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.