Day 17: Goodbye to Everest

Eyes open.

Paralyzed.  You can not move your body.

Soon the morning insanity loosens its befuddling hold. Not paralyzed after all – there are just fifty pounds of blankets weighing you down. Warm and secure. This must be what it felt like in the womb. What a fan-damn-tastic way to wake up.

Cozy in a yurt at the foot of Mt. Everest. You spend some time luxuriating in this surreality.   Then you steel your nerves to venture outside to try to catch a sunrise on the roof of the world.

The cold stops your breath.  Even with all your warm gear on you have to jog around to stop your body from quaking.  The thought of exposing any skin prohibits the consideration of going to the bathroom – you fear certain things would freeze to other things and make life very uncomfortable.  It appears you were excruciatingly lucky last night because now the entire valley is filled with clouds, and you would never know that Everest was back there.  You see the sun start to light up the highest surrounding peaks, fumble through your gloves for some photos, and dive back into the yurt for hot tea and burning yak dung.  Heaven.

View from yesterday.  Compare to today ->

Cloudy basin.  At least we got to see it last night.

Breakfast cooked over a yak dung fire and you’re off, waving goodbye to the curtain veiling Everest.

The remote Rombuk monastery lies a few miles down the road – the highest monastery in the world.  You huff and puff your way up a hill to the sound of monks chanting their morning sutras: a deep, driving, thrumming bass with captivating harmonies weaving in and out of each other and getting louder and softer .  You sit outside so as not to interrupt this moment and just listen, enthralled by this display that is a perfect illustration of how different this world is from your own.  When they have finished you walk through the room (counter-clockwise, of course) – monks kneel in the center on deep red cushioned benches, their ceremonial robes and (awesome) yellow mohawk hats lay unused but near at hand;  strong, tall columns stretch to the ceiling and keep the space close and personal and hint at the impression that you are winding your way through a dusty, mythical labyrinth; shafts of early morning light explode through windows, highlighting wandering motes of dust.

This monastery, this room, seems to be a perfect alchemical reduction of all the culture and lore you’ve felt in Tibet.  Maybe the magic of Everest last night is still fuzzling up your brain, some sort of adrenaline hangover, but this place is touching you deep inside your marrow.  Your own unwieldy language is not fit to describe this place and this feeling, but you only have the tools at your disposal so your mind searches desperately for a simple word in the midst of all its pontificating to match the easy beauty it sees.  And then you have it: culturegasm.

For quantifiable proof of how moved you are, look at your camera’s review screen.  How many pictures have you taken of these monks who are quietly speaking to each other while bathed in brilliant beams of light shining down from their gods?  None.  Zero.  You, who hardly takes a step without your Nikon at your face, don’t want to disturb this memory by trying to record it.  What insanity is this?  You’ve never felt like this before, but you don’t want to cheapen the moment, or somehow diminish its authenticity.  There is no one else here, so it is a much more personal and honest connection you make with the humility of this place and these beautiful monks.

Months later, after losing touch with that magic that you know is still within you sunk inaccessibly deep near your spleen, and after the fever that stilled your photo-snapping fingers has lifted, you may reminisce and yearn for some visual evidence of that room.  But if you had it, the room would not sieze your imagination so strongly, and you could not appreciate the image as much you now think you would.  So you’ll live in this delicious, agonizing memory.

You are led into the kitchen, where nuns and local children are sitting around the central yak dung stove.  Leaving that prayer room provided some instant relief from your camera shyness, so you take a few practice shots from the hip (still too modest to bring the violative monstrosity to your face like you so brazenly used to do).

Outside, the cold air thrills you back to your senses, and you are your old self again – trying to capture the peace and the harshness and the brilliance of these colors under the unfiltered, Himalayan sun.  If ever in your life you will have seen the true hues of the world, unedited by smog or smudge or commentary or judgment, it is in this courtyard, on this bright morning.

True Colors

Monk Silhouette in a Doorway.  LOVE the peeking red robe.

Peering Monk.  You can’t tell here, but he is wearing a New Balance beanie and hiking boots.

Courtyard Railing

You step into another prayer room, larger than the first, to watch several young monks mixing butter and flour and barley to bake into bread offerings for the temples.  And your camera modesty slams back home, as if to prove that the magic here has total power over you.  The air is thick with flour particles hanging in the wide sunbeams as the boys work together, softly joking and laughing with each other while their short, dark hair gets more and more frosted in the swirling white dust.

One monk has a large mark of flour on the side of his face, in the curious shape of a hand, like he had been playfully slapped by a friend.

You’d die to spend an hour setting up the camera and capturing this humility and innocence – to have one photo that records all of this, this . . . plot.  But you can’t – the fever is back, and you are destined (doomed?) to spectate.  And you realize that is how it should be, for you are not a participant in the esoteric story you are watching.  The slightest attempt to photograph it will change it, and it is already perfect as it is.

You are outside and suddenly you see Everest in full view, a triumphant background against which this wonderful, tiny monastery exists.  And since your camera won’t change the perfection of the world’s tallest mountain, you have your way with it.  After days of being covered it opened up two days in a row just for you.  You feel honored by the mountain’s magnanimous gesture.

Clouds starting to disperse.

Rombuk stupa in front of Everest.

Cool little stone . . . house . . . thingy in front of Everest.


You’re a little giddy, reflecting on your good fortune, as you start the one hundred kilometer dirt road journey back to pavement.  The feeling fades.  You loathe this road.

You stop at the same restaurant for lunch with the happy girls from the photo shoot yesterday.  But this time there are some other tourists, United Kingdomish by the sound of them, eating before starting down the ruinous unpaved road.  There is a large, horrible, fat, bald man picking at his food.  When one of his family asks how it is, he replies with acidic disdain: “It is unbelieeeevably average,” like some epicure foodie who doesn’t know he is in the middle of nowhere in Tibet.  He refuses to eat any more and goes outside to get an ice cream.  You can not imagine how he will be able to lug around all that weight at base camp.

James does not witness this maddening display because he refused to eat here at all, blaming the restaurant for his being so sick yesterday.  (But he couldn’t have gotten sick here – he used his own chopsticks!  *derisive laugh*)

Anyway, once the idea of the fat man’s ice cream enters your head it claws its way into your brain so you all wander outside to get a little treat too.  When you realize that the popsicle has some gooey tapioca filling and is disgusting, you look around to find a place to throw it away.  Not spotting a trash can, you spy the next best thing: a child.  So you silently reach down and thrust the partly-eaten popsicle in front of the boy’s face, feeling creepy about being a stranger giving a young child ice cream, but he takes it!  Victory!  Now the problem is out of your hands.  Kristy shoves her popsicle into a second child’s face, and the two little friends couldn’t be happier.  But a third boy, who was slowed from crossing the street by a car and thus missed out on the Glorious American Ice Cream Giveaway of 2009, now arrives with heartbreak written on his face.  You can read his thoughts: “I could have gotten a free ice cream?!?!  THEY JUST GAVE THEM AWAY?!??!  If only had gotten here two seconds sooner!!!”  You can practically hear his head-back-wide-mouthed “AAUGH” a la Charlie Brown.  But little does he know that Sam doesn’t like her popsicle depravity either, and soon the little boy will be seen with elation and tapioca on his lips.

The three of you laugh for hours, reflecting on how weird it is to just force a half-eating popsicle into a child’s face without saying a word, like you are feeding the local wildlife.  One of the funniest moments of the trip so far.

Stop at Tashilhunpo Monastery – another large, imposing, Siberian looking set of buildings with walls covered in bright red, yellow, and orange.  This is the site of many of the Panchen Lamas’ tombs.  It is also where you see more monks mixing ingredients for the bread offerings, and a wall with a painting of a bird riding a rabbit (eating a lotus blossom) riding a monkey (eating an orange) riding an elephant (holding an orange in its trunk).  You think this painting is awesome.

Tashilhunpo Facade

Walking monk at Tashilhunpo.

Monks melting butter for bread.

A few stops on the side of the road, including a half-hour rest just out of sight of a speed checkpoint so the soldiers, who compare your time between checkpoints to see if you were speeding, won’t be able to tell that you have been doing just that.  Really, what is the point of speeding if you have to sit and wait by the checkpoint anyway?

Colorful roadside “shops.”

Finally in your room for the night, you lie down and take deep, relaxing breaths of the putrid cabbage smell coming up out of the drain in the bathroom floor.  Goodnight.


10 Responses to “Day 17: Goodbye to Everest”

  1. May 11, 2010 at 5:50 am

    Wow. This entry could be my favorite so far.No, wait, this entry IS my favorite so far!

    Your writing is magnificent, beginning with the opening sentences. Right from that point, I HAVE to read on. The photographs of everest are incredible, somehow your emotion clearly evident (can’t explain).

    All I can say, Stephen is this: with this entry, I felt what you felt, saw what you saw. Incredible.

    You should make this into a book. I like Blurb and right now, there is a ‘call for entries’ into their book contest. You should enter. You’ve practically written the book already.


    You’ve got gold here! 🙂

    • May 11, 2010 at 1:42 pm

      thank you tracy! i’m so glad you agree with me – probably my favorite entry so far, too! obviously i was really moved on that day and the emotion definitely carried over into the journal.

      i’m very happy that you don’t think my words were just an empty catalog of the day’s events.

  2. 3 You know who this be
    May 11, 2010 at 10:17 am

    1. Fat man foodie wasn’t related to the other euros. AndI think he was eating fried rice.

    I still get pissed off thinking about the way he said “unbelieeevvvvably average.”

    And you forgot to mention his stained shirt.

    2. The kids WANTED the popsicles, and were asking for them,even before we had come to the conclusion that the popsicles were gross.

    3. I love your writing, I love your pictures, I think you should publish a book of your pictures, and a book of the stories, so then kristy and i can get rich publishing a fact check of your book o’ stories.

    • May 11, 2010 at 1:46 pm

      1. ah, yes i couldn’t remember what the relationship was, other than fat-disgusting-travel-mate.
      2. i remember other kids wanting popsicles, but i thought the specific kids we gave them to were just kind of walking by? or had they already asked us for them? i have this memory of feeling really odd being so random by handing it the kid.
      3. thank you! thank you! but what the hell makes you think YOU’LL get a cut of my publishing deal? HUH?

  3. 5 Haole haole
    May 11, 2010 at 3:22 pm

    um, re-read the comment. Kristy and I are going to get rich publishing a fact check of your book. That, sir, is a contemplation of our own ginormous publishing deal. So stick that in your pipe and schmoke it.


    come up north this weekend for mo’s bar results and bay to breakers.

  4. 7 Haole haole
    May 11, 2010 at 3:27 pm


    I am entertained by the fact that the automatically-generated-possibly-related post for this post is “Ginger child smears ice cream on face”.

  5. 9 Clay
    May 14, 2010 at 8:35 am

    New fave post. I really identified with not snapping pictures of the most important moments. Cruel, isn’t it?

    • May 14, 2010 at 9:13 am

      thanks clay! def my fave too. i’m relieved that the special…ness of that day is being translated at least in some tiny way with this post.

      it’s SOO cruel – that i was so at peace with not taking pictures when in the moment, but now all i want to do is go back in time and snap away. oh well!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

The very beginning:

Older Stuff

Flickr Photos

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 9 other followers


Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Use of any photo for any reason without my permission is prohibited. Danke!

%d bloggers like this: