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.