01.A01. Space & Place
Many optical illusions are based around the principle that the mind can see an object even after it has disappeared in a physical sense. If one focuses on an image long enough, it remains when you look away or close your eyes. The Himalayas seem to share this quality. Their towering omnipresence has been imprinted on the Nepalese national psyche and embedded in her culture.
The mountains are a geological and psychological palimpsest; layers of rock, snow, myth and folklore constantly evolving and re imagined by those who encounter them. A trip to Nepal is inescapably a trip to the Himalayas, and a vision of the peaks will remain, outlasting the final glimpse out the plane window or the fading passport stamp.
It’s hard to imagine a national culture more inextricably linked to its geography than Nepal’s. From politics to religion, economics to leisure, the Himalayas loom large in every aspect of life in the kingdom. Hindus believe the mountains are the home of the Gods and Buddha is said to have spent much time meditating in or under the shadow of the great range. Yetis, the mythical half man, half ape hybrids, are said to roam the higher slopes and the fates and exploits of many climbers are constantly mythologised. Even Kathmandu, the sprawling capital and starting point for most visits is not so removed from the Himalayas. Hazy with heat and pollution, the mountains are rarely visible, but representations are limitless. Photos, paintings and maps are ubiquitous and restaurants, shops and beer brands share names with some of the more famous peaks. Every second store in the travellers enclave of Thamel sells fake North Face equipment and one – understandably popular – cafe offers a lifetime of free food and drink for any Everest summiter. Everything and everyone seems to be linked to the mountains and visitors inevitably find themselves hurtling skyward in a rickety 12 seat plane in a new ‘North Fake’ outfit and with a few less rupees in their pocket.
Rather aptly, the planes usually land at the Tenzing Hillary airport, named for the most famous of the countless climbers who shared an addiction with this wilderness. Edmund Hillary, before and after scaling Everest with Tenzing Norgay, held a deep affinity with the mountains, returning season after season to climb, explore and learn of Nepalese culture. He even mounted a full scale expedition to gather evidence of yetis. Hillary and Tenzing distinguished themselves through their climbing exploits, but the feelings of mystery, excitement and beauty are there for all. A sense of enigmatic and alluring magnetism seems trapped above the clouds and only the greatest cynic isn’t drawn to it.
The Himalayas are a stronghold of mother nature. Mans’ impact is temporal and of little consequence. Small guesthouses dot the edges of huge glaciers, ice blocks many times larger rumbling slowly past. Two kilometre high rock walls dwarf sherpas and their yak herds, and climbers look ant-like against vast, white backgrounds. Avalanches, rock falls and extreme weather are constant reminders that humans are simply guests, and not always welcome ones. The reverence shown to the mountains by the Nepalese seems to be common-sense when you stand amongst them, neck craned and mouth open.
The stories of gods and yetis living in the mountains take on a more plausible nature when you are amongst the peaks. The inherent beauty, isolation and danger of the Himalayas lend themselves to such thoughts. Mostly though, it is the sheer magnitude of the geography that humbles the visitor, altering perspective and, as if cast into a new world, one tends to populate it with the spoken or unspoken creatures of myth and legend. Distant trekkers or yaks transform into yetis and a tiered rock face becomes a stairway to heaven. Even devout atheists may find themselves dutifully circling stupas three times clockwise or excited to come across lines of prayer flags.
Unless altitude sickness and the associated deliriums take hold, it is unlikely that actual yetis or gods will materialise on the slopes or in the valleys, but something intangible remains. Myths and legends often originated as attempts to explain the unexplainable, and the untamed wilderness and barely conceivable scale of the Himalayas contains more than enough mystery for such stories to take hold of the imagination. The creatures and narratives of Nepalese myths may not be real, but the settings that evoke the legends are irrefutable, laid out in stone and ice for all to see.
The mountains take a greater hold on you the further you venture amongst them and the higher you climb. Below, thick clouds carpet valleys with vast rock walls supporting a roof of bright azure. Within this, the abode of the Gods – as the land is sometimes referred to – glaciers creak and groan on their slow, irresistible march, avalanches – the impatient sibling – roar down in brief shows of fury, and crevasses, silent and sinister, plumb the icy depths. Occasionally, in the distance, you might see small groups of trekkers scurrying across the landscape, looking small and vulnerable, every one a mortal at the whim of their surrounds. The Himalayas are a place of astonishing beauty and power. The very same landscapes leave you elated, but the elation is tempered by a humbling sense of perspective.
Trekkers are simultaneously punished and rewarded on the mountain trails, increasingly worn down physically but always enticed deeper. The mountains are the ultimate carrot on a stick – hypnotising and seemingly without end. Even after weeks of sleepless nights, repetitive food and without showering, weary bodies and scraggly beards are forgotten as dramatic landscapes impress themselves upon individual and collective memories. For the guides, sherpas and guesthouse owners who live and breathe these mountains, the spectacular permanence of their surroundings, and their own continuing presence there, must be etched in their thoughts and memories. Regardless of personal beliefs or bias, the geography of the Himalayas is so extreme and beautiful that it transcends humanity. The influence of mankind and civilisation is minimal in the colossal mountains, and what little there is holds an inconsequential and tenuous position. It is natural then, that the Himalayas have become the spiritual focal point of Nepal. It is comforting to know that such a huge and dramatic corner of our world has retained its purity and mystical qualities. Mother nature still reigns supreme here, and the Himalayan skyline looms large in the eyes, hearts and
minds of all who behold it.