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.
It’s 3 am, and I am, as is usual with me at this hour, wide awake. An enormous full moon is shining so bright on our campsite by the shore of Lake Phoksundo that I could probably read without my headlamp. We are at 3700 meters in the Himalaya in late autumn, which is to say that it’s cold outside, but I tell myself not to be lazy — when else will I ever see such a moon in such a setting? — and crawl out of my warm sleeping bag and tent into the night mountain air. Tears and a smile come simultaneously as I look at the surreal scenery around me. What a joy and yet what a shame, too, that I should be the only one to see this night in all its majestic, hypnotizing beauty!
In the morning the group takes a short walk to the Ringmo monastery. Like an illustration from a book of ancient legends, it stands quietly over the aquamarine waters, keeping their secrets and peace. One of our assistant guides asks the lama, who looks after the gompa, if it might be possible to swim in the lake. He says no, and, looking straight at me, speaks of a time forever ago, when human beings were still strong and wise and when Ringmo monks could fly over the lake like birds. That time is long gone now, but the magic lives on in the lake, and it must not be disturbed. Plus, he adds, it’s just too cold to swim in. I enjoy the careful but brave curiosity with which he looks directly into my eyes, surprised to find in them what I know he does… With a smile and a nod I communicate to the lama that he needn’t worry: I won’t steal any magic from this place. As much of it as possible must remain in this world, if not within human hearts, then, at least, resting at the bottom of this most beautiful body of water.
We spend another night in Phoksundo, and I once again go outside at my usual hour. I want to remember for as long as I live having the light and the darkness of Phoksundo all to myself. Next morning after breakfast we leave the lake following the very narrow trail made famous by the film Himalaya/Caravan, where one of the salt traders’ yaks falls into the water. It’s a beautiful walk that may give some vertigo and others – an adrenaline rush. Wanting to be alone on the trail, I begin to speed away from the rest of the group until it’s just mountains, Phoksundo and Ringmo monastery I can see. Before turning the corner and starting the long, dusty descent to the lunch spot, I smile at the gompa in the distance one last time, telling myself that Phoksundo was worth dreaming about.
In one of the yak herders’ caves near the lunch spot I hide from the relentless wind and wait for the rest to arrive while the cook and the kitchen boys get to work on the food. They impress me as the fastest-walking, hardest-working and least noticeable members of the support team, and it’s them I will trek with in the future, instead of with the group. After a 3-hour lunch break in the cold wind, we head into the nearby pine forest to look for a suitable campsite for the night. In less than 1.5 hours we find ourselves in just such a place, and as I help out with the tents, I ask the assistant guides if we could not perhaps place my little yellow home slightly away from the others, not because I am disturbed by the moving around, snoring or coughing of my team mates but because I abhor this feeling of imprisonment that walking single-file and sleeping, albeit in private tents, right next to each other, gives me. There is no shortage of space, which has become such a luxury these days, in Dolpo, so I am determined to enjoy it whenever I get the chance.
Next morning we head for the pass camp at 4700 meters below the Kang La. At just over 5300 meters, it doesn’t seem like an insurmountable obstacle to me given that I have only recently returned from a very pleasant short prep trek to Tilicho Lake and across the Thorong Pass in the Annapurna region. Before we leave for the pass itself the following day, the leader of the group asks that instead of the kitchen crew I walk with the trekkers, just in case. I know it will take them about 3-4 times longer to cross the pass than it would do me, and I’m not looking forward to the death march in the freezing-cold wind. If only I could find something to keep myself occupied… I ask my team mates if anyone would like any help on the way, and a gentleman volunteers to be looked after during the descent from the pass, which will require crampons as the terrain is slightly icy. The ‘job’ keeps me somewhat mentally and physically busy, and reminds me of the good old times when I was not just one of the clients.
Many hours later we safely make it to Shey Gompa, a place you may have read about in Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard. The group will spend two nights here, camping nearby the famous monastery itself. It’s chilly and humid in the small village over which the holy Chystal Mountain rises like a fortress guarding an invisible city. On our rest day here we do laundry, clean up, and in the afternoon head over to the monastery for a tour. Shey Gompa, which I’d been hoping would leave a deep impression, does not quite do that. I take photos of the beautiful wall paintings, listen to the lama’s stories about the very hard life at the monastery and the village in winter but remain unmoved. Although I appreciate, and very much, where I am and what I have the privilege to be seeing, it doesn’t touch me in the same way that Ringmo did just a few days earlier.
After another night at Shey, we move on to cross the trip’s second high pass, the Sela (5095m), before reaching our next campsite in Namgung. This will be one of my favorite days of the trek. The barren trail snaking through the moon-like scenery will take us to the top of the pass used by Tibetan salt traders, and from there as far as the eye can see there will be just blue sky and golden mountains bathed in cold sunlight. Standing in the middle of this spectacular high altitude desert reminds me of the legend the Ringmo lama told us. Although I am well aware that I live in a very different time and space from the flying monks, I want, if only for a moment, to forget about that: I open my arms and allow the powerful gusts of wind to lift me off my feet, making it feel like I could fly away any second. Some of my team mates hiding from the same wind behind the mani wall look at me like I have finally lost it completely, and I wonder if they know what they’re missing out on.
As soon as the cooking team catches up, I grab my trekking poles and run down to Namgung with them. We are now traveling through scenery unlike any other I know of on Earth, and as if through a different era.
It’s almost 11 pm on the 4th of November, and we are at the door of Thamel’s well-known steakhouse K-too following our trekking group’s last dinner together: a couple of the members leave without saying good-bye, several others I shake hands with while a few even brave a hug with the crazy Russian ball-breaker I somehow ended up playing in the circus troupe that was our team. “Keep kicking ass,” one gentleman tells me quietly, his own now forever safe from the kicking. The last person I take my leave of is the leader of the trek. I owe and offer him an apology for the way I treated him on one occasion. Of course, I had my reasons to behave the way I did, as most of us do for whichever way we behave towards others, but I’m content with being written off as an arrogant bitch. It’s faster that way, and the stores of my patience and civility have long since run dry. After hastily wishing everyone safe travels home, I, to my own surprise, start to literally run through the tourist district’s busy streets away from the people who have been making me feel bad about my strength and confidence for the past three weeks. That kind of company is the worst possible to keep, and to have had to explore the magical Dolpo like that definitely tainted the otherwise beautiful trip for me.
I am still confused as to what I think and feel about the experience, which just isn’t coming together in my head: I’m struggling even now, a week after returning home, to present it as a coherent post. Instead of doing that, then, I will start by sharing with you a few excerpts from my trekking journal. Just for laughs, and because I really can’t bear to edit the mess at the moment, I am going to type up said excerpts verbatim. Meant for no one’s eyes but my own, they are totally honest, occasionally rude, and feature profanity. If you’re easily offended, stop reading here.
I can’t believe how beautiful the landing was! The river at sunset looked like liquid fire spreading through the lush green of the Terai. The town of Nepalgunj itself, we are told, has little to recommend it, however, the hotel we are staying at is fun: it’s still under construction. The size of the cockroaches, grasshoppers, mosquitoes and ants hanging out in the hallways is quite impressive – they could easily pass for pet dinosaurs. I dread to think of the size of the bed bugs, which I know are there…
Jupal and Rupgat:
Loved the early morning flight to Dolpo! If the scenery under the little rickety plane’s wings is anything like what I’ve signed up to trek through, I am going to be very, very happy indeed. We caught up with our sirdar and local support team at the airport in Juphal, and were served our SECOND breakfast at the lodge nearby. How is one to walk after all that food?
While our mules were being loaded, the lodge owner’s daughters were inspecting my sleeve (representing the fierce Hindu goddess Kali Mata) in sheer awe and disbelief. They rubbed, scrubbed and knocked on my skin, incredulous that the tattoo was a permanent part of me. Thus, I became Kali Didi (Ms Kali), got my hair braided and was even gifted with candy before leaving. Good times!
The hike to the campsite in Rupgat only took about 2 hours. However, those were two long, annoying and worrying hours in my world. Apparently, the group is going to walk in this single-file formation at the speed at which a pretentious asshole drinks red wine. I can’t hold a pace like that: I’ll fall asleep, get depressed or age prematurely!
In Rupgat we had to eat again – tea and biscuits… Why would a person want that much food? Surely, it’s unnecessary and maybe even unhealthy?
On a more positive note, we have the Phoksundo Khola (river) running right next to the campsite, and it is clear turquoise blue in color… This means burkini time (I never wear a one piece/bikini to swim in the Himalaya as showing too much skin is considered inappropriate)! I found a nice spot to splash around and even a companion from Norway to join me for the dip, a cool lady named M.
The dinner… Omo omo. They keep feeding us like that, and today’s pace won’t seem too slow for me in a few days. I have not eaten this much in years! The conversation at the dinner table broke my brain. Why would you talk about… wait, I forget what already? In fact, this may prove a bigger problem even than the pace: I struggle with forced, uninspired chatter even more than I do with painfully slow walking.
It’s great to finally be by myself in the tent. My -40C mountaineering sleeping bag may be a bit of an overkill for Rupgat at 2070 meters but I am determined to enjoy the warmth. And it is very warm. Yawn.
If this group walks any slower, they will be walking backwards. I tried following the cooking team instead of the trekkers today but that doesn’t seem to work, either. What’s a girl to do?
I have only brought two books with me this time around: The Mahabharata to reread and a Sanskrit self-study book. I didn’t want any distractions at all on this trek but I can’t begin to express how happy I am that I have these two, at least. I am liking the Sanskrit manual: it says in the introduction that it’s not for students of middling intellectual ability. I closed and put the book aside for a minute upon reading such encouraging words. Now I must decide whether or not I am worthy of continuing…
We may actually be walking backwards. In an orderly single file. Chewing on something all the time as we go. I am beginning to feel like an old donkey on its way to the slaughterhouse (but along the scenic route), and to seriously worry for my sanity.
I was leafing through the Mahabharata tonight and came across this part, where a king tells a childhood friend, who comes to ask him a favor, that friendship between a monarch and a commoner is impossible. The first time I read the book, I remember how appalled I was at that notion. However, tonight, like the bad guy that I am in the eyes of the rest of the group members, I pause, reread, and try to understand where the king is coming from. Us bad guys have got to stick together! Besides, The Mahabharata is a long story, and, who knows if the king may not turn out to be a decent character, after all…
Today’s walk to the lunch stop was legitimately pretty. It took the group through what looked like an enchanted forest, meditative and peaceful, with the the morning sun pouring rays of its soft light onto the carpet of foliage under the tall trees. Autumn in the Himalaya is my favorite time in my favorite place.
After lunch I was allowed to follow the mules because the mules are faster than the donkeys. I mean the people, my apologies. The campsite, Rechi, ended up to be less than an hour away from the lunch stop. It still amazes me how little we actually trek: considerably more time is spent waiting to be fed than walking, which doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.
I have taken to helping our assistant guides to set up tents at the campsite, and that after having promised myself that I would just be a client this time around. Sorry, but at this point I’ll do anything to do something. It was very windy when we arrived, so after unpacking I decided to do a little laundry: clothes would dry well in the wind and the sun. We are still following the Phoksundo Khola, which means I get to swim every day and, thus, to stay clean and happy. I put my burkini on and headed down to the river with my laundry not realizing how many spectators I was going to have: the entire village came to watch me bathe in the icy water and even the local cool kids seemed genuinely impressed: I received many compliments like “very nice” and “strong man”.
We will finally be in Phoksundo tomorrow, which is to say that my dream of many years is about to come true. Dawn could not come sooner…
Day 1. I don’t normally know what to do with little kids but the ones here, it seems, will do with/to you whatever will make them happy, and you won’t be given a chance to object. A tiny little monk from Saldang in Upper Dolpo hung out with me all through the lunch stop (typically around 3 hours for our group). Undeterred by the fact that I had nothing to play with – we ended up using my map, notebook and some dry leaves as toys – and no way to really communicate, he eventually assented to an interactive English lesson, and we ran around the village labelling this a ‘rock’ and that a ‘bottle’ until he was called away to eat.
“You would make a brilliant teacher, you are so good with kids,” one of my trekking companions, himself a retired teacher, noted. No and no, thank you.
The moment I was done with lunch, two of our assistant guides waved at me, thus suggesting to walk together to Phoksundo ahead of the group. Oh, bliss! I would finally get to warm up a little. The steep ascent of about 600 meters was quick, and in under an hour of hiking I could see the lake in the distance. It’s like a piece of the sky had descended to the ground, fallen in love with the Himalaya and remained for good – the bright aquamarine color is unbelievable! A walk through a red-and-yellow autumn forest soon took us past the village of Ringmo and to the shore of the lake itself. While the boys figured out the camp setup for the next two nights in Phoksundo and waited for the mules with group gear to arrive, I just stood in the wind, and stared.
And I cried, fucking wept, actually, as I slowly made my way through the whirlwinds of dust down to the water. To see with my own eyes the picture I had been looking at when I could neither speak nor walk, to have had my own legs take me here, was indescribable. I was never supposed to see this place nor even to make it to thirty, yet here I am, crazy “strong man” and all.
We have two nights in Phoksundo. Just two nights. Two whole nights. Time is a terrible, beautiful thing, really, never to be taken for granted or treated with negligence.