Comprising over a hundred mountains that peak over 7200m the Himalayas, literally meaning ‘the abode of snow’ are home to the the world’s tallest peaks and the tallest of them all, the Mount Everest. Apart from the year-round snow, the rugged peaks and enormously awe-inspiring landscape, the Himalayas are also deeply steeped in spirituality. For us Hindus its where the mighty Lord Shiva resides with his family, its where the Pandavas retreated to after the destructive Kurukshetra war, its where our holy river the Ganges emerges from. For Buddhists its where Lord Buddha went to after attaining enlightenment at Bodh-gaya in present day Bihar. The Himalayas are therefore revered to as ‘God-souled’ and embody spiritualism like no other mountain range in the world.
Walking up the terse domain of the upper Himalayas and staring into crisp blue skies that would in a jiffy turn volatile with snow-clouds I could see why. Offering a panorama of breath-taking beauty the Himalayan range stand as immovable as the proverbial mountain in the face of ever-transforming clouds compelling one to reflect on the myriad offerings of life. The striking beauty of the landscape and the clarity of the atmosphere are perfect settings for the abode of the Gods. The harsh effects of altitude, the blazing afternoon sun, the freezing make of the nights and thinness of air do not allow the growth of any plant life and force even the most hyperactive soul to slow down. The Himalayas force one to slow down in thought, in action, slow down to survive, to let things be, and more importantly to breathe.
In such breathtaking settings, philosophy comes easy. I hardly believe that life is short, nor do I generally prescribe to the over-hyped notion that we only live once, in allegiance to the tenets of Buddhism and Hindusim. Such beliefs stand only to be further strengthened but also then give one the tools of peace, of forgiveness. Well reading this in the climes of modern day living with highly materialistic pursuits may have you, my dear reader, rolling your eyes in contempt, but do read on, it may give you a reason to lap up exquisite views and a trek of a life-time if not for anything else!
The 16-seater plane ride to Lukla from Nepal’s capital city Kathmandu gives one a slice of the soaring peaks that cut through the thick layer of clouds. As the plane gains stability unconvincingly, a sliver of white mountains appears at a distance in the horizon, all the peaks of the Upper Himalayas they rise against the clear blue sky. Just as one finally begin to trust the unwieldy aircraft the pilot announces descent and begins to land at the world’s most dangerous airstrip at an inclined-upwards angle. With in minutes you are disembarked and passengers are loaded in what would be the fastest turnaround time of air-travel!
Right from the airport the Khumbu region’s (wherein lies the Sagarmatha National Park and the Mount Everest, called Sagarmatha locally) second most valuable asset greets one – the immensely likable Sherpa people. You cannot seriously be offended to see a sign of Starbucks-Lukla just off the airport, it is vastly amusing! Known for their adept skill and talent in scaling the treacherous peaks the Sherpa people facilitate mountain-climbing in their region. Tenzing Norgay, the first man to summit the peak along with New Zealand’s Sir Edmund Hillary was also a Sherpa. And the walk too begins right from the airport.
Strapping on the back-pack, filling in the water-bottle readying for easy access the camera and chirping along with the chatty Sherpa guide and porter the easy walk into the Himalayas began for the brother and me. Gorgeous mountain peaks stand tall as trails emerge through them, the trails themselves are ever-changing landscapes, from chinar trees and spectacular cherry-blossoms at the lower levels to boulder filled, glacier-ridden encounters at upper levels they make for pleasant conversation. Thus from Lukla to Namche to Phortse to Dingboche to Loboche to Gorakshep and finally to the Everest Base camp one goes. On the way come several prayer flag covered steel-suspension bridges, milky white Rivers, timid yaks ringing their bells and Sherpa people carrying loads 3,4 or sometimes 5 times their size.
And to rest for altitude acclimatization or to catch one’s breath are modest tea-houses. Though the toilets in these tin-roofed, plywood boarded tea-houses will not let your breathe, the shelters are just about comfortable with thick blankets and a well insulated sleeping bag. Besides the owners stir up quite delicious meals in spite of their limited means. With well endowed means of water and solar energy, the precincts of Sagarmatha National Park with the help of monasteries, the government and international aid organisations tap into the renewable sources of energy. Hot water is heated through a solar water heater and prayer wheels are rotated by micro-hydro power.
While on the upward climb one is required to eat vegetarian food, abstain from alcohol or smoking and drink lots of water to make a successful climb. No wonder I think it’s a spiritual sojourn in a way. Though many people live such a lifestyle those who don’t are recommended to follow the same a couple of months before they actually attempt the climb. Besides also practicing walking for the long hours everyday. But I would think that no amount of walking can completely prepare you for the incline. The views though unflinchingly make up for the physical affliction!
On the way up eating mostly comprises of Garlic soup, potato wedges, the Nepali daal-bhaat, fried rice, noodles, the Tibetan momos, hot teas, lemon teas and hot chocolate! There are tiny shops selling Pringles, Snickers, Mars and the like which offer all the extra calories.
On the way down Tengboche offers a decent bakery aside from the oldest monastery of the region. From coffee-cake to warm brownies, from apple strudel to burger with fries could be ordered here from a rather extensive menu dished out from a rather tiny kitchen and they all taste heavenly. The Tengboche monastery is the only visible piece of architecture, of built-form from atop the Mount Everest. It is impressive considering it’s location and the arduous nature of climb up to Tengboche. From Tengboche, just like all through the region, one can view most beautifully the twin-humped peaks of Amadablam, the Mount Everest, the Lhotse and the Nupse. After an average of 8 hours of hiking each day one can put their feet up around the heating drum of the dining hall in each tea-house and either read or catch up with fellow hikers.
Hikers leave behind their books and pick up what others have left off and the collection of books each tea-house has is amazing with titles in not just English! That was so refreshing too. As I caught up majorly on my reading I realized that I was cajoled into reading books I would have never picked out by myself! And they were all quite interesting. From titles by the adventure king Clive Cussler to spiritual titles by Songyal Rinpoche interspersed with Pulitzer prize winners. The ever talkative Sherpa people make easy and friendly conversations discussing their home-town or the latest tune belting out from Yo Yo Honey Singh with equal elan. The camaraderie got in the Himalayan setting is full of calming joy.
Immersed in a conversation right at the start I jerked my knee on the very first day of hiking, by a boulder that dislodged when stepped on. Though not disabling, to my dismay it even looked perfectly fine with no bulge or swelling whatsoever(?!), I gritted through the pain that refused to allow easy walking over the steep climb to Namche. However by the time we trudged to Lobuche the blessed jerk came loose and I thoroughly enjoyed the walk from Dingboche to Lobuche to Gorakshep and ahead to the Base Camp.
The joy of having a fully functional knee again after that jerk, got me to literally scale a 5545m high peak! From the peak of Kala Pathar one can see stunning views of the Mount Everest besides a gallery of other peaks. Covered in about 3 hours the hike up to the summit of Kala Pathar was hard, starting at 5 am in pitch darkness at a -12 degree temperature even the water in my bottle froze! But the sun came up super bright and piercing in just an hour and a half. Unwittingly underestimating the power of mountain morning sun I skipped the sunscreen, the sun glasses and my hat! And by 6.30 am I was shown the cruelty of the sun, which my grandfather reminds me even today can also be very kind. A rather sun-burnt nose then became my subject proof as passers-by in Thamel shops of Kathmandu picked-up conversations starting with, how was the trek up? or how far did you go? And then when I looked at them quizzically they responded by pointing to their nose, gesturing my nose as a dead giveaway of trekking in the mountains.
After that foray into what I would certainly call Heaven, well the Alps (though a personal favorite) come close but are too clean for reality, the city of Kathmandu is quite disappointing. Thamel of course is a perfect place to prepare for any forays with a wide array of shops selling trekking gear, cafes transporting one to Paris or Rome and bringing one back equally fast as road-ragers blare their shrill horns! At the Narayanhiti Palace of the capital we saw the King’s house and bullet holes that exterminated the royal family. Impressed though we were by the Durbar Square, a Unesco World Heritage Site that holds delicate architectural pieces of old Nepal. The pagoda styled roofs are deeply inspired by Tibetan structures while the perforated Jaali screens are more inspired by the Hindu architecture across the subcontinent. The Pashupati temple complex a major centre of pilgrimage for the Hindus is also located in Kathmandu. Rivers of sludge flow in the capital city of the Himalayan kingdom. Crowded and bustling, Kathmandu suffers from the plight of any fast developing modern city. The garden of dreams in the heart of Kathmandu not far from Thamel though is the oasis, that is both stunning and beautiful.
It is quite interesting to know that Mount Everest is a border-mountain lining between the Himalayan kingdoms of Nepal and Tibet. Nepal is a Hindu state while Tibet is Buddhist. And the peak can be scaled from Tibet in the north-side and Nepal from the south-side, the peak of the mountain though clearly lies in Nepal! Over 10000 people visit the Sagarmatha National Park each year and about 2000 attempt to climb the Everest. The Sherpa people revere the Everest as a Goddess and never say that they conquered the mountain. One can only sneak up the Everest, they say, and then simply get the hell out of there!
With a bag full of memories, a sun-burnt nose, several cells dissipated, a heart full of warmth, a mind full of forgiveness, extraordinary conversations, unforgettable views, renewed love for the mountains, renewed love for snow, a lung-full of gratitude, a speck of mountain stone and feeling nothing short of enlightened, the hike up to Heaven is a spiritual asset to have.