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High Above the Himalaya

Reporter Manisha Aryal grew up in the shadow of the world's highest mountains. But like her forefathers, who worshiped the mountains as abodes of gods and goddesses and never felt the need to conquer them, she let the mountains be. It was only when she was in school at Berkeley that Manisha felt the need to "discover" them. But how does one go about getting to know a mountain over twenty-five thousand feet high? Or a cluster of ranges that stretch for thousands of miles? After many hours of agonizing, Manisha decides that her first introduction to the mountains, will be from the air. She takes a flight to the highest of them all - Everest - and sends us this postcard.

High Above the Himalaya
by Manisha Aryal

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I wonder if the deities my ancestors believed live on these mountains, ever tire of droning planes that ferry tourists in their bellies. Does it disturb their slumber? Do gods sleep late? I look at the printed profile of the mountains the pretty air hostess handed me when I boarded. They look like a child's sketch - pyramids lined up in a row. How am I going to be able to tell one mountain from the next, I wonder.

We've left the runway and the plane is gaining altitude. As we leave Kathmandu Valley's ancient temples and stupas behind, snow-white peaks start to unfurl to the left. We're at 13,000 feet and still climbing. I ask the person across the narrow aisle if this is his first mountain flight

Passenger: "I have taken several. From Kanchenjunga to the far west from where you can see Mansarovar in Tibet. We've even taken that flight, but this is my first evening flight."

This is my first evening flight too, my first mountain flight, I explain. When the rays of the setting sun reflect off of the snow, he says, it bathes the mountains in a glory of light and color.

Pilot: "Ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard our mountain flight. The mountains up here are beautiful and all the peaks are visible far to the west, you can see the Annapurna range and then Manasalu and Ganesh Himalthen Langtang, Dorje Lakpa and Phurbe Gyachu."

Bhu: "That's Langtang, just over there just over the rocky part. The next significant peak will be Gaurishankar, that'll be after 10 minutes."

If all the mountains in the Himalaya were given gender, Langtang, with its elegant, fluted ridges, would be a lady. Now, this mountain looks like combs carved out of ice. Hmm, what do you know, it's called Shisha Pangma, or combs rising from a flat place. Of all the mountains, I have to confess Gaurishankar is my favorite. The delightful pinnacles that cap the mountain - named after Shiva and his consort Gauri - evoke images of a woman on her lover's lap.

I begin to notice that each mountain has a distinct shape and personality. The pilot tells me over 20 mountains are on our flight path and that eight of the world's ten highest mountains are in Nepal.

Isn't it amazing what nature creates? The Himalaya formed some 200 million years ago as the Asian plate collided with the Indian Plate. Many ranges arose from the Tethis seabed and surrounding landmass. So now there is the main crest, called the Great Himalaya, and to its north, west and south stretch other parallel and lesser ranges. All but one of the world's mountains taller than 23,000 feet lie in this profusion of ranges that we call the Greater Himalaya.

Pilot: "Shortly you'll see a small cone-shaped peak. That's Pumori. Then comes Nuptse and Lhotse and behind this is the peak of Everest. And just below the wing tip approaching as if an eagle spreading its wing, is Aama Dablam. Okay, now behind the wing tip is Everest."

The sun is about to set. There's a film-maker among the passengers, making a promotional. The pilot tells me he will make as many circles around Everest as is needed to "capture" it on film. I sit back and think of all the wars men have fought over centuries, prophets born over ages, and civilizations come and gone. To imagine that these mountains have been here all along - a silent testimony to history, religion and mythology. Imagine yourself in the front seat of a moving theater. A visual documentary unfolding right in front of you: Everest, Chomolongma, Sagarmatha - the one whose forehead touches the sky. As it floats on a sea of clouds, the harsh peak that has swallowed so many accomplished mountaineers looks almost benign. We circle Everest five times. And I see the most dramatic change of colors.

The Many Faces of Everest

As we approached from Kathmandu, Everest had loomed over others - dark, angry and dangerous. But now, as we make our first loop, we see the rays of the setting sun softening its harsh lines. The mountain starts to light up and as we make our third loop, Everest looks as if it is made of burnished gold. And as the sun dips and disappears over the horizon, the entire range turns silver.

As we complete our fifth loop, the sky starts to turn gray. The mountains that had displayed so much character, so much power, turn into a shadow of themselves. And then darkness.

From the skies above the Himalaya, this is Manisha Aryal for The Savvy Traveler.

For more information:

Himalaya, Where Earth Meets Sky

Climbing Mt. Everest Cybercast

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