I started searching for Mt. Everest abstractly. It wasn’t exactly about the mountain; it was about the idea of the mountain. With my college books lying next to the bottom bunk, I would retreat in to stories about mountaineering and daydream about exploration. I collected pieces of Asian culture without dwelling on their origins or innate meanings. These articles and wanderings were satellites of the idea of the mountain, which I assigned to Mt. Everest, and the idea of the mountain was in Nepal, and therefore going to Nepal became inevitable. But I didn’t even really aim at Mt. Everest. I just got out of bed and aimed at Nepal.
This is how, on a hazy August morning in 2001, I found myself in Kathmandu with a group of foreigners, looking for things to do. For two weeks we had been traveling to different parts of the country learning about medicinal plants. This was long before I would develop a focused interest in natural medicine, so that detail was just a bonus. Actually, the trip was the result of me Googling “Go to Nepal, August 9 – 22,” which was when I had a window available to travel after the competitive summer rowing season. But I had not accounted for the little-known and unlikely fact of summer. The monsoon fog, as it does, had blanketed the sky for two weeks, perpetually pressing heat and moisture against our bodies and blotting out the entire horizon. Now we had a few days to entertain ourselves at the end of the trip.
“I want to see mountains,” I suggested. We were really so close.
The travel agent brought my new friends and me tea and told us we had options. Theoretically, the options involved flights. However, the airplanes might or might not end up taking off, the travel agent cautioned, what with the blanket of clouds obscuring the whole atmosphere. My friends and I tried to sort out the weather, and things.
There was a tower in Nagarkot, said the travel agent. A lookout tower. I inspected my guide book, and my guide book said I could bike to the lookout tower in Nagarkot.
“I’m going to bike to the lookout tower in Nagarkot,” I announced.
At the suggestion of the travel agent, my friends and I refined the plan further. We would first bike to the old city of Bhaktapur about an hour away, and from there, I would continue biking up to the lookout tower in Nagarkot. This plan made sense to me because a) it was in my guidebook and b) the travel agent was able to rent us some bikes. Nepal-bikes, if you will. They had wheels and gears and hand-brakes and they were heavy as hell.
We woke early the next morning and set off for Bhaktapur. As I clicked along the road, I felt a swell of freedom. It reminded me of the first solo drive I had made, to the ice rink, after obtaining my drivers license. The past two weeks had had various ups and downs and dramas and mishaps, but the main thing was that I’d been packed in with a group of other foreigners and we’d been on a schedule and somebody else was in charge. Suddenly here I was on two wheels being powered by my own legs, on a road that led to the idea of the mountain.
If you ever get to visit Nepal, you must visit Bhaktapur. Its name means “the place of devotees.” The area is located on a historic trade route between India and Tibet, and is jammed full of gorgeous architecture, art and cultural life dating back to the 1400s. Wonderfully preserved temples and stupas surround a tidy public square, whose graceful wooden carvings curl up like a garden that sweeps the gaze from one frozen deity to the next. It is a place that makes you want to bow your head for a moment to whatever all this is…not because it’s religious exactly, but because it feels bigger than you. Because it is old, and earnest, and fully itself.
We took photos.
My friends left.
I clicked over to a small shop, parked my bike, and met a woman and her daughter. Something had caught my eye…a sheaf of heavy lavender silk. I asked to hold it, and it slid cool over my hands, a whisper of winter hiding under the heavy roof of summer. I turned it over and moved it from one arm to the other. The mother and daughter draped it over my shoulders and wrapped it around and around my waist to show how it would be worn. I asked the price.
The material was intended to be made in to a sari, which, needless to say, was something I would never put on. I set it down, and picked it up. Eventually, I reached for my guidebook, checked the route, and left without the lavender silk. Now I was fully alone. I rode down a long hill and pedaled laboriously up another. As the heavy biked clicked toward Nagarkot, Bhaktapur began to disappear behind me.
I stopped the bike. I turned around and biked all the way back to Bhaktapur and bought the lavender silk from the mother and daughter. I folded it carefully in to my backpack and set off again for Nagarkot.
Beginning early in the day, we had not been particularly focused on the schedule. It was now about 2:00. And something else I ought to mention is that only about ten weeks prior, on June 1, 2001, nearly the entire royal family of Nepal had been massacred by the crown prince, and a stunned hush lay over everything. A Maoist insurgency that had started in 1996 was also gathering force. It would crescendo around 2004 and topple the monarchy in 2006. But in August of 2001, while I was biking alone from Bhaktapur to Nagarkot at 2:03pm, everything was humid, and pregnant, and subdued. It is only now, looking back fifteen years later, that I feel the uncertainty of that stillness, stretching out across the emerald for miles and miles around me on my tiny bike.
As the afternoon progressed, the pavement ended and the switchbacks started. The heavy-as-hell bike was now clicking over the back of a dragon, lumpy and steep, the first of what would be many, many, many Nepal Road Experiences (NREs) in my future. With increasing frequency, I had to dismount completely and haul the heavy bike uphill with my arms. In addition to unfortunate lack of planning around time, I had only two granola bars for food. I might have bought some snacks in Bhaktapur, but now I was in the middle of nowhere. This was also before cell phones, and in fact and even land lines in 2001 were commodities mainly rented by the minute at shops or small businesses, most of which were in cities. So, to recap, I was in a completely foreign country on a rural road with a guidebook and a heavy bike and no food during an insurgency, a few weeks after a royal massacre, in a place I knew nothing about except for stories of Mt. Everest written by North Americans and Europeans.
“Tower,” I thought contentedly, and clicked over another crater in the road.
I look back now and the little part of me that the world has worn down scolds her for this. For the presumptuousness and irresponsibleness. But even now, most of me is still enchanted by the idea of the mountain. That is who she is, even all alone on a road. She doesn’t realize she’s going to write this story later, and she is not performing. She is biking on a road because she is on it and there is a lookout tower at the other end. Hopefully.
As dusk began to fall, I checked my guidebook more frequently. It did seem mildly alarming that I had no idea how far I was from civilization. What to do? Well there was, after all, only one road, so if I had taken a wrong turn I had inevitably biked to a different district altogether, which was a problem far outside the reaches of my ability to solve by worrying. No use mulling over that. Soon buildings started appearing at the roadside and it looked like, possibly, I was somewhere. Just as darkness was confirming its authority over my climb, I came upon – true story – The Hotel at the End of the Universe.
However, the Hotel at the End of the Universe was not near the lookout tower, and my guide book said there was a hotel near the lookout tower. So, and don’t ever ask me to explain this, I biked past the Hotel at the End of the Universe in to full-fledged night. Uphill.
It was after 9pm when I found it. In rural Nepal in 2001, 9pm is the middle of the night. I walked in to the hotel that my guidebook had suggested, sweating and with every muscle in my body limp. Two young men emerged behind the hotel counter and they assigned me a room. The kitchen was closed for the night and it was too late to make dinner. Oh well. I had some of a granola bar.
“Please wake me at 5am so I can go to the lookout tower,” I said.
“If the weather is good, we’ll wake you, miss,” the hotel guys said. “But it’s usually cloudy.”
Nope. “I want to go either way. Will you make sure to wake me at 5am?” (Besides, maybe it wouldn’t be cloudy.)
“Of course, miss,” the hotel guys said.
I woke up at 5:15am. No hotel guys.
I jumped out of bed, paid for my room, and got back on the heavy-as-hell bike. I followed the directions in the guide book, and just as the sun was creeping over the horizon, I came upon…THE TOWER.
Yes, this is a lookout tower made of sticks.
Which only strikes me as incredible now, much later, on behalf of the little part of me has been chastened and worn down. At the time, I thought, quite happily, “This is a lookout tower.”
I climbed up the lookout tower, which was advertised in the guide book to offer a panoramic view of the Himalayas surrounding the Kathmandu valley, sweeping giants, famous the world over, visible from THIS STICK TOWER that I am climbing. The top of the structure was rickety, like a platform treehouse. I stand up.
There are clouds as far as I can see. Not a mountain to be seen anywhere. Silence for miles and miles and miles. I sit down on the tree-house platform. I am here. I float out over the clouds, newly lit by morning, silky and cool, endless. I take a photo. For a few minutes, these are my clouds.
“This is going to be a good story,” it occurs to me vaguely.
Then some Nepalese tourists turn up, and they take my photo. It will be a prized possession. But soon the platform is crowded, and the floating is over.
Now all I have to next do is get back to Kathmandu.
I climb down the tree-house-lookout-at-clouds-tower.
We are going downhill. I run my finger down a page where my guide book says that up ahead I can either take a normal road, or another road that is a bit less organized but somewhat shorter and “good fun.” And so help me God, nobody will ever no why, but I decide it is a good idea to take the Good Fun Road.
The Good Fun Road is the dragon’s back I climbed up, now with measles and more speed. So basically, I can barely ride on it at all. Every time I try to get the heavy bike going, a terrifying hole in the dirt screeches in front of my tire and I have to slam on the hand breaks and I nearly topple over. I end up walking my bike for most of the Good Fun Road. “This is good fun,” I think, “and I should write my own guide book.”
I eat the last remaining bite of granola bar.
After what seems like forever, I come to the valley floor. It is hot again and I am drenched in sweat. As I bike through the valley in what I certainly do hope is the direction towards the tourist area of Kathmandu where my friends are waiting, I pass a school and the Headmaster flags me down.
I end up spending about an hour at the random school in the Kathmandu valley. I play with the kids and talk with the Headmaster. I am oblivious at the time to the certainty that the Headmaster is hoping to make a connection and cultivate me as a patron, and this works to my advantage because I am not resistant or cynical. I am playing with kids at a school in Nepal because it is on the road associated with the idea of the mountain.
For many hours afterwards, I am not one hundred percent sure that I am on the correct route back, although I do know that I’m overall aiming at Kathmandu. Gradually, around 4pm, the streets start to narrow into corridors, clustering together in the traditional Newar style of Kathmandu, and then, miraculously, like an actual fuck-all miracle, I recognize where I am, back in the middle of Thamel. Vendors are selling tiger balm in the streets, tourists with dreadlocks and tie-dye are browsing knockoff North Face gear. My friends are near here somewhere. We have a hotel we are staying in. I bike to it. It is 5pm. I’ve been gone for about 36 hours.
I unpack the lavender silk. Sixteen years later, it is still carefully stored in wait of a special occasion.
“How was the tower?” everyone asks.
“Cloudy,” I answer. “There were a lot of clouds.”
Outside, night is falling fast.
“So when is dinner?”