nearby construction of a road from China and Tibet.

The New Way: Traveling by Truck up The Kali Gandaki River. Even 6-Year-Olds are Piled in the Back. Photo: Liesl Clark

The Samdzong people, compared to most villages in Upper Mustang, are relatively untouched by modern amenities often brought in to Mustang to appease the tourists. There’s no shop in Samdzong, indeed few tourists are given permission to visit the forgotten village. We’re helping fund the building of a museum for the ancient artifacts our team of archaeologists and climbers uncovered in the high caves — the attendant grave goods of a Himalayan people we’re only just beginning to flesh out through genetic analysis. The material culture these people had at their fingertips consisted of domestic animals, wood, ceramics, wool, glass beads, and metals like bronze, copper, iron, and other precious metals.

Samdzong Village, Plastic-Free. Photo: Liesl Clark

Little has changed in Samdzong today. The people in this bucolic village work their sheep and yak wool day and night, spinning and weaving to make sweaters, colorful clothing, and even hand-woven woolen boots and shoes that are more prevalent than sneakers.

Samdzong’s Handmade Sustainable Shoes, Discarded in Riverbed. Photo: Liesl Clark

Samdzong Wool Works. Photo: Liesl Clark

For thousands of years, archaeologists have claimed, indigenous cultures discarded their material waste just outside their homes and villages, along slopes outside enclaves where gravity and precipitation would lend their aid in melting ceramics, wood, and textiles back into the Earth. Broken stone tools simply blended back into the landscape that thousands of years later only a trained eye can now identify. These are the clues to the ancients we look for in Upper Mustang, discards flippantly thrown out of cave dwellings or village homes as well as the goods buried with the dead, to accompany them into the next life.

Ancient Bronze Recovered by Finn from Cave Tomb. Photo: Liesl Clark

Fast forward some 1600 years later, and Samdzong’s material culture is still mostly natural: Wood, metals, ceramics, a little glass, and of course textiles. They trade their large flock of goats for food and goods from Southern Nepal and nearby Tibet. A small percentage of what’s carried back to the village is plastic, and the behavior around waste has not changed. All household trash is sent out the door, often into the irrigation ditches only a few feet away so the buoyant plastic can be carried off with the current. The good  news is that the plastics are limited to a few things: Ramen noodle packets and clothes washing powder bags from China. The women wash their clothes in the streams and ditches and set the empty bags free with the moving water. I picked up a large plastic feedsack-worth in about 10 minutes of cleaning-up down river.

Samdzong River Plastic, Photo: Liesl Clark

We carried out with us the feed sack of plastic from the Samdzong river with promises to take with us next year’s village plastic if the locals stockpiled it year round. If all visitors to Upper Mustang carried out with them a large sack-full of a village’s compressed lightweight plastic packaging, including water bottles, and took them to Kathmandu to give to the rag pickers who collect and sell them to India for a reasonable price, Upper Mustang might be freed from its choking plastics.

Choked with Trash: Community Garbage Deposited Alongside a Waterfall Outside the Kagbeni Police Post. Photo: Liesl Clark

“We often discover the settlements or mortuary remains of ancient cultures by first finding their trash: Their ceramics, or broken stone tools, even stone flakes from tool-making that were left behind. This is the common waste of early peoples,” explains Dr. Mark Aldenderfer, leading archaeologist in our scientific inquiry about who the first people were to settle and thrive in Upper Mustang.

Almost completely intact skeletal remains of a 1600 year old man from Samdzong Mortuary Caves, (L to R: Nepali Archaeologist, Mohan Singh Lama; Dr. Bruce Gardner, M.D.; Dr. Tina Warinner, Geneticist) Photo: Liesl Clark

Our research is all about early people’s garbage and grave goods. That we’re also committed to addressing the modern garbage of the local culture seems only fitting. We’ve brought Italian metallurgist, Giovanni Massa, with us to study the many metals we’ve uncovered in Samdzong’s caves. Thousands of years from now, when single-use plastics will be a mistake of the past, what will archaeologists make of our own material culture and plastic waste left behind? It will surely still be here, buried under the silt and dust of timeless winds. I image a plastics specialist will be needed to determine which polymers were used, how they could possibly have gotten here, asking why we invented a material that will never fully break down, slowly dissolving into smaller and smaller bits, disseminating into our waters to be taken up into our food chain, inadvertently consumed by creatures great and small.

Prayer Flags in Mustang’s Relentless Wind. Photo: Liesl Clark

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.