May 8, 2015 12:01 AM EDT

This is the first part in a two-part series of dispatches filed by TIME contract photographer James Nachtwey from Nepal, days after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake devastated parts of the central Asian country. Read part two.

The journey began at the end. With the death toll rising, the funeral pyres at Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu were consuming the mortal remains of the dead in a seemingly endless procession of ritualized grief, acceptance and farewell. So that the dead might be washed before cremation, stone steps led down to the Bagmati River, its waters clouded and filled with debris, much like the river of life. Ashes to ashes.

Nepal is a place I’ve long wanted to visit, not so much as a journalist, but to see the mountains and the temples. Now, many of the temples have been destroyed, and the mountains have become the backdrop to an epic tragedy.

In Bhaktapur, a few miles outside Katmandu, as the aftershocks subsided; people began to dig out by hand what was left of their possessions, with a sense of practicality and a lack of complaint.

Rescue teams continued to search for the missing, holding onto the unlikely hope for survivors. The cruel dynamic of an earthquake transforms the walls and beams of peoples’ homes into the instrument that kills them.

Stone deities and sacred symbols were also crushed beneath the weight of fallen temples, testifying to the unity of gods and men.

Flying in helicopter relief missions run by the Indian Army clearly showed the extreme difficulty of reaching the hundreds of destroyed villages. Landslides cut off the few villages reachable by road, leaving people to fend for themselves; isolated on steep hillsides that have been carved into cascading agricultural terraces.

In the town of Sankhu the scene was similar to Bhaktapur – urban dwellers, living in multiple story buildings searching in mountains of rubble for what might be saved from what had become their lives after the earthquake of 2015.

I would go on from the cities to see what had happened in the remote countryside.

James Nachtwey is a TIME contract photographer, documenting wars, conflicts and critical social issues.

Contact us at letters@time.com.

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