A 12-day trek in the Langtang region of Nepal. A holiday where a line was drawn. There was me before the holiday, and me after the holiday; my post-holiday version of myself being more in awe of nature and what humans endure to live with its relentless change and lack of predictability. Before I disappear into words of pomp, part of my new appreciation stems from pushing myself to new physical and mental limits and gaining a new understanding of my own abilities, but it also stems from observing a nation 2 years after a truly devastating earthquake, that reduced parts of the country to rubble (and, yes, that did add to the challenges of our trek).
I have decided to write two blogs of my experience, one which is centred on the Earthquake and it’s natural and human aftermath (still in the writing), and the other is a personal account, which I have called my diary of sufferings.
It may seem strange to focus on suffering as a way of defining a holiday that was as memorable for it’s beautiful landscapes and funny moments as it was for the tough bits but portraying it as a stream of beautiful experiences would be untruthful. It really was so much more. Just writing this is making me laugh, because humour is a great way of reducing the stress of life’s tougher challenges, and it wasn’t in short supply on this trip, it’s just that sometimes the very best of coping strategies evaded me.
The other reason for my unusual focus is that recognising, understanding and overcoming suffering form the core of the Buddhist ideology, and last time I was in Nepal I bought a little book explaining Buddhism in simple terms for a western audience written by the Dalai Lama, some of which has remained firmly in my head.
I have punctuated the stories with pictures taken on the trip, roughly in chronological order, to balance the stories with non-suffering moments, of which there were many.
Just to ease you in gently, my first story is light-hearted and unapologetically lavatorial. It’s from day 1 of the trip, and in hind-sight was an omen of things to come. Day 1 was never really described on the pre-trip schedule, in fact I was so naïve in my assumptions, that I thought we’d be rising early, popping up the road for an hour or two in a hire car and starting to trek out that day. After all it was only 30 miles from Kathmandu to Syra Besi as the crow flies! Wasn’t it?
After 6 hours of bone-jarring rocking and rolling on mainly unsurfaced roads we arrived at Barkhu, which was a mere 45 minutes from our final destination of Syra Besi. Up until then, I had congratulated myself on keeping the contents of my digestive tract firmly in place (as had everyone else, albeit with various shades of green, and self-imposed silences to concentrate on the task at hand!). In fact, there were quite long spells where I loved the adventure of it all. Our wise guide, Ngima, had decided to leave lunch as late as possible for all the right reasons. Despite all of that, when I was finally faced with a large plate of Dhal Baht (Nepalese staple curry and rice), I suddenly felt an urgent need for the loo. This happened to coincide with a dramatic change in the weather and a massive crack of thunder which plunged the toilet into darkness, at the same time as I realised that I didn’t have any toilet paper.
From a perspective of recognizing, understanding and overcoming this particular suffering, there are a number of lessons to be learnt. Not drinking the last beer in Tom and Jerries bar on the previous evening would be a good starting place, as well as always having a few pieces of toilet paper in your pocket!
On a more serious note, making assumptions, regardless of previous knowledge or experience, inevitably leads to suffering. In other words, it wouldn’t have made much difference if we had known a bit more about the journey ahead because no one can predict the rapidly changing road surface or the weather or if the car was going to break-down. In a country like Nepal, you have to roll with it, and accept your own lack of control.
I often think that in developed countries it is easy to exaggerate the extent to which we are really in control, and if that exaggeration becomes too big, suffering is inevitable.
So how did I get out of my predicament in the darkened toilet? Well, much to my relief, it turned out to be a bad case of altitude wind!! Okay, too much information.
Hotel Lama was a huddle of different tea-houses perched in the narrow valley next to the raging Langtang River and was our first night on the trek. The sleeping accommodation was separate from the dining/living area and at first glance was basic but okay. We joked about the large gaps between the planks separating the rooms.
I clambered into my sleeping bag at an early hour, in my tiny shared room with a blue polythene sheet ceiling and two wooden benches with the thinnest of mattresses, and as I wriggled to get comfortable I realised the plank at hip level squealed like a pig every time I moved. I lay there listening to the snorts, snuffles and hawks of my fellow tea-house guests, all joined together by wonky planks, holey floorboards and bits of plastic, and I was half paralysed for fear of disturbing anyone.
I tried to drift off, but the last ginger lemon tea was begging for release. I lay there for an hour trying to deny it freedom, then squealed my way out of bed, head-torch on, through the door and out into the cool night, across a rocky outcrop, under a washing line to the comfort of a mud-floored ‘drop and squat’ toilet. I had at least remembered the toilet paper.
I returned to my bed and my fear of movement crept back over me, slowly turning into a whole raft of other insecurities. Why couldn’t I own my space like some people, free of self-doubt and full of confidence, sleeping their trouble-free sleep? No one needs to earn the right to breath or snore or wriggle. When times get tough why do I want to disappear and deny my own needs? Is it too much to ask someone to endure my noisy bed while I find a comfortable place for my aching hips? What if they did complain, what would that say about them? What if I was unable to cope with being at high altitude and become a burden on my fellow travellers, who had all tested themselves at altitudes of over 5000 metres? How was I going to cope with 12 nights like this? What on earth had I been thinking when I accepted the invite? Surely any sane person would have done this in their 20’s not their 50’s.
The room slowly filled with morning light, and I was released from my squeaking den. Later, I walked away towards the white water and the massive boulders of the river, looking upwards to the steep valley walls and the blue sky beyond. I knew that somewhere around the many bends of the valley floor lay the 7000 m snow-capped mountains of the Lirung Himal, and in an instant I realised the uniqueness of the opportunity that lay before me. There was no room for wimpery or self-doubt. I had my new boots, a belly full of rice porridge, I’ve got strong legs and a big pair of lungs, and although I might be lacking in the confidence department, I have enough curiosity to fill a football stadium, and that was enough to keep me on track.
‘We are all born equal’, that’s what it said in my little book of Buddism. For me this statement isn’t religious or political, it’s a statement of fact. When I first popped into this world I didn’t have a status, I was neither subservient, dominant or anything in between, but within a few years I had already learnt my place in the cultural and familial world of the late 60’s. In todays brave new world, I am learning to recognize and question the invisible assumptions that keep me in that place. Overcoming these insecurities and becoming more visible (or present as mindfulness practitioners would say) comes with responsibilities, so here goes:
I hereby proudly announce that I own and take full responsibility for every squeak, sigh, wriggle and breath emanating from the right-hand bed of room 2, on the night of Saturday 31st March 2018 in the Sherpa Hotel and lodge, Lama Hotel. It was me.
The last two stories are based on the toughest part of the trip (days 8 to 10), which happened to be going over the Laurabine pass, the first part of which was in a snow storm.
After 1 and half days of mainly uphill, we arrived at a tea-house perched on top of a little steep-sided plateau. We were thankful of a rest and some lunch. As we entered the tea-house, the mist thickened to fog, and the temperature started dropping like a stone. Soon large hail-stones were beating down on the tin roof, quickly followed by snow. Within an hour of arriving, our world had been transformed to a total white-out. The un-heated tea-house was as freezing as the outside temperature, and for the first time, I wore my newly purchased down jacket. In fact, I wore every single article of clothing it was possible to wear, and still managed to eat my yak cheese covered potatoes.
Leaving the shelter of the tea-house filled me with a childish sense of excitement. I couldn’t remember the last time I had done anything even as remotely adventurous as this. We squeaked our way up the snowy path, climbing upward, and I had the same pain in the base of my right ribcage, that I had experienced when we went above 4000 m a few days before. I couldn’t fathom it, firstly thinking it was related to my stomach. We stopped for a brief re-gathering and as we did so I suddenly lowered my shoulders slightly and found myself taking a massive breath. It was like somebody taking a foot off my chest. The pain in my rib-cage disappeared, and in that instant, I knew I could do it.
As we continued up the hill, my mind was filled with a steady beat which matched my feet and my breathing, my eyes were picking out slight changes in the gradient and constantly but almost unconsciously I adjusted my stride length. I was in the zone. I wasn’t the fastest or the strongest, but for a while, I led the pack slowly up the hill and felt my confidence return, because if there is one thing I understand, it is THE ART OF GOING SLOW.
Walking uphill at altitude is the same as riding up a long hill on a bike. It is about gauging a pace which is sustainable and being able to continually change that pace so that the energy you exert stays constant (rather than your speed staying constant and your energy level fluctuating). On a bike if the gradient changes you change gear, when you walk you change you stride length, so the steeper the gradient the smaller your step. For me, understanding and practising this, is proof that suffering can be overcome or at least reduced, and it has given me the confidence to tackle hills that at first sight seem unconquerable.
This story shows that being confident is being relaxed and learning to be relaxed when you are doing something new is a real challenge. Unfortunately, one afternoons success, doesn’t mean you’ve cracked it …….
This story starts, where the previous stops and is about abject tiredness.
As we arrived at the highest tea-house of the trip (Gosaikunda, just before the Laurebina pass), the snow eased, and we were welcomed into the cute and cosy looking tea-house with a respect reserved for people brave enough (or foolhardy enough) to tackle the snowy conditions. The living room may have looked cute and cosy, but unfortunately it proved to be a false impression. The timid heat of the wood fired stove was overwhelmed by the flow of freezing air being pulled through the leaky floorboards. It was a huge effort keeping warm, after such an exertion. Not impossible though.
The warmest place, directly in front of the stoves open door was taken by a 78 year old Canadian women, who confessed that this would be her last trek in Nepal. She said that, on the rocky sections it took her too long to decide where to put her feet. It was a sad realisation for her, but she had the respect of everybody in the room.
In the evening the clouds lifted, and we were rewarded with some spectacular views of the lakes and the massive valley we had just spent 2 days climbing. The sun came straight through the windows warming us far more than the fire. It was a brief respite
The following morning, with 450 metres of climbing to reach the top of the pass, we set off in sunshine in a snowy wonderland, and I’d love to say that all was right with the world, but it wasn’t. My previous days rhythm and state of mind had disappeared into the cold, sleepless night, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get back there. We summited the col, and all I wanted to do was get down the hill, which was a tough rocky descent. Lunch was a bad choice of packet soup. I should have gone for the egg and chips!
The path from lunch to Gopte, the next tea-house, was tough ‘Himalayan undulations’; short but sharp ups and downs, but I was on a mission to reach an altitude where my body was better able to cope, as fast as my legs would carry me.
On arriving at Gopte, I was looking forward to a hot shower, the first of any kind of a wash for 3 days, but the 2015 earthquake had re-routed the natural water supply, making water a precious commodity. The only thing on offer was a small bowl of hot water. I took it to my room, stripped down and started the procedure without giving it enough thought. All I’m going to say is that I washed the dirtiest bits first, then realised there was no point in washing the cleaner bits cos they’d end up as dirty as the dirty bits. I desperately wanted to wash my face and the simple realisation that I couldn’t was the straw that broke the camels back. I couldn’t laugh about it. I tipped my bowl of dirty water down the toilet and returned to the living room, but there was no point in engaging with anyone because they couldn’t see the depths to which I’d just plunged, and I didn’t have the mental energy to share it.
I took my cup of chai, left the building and started climbing back up the path we had come down. I rounded a corner so that the tea-house was out of sight and sat on a rock. I was exhausted in a way that I have never felt.
All I had done for the last few days was survive and I knew I was still clinging to that mind-set, but as I sat there listening to the various chirps of the birds at dusk and looking at the mist revealing and hiding different parts of the mountain as it swirled its way up the valley, tears welled up and I found my self gradually letting go of survival and allowing myself to come back to life. I’d made it. I’d done enough, and I hadn’t found myself lacking, and sometimes there is no better feeling.
As we descended, small villages gave way to bigger villages and the trees changed from stunted wind-swept brush to tall confers, rhododendrons, mountain ash and larch, dripping in moss and lichens. The paths got broader and less rocky and with a body primed for less oxygen the ‘Himalayan undulations’ were a walk in the park.
Would I do it again. You betcha! Only next time, I’ll remember to wash the clean bits first.
Thanks to Ngima, Kate, Adan and Nicki for some of the photos (and your company!)
If anyone would like to see more flora from the trip, check out Kates blog travelswithreggie.com
If anyone would like to go trekking with Ngima, he has many years experience with Exodus, but also runs private trips all over Nepal and Northern India. He is Nepal’s answer to Elvis and has a fantastic pair of calf muscles. You can contact him via FB
…and last but not least, you can still sponsor Adan’s sufferings (and I can attest to the fact that he did) here