The shaman showed up drunk. Full of spirits, you might say. By the time the tiny, inconspicuous man of 70-something and his band of buddies came staggering along the trail, we'd been waiting for over three hours in front of his house, squished between rice fields and looming snowy mountains.
When I saw a notice in Thamel for a shaman festival, I wasn't quite sure what it would entail. I knew that traditionally, twice a year, hundreds of jhankris make the pilgrimage to Kalingchok in Dolakha, where the spirit of Kali rests. The older ones do it to renew their allegiance to her spirit, while for young apprentices it is a crucial rite of passage.
But the festival had been put off for the last five years because the shamans couldn't afford it, said organiser Dinesh Deokota of Adventure First, a regular visitor to the shamans of Kalingchok. Paying tourists would mean the festival could resume.
So it happened that 20 of us took the bus to Charikot, and then walked five hours to Suspa, a Thami village just before Kalingchok and watched Jun Kiri, Suspa\'s head shaman, struggle to get his front door unlocked.
As the effects of the shaman's little bhatti-stop started wearing off, Jun Kiri told us about the woman coming to see him, who has apparently been possessed for years. "We've had two sessions, I haven't driven it out of her yet," he said, putting on his white robe, a chain of bells, and an dangerous-looking crown of porcupine quills.
The patient arrived and Jun started drumming himself and her into a trance. The thunderous sound went on for about three hours. The longer the jhankri and the possessed woman shivered, shook, and drummed, the stiffer our limbs got from sitting quietly. The energy was palpable, but the spirit was unimpressed, and the woman went home, still possessed.
At nightfall the next day, we made our way to Suspa's cemetery to raise a spirit to accompany the jhankris and apprentices up Kalingchok-a ritual apprentices need to be able to perform to be full-blooded jhankris.
After about five hours of drumming, dancing, and chasing through the forest with a bunch of tourists in tow, the apprentices had failed to raise the spirit.
Dinesh put it down to severe performance anxiety, and most of us started to crawl into our sleeping bags. As photographer Josh Lustig put it, "at about 2AM, I did start to wonder what on earth we were doing, digging up dead babies' bones."
We should've stayed awake. About an hour later Josh and a few others were jolted awake. He looked up and, like a few of the other visitors, saw something that hadn't been there earlier-either the spirit itself, or a shaman dressed in a black cloak who no one had seen before. Amrit Thami, a jhankri from a neighbouring village, said it would stay with them until it was put back in another ceremony two nights later.
The shamans, who had not slept for two days and two nights, began to dance up the hill to the summit at 3,500m, even the elderly as fleet-footed and energetic as teenagers. We collapsed, worn out from the intensity of the experience, while the spirit-workers drank and chatted till the wee hours.
Before dawn the next morning the steep trail up to Kalingchok was already teeming with pilgrims. On the sacred summit we were rewarded with a magical simultaneous moonset and sunrise, as the mountaintop heaved with activity.
At around ten o'clock heavy clouds started moving in and the pilgrims, finished with sacrificing chickens and goats to the goddess, made their way down to the next village. Turning back, I got a final glimpse of the treeless peak before the cloud curtain closed and Kalingchok fell silent again until another festival in August next year.
(For more information on shaman trips, contact Adventure First Nepal at [email protected])