Still in bed and half drunk with sleep, I came to at 4:30 before daybreak and pushed the curtain aside to peer out the window to the south. The stars were shining straight and true, just as I had hoped. That meant clear skies.

It had passed the point of telling how cold it was by feel, replaced by guesswork through the number of layers one wore. I wore almost all my clothes, save what I had washed the night before and one long shirt I didn’t need to bring after all.

We started the steep climb and walked in front of the line for 20 minutes. A glance back showed formless shadows on a winding path following us with white lights pointed in front of their feet, looking up every now and then. We reached a large clearing that could have fit maybe a thousand people chest to chest, with another path leading to it from the next village which was higher up.

With only a moment’s hesitation at seeing the tens of dozens gathered to form a line at the far end, i switched off the lamp on my head and snaked around many of the already tired tourists. A thin sheet of sweat clung my shirt to my back like naan in a tandoori oven. I was used to sweat; it was easy to ignore the slight discomfort.

Everyone had to pay another 50 NPR (Nepali Rupees) to get a ticket and pass the gate, from where we slowly climbed up the last 25 minutes to the peak of the hill, reaching 3,210m. Luckily, I had brought some Rupees — its purpose escaping me as I hastily stuffed it in my pocket half an hour earlier.

The stars were no longer in sight. We climbed on as the sky slowly brightened with the promise of a clear sunrise over the mountaintops. Still snaking my way through the slower throng, most were silent while few engaged in conversation, using the sound of their own voices as distraction from the cold and their obvious weariness.

I had made it on top of the 3,210m hill before the sun announced itself; there was a slightly elevated platform 100 meters away, made of mortar and stone, from where stood a steel tower: a viewing point. I didn’t see the point in squeezing in with the dozens of others making their way up there as I paused for a few seconds to search for a good spot to set up. The tower reminded me of a lifeguard hut — though thrice as tall and twice as wide as the ones I was used to. The similarity in design and yet the contrast in building material and ambient temperature surrounding the two structures in my mind’s eye made me chuckle.

With the throng of tourists commencing the selfie-taking and snapchatting, I searched for the furthest and most isolated spot at the far end of the hilltop. Further from the concrete platform and viewing tower, I found a nice spot by the South East corner of the hilltop where the ice had piled higher — sometimes almost reaching the knees.

There were these cold-weather bushes surrounding this side of the hill, around whose bare branches others have strung the Tibetan prayer flags often used in the cities and mountains of Nepal alike. Traditionally, these are used to promote peace, strength, compassion and wisdom. The mantras written on the flags are blown by the wind to spread the goodwill and compassion of the message to all existence. Wiki says:

The prayers of a flag become a permanent part of the universe as the images fade from exposure to the elements. Just as life moves on and is replaced by new life, Tibetans renew their hopes for the world by continually mounting new flags alongside the old. This act symbolizes a welcoming of life’s changes and an acknowledgment that all beings are part of a greater ongoing cycle.”

The elements truly had set apart the old flags from the new. Loose corner threads in every color flapping in the wind, the black ink that had once stained the pieces of cloth in vibrance now fade to a dull gray.

The sunrise was remarkable, as it always is — be it over city, sea, valley, desert or mountain. This was my first frosty greeting of the sun over icy mountains in the distance. It glowed golden, for a time, until the horizon’s haze lifted and the sun rose higher in the sky to its usual blinding brilliance.

It gets harder each day to think of the sun, moons and planets without thinking of the celestial correlations between them and the other stars. It gives me great pleasure to be still; and then to imagine and feel the Earth spinning on its axis, revolving around the Sun — all careening through space in one of the slow spinning arms of the Milky Way Galaxy — in a universe stretching over the neighboring emptiness.

And then there is that chance each universe is only a grain of sand among billions and more, in the vastness of it all. Who is to say that it is not? Being a part of such a grand and inexplicable existence is exhilarating, although I understand how some might feel small and insignificant at the comparison.

After a cup of hot coffee in the thawing morning, grateful the wind chose to spare us her chilly embrace, we took the view in and enjoyed the silence left behind by the dozens of tourists on their way to breakfast and beyond. Energized and satisfied, we slowly made our way back down to our guest house, broke our fast on eggs and local bread and packed our things.

The couple whose company we enjoyed on the way up were going a different direction from us, so we said our goodbyes and carried on towards Tadapani. From Ghorepani (2,750m), we climbed up to the Deurali Pass (3,090m) and then started the gradual descent East. The skies were blue and the clouds were distant and white; our spirits, freshened by the presence of Nature herself, soared high up as the birds themselves.

Hail and snow covered parts of our trail when mud did not. We had grown weary of stone steps from the days past and were glad for the change. The path, twisted as ever, took us through rhododendron forests, up and down hillsides and alongside rivers. The wildlife was mostly smart enough to stay clear off the man-made paths, excepting a monkey and squirrel I once saw, and hawks gliding on the mountain’s updrafts.

That day on the trail, we had met and joined up with a mixed group of 6 Europeans: Germans, Dutch and English. They, like us, were at the butt end of the pack, choosing to sleep in a few hours after the short trip up to Poon Hill. Most were week old friends, some for longer.

Some came from India and spoke of the difficulties and beauties of the place, while others were going to explore South East Asia and eagerly shared their plans, or lack thereof. As commonly asked, questions of “What did you do back home?” filled the empty spaces and silence. Some were Mathematics majors, thinking of entering research in Physics, while others were Psychologists.

Everyone seems to be traveling for different reasons. Some to take a break from school, work or family, others to satisfy their curiosities, others for culinary adventures, others for luxury and comfort, and yet others to search for something — none being any better or worse than any other. I am very grateful we get to brush past all types, no matter how quickly, which can set them or us off in a completely different direction — with only the sharing of a story, an idea, a phrase, or a word. There lies the fun and adventure in not having set plans when traveling, or in life.

The sun was well past its zenith, and the eclectic 6 we had joined wanted to make it to Tadapani before sunset. After a 2 hour break for tea and some food, something I would not have done on my own, they wanted to quicken their pace for the next 4 hours of walking. We split up to take our time and decided to spend the night in Banthanti, a few hours short of Tadapani.

Banthanti lay on the other side of a beautiful cliff that stretched for miles and seemed to tilt outward, a small river separated the guesthouse from the cliff and its path — eager for the monsoon season to be invigorated and washed anew. It was easily the most beautiful spot for a guesthouse I have seen on the trek, it felt like our good fortune kept coming.

In the dining area I met a History professor in his senior years from New York, obvious from the lines on his face, the look in his eyes, the droop of his ears and his precarious gait. He was very soft spoken and seemed to weigh his words carefully before saying them; keeping them short and precise. He didn’t waste his breath in small talk, nor did he offer much more than to respond to what was asked.

I was talking to a man who didn’t bother putting any masks on: I sensed not a drop of pretentiousness in his manner — something totally uncommon in most everyone I know, including myself. I suppose age and having lived a fulfilling life does that. I can only hope that when the decades pass me by, I will learn as much.

When I showed interest in his and his students’ journey, he perked up at the invitation to share. His shoulders straightened and his voice carried over the crackling fireplace with a little more girth and intention. He was on an expedition with 14 of his university students to relive the story of one of the books they studied in class, a hiker’s account from decades past of climbing Annapurna’s South side — supposedly a lot harder and steeper than the North side.

He separated from his students, with them having another (probably younger) teacher as chaperone, along with other guides and porters. They were to meet up again after their 10-day trip, but the trails to Annapurna were suddenly closed-off due to excessive snow and an avalanche that blocked off a road and killed 3 truck drivers, so he said.

Hence, they were rerouted by their guides to Poon Hill instead, to not go home empty handed. A poor substitute, surely, but a good exercise in accepting what can’t be helped. They were pressed for time and could not wait for the weather to clear up in the 2 short weeks they had in Nepal.

In his youth, he had come to trek the Everest and Annapurna Base Camps separately, by himself. It was harder before, he said. There weren’t as many guesthouses back then, and the trails of today are more well established.

The day ended much like how it began, half drunk with the taste of sleep that trickled over me as i curled in bed. It never takes me long to sleep — for that, I am also grateful.

(Photos to follow)

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