This post is a difficult one to write. Ben and I have just completed 22 days of hiking in the Nepali Himalayas and in thinking of how to compile my thoughts about these three magical weeks, my mind remains focused on the earthquake.
We’d just gotten back to Pokhara the morning the main earthquake hit. It happened sometime around noon as we were settling into our hotel. Once we felt the shaking and realized what was happening, we quickly made the decision to crouch between the two beds in our room and ride it out. Strangely enough two days prior, during an episode of insomnia, Ben decided to peruse his survival guide and read the protocol for what to do in an earthquake. We were on the third floor at the time and earthquake experts advise to stay put.
This is the third earthquake Ben and I have experienced during our travels. The scariest thing about them is the unknown. There is no way of knowing what’s going to happen from one second to another. And with each passing moment there’s nothing you can do but wait, not knowing whether the shaking is about to stop completely or if the ceiling is about to fall on you. We were lucky to have been in a well built, modern building located in the city of Pokhara. Although the epicenter was located between Pokhara and Kathmandu, Pokhara managed to come out of the 7.8 magnitude earthquake, and its numerous aftershocks, completely unscathed.
A couple hours after the quake we heard news about what was happening in Kathmandu, just 125 miles east of where we were. At first it was difficult to tear myself away from major news networks who were reporting live from the wreckage sites. It was shocking to see how badly Kathmandu suffered from what we had just experienced. Shortly after the quake, Pokhara felt relatively back to normal while Kathmandu was in complete turmoil. It was a really strange feeling.
Two days later Ben and I found ourselves on a bus bound for Kathmandu. Our flight back to the U.S. was to leave just 3 days after the first quake hit. Luckily on this day the main road between the two cities had just reopened. Halfway between the two, we encountered a huge traffic jam of busses and cars heading out of Kathmandu. We were the only bus heading into the city.
As we approached the capital, we found many people on the side of the road. Buses flying past in the opposite direction were jammed. There were even crowds of people packed on top of buses, where the luggage usually went, clinging tightly as the bus whipped around the mountain road away from Kathmandu. Once in the city limits, it was clear just how many people were trying to evacuate. Most businesses had been shut and everyone was outside, in a huge chaotic mass that spilled out into the main roads. Many were leaving to visit relatives throughout Nepal or India. Perhaps they’d lost their home or were scared of another earthquake. Most of the people who’ve chosen to remain have been camping outside in makeshift tents. Rescue operations were still ongoing and ambulances raced by in every direction. Ben and I sat in silence the entire ride through the city.
It was crazy to have watched the wreckage on TV and then suddenly to see at the damage first hand. Most of the footage I’d seen covered the main historic sites, such as Durbar Square. But riding through the city it was surprising to see just how many homes and businesses were destroyed. Particularly memorable was a 4 story concrete hotel that had fallen on its side. Many old, brick or stone buildings had collapsed and countless others showed giant cracks in the walls.
It was late in the afternoon when we arrived. We took a cab directly to our hotel near the airport. The next morning Ben woke up early and walked down to some of the nearby camps to give away some of our jackets, sleeping bags, wool socks and several blankets. When he entered a camp, he gained everyone’s attention almost immediately. People seemed confused about who he was and why he was there. We didn’t have much to give and at first Ben thought he might be bombarded with people in need. But the opposite happened; many people felt they had sufficient clothing and didn’t want to take our things. They instead would mention a family a few tents down who they felt needed it more than them. It’s really moving during a time like this to see people taking care of one another instead of thinking only of their own circumstances.
Our 22 days hiking in the Annapurna region of the Himalayas was like a dream. The physical beauty of the mountains is greater than I could have ever imagined. The people we met along the way have been diverse but each seemed to possess a very spiritual and positive disposition in life.
We decided to go for one of the longest treks in Nepal, the Annapurna Circuit. There are several beautiful peaks that comprise the Annapurna region, ranging from around 19,600ft to over 26,000ft in elevation, which are visible throughout the trek. If you walk the entire circuit around the Annapurna massif it takes somewhere between 18-21 days.
Initially these trails were created and used by locals when visiting family members who lived in the mountains. Sometimes it would take days to get to their destination. Because of this some people in the villages opened their homes so these travelers could stop and get a hot meal and a cup of tea. So long as they paid for their meal they could sleep there for free, either on the floor, a bench or sometimes a bed. That is how the circuit formed. Ever since foreigners have come to Nepal wanting to hike these trails, the tradition of staying in these ‘tea houses’, as they are called, has changed and evolved into something much more established. They now resemble modest hotels with basic, yet comfortable private rooms. In keeping with tradition, many villages on the circuit will still allow you to sleep for free, so long as you agree to have your dinner and breakfast with them.
The trek starts out in the subtropical lowlands, at less than 3,000ft and slowly ascends to a mountain pass high in the Himalayas, called the Thorung La Pass, which sits at about 17,800ft on edge of the Tibetan Plateau. After the pass is completed it takes several days round back down around the Annapurnas towards Pokhara.
The Pass is the biggest challenge of the circuit and it’s where many people turn back because of altitude related issues. Ben and I have done high altitude trekking in Latin America and have lived for months at a time high in the Andes. Overall we’ve never had serious issues with altitude; however this was to be the highest pass we’ve undertaken.
We decided to get a porter/guide to accompany us on the trip. His name was Kamal. When we met him at the agency office a day before we left we were a little skeptical about hiring him, mainly because his English wasn’t great and he didn’t know how to read a map. The literacy rate in Nepal is not very high and we were concerned that might be an issue at some point. Then someone at the agency explained that it doesn’t matter that he can’t read a map, because he’s been around the circuit 500 times and doesn’t need one. He’s been walking with trekkers into these mountains for over two decades and knows the trails by heart.
We took his skills on faith and were so glad we did! It wasn’t long into the trek before we realized what an incredible man Kamal is, not only concerning his guidance & porter capabilities, but his overall character and gentle disposition towards those around him.
The lowland area is comprised of mainly Hindu villages, drawing its main cultural influence from India. The land is bright green with rice patties that are stacked vertically along the steep mountainsides. At a glance Ben and I were stunned by how enormous the mountains are, even in the lowlands. On the second day into our trek, villages into the distance looked like miniature monopoly pieces perched precariously against mammoth-sized mountains.
As the trek ascends further and the temperatures drop, the villages become Tibetan as many people from neighboring Tibet have sought refuge here over recent decades. Here the village shrines and temples change from Hindi to Buddhist. Although some villages had temples with both Buddhist and Hindu shrines, co-existing on the same grounds side by side in a peaceful and tolerant manner. Nepali people in general seem very tolerant when it comes to varying spiritual and religious beliefs.
This was the first time we’d observed Tibetan Buddhism, which is different than the Buddhism of Southeast Asia. The temples, rituals, and shrines are unique to Tibet. Most villages had a monastery (or ‘gompa’) and multiple prayer wheels. The prayer wheels (Mani wall) consisted of many small cylinder-shaped wheels with prayers etched around them. At the bottom they have little handles. The ritual is to pass along the left side, pulling each handle as you pass by, sending all the wheels into a spin and thus the prayers out into the universe. Ben and I always spun the wheels in each passing village, which helped remind me to stay in the present moment and to maintain a peaceful mind throughout the trek.
Inside the monasteries, the walls were bursting with color from all directions. The focal point, as usual, was a brass or gold Buddha statue with a framed photo of the Dalai Lama underneath. Sometimes there would be a monk present who would let us in and then resume his prayers while we looked around silently.
One thing I noticed in the villages higher up in the mountains was the way the people smell. They all smell like smoke from their woodfire stoves. Many people don’t have a sophisticated ventilation system in their kitchens and there stoves are all heated by wood. The smoke usually encapsulates the room, sinking into their skin, hair, and clothes almost permanently. Anyone passing by leaves a trail of smoky scent a few feet behind them. It’s not a particularly appealing smell but holds certain nostalgia for me because it reminds me of how people living in the high Andes of Ecuador and Peru smelled.
Also present in the higher mountain villages was yak cheese. Little shacks along the trail would sell fresh yak cheese which became our preferred trekking snack. Yaks are large animals that look like a combination of a buffalo and a cow. Their meat is prized, their cheese is delicious and their wool is used to make clothing. Twice during our trek we tried yak meat, it was really good. Generally speaking, most people in Nepal don’t eat meat. The standard meal here is a vegetarian Dal Bhat. It’s a huge platter of rice, lentil soup, curried vegetables, some kind of unidentifiable pickled item, and a piece of thin fried bread. It’s spicy and delicious! Each item is all you can eat and the server is always concerned that you are getting enough food. Locals seem to eat a Dal Bhat set at least once a day. Ben fell into this routine and ate Dal Bhat pretty much every meal during the trek. “Dal Bhat Power 24 Hour” is a common phrase used on the circuit because it keeps you full for hours afterwards.
Five days into the trek we hiked a high mountain trail from a village called Upper Pisang to Manang. The trail was at about 11,000ft in elevation and was one of my favorites on the circuit. There were very few clouds making some of the Annapurna peaks feel very close by and in high definition. The trail was very steep and we had a bird’s eye view of the deep valley below.
Days like that revealed unquestionably why the Himalayas are considered a spiritual place to the local people. It was breathtaking (literally).
Two days before the Pass, we had a rest day in Manang, to allow our bodies to acclimatize before ascending further. This day fell on my birthday. It felt great to have the chance to rest my legs after 7 intensive days of hiking. There was a small video hall in the village that showed movies like ‘Into the Wild’ and Mt. Everest documentaries. That night they were showing ‘7 Years in Tibet’. Throughout the trek we’d kept running to the same group of hikers, who arrived to Manang on the same day as we did. We all met up and watched the movie together.
Afterwards Ben and I ate dinner at our guesthouse. I was feeling great after such a good birthday. Before going to my room for the night Kamal approached me and seemed a little anxious. He asked twice for me to confirm that it was my birthday. Then he handed me a bag and said eagerly that he’d been shopping. Inside the bag was a beautiful yak wool blanket. I was completely speechless. I was so moved by the gesture I almost couldn’t believe it was for me. In fact I asked twice just to be sure I hadn’t misunderstood his broken English. We exchanged an awkward hug and I said ‘thank you’ about 10 times. I walked to my room, still slightly confused. Maybe it wasn’t that incredible and it was just a blanket, but to me it was so much more. Just the fact that a man we’d met only a few days before, who probably doesn’t have much disposable income, who has a family with three boys to look after back in Pokhara, would consider that my birthday was deserving of such a gift was so heartwarming.
Three days later we found ourselves ascending up to the Thorung La Pass. We woke up at 4:00 in the morning and were anxious to get the day going. The Pass had been lingering in our minds since the first day of the trek. The day had come and we were ready. From our starting point we had to hike about 3,200ft in elevation to the top, which would take about 4-5 hours. The first 1500ft was presented almost all at once in a very steep hill that started just behind our guesthouse. As the massive hill was completed, the sun was up and we were relieved to have been given clear skies. The remaining ascent was in the form of multiple, slow-rolling hills through the snow. When we got to base camp, we put crampons on our shoes to help with the snow. These spiky additions to my shoes were to be my most prized possession for the day.
The views closer the top were incredible. Our trail and surrounding mountains were completely blanketed in snow. It felt like we were on top of the world. Although the remaining hills looked gentle enough, they required an immense amount of energy. Each step taken was met with a massive inhale for air that never seemed to satisfy my lungs. About 30 minutes from the pass Ben started developing some symptoms of AMS, particularly dizziness and vomiting. Every few steps he had to stop and get his bearings.
Behind us were the shallow hills that would take a couple hours before he felt the benefits of descending, if we decided to turn back. In front of us lied a few more feet of uphill followed by sharp downhill. After weighing his options, he decided to push through it. We continued on and finally saw the prayer flags blowing in the intense wind in front of us, signifying that we had made it to the top. We stood relieved in front of a sign that congratulated us on making the 17,765ft Throung La Pass.
We celebrated, took a few quick photos, and decided to descend shortly after. It seemed the very moment we decided to descend, the weather turned. Heavy snowfall and wind accompanied us most the way on our walk down to Mukinath, our ending point for the day. Ben and I continued to be on different pages physically. With each step down to Mukinath Ben felt more energized, relieved that the pass was behind him. I felt surprisingly great during our ascent, but my energy and morale began to escape me a couple hours into our decent. The 6,000ft decent seemed to go on forever in my mind. The steep trail was covered in slushy snow. The beloved crampons on my shoes were the only thing keeping me from sliding down the mountain.
The walk down took 5 hours in total and the drop in elevation was a huge relieve to us both. By the time we arrived in Mukinath, I felt like a shell of a human. After a quick shower I decided to lie down for a couple hours before dinner. I crawled into my sleeping bag and as soon as I felt its warmth I knew that I would not be getting out of it until the next day. Not even the promise of a hot meal in the next room could get me out of bed. I’d given the mountain everything I had; there was nothing left for anyone or anything. While I settled into my self-induced coma, Ben, somehow rejuvenated after our 11 hour journey, set out to see Mukinath and made a plan for us to hike to some of the nearby villages and temples the next day.
Although the day was long and exhausting for me, it was equally as empowering. We both drew strength from the accomplishment, feeling confident that no matter what challenges arose throughout the rest of the trek we could handle them all.
We did the pass on Day 11. During the remaining 8 days we slowly descended back into the lowlands. After being in the cold, windy mountains it felt amazing to feel the warm sun on our skin and to be surrounded once again in a subtropical landscape. On one of our last days, we walked through a green, mossy forest outside a town called Ghorepani. It was another one of my favorite days. Occasionally it would lightly rain and the slow dripping against the scraggly, wild branches of the trees only added to the forest’s natural beauty. Rhododendron trees were in full bloom and the sea of green was occasionally punctuated by bright pink and red flowers.
We got back to Pohkara on Day 19. When we got to our hotel we said goodbye to Kamal. The moment he left we started to miss his presence and thought about him in the days that followed. We still had one week remaining until our flight out of Kathmandu. We decided to do a short solo hiking trip, somehow still feeling a desire to walk. The next morning we went out to a nearby lake called Begnas Tal and planned to hop around to the little villages that surrounded the lake. Instead we stayed all three nights with a local named Ram and his wife, who ran a small homestay in the first village we came to. Ram was a great cook and had an incredible view of the lake and surrounding peaks from his balcony. We went on a couple hikes during the day but always felt compelled to return to their peaceful home. One day Ram took Ben fishing and we ate a dinner of Dal Bhat with fresh fish.
We returned to Pokhara early the following morning. The earthquake hit not long after we settled into our hotel. Ever since our arrival to Nepal a month before, the people have been so welcoming to us. They seem to possess a calm and peaceful temperament when dealing with life’s inconveniences or struggles. They also seem very connected with one another. Yet their society as a whole seems complex, like there’s so much hidden beneath the surface. It’s difficult to see people suffering from this disaster after having such an incredible experience here.
***When we left Kathmandu, there were still many people living in tents. We heard reports that in some parts of the city people were struggling to have their most basic needs met. There are several aid organizations that have mobilized to provide relief to these people. If you are interested in supporting Nepal during this time, please follow up your thoughts and prayers with a donation. Here’s a list of aid organizations: click here.
Photographs from Annapurna (captions by Ben)