Phnom Penh —Bangkok —Mumbai —Kathmandu —Bharatpur

Airline schedule adjustments altered our timetables reminding us that we are at the whim of forces larger than ourselves. And we are thankful that all our travels have been without incident thus far. Original travel plans packed these four legs into less than a day albeit with no significant layovers and a more direct route. Instead we stretched this out to 36 hours and spent the night in Mumbai’s Chhatrapati International Airport. However, to us both, it was not the worst overnight in a terminal. The airport operates 24 hours and couches and loungers do accommodate stretching out the legs.

Surprisingly, internet was unavailable, and we were unable to confirm our arrival to Rajendra – our Nepali fixer. However, upon arrival to Kathmandu we could hear Rajendra calling from the crowd, and it was immediately obvious that everything would be alright. We sat for lunch as he brought us up to speed on the weeks ahead and he booked our plane tickets to Bharatpur on his cellphone without even a break in conversation.

During residency I visited Nepal for a global health elective put on by the University of New Mexico. I don’t remember much about flying into Kathmandu three years ago, but one step into the airport, the brickwork and sweet smell brought me back. The people, the food, and the land left an indelible mark in my heart, and I have not felt at peace the same way until arriving once again at KTM.

Before we knew it we were loaded onto a 17 passenger plane and off to the Terai of Southern Nepal. From the airport there was a taxi ride traversing just 18 kilometers over unsealed road that took upwards of an hour! We arrived at Eco Wildlife Lodge and greeted our host, Kumar. Picture Jurassic Park meets Couples Retreat. We had a delicious meal of paneer and curried vegetables with lentil soup and rice cooked just for us.

6:15 am wake up knock and coffee before our first elephant safari. The rain stopped and the mist sublimated just enough to make out deer, wild boar, and even rhino. After breakfast Kumar walked us through a local Tharu village and expounded on the history of the region. A second elephant safari was scheduled for our afternoon, and with reluctance we boarded Rani once again. To our surprise, we saw two sets of mother rhinos with babies.

The next day included a nature walk with Kumar to cover the local flora and fauna of the Chitwan National Park. We took a guided canoe ride to see a multitude of bird species and several hefty specimens of both the local mugger and gharial crocodiles. With deep respect and gratitude we witnessed a funeral procession and cremation at the riverside. It was both somber and beautiful.

Our farewell to Chitwan included a driving safari and visit to the gharial crocodile breeding facility. There were hundreds of crocs there ranging in size from hatchlings to 15 feet. Late in the day Kumar screeched the jeep to a halt. He raised his hand signaling us to be still. He exited the vehicle and began to track the scent. He sniffed a tree and raked his hand across the dirt before declaring, “I smell something sweet – tiger urine.” Sure enough, just 10 feet down a turnoff from the main road we found fresh tiger tracks in the mud.

Equally astonishing to Kumar’s jungle knowledge, the resort’s kitchen was consistently impressive and deserves mention. Our chef, Beemela, churned out delicious dish after delicious dish with a smile as sweet as her desserts.

After a fond farewell to Chitwan, and another hour-long crawl into Bharatpur, we flew back to
Kathmandu with a few days to visit the temples and make final gear purchases for our trek. We met cousins Max and Amanda at the airport before heading to our hotel. By no means conveniently located we booked our first few nights at the Hotel Vadjra. This is where I stayed three years ago. Our relationship was still in its infancy and I would Skype from the lobby or courtyard. I was immersed in a world Nathalia had studied and to return here together made the trip extra special.

We were so fortunate to have more family join us along our journey, cousin Amanda and her fiancé Max. Together, the four of us visited Swayambunath monkey temple and Durbar square before eating at the iconic Fire and Ice Pizza I had been craving for the last three years. Laundry was a hassle but did give us options regarding river water or an upgrade to clean water. Last order of business was renting sleeping bags – a new experience for us both. We were assured the bags were cleaned with wet wipes between uses and properly cleaned after each trekking season. Just our luck, it was the end of the season.

Our luck would change as Rajendra invited us into his home to discuss final trip details, meet our crew, and taste true Nepali hospitality. His wife cooked a delicious traditional meal and he kept our glasses full of local beer, wine, and Rakshi (liquor). We met Rajendra’s children and niece, and his brother and our guide, Rabindra. Rajendra was nice enough to share with us his slice of home and family life, and talked at length about Nepali life in the village and in Kathmandu. Lastly, we charted our course and covered final details and expectations of our trip ahead before a taxi home to pack and try to sleep despite the growing excitement.

Sure enough, as we returned to the hotel, the power was out, and we packed our bags by candlelight. It was ironic that in the big city we resorted to candlelight and, as we would find, the villages of the Himalayas all had solar power without interruptions.

Early morning a Land Cruiser drove us out of town and into the mountains. It seems inconceivable that it would take 6 hours to go just 118 km to Syrabrubesi. Nonetheless, we survived the seasonal road, more than a dozen army checkpoints, and an earthquake overnight. We could only assume this was an auspicious start.

The first leg of our trek was to climb through the Langtang Valley. From just 1470m at Syabrubesi we spent three days working our way through rhododendron forests along the rushing river and up to the mountain town of Kyanjin Gompa (3870m). Along the way we were delighted to find a “Western” toilet and even a hot shower. We learned a great deal about the flora and fauna of the Langtang area as well as the Tamang people from Tibet that settled the region. Hotel owners gave us insight into how the development of Nepal and Kathmandu affect their lives and the great lengths they go to in order to provide the best education for their children. Often times, parents send their children to Kathmandu to stay with family and attend school. Sometimes, they may only see their children once a year.

A day in the life of a trekker is quite simple. If you wish, you could be woken with “bed tea” to help coax you out of your sleeping bag. Pack your bag in time for breakfast. This may include anything from a boiled egg and chapati to fruit filled porridge. Hike for a couple hours before a tea stop and a couple more hours before lunch. A surprising array of choices awaits you at lunch and you decide on what your belly will hold for the day. After lunch, it’s on to your destination hotel offering accommodations ranging from simple rooms with squatter toilets to double beds with attached bathroom and solar shower. The food staple is dal bhat; curried vegetables and rice served with dahl, pickled vegetables and a homemade cracker. This is sure to give you the power to climb Everest.

Life is simple. Foot care is paramount and tending to sore muscles occupies evenings. The only screen you see is the small LCD of your camera. We check in with ourselves instead of online. We meet trekkers from around the world and share stories as well as the common draw to the mountains of Nepal. Our guide and porters give us insight into Nepali life then and now, religion, and family values. All the elements of life still thriving in a struggling country wedged between hostile powerhouses India and China.

Our porters – Mehk and Dhana – were brothers from a neighboring village of our guide, Rabindra. Their English improved day by day as well as our understanding of each other. No doubt, it is a foreign and unique relationship that took some getting used to, but I understand guides and porters rely on us for job security and we rely on them for safe and comfortable passage through the mountains. In fact, I cannot stress enough the importance of employing Nepali guides and porters. Trekking can be done without hired help; Anyone can read a map, and most tea house owners speak English well enough to work out accommodations, but our Nepali friends were worth their weight in gold. At every stop they’d wait on us hand-and-foot serving tea, biscuits, and hot Tang. They’d stoke the fire on request, and their unending smiles kept us cruising on the trail. Wages from one trek may supply a year’s worth of income to someone returning to the village for the low season, and those wages may support extended family as well. In exchange we get their hard work and they help us wipe the fog from our window looking into life in Nepal.

As we ascended the Langtang valley we gained elevation and earned new views each day. From Kyanjin Gompa we climbed to a lookout near Kyanjin Ri to marvel at mammoth surroundings. Langtang Lirung clearly towers over the region at 7246m and several glaciers can be seen from the panoramic lookout. The Langtang trek is an out-and-back journey, but before returning to our origin we turned South and climbed up into the next valley to the village of Thulo Syabru for Christmas Eve. We were gifted hot showers and even wifi to check in with the family and wish them a Merry Christmas.

At our ignorant insistence we found a shortcut that saved us an hour-and-a-half, although at the cost of drudging through thigh deep snow. We found ourselves a white Christmas after all. However, it wasn’t until hours later that we encountered probably the hardest quarter-mile of our trek as we endured a painstaking slog up the final approach to Laurebina Yak. We were temporarily relieved as we arrived at each tea house only to find they were deserted. This late in December the five tea houses rotate operation, and we eventually ambled into our shelter for the night.

It wasn’t too bad; The views now to took our breath away more than the altitude as we climbed to the village. The aches and pains paled in comparison to the awe inspiring peaks rising from the cloudy carpet. We had good company above the clouds including the Annapurnas, Manaslu (8156 m), Langtang Lirung, and the four peaks of the Ganesh Himal. Our hardest day yet was capped with the most beautiful sunset to date. Space around the stove was prime real estate for drying footwear and warming toes. Hot showers are seasonal here. The shower was a snow storage room this week.

Dinner at Gosainkund Lake was a United Nations of sorts. Trekkers from France, Italy, Latvia, and Japan joined us for a miserable and chilly meal. At 4380 m (14,370 feet), it was both a high point and a low point of the trip when you consider the abominable food, wood planks passed as beds, and a bathroom that I wouldn’t send vermin to die. No matter, the golden sunset transported us as our eyes scanned from mountain tops to the flat cloud covered abyss below.

The next morning came early as we aimed to clear the pass before the snow got too soft. Hiking past the ancient holy lake left indelible marks on us. Every August, thousands of pilgrims brave the monsoon to spend time at this holy water source. We topped off our water at the same spring that supposedly saved Shiva’s life from the ingested poison. It tasted glorious, especially with a little Tang.

Laurebina La (4610 m) is a pass worthy of the months of work and preparations dedicated to arriving there. As expected, a rock shrine draped in prayer flags faded by the sun. Unexpected was the overwhelming feelings that touched us there. We thanked the divine for our fortune of health and happiness, and the wonderful friends and family waiting for us at home. Riding high we began our descent, however, there’d be many more highs and lows before this trek was over.

For whatever reason, quality of food seemed to be inversely proportionate to altitude, and as we descended to Phedi we found the best tasting dal bhat we had in more than a week. With the sun still high in the sky we pressed on – ahead of schedule – and groped our way over Kasturee Danda (Musk Deer Ridge) and into Ghopte. This required efforts equivalent to interval training; scaling steep ascents up slick ice in the shade and even more slippery descents down the melted snow on the sunny sides.

Our efforts all proved worthwhile as we arrived in Ghopte with plenty of sunlight left to settle in. If sunsets couldn’t get any more beautiful we sipped masala tea above a sea of clouds undulating against the mountainside until the sun buried itself with a honeycomb glow in a bed of Nepali woolen clouds.

The following days led us back into the tree line and below the snow line. Now onto the Helambu trek we found a hot shower and western toilet, but with these amenities comes the influence of Kathmandu’s society. We began to see hastily discarded phone cards, western clothing styles, haircuts, and attitudes. We walked past schools, a health clinic, and even a safe haven for at-risk girls.

The last two days were not as straight forward as a topographical overview would suggest. We had anticipated two carefree downhill strolls back to Kathmandu. Instead, we found agonizing climbs up hand-carved steps and unremitting downhills that punished our already fatigued legs. The end of our trail was the start of the main road, and a short drive reacquainted with the city sights and sounds on our way back to downtown Kathamandu.

Re-entry into “civilization” would take time. Our weathered and chapped exteriors alone would take nurturing and care to restore their previously young and vibrant appearance. We chose the Hyatt Regency to aid our metamorphosis. Luxuries included on-demand hot water, 24-hour uninterrupted power, and spa amenities even though the real reason for our stay was the breakfast buffet.

As foreigners in a foreign land we celebrated New Year’s Eve quietly in a country that doesn’t follow the Gregorian calendar. We felt even more alone ringing in the new year without pause from the international television broadcast. Nepal’s offset time zone is on the quarter-hour, and as the clock struck midnight we were a tiny minority wishing each other, “Happy New Year.”

Our Nepali denouement requires return to Thamel for food, presents, and laundry. We weighed our laundry bag before leaving the hotel and made four stops before finding a proprietor with a scale remotely accurate. I would have gladly overpaid if it guaranteed fresh clean clothes. Tragically, we retrieved our clothes shortly before our departure, some still wet, and some had obviously not been washed.

Before leaving Nepal we did witness a special ceremony at Boudhanath, one of the largest Buddhist stupas in the world. It was a fond farewell to a country we had both grown a greater appreciation for, and where I was – three years ago – when we fell in love.