Return from the Trek!
Just got back to Leh from eight days of trekking. Instead of writing about how it went, I'm going to reproduce my daily journal entry from the final night:
10-4-09: Day 24
Today could be called nothing but "dynamic." It was the best day of the journey thus far, hands-down.
Last night was absolutely freezing. I barely slept, and when I awoke this morning, the water in my bottles was solid. The entire first half of the day was almost unbearably cold, and trying to pack up camp while staring at the trail we'd soon be walking, hanging above us through the trek's final pass, was a trial in itself. Breakfast was quick; no sooner did I have time to wave our campsite goodbye than we were off.
The hike as, for me, the hardest I'd experienced on the trek. This fact probably owed to the extra miles that Kai, Emilie, Hanna, and I tacked on yesterday, which turned out to be both steeper and more difficult than those we put underfoot today. Nora was the day's leader. Nate did not struggle even a fraction of the amount he did yesterday, and looked quite strong throughout the day. Annie, unfortunately, was another story. She woke up feeling ill, and nearly burnt herself out in the day's first assault--a display of will so impressive that it flat-out inspired the rest of us.
The trail looked like this: straight up, straight down. The first couple hours were nothing but harsh switchbacks through fields of barren rock baked hot by the sun.
Just before noon we reached the top, and the trail leveled out. We'd made it to the pass. Behind us, the valley from which we'd come stretched back into the mist and sun. Ahead there lay a sight that stole our breath: It was the other side of the mountains--a sea of rock and dust formed by the patterns of time into sharp peaks, sheer gorges, and hot rivers that laced among sculptures of earth. The narrow plateau of the pass itself was woven with prayer flags running in the wind, and cairns of stone pointing to the sky. Above, the clouds seemed not an arm's length away. And all around the air whipped with excitement, stinging the flesh of our faces and wildly exclaiming "victory." It was one of the most magnificent views I have ever beheld, and I will remember it until the day that I die.
Our guides met us at the top, and we celebrated. We screamed, cheered, bellowed in unison the Tibetan "Warrior's Cry"--Ki Ki So So Lha Gyal Lho--, passed around chocolate bars, and pointed our fingers to the heavens for a ceremonial group picture "from the top."
Then we began down--a walk just as steep as the one up. The path was slippery, composed of loose rock and dust, and we had to take the descent slowly, in spite of our communal excitement at being finished with the hardest portion of the trek.
We walked for another hour, then stopped for lunch. We didn't stay for long, and quickly we were on the trail again, racing to the last campsite we would see in the Himalayas, until we each decide years hence to journey back and try our luck with another walk through these wondrous mountains. Another couple hours, through slot canyons of precipitous rock formations and quick streams carving out their bases, and we arrived at camp. Our hourly total for the day's walk clocked in at five and a half--the longest we've seen.
We set up our tents, relaxed, sipped some tea and coffee, played cards, jammed out with the harmonicas Kai brought, talked about how hard the day had been, and waited impatiently for dinner. As the sky darkened around us, I noticed that the air was no longer biting cold at night--we had descended about 1,000 meters from our last campsite's elevation. Tonight's sleep, I thought, is going to be a great one.
Finally, before out eager eyes and drooling lips, dinner was served. It would be no exaggeration to say that for the final night our guides prepared us a feast. A feast as I have never encountered, and the perfect end to a beautiful trek. We had plain spaghetti, fried spaghetti, steamed cauliflower, sauteed mushrooms, tuna cooked with green peppers, cabbage in delicious sauce, Indian salad, noodle soup, poppadom, boiled potatoes, tea, milk, hot chocolate . . . and for dessert, fried pineapple slices! I ate so much that I couldn't believe it myself, and everyone else in the group seemed to do the same. I have never felt so satisfied.
Then came the part of the day that made this one the best of the trip so far: we sat around in the meal tent after dinner, and went around the circle for our daily evening "debrief." As it was our last dinner together on this trek, we each opened ourselves up to degrees unseen until tonight, and poured out our thoughts to the group. Raul nearly made Annie cry by saying how he couldn't have done any of the things he did in the past week without the rest of us. Jackie said that we are the strongest and most self-sustaining group of students she's ever traveled with. And on and on.
And it was in that moment that a very profound fact hit me: the eight people I faced, who were strangers not three weeks ago and whom I've grown to know so well already, are connect to me in a way that stretches almost beyond my capacity to explain. The simple fact that we're here, together, in a country that daunts and surprises us all equally, bound as travelers, is more meaningful than words can capture. We all made the same choice to come to this place, to challenge ourselves and to drink from the fountain of new experiences with the common aim of better discovering who we are. We have so much that is different between us, and yet we share the most identical foundation, which becomes very easy to overlook if not kept in mind. And for this, for our common foundation, we're more like brothers ans sisters than any of us know. We are one because we're here, and everything here is ours together.
When we emerged from the dining tent, the sky was already pitch black, and the stars had begun to shine. The guides built a roaring fire in celebration of our trek's success, and with them we sat around it, sang songs in both Ladakhi and English, and danced the night away beneath the full moon glowing white overhead. It was a night to be human, and I've never felt more human in all my life.
The fire slowly burnt down, and as we went to bed we thanked our group of guides, shook their hands, and presented them with gifts for their endless hard work and cheerfulness. They thanked us back, bowed to us, and took their leave of the night.
As I crawled into my sleeping bag, I couldn't help feeling that I had someone else to thank. Perhaps my parents, for allowing me to undertake this journey, or Jackie and Kai, for leading us through it, or maybe even Life itself for just happening to work out the way it did. I went to bed that night with something inside me that I hadn't woken up with. I don't know what it was, and I don't know how to describe it. The closest I can come is that it's a fullness within some piece of me that, now filled, I know can never be emptied. It warmed every extent of me, and effused the notion that I was more "Andrew Weaver" than I'd ever been before.
On October fourth, in the northern reaches of Ladakh, India, if even by the smallest degree--I was changed.