After a light lunch of rice, chicken and omelettes, we begin our trek. Over the next six days we will follow the path of the Karnali and its tributaries, until we reach the Tibet border. This will end the first leg of our trek. Then we will drive to Lake Manasarovar and Mount Kailash, where we start the second leg of our trek – three days and two nights hiking around the towering Kailash.
Pallu and I are ready. Our backpacks are stuffed with things we have never used before: trekking poles, metal-tipped boots and emergency whistles. The cloth bandages are not meant for small scrapes and cuts but for ‘real’ wounds. Today’s route will first be uphill and then mostly downhill. I feel I could run all the way but Pallu walks slowly, and as I walk with her, I can hardly believe we are finally here, on our way to the lake and the mountain.
When Pallu and I first dreamed of this journey we were studying in a boarding school in rural South India. We were certain we would make it in a few years, when we both turned eighteen. But over the next two decades life shepherded us along different paths. We each got married and moved away – I to Chicago and Pallu to New Jersey. We started careers and families. Eventually, however, we both moved back to India in order to be closer to our parents. We now live within three kilometres of each other.
This year Pallu turned forty and I turned forty-one. Our family responsibilities made us realise that if we were ever going to make this trip we would have to make it happen this year. One morning, we sat down in front of the computer in Pallu’s house, took some deep breaths, and typed into the search engine the words ‘trek to Manasarovar Kailash’. We found that there were several paths we could take. But none could match Humla. With its verdant slopes, mesmerising heights, and pristine beauty, it seemed untouched by time and unspoiled by the world. It was what we had always imagined our trek to be. We decided that this would be the year when we would finally set out for our journey, and Humla would be the route we would take.
On the way up, we pass little children squealing excitedly as they bathe at a flowing water pipe. A woman with beaded jewellery watches us. She is swathed in a length of voluminous white cloth with an infant’s curious face popping out from inside it. The mountains and the air and the clouds beckon and I cannot wait to be in their midst. I walk faster.
I look back at my cousin stepping slowly up the path. Should I wait for her? This is our trip, we have planned it together for years. But Katy, Jeff and Sperello are up ahead, and I cannot resist the thrill of being among the first group. I wave at Pallu.
She waves back. ‘Keep going, Kavi!’
‘Isn’t this great?’ I holler. Below me, shadows of clouds float on green mountaintops. I see the roofs of small stone houses with their tiny gardens and neat lines of orange mountain flowers. From up here, the grey landing strip looks like someone’s large driveway.
The path is steep and surprisingly busy. A man and a woman lead two mountain horses, laden with carpets and rugs of brilliant colours: red, turquoise, orange, and black. Women herd donkeys carrying large plastic bags of what appear to be onions. A child aged four or five leads his donkeys down the path while a man guides his horses up. Two girls carry freshly cut wooden logs tied to their backs and their smiles are half curious, half shy.
I keep pace with Jeff, Katy and Sperello, who are ahead of everyone. My steps are as sure as theirs, fast and effortless. At the edge of the cliff, I stand on a rock overlooking the deep valley. The sky is a soft shade of blue, and a lone bird glides before me. The air is clear and cool, and the sun is bright yet gentle. It is the perfect day, the perfect time, and the perfect setting for the start of our trek.
About the book:
Will we make it? That’s the question Kavitha and her cousin, Pallu, ask themselves as they trek through Himalayan pine forests and unforgiving mountains in Nepal and Tibet. Their goal: to reach Mount Kailash and Lake Manasarovar. The two women walk to ancient monasteries, meditate on freezing slopes, dance on the foothills of Kailash, and confront death in the thin mountain air. In Kailash and Manasarovar, the holiest of Hindu and Buddhist sites, they struggle to reconcile their rationalist views with faith and the beloved myths of their upbringing. Remarkably, it is this journey that helps them discover the meaning of friendship. Walking in Clouds is a beautifully crafted memoir of a journey to far-away places and to the places within. It mixes lyrical, descriptive storytelling with stunning photographs to bring to life a unique travelogue.
About the author:
Kavitha Yaga Buggana lives in Hyderabad. Her essays and short fiction have been published in literary magazines in India and abroad. She is currently working on a collection of short stories. In her previous avatars, she was a software engineer in Chicago and a developmental economist.