Like an apparition there is a glimpse, a suggestion. The world turns again as our booted feet pad the road through the town of Dharapani, but this morning stands aside from the last two. Before us to the west a mountain rears up high, graceful, snow capped and imposing, an awe inspiring view that seems like it’s taken an eternity to arrive. Here we get our first Himalayan lesson, the monster we gaze up to is a foot hill, a mere mound; in the distance a staggering peak reigns over a mountain that seems like it could not possibly be dwarfed but our eyes tell us otherwise. The clouds have parted and as quickly as the gift is granted it’s taken away again, so far this walk hasn’t been such a walking challenge, more a challenge of the mind. Like a welcoming reward for persistence we are treated to a glimpse of what we think might be Annapurna-2, the second highest in the Annapurna range at a whopping 7937m above sea level.
Spurred on by the sight of a real Himalayan giant we surge forward fuelled by a drive we have lacked thus far, the annoyance of the vehicle road is fading day by day as nature takes a gradual hold of its domain the higher we walk. Catching up with the crowds of hikers that skip the destruction below we’re in a greater crowd to accompany the slowly revealing greatness of this place. There’s a bunch of crosses marked over side tracks to give us reason for pause, we think they’re the old track that we would like to be on but we’re hesitant to possibly walk into someones home uninvited. Problem solved, a few porters from another group don’t take a second look and veer off the road up the seemingly forbidden path.
We need no further invitation, up we go on steep stone steps following the porters lumped with huge bags belonging to walkers choosing a more leisurely hike. We keep pace for all of about ten metres, these guys are machines. Every porter we’ve seen is tiny, short of stature with a lean frame but those skinny little legs are somehow built for this stuff. The bags are bigger than they are and with a broad strap lashed over their foreheads they power on at a pace that is nothing short of emasculating, we feel so inadequate.
We cross the road at times only to divert straight off it again in no time, at every juncture we’re choosing the forbidding cross rather than the inviting arrow. It defies belief, we wonder why we are being directed onto this road? If Annapurna is drip feeding us encouragement it’s doing a good job of it, we come to our first Rhododendron, part of the reason to come here at this time of year. With a heap of ‘Rhodies’ in our garden the sight of them here where they come from is quite a highlight, the telltale downward turned leaves are crowned by trusses of bright red flowers to set off a backdrop of mountainous immensity, beauty and the beast in Himalayan scale.
This hike is building momentum to us, we’ve only been given the faintest peek-a-boo so far but layers and layers of beauty are being delivered to us as we walk. Oddly enough the next uplifting sight is not a mountain, a waterfall or a tree: it’s a track. Opposite the gorge teams of men lay stones on what can only be a walking path, our hopes soar that one day soon this place can be experienced again away from power lines, hydro stations and a road made for vehicles rather than feet. This does mean that we’re probably here a the worst time, the forgettable stain when development reigns before the corruption can be wiped clean, but we’re happier for the rejuvenation of this area than anything else. In the sighting of one path our own diminished experience is trivialised by the prospect that Annapurna, as a great wonder, might not be sinking into defeat after all.
Like a coma patient slowly showing signs of life our experience in Annapurna is moving from despair and is now showing definite hope. On the entrance to the town of Chame we pass a long mani wall, a sort of median strip loaded with prayer wheels which are more like small drums. Always walking to the left and running your right hand along the wheels the most famous buddhist mantra says a prayer at each turn: Om Mani Padme Hum. It is believed that as the wheel turns the mantra acts as a prayer for you, the six syllables cleansing you from Pride, Jealousy, Desire, Prejudice, Possessiveness and Hatred in this life and rebirth into their realms in the next. The true spiritual meaning is somewhat distant to us but the aesthetic and simple beauty is not. Fine craftsmanship makes a beautiful object and the idea of using a physical prompt to remind us of virtues we should aspire to has a place far beyond a hokus-pocus world of superstition. We spin each wheel as we pass.
Across a bouncy foot suspension bridge that we’re getting quite used to now we take comfort in the wear, hinting at years of stability only to have it taken away by the occasional caved in panel. It could easily be seen as a bit dodgy but inexplicably this place demands nothing more. We saw a team of men chiselling large stones by hand to make a road today, in years from now that road will become a historical marker to a romanticised time as these bridges are right now. Cold rationale can’t articulate the beauty of a prayer wheel, a rough road or a wobbly bridge nor can it quite explain the need to leave some places wild and yet these things seem obvious to a spiritual mind as well as a scientific one.
A great limitation of any mind is the need to conclude, to know. Mystical minds sometimes seek an answer to everything to patch over a fearful space of unknowing regardless of the obvious, liberation delivered in the comfort of blind faith. Plato once said: I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing’ liberation in acceptance of the unknown, a pragmatists faith perhaps. I often ridicule the mystical but here the mystical has dug many anchors into rational soil while rationale finds many avenues to appreciate the mystical. The space between the spiritual mind and the pragmatic one melts away into the simple cracks between roughly laid stones. And I don’t care the reason, it’s beautiful and that’s all I need to understand.