It’s 3 am, and I am, as is usual with me at this hour, wide awake. An enormous full moon is shining so bright on our campsite by the shore of Lake Phoksundo that I could probably read without my headlamp. We are at 3700 meters in the Himalaya in late autumn, which is to say that it’s cold outside, but I tell myself not to be lazy — when else will I ever see such a moon in such a setting? — and crawl out of my warm sleeping bag and tent into the night mountain air. Tears and a smile come simultaneously as I look at the surreal scenery around me. What a joy and yet what a shame, too, that I should be the only one to see this night in all its majestic, hypnotizing beauty!
In the morning the group takes a short walk to the Ringmo monastery. Like an illustration from a book of ancient legends, it stands quietly over the aquamarine waters, keeping their secrets and peace. One of our assistant guides asks the lama, who looks after the gompa, if it might be possible to swim in the lake. He says no, and, looking straight at me, speaks of a time forever ago, when human beings were still strong and wise and when Ringmo monks could fly over the lake like birds. That time is long gone now, but the magic lives on in the lake, and it must not be disturbed. Plus, he adds, it’s just too cold to swim in. I enjoy the careful but brave curiosity with which he looks directly into my eyes, surprised to find in them what I know he does… With a smile and a nod I communicate to the lama that he needn’t worry: I won’t steal any magic from this place. As much of it as possible must remain in this world, if not within human hearts, then, at least, resting at the bottom of this most beautiful body of water.
We spend another night in Phoksundo, and I once again go outside at my usual hour. I want to remember for as long as I live having the light and the darkness of Phoksundo all to myself. Next morning after breakfast we leave the lake following the very narrow trail made famous by the film Himalaya/Caravan, where one of the salt traders’ yaks falls into the water. It’s a beautiful walk that may give some vertigo and others – an adrenaline rush. Wanting to be alone on the trail, I begin to speed away from the rest of the group until it’s just mountains, Phoksundo and Ringmo monastery I can see. Before turning the corner and starting the long, dusty descent to the lunch spot, I smile at the gompa in the distance one last time, telling myself that Phoksundo was worth dreaming about.
In one of the yak herders’ caves near the lunch spot I hide from the relentless wind and wait for the rest to arrive while the cook and the kitchen boys get to work on the food. They impress me as the fastest-walking, hardest-working and least noticeable members of the support team, and it’s them I will trek with in the future, instead of with the group. After a 3-hour lunch break in the cold wind, we head into the nearby pine forest to look for a suitable campsite for the night. In less than 1.5 hours we find ourselves in just such a place, and as I help out with the tents, I ask the assistant guides if we could not perhaps place my little yellow home slightly away from the others, not because I am disturbed by the moving around, snoring or coughing of my team mates but because I abhor this feeling of imprisonment that walking single-file and sleeping, albeit in private tents, right next to each other, gives me. There is no shortage of space, which has become such a luxury these days, in Dolpo, so I am determined to enjoy it whenever I get the chance.
Next morning we head for the pass camp at 4700 meters below the Kang La. At just over 5300 meters, it doesn’t seem like an insurmountable obstacle to me given that I have only recently returned from a very pleasant short prep trek to Tilicho Lake and across the Thorong Pass in the Annapurna region. Before we leave for the pass itself the following day, the leader of the group asks that instead of the kitchen crew I walk with the trekkers, just in case. I know it will take them about 3-4 times longer to cross the pass than it would do me, and I’m not looking forward to the death march in the freezing-cold wind. If only I could find something to keep myself occupied… I ask my team mates if anyone would like any help on the way, and a gentleman volunteers to be looked after during the descent from the pass, which will require crampons as the terrain is slightly icy. The ‘job’ keeps me somewhat mentally and physically busy, and reminds me of the good old times when I was not just one of the clients.
Many hours later we safely make it to Shey Gompa, a place you may have read about in Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard. The group will spend two nights here, camping nearby the famous monastery itself. It’s chilly and humid in the small village over which the holy Chystal Mountain rises like a fortress guarding an invisible city. On our rest day here we do laundry, clean up, and in the afternoon head over to the monastery for a tour. Shey Gompa, which I’d been hoping would leave a deep impression, does not quite do that. I take photos of the beautiful wall paintings, listen to the lama’s stories about the very hard life at the monastery and the village in winter but remain unmoved. Although I appreciate, and very much, where I am and what I have the privilege to be seeing, it doesn’t touch me in the same way that Ringmo did just a few days earlier.
After another night at Shey, we move on to cross the trip’s second high pass, the Sela (5095m), before reaching our next campsite in Namgung. This will be one of my favorite days of the trek. The barren trail snaking through the moon-like scenery will take us to the top of the pass used by Tibetan salt traders, and from there as far as the eye can see there will be just blue sky and golden mountains bathed in cold sunlight. Standing in the middle of this spectacular high altitude desert reminds me of the legend the Ringmo lama told us. Although I am well aware that I live in a very different time and space from the flying monks, I want, if only for a moment, to forget about that: I open my arms and allow the powerful gusts of wind to lift me off my feet, making it feel like I could fly away any second. Some of my team mates hiding from the same wind behind the mani wall look at me like I have finally lost it completely, and I wonder if they know what they’re missing out on.
As soon as the cooking team catches up, I grab my trekking poles and run down to Namgung with them. We are now traveling through scenery unlike any other I know of on Earth, and as if through a different era.