Mani stone outside Namche monastery

There and Back:
Trekking in a Sacred Landscape

Khumbu, Nepal, 2001

They told us that at high altitudes, our dreams would become unusually vivid. This one was about dental drills, but it wasn't a bad dream. As I drifted up out of sleep, my eyes still closed, I realized that the drill noise was real and was coming from somewhere outside our room. A deep growling was the principal note; another note sounded an octave above it, intermittently. It sounded like... horns! The Buddhist monks at the Tengboche monastery were blowing horns for dawn prayers! Yes, there was a cold gray light at our window. My roommate still seemed to be undisturbed; I closed my eyes again and sank back into sleep, as an oboe-like horn warbled an alien-sounding tune. Four pitches, complex rhythm, in a major key. Pleasant.

When I awoke again later, the horns were silent, but the sun was just about to rise. It was good to be up and about before the rest of our climbing team, to wander around the town and be solitary before packing up for another day's trek northwards, towards the high Himalayan mountains.

* * * * *

When we'd visited the monastery the day before, I'd felt a distinct sense of "other-ness." None of us Westerners belonged there, really; we belonged to a different culture, and the symbols and meanings of sacred objects did not hold the same import for us as they did for the people who lived there. It was the same thing I'd felt when invited to spin a massive prayer wheel in a Kathmandu temple -- it's beautiful, it's cool, but we're missing most of the spiritual experience. Did we have any business seeking it in the first place? Should we tourists stay out of the sacred Buddhist places, as non-Hindus are kept out of the Pashupatinath temple in Kathmandu?

* * * * *

The Sherpas seem to be as straightforward about religious customs and ideas as they are about everything else. Morning incense is often burned in lodges; the Dalai Lama's picture hangs on many dining-room walls. Sacred birds such as snowcocks, forever unharassed, strut through camps with impudence and feed on rice thrown to them. Tiny prayer wheels sit in lodge dining rooms and hallways, where people can give them a spin as they walk by -- each clockwise spin of the wheel sends prayers heavenward. "Om Mani Padme Hum" is the prayer written on each one. "Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus," or the Buddha, in the aspect of the Bodhisattva of Compassion. A person acquires karma for each such prayer; you also earn karma for kindness to living things, and for unselfish acts. The more karma you acquire in this lifetime, the better your next one will be.

Prayer poles in front of houses fly tall, narrow flags printed with the same prayer. Each flap and flutter carries prayers on the wind. The flags are always in the five elemental colors: blue for air, white for water, red for fire, yellow for earth, green for consciousness. Bright colors represent life and sacredness in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, and Sherpa aesthetics reflect that: woodwork and tin roofs painted in brilliant primary colors trim the tidy stone houses.

Even the landscape itself is conscripted into the pursuit of karma. Chortens and stupas stand guard over towns and trails -- these are large square stone structures with domes on top, some whitewashed and painted with Buddha's all-seeing eyes, others left natural. Immense boulders are carved with huge letters in the familiar prayer, "Om Mani Padme Hum," repeated over and over again. In other places, flat mani stones, carved with the same letters, are stacked into careful piles in mid-trail; some are built into walls stretching along the path. With these, as with prayer poles and all other sacred structures, it is customary to pass to the left. We walk respectfully past the chortens and stones on well-worn paths, but we dance around the courtyard poles, sometimes taking hold of them with our right hands and swinging around them. If the leader forgets to go left around a pole, we tease him. Our Sherpa assistant guide never forgets when he's in the lead. But he laughs with the rest of us when we forget, and we are forgiven.

The day we depart Tengboche, continuing our trek upvalley, we leave the trees behind. The land here is higher and more rugged. Prayer poles are no longer seen; fewer mani stones line the trail. Now strings of prayer flags mark the summits and high passes. Some flags are still brightly colored, but the older ones have faded into a fragile, filmy gray, like a soap bubble about to pop. They flutter and move in the winds; the motion draws the eye upwards, to the high and remote places.

* * * * *

Mountain peaks here are black and white, and they do not support life. By Buddhist reckoning, they are not imbued with the same symbolic meanings that we Westerners give them -- of shining purity, of reaching towards Heaven, of surmounting inner obstacles, of the pinnacles of human effort. Sherpas do not see them that way. But we Western climbers do. And it is heartbreaking to be turned around a few hours below the snowline, to watch the others continue on to the summit.

There wasn't any other option, actually. I called a sudden stop when I couldn't continue -- it was before dawn, and the mountain was invisible in the blackness before us -- and somehow I ended up half-prostrate on the rocks, staring at our guide's boots in the pool of light from my headlamp. The air was thin and bitterly cold, and it turned my gasping breath into white wraiths, curling and dissipating in the beam of light. At sixteen thousand feet, you don't mess around with sudden illness: I was going back down to Base Camp. We all knew it.

Logistical options were discussed in the darkness around me. My summit flag, with its colorful prayer ribbons tied onto it (in English: "Peace on Earth." "Come back safely!" "For Peace in the World"), was taken gently from my pack so it could go up with the team. Strong hands helped me back onto my unsteady feet. Our Sherpa sirdar took the pack off of my back, and put it on his own, before he and I started down together.

The planning, the workouts, and the anticipation of this climb had taken months out of my life; we had taken two weeks to walk here from the lower country. One badly-timed illness took it away, just like that.

I have never seen the stars as brilliant as they were that night.

* * * * *

On our return trip, we don't stop overnight in Tengboche. Instead, we set up camp in Debuche, a forested two-lodge hamlet an hour away from it. There is a tiny Buddhist nunnery nearby, a place mostly ignored by Westerners, as it sits almost literally in the shadow of the big monastery uphill. The afternoon is sunny and cool, and I have nothing else that needs doing.

The nunnery looks deserted. As I walk between old stone huts and a half-collapsed stone wall, I hear the sound of horns, and I follow it. The main building is small and well-hidden, but painted in bright colors, a dramatic contrast to the shabby dwellings. The cacophony continues: horns, bells, drums, voices. A sign tells me that visitors are welcome inside -- even though pujaa, or prayers, are conducted all day -- but I can't bring myself to enter, so I stand outside listening for a long time.

The instruments fall silent; the voices continue singing. After a while, something shifts in my mind, and I finally feel comfortable enough to enter the room. I quietly remove my boots, pull aside the heavy cloth door hanging, and go in.

Seven maroon-cloaked nuns sit in the middle of the room, chanting in classical Tibetan from the prayer books in front of them. Some look up as I enter; I slink over to a cushioned bench at the side of the room, where I can sit and listen without disturbing them. What strikes me first is the sensual richness of the room: the bright colors (always!), the hundreds of Buddha figures painted on the walls, the altar full of tiny handmade sculptures and candles. The scent of incense infuses the air. Mani stones are propped up on the wall behind me; I run my fingertips over them, feeling the rough raised letterforms. And the sounds -- how wonderful! The women's voices rise and fall with the strange phrases, sometimes in unison, sometimes in harmony, sometimes almost in a round. Now it is quiet and mumbling; now it surges loudly, filling the high-ceilinged room with a joyful noise.

A young nun, her head recently shaven, gets up and asks me with a shy smile if I want some tea. Yes, thank you, I tell her in Nepali. It is the sweetest, strongest, best milk tea I have tasted, and heat of the china cup warms my cold hands. Even the simple act of drinking tea is like a meditation here.

For the first time in days, my mind rests. Simply rests. No need to walk, or take in the stunning scenery, or write, or read, or plan, or take pictures, or chat with friends or strangers. The sacred space fills all my senses; in so doing, it allows for contemplation without self-distraction.

Now, at last, I can begin to come to terms with what happened on summit day. The disappointment will never go away, but I might learn to be at peace with it.

* * * * *

We leave the mountains behind, regretfully, of course. On my last night in Kathmandu, I take a taxi to Boudhanath, the Great Stupa. I'd visited before, but this time I'm not so ill at ease: the domes and squares, prayer flags, prayer wheels, maroon-robed monks, and all-seeing eyes are familiar now. The high country had taught us well.

As the sun goes down, it reflects fire off of the gold crown of the stupa. Schoolchildren light butter lamps on its upper levels; they have to cup their hands around the wicks to shield them from the fickle sunset wind. I circumambulate the huge structure a few times with a flow of other pilgrims, again letting my mind rest. As the sky turns a twilight purple, I enter a tiny temple on the stupa's north side. I light a single butter lamp in thanks -- for the kindness of the Sherpas, and for a landscape that sings praises.