If there is one thing that this trip has taught us, it is that we tend to take the more difficult path towards our goals. We rarely choose the easy way. Trekking in Nepal was no different. We faced a conundrum choosing among the myriad of hiking possibilities, each with their own benefits and drawbacks. We considered doing the Annapurna Circuit, but decided that it would be much too crowded at this time of the year. We really liked the Tibetan culture and arid landscapes of Upper Mustang, but the permit is crazy expensive ($500 for 10 days) and it involved a lot more logistics. We almost chose Langtang, but then thought that it involved too much looping back to the same spot which could be difficult to motivate the kids. Finally we chose Goyko Lakes to the Everest Base Camp. It is one of the more challenging treks in Nepal because of the altitude, has great scenery and would be a great way to see the classic Himalayan views.
Our last few days in Paris were focused on indulging in little luxuries while getting ourselves psyched up for the challenge of 14 days of difficult trekking without showers, internet, or food other than rice and lentils. When we checked the weather before we left Europe, we became a bit apprehensive as we watched a large cyclone that had caused flooding in India heading towards Nepal. Trekking in snow is just not very much fun, especially when you are a kid with short legs, and we weren’t prepared for winter weather. We talked to the trekking company to see if it would be possible to change our route if the weather stayed wintry. “No problem” said the owner, “we will talk when you get here.” Relieved we boarded our plane for the little more than hour and a half flight from Delhi to Kathmandu.
Our first indication that something may not be right was when the captain announced that all flights were being diverted because of weather in Kathmandu. He didn’t sound hopeful. After spending the better part of an hour on the ground in Lucknow, India, we were told that Kathmandu remained closed so all flights were to return to their origin. Since we had come from Delhi, it was only a little over an hour back, but it was also 5:00 in the afternoon and there wouldn’t be any planes out until tomorrow. Humm – what to do? Without an Indian visa we could not leave the airport and we were already pretty tired because we had come in on a red-eye from Paris. Colburn and I considered our options. The thought of sleeping in the Delhi airport was a bit unsettling, but not out of the question as we have done it in JFK, Nairobi, and Johannesburg.
What followed was, without a doubt, one of the longest and most arduous days of our travel so far. Lucia had caught her yearly strep throat when we were in Paris and it was making its way around to each of us, so we didn’t start with much reserve. There were so many people stranded by the combination of flooding in India and weather in Kathmandu that the airport hotel was overflowing. The kind folks at Air India were eventually able to finagle a way for probably 100 of us without Indian visas to spend the better part of a night in a hotel near the airport. We had to surrender our passports to immigration officials without so much as a note or receipt, but since we were such a large group it seemed a small risk all in all. They fed us a dinner and arranged for buses to take us to and from the hotel. They even added an additional flight to the next day so that all the passengers could eventually make it to Kathmandu. Although frustrating because of the lack of communication about what was happening (twice we were roused out of our sleep to be told we had to be on the bus “right now”) , they really did bend over backwards to help us through the evening. I can’t imagine a US airline doing half as much as they did because of a weather delay. Twenty eight hours after we were supposed to land, we eventually made it to Kathmandu, through the rugby scrum of immigration, and to our hotel, exhausted and relieved. Traveling takes grit.
As we checked the weather to see what the forecast was for the Everest region, we saw that it was indeed a continued “wintry mix” of rain and snow with temps hovering near freezing – our least favourite weather to hike in. When we looked at the other areas, only Mustang had clear weather predicted for the upcoming week. Annapurna, Langtang, and Everest all had mixed weather, but Mustang had a big orange “clear and sunny” icon. When we talked about it with the kids, they were very enthusiastic about trekking in Mustang as we have often spoke with them of our time in Tibet. They wanted to see what it looks like for themselves. Also, as we learned about the incredible numbers of trekkers stranded, caught in avalanches, and otherwise in danger from the unusual weather in the Annapurna region, we felt even more confident that Mustang would be a good choice. Working miracles, our trekking company was able to arrange for us to go to Upper Mustang starting just one day later. Kudos to Nepal Social Treks for the flexibility!
Flying in on a 18-seater plane to Jomsom for the start of our trek was one of those times when, as a parent, you question your own judgement. The weather was perfect for flying – clear, sunny, with incredible amounts of snow on the high peaks. The Annapurna Range is spectacular. Pictures cannot do it justice as these are absolutely GIGANTIC mountains. They dwarf the Sierras, Rockies and Andes. Our little plane flew parallel to the range for 30 or so minutes in the early morning sun. Like something out of a movie, we were oohing and aaahing, when the plane took a hard right turn and started heading up a small valley between two very large peaks, Nilgiri and Dhaulagiri. Small clouds clung to the steep walls. There were large waterfalls cascading down either side. Suddenly we found ourselves observing the mountains close up on either side of the plane rather than from a distance, almost as if we had entered a tunnel. I couldn’t help but think of the Far Side cartoon where the copilot says to the pilot, “Hey, what are those mountain goats doing up here in the clouds?” Flying up the valley we were awestruck when the runway appeared and rose up to meet the landing gear of our plane. In the blink of an eye, we were on the ground, nearly skidding to a stop.
A short three minute walk from the airport lead us to a tea house/hotel where we met our porters, Mr. Lama and Mr. Kumari, both local farmers who use their portering wage to supplement their income. As frequently happens when changing from one region or culture to another, we were initially struck (and a little intimidated) by the dusty, gritty environment of Jomsom. After spending two months in the orderliness and sterility of western Europe, my first thought was, “oh my, I forgot about this part of Asia.” Not sure how the kids would react, we were watching for any signs of distress. There were none visible. Lucia had to go to the bathroom and was uncertain how to handle the Asian squat toilet but a quick lesson got her up to speed and we were on our way, hiking up the valley.
Our goal for this trek was Lo Manthang, capital of the Forbidden Kingdom of Lo, a five-day (58 km) walk up the valley. Located on a centuries-old trans-Himalayan trade route, the Kingdom of Lo held a strategic and powerful position between India and Tibet. Being in the rain shadow of the Himalayas, the people are Tibetan in physical appearance, language, and culture. The people of Lo were not subjected to the demands for change imposed as part of the cultural revolution in what is now China, so in many ways have retained a fairly pure form of Tibetan Buddhism. The area was annexed by Nepal in the 1600s, but left largely untouched by outside influences until it was opened to tourism in the mid 1990s. In fact, the king (who only ceased to be considered the king in 2008) has a direct lineage back to the 14th century founding of the kingdom. The people of Lo take great pride in the fact that things go on as they have for centuries in Lo Manthang.
The first day and a half of hiking were easy, mostly along the Kali Ghandaki (Black River) valley floor. The terrain is rocky, almost always along a jeep road made up of river cobbles of varying sizes. Yes, there are undulations, but of a mild sort that only take 20 or 30 minutes to climb. As we finished our second day, our pleasant journey up the broad river valley ended abruptly with the steep walls of the upper canyon forming a barrier to continued progress. We climbed steeply to a bench overlooking the entire 20 km we had walked so far. It was phenomenally beautiful.
Our guide, Achut, had told us that the next day would be more difficult. Always be wary when your guide says something like that. It is a kind of a cruel foreshadowing that they do. Our first days were not difficult by any means, but they were enjoyable. We were ready for a step up in challenge….if we only knew how much more difficult it was, we may have thought differently. Day 3 involves crossing three different passes and a total of 21 km. In between each pass we descended steeply for a few hundred meters to cross a river before heading back up the other side. The cumulative effort that it took was substantial. Before lunch, as we headed up our second pass, I felt defeated. I simply couldn’t keep the pace walking the vertical stone steps which took us down then up out of each of the river valleys. I had been fighting off a low-level bronchitis that started as we left Paris. The aerobic effort needed up the stairs would leave me in coughing spasms that were so bad I couldn’t catch my breath. It felt like my lungs were those of a life-long smoker who can’t walk up a flight of stairs without resting. The kids were fine. Colburn was fine. I was miserable. I had thought that biking 1,000 km would have improved my stamina, but I guess I was not the right type of preparation for this type of activity.
Nearly in tears, I asked Colburn to carry the family water tank (3 litres). He graciously carried the extra weight and eventually I dragged my sorry excuse for an ass in to lunch. Noodle soup never tasted so good, but we still had one more pass to cross before we made it to our hotel. This pass was not as steep as the others, but it was longer and grinding. Achut could see that I was tired, out of breath, coughing, and generally miserable so offered to carry my pack. “No, thanks, I can do it myself” I responded. He said, “Madame, really it is no problem for me. I am used to walking in these hills. Please, let me carry your pack.” My pride was mortally wounded. First I had to get rid of the water, then I had to get rid of my entire pack to make it over a damn “hill” – not even a mountain, he called it a hill for Christ’s sake. Tail between my legs, I coughed my way to the pass and down to our next town. Sitting in the dining room that night, sipping a cup of tea and licking my wounds, I met two young women hiking the same route. One was born and raised in Nevada, the other New York. They, too, were “surprised” by the challenge of the day. I felt a little better knowing that it wasn’t just me.
The next day was supposed to be not as difficult as yesterday according to Achut. “Good,” I thought, “I don’t want another one of those days.” We started off with a gentle uphill. I continued to cough, but was okay. About an hour in to the day, Mac said, “I guess yesterday really wore me out, I’m not feeling so good.” He didn’t look good either. His rosy cheeks, pale skin, and warm forehead all told a not-so-good story. He was walking, but slowly. Each step took effort. This day had two passes, each supposed to take about three hours. As we crested our first pass at four and a half hours, we knew we had to relieve Mac’s misery. He kept going, saying that it was okay, but he was sick, everyone could see it. The kid’s got a great attitude about these things. One of the unfortunate parts about a trip like this is that when you are sick, you can’t just go home and rest. Sometimes you have to just keep going even when you don’t feel well. Achut tried to find us a room for the night at the lunch stop, but no luck – everything was booked.
Looking for alternatives, he found a guy with a couple horses we could hire. Plunking Mac and Lucia (just because she likes to ride) on horses, we headed up our final pass of the day. Like the day before, this was a long grinding uphill on loose gravel. The path climbs steeply across a sidehill. Even Colburn who, in nearly 20 years of hiking together, has never once said to me that a trail was too steep, said, “I don’t know if I can go over one more f#$^&*@ pass like this!” I was glad that the kids were on horses because I was so distraught, I don’t know that I could have possibly helped them through it. It was a kind of self-preservation thing – at that moment, I could only think about myself and getting enough air in to my wheezing lungs to make it up the hill. Nine and one half hours later, we made it to Tserang, our town for the night. Again, feeling defeated and truly wondering where the fun was, we collapsed in to bed for the night.
The human body is amazing because the next morning Mac awoke cheery, energetic, and ready to go. Unlike my slow lingering malaise, the virus had hit him suddenly and hard then left quickly. Although it didn’t seem possible at the time, my cough was getting worse and the wheezing increasing. This meant that I needed to start antibiotics because bronchitis (even the kind with horrible coughing) is usually viral and antibiotics don’t do any good. But, when it starts getting worse a week or two in to it, you begin to worry about a secondary bacterial infection or pneumonia. I could hear the fluid bubbling in my lungs each time I took a breath. This wasn’t good. No wonder I hadn’t been able to walk. Fortunately, the day was all downhill and only four hours. Easy-peasy lemon-squeezy as we say. It was a beautiful day. Easy walking, kids talking, and great vistas all the way in to Lo Manthang. “Now this is why we do this!” I thought to myself. As the antibiotics kicked in, I began to feel better. Mac was better. We felt the accomplishment of making it to our destination despite the challenges we faced. It takes grit to travel and sometimes you have to let go of your pride and let someone else to carry your pack to make it to your destination.
Lo Manthang is beautiful. A medieval walled city of 170 or so structures, life there goes on as it has for centuries. Women work the fields and tend the children. Men care for the animals and operate the businesses. Winter is the season for which the rest of the year is spent preparing. We toured the local monasteries, took a horse ride to the super cool local caves, and enjoyed the feeling of being incredibly far away. Walking more than 30 hours to cover 60 km took us back two centuries.
The trip out was much easier than the one in. We were all feeling well, so the days, though difficult, were enjoyable. As they frequently do when we are hiking, the kids spent hours walking in near constant discussion about MineCraft. While making our way up one exceptionally long (800 meter) ascent, they planned several new worlds including one that has rooms for all of their cousins, one that has mini-villages of all the different places we have been, and another that will be their Christmas gifts to each other. While I don’t like them glued to their screens all of the time, it is amazing to me how they use MineCraft to process what they see and experience. They also put a great deal of effort and planning they put in to what they build prior to actually doing anything. They have drawings of where things are going to go, lists of what will be included in each chest, etc. The benefit for us when we are hiking or trekking is that once they get talking about MineCraft they hike for literally hours with great enthusiasm. I know that there is much debate about the addiction elementary school aged kids have with MineCraft, but I can only say that our kids can walk incredible distances as they are thinking it.
The trek to Upper Mustang was an extraordinary experience. It was physically demanding, culturally fascinating, and geographically beautiful. Perhaps one of the best things about long term travel is the ability to share these kinds of experiences with our children. They have seen us struggle and are learning from how we handle those challenges. Since we don’t always have the answers (i.e. where are we eating tonight, how long will it take, what are we going to do about….), they are learning to live with uncertainty and no longer think that Mom and Dad have all the answers. Through our experiences, we have witnessed what life is like for those for whom life is not as comfortable as ours and have developed a greater appreciation for the luxuries we usually take for granted. As we spend time in more cultures, we have learned that although people may dress differently, look different, or speak different, we all strive for the same basic things in life – security, love, comfort. That’s a pretty good thing for a kid to know.