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Reflections of Nepal: Landscape Impressions

Millet_fields_in_Annapurna

Update: With the recent earthquake in Nepal, I’m very sad to realize many of the wonderful people and places I encountered are lost forever. In memoriam.

We came across many beautiful landscapes in Nepal, some shaped by natural processes, others conceived and constructed by human minds and hands. We sought to describe their beauty and the impressions they left on us.

October 19th – The Rhododendron Forest

We began the steepest portion of our trek to Poon Hill today. With great variation in altitude and terrain came unexpected ecological diversity; we suddenly found ourselves walking into the verdant heart of a rhododendron forest. We confessed our knowledge of rhododendrons stemmed solely from the potted varieties at the local nursery; the mature trees with dense canopies and deep flowing roots that surrounded us were unfamiliar and mysterious. Separated in pace from other members of our tour group, we walked amongst the trees in silence and felt rejuvenated. The movements, colours, and textures of the non-human world gradually revealed themselves to our eager eyes and quieted minds. We noticed a beetle, fat and lustrous, clamber onto a bed of velvety jade-green moss. Dying ferns tinted the cliffside with an autumnal palette of cinnamon and gold. Delicate mats of glistening brachophytes softened the angular surfaces of crevices and crannies. We place our hands through the cool streaming water running clear and smooth over silvery graphitic slabs. The living melded seamlessly with the inorganic: Roots and earth, lichen and rock, plants and water and air.

Colors of the Rhododendron Forest

The beauty of these small happenings stems from cycles of creation and destruction, from life meeting and melding with non-life: soil and plant, rock and moss, earth and tree, water and trees and air. The green growth and the murmuring stream, hushed and inexorable, continuous and incoherent, wove a pattern of process and change. We walked on, leaving behind our footprints in the damp mud, taking with us our observations, appreciation, and wonder. The forest has no use for them.

October 21st – Deurali Pass

For many, Nepal conjures up images of mountain landscapes, magnificent and imposing. During our six-day trek, we would occasionally look up at the skyline in between moments of exertion and catch glimpses of remote summits, white-capped and desolate, jutting out from behind more immediate mountain ranges. When we reached Deurali Pass in the early morning, we finally saw the bright bitter range in its full splendour; the sheer sharp relief of Dhaulagiri, 7th highest mountain in the world; sister peaks Annapurna I and South from the Annapurna massif; the distinct profile of Machhapuchhare, known locally as Fishtail Mountain, standing in towering solitude.

View from Deurali PassAnnapurna South, view from Deurali Pass.

Gazing out at the range under the intensifying glow of the morning sun, our sense of awe and wonder was mixed with feelings of incredulity; we found ourselves stupefied at the immensity of the vista before us. Photographs, videos, written words all seem wholly inadequate in capturing the essence of this landscape that existed before and will endure beyond us. We could, of course, quantify its physical parameters; for example, we know that Dhaulagiri is precisely 8,167m high. But this unassailable fact was the farthest and least relevant thing in our minds when we saw the mountain in its full glory, wreathed in cloud.

Dhaulagiri from GhorepaniA view of Dhaulagiri from Ghorepani.

To us, the beauty of this high mountain landscape is intrinsically alien. Human beings have no place there; not even by scaling its peaks could we hope to better connect with them. To climb a mountain is to test one’s self, or one’s perception of one’s self. But the mountain is always an unwilling partner, and as such remains unconquered, being whole onto itself. The mountain retains its secrets; it does not know nor care how hard we worked. It remains indifferent, yielding only to the forces of a more persistent orographic power, heeding to the rhythms of a deeper time. This realization gave the entire range a remote and terrible splendor. We could only revere them from afar as uncaring lifegivers and deathbringers. We did not know what else to do.

October 26th – Bhaktapur

Bhaktapur Durbar Square

Nature provided us with one source of beauty; the exploits of man furnished us with another. The Kathmandu Valley is home to seven UNESCO world heritage monument zones, consisting of Buddhist stupas, Hindu temples, and Durbar Squares, plazas situated beside royal palaces. The city of Bhaktapur, approximately an hour’s drive from Kathmandu, stands out in our minds as a chief highlight. Upon entering the space, we sensed not only the deep roots of its past, but also felt the vibrancy of life. Bhaktapur was not a dead ruin preserved in stasis, but rather a living location that sought to integrate historical conservation with tourism and economic development.

Bhaktapur City

After our time in the mountains, we found it comforting that Bhaktapur’s age was measured in comprehensible centuries and not unimaginable eons of geologic time. We appreciated the deliberateness of its aesthetics, absorbing the purposeful construction of the city, the surety of its layout; this was a space that was deeply lived in over centuries. We followed the unbroken chain of its history back through time, connecting modern-day residents to ancient inhabitants of empires long gone. Walking through the narrow streets, we imagined people living their lives in much the same fashion centuries ago, drying and sifting harvests of rice and buckwheat, hawking fruits and vegetables, offering prayers and puja to statues in rites of daily worship.

Bhaktapur Bronze Castings

Renowned for its architecture and traditional art, we were immersed in the silent stories that came to us through the city’s many magnificent wooden structures, stone statues, and bronze castings. Walking through the plaza, we meditated upon the time, effort, and dedication necessary to bring these relics into our reality, and felt the familiar shiver of awe down our spines. From the smallest carving to the tallest pagoda temple, the deft skill of human hands, influenced by the local natural, cultural, and spiritual environment, transmuted raw elemental materials into objects of great lasting beauty and enduring meaning. These artifacts, made well with care and pride, forged yet another link with the past, providing a window into the minds of their makers, bestowing upon them with a measure of immortality. We were grateful for their life’s work.

October 18th: First Day

Annapurna Conservation Area Terraces

First loves tend to leave deep impressions. As we entered the Annapurna Conservation Area, we were left dumbfounded by the sweeping expanse of green and gold that lay in front of us, stretching from the valley floor up the orderly terraces of the steep mountain slopes. The bounty of the land around us was in full display; fields were heavy with swaying stalks of millet ripe for harvest. Deafening noise of unseen cicadas filled the air as we hiked on. A water buffalo looked up from its leisurely foraging and stared into us. Its kind knowing eyes had long since accepted the beauty of this landscape. For us, it was still revelatory.

Buffalo at Annapurna Conservation Area

We would encounter many more of these countryside vistas during our trip, and each time we were greatly moved, perhaps even more so than by the majesty of mountains, the fecundity of forests, or the heritage of ancient cities. For in those terraced fields of the valley and the mountainside we saw the dynamic forces of nature and culture at work and play. Their beauty was derived from balance: Human creativity and the will to survive mingled with nature’s organic and inorganic processes to create landscapes both functional and sublime. A deep inner gladness and a secret joy filled our hearts as we walked past these golden fields; we felt great honour and privilege to be in this place at this time, and will treasure it always.

Next Up: Back to Reality.

Featured image from wikimedia

5 Comments

  1. Thank you, Isaac, for the beautiful photographs and moving thoughts.

    Am rereading Michael Pollan’s Second Nature, which deals with the relationship between nature and culture as expressed in gardening. The last part of your post resonates with what he says.

    Love the new header!

    • Hi Nancy,

      Second Nature was definitely on my mind as I saw those fields. To me, the combination of purpose and vitality really blew me away.

      Thanks for the compliment on the new header. It’s from the opening sequence of Hayao Miyazaki’s film Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. Inspired by the Bayeux Tapestry, it depicts a distant post-apocalyptic future in which humanity lives on the verge of extinction. I’ll be working on a feature on it in the future.

      Thanks for reading!

      • i wish! i take folks on a silk study tour to Japan though. this year in May. but one year would love to explore Nepal. thanks for the inspiration!

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