Just when you think it’s over, the mountains try to kill you again.
Emma and I are ecstatic to make it to base camp at last. But could it be possible that we’re just as thrilled to return to Kathmandu, a city that, three weeks ago, felt foreign and frightening, but now feels safe and civilized? I’ll admit it: being at this high altitude, sleeping at almost 17,000 feet, makes me paranoid. We have barely felt it, and yet, seeing an Iranian woman lying unconscious beside me as I eat my dinner of fried noodles, watching as a helicopter arrives to fly her down to Kathmandu — I’m glad to be going down the mountains, too.
Going down should be easy, right? But isn’t it funny that we walk for so long to reach a certain destination, only to turn right around and make the same journey back? Everybody talks about the way there; hardly anyone attends to the return home.
Like every other day on this trek, each day we hike back to Lukla, where we will catch a flight to Kathmandu, brings another challenge.
In Pheriche, the elderly Nepali woman who gives us a room in her tea house asks if we would like a fire. Oh, yes, we say. It’s freezing.
But the woman doesn’t seem to know how to light her stove, and we spend the evening with the rusted thing rumbling ominously in the center of the room, spouting billowy clouds of kerosene-clogged smoke into our blood-shot eyes. We open the windows so we won’t asphyxiate and eat our dinners of fried potatoes and pizza and hot tea taking turns sticking our heads outside.
The hike from Pheriche to Namche Bazaar begins pleasantly, with clear blue skies and the towering form of Ama Dablam looking over us. Most of the Sherpas view these mountains not as inanimate piles of rocks, but as spiritual beings, as goddesses to be honored. This whole trip, it’s felt as if Ama Dablam has been watching over us, her arms open wide in welcome, in love.
But the hike soon becomes grueling. We walk this day what we did in two days on the way up. By the time we reach Tengboche, where we see a monk clad in rust red robes painting Om Mani Padme Hum in clean white on a gray boulder, our legs are heavy with fatigue, our stomachs rumbling with hunger. And we are only halfway there.
My knee begins to hurt. Our packs seem twice as heavy as they did on the way up. As we contour around the mountains, a thick fog fills the valley, shrouding everything but the few feet of path in front of us. We know there is a sheer drop on our left, but we can’t see it. Rounding every corner feels like walking off the edge of the world.
An owl hoots. A monal, a turquoise and emerald green pheasant which is the national bird of Nepal, waddles across the path and disappears into the woods. Several lone cows lumber down the trail, the metal bells around their necks clanking. Porters laden with toilet paper, beer, tin pans, bars of Snickers, all stacked in bamboo baskets on their backs and strapped around their heads with cotton strips, appear silently through the wall of fog, not looking up from the ground even to acknowledge us. How much farther, we ask? Did we really come this far at all?
Many times during the trek, I have prayed silently to see something, some glimpse of God, some vision of His face in the mountains. After all, isn’t this the place to see it?
In this trek through the mist, the sun momentarily slits through the clouds high above us, and there, where only blue sky should be, are the towering snow peaks of the Himalayas, floating as if baseless in a murky sky. This, I think, is what we see of God. A brief, majestic glimpse that’s fleeting and sudden and only visible if you lift your tired head from the dirt trail.
Less than a minute later, the mountains are hidden once more. After eight hours of hiking, we reach Namche.
There are some things the mountains do to you, and other things you do to yourself.
In Namche, we count our money. We have been pinching pennies ever since leaving Namche the first time, when none of the ATMs in that cobbled stone town worked for us.
Once again, none of the ATMs spew money, and we realize we barely have enough to get back to Lukla, and only enough to stay in Lukla one night. In other words: not enough if our flight to Kathmandu is delayed, which is a real possibility.
We want more than anything to go out to the Irish pub down the street for a beer, but we can’t afford it. I vaguely wonder what it would be like to beg for rupees from strangers, good-willing trekkers from foreign countries, Nepalis with little cash to spare. We kick ourselves for not being more careful. We console ourselves by saying, really, we were. We say a prayer before curling into our sleeping bags, worried.
I think about the birds of the air and the flowers of the field. I think of manna raining down from heaven. I think of the five loaves of bread, stretched miraculously to feed five thousand. We’ve been shown our pure state: vulnerability. Now: will we be shown provision from above?
Our host in Namche tells us the walk to Lukla will take six hours. Okay, we say. This is our last hike. We can do that.
I think about the Buddhist monks we heard chanting low and earthly to a clanking wooden rattle in the red monastery in Tengboche several days ago. I could use some of their wisdom right now.
“I need to be more like a Zen Buddhist today,” I tell Emma. “I need to live in the moment, to enjoy this final hike, instead of simply wanting to get it over with. I need to accept what comes, to take both the good and the bad of life equally, instead of worrying so much about this money situation.”
Actually, I am fairly Zen for the first half of the day, when we hike down the steep slope from Namche, cross wobbly suspension bridge after wobbly suspension bridge over the frothy mint green water of the Duhd Kosi. I am especially Zen during lunch, when we enjoy the best dhal bhat — lentil soup with cilantro, curried vegetables picked straight from the garden, white rice, and chapati — for lunch at a blue-painted tea house.
But in the afternoon, as we turn corner after corner, climbing higher and higher up endless stone steps to the mountainside village of Lukla, when it seems like the trail will never end and my backpack is crushing my spine and my legs feel like heavy weights I must heave out from under me — then, Emma and I ask each other, “Where the hell is this place?” I just want to get this over with.
So much for six hours. We hike for over eight. A group of trekkers from India tells us it’s been over 12 miles since we left Namche — all up and down steep inclines and clambering over large boulders and gravelly slopes. We walk the last few feet straight uphill to the crumbling arch that marks the entrance to Lukla, and have only enough energy to smile wearily, shake our heads, and say, “we did it.”
And just like that, we wake early on a Wednesday morning to muesli and hot milk served by a Nepali woman in the dark downstairs of her tea house. She goes upstairs to wake her son who is supposed to walk us to the airport in Lukla and help us buy our plane tickets back to Kathmandu. There is some confusion, and Emma and I think the plane leaves at 6, when really it doesn’t leave until 7 — if at all. The weather is precarious in the Himalayas, and these tiny propeller planes land by sight.
The Nepali woman climbs the rickety stairs to wake her son. We hear her berating him in Nepalese. I don’t know what she’s saying, but I can imagine. Sometimes, cultural barriers are thin.
The son leads us down the empty, cobbled streets of Lukla. Soon, the streets are not so empty. Other trekkers step out of lodges, backpacks slung on their shoulders and battered trekking poles clutched in their hands. They snap last minute photos with their porters and guides. They walk wearily up the mountain toward the airport on the side of the cliff.
When Emma and I were planning this trek last fall, the thing that scared me more than anything else was the flight out of Lukla. If you google “the most dangerous airports in the world”, the Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla is always at the top of the list. There have been a number of plane crashes at the airport over the last few decades, most notably in 2008, when a Yeti Airlines plane crashed upon landing, killing all 18 passengers and crew. Only the captain survived. There is a chipped and faded white stupa in Lukla honoring the victims, which we passed on our way back from base camp.
Back in Dallas, the thought of flying out of this airport terrified me. Even knowing flights flew safely in and out every day did not help. Even hearing about friends of friends who entered and exited the mountains through Lukla did not help. It was my biggest fear about the trip. I even had nightmares about it, waking in the middle of the night with one thought: I cannot fly out of Lukla.
Now, after completing the trek, after surviving the harrowing ten hour bus ride to Shivalaya, after managing by ourselves in the mountains for three weeks, flying out of Lukla seems easy. I am not nervous at all.
All flights are delayed because of the weather. A thick cloud bank fills the steep valley at the end of the runway, shrouding the airport from sight. Emma and I buy our tickets and go through security. There are two lines: one for men and one for women. The men’s line is a string of trekkers that fills the room. The women’s line is mostly the two of us. For every ten male trekkers, there is maybe one female. This makes Emma and me feel good.
The security lady at the front of the women’s line asks us, “do you have any knives or scissors?”
“No,” we say, and ever-trusting, she ushers us through.
We sit in the crowded lobby until an hour later, when the sun burns off the clouds in the valley and four tiny propeller planes land one after another. We are shooed out onto the narrow runway and into the first plane that lands. A stewardess hands us balls of cotton and a hard malt candy each, and then, we are off!
For a moment, my heart thumps bright red with fear and I clutch Emma’s arm. Then, we are rolling down the hill and only seconds later lifting off above a sheer drop. What scared me for months is over in a few wild heartbeats. Now, we soar above the clouds and one more time I see the snowy peaks of the Gaurishankur Mountain Range out the window. As we fly over, I think: we walked all this way.
Kathmandu is jarring. The mountains, for as difficult as they are, were peaceful. Life in them is getting up, freezing, eating bowls and bowls of soup and rice and lentils, hiking, hiking some more, thinking you will never stop hiking, staring in amazement at a mountain and realizing there’s more mountain above that’s folded in billowy grey clouds. It’s falling asleep, hard, and not waking until morning.
But Kathmandu, this city is a bustle of dogs snarling and car horns honking and construction workers clanking away outside. It’s a shower, yes, though not as hot as we’d like. It is heavy ceramic pots of fresh brewed coffee and creamy, sugary masala tea. It is a quiet, flowered garden. It is dodging motorcycles and taxi cab drivers trying to sell you a ride, your shoes muddy from the streets that are muck after a heavy rain.
Emma and I move into a popular hostel in Thamel, the city’s tourist district, and suddenly, we are surrounded by young, hip travelers from all over the world, eating veggie burgers and smoking cigarettes and reading Siddhartha on the roof in the sun. Justin Timberlake plays over the speakers. There is good, strong WiFi and a restaurant that serves Western food.
It seems too soon. I’m not ready to be friendly. I’m not ready to swap stories about lives lived on separate continents with adventurous strangers who travel the world. I escape down the street into a Tibetan and Nepali Buddhist bookstore, and flip through tomes about this foreign religion in a momentary quiet solace.
I wish I were going home. I wish Kathmandu weren’t so busy. I wish I didn’t have to act like a normal person just yet. I wish I could see the mountains once more.
After going and going and going every day, my body doesn’t know how to be still. I am sore and still scraping the dirt off my skin. I am a rush of emotions that hits me all at once, so tangled up I can’t discern one from another.
We go out for pizza at a ritzy Italian restaurant, Fire and Ice, popular amongst trekkers who’ve just returned, and I think about the porters carrying huge loads of beer and tents and chairs up the mountains to base camp. So many of them travel through the night.
In the morning, I go out for coffee at a trendy spot down the road and read the Kathmandu Post in English. On the way back, I see a beggar dragging two useless legs in the dirt behind him. He sticks up his hand, reaching out gnarled fingers to me, unable to fully lift his head to meet my eyes. I don’t know what to do, so I keep on walking.