From the aircraft’s oval window, I watched the velvety, grassy plains gradually rise up to foothills, which undulated into vast green mountains, which – in turn – soared to windswept, icy peaks. ‘Himalaya’, in Sanskrit, means ‘Home of Snow’. And at one point, its vast, snowy summits seemed so near that one could probably just hop down from the plane.
The real monster peaks of the Himalayan Range – that stand guard between Bangladesh and Nepal – can rise over 25,000 feet. So we were flying around them and entering through Nepal’s underbelly. Our Boeing 737-800 abruptly banked right and in five minutes, we made a clipped landing on the cracked runway of Tribhuvan Airport, Kathmandu.
The first Ruslan Beer/Music sign that grabbed my attention said, “Nepal runs on its own time. So relax and have patience”. It was fair warning, evident from the fact that no one in immigration or the taxi-stands seemed to be in any kind of hurry. They were as relaxed as tourists, while the tourists got increasingly agitated. Every little task was an uphill battle. But the sloth grew on me quickly. It was as though the impenetrable mountains shut out the bustle of outside world and nurtured a quiet, little valley of idle tranquility. Here, clocks ticked reluctantly and people aged slowly.
Sweaty and wilted, we headed East from the airport – stopping only for a fill of Buff Momo (Beef is a rarity since cows are sacred in the Hindu religion; ‘Buff’ or Buffalo is a close substitute). Nagarkot is a little village atop a winding, alpine road at 6,500 feet. As our taxis went on a crazy, spiral up the mountain – we sat clutching on to rails, ears popping and sweat drying in the heavy, cool air that smelt of sagebrush and freshly-dug soil. Dappled sunlight streamed in through the thick foliage and danced on unsuspecting cheeks and squinting eyes.
With increasing altitude, the Kathmandu Valley began to reveal herself in the dusk light. Beyond the narrow alpine road lined by colonial era cinder-blocks – lay sheer mountainsides that dropped precariously onto a vast valley peppered by multicolored cropfields and lonely abodes. Down below, a sparse Lilliputian population moved about their Matchbox cars and make belief houses. Over the valley, an absolute, palpable stillness hovered like forgotten regrets.
Across the chasm that was the Kathmandu Valley, as far as the eyes could see, were strings of mountains – least bothered about what range Royal Cartographers had grouped them into. A few of the mountains had obviously been scaled – as evidenced by a stream of trucks, vans inching up around them and clusters of pink and turquoise houses on the rockface. But the rest seemed untouched, untamed – quivering with an ancient energy in the same frequency as the planet and ringing out with loudly buzzing field-crickets. The crickets only got louder as it got darker.
In Nepal, the sun takes its sweet time to rise, but sets suddenly. The old women, with massive loads hanging on their backs from the forehead, quickened their pace. Kites disappeared from the sky. By the time we landed in Hotel Chautari, a heavy, otherworldly silence had descended and faraway mountain settlements, transformed into glimmering swarms of fireflies. Night had arrived. Hot water, not nearly. I reminded myself of Nepal’s own time and slipped in a cold shower. It is not recommended.
A mist-covered Langtang Range snoozed in the background the next morning. The sun was being lazy. But you could still see the hundreds of miles of valley, dunes, foothills and mountains that lead to the icy peaks. The entire region was so isolated and desolate that I could imagine a Yeti or two prancing around there. Far below us – clouds were slowly, reluctantly starting to recede from the valley, where they had camped overnight. Only pointy mountaintops peered above the sea of cloud and looked eerily like the island from Lost.
It almost felt rude as I left the grand scenery and headed out for quick walkabout. Outside, there were no flat roads or terrain anywhere. Time taken to reach a destination must depend on whether it’s up or downhill, I mused. Perhaps that’s the mystery of Nepalese time. Thirty minutes downhill, the Chawk Bazar was the first real settlement. Women and girls were already out in droves, bathing and doing their laundry at roadside water-points. At this altitude, they made quite efficient use of their water. The wet clothes they thumped twice against stone slabs with both hands, before gathering and flipping them and then thumping twice again. Repeat till infinity.
It struck me that this was a poor locality. Typically South-Asian cultures accommodate their bathing women within boundaries. But not here. Here the women were bold, impervious to nosy tourists and getting ready for business at the crack of dawn. Most of the businesses around – breakfast joints, grocery & spice shops, firewood stalls and collectibles splayed on tables – were run by women. They were definitely family-owned. So at the wayside eatery, a young girl took my order, her brother got the omelettes started and her mother brewed the coffee with fatty buffalo-milk. Her father chatted about the benefits of tourism in fluent Hindi (both Nepalese and Bangla have lots in common with Hindi). I had – I was mortified to discover – picked up some Hindi from watching the interminable, chaste-wife-evil-mother-in-law soaps (these were likely devised to destroy Bangladesh’s future).
On the bright side, Hindi created a bridge for me. A Bangali and a Nepali speaking in Hindi was a testament to India’s rise as a regional powerhouse. That’s also where most tourists came from, the father told me. These families depend on tourists and the money they bring. So I decided to quit haggling for once, despite what I had read in travel blogs. We spent our remaining time in Nagarkot lazing about in front of the Himalayas, eating Momo (dumplings) and tuning out the annoying clicking of cameras. I refuse to take too many photos of scenic beauty – because photos never do Nature justice. Eventually, when memory wavers – these listless, nondescript photos become the only means of recollection. And every story is better with a sprinkling of imagination, exaggeration and romanticism.
Thamel, in Kathmandu, is the typical touristy neighborhood. We had taken a brief tour of Bhaktapur Darbar Square – the plaza in front of the old Bhaktapur Royal Palace. It’s Palace of Fifty-Five Windows had been built in 1427 AD and the arches, inlays, terracotta and columns around the remaining 6 (out of 99) courtyards are still mesmerizing.
From this humbling lesson in history, Thamel was a big change. Thamel is a complex maze of narrow streets, lined with souvenir shops, shawl displays, hotels, restaurants, hookah bars, live music cafés and massage parlors.
People of all colors thronged the streets – trying out Nepali caps, browsing in cafés, munching on some chicken feet or trying to score some Afghan Hash. Indian couples got stingy over brass statuettes and mandalas. Rugged adventurers bargained over North Face climbing equipment, trekking poles and kayaks. A couple of elderly women – Europeans I gathered – chatted up their handsome tour guide. Young Nepali girls slipped in and out of ill-lit massage parlors. Kashmiri families who had fled from their violence-torn heaven on Earth – beckoned pedestrians to touch – just touch – their softest Pashmina and Kashmir (Cashmere) shawls and scarves.
Before heading West, I insisted on a mandatory visit to the Gurkha Museum. You should too. Named after an 8th century warrior-saint, the Gurkhas – a Nepali and East Indian indigenous people – are legendary warriors in modern history. Their inhuman endurance levels, martial skills, sense of discipline and honor made them a formidable rival to the British colonial forces in the Anglo-Nepalese War of 1814. The British were tormented by these warriors wielding their signature, curved knife or Khukuris – which, in the hand of the Gurkha, became an unstoppable, menacing weapon.
Eventually, the British contracted defectors to raise their own Gurkha regiments and fought the locals (trust the British! Eh?). Ever since, Gurkha forces have fought all over the planet – in China, Cyprus, France, Suez, Persia, Syria and Singapore among others. In World War 1, 200,000 Gurkha soldiers fought alongside the British Army. They have even fought in the recent Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. For Gurkha soldiers, honor is a way of life. At the museum, I also hear recounted the story of Bishnu who brandished his Khukuri against a band of train-robbers to save a girl from rape. I came away awed and suspecting that we all owe part of our freedom to these valiant Nepali warriors – in one way or another.
The next leg led us through the veins of the Himalaya: narrow, alpine roads, carved out from the sheer mountainside, that transport vital supplies to and from the Annapurna Region. A 5-hour, winding, topsy-turvy ride over mountains and through valleys took us to Pokhara: a serene city by the sprawling Fewa Lake, the color of which mimics the sky all day.
The summit of Annapurna-1 gleamed at 26,500 feet, making it the 4th highest peak in the world. The craggy, legendary Fishtail Mountain (23,000 feet) rose from the foothills like a proud edifice in magnificent ivory. Three of the world’s ten highest peaks were just 30 miles away and loomed over the city like white-bearded tribal elders watching over their clan.
Pokhara bustled with trekkers and paragliding-adventurers who walked around with the flair of old Spanish explorers. Strapping men, with army fatigues tucked into trekking-boots, inspected Swiss Army knives and sleeping beds. Tourists in shorts and slippers steered clear of them and stuck to buying buffalo-horn statues of Buddha and Ganesha. Multicolored boats floated on the Fewa Lake. The clear, vivid reflection of the Annapurna Range rippled on the water as boats wobbled past. A Chinese group of friends performed a harmonized, indecipherable song over the still waters: their private tribute to Annapurna – the Mother who Feeds. Few others had the time to stare at the miraculous Himalayas. The range had become like backlit billboards of Dhaka – stripped of magic, taken for granted.
The next day, our climb to Sarangkot (5,000 feet) started at 4 am. It was dark. Streets were empty, boats abandoned. The ill-lit winding road up the mountain was hardly wide enough for a single vehicle. At every sharp turn, the van seemed to be veering off the cliff. On the top, buses and vans had already queued up. We walked up to the circular viewing platform. Cameras in hand, people waited in anticipation for the sun to come up. Some hugged spouses, lovers or children to forever immortalize the moment.
As reddish hues lit up the sky, the dawn light glimmered on a distant Fewa Lake. It now appeared cradled by a garland of mountains, lapping up the lassitude of a cluster of blinking lights: the city of Pokhara. Tufts of clouds swelled and flowed over the sub-Himalayan ridges. To the North, the first rays of the sun set fire to the Fishtail Mountain’s pointy peak. Gradually, the light revealed snowy shoulders, the black-stone body of the mountain and bathed the entire Annapurna Range in a buttery Golden glow. And then, there was nothing else to look at. It was as if the crazy Chinese ladies didn’t exist, Sarangkot wasn’t there, we didn’t exist …as if the world didn’t exist. There was only God’s ancient masterpiece.
Some 70 million years ago – when there was a single, global ocean known as Tethys – India collided with Eurasia. The plates folded upwards into massive mountain ranges and the Himalayas were born (in fact, Mount Everest’s summit is made of marine limestone from the bed of Tethys). This was a time when Bangladesh was a part of Antarctica, Australia was drifting Northward and Terror-birds – birdlike Dinosaurs – still guarded our skies. A time when an ancient river was incising a paleocanyon, a descendant of which would become known as the Grand Canyon. A time when a 9-mile radius asteroid was heading for Mexico and would strike the planet to wipe out 75% of world’s species.
These mountains that I gazed upon, had been around when the Chicxulub Asteroid struck with a force 2 million times stronger than a nuclear bomb. They saw the mighty dinosaurs perish. They stood witness to the emergence of the first mammals and apes. Despite being one of the youngest mountain ranges, the Himalayas have had to wait 65 million years for the first pair of humans to come along. From their vantage point, they’ve seen prophets come and go, empires rise and fall, humans love and kill. They’ve seen daring Sherpas making impossible summits. Then came writers of History who followed the Sherpas and wrote themselves into the records. The painters came. And poets too. Hundreds came, thousands even: to see this chain of snowcapped, misty mountains far up in the sky that – like a parent – continue to watch over us. It’s no wonder then that when you truly, intently gaze upon the Himalayas – you can feel the Himalayas gazing back.