While knees rubbed against noses, guns flew aorund shoulders, tight salutes were exchanged, and gut-wrenching screams were hurled across the border, both crowds exploded with energy. Despite the overwhelming feeling of competition between the two countries which have spilled so much bloodshed in defense of their storied border, there was a single moment of unification. A chant of "HINDU-STAN' began as a murmur and quickly surger to dominate both sides of spectators, a reminder that these two disparate countries share a joint past as a united empire.
We appreciated the seclusion and the magnificent beauty, but began to wonder, “who lives here?” and “where will we sleep?” Besides minor signs of altitude sickness, there wasn’t any physical dragon to slay; rather, just the mental concerns of where the next meal would come from. I sensed the day’s hike was coming to the end; thus, I exacerbated my NYC walking speed to ensure I could be the one to shout back “we have a home to sleep in!” After a slight hill, I turned the corner and saw a lady sitting amongst her barley fields sipping some tea.
Occupying fertile plains that are hemmed in by a long line of mountains on one side and an expansive lake on the other, the ancient city of Dali has long been the preeminent backpacker destination in China’s Yunnan province. The beautiful natural surroundings combine with an artistic counter-culture to form one of China’s most unique combinations of tourism and local culture.
Picking up speed from a set of rapids further to our right, the river cruised down a smooth plateau and then tumbled over a small cliff which caused everything to explode into a chaotic symphony of beauty. Suddenly huge walls of water bursted forth to swallow everything in their path, mist sprayed upwards like fireworks rising into the canyon, and wave after wave of the mess slowly eroded the rocks which have stood the test of time.
Now it’s one thing for me to describe the landscape here as “alien”, but it’s quite another for James Cameron to use it as a filming location for scenes set on another planet. Our next pit stop was heavenly mountain, the spot where they filmed parts of Avatar. Even without the accolades this individual pillar was mind-bending in the way it continuously rose from the depths of the earth, never widening from its already thin base. Truly, landscapes like this just don’t exist anywhere else on our planet!
Soon we had ascended to the highest point of the trail, which quickly became my favorite place in China. Not a single sound of humanity was audible; instead, an entire ecosystem flourished. Salamanders wiggled into the bushes at the first sights of us, worms squirmed across the pathway, birds fluttered amongst bountiful branches, butterflies surrounded us in the air, bees pollinated bright yellow flowers, and the steady hum of insects accompanied my every move. Finally, we had found a place where nature still reigned free!
Right next to hip artisan jewelry makers and kitschy tourist shops stocked with bedazzled hats, old women sat in circles drinking tea and men played rowdy games of cards. Despite signs of encroaching development, the architecture of the town retained much of its charm. Stone walls separated wooden houses with broad entrances, each one accompanied by red banners to bless the inhabitants. With plenty of flowers, traditional lanterns, and cozy interiors to take in, we took the slowest possible lap around the compact central to soak in the vibe as best we could.
We picked a trail that led back towards the city and found ourselves shrouded by canopies and overgrowth, making us feel like we had found a distinctly wild side of the peak region. From the depths of the forest, we could only hear insects and see wide views of blue ocean and wild islands, making us wonder once again if we were really in a metropolis of 7 million people. As we worked our way back to the tram, the clouds opened up to offer the most spectacular views yet. Suddenly shimmering blue waters split up an endless line of sparkling skyscrapers that reached from the depths of our view up above the highest peaks.
Despite the physical hardships, nothing could detract from the immense joy that seized us upon crossing the proverbial finish line. From the punishing slopes of the first few days to the interminable climbs of the initial ascent to the incredible strength required to cross the high passes, we successfully made it through what we unanimously agreed would be the longest through-hike of our lives.
Mountains enable explorers to feel their inexplicable presence, to stand in wonder under the shadow of something much larger than themselves, to test ourselves against the harshest of alpine landscapes, to feel the stoic stillness of their immovable slopes, and ultimately to simply be present in the midst of nature’s most powerful creations. Welcome to Gokyo, where you can feel the mountains around you!
Even within the first hour, the trail was obscenely difficult. Through ankle deep snow, we wound our way up above 5000 meters surrounded by glowing heaps of sparkling snow. In front of us, the path was downright disconcerting: we were headed straight towards a seemingly impassable chain of mountains. Some were deep black, others light grey, but each section of the ridge held its own beauty in the glow of first light. My favorite was a triangular spire which had the intense shape of an arrowhead, its deep black hue contrasting sharply against the white snow and blue skies.
Beyond the views, the thing I could sense most clearly here was the utter stillness. Whereas earlier in the day I could catch wind of a few yak bells echoing up the mountainside, there was now only the whispers of a few gusts and my own breathing to stimulate my ear drums. With the clouds gone and the mountains stoic, the only perceptible movement was of the sun slowly drifting higher into the sky.
The previous night’s rain that pattered on our windows was snow at this slightly higher elevation, at first appearing as a light dusting on the dirt, then fully immersing the trail and causing tree branches to heave under the weight. Within just 30 minutes of starting, our physical effort was rewarded with surreal views of jagged peaks adorned with a fresh coating of snow. Here evergreen trees flourished; their pungent smells mixed perfectly with the sparkling white dusting to make the whole environment feel like our own personal winter wonderland.
As if to make up for the previous day’s weather, a soft morning glow graced the hillsides as we departed from Salleri and officially began 19 days of walking. At more than 2500 meters (8200 feet) in altitude, it took just a few minutes of walking until our fingers and toes started tingling. We paused to let the blood flow catch up with our bodies, taking in sweeping views of terraced hillsides and broad wooded valleys all funneling deep into a river that roared below.
In perfect proportion to the cramped streets were the tiny doors. Each one was so low that even the shorter Nepali people had to stoop to enter, so any hope of me squeezing through would require tremendous effort. Yet within each open door we could glimpse brief snippets of a calmer life: children playing marbles, women chopping vegetables, stray dogs curled up into tiny balls with just a single eye peeking open, and shopkeepers rearranging their inventory.
Out here surrounded by rural communities and nature we began to forget some of the mindsets of society that we had so gleefully left behind. As the afternoon came upon us and the boat docked, we disembarked for a walk along on the many riverside paths. Lined with houses ranging from unfinished construction project to beautiful villa, each and every local greeted us with a smile and a wave. The friendliness seemed to emanate off of them, leaving us with fond memories of this destination.
On Sunday morning our breakfast was framed by a mountain and a luscious garden featuring flowers with shades of purple, gold, red and yellow. The scenery foreshadowed a spectacular day in nature. An hour long bus ride from our guesthouse into the town of Munnar brought us through gorgeous rolling hillsides dotted with teal plantations and vegetable farms before depositing us in the dirty and hectic city center. But soon enough we were aboard a rented scooter, whizzing again through a calm country road.
Beneath our feet and above our heads, the entire tour was a constant reminder of the skill and craftsmanship involved in creating a building of such repose. Every single pillar was extensively carved, every single archway designed with unique details, and every single door told an entire epic’s worth of stories about the people of Mysore. Our path led along the cool and colorful tiles to an outdoor wrestling courtyard highlighted by two stone sculptures of snarling lions. The scene looked perfectly prepared for the next trial by combat from Game of Thrones.
From a sloping, boulder-strewn hillside sporting a dozen more pyramid-shaped temples and multi-story stone buildings, we got our first taste of Hampi’s unique landscape. Mounds of boulders rose to magnificent heights in the distance with precarious rock formations making it look like God had been making sand castles. By combining this bewitching view with the seemingly endless choice of temples and it became clear we were going to enjoy ourselves in this little enclave of history.
Friday morning I awoke early and went out on the prowl for some coffee. Walking through the quiet sandy backstreets felt like a lucid dream: locals greeted my curious gaze with friendly cries of “good morning”, streaming rays of sunlight peaked through the fronds of palm trees, and my nose eventually led my feet to a German bakery sporting freshly brewed espresso and baked croissants. With the town still slowly waking up and only the faint intrusion of a few motorbike honks cutting through the endless supply of bird song, I felt as though I had uncovered my own personal paradise.