Two Days on the Annapurna Circuit, Nepal: A Spiritual Travelogue
I walk alone amidst arid hills, the road I follow a single line stretching out into the distance, snow capped mountains rising beyond.The desert beauty and high mountain peaks on the edge of the Mustang region of Nepal are the perfect match to the state of my soul. I am aware of a deep desire to not just drift through life half-awake, but to live a life immersed in the deepest, most vital way of living possible. Everything else must be stripped away.
Sweeping vistas of stark beauty stretch out before me. I walk and pray and wrestle. I'm reminded of another who wrestled with God—Jacob, that Old Testament character of old who famously wrestled with God through the night. He was no holy man—his name literally meant "Deceiver,” and for good reason, stealing his brother's birthright by lying to his father.
Despite his faults Jacob was tenacious, refusing to let go of God until God blessed him. Jacob was granted this blessing and given a new name, Israel, meaning "one who wrestles with God and overcomes." But Jacob did not escape unscathed; where God touched his hip he forever limped.
Like Jacob before me, I will forever be a limping man. I welcome the wound—this searing touch from God—for it is not one meant to intimidate or frighten (these only harden and scar). Instead this love marks me. I will forever limp from a piercing kind of love. Love's blow is fatal, there is no recovering. The death this love demands is a relinquishment of all claims to control. This vanishes in the face of God who is both entirely Love and entirely Other—deeply relational, impossible to deceive or manipulate.
As I walk, my mind drifts—I imagine soft, heavy hands pressing on my head. I hear weeping and laughter—like two sides of God's great heart. He knows both the tragedy of our stories while glimpsing the redemption that is assured—not just of me—but of all the cosmos. I refuse to release this God I have come to love. I live to hear my new name spoken over me.
The wind snaps me back out of my reverie. The solitude and beauty of this place soothes an ache in my souI that I do not wholly understand. It is an ache for home—a place I've never known, but one I am searching for nonetheless.
* * *
Late in the day I arrive in the ancient village of Kagbeni, set on the banks of a winding river. I linger at a row of prayer wheels set on a bluff above the river, circling them slowly. I spin each one, remembering each stage of my journey, thanking God for the gift of being here. I pray for those who come to mind and ask for guidance on the remainder of my trip.
A short walk through narrow streets takes me to my guesthouse for the night. I step inside to a happy surprise—two brothers from Italy with whom I've been crisscrossing paths for the past week are staying here—along with their new Spanish friend. One of the fun things about the Annapurna circuit is the ease of meeting fellow trekkers. During the 10-14 day walk, everyone is heading the same direction, so it is common to run into people multiple times along the way. After catching up over dinner, we devise a plan to climb the very steep and very tall mountain just across the river the following day.
The next morning we walk out into the crisp air, through the now-quiet village, across the suspension bridge spanning the churning river below and follow the road towards the mountain. The official trail is indecipherable, so we keep walking up the road, hoping for a path. Eventually we spy an off-trail route and plunge upward. Traversing the open scrub brush slope all sense of scale is lost; we are adrift on a mountain sea, the only path the one we blaze upward. My legs feel strong, my heart light and free. After a long climb, we reach the top.
Cresting the rise we are confronted with a vista so vast that the four of us (after some hearty congratulations) literally just sit down and stare for the next hour, hardly saying a word to each other. At some point a "Thanks God," bubbles out of me. "Thanks for bringing me here, letting me see this." A whisper shoots back on the wind, "Thanks for noticing, thanks for making the journey."
We share trail mix while gaping at the view. Our Spanish friend telephones his dad from the summit—he walked the Circuit twenty-some years ago. It's a touching moment and I can't help but wonder what future family pilgrimages I may be setting in motion. After snapping some woefully inadequate photos we finally pull ourselves away. We scurry down the slope like ants descending some vast pile of dirt. I'm jokingly dubbed the Americano Loco for the songs that blast from my lungs as we careen down the mountainside. I am so happy.
Now hungry, we make a beeline to Tiri, the small village just up-river from Kagbeni. This village is the farthest one is allowed to go into the Upper Mustang without an expensive permit. Like going back in time, this place feels untouched by the normal tourist sprawl. It's tiny, the people are friendly, animals and children mingle on the dirt streets.
We walk into the town's only restaurant—just someone's home. Just inside the door two huge yak heads sit on the floor, recently butchered. Startled, we wonder what we've gotten ourselves into. We're ushered into the dining room. Glassed-in cupboards line one side of the room, full of neatly stacked dishes. Seated on padded benches, we lean against the wall, sunlight pouring in, the afternoon winds rattling the window panes. As cups of lemon tea steam on the low table in front of us we take in the straight-faced family portraits hanging on the walls. Of course we order the yak and it's delicious. I eat four spicy peppers whole, which garners me an incredulous look from our host. Sweat beads on my forehead and my eyes water. This time the cordial Americano Loco joke is probably deserved.
Back outside after lunch the sun is slanting across the broad valley, shimmering off the interlacing tendrils of water. Two young boys race across the stony river bed. Upon spying me they zoom in my direction. Snot faced and bashful, they hold out their hands asking me for "sweets." I don't have any I tell them. Off they go again, unfazed, racing farther down the river. We walk home in a daze of digesting yak, wind in our faces.
Back in our village, things are happening; a whole herd of goats marches through the streets along with horses laden with goods, monks working on their new monastery, and kids playing. Oxen, cows, horses, chickens, and trekkers are all happily milling about town.
I walk back into the dining area of my little teahouse and sit down with my friends; the glow of sun and wind still on our faces. Our Spanish friend generously indulges us with some proper Scottish whiskey, the best I've tasted in many months. As the whiskey warms my insides and the banter of the table jingles in my ears, I pinch myself. That just happened. I just got to live that day, packed full of wonder, surprise, indescribable beauty, and kind souls—every second an extravagant gift. This is the world we live in. And it's more beautiful and varied and holy than we can ever imagine.