After our desert sojourn through Mongolia, J and I were looking forward to some more low-key adventures before venturing back into the great outdoors. We began looking for flights to our next destination and quickly realized that because Mongolia is in the middle of nowhere, flights to most of the places we wanted to go would be exorbitant. Consequently, we made our decision based on affordability and off we headed to Nepal, where we once again commenced preparations for a two-week outdoor adventure, this time an extended trek through the Himalayas.
J and I initially planned to trek the Annapurna circuit but after arriving in Nepal, I began to panic about the length and elevation of the trek. J and I had only ever completed one other multi-day trek- a three-day hike in Peru that kicked our asses- so the idea of embarking on a 21-day trek up to an elevation of 5400 meters seemed, frankly, terrifying. A change of plans was in order.
We decided instead to combine two other treks- the Langtang and Tamang Heritage treks- into a single, much more manageable 13-day trek up to an elevation of 3800 meters (optional day hikes not included), practically sea level by Nepalese standards. The Langtang trek also offered an additional benefit in that it’s only the third most popular trek (by a long shot, at that) in Nepal and consequently far less overrun with tourists. And the Tamang Heritage trail, well, it’s so new it’s just about as off the beaten track as we could get without actually going off the beaten track.
We had also considered doing the trek on our own because all of the message boards and guidebooks we read indicated that trails were well-marked. However, after two days of trying to chase down permits (there was a lot of conflicting information about new laws prohibiting people to trek without a guide in Langtang) we finally folded and hired a guide and porter. And it’s a good thing we did because, as I discovered, I kind of hate trekking.
Everything I read about the treks beforehand indicated that the treks were perfectly doable. The assurance I kept coming across was that if I was “moderately fit,” I would have no problem completing the trek. Well moderately fit obviously does not include me because the trek hurt. Thank god for our guide and porter because I wouldn’t have made it 13 minutes while carrying my pack, let alone 13 days.
The trek started off so well. It began with a nine-hour trip to the trailhead in Syabrubesi on a local bus that everyone always calls the trip from hell. Why? Because during those nine hours, you travel around endless tight turns and along brain-rattling roads to cover about.. 150 kilometers. Luckily for us, our guide, Sonam, accompanied us for this portion of the trip and had pre-booked assigned seats for us so we were the envy of the dozens of other people who had to sit in the aisles or on the roof of the bus.
Tourists and locals crowded into the bus
About 20 minutes into the ride, the bus attendant passed out small plastic bags to everyone on board. Around that time, J and I, drowsy from our anti-motion sickness medication, fell soundly asleep. A few hours later, we awoke to the sounds of retching and found the plastic bags being put to good use. Sonam, in the seat in front of us, opened her window and hung her head out for fresh air.
When we finally arrived in Syabrubesi, J and I hopped off the bus, rested and happy while almost everyone else stumbled off, still bowled over with nausea. While J and I went to our guesthouse to rest, Sonam ventured out to hire a porter and when we met up with her later, she introduced us to.. her father. Evidently she couldn’t find another porter available in town and as a last resort asked her father who was in Syabrubesi visiting his brother. Her father, who was the head lama (i.e. monk) in their village and hadn’t done any sort of portering since the 90s. And so our trekking crew was complete.
Each day, in preparation for our trek, J and I would don The Uniform. This consisted of:
- a lightweight, quick-dry shirt
- zip-off trekking pants
- anti-microbial socks
- waterproof hiking boots with extra thick soles and reinforced toes
- snazzy sun hat purchased in Mongolia (J’s was emblazoned with “Fantasyland” on the front
- two knee supports for me
- two hiking sticks for me and one for J
Our porter, on the other hand, showed up in black dress pants, a button-down shirt and a sweater vest. We appreciated how debonair he looked while schlepping our 20 kilogram pack up and down mountains, not a hair out of place. Sonam wore jeans, a t-shirt and sneakers. The sneakers only because her mother yelled at her for trekking in flip-flops. No socks, though, that would be overkill.
The first day of our trek began well enough with gorgeous weather and a pleasant walk along fairly even terrain. After an hour, I asked Sonam whether we would be gaining any elevation and she assured me that the day’s trek would be relatively flat and we wouldn’t really ascend until the next day.
Apparently “flat” is a relative term because we gained about 1000 meters in elevation that first day.
Whenever we went uphill, my lungs burned and I felt myself suffocating. Whenever we walked downhill, my knees hurt and I cursed the fact that it meant I had just lost all of the elevation I had worked so hard to gain. Meanwhile, dozens of people twice my age walked briskly past us, carrying their own packs and laughing joyously.
At the risk of sounding like a teenager who hates school, my favorite parts of each day were lunch and dinner. In those hours, the pain would finally subside and I could actually appreciate the magnificent views and reflect on another milestone reached. The food- hearty, generous and flavorful- wasn’t bad either.
While the cost of food and drinks increased significantly the farther up we climbed (in direct relation to the amount of time and effort it takes for porters to carry the goods up to a particular location), higher elevations also afforded the opportunity to try products made from yak milk.
Solace came each day in the form of teahouses (essentially made-for-tourist wood cabins clustered at key locations along the trails) where we stopped for meals and slept each night.
The frequent sightings of religious relics added dimension to the trekking experience, enhanced our understanding of the Himalayas’ power and significance, and provided a great excuse to take a break.
As we ascended into higher elevations, the temperatures dropped to single digits at night and I found myself wearing seven layers of clothing to bed. Again. After several days of trekking, the fluctuations in temperature caught up to me and on the day we reached our highest elevation at Kyanjin Gompa, I fell sick with the flu. Fevers, chills, body aches, and congestion. I curled up in bed inside of the teahouse and didn’t leave for two days. Periodically, J and Sonam would come in to haul me up into a sitting position and feed me tea and medication.
During these two days, with nothing to do but sleep and think, I pondered whether I had something worse- dengue fever, malaria, Japanese encephalitis. In my illness-induced delirium, I succumbed to hypochondria. I asked for a doctor but the closest one was several hours away. I considered asking Sonam to call a helicopter to airlift me out but I was afraid of the embarrassment if I really, in fact, only had the flu. I also considered the fact that my travel insurance only covers one airlift and I didn’t want to use it up in case I needed it later. And then I went back to sleep.
While I slept, J took the opportunity to explore the surrounding mountains and was rewarded with these views:
After two days in bed, Sonam asked whether I wanted to take another day to rest or try trekking for a few hours. I decided to trek, with the hope that moving to a lower elevation would mean warmer temperatures and closer proximity to a doctor. With that decision made, I got ready and approached the day with a fierce determination and go get ‘em attitude.
The day’s route was, luckily, merciful and we trekked for three hours on even terrain. For my efforts, I was rewarded with a stay at a teahouse that had a piping hot shower and afterwards, I sat outside feeling relaxed and enjoying a bit of sunshine for the first time in days.
With my illness fading, we continued trekking for another day or two and transitioned over to the Tamang Heritage trail. On this path, the tourists dissipated and the teahouses were fewer and farther between. The clusters of teahouses were replaced with villages where the Tamang people (Nepalese of Tibetan descent) lived. The scenery, too, changed as the trail continued along the edge of mountains, allowing views of sweeping panoramas.
Being out in the open, at our high vantage point, I could see the progress we had made and I started to believe that the trek was worth it.
And the day I saw this view, I cursed, knowing it was the type of payoff that would encourage me to trek again even after swearing up and down that this trek would be my last.
The Tamang Heritage trail provided not only the needed variation in scenery, but also the opportunity to observe the cultures and traditions of the Tamang people.
On one of the last days of our trek, Sonam explained that we would be climbing straight up, pointing to a mountain in the distance. It would be a steep uphill climb the entire day. Coming from someone who thought up was flat, I took her seriously and approached the day with resolve because I knew if I spent the trek lamenting the climb and waiting for it to end, I would never make it through.
As we began trekking, my ankles immediately began to ache from the sharp incline. But we continued onward and upward, steadily. I kept breathing, kept my head down and told myself I was in it for the (literally) long haul. A few hours later, we reached our destination at the top and Sonam disclosed that somehow, we had completed this portion- the hardest portion- of the trek two hours ahead of schedule. As she described it, we had actually walked at the “local speed,” a great feat in her eyes and in ours (nevermind that locals also carry up to 100 kilograms of weight as they ascend). It is utterly amazing what resolve and a few days of exercise can do to your mind and body. We beamed and mentally patted ourselves on the back.
The last day of our trek, Sonam and her father rerouted us to avoid a particularly steep section of the trail, as they had several times before to accommodate my weak knees. Instead of trekking straight down and following a dried out river bed, we wove gloriously downward along a gently descending path that provided us with gorgeous views of the mountains and valleys- the best of the two weeks.
As we neared the bottom, we ran into two locals who approached our porter to make conversation. Minutes later, Sonam told us that we would need to reroute yet again because the locals had informed them that a large boa constrictor was guarding its eggs on the trail ahead. So we detoured, barreling straight through brush to finish off the descent.
And how did the trek end? With a one-hour walk down a paved road, courtesy of the Chinese government!
So. Do I now enjoy trekking? Not really. But I do think it teaches physical and mental stamina, and if the right trek is chosen, the payoff for the effort is great. What I learned about my own abilities will hopefully serve me well in the future.. like next week, when we embark on the W trek in Patagonia, camping and carrying our own packs the entire way. Wish us luck.