In Namgung we run into another trekking group at the campsite, one of the very few we have encountered so far. Compared to the always popular and busy trails like Everest Base Camp and Annapurna Circuit, Dolpo is very quiet. The logistical difficulty of organizing a trek here, the price of the Dolpo permits and the need to camp for about 3 weeks all contribute to keeping this region from drawing the same crowds that many trails in Nepal do in high season. They were also some of the reasons I so wanted to come: as of 2016 you still don’t do Dolpo the way people now do EBC, Annapurna Circuit and even Everest as pre-packaged experiences – you have to go to Dolpo and discover it as you go instead of bringing a set of expectations to the trail and making sure your personal experience matches as closely as possible the one advertised in the travel guide. My ‘namaste’ surprises the members of the other team, tan and thin, reading outside their tents, socks drying on guy lines. Like ourselves, these guys probably haven’t seen a shower or a full-length mirror in… a while.
Our group is off to Saldang next morning along my favorite kind of solitary, colorless and timeless trail in the cold golden hills. Here we come across blue sheep and a couple of yak caravans, and only three hours after leaving Namgung we are at our campsite perched on a hill above the village of Saldang. Looking down on the houses standing far apart from each other it truly feels like we have travelled in time: each grey stone structure with its flat roof and tiny windows looks like a small fortresses designed to protect the dwellers from the extremely harsh conditions outside: the sun, the wind and the cold are relentless in these parts. Dressed in traditional clothing, women sing as they beat dry barley outside in the fortress‘ courtyards. Their clothes, countless prayer flags strung across the entire village and very few young pale-green trees are the only specs of color for miles and miles.
We stay in the Saldang district another day, moving through the same hot high-altitude desert terrain towards a new campsite. It’s a longer walk this time, about 6 hours long, and it’s pleasant to feel like we have actually done some hiking at the end of the day. Today is the last that I am 20-something: tomorrow, on the 25th of October, I will wake up a 30-year-old. I take this thought for a walk along the river, amused by how much and yet how little it means to me be passing this threshold.
It’s under the last high pass of the trek, the Jeng La, where I will celebrate my 30th. Before I left for Dolpo, Omma (mom) and I had agreed to ‘meet’ at a certain time on my birthday, and as I sit down in my tent in the evening to spend half and hour with her, I remember the stories of how I was born that she so loves sharing: how she told the doctors, surprised by her growling at the pain, that she was giving birth to a tigress, and how my cheeks were so fat you could see them from behind my back when I was all bundled at the hospital, and how my voice was the lowest and the loudest at the ward, and how she was offered money to exchange me for a boy, and how I spat my first and last pacifier out – in the face of the person who had given it to me as a gift… 30 years… So many stories.
The cooking team aka my hiking team make a delicious birthday dinner and even bake me a chocolate cake at 4600 meters. I am very grateful to them, the trekkers, the guides and everyone in that cold place in the middle of nowhere for sharing that evening with me. I could not have picked a better way to celebrate.
In the morning it’s time to move on – across the 5200-meter Jeng pass. From there it’s a slow but steady descent all the way back to Juphal. After a night in Tokyu we visit the Ribo Bhumpa monastery and have lunch in Dho Tarap. Here the Tibetan influence is strong, and some of the locals barely speak any Nepali at all. We descend lower and lower, and the nights at our river campsites feel warmer and during the day we begin to see trees again. When we reach a low enough point on the trail that we notice vegetables growing in the locals’ frugal orchards and greenhouses, our cook buys and uses in every way imaginable the biggest ‘bouquet’ of spinach I have ever seen. The wind-and-cold-battered skin on the hands and the cracked lips begin to heal, although eating anything spicy or salty is still difficult. In Tarakot I manage at last to find a waterfall to take a proper shower under: getting there requires a little climbing but after I’m-not-telling-how-many days without a shower, I’ll do anything to scrub off the dust, the cold and some of the less pleasant thoughts and feelings I have carried down on me. The group spends two nights in Tarakot as my team mates want a rest day. From there we head down to Dunai, where Dipawali, the festival of lights, is being celebrated by the Hindu community. The narrow streets of the town are busy and loud, which is strange to see after almost three weeks of relative sensory deprivation. As I walk to the edge of Dunai, I wonder just how hard it will be to leave the Himalaya behind this time. Again. I wonder, too, if I will ever return to the mountains, the place where my strengths shine the brightest and where I can live – still – as the most complete version of myself.
Our trip is supposed to end in Juphal but I ask the leader of our team a favor – to let me go to the temple of Bala Tripurasundari Devi in Tripurakot, just 3 hours or so past Juphal. As a researcher, I have a lot of curiosity about the deity. However, there is another reason I want to go: to see in myself if only for a day that strength and wholeness I mentioned earlier. While trekking with the group I felt like I had a heavy chain around my neck which would allow me to neither walk at my pace nor speak my mind: in the mountains I associate with power and freedom I could experience neither.
After making the necessary arrangements, I am good to go to Tripurakot next morning in the company of an assistant guide.
“Lakpa,” I ask him as we leave Dunai, “how long do you think the whole thing is going to take?”
“2 hours to Juphal, maybe 2-3 more to Tripurakot, 30 minutes break, another 30 minutes uphill to the temple, and three hours to get back to Juphal. Let’s say 8-10 hours, depending on how we go.”
It’s going to be a hot, sunny day on the trail, so I’d rather it was shorter. Lakpa lets me set the pace, which gets us to Tripurakot in 2 hours; there we spend about an 1.5 hours exploring the temple; an hour later we are back in Juphal right as lunch is being served. The lodge owner’s kids are happy to see Kali Didi again and bring all of their friends to play with me: my tattooed arm is paraded around the campsite; then, it’s time for an English lesson; next, a boxing class; finally, I am made to sing in both English and Russian. I am also asked to dance, but that’s where I draw the line, I’m afraid.
In the evening we sort out gear and tips to be passed to the local support team whom we will be parting from next morning. We say good-bye after dinner and again early in the morning at the Juphal airport. After an almost 12-hour stopover in Nepalgunj we return to Kathmandu on the 3rd of November. The city is quiet, countless police vehicles patrolling the dark, empty roads. The pyres at Pashupatinath are burning, Thamel is alight and wide awake, and I am so tired when I finally get to my room, I take but a quick shower and unpack nothing before crawling into bed. A real bed!
However, for a long time I can’t fall asleep, my mind still wandering somewhere in the mountains. Once you have experienced what you have so desired, there is so much to think about: to remember, to forget and try to learn from.