Leaving Kathmandu Valley
Saturday, Feb 13
They say the Wild West is gone, but that is not so. It can be found in the foothills of the Himalaya, where the last organized settlements of humanity are set into the mountainsides and plateaus. In fact, the Wild West of America more than likely stole their raucous thunder from these kindly mountain people, who were living out that tale long before Columbus even reached those famous shores.
Riding into the pinioned town of Syabru Besi, our bus seems to relax as it eases to a stop after the 6+ hours of continuous navigation over winding, turpentine half-roads through the gateway to the Himalaya. Deepesh, the content writer and principal blogger for Himalayan Glacier, mentions that the air feels thinner, but I don’t notice anything. We step off into this border town, this outpost, rather, and feel our bodies ease into our packs as we take in our surroundings.
This town, literally, could have been placed in any American flatland of the past and been at home. Looking forward, the main road (re: only road) bisects the town, placing the respective hotels, shops, and tea houses on either side. To the left, the hillside rises up at a steep angle with the rest of the community spread across it like rationed butter. To the right, a steep drop down to the Trishuli River, well-known farther downstream for white-water rafting. Glancing down at its turpid flow, I can see why that feat is not attempted here.
We stop briefly at a hotel for a quick tea, a calm before the storm. I am slightly apart, abstaining, perhaps foolishly, from the pre-trek ritual, choosing instead to focus on my surroundings. I see the dusty street, the palliative dogs, the Nepali men and women going about their lives, all against the backdrop of the jagged fingers of the Earth pressing up around us, the rush of the river. I try to wrap my head around all of it, but fail to do so. Despite my best efforts, my expectation of an enormously epic, magic mountain-scape fails to materialize; I am left in the same world I left behind.
After one briefer checkpoint we are let free, dogs at the races, and immediately traverse a long suspension bridge decked in a colorful explosion of prayer flags. The metal tings under our feet and the Trishuli River, which gurgles below, is the principal chorus accompanying us the rest of the day. The prayer flags, though left behind, we find flowing throughout the Himalaya, and become our recurring friends.
Thoughts flow as we ascend ever farther from that outpost. I realize, marching up the mount at whatever faster speed I travel, that it feels so… normal. My mind harkens back to my first night in India: the city of Bhubaneswar was pure chaos, caught in the throes of one of its hundreds of celebrations, lights flashing, figures dancing, street at a standstill. And yet, I found it all familiar. I knew that… and I know this mountain too. I have been on mountains, been on these grasses and these trails back in America and in Norway. With my slow companions and the heat that sneaks up despite the stiff, cooling breeze (for the sun burns through all defenses), I begin to wonder what the point of all this is. If this continues, we will have the sum total of five days of laborious, sweaty hiking with a view that hasn’t “struck” me yet, and then it would be done. I’d be back in Kathmandu, ready for the next one. But to what end?
As soon as that thought enters my head, Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard quickly comes to counter it. I’m not going for the end goal, the journey is the goal. Especially with trekking: even with something like the Everest Base Camp Trek, if you want to just get to the goal you could easily hire a helicopter and fly there. There is something in the trek, if not all.
And then John Muir speaks up. As a kid, someone (I remember not who) gave me an orange t-shirt for some occasion. It was a little tight, with the light, conservative sketch of a mountain range stenciled on the chest. Under that was a quote from the great naturalist and environmental conservationist that has stayed with me ever since:
Mountains speak, and wise men listen.
I didn’t understand it. I didn’t even really know who John Muir was. It didn’t spark an interest in me that changed the course of my life, or even enough to research the man who spawned the thought. Yet I felt it was true, and somehow profound. And I left it there, tucked away in my subconscious until it bubbled up again at this very moment: Mountains speak, and wise men listen. And while he speaks only of wise men and mentions nothing of the fate of we poor fools trying to follow in his footsteps, I decided to try. I decided to listen. And I listened to the mountains and tried to gather what they had to teach, like Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha listened to the river after a life of searching and heard all he needed.
Earlier Deepesh had tried to explain the meaning of Himalaya to me. After a moment of thought, he realized it was composed of two words: “himal”, meaning mountain, and “laya”, meaning rhythm. These two words flow together into a rapturous metaphor: the mountain range is a rhythm of mountains. Even after he came up with an alternative, I chose to stick with this interpretation, for to me it rang more true. And so I looked and listened to the rhythm of the mountains around me.
And I realized they were saying, with their size and grandiosity and patience, “Slow down. There’s no rush.” They had been here for millennia, for more than millennia, and had ever so slowly inched their peaks into the sky. Who was I, to climb them in an hour? There is no a rush, no need to go fast, no need to get there faster, wherever “there” is. It strikes me I would still like to go trekking alone sometime, to be away from the almost constant chatter and go at my own pace, but this trip is fine. It’s great. It’s where I am, and I will try to be here.
Behind us, the far side of the valley is a constantly changing tableau, tiny pieces shifting perspective as we angle and move higher. The village, that outpost of the spirit of the West, is given new life, spreading out in ways unseeable from below. In one forgotten corner, a boy runs across a small field chasing a soccer ball as his teammates stand stock still, a garden of shadows.
Up ahead the path climbs higher, leading us ultimately to a small collection of hotels, Khangjim, all stone and empty from the fast of off-season. We are all pretty tired, or perhaps the proximity and promise of comfort makes us remember our own mortality. The pair of women running the commode we choose (a sturdy, earthy woman and her slack-jawed mother) are completely friendly and offer much in the way of ease and hospitality. The view from the small courtyard, looking out over the valley, cannot be captured in photographs, except in pieces. For the secret to reality’s beauty is its all-encompassing totality.
We pass a pleasant evening with delicious dal bhat and a warm fire, and slip into our rooms and into sleep from under the most radiant skilful of stars I have seen in a long time, their dances of light twinkling in this roof of the world.
Hiking up the coniferous forest
Sunday, Feb 14
I hear Ashish moving around and slowly pinch open my eyes. He is almost fully dressed in the dim light of our small room. I close my eyes again. During the night I woke up at 3:30a and couldn’t get back to sleep before finally drifting off into a string of incredibly vivid dreams, particularly odd because I’ve been off Malarone for almost a week now. It was these from which I woke. I take a deep breath of the chilly air and get up.
Our room is wood, and all the planks look freshly cut. This is echoed in the smell, the smell of the room, the permeance of freshly cut wood. That spice of the air leads my memory as I toss off the blanket and quickly grab my clothes, putting them on with the prayer they will catch my body heat quickly.
We take our time getting ready, knowing that today will be a short day. Two of the trekkers we ran into yesterday amble by and inform us they are going to completely bypass the next village, Sherpagaon, and head directly to Kyanjin Gumba — a 10 hour hike. At first I am jealous of their ambitious nature and wonder why we cannot do the same (minus the pace we collectively set); but then the mountains come back to me, what they told me, and my mind does a 180. I wonder instead why someone would want to go so fast and miss the beautiful changing tapestry of nature before them.
Almost immediately upon re-entering my room to grab something, Ashish shouts for me to come outside. Up on the highest peaks across the valley the sun’s morning light spills, illuminating the tips of the rhythm before us.
After a quick porridge and muesli breakfast we are off, winding through the rest of the village to the ridge. I take one look back: Khangjim is the perfect audience to this magical morning overture each and every day.
The crest at the top of the mountain turns out to be just the corner. All the same, the view opens out into a gorgeous vista, one carved by the Langtang river we will be following for the next several days. That vastness, it fills you, even when it is completely intangible. As if to combat my ignorance, a flock of birds swoops and whirls in the void, providing a scale of size and distance against the mountains that takes my breath away.
Some precarious passes. Around midday we arrive at a small set of hotels with a glorious view of the river and its guardians. This is Sherpagaon, or Sherpa Village, and we relax our backs at one of the bigger hotels in the area. The Frenchman, Jeremy, with whom we took the bus the day before, marches by on his way to Rimche and Lama Hotel. Our trek tomorrow is a long one, and anything we can do to close the distance today is appreciated. Both Rimche and Lama Hotel are abandoned currently, but it turns out a few of our hosts are heading up to Rimche to open it for guests, so we gather our things and move on.
The journey is quick. Once we arrive in Rimche I set off almost immediately for the abandoned Lama Hotel, eager to leave my cumbersome backpack behind. It’s the first time I’ve been by myself on the trek and start out running, so happy to be free and mobile and zagging down a path as fast as I can. Very quickly, however, I come across the rest of the empty Rimche settlement. A cement building to the right has had one of its foundations smashed by an unseen boulder, and the lodge up to the left looks abandoned. On my way up to investigate, I spot a flash in the tall bushes: in the instant before it moved, I was face to face with a white-headed monkey, the Nepal gray langur. I have seen the true master of this place.
The path goes steadily down and I notice the abundance of bamboo, which usually springs up around sources of water. The trees, too, are more full and green, with moss decorating their bark. We saw similar trees, what Deepesh is positive was Rhododendron, while trekking in the morning, but this is a veritable forest. The greenery thickens, and the river rises to meet me. Soon, Lama Hotel appears through the trees. In front, a lone donkey stares at me. We stand, stock still, both aware of the moment. Then he moves, breaking the spell, and I move into Lama Hotel.
Lama Hotel turns out to be a settlement with a number of hotels. They are all closed and boarded up, with only a total of three donkeys for residents. I wander around, and out of the corner of my eye I see a light. I look up — the pure white mountain-top of Langtang mountain, seemingly directly in our path. Its stark contrast with its neighbors only emphasizes it as a tiny piece of the mystical that we have come here to experience. I turn away, from that faint tug of yearning, and refocus on Lama Hotel.
This town also reminds me of the Wild West, but a side unseen until now: that of the towns that lost, the towns that were abandoned, those that withered away in the wilderness. A ghost town. I have always wanted to see one, I just never expected to have that desire satisfied on this continent, in this country. And it all looks so normal…
I then go hop from rock to rock in the river, making sure not to fall. It feels nice, though, and free, and I head back in high spirits. At the edge of Rimche I glance up into the face of the gray langur again, sitting on a rock. We enact a similar dance to the one I did with the donkey, but then he bares his teeth and does a little gesture with his hand. I get the message and move away, leaving him to his domain. Until I round the corner, his eyes never leave me.
Back in the main area, with the new addition of Jeremy, we all fart around, enjoying the sunset, before moving into the small dining hut where we gather around a warm fire and wait for dinner.
A long walk North
Monday, Feb 15
I wake up again to a cosy room but not much sleep. The cool air, though, quickly brings me back to life as I hop into my clothes and shuffle my way over to the cooking hut and the fire waiting within.
We have a long day today, and we rose early to compensate. Slowly Raz and Deepesh make their way over to Ashish and I, and the woman in charge of the place. Looks like we woke up Jeremy as well, for he comes up to take part in the morning meal. All of us huddled around the fire, waiting for the porridge to boil, provides what comes to be one of my favorite times in the mountains.
While we eat, I try to reposition my rented sleeping back on the outside of my pack. Originally it hung below, but that made the whole thing cumbersome and hard to set down. Swiftly, with his years and years of experience on the trail, our guide Ashish comes in and Macgyver’s a way to attach it more securely on the back. He then points out that the top of the sleeping bag stuff sack can double as an easily accessible pocket. Never in a million years would I have come up with this; it’s an improvisation only experience can teach. I eagerly tuck some trail mix in this new favorite holding space.
Jeremy sets out before us and, besides a brief sighting at Lama Hotel, is lost to the wilderness ahead. Unlike the two previous days of our journey, this morning we are trapped in a cold we cannot shake. While the sun is hot, the shade chills mercilessly, making the dense forest feel like something underwater. In this way we pass River Side, a small settlement strewn with boulders larger than Buicks, chipped from the mountainside towering to our left and lodged in the empty buildings we walk between. We trudge along, each sticking principally to our own thoughts, marking the distance with our muffled footsteps.
We are drawn from our reverie by something new: an arrow, made of stones, pointing to our right. Down a little embankment and traversing the river is a small wooden bridge, made of freshly-cut logs and decorated in prayer flags. Ashish assumes the original path must have been covered by rockslides, so we make our way down and cross the sturdy structure.
The foliage to greet us on the other side put me in mind of a forest in the American Northeast, with thick trunks and tall trees, many of which are felled then left. We pass some kind of construction on our right, made out of smaller trees and carved notches. A lodge? A bridge? Ashish says it will remain unfinished.
We cross another bridge that traverses a river that splits off, leaving us again on the south side of Langtang river but depositing us in a tiny field. It is a breath of fresh air, both spatial and respiratory, and we are eager to put down our bags for a moment (except for Ashish, who seems as comfortable in his as a second skin). In a moment, though, we are all staring up into the sky of the northeast, where our path will lead. There, up ahead, between the ridges of the rhythm we walk, Langtang mountain rises up majestically into the sky. We are in awe, trying to take it in and failing, and so falling back on a breathless stare. The only word I can think of is what Alain de Botton describes in The Art of Travel as the sublime:
See how small you are next to the mountains. Accept what is bigger that you and what you do not understand. The world may appear illogical to you, but it does not follow that it is illogical per se. Our life is not the measure of all things: consider sublime places a reminder of human insignificance and frailty.
And yet, standing in a place that contains anything like Langtang himal, being in the presence of such splendor and magnanimity… I feel big.
After a short break we begin again, passing the remains of a stable or house and through a pleasant meadow to another grove of trees. Here we pause; Raz and Deepesh finally dig into the snacks they bought back at Rimche while Ashish and I go to look at the rockslide blocking the path on the northern side of the river.
Deeming it okay, we head back and join in the snacks, and soon we are back on the trail, marching off into the trees. Deepesh mentions how Langtang himal, which keeps being hidden by neighboring mountains, appears shy.
We cross back to the north side of the river and find ourselves in an even thicker forest, one that feels almost tropical. We are plodding along at this point, and it’s clear that the snacks and the rest are not enough to completely revitalize everyone. Our pace is slowed, and it’s a nice change of scenery when we get to an abandoned army outpost, marked with a sign listing a number of suggestions for high altitude trekking sponsored by Nepal and the Kingdom of Norway.
Soon we finally make it to Thyangsyap, a village completely destroyed by earthquakes and rockslides and now populated with stones. We plop down and sluff off our backpacks, letting our shoulders revel in their freedom. I look lazily around, my gaze passing from piece to piece of the destroyed buildings. And then I glance across the river.
I quickly point it out to the rest of the group. All the trees on the southern side of the river are knocked down… but sideways. Rising a good several hundred meters from the river’s floor, all trees have fallen towards the southwest, towards where we came from. We theorize about what could have caused it: avalanches, rockslides, water. But snow and rock wouldn’t have knocked it sideways, and the monsoon here isn’t strong enough to cause a flood of that magnitude. It puts me in mind of the images I’ve seen of forests after the original atomic bomb tests.
As we continue walking, I keep my eye to the right. Without fail, the forest has been completely knocked on its side. Do people know about this? Why haven’t we heard anything? My curiosity is heightened, my mind racing, until we reach Langtang village.
Or rather, what should have been Langtang. All the villages we’ve passed so far have been destroyed or abandoned. Where Langtang village once was, however, there is now only an ocean of rocks and rubble. No tip or peak or corner of a building can be found. Looking to the southeast I find the answer to the forest’s directional riddle: where the rockslide spills over the river, the trees are knocked down in both directions, indicating what must have been an avalanche accompanying the shearing of the mountainside. Unfortunately, I find it hard to focus because of my hunger, the others sharing my sentiment: it’s clear the small bowl of porridge we had oh so many hours ago was not enough to sustain us this long. Even with snacks, our energy is fading. A pair of trekkers pass by as if on cue. They say at least three hours until food.
As we descend into the rubble, I notice Langtang himal peeking from behind one of her neighbors. It comes to mind that perhaps she’s not shy at all. Maybe she’s embarrassed.
Down in the rubble I find a number of Alpine choughs flitting about in a swarm, black birds of the crow family with a distinctive yellow bill. I don’t know what they’re getting at. The water here, too, is stagnant, with red algae growing in the pools and green algae in the streams. The only building I can see is a two-story structure under an overhang up to the north. The left side of the roof has caved in, sinking over the window, the embodiment of a boxer with a swollen black eye who knows he won’t recover, or get a second chance.
This field of tombs is a place of death, the monotonous landscape marked only by a handful of white prayer flags attached to long wooden staves, their tall, sinuous bodies flapping in the little breeze that graces this place. They look like the standards of fallen and buried samurai, marking the place of a particularly decisive battle. But here, there was no war to be had. Instead, we find a massacre.
The rocks open up to a grazing field dotted with donkeys and horses. Some half-built huts march by on our left, and we make our way up a small embankment to a path split by a multi-leveled stack of Buddhist prayer stones, or Mani stones, each marked with the Buddhist prayer: om mani padme hum. Ashish tells me that Buddhists will walk all the way around the line of stones, keeping them to the right, even if there’s a shorter path. It’s a comforting thought.
We weave our way past, leading to a field full of immense boulders. As we wind between them, I watch the jagged cliff-face to the north and imagine the rumbling, the shattering, the cracking, the bouncing like beachballs these mammoths must have undergone to leave their resting place on the mountain and crash into this, their new home. I walk unsteadily along, following Ashish’s footsteps, the others having fallen behind, when we begin to see the beginning of what looks like a settlement. Up to the north there appears a small row of houses, almost like a squat and dilapidated motel. Up ahead, the dirt path we’ve been following marches right up to a small cottage, a wooden fence arcing around the dusty yard with a single break for entry, spanned by a sign: “Himalayan Guest House”.
The place is non-descript to say the least and tea houses using the name “Himalayan Guest House” are about as common as the donkeys we’ve met along the way, but the place is like a revelation. Ashish and I quickly make our way into the empty yard, putting down our packs to soak up the sunlight perfectly tempered by the cool breeze. I stay a moment to wallow in the sensations but Ashish is already knocking on the door. His point strikes me: we can enjoy the weather all we want but if no one’s there to open or cook, all the sunlight’s not going to help us.
We wait in silence. Then there comes a muffled call from inside. Thank goodness! The door opens and a Sherpa woman, dressed in the traditional thick, long wool skirt and apron, opens the door and welcomes Ashish inside. I wander in after a moment, savoring the sun while I can. I have never been more conscious of shadows.
As Ashish and the woman talk I have a chance to check around the small building. Walking in leaves one in a dining and open area, lined with tables and chairs. To the left is the kitchen, where I leave the two to discuss the meal ahead. To the right is a hallway, lined with doorframes. I glance in one and find a number of mattresses and blankets tossed to the side, woodshavings on the floor. No bedframe can be seen. It’s probably a good thing we’re not staying here for the night.
Walking back to the kitchen, Ashish catches me and tells me the deal: dal bhat, the traditional rice and dal meal of the mountains (a second helping is always included, thereby making it the most hearty meal to be found in the Himalaya), will most likely take too long to make if we are going to continue ahead. There are still three hours to go between us and Kyanjin Gumba and the sun is setting soon. But judging by the time it’s taking Raz and Deepesh to make it up here, it’s clear we could all use a break. So the question is: make dal bhat and stay here for the night, or have something faster and push ahead?
I catch the pair a little ways down the path and put the question to them. By the time we arrive back at the guest house, Ashish has already begun cooking a huge portion of chow mein, a much faster option, to placate our ravenous hunger. A trekking cook before he became a full-fledged guide, he tosses in spices and swishes the pasta into a sea of delicious aromas, much to the bewilderment of the Sherpa. The question of whether to continue or stop for the day, however, still hangs in the air.
Sipping the mysterious delight of boiled energy drink (who knew?) the Nepali men debate among themselves, and from the little pieces they pass on to me I gather there are two camps. Our original trek was planned for five days, with an extra day on either end for transportation between Kathmandu and Syabrubesi, making for a total of seven days. However, Ashish now figures we can make it up to Kyanjin Gumba today, hike up the mountain in the morning, and start back immediately, thereby shaving off an entire day. While I am in no rush, I am eager to get as far as we can today. Raz agrees to go ahead; Deepesh, who has had the most trouble keeping up, pushes the comfortableness of the guest house.
In the end we all opt to head out. We finish up our sizeable helpings of chow mein, shoulder our bags, and are back on the road, this time all together.
We march in a line, keeping steady pace with each other. The landscape melts into more emptiness, more fields and meadows populated by yaks. Off to the side, Ashish points out a group of yak-like creatures and tells me they’re “naks”, the Tibetan name for female yaks. Our march is surer, and hunger is no longer our enemy. There is a peace, here.
Far in the distance, the glacially changing tableau slowly reveals a ring of mountains waiting for us. They rise, rise, snows and ice capping their tips and spreading down their bodies, cascading down for hundreds of meters that feel like inches in the impossible scale. We pass more yak and Sherpas, and spot a small white chorten, a Buddhist idol and place of meditation, in the distance. This marks the place as the last place for us, the destination, the end, adding a finality to this sacred ring. We are all quiet as we approach.
I take one look back and am struck: the valley curves away, out of view to the south, and from its mouth blasts God’s voice, the seemingly physical last rays of sunlight painting the opposing mountains a rich amber and burgundy. I stare, transfixed, as long as I can.
We pass a small shrine and cross a bridge over a small glacial stream, coming upon a much rockier area. Still no buildings in sight but we know we’re close, so Raz and Deepesh stop for a breather while Ashish and I push on to explore the immediate area. Our footfalls crunch in the gravel as we work our way up a small incline, and —
Oh! A whole town stands before us. From our little vantage point we can see across the whole depression and the many hotels that occupy it. It’s quite an impressive settlement, actually, and does not look half as destroyed as the other places we have passed through. This, finally, is Kyanjin Gumba. With this promising start, we set off.
A few Sherpa women say there is no housing and then point us to the town, so we follow their lead. Only up close can we see that many of the buildings are boarded up or blocked. In fact, the more we search the more we find not a single building open. Everything is closed. We wander quietly through this abandoned ghost town.
Then we hear talking. Looking to the East we spot two figures moving towards us. After a moment we can distinguish one of them: it’s Jeremy! He waves, and we see his companion is a small Sherpa woman, though wearing pants and a jacket untraditional of the mountains’ inhabitants we have met until now. They come up, and the tension is cleared.
The rest of the short evening is spent in the small hut where the woman lives. We pipe up the fire and she cooks up some dal bhat, all of us eager to relax after the eight hours of trekking we went through. Helping the woman is an old man both deaf and mute, who shows off his toothless smile and nods his head anytime I catch his eye.
Eventually our eyelids pull downward, and we all get ready for bed. As the Nepali men settle down in the hut, I walk to the edge of town nearby to brush my teeth. Afterwards, again, I am struck by the utter peace of the place. The mountains, like an audience, around me. The quiet, like a breath held before an exhale. The moon, half-full and yet brighter and more imminent than any I have experienced. I try to put my finger on what turns this place, and it’s not until I’m safe and warm in my sleeping bag that the words come into my head.
We have reached the end, a place where they don’t have a place for us and don’t want to cook for us, so that we have to rely on the kindness of one woman and a deaf/mute man. The people here aren’t trying to get anything from us and don’t really want anything to do with us. It’s clear. And here, the mountains are waiting, and the stars sparkle in anticipation.
Langtang’s morning glory; returning back home from paradise
Tuesday, Feb 16
Drawn from my warm reverie, Ashish’s urgent voice brings me back to the chilled world of shadows and snow. I slip out of my cocoon, taking care not make too much noise, and hop eagerly into my clothes. Over at the hut, Ashish helps stuff my sleeping bag while I pull out my down jacket for the first time. Raz and Deepesh are also getting ready, but by the time all my things are packed they still have a ways to go. As I follow Ashish he gives me a knowing nod. “I know the kind,” he says.
Our route is mainly zig-zagging up the mountainside, which begins dotted liberally with short grasses and shrubbery, making good steps as the slope gets steeper. We are supposed to continue this until we find the actual path, which we will follow up to the top of the mountain. I confirm with Ashish that we’re heading to a small shrine at the top of one of the lower arms of Kyanjin Ri, a 4770m mammoth nearby, before drawing quickly ahead. A headache I had yesterday is gone, and all my drive is focussed on getting up the mountain as quickly as I can. Our goal is to reach the peak before the sunrise, in order to take pictures to capture the moment. However, my phone and only camera died the previous morning, so I will be doing capturing of a different kind, with words instead of SIM cards.
After a couple false starts I find what I believe to be the main trail. Calling out to the others, I quickly discern that at their pace it will be unlikely they will make it to the summit in time. Their slow, ponderous steps mark their way up the hill with great effort. My steps, in comparison, are similarly ponderous. I just ponder a little faster.
Slowly I rise higher, and the buildings of Kyanjin Gumba spread out below me. The path is not so steep, instead curving around to the northeast between two mountains, so my going is good. However, a quick look back shows me it’s taking me out of eyesight of the others. I push it out of my mind and prepare to push ahead when something else catches my attention. Across the valley to the southwest, up on the 5860m peak of Urking Kanggari, the first rays of sunlight begin to twinkle. The timer is set. The clock is ticking.
I plow ahead with new fervor. My breath is now coming in ragged gasps, and I’m keenly aware of the precious moisture I’m losing in each small cloud. For some reason I hadn’t filled up my water bottle before the climb, and what’s there sloshes around half-heartedly. My mind doesn’t dwell on it for long, though, instead filling completely with the effort of lifting my legs, one in front of the other, in front of the other. I can hardly get them to move. I know I’m moving faster than the others, but… will I make it in time? I look around me. The path is leading me directly between these two low mountains. I look up to my left, to the rocky ridge that hides the mess of prayer flags that marks the shrine. Will this path take me there? Will it take too long? It looks as though the path isn’t heading anywhere near this ridge. And yet… I can’t miss it. I’m determined. So I look to the northwest, pick a spot on the peak, and leave the path.
Without any trail my only option is to weave back and forth between the small bushes sparsely populating the slope. I know if I try to attack the incline directly it will wear me out far before I reach the top. I grit my teeth and continue, one foot in front of the other, refusing to acknowledge the burning pain in my legs. A quick look behind me to find the others only reveals another peak colored with light.
Suddenly I’m at the top of the spine — and it puts air in my lungs. I look out at an incredible panorama, unhindered by the slope up which I walked. Over to the west I spot a tiny, but well-trod, path winding up on the opposite side of the spine I came on. I shake my head, knowing I must have come up the completely wrong side. But I’m still here, and now with a much clearer shot to the top.
Up above to the northwest, a lone string of prayer flags marches between two rocks near where I judge the shrine to be. I set my new destination.
I am exhausted, my feet barely moving, but I don’t allow them to stop. My thirst has finally crept into my consciousness, but I ignore it. When I get to the top I can have a drink, not before then. This is the only chance I’ll get to see the sunrise. But I have to get there first, and my legs aren’t seeming to take motivation from the lightening sky. If anything they are slower, heavier, more deliberate.
I’m walking when some movement to my left catches my eye. Four small, female Danphe hop onto the ridge in front of me and begin to work their way up. The Danphe is the national bird of Nepal, a small member of the pheasant family; the females are brown and speckled white with little feathered accents sticking out of their heads. I am slightly in awe that these little birds are taking the exact same path and yet doing it with such ease. It’s as if they are leading the way, and even their calls feel to me little chirps of encouragement.
I follow them up, following their quick, darting steps with my cumbersome ones. Another peak off to the east is now steeped in color. Eventually I reach a point where I deem I should veer off to the left, towards the prayer flags, and thank the little fowl sincerely for their help.
And as if from nowhere, I’m faced with a rock outcropping. Jagged boulders up to my shoulders bloom out of the peak, and after the hours of hiking up a steep, flat incline, I almost don’t know what to do with them. A single bird cry echoes in the stillness — the sun is coming!
I weave my way around the rocks, a place like a garden forgotten to be smoothed away. Or rather, I imagine, as I step over and between the unwearying sentinels, like a monastery of nature, made with nature. Over this sacred space lay hundreds, no, thousands of tattered and worn prayer flags, spread across the boulders and barely making it into the wind. As I round a corner I see the main boulder, over which the colorful tapestries hang like the arms of a limp octopus. Behind it, two poles still stand valiantly against the encroach of time, with a host of strings carrying prayer flags between them. Many of the strings are so old that the flags themselves are gone, leaving only their color on the thin line in the air.
I look around and find flags climbing down in all directions. Closer inspection reveals several other poles as well, but each is laying, cast aside, upon the rocks. But still, somehow, the place is undeniably holy, as if all of man’s tamperings have become one with nature. The entire place is quiet, still, brushed only by the far, far distant sound of the river, and the falls.
For the first time on this journey, I am at the peak of a beautiful complete panorama. Snowcapped mountains rise in all directions, the valley carved by Langtang river sliding away behind distant peaks to the southwest and out of view. Overhead, the finger-streaks of cirrus clouds glide across the baby-blue sky to a point just north of the soon-to-be sun’s entrance. A light breeze stirs, just enough to lift the prayers and chill my fingers. To the north, a few dots linger on a higher ridge. Are they yaks? The horizon, just behind Langshisa Ri, begins to bloom.
The light becomes a breath held, the cheeks expanding to contain the impending burst of light and life. Behind me, to the west, the sunlight is slowly creeping down the eastern face of Langtang himal. Thinking I’m clever I try to watch the pole that rises out of this shrine, hoping to see the exact speed at which the sun will dawn, see the exact marker of light and shadow denoted on the wooden staff. But the moment never comes.
The light in the east lifts for a few moments, leaving an almost perfectly uniform sky. I wait, unsure where the sun could have gone. My empty camera hand itches for the moment about to dawn, but I glue my eyes on the horizon, not daring to look away.
Suddenly, it grows in brightness. The sky over Langshisa Ri brightens, then faster, faster, too fast. I watch, frozen, stuck in this onslaught, unable to stop it, unable to hold it off. It comes barreling up from behind the mountain, more than I believed possible, more than I have ever seen. It presses and pushes without pause, never stopping to heed my poor imagination. It rolls up and over and I am forced to bow my head, as the light continues beyond my wildest expectations. As I stand here, soaking in the infinite energy, I understand why the sun is treated as a god, and why the ancient Egyptians named him Ra.
With experiences as beautiful as a true sunrise, and an effortless moon-lit night, it becomes clear that wonder is, indeed, the very fabric of the world.