Where Prayer Flags Fear Not to Flutter


Sometimes a memory jogged by an old photograph can be just enough to defibrillate the heart back to a steady rhythm.

Freed from binary chains deep in the dungeon of that hard disk, a lost JPEG came to light recently. And I mean light. The picture was of a man looking self-satisfied, on top of the world. Literally on top of the world. He was standing amid the flutter of prayer flags by a stupa somewhere in the high Himalaya. The sky was topaz blue above the ridge line, graduating almost to black as the air thinned into stratosphere. Away to the west lay the Langtang massif. To the north, China, Tibet, call it what you may. Shishapagma, the last of the fourteen 8,000m mountains bagged and tagged as long ago as 1964, was somewhere in the midst but no one could tell exactly where in that crowd of tall, strapping physiques. This was political China, peopled by as many mountains as men and women. So the theory went, if you were to melt Canada the selfish dragon (as its neighbours knew China) would become the world’s second largest self-governing landmass. And so it went, to be able to defy perspective from his high-point on that photograph by reaching out a hand and gathering up Tibetan China must have felt like Buddha cradling the whole world in his hands.

So there he was standing on Kanjing-Ri amid the flutter of prayer flags, colourful as bikinis on a line, pegged out taut as guy ropes holding rigid a trillion tonne mountain. At 4,850 metres above the clicking of the high heels and the ebb and flow of shit at sea level, his demeanour was one of a guy who had inhaled a lungful that was unlike anything he had hitherto drawn into his lungs, including the suspicious looking item clamped between index and middle finger he was toking on by way of celebration. His blacked out sunglasses hid the eyes but not the elation in them. This you could infer from studying both his posture and the unstoppable smile on his face. Here was a smile that boasted, ‘I have ascended. Nothing tops this.’

Rewind the sequence to its beginnings and Act I Scene I is an arduous drive to the head of a remote trail. Given the choice of nine bouncing hours on a packed bus for five dollars or his own jeep driver for one hundred and twenty five, he puts his natural parsimony aside and pays the man. So there he is, king of the wild frontier, another adventurer with too much money and not enough time.

The road deteriorates on the final third to the trail head. It is no coincidence that this deterioration occurs at the crumple zone where the foothills come into their own. En route, he sees the bus in front on a mountain road that is chiselled out of the steep slope itself. The route is crumbling over the edge. The ravine bottom is an awful long way down. The bus is kicking up the dust, which is itself masking the parlousness of their situation. Overladen, it loses power and traction and starts rolling back on a nasty little switchback, rolling back to its doom. Passengers, looking from a distance like scarab beetles scurrying out from a mummy’s tomb, spill off the roof racks. They see the danger that is imminent. The bus grinds to a halt feet from the overhang.

He sees all this from his jeep. Passengers who were moments before fleeing in fear of their lives have now reassembled for the onward voyage. Unfazed, they laugh the whole near death experience off like it’s a normal occurrence, which of course it is. In fact, being Hindus they have probably plunged into that ravine dozens of times in the past, first on hooves, then with wings, then on foot, then on mules, then as mules, then rickshaws, now buses.

Once in the trekking hub town of Syabrubesi, he rests. Tomorrow will be long, winding and full of dangers, real and imaginary. Naturally, blessings need to be delivered. Yes, he is deep in Mahayana Buddhist hill country, but where are the prayer wheels when he needs the cosmos by his side? Om mani padme hum. In the absence of blessed spindles to roll, he apprehends three schoolboys coming the other way. Demanding tithe payment in the form of melting Snickers bars, they deliver their benediction wearing chocolate lipstick. Up and up he goes, ticking off pit stops and many a traveller’s inn along the way.

The ecology is stratified. What begins as uncultivated stands of cannabis sativa stops at around 2,000 metres. Now no longer subtropical, the bush carpeting the valley slopes gives to deciduous forest of maple and oak, and everywhere the blood-soaked flowering of rhododendron. Where the temperate zone ends the sub-alpine zone begins, and all within a day’s walking. Vegetation keeps a low profile. Grass and heath predominate. He keeps walking until he reaches the alpine town of Kyanjin Gompa. Up here the mountains are thrones but this is no game. Up here, Jim, it’s life, but not as most of us know it. He and others have now gone where golden eagles dare.

Not that anyone poring over the photo could tell but behind his left trouser leg his knee is strapped up heavily. Ten days prior to the taking of that shot, he had undergone keyhole surgery to remove torn cartilage from his tibia. The prospects looked bleak but nevertheless he persisted on two poles and a lot of grit in his determination. On day three or four where the going got steep and not even the hardwoods would lend a limb, he had pulsed the trail in an ebbing and flowing motion with an Indian engineer. Turbines, it manifested, were the man’s specialty. Being Gujarati, the man ate high temperatures for breakfast, yet nevertheless the track at that point was proving gruelling, the sunshine intense. An enquiring man with a prodigious command of the Queen’s own and profuse with sweat, the Gujarati was about bowled over when the man in the photo let slip that he had been on an operating table just days before, having the bones behind his knee cap scraped.

‘Even though you’re the walking wounded, you can still outpace me,’ he said between his puffing and panting.

‘How far do you intend to go?’

‘Kanjing Ri, and not an inch less,’ the man replied.

‘You’re not giving up until you get there, aren’t you?’ he Gujarati said in turn.

The man from Gujarat was visibly moved, to the extent that the man in the photo thought that mention of his plight might be driving his newfound trekking buddy onward and utterly upward. A little spark of inspiration had been seeded, he thought. And that in itself can go a long way in this rarefied air.

Snow has crimped the near vertical slopes. How it hangs on is anyone’s guess. But the sun is undermining the snow’s tenuous hold. He hears the drum roll of snow tumble down a couloir on Langtang Lirung. The rock walls amplify the avalanche. The sound of a small cascade is exaggerated. This is nature’s ventriloquy bringing a lion’s roar from the mouth of a kitten. It must have been deafening when the great earthquake struck this very region nine months hence, flattening everything put up by man except for the giant H spelled out in whitish pebbles.

A helicopter buzzes in to a rapturous welcome from the entire village who have come out in force to feel its downdraught. Hypnotic they stand watching the pilot stoop under the whirring blades, rushing forward to grab two lucky locals then two wealthy Russians by the arm. This event has all the makings of Close Encounters of the Third Kind meets the coming of the conquistadors on the coast of Mexico. Quetzalcoatl, the prophesy of Spielberg told.

It is a perfect day to stand higher than he has ever stood. Some photographs were meant to be kept. Some memories meant to be jogged.