Lighter with Each Step: Trekking Solo in the Himalayas
I’m playing catch up on some of my travel journeys, grateful that 2016 was another full year of adventures. In May and June, I took several weeks of vacation to trek the Himalayas with the aim of learning about myself, enjoying some quiet and enhancing my spirituality.
The Call to Trek Nepal
I was living in San Diego and feeling a little restless. I needed to get away and find some quiet and clarity so I could peacefully reconnect.
One night, I couldn’t sleep. I gave up trying and grabbed my iphone. For some reason, I googled “Nepal yoga treks,” and in bed between 2am and 4am, I figured out my entire trip, plans, dates, flights and affordability. By 6am, it was time to start work, and I emailed my boss for the time off. I got my approval and booked my ticket that day. I knew it was a rush, but I just felt called to go. I booked the trip giving myself 8 weeks to prepare. I spent that time hiking several days a week in San Diego to get my legs ready.
After 36 hours of travel time, I arrived in Kathmandu around 10pm. I had chosen an inexpensive guest house which turned out to be pretty run down. There was only one other traveler staying there with whom I shared a bathroom. The room was basic and had a decades old television in it that was more like a piece of furniture and probably didn’t work. No matter, I was just there to sleep and catch a flight to Pokhara in the morning. I was pretty tired and hungry when I arrived and the owner brought me my first meal of dal bhat, pretty much the only dish in Nepal. It consists of lentil soup, pickled veggies (questionable for western stomachs) and rice served on a large metal plate.
Retreating in Pokhara
I headed back to the airport for my flight to Pokhara noting to myself I might want to spend more extravagantly on my room the next time I’m in Kathmandu. I landed in Pokhara and headed to the Purna Yoga Retreat Centre, which sits atop a hillside overlooking the lake and is decorated with beautiful gardens and prayer flags. The yoga studio’s perfectly picturesque panoramic views made me feel I would find all the bliss and zen I had been seeking. But I realized quickly the center was a bit too isolated and empty. Only a handful of travelers were staying there, not really the place for a sociable solo traveler. I got to join yoga classes, kirtan and all kinds of wonderful yogic activities. But the seclusion of being up on the hill away from town combined with the lack of other travelers cued me in that this just wasn’t going to be the place for me when I returned from the trek. I was told by the manager that my trek hadn’t been booked by anyone else so it would be just me and my guide and porter on the journey. (I knew there was a risk of this when I booked it.) I didn’t fly all the way to Nepal to not go trekking, so I accepted that I’d have to face these mountains alone. We took off the following day.
Trekking the Annapurnas
The first couple days of trekking and yoga/meditations went pretty smoothly, all that hiking prep work paid off. The Annapurna trek was much cozier than I thought it would be. The “teahouses” you camp in are quite luxurious compared to tent camping. There are showers and beds and the ubiquitous dal bhat! In fact, there’s a common phrase for trekkers, “Dal bhat power, 24 hour.”
My first days getting to Tikhedunga and starting toward Ghorepani were pretty easy and delightful. Each day of the trek we walked about 6-8 hours, a lot of it was straight up or back down stone steps.
The struggle came by day 3 heading to Ghorepani. I began getting fevers and feeling sick. Meditation, my guide’s Reiki therapy and my sheer determination helped me to keep trekking. But the loneliness of trekking solo started sinking in. I felt like I was on a silent retreat. I would walk alone, eat alone, repeat. I started to lose my mind a little, why was I doing this? I decided there was nothing I could do but embrace every bit of it: the steep inclines, the exhaustion, the cold and rain, the dal baht, the quiet.
The most challenging days physically were actually the easiest, as I had something to focus on. My friendly Nepalese guide would try to talk to me but after several days in the mountains with only him, I let him know I just needed my space. He was very dedicated to his job and trying overly enthusiastically to be my “yoga master” or healer. He was a good guide and respected my wishes. Meditatively, I took each step, one by one, telling myself “I am lighter and lighter with every step.”
Later, after the trek was complete, my guide told me this day my pace was about an hour and half faster than average. “You were in a trance,” he said. I am so glad he phrased it for me, because really, there is no other way to explain how I did it!
Meeting a Travel Sister
During the meal stops of the trek, I kept crossing paths with an English woman, Phillippa, also traveling alone with just a guide. Phillippa was on holiday before starting her new job. She seemed to be doing great on her journey, trekking with Three Sisters, an amazing company that specializes in hosting women trekkers and training female guides. Phillippa and I really enjoyed the moments we encountered each other, both desperately seeking some company. There’s just something about being able to share with someone the struggles you are going through. Struggles like, “Did you get any leaches on you from that last day?” or “Omg, I really need pizza, I can’t take eating dal bhat anymore!”
That fateful meeting with Phillippa was the universe helping us both out in a time when we needed it. Phillippa began to get sick on the trek as I had been earlier in the week. We weren’t staying in the same teahouses, but our walking pace seemed to make it so that we would run into each other at least once each day. After a few more chance meet ups, we made plans to stay in touch after our journey.
The Views of a Lifetime
During all of this struggle, self-doubt and meditation, I was taking in the most incredible views of a lifetime. When we ascended to Ghorepani, the magnitude of the Himalayas really struck me. I was walking for days up steep inclines, and at this point I was high enough in the green mountains that I couldn’t see the bottom where they started. I was high, my head in the clouds and my feet still firmly on the ground. A look ahead and I could see endless towering giants, mountains that reached 30,000 feet. I was lost in awe in the Earth’s great magnitude. But I didn’t feel small, I felt connected, a part of this greatness. Poon Hill was the apex of this trek, where we spent a dark dawn hiking up by headlamp to arrive to the magnificent sunrise.
One of the best parts of the trek is experiencing the tiny little mountain villages and passing their schools and meeting the people who greet you at the teahouses. I was honestly suffering so much during this trek, that it took being home to fully appreciate the ability to visit so many adorable little villages tucked in the massive Annapurna range. We reached Ghandruk and got to see more traditional life in a village and history of its development - trails and cobblestones in a mountainside leading to a monastery, museum and school.
Battling the Banda
It had been about seven days of trekking to exhaustion and eating dal baht for lunch and dinner. The fever sickness I had experienced earlier had settled to a bronchitis and my body was weak. Phillippa and I both were anticipating getting back to town, relaxing and eating something (anything!) other than dal bhat.
Of course, it wasn’t that easy. One word you don’t want to hear in Nepal is “Banda.” A banda is a strike, and they happen all the time! This banda was on public transportation, meaning it was forbidden that day to get my transport back to town. It took a few hours of waiting at a convenience store on the side of the road, but my guide was able after many phone calls to find us a private transport out of the Annapurnas. This was pretty miraculous, considering we passed many travelers on the side of the road desperately looking to accomplish the same. We picked up as many as we could and packed them into our car, two girls even sitting in the trunk of our hatchback.
Pizza and Pokhara!
Later that afternoon, I finally got to collapse into bed. I was pretty much unable to move! But the temptation of pizza and meeting up with Phillippa was just too great, and I summoned my strength once again for one of the most satisfying meals of my life, thank you Godfather’s Pizza in Pokhara, Nepal! I also was able to pick up some prescription medicines to help with ear infection and bronchitis.
After a lot of rest, Phillippa and I spent a few days in Pokhara together unwinding from our trek and still wondering why the heck we put ourselves through it, laughing about my guide’s overbearing sense of duty and our dal bhat woes. Kindred spirits, we understood each other and that need to challenge ourselves through travel.
Overall, Pokhara was a peaceful place to unwind and experience Nepal. You still get cows in the streets, litter and loud noises--the experience of Nepal--but sprinkled with delightful western conveniences like lattes, wifi and massages. Our post-trek massages were through a charitable organization that hires and trains the blind, Seeing Hands Nepal. We walked around the serene lake, took a local bus (always an adventure!) to old Pokhara, and visited the World Peace Pagoda. Phillippa and I were such a support for each other, we were sad to part ways but her plans had her heading to Kathmandu and home just a little sooner than me. On my own, I visited the Tibetan settlement and listened to the chanting monks.
Kathmandu Ass Kicking
Eventually, I made my way to crazy Kathmandu. This city is overwhelming to the senses. There are people everywhere. Walking down the street is like walking out of a concert venue after a show has ended, full on crowded! The smell, the dirt, the constant shouts from store owners and tour operators, it was the complete opposite of the quiet and bliss I had come to Nepal to seek. The crowdedness even overshadowed the heaps of rubble leftover from the earthquake that seem to just blend into the daily life. But the tents were set up end to end along highway medians to house the homeless after the disaster were a stark reminder.
I found what looked like the most touristy and safe place to eat, a beautiful restaurant that looked so trendy and full of westerners it was as if I could have been back in California. I was desperately seeking nourishment after eating only dal bhat and no vegetables for the entire trip. I ordered a salad as the menu noted that all vegetables were washed in iodine, and enjoyed the western comforts and free wifi.
Later that day, I had plans to visit Pashupatinath Temple, the most sacred Hindu Temple in Nepal, with a day tour. I had really looked forward to this as much as the trek. Again, I was the only tourist signed up and it was just me and the tour guide (this is a common occurrence as tourism took a hit after the earthquake). The ride to the temple was on public transport, which was the back of an enclosed pickup truck with two benches, packed full of locals, hot and no ventilation to breathe. Picture when you see chickens being transported on the highway, that was me in this truck. After that we jumped on a bus, also packed, but with windows for polluted city air to circulate and interestingly loud blaring music. We made it to the temple, and I witness the cremations that take place along the banks of the Bagmati River. There were about five in progress, small groups of people standing around their loved ones burning out in the open converting to ashes that they would sweep into the river. The smoke stacks aligned the gray, polluted waters in a scene that I’ll never erase from memory.
The energy of this temple was intense. The banks of the river were silent, but you could feel the loss for the families grieving and the flow of life reincarnating. This pilgrimage site was so profound and everything I had hoped it would be. Maybe it was the salad, stirred up by the hectic transportation, and garnished by the burning bodies surrounding me, but I lost it! I threw up everything I had eaten all over this holy place as family members carried on with their memorial services. I got myself back to my hotel quickly, skipping the local transport experience and springing for a cab.
The next two days of my trip were spent in the pristine (by Nepal standards) Kathmandu Guest House (which still loses power several hours a day), in fetal position in bed swearing I would just do anything to be home. My body had never felt so weak. Nepal defeated me. I was so ill and exhausted and alone. I cried, wondering why I had this undeniable passion for wanderlust. Why do I always go off on these adventures that seem more like self-punishment?
I realized curled up in that hotel bed that I seeked “home.” I seeked the quiet and stillness of being back in North Carolina with my loved ones. Just as quickly as I had booked my trip to Nepal, in that hotel room bed, I was surefire planning my next trip driving across the country with my belongings from San Diego to North Carolina. Nepal showed me with certainty where I needed to be next in my life and put me on a new path. Months later, I know it was the right decision as I got hit by major life challenges and was in the right place to deal with them.
When I felt better, I took all of my meals in the hotel and would sit in the tranquil garden surrounded by bright, beautiful marigolds. I felt no need to go back out into the streets and fight the craziness of Kathmandu.
The Himalayas showed me that deepest connection with the universe I had been seeking. It didn’t go at all as smoothly as I had hoped, but I experienced Nepal the way it was meant to be for me. I was broken down and defeated, and tested. But I came back stronger, and that may be the best answer I can find as to why I push my limits so often traveling. The spiritual experiences I had in Nepal are now a part of who I am, how I experience life and how I teach yoga. I left Nepal changed forever, with stronger intuition and understanding of myself. I returned home accepting what I learned and experienced with no regrets.