If the air conditioner in Alleppey, India had been more powerful, we wouldn’t have come to Nepal at all. We’d planned to spend two months in Sri Lanka, split up by a short visit to southern India for logistical visa reasons. We’d imagined finding a town in Sri Lanka to settle in for a while, possibly a school for the boys for a few weeks. But it never materialized – we had a great time in south Asia, but we never found a school, or a longer term apartment rental, and as the temperature and humidity soared in India, I found myself scanning the map for the nearest place with cooler temperatures. “How about the Himalayas,” Seth suggested one evening as we waited for the air conditioning to kick on in our guesthouse room, “If we want cooler, that’s the place to go.”
It started as a joke, but over the next few days, the idea became more serious – why not? When else in our lives could we take such a spur of the moment detour? I dropped an email to a family we’d met only once before, in a Nepali restaurant, appropriately enough, in a small town in Myanmar. At the time, they had caught my eye because their son was writing in his journal and not making a fuss about it. We’d learned they were, like us, travelling around the world for about a year, and I knew they’d just finished up a trek in Nepal. Within a few hours, I had a detailed note back, referring us to a great hotel in Thamel, tips on how to get through immigration, where to buy hiking gear in Kathmandu. It seemed we were destined to detour.
And so — after a few days of wrangling logistics and re-routing plane tickets — the plan was set. We had a beautiful stay on the beach in Varkala, India then returned as planned to Sri Lanka. We saw amazing places in our last ten days there – the ancient fortress of Sigiriya built, improbably, on a huge rock that towers above the surrounding plains (and which, I later learned, formed the backdrop for Duran Duran’s “Save a Prayer” video – who knew), the huge, serene, Buddha-filled caves at Dambulla.
But through it all, I kept thinking – the Himalayas! Even as we boarded the flight to Kathmandu a few days later, I half expected to be turned away at the gate. “I’m sorry Madame, your itinerary didn’t include Nepal,” I imagined some airport bureaucrat informing me, “People don’t just hop on planes to Kathmandu.” But the funny thing is, I guess they do. Or at least, we did.
We landed late at night, so it wasn’t until the next day that I was able to see where our detour had taken us. And it was, immediately, breathtaking. Through the warrens of little alleyways that make up the backpacker zone of Thamel, to the smoke- and-incense filled temples of Pashupatinath, where wood fires burn all day at the funeral pyres and “sadhus”- wild-eyed holy men – wander among the ruins. Again and again we returned to Boudhanath, the huge, ancient stupa ringed with Tibetan prayer wheels and flags, where refugees and Buddhist monks circumambulate with a steady determination, sometimes prostrating all the way to the dusty sidewalk. The hum of thousands of “Om Mane Padme Hums” counted on sandlewood prayer beads, the flickering light of oil lamps against the flagstones. We spun prayer wheels and circled the stupa, caught up in the peaceful flow of humanity in prayer. Despite the earthquake damage, the dust and construction, the unbelievable air pollution, the daily power cuts, and the chaos of traffic, what I felt most on arrival to Kathmandu was, perhaps oddly, a profound sense of permanence and perseverance. This is a place that has endured, that is enduring, and it seems it always will.
From Kathmandu, our plan was to head to the Annapurna region, then hike up towards Annapurna Base Camp basically until we either arrived there or decided we needed to head down. I got wildly different perspectives about what to expect – my favorite, from the owner of a guide agency, was “It’s not too steep. Just, you know, up and down, up and down.” Given we were talking about a hike in the Himalayas to the base camp of the world’s tenth highest peak, much of which would take place at elevations above 3000 meters, “just up and down” seemed almost certainly an understatement. Which, of course, it was.
The Annapurna Base Camp (A.B.C.) trail meanders through little Gurung villages, small gardens and livestock clustered around homes and lodges of white washed stone. We hiked anywhere from four to eight hours a day, stopping along the way at the teahouses that dot the route. There were days that should have felt grueling, when we’d net more than 4,000 feet in elevation, and because of the ups and downs, the total climb was probably twice this. But to our surprise, the boys didn’t fade, and neither did we. And if the pattern of our days developed a simple familiarity, the changes in the landscape were astonishing – through bamboo forests, across rivers that rush from high in the mountains down to a narrow gorge, across suspension bridges draped with prayer flags, past huge boulders and hundreds of waterfalls. Constantly up and down stone staircases in a rhythm that became the backdrop of our days: down, down, down, to cross a river, then up and up and up to the next village. After a few days, we started to get views of the Annapurna range, still very far away, hidden behind rows of other, smaller peaks. The air was chillier, the skies clearer. Although the trail was getting steeper, it seemed, oddly, easier – I suppose we were getting used to the routine. Quite to my surprise, it seemed we were going to make it to base camp.
On the last day of the ascent, we came definitively above the tree line, to a barren, beautiful landscape of rock and ice. We had planned to stay one night below the base camp and to hike up for sunrise early in the morning, but it was early in the day, we were feeling ready to continue on, and the handful of other hikers we’d befriended on the way (referred to by their nationalities: “the Spaniards, the French Canadians, the Australian family”, and in particular, “the Germans”, the incredibly kind Nils and Celine with whom we played countless games of Hearts each night) were all continuing up – so we decided to continue on as well. It was a strange last couple of hours to the top, the air thinner and very cold, much of the way along a poorly demarcated glacier, the fog rolling in so thick we could barely see the sign congratulating us on reaching base camp: 4,130 meters (13,549 feet) above sea level. And then suddenly we were there, bursting into the last lodge to welcoming cries of “Namaste! Congratulations! What strong boys!” Bundled in down jackets, Miles and Jonah gleefully threw snowballs through a gentle storm. The mood was joyful, congratulatory.
As we clustered in the lodge in the early evening, the clouds parted and we could see the truth of our location: a basin surrounded by enormous peaks on all sides—Annapurna South, Annapurna I, Machhapuchhre–snow-covered and glowing in the partial sun, and, on one side, a sheer cliff carved by the Annapurna glacier dropping below us. The cliffside is dotted with shrines, mostly memorials to climbers who died in their attempts to ascend Annapurna. On one, there is a quotation from Anatoli Boukreev, a renowned Russian climber who died here: “Mountains are not stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve; they are the cathedrals where I practice my religion.”
The following day I walked again, alone, along the pathways, sitting for a moment in the early morning quiet. Surrounded by the mountains, closer to the sky than I have ever been, both dwarfed and cradled by the encircling peaks, I breathed the air of the high Himalayas, felt their majesty as the clouds scudded in and out. My heart ached for my father, the mountain climber, who never had the opportunity to come to this place – while at the same time, I felt strangely closer to him than I have in years. In the quiet morning, all the paradoxes of spirituality were alive in those mountains – a landscape that feels massively permanent yet is constantly changing, the vibrant living that exists in extreme austerity, the achievement of tranquility mixed with a powerful awe and even fear – the mountain does not, in the end, exist to take care of humans. A solo Chinese hiker asked me to take a photo of her, and as she turned away, she looked back at me. “I never thought I would be in this place,” she said, wide-eyed. “We are so lucky,” I replied as we parted ways.
And as we continued on down the mountain later that day, in comfortable companionship with the friends we’d made along the route, this was my constant refrain. Gratitude, gratitude, gratitude. Both for permanence and change, for the perseverance of countries and of individuals, the mountains and the trail, for this beautiful corner of the world and the people who make it home, and for the twists of fate – a faulty air-conditioner in India, a chance conversation in a restaurant in Myanmar, and, for that matter, the entirety of each our lives prior to this moment – all the twists and turns that brought us right here, to this next step, to this magical place.