Journey to the Himalayas
I left a note on my kitchen counter to be found by my loved ones if I didn’t return, before I boarded a flight to Kathmandu, Nepal, six years ago. I had been invited to deliver medical supplies to remote Himalayan villages by British explorer Adrian Hayes who held a world record for being the fastest man to climb Mount Everest, walk to the North Pole and the South Pole all in one trip.
Adrian was a Gurkha in his younger years, a decorated member of the British Army who trained with the respected Nepali Gurkhas, warriors who excel at bush warfare, and hand-to-hand combat, their weapon of choice being a curved blade called a kukri. Despite Adrian’s experience, I was terrified, because I suffered from vertigo, and I was traveling into the unknown, into the highest mountain range in the world, essentially on my own. But there was no fear that could have possibly surmounted my desire to explore.
Adrian chose the Gosainkunda trek that began with an eight-hour jeep ride into the mountains where roads had been washed away and shaken to pieces by water, rockslides, and earthquakes. From inside the jeep, I watched as barefoot children ran along cliffs thousands of feet high laughing and waving while I churned with nausea, gripped the door handle until my knuckles turned white, and lay my head on the seat. After dark, we exited the jeep so the driver could navigate the broken road on his own, and we walked over sharp stones with flashlights.
We arrived in the village of Syabrubesi at night, where Adrian hired two porters who showed up the following morning at dawn, when the owner of the lodge was singing mantras into the morning air from his open doorway, and goats walked in a herd out to pasture along the village roadway.
Our porters were named Lopsang and Prakash. They were boys too young to carry our heavy bags I thought, but Adrian assured me that they were strong, older than they looked, and they were used to it. The boy named Prakash put my bag on his back. I looked into his eyes and asked if he was okay. He nodded and averted his gaze. He had perfect white teeth and a wholesome laugh that made his eyes light up. Lopsang was tall and willowy, with a small strip of hair on his upper lip. He looked like he had quickly grown tall and the rest of him had to catch up.
Over the next days, we would come to know them well. Adrian told them we were married so they wouldn’t wonder why an unwed man and woman traveled together, and they called me Memsap, meaning officers wife.
We hiked through fields and up ancient stone steps, into gnarled forests rich with oxygen where monkeys watched us from far-off trees. Fragrant flowers lined the paths and hung heavy from branches that boughed under their weight. Domestic livestock roamed the landscape freely, and cuckoos sang cuckoo.
Above 3000 meters, trees and grasses gave way to rock and dirt, and altitude sickness began to set in. That night I shivered in my sleeping bag and the following morning I could barely eat, and I had little strength to carry me higher.
Prakash saw me suffering, he took my hand when I couldn’t walk on my own. In the afternoon when we reached our lodge, I could not stay awake, and he knocked on my door.
“Memsap, are you okay?”
He brought me bottles filled with water that he had heated in a pot on top of a wood stove to keep me warm. In the evening he sat next to me at dinner while Adrian entertained people with stories of his adventures. Prakash showed me a picture of a boy sitting next to a waterfall, he told me it was his brother who had died, and my heart grew for him.
The next day, at the trails highest point we sat on rugged ground as barren as the landscape of the moon, among misty clouds shouting our names into the echo of the mountains. At other times Prakash pointed out birds and animals he knew I would like. We all sang songs together, and I laughed from deep inside, from a place that I didn’t know existed within my soul.
Two days later I awoke in a place called Phedi, and I could not speak. My throat had closed, and my lungs were heavy with edema. At dawn, as we prepared to leave, the sun rose from behind the mountains and illuminated a tiny village alone in the wild landscape, perched high atop the valley floor. I could see our pathway etched along the distant mountainside covered in forest. Prakash and I ran the trails that day. He held my hand when fear overcame me, when I hugged the sides of steep rock faces to avoid seeing the abysmal heights from trail to valley floor.
In the afternoon we raced a wild storm down the mountain behind a procession of yaks. The storm washed away the road overnight, so the next morning we walked to a logging road. We hitched a ride in the back of a dump truck to a village where a jeep was waiting for us, parked in a stream. On the way down I looked at the world through my camera lens, and I was not so afraid as I had been before.
I said goodbye to our porters that night and the next morning while I unpacked my bag, I found that Prakash had left his hat inside. He had kept losing that hat along the way and I kept finding it and returning it to him. When I saw it there among my belongings I cried. He had been my grace, someone who was kind to me, who kept me warm, who was gentle with me when I was fearful. He was my friend in a foreign land where he was a lion full of bravery, strength, and skill, and I was a lamb.
I went back to Nepal on my own five months later. I hired Prakash and we trekked together. He became very ill in the mountains, days away from civilization, and I nursed him back to health. He invited me to his village to meet his family, and they welcomed me. They asked me to come back for Losar, Tibetan New Year.
I spent three months living with them that first time, and then several years over the following years. I was accepted by the villagers as one of their own, where I learned to make tea well enough to impress a Sherpa grandfather. I participated in the ritual of a Tibetan soul retrieval ceremony, and the burning of a body on a funeral pyre. I slept on the floor in a high elevation farmhouse, next to a wood fire in the middle of winter, with my Nepali family all around me. I watched twinkling lights from villages several days walk away shimmer in the evening mist, when farm dogs lay at the edges of mountain steppes looking over their untamed lands, and yaks and goats were brought in from grazing to rest.
Nepal. Even after all these years, I still feel like my journey is about to begin.
About Lesley Mapstone
Lesley Mapstone is a Canadian photographer, writer, and animal activist. Her images have been displayed in exhibitions and magazines internationally. She is the founder of Temple Dog Rescue an organization that provides street rescue to Nepali dogs, and curator of lesleymapstone.com a website that showcases images and storytelling.