At about 12,000 feet, the pain in my feet and lower back was replaced by a distant chanting that began to swell in volume with each step I took down a rocky trail. The frequency of traffic on the trail grew significantly and the air in my lungs seemed to be less and less present. For the final mile, the smiling faces of Sikh pilgrims and the sounds of distant prayers were my motivation. In four days I trekked 30 miles and reached peak elevation of 15,200 feet. My last week in India was spent in the Himalayas.
For me, this trek was to be a learning opportunity. One that would teach me about myself. The entirety of my India trip existed in the fringe of my comfort zone. This was perfect as I was comfortable enough to learn but out of my comfort zone enough to be exposed to new opportunities. As the climax of my Indian adventure, I decided to be alone. On this four day trek I knew nobody, had no connectivity, and my driver had left me at the base camp. The further away from metropolitan centers I ventured, the less likely I would be to come across English speakers. However, I knew that I needed to prove my ability to be alone.
In the last 3,000 feet, the ascent was made by way of a 'staircase'. The chanting had become recognizable words and was no longer just a far off sounds. I stood at the bottom of the stairs with a steep valley behind me and my destination looming over me. A group of friends I had met on the way up came up behind me, gave me a pat on the back and said "let's go". We did. We climbed the staircase 10 stairs at a time to allow our lungs to fill up in between exertions. Alongside a group of strangers who had welcomed me with open arms, I reached the peak. I arrived at Hemkund Sahib.
Hemkund Sahib is the highest Gurudwara (place of worship) of the Sikh community. Hemkund Sahib rests on the short of a pristine 'snow lake' and is covered by snow nine months out of the year. This isolated destination serves as a pilgrimage where Sikhs come together to pray, eat and bathe. In a transformational afternoon, I was invited to partake in each of these. Alongside smiling faces, I waded into the shallows of the coldest water I have ever felt. I grabbed onto the chain connecting me to the shore, took a deep breath, and plunged my entirety under the water. As I came up my lungs were struggling to fill with air. I was shivering, but laughing. I looked to my left and my right and was greeted by supporting glances from Sikhs on both sides. I dipped again and stepped out of the water.
I dried off got dressed and stepped inside the Gurudwara to participate in the continuous prayer. I sat on carpet inside the star shaped marble building and listened. The language was an unfamiliar one, but the sentiment was not. I was surrounded by the sounds of chanting. The room was filled with blue and orange. Many hands in the room rested on the hilt of a Kirpan (the Sikh sword or dagger that represents mercy, grace, and compassion). Here too I was welcomed. I sat and I experienced the prayer. The Langar is at the center of every Gurudwara. In this community kitchen, meals and tea are prepared for everyone who visits the Gurudwara. After the prayer, we ate in each other's company - another core commandment of Sikhism.
As the day grew long, I knew it would be time for my descent to begin, but I wasn't quite ready. I returned to the edge of the water and sat to experience this place for a few moments longer. The views of the seven surrounding Himalayan peaks were extraordinary, the water of the lake was absolutely pristine, but the people had the largest impact on me. I went on this trek without any companions, however I was never alone. I was constantly greeted with smiles, conversations, and immense warmth.
I grew up in the heart of the Rocky Mountains in Montana. Every morning, I would wake up, look out my window, and see beautiful often snow capped peaks. When I learned that I was traveling to India, I knew that I had to step foot in the Himalayas. I have dreamed of these peaks my entire life. The beauty of the mountains was overwhelmingly moving, yet I had no idea the experience would be one of so much spiritual significance for me. I can say with confidence, sharing a meal, a bath, and a prayer in the Himalayas with Sikhs from all over India has been one of the moments that has defined my life.