There are times when Kathmandu feels a long way from anywhere. This city built on an ancient lake bed and cradled by hills it squats alone in the darkness. The first chill is in the air, the clarity of light growing richer at dusk, clouds still stacked, their nooks and crannies, valleys and billowing mountains sculpted by the light of the setting sun. Light is what Tihar is about. In a stuttering economy and irregular power supply suddenly there are lights, curtains of them, blue and white, red and yellow, falling like waterfalls down the sides of office blocks, warming the dark streets. Once, just once in the year Kathmandu will be lit up, all the lights in all areas of the city will be on at once. From a passing aircraft high in the sky this city will look like a jewel, light refracted, lying like an offering at the feet of the Himalayas. Sacred, inscrutable, grey, ethereal they stand like ghosts in the moonlight.
In August this year a massive landslide killed scores of people, destroyed homes, fields and a hydroelectric power station about 90 miles outside Kathmandu. It also took out the road (the main and pretty much only trade route) into China. The Dashain and Tihar festivals occur close together and it is a time when people buy stuff — everyone gets a double months pay for the holiday and the shops are well stocked to meet demand. But backed up at the boarder were something like 1000 trucks full of Chinese exports unable to get through to Kathmandu. Just before the start of Dashain a new track was opened through the landslide and the goods started to arrive. By then it was too late and there was nowhere to put anything. The chaos remains as witnessed in a local store and much arrived too late to be sold, hitting the stores very hard.
Manaslu is off to the right, where much of the worst weather was. (Photo: The CoP and me.)
Before I write this my heart goes out to those who have lost loved ones and for those who wait for news. I have a small sense of what they are feeling, experiencing the reactions when I heard there had been an avalanche on the Khumbu Icefall on Everest earlier this year where my friend was climbing. He and his Sherpa managed to escape the worse of it.
It should have been ideal weather for a trek around the Annapurna.
The storm we experienced in Kathmandu over the past three days was unusual for the time of year. It should be getting cooler and drier, it got cooler certainly, but lashings of rain and thunder. And unusual thunder, bursting and popping in the sky around our heads like popcorn in a giant bowl, the result of Cyclone Hudud. While I turned over in my bed, on the Annapurna Circuit people began to die, caught by the full force of snow and freezing rain at high altitude.
From the comfort and hospitality of the lodge at Ghandruk last week we looked on to Annapurna South. To the right the deep, steep Modi valley led up to the lower slopes and Annapurna base camp. Our guide said, pointing at the valley, “people do not live there. Just teashops.” As we talked mist began streaming up the side of the valley where the lodge perched and within moments much was obscured from us. I retreated into the warmth of the room. But up there you are far from shelter and at this time of year unprepared for the intensity of what must have struck the Nepalese and the foreign Trekkers. Indeed, you wouldn’t plan to be up there during the storm season.
In the garden of the lodge there is a shrine with carved slate tablets and offerings to the ancestors. It frames Machhapuchchhre Mountain. Morning and evening people go to it in order to pray, light incense and candles.Women and children mostly. I think now of those still missing amongst that treacherous beauty.
I’m behind the railings of the first floor balcony. It’s damp, cool and moist with an overcast sky from unseasonal rains – lightning and a large clap of thunder during the night. The plants love this early morning weather, it’s more mountainous. A familiar voice calls out from the track behind the wall, deep, with a tinge of despair, advertising his flowers. Tall, dark skin (Indian origin?) long coat of indescribable colour, black hair, gaunt cheeks. But there is colour: red, white, orange, purple, green pushed along on the flat bed of a three wheeled bicycle. The Nepalese are equally colourful, so many facial and physical varieties you could not point to one and say: she’s Nepalese. That exists in the heart of these tough, resilient people. The flower seller, shoulders hunched, turns right onto Sri Marga, a white plastic bag dangling from the handlebars and walks away, calling out until he is lost to sound and sight.
Humbled by detail. Gods behind bars, ring the bell, make offerings of petals and rice, burned ochre, gods of spice and fire, blue aromatic coils of incense, blood red tikka, push face to the grill, inhale, pray.
Surrounded by pigeons, palaces, cows and temples beggars are almost indiscernible from the rags encasing them. Cosmic level of detail in even the most everyday object; the multi-armed goddess of Compassion home for a nesting pigeon. Angels of life, death, sex, anger, fear spin in the architecture of the infinite.
About twenty feet deep, and twenty by twenty square, the well was cut into the ground under telegraph poles festooned with chaotic black tangles of cables clinging to the poles like nests of epiphytic snakes. A woman descends the steep steps to the bottom of the well and stands before the gushing spout of a serpent’s mouth. In a series of rapid movements she fills her right palm with water and throws it towards the rising sun. Shielding her eyes against the first flash of its brilliance she touches her forehead again before seven times filling her palm, dropping the water, touching her palm against the snake indented by centuries of sensual contact. Her existence and that of her family reinforced in every whispered word and spiritual, ritualistic, fetishistic, compulsive action. And the sun rises.
I walked away and was overwhelmed by a polluted river of flesh and bones, metal, rubber and the violence of horns.
Our Trek to Ghandruk, Annapurna.
(Photos: The CoP and me.)
The young man carried his elderly mother up the never-ending steps to Ghandruk in a porter’s basket. Two men, five slabs each of slate on their backs, heads down, focussing on the effort of every upward step. Porters loaded beyond comprehension with suitcases, rucksacks and tourist stuff stopped, looked at us with unreadable expressions, then started off again. Women, no more than legs with bare feet protruding from beneath huge mounds of sweet green hay plodded upwards. A string of sweating mules trudged in line beasts bearing a burden of rice and supplies to the lodges and shops higher up. Then there was was me. Very light rucksack plodding upwards, upwards. stopping to rest, looking up in the certain knowledge that around the next corner would be another flight of endless steps. If it’s not upwards then it is linear, houses and settlements carved into the side of tall hills amongst the arcing smiles of the rice paddy terraces. All stone. All steps. All the time from birth to death.
Peace exhaled from the landscape. Where common sense and experience predicted sky, amongst the broken clouds floated snow covered rock, every heartbeat of those labouring upwards lost in the vast silence. A mountain is just a very large rock, these covered in snow. We imbue, invest, humanise these vast, hostile vertical deserts with sanctity, beauty and spiritual meaning. Some peaks are so sacred climbing them is forbidden. Anyway, from where we sat in the comfort of our lodge anyone up on Annapurna would be less than a speck, a midge on the face of the infinite.
Outlined by the cold moonlight it feels as though the mountains are exhaling cold breath that sinks into the deep dark green of the Modi valley below. In the darkness with just the occasional light, like a star in a near deserted region of space, people are sleeping, tiny and invisible in smokey wood and stone buildings. Over them tower the brooding, harsh reminders of their mortality, the constant struggle to live, the millions of steps to climb. Somewhere deep in the night a baby cries.
The first moment photons strike the snowy peaks the sound of cocks crowing in the valley below rise up to greet them. The rocky green crumple zone of hills packed ever tighter and closer against the white capped seabed in air so rare nothing can breathe there. Stillness, the warmth of a cup of tea. I take up my binoculars and look at the creases and crevices of the snow fields clinging to the near vertical rock faces. I am simply a breath, nothing more substantial or enduring than a thought against the landscape of mountains. I have as little impact and will vanish as surely as the snow flying from the summit of Annapurna on the breath of an icy wind.