Namaste, Nepal: Ain’t No Mountain Higher (or, the day I went to see Mt Everest)

It’s freezing when my alarm goes off at 4.30 a.m. Due to its elevation (2,200 metres above sea level), Nagarkot is cold. I’ve only a threadbare duvet cover on the bed and the tip of my nose is freezing. I can see my breath in the air as I arise from my slumber and go out to the back patio to meet Govinda for my promised cup of coffee.

Sunrise is at around 6.30, he says. We will be at the viewing point in time for the sun to come up over the mountains. It’s about 4 km away, but it should take about 35 minutes to get there. I gulp down the hot black coffee he has dished up for me and try to wake myself up. The two Dutch girls who had said they might be interested in coming along are nowhere to be seen. They only said they might come along, so once we’ve slugged back the coffee we set off. Their loss if they don’t come on time, Govinda shrugs.

We turn left out of the hotel and walk down to the small three-way intersection in the town that to me constitutes the downtown part of Nagarkot. It really isn’t that big a place. We take another left and start to walk down a very dark road. To the right, once my eyes have accustomed themselves to the darkness, I can make out the drop as the mountainside descends into the steep hillside rice paddies that Nagarkot standa atop. It’s silent save for the crunch of the gravelly road surface as we trudge along. 

We talk about my trip, being in Korea, Everest and being able to see it from here. I’m keen to know if Nagarkot does actually sometimes sit higher than the clouds like I saw in the photo essay that inspired me to come here. It does indeed, Govinda says, but not that often. He talks about growing up here and how with things changing and there not being much of a livelihood to be made, a lot of younger people are leaving. 

We continue along the road. It’s a straight path, pretty much, in that we don’t have to take any more turns. The road does wind up and around. We go past the large Nepal Army training barracks that is situated just outside of the town. Lights are on and jeeps are nearby and there is a guard standing at the barrier with a machine gun in his hands, which I always find quite intimidating. As we keep going on and up, a jeep comes barrelling by. It’s full of tourists driving up to the viewing point. 

So far the climb hasn’t been too bad. Not so steep, anyway. I’m sweating slightly, but it’s manageable. We go around a hairpin and now dawn is breaking and the sky is lightening. I stop to take some photos of the silhouettes of the prayer flags against the sky, but Govinda is urging me on so that we get to the viewing point in time. From here the road steepens. He trots off up the incline, and I pant up behind him, slow and steady. I want to stop all the time and take photos of the breaking dawn.

“How much further?” I pant. I feel even more out of shape when two joggers come past, making their way up the hill a quite a clip. About half a kilometer, he replies. I plough on. I’d rather just put all my energy into the climb and be knackered at the top than stop and start all the time on the way up. As we round a corner and get to the top of an incline, I start to see buildings. There are cafes and restaurants festooned in prayer flags and the road stretching further ahead. Suddenly Govinda swerves to the left and we step onto a muddy patch of ground. This is it, he tells me.

He points further up into the hills. In the light of the dawn I can see the viewing tower and a crowd of people around it. If you go there, Govinda says, you can get a decent view, but the trees interrupt it. Here, you get an unobstructed view across the valley and over to the mountains.

He gestures behind me, and I nod in agreement. Suddenly I’m taken aback. I’ve been looking straight ahead at eye level or down into the valley. I can see the buildings overlooking the valley, and it’s pretty. But as I raise my eyes and look up a little further, I suddenly see the snow capped summits of the ranges. With the haze across the valley, the colour of the mountains has melded in, but now that I see the snow capped ranges and just how clear and white and fucking tall they are, I’m gobsmacked. I’m standing here at 6 am on a Sunday morning in February, sweating in my coat from the climb, staring right at the Himalayas, and I hadn’t even noticed them.

Out comes the camera, of course. I ask if I’m looking at Everest. No, laughs Govinda. That’s Lhotse. His arm extends and sweeps across the range to the right. Everest is over there, but we can’t see it yet. Once the sun comes up, we’ll see it. We are very, very lucky today, he says. The sky is actually quite clear. Yesterday none of the mountains were visible. 

The sky is lightening by the minute. The clouds start to become pink and orange as the sun beings to rise above the horizon. I am taking endless shots and videos, of course. Then I decide that this is a moment I have to put my camera down for and experience. I’m never going to do justice to the beauty of this moment anyway, either in writing or in a photograph. 

I’m standing taking in the whole range, marvelling at that fact that I am now here and what I’m going to see when Govinda taps me on the shoulder. There it is, he says. He points and I follow the direction of his finger with my eyes. It’s small, but it’s visible – a triangular outcrop at the top of mountain. There’s Everest. I’m looking at Mt. Everest and watching the sun rise above it. It’s a heady moment.

And now I get the camera out again. I have to try, don’t I? It’s not the clearest sky and I have to zoom all the way out with my lens, and it will only look tiny in the photo, but I need a shot of Mt Everest at sunrise. Click, click. I’ve got a few. I take a video on my phone and grab a couple of stills from it. I’m somewhat in awe.

As the sun continues to rise, a few more people arrive at our little spot. The sky is blue above the range now, and the snow-capped peaks stand out even more. It’s incredible. I’m taking shot after shot, despite trying to experience the moment, but it’s not every morning that you get to do this, right? I turn back towards where Everest is and it’s gone. Shrouded in cloud and haze. No longer visible. Govinda says again how lucky we were that morning.

Govinda has to get back to the hotel to start on the breakfast preparations. I slip him the 1,000 rupees we agreed on for him bring me here, and then I realise that I actually didn’t really need his help at all. I mean, we took two left turns and walked for about three kilometres. Can’t blame a bloke for being enterprising anyway. I decide to stay a bit longer. I’m pretty sure I can get myself back, given the simplicity of the route.

I start talking to the Belgian couple that are still here. I take a photo for them and they insist that I have my photo taken by them. I’m not usually into having my picture taken, cos I prefer the selfie crop of cutting out my lumps and bumps and just having my head and shoulders in the pic. They’re on a three-month break from uni and travelling with a bunch of friends who were too lazy to get up this morning and come to see the sunrise. We chat for a while and they head off. They’ve got a van coming to pick up their group in an hour and are heading off to Pokhara.

I stay for a while longer. I’m still in awe of where I am. The light is getting brighter and the mountains are getting clearer and more visible. Birds are circling and the flags are flapping. I think about getting a coffee at the small cafe across the other side of the road, but then I think about breakfast. My stomach is starting to grumble. I’ve got until 10 for that, and it’s only 7 am now. I decide to stay, since I’ll most likely never come back to this place ever again. I make a couple of FaceTime calls since I’ve got some signal and show off about standing as close to Everest as I’ll ever get.

When my stomach begins to grumble, I head back slowly down the hill. There are still plenty of things to see – the prayer flags, the views – and small outcrops I can stand on to see the mountains. I see a young guy sitting on an outcrop meditating and I suddenly think about how I would be too embarrassed to do that kind of thing, but actually, I quite like the idea of giving meditation a go. I wander down the road, passing people coming up and looking up at the mountains and realising how small we all are in comparison to the world. We think the world is small, but it’s really not.

Back at the hotel I have one of the heartiest breakfasts I’ll ever have on the trip. A huge potato rosti with eggs, potatoes and toast and a couple of big black coffees. After this morning’s exertions, I feel like I’ve earned this one.

I’ve definitely had worse Sunday mornings. 

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