Notes from Dolpo, Part I

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.

Nepalgunj:

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:

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Chillies growing near Juphal

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!

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On the way to Rechi

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.

Raktang

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Kids playing at Rechi

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…

Chhepka

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Ascending to Phoksundo

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…

Rechi

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.

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Autumn-colored trails

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…

Ringmo/Phoksundo

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First glimpse of Lake Phoksundo

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.

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Ringmo Village

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.

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Yaks by Lake Pkoksundo

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.

The Way Back, Pt II

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Sarankot

“You’re flying with the man himself, then?” a British pilot asks me while I wait for Lakpa to get our glider ready. We are in Sarankot, the famous paragliding hotspot up on the hill above Pokhara. There’s nothing but a small shack selling water and soft drinks, to mark the gliders’ place of takeoff. Sarankot was completely closed for paragliding just this morning due to unfavorable weather conditions. Although it’s still cloudy, the winds are said to be good now, and we can fly.

“Yes, I’m going with Lakpa Tseri,” I reply with poorly concealed pride.

“You’re very lucky. It will be fantastic even without the mountain views.”

I smile, “I am very lucky, and very honored to fly with The Man.” Regardless of what I may or may not see, I’ll still be a little closer to the Himalaya than anywhere else I’ve been in months, even years, and that’s good enough, for now…

In a few minutes I am invited to put my harness on. What will carry me through the air is a backpack-like structure, several thin ropes reminiscent of a musical instrument’s strings and the ‘instrument’ itself – the wing. It rests peacefully on the ground waiting for Lakpa to clip me in. When ready, The Man instructs me to look straight ahead and just run right off that hill. It sounds wonderful to me. Is it strange that I sincerely mean it? Lakpa quickly finishes the preparations and wastes no time in giving me the go. Embarrassingly enough, the first couple of times I endeavor to ‘go’, huffing and puffing, I can’t manage to run forward as I am being pulled backwards and sideways by the temperamental ‘instrument’. Eventually, I focus on the horizon, reset, and before I know it, find myself soaring. Lakpa and I fly back and forth in the cool wind with nothing but space all around. Living on solid ground your entire life, it’s impossible to imagine what having that much space would feel like – amazing! I instantly relax into my front-row seat to watch the clouds moving in, a few other gliders maneuvering gracefully between them.

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Paragliding over Phewa Tal

“I believe, I can see why you love this so much, Lakpa,” I comment a few minutes in, adding that it must be an out-of-this world experience to soar like this amongst the great mountains. The extreme exposure, the absence of gravitational reassurance together with the quick changes of the winds create a uniquely dynamic environment where, if unable to embrace it completely, one might panic and end up in serious trouble. Leaning into it, on the contrary, can be very liberating and soothing. Here Lakpa and I talk a little, take a few pictures and marvel at the scenery. Several more rounds into the flight we begin to turn and descend towards the lake.

“Do you want to do something exciting?” Lakpa asks suddenly. I assume he refers to some kind of a paragliding trick.
When was I ever not up for that? “Make it as exciting as you can!” And oh, does he deliver!

Positioning the glider above the lake, Lakpa allows it to swing like a pendulum, plunging down in a sharp spiral. I love this feeling of diving into nothing, this good kind of falling.

“I can tell you are a climber, and a fighter, and all those things,” Lakpa laughs while stabilizing the wing and starting the real descent now.

“How can you tell?”

“You’re happy instead of afraid.”

“Fear always clouds the view, and there are enough clouds as is, Lakpa. Besides, why would I be afraid to fly with you?”

“Yes, that’s why I fly alone every day before I do any commercial flights. This way I can fully enjoy the beauty,” he muses, instantly re-focusing on the task at hand as we approach the landing spot by the water. The Man tells me to simply keep my legs up while he does the rest of the work. Without active participation by yours truly, our landing is much softer and smoother than I’d expected. While we are packing and waiting for others, I feel sorry that I won’t be able to join Lakpa for a cross-country flight from Mardi Himal to Pokhara (3/4-day trek followed by 1/1.5hr flight back) because I had made other plans for the next few weeks before we were introduced to each other. However, I can see myself getting addicted to paragliding and wanting to learn to fly myself, so it is, perhaps, for the best that I don’t take any more steps in that direction just yet.

Back at his paragliding shop in Lakeside I thank Lakpa with all my heart for the best two days I’ve had in a long, long time: for taking me kayaking, trekking, biking and flying and thus guiding me through the first few all-important steps on my way back home.

I will try to interview Lhapka Tseri Sherpa about his Summit-to-Sea and other adventures. The interview will be published here later as a separate post. 

The Way Back, Pt. I

It is sweltering hot and Russian-banya-humid kayaking across Phewa Tal towards the white World Peace Pagoda perched high up on the hill above the lake. In the seat behind me Lakpa Tseri Sherpa is leisurely talking on the phone while I make my first painfully awkward attempts at handling the oar. Named National Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year 2012 for the feat of paragliding off the summit of Everest and making it all the way down to the sea by kayak and bicycle with his partner in crime Sano Babu Sunuwar, Lakpa is the best possible guide back into the world I used to live in happily before literally dropping my axe at Everest Base Camp and walking away into martial arts, injuries, cancers and recoveries in May of the year 2013.

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Annapurna

August monsoon clouds sit heavily on the shoulders of the hills around Pokhara, and I’m grateful I’m not yet shown my world, the Himalaya, in all its hypnotizing glory. Every time Annapurna reveals itself to Pokhara’s off-season guests, the oddest mixture of feelings begins to battle for dominance in my chest: I feel both irremovably close to the mountains, all but inhaling the crisp high altitude air, and irrevocably exiled from them; it is as if I am two people at once when I look at the mountains: a sickly dorky try-hard who wasn’t built for the life she struggles to live and a limitless creature whose indomitable, indiscriminate love of life gives her amazing power. There is such an abyss of space, time and effort between the two, it seems nearly impossible to bridge. Luckily, I don’t need a bridge: I have a kayak right here and I don’t have to walk when I can fly – or paraglide – instead. Yes, it will be a very, very long way back home. I want to take it, however. I refuse the label of cancer survivor, somebody who’s fine merely getting by, happy to settle for easily accessible joys. ‘But you already have a lifetime’s worth of memories…’ I’m told. ‘But I am still very much alive,’ I’m compelled to argue.

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Lakpa Tseri Sherpa, National Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year 2012, & his Royal Enfield/Sherpa

Lakpa and I make it across the lake and head uphill to a viewpoint. When I see the familiar ‘trekking’ steps cutting steeply into the side of the mountain, I hesitate for a moment: what if my reconstructed knee’s ACL, more loose than ever because of the grueling martial arts training, doesn’t hold on descent? What if my heart begins to beat out control or stops once more? Dare I walk here at all, I, who had everything, thew it away, left and died, and somehow crawled back again? In 2013 I did not dare climb Everest without oxygen; I believed that I was unworthy of such an experience. Who was I but a girl who kept getting lucky: living in the right place at the right time, loved and supported in every imaginable way by the right people. I did not bury my dream in a crevasse in the Khumbu Icefall because I’d had enough; I did so because who I was at the time could not accept what was being given her. Too small, too ridden with guilt, too ordinary to live her dreams as they were coming true, of course, she didn’t dare do it. ‘Stay dead,’ I tell her, and start up.

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Phewa Tal

The views over Phewa Tal are stunning from the viewpoint cafe where Lakpa and I sit down for a water break. We chat about his experiences on Ama Dablam, Everest and K2 as well as, of course, the Summit-to-Sea challenge that made him famous. I am fascinated by the story he tells shyly, making jumping off of the top of the world on a glider sound like about as big of a deal as a weekend grocery shopping trip. He is humble to a fault, economical in his descriptions of the adventure, making it hard for me to understand what role exactly it played in his life. I know only one thing, that it must have been a big deal; I imagine his greatest challenge meaning about as much to Lakpa as my Everest success meant to me. I don’t like to talk about the climb in person and I don’t want to forever be referred to as Mila-who-summited-Everest. It makes me feel as if I’m living in the shadow of that woman from the past. No matter how important the experience, we naturally need to move on and to have a chance to outdo ourselves instead of being labeled by the names of our greatest achievements.

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World Peace Pagoda

We head down to the kayak after a break, cross Phewa Tal back to Lakeside and hop on Lakpa’s vintage red Royal Enfield he renamed Royal Sherpa. We ride around Pokhara for a bit and head up into the hills towards the World Peace Pagoda. With this being the end of the monsoon season, the roads are in a terrible condition, more muddy and bumpy than usual, and the bike barks and growls as it struggles uphill. I feel sorry and, for the bike’s sake, wish I were lighter than my 65kgs. Fortunately, we arrive before the the Royal Enfield is destroyed by the road and my confidence – by internal fat shaming. The surroundings of the Pagoda are quiet as we climb up the steps and do a kora around the white shrine. I stare intently into the thick clouds in the hope of catching a glimpse of Machapuchare or Annapurna but all I can see is the city of Pokhara as if emerging slowly from Phewa Tal’s murky warm waters, and miles and miles of wildly green hills and neat rice terraces. It’s the most beautiful country, I think!

“Lakpa, would you take me paragliding with you tomorrow?” I ask on our way back down to the bike. It would be an absolute honor to fly with him!

“Sure. Let’s hope the weather is good. But I don’t think you can see the mountains tomorrow either.”

“I just want to see more, and from a different perspective. It’s ok if I don’t see the mountains this time.”

We agree to meet for the 11:30 am flight the next day, depending on the weather.

“Now we take the dirt road,” Lakpa says pointing in the opposite direction of where we’d arrived from.

“Let’s,” I reply confidently while trying to remember how to horse-ride. It looks like the way back home is going to be extremely rocky. I sit behind Lakpa, grab a strong hold of the bike and get excited about maybe not falling off and breaking my neck. No matter what it’s like and where it may lead, this is a new road, and I am happy to have the chance to take it.