In the Footsteps of Tibetans Escaping Communism

A tourist looks at Mount Everest from a viewing point at Lukla in north Nepal. Gopal Chitrakar/Reuters

This article first appeared on the Daily Signal. It is the second episode of Nolan Peterson's three-part account of his trek to an age-old Himalayan trade route used by Tibetan refugees from Chinese oppression. The first part can be found here.

Namche Bazar, Nepal—The hike to the Nangpa La refugee route was not an easy one. I felt fine and strong, but the weight of my pack took its toll, and the altitude often left me short of breath.

I carried, among other things, a tent, a sleeping bag, a gas stove, clothes, food, a first aid kit, crampons and a DSLR camera.

Nights in the tent were bitter cold. Hauling a heavy pack in the altitude up above 17,000 feet was—to put it modestly—tiring. But the corporal excesses of easy living melted away with the miles and the altitude.

Blisters became calluses. Sunburns turned to tan. Sore muscles became stronger ones. The body hardened to the task as the days went on.

I was headed for the Nangpa La, a pass that bridges the Himalayas between Nepal and Tibet.

The trail was rough, meandering and at times hard to identify. This ancient, nomadic route has been practically abandoned by Tibetan refugees under China's eye for the past six years, and parts have faded into the wild terrain because of the unending erosion of wind and snow.

Landslides from the two massive earthquakes that hit Nepal in 2015 also have wiped out some sections of the trail, leaving no choice but to skirt along steep, crumbling cliffs. You can only hope the ground will support your weight as you nervously peer down hundreds of feet of exposure.

A fall here would be fatal. Even if you survived the tumble, a broken leg or ankle would likely be a death sentence in this remote section of the Himalayas. As the tagline from the movie Alien says, in this place "no one can hear you scream."

Intermittent clues to the path's history sprang up along the way. Nomads and refugees had built stone huts and walls as shelters from the wind at various points. At these abandoned campsites, I found disintegrated sneakers, the soles worn through, and tattered jeans and T-shirts. I also found a shattered porcelain vase with Chinese lettering, as well as food wrappers and soda cans with labels in Chinese.

Yet there were no active signs of man's existence. It was complete, abandoned isolation.

It was, in fact, quite eerie to have this massive place all to myself as I traveled within a pantheon of jagged, earth-tone cliffs beyond which towering, burning white peaks touched unbelievable heights. I was lucky with the weather. The days were perfectly clear, giving all the colors a supernatural radiance, highlighted by the hyperclarity of the thin, high-altitude air.

This is the second part of Peterson's three-part account of his trek to an age-old Himalayan trade route used by refugees. Read the first part here.

Nolan Peterson, a former special operations pilot and a combat veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is the Daily Signal's foreign correspondent.

In the Footsteps of Tibetans Escaping Communism | Opinion