A few months ago, the nonprofit organization I work for sent me to Nepal to write about our projects there. I visited newly profitable vegetable growers who showed off their shiny produce, watched a performance by brave young women who turned the pain of trafficking into a beautifully choreographed dance, and spent a day riding the rubble-strewn lanes of Kathmandu in an electric vehicle my organization helped a group of women own and drive.
It was satisfying work, taking me off the typical tourist trail, and I loved it. I didn’t need to take a trek or do anything else touristy – with one exception. I desperately wanted to see the Himalayas. They were all around me when I was in Kathmandu, but because I was there when seasonal mists were prevalent, they were maddeningly elusive.
I had one day off, so I looked into taking a small plane to view the peaks. I quickly learned the downside: It would cost almost $200 for one hour – a lot for me and more than two months’ salary for the average Nepalese. Apart from my innate cheapness, there was the basic inequity of it. And I wasn’t sure I’d enjoy bouncing around in a little plane.
But there was an earthbound option. The nearby hill town of Nagarkot, I read, sometimes offered Himalayan views if you arrived early, before the mist set in. That’s all I needed to know. I arranged for a taxi and by 5 a.m. was bumping along the dark, pitted road out of the city.
As we climbed higher, the way grew rockier and more treacherous. At one point the driver stopped and said, “Madam, I am sorry. This is a bad road.” For a moment I thought he was going to turn back. But no, he just wanted to apologize. A few white-knuckle miles later, we pulled up to the steps of a hilltop observation point. I hopped out. It was almost light; I didn’t want to miss the show.
When I reached the top, I found a small knot of tourists in the morning chill – trekkers from Ireland, a Bangladeshi track team in blazers and dress shoes. We were a motley crew with one thing in common: Our cameras were trained on the morning mist, each of us hoping to spy the white peaks of Langtang Lirung and Dorje Lhakpa, which the guidebook said could be visible on a clear day.
What the guidebook did not say is that there are almost no clear days in the Kathmandu Valley during the dry season. It’s a great bowl that captures the pollution and dust of a busy city, especially without rains to cleanse it.
Soon the sky began to redden, and a wan pinkish orb appeared, the sun behind a blanket of haze. There would be no mountains today, just a wall of fog where they should be. Maybe I should have sprung for the plane ride. But my traveler’s remorse didn’t last long. I was in the foothills of the Himalayas! If I couldn’t glimpse the roof of the world, at least I could walk through its attic.
So I did. As the day warmed, I trudged up one hill and down another. I strode so close to the tin-roofed houses that I could smell the coffee brewing. There were women cutting brush on the slopes, loading it into giant bags that they slipped over their foreheads to carry. Up on the high road, one farmer plowed a field with his ox while another spread dried dung along the newly dug furrows. Below me were terraced fields, smoke from cook fires, the sound of cowbells tinkling in the distance. It was not the glamour of the faraway that moved me, but the ordinary scenery of a Nepalese morning.
Days later, my work complete, I left Kathmandu. As the plane climbed, I looked out the window. There, in the distance, were flecks of white. I first thought they were clouds, but the closer we came, the more distinctly pointed they appeared. These weren’t clouds; these were mountains, Earth’s tallest. Not up close from a puddle jumper, but in awesome remove from a jet. I don’t know which peaks I glimpsed, and it doesn’t matter. It was the Himalayas – ethereal, mirage-like, full of wonder. I can’t imagine seeing them any other way.