Picture the scene: you wake early at Ulleri. Peachy morning light breaks through the curtains and it does not take much persuasion to wriggle out of the sleeping bag and step outside onto the balcony. Only the porters below are stirring; everyone else is enjoying a deep slumber.
As your eyes adjust to the light, a spectacular vista of foothills and jagged Himalayan peaks greets you. Ahead, you catch sight of Fish Tail Mountain, its forked peak shrouded in an ethereal, cotton-wool mist that resembles smoke.
Laces knotted; poles extended; daypacks secured. This is the second day of the hike and I set off with anticipation and excitement, wilfully ignoring the beginnings of a blister on my right foot. As we trek the winding path through the foothills, distance horizons begin to shimmer and dance in the heat – it is warming up quickly.
Taking a short break at a teahouse for water and suncream, I suddenly catch sight of the perfect photograph. Two Nepalese elders, perched on ledges of the teahouse, staring out into the mountains. I am totally transfixed.
The five different colours of the flags represent the elements: blue the sky, white the air, red fire, yellow earth and green water. I find comfort in thinking of the earth as a compound of only five elements; there is something reassuring about its simplicity.
We have somehow made it to the most breath-taking place on earth. But is more than just beautiful. It is majestic and humbling.
In the early morning light, the prayer flags appear almost translucent; their colours wondrously illuminated. The Nepalese flag flutters at the top of a pole and stands, from my perspective, perfectly aligned with a mountain behind it.
The alarm buzzes in the dark. It is 4am and time to get changed and ready for the hike to Poon Hill. In dribs and drabs, the team trundles down the stairwell and congregates by the door; quiet and dazed and snuffling.
The hike to the top takes around thirty minutes. We get there just in time to see the sun illuminating puffs of snow scooting off the mountaintops. Padam, one of the Nepalese guides, points out the peaks. The names trip off his tongue – Dhaulagiri, Hiunchuli, Machapuchare – the vocabulary of his childhood, no doubt.
The mountains are quiet places but they have a unique soundscape nonetheless. One of their most distinctive and evocative sounds is that of the bells, slung around the necks of horses and yaks. It is a sort of melodic clattering, that starts faintly and then begins to swell as they get closer, laden with luggage and supplies. It is a beautiful, nomadic, ancient sound that has the power to transport me to a place of simplicity and serenity.
As we trek from Himalaya village to Machapuchare Base Camp, the shade in Hinko Cave is welcome after a few hours hiking uphill. Before there were teahouses, trekkers would have pitched camp here. On the roof of the cave, I see dark, sooty patches where the smoke from fires has gathered. Sleeping overnight here must have been a cold and blustery experience, but watching the sun set and rise over the mountains would surely have compensated.
Hands clasped around a cup of ginger tea, one of the guides directs my gaze to a faint but unnatural shaped rock in the mountain. This is the Buddha, he says, and it has been painstakingly hand-carved by devoted craftsmen.
My camera does not have the capacity to capture such fine detail so far away, so instead I just look; squinting and tilting my head (and using some imagination) to understand this hauntingly beautiful manmade wonder. There are other things I can photograph here though, like laundry in the breeze. That too has its own sort of gentle beauty.
The whole experience is unreal. The achievement of reaching Annapurna Base Camp, the views – we have somehow made it to the most breath-taking place on earth. But is more than just beautiful. It is majestic and humbling; and it is also threatening. In the distance, I can hear the occasional rumble of an avalanche.
Big hunks of snow hang precipitously off the mountain ledges, eerily silent; it feels as though they could break at any moment and engulf everyone. The people down below – taking pictures and posing for the camera – look so very, very small.
The solitary subject rarely fails to make a striking photograph; even more so when that subject is in a state of stillness and contemplation. It is only early in the morning yet it is already hot; the air is hissing faintly in the heat and the traffic is constant. Horns, faltering engines, radios blasting.
Just on the other side of the road, I see this man, lost in his own world. I want to get closer but I also want to leave him in peace. But actually, the anonymity of the photo works quite well in the end, I think; and it almost has the quality of a painting.