India: Ladakh: Markha Valley: The Summit and the Sham Trek

On the summit day of our highest pass, I felt my boundless energy rising to a level that I couldn’t contain anymore. I love hiking straight up and this was going to be the highest peak that I climbed (…except I had to climb the last 20 minutes or so of Khardung La pass during a blizzard because the road was blocked by stuck vehicles – which was a bit higher).

I trekked through snow and slush and had to try and slow myself down because I was so excited to reach the top. I kept stopping to try and breathe in the thin air but my legs wanted to run up to the pass. The ascent wasn’t steep, nor was it technical. The challenging part was hiking up on snow, slush and ice as well as ascending in thinner air.

Kongmaru La Pass with Nicole and her guides

But, my body seems to function at opposite levels. When I am at sea level, I feel sluggish, tired and have brain fog. But the higher that I hike, I feel more clear-headed and happier. So, when I reached the peak, I threw down my backpack, ripped off my jacket and began running around joyfully in a state of heightened bliss. I ran around for a while, jogging across the top and taking pictures along the way.

Thibaud and I celebrating our highest accomplishment!

Once the rest of my friends arrived, we took pictures at the top and began the icy, steep descent. Going downhill on a steep descent with icy paths amidst a lot of snow was very scary for me. Each time I took a step, I had to carefully place my foot as close to the mountain side of the icy, tiny trail in order to prevent sliding down the sharp slope on the other side.

The icy descent on Kongmaru La pass

It took a great deal of concentration and once we made it to safety and out of the snow, Thibaud and I sat down to have a snack and reflect on our hike.

Markha Valley Trek, Ladakh, India

The rest of the descent and the hike into Chogdo winded through a deep canyon and a river. Most of the time, we could see either the low trail that ran around and sometimes, across the river or a higher, steep and sketchy trail very high above the river. It was the only time that I would’ve liked to have a guide as we wound up walking on very high, narrow, steep trails that were covered in ice and snow. Then, we would have to descend down an icy slope straight across the river, hopping over rocks and trying not to fall.

At one point, when we were all searching for the trail, low or high, the badass German couple scaled a 90-degree wall straight up a cliff to find the high trail.

“Oh hell no,” I said as Thibaud, Marco and I watched the German girl trying to free climb up a cliff over a rocky river wearing her heavy backpack. They did it but we decided against it and walked back until we spotted the actual, somewhat hidden trail going up and up and up to reach the trail that they had climbed to.

Markha Valley Trek, Ladakh,India – Photo by Thibaud

We hiked and hiked until we reach Chogdo where we tried to find the same homestay that our friend Nicole and her guides were staying at. No one in the village wanted to help us find them as they wanted us to stay in their homestays. We wound up following a very nice woman, who was smiling broadly, down a steep hill, across the river and up a very steep path to her home under the impression that our friend was staying there as well.

She proudly showed us her guest room and the kitchen and urged us to take off our shoes. We quickly realized that this wasn’t where Nicole was staying.

“We should try and find Nicole’s place,” Thibaud said as they had offered to give us a ride the next day back to Leh, and we also wanted to invite Nicole on our next trek.

“Let’s stay here and then go on a quest,” I said. “I can’t carry my backpack anywhere else and this woman is so accommodating.”

Our other best homestay ever – in Chogdo

Indeed, the woman had already started warming up tea for us and was motioning for us to come and sit in her tiny, warm kitchen. She had the largest and most beautiful smile that I had seen so far and I couldn’t resist her hospitality. After a tea, we went on a mission for Nicole and her guides. We hiked back down the hill, hopped across the rocks on the river, trying not to fall in and back up the next hill. Then, we walked down the path for quite a while until we came across a newer guesthouse and found them sitting inside.

As soon as we walked in and were handed a cup of chai, I was happy with our decision for where to stay for the night. Nicole’s place was much more modern and seemed to be built more for tourism whereas ours felt like a tiny homestay with a gracious host, which was what Thibaud and I had grown accustomed to by this point on the trail. It was a very nice experience to choose our own homestays based on feeling rather than having someone choose them for us.

Markha Valley Trek, Ladakh,India -Photo by Thibaud

On our last day, we hiked with Nicole, her guides and Marco on the path/road to the end of the trek. As we climbed into Nicole’s van taxi at the end of the trail and drove towards a few monasteries that we were going to visit, a wave of sadness washed over me as I wasn’t ready to go back to society. I wanted to keep living in this Ladakhi paradise forever.

>>>>>

Sham Valley Trek

After resting for a few days in Leh, where nearly everything had closed by this point, we decided to do one last trek: The Sham Valley Trek, otherwise known around town as: The Baby Trek.

The Sham Trek is a short three-day trek that is supposed to be done first, before any longer treks, such as the Markha Valley Trek. It is usually hiked as a ‘warm-up’ for more serious and strenuous treks in Ladakh.

Sham Valley Trek, Ladakh, India

Thibaud, Nicole and I decided to do it after the Markha Valley Trek since we had a few more days before our flight to Delhi. None of us were ready to get back into the real world of wifi and news so we escaped for a few more days. We caught the local bus, which after a very bumpy ride, dropped us off on a desolate dirt road in the middle of nowhere.

We all looked around, clutching our backpacks and then walked up to the shack on the side of the road.

“Chai?” I said hopefully before noticing a small stove to man’s right side. “Omelette?!”

He nodded enthusiastically and we had breakfast overlooking the vast, dusty landscape around us. The trek was supposed to start in the town of Lekir but there was nothing in sight. The man smiled and pointed to the vast wilderness behind his shack. After we finished our breakfast and chai, we set off in the direction that he pointed, using our google maps as our guide.

We hiked through a desert-like landscape and it reminded me of The Lion King as we saw skeletons everywhere. Somehow, we started following signs that led us down a very remote canyon in the wrong direction. As I hopped ahead on the rocks very deep into the canyon, spotting animal skeleton after animal skeleton, we realized we were heading the wrong way and turned back.

Once we were on the right trail, we eventually came to a large building that was hosting a lunch for the entire village. A bus full of village locals got off and were ushered inside as we hiked up. After some pleading, we were invited inside to have tea and lunch in a separate room with the children. The lunch was being held for the villagers as a thank for you for helping with an upcoming wedding.

The adorable children with snot dried on their noses and their bums hanging out kept running in and out playing a game of hide-and-seek with us as the mom came in to talk with us for a few moments,

“I am getting my masters in Buddhist studies,” she told us as she bounced a baby on her traditional dress. She poured us more tea and then we paid them and continued on our trek.

Hemis

We soon arrived in Hemis, a beautiful village tucked away between mountains. We had to hike up and up and up to reach the village. Once we arrived, we walked around trying to find the perfect place to stay. Since we were the only hikers left on the Sham Valley trek (it is usually crowded, I heard, but we were the last three hikers for the season), no one even tried to fight to host us. Instead, we wound up passing a bunch of locals and as if it were her turn, one older woman stood up and led us through the winding rows of homes and up a set of stairs before reaching her home.

Sham Valley Trek, Ladakh, India

As we took off our shoes and walked into the guest room with several mattresses on the floor, she opened the windows. We were very high up and there were mountains all around us. The room was on a corner so we had multiple windows showing us the mountain range surrounding us. There were bright green trees as well as snow-capped peaks in the far distance. It was the most picturesque view I could’ve imagined. She brought us tea and we giggled with delight as we relaxed with our beautiful views before running outside to explore the village and surrounding views at sunset.

It was worth being lost when I ran further up and up and found this pass!

The following day, we got lost (it was my fault, I wouldn’t listen to Thibaud’s directions even though I wasn’t even using a map). Instead of hiking an hour back up the steep road that we had just descended, we scaled a very steep and sketchy tiny trail that went straight up the face of a slope. It was terrifying but the top was rewarding and worth it. I ran further up and around the trail to find another pass that had the most beautiful views of rows and rows of snow-capped peaks.

Then, we hiked eventually to the town of Ang. Walking into this town carried the feeling of a heart-filled home. I felt joy bubble up inside of me as soon as we put our bags down in the lovely homestay that we found. The woman and her son were so very happy to host us. She gave us buckets of hot water for our bucket baths. She fed us snacks of fresh apricots, apples, cookies and unlimited milk teas.

Sham Valley Trek, Ladakh, India

Nicole and I took off to keep exploring the town and wound up making friends with a dog that started exploring with us. We climbed up and around and through fences. We walked along walkways alongside waterways and over stones that had water trickling down them. We had to go through a barbed wire fence and scale a stone wall and eventually came to a mountain that overlooked Ang. We climbed and climbed and climbed, trying to get to the top before dark, and right at sunset, we reached the top.

Sham Valley Trek, Ladakh, India

It was my favorite moment of all of my time in Ladakh. The village of Ang warmed my soul. Having Nicole and our new dog to explore and to climb furiously up one more peak was the pinnacle of all of my experiences there so far. We sat and watched as the sun fell behind the mountains and the sky lit up with colors so brilliant that they lit up the dark clouds over them.

Momos!

Then, we scampered back down the mountain, back through town, and straight into our homestay to find fresh, homemade momos waiting for us.

More to come from the life of joy 😉

Well, that’s it actually, I have run out of space in my blog!! Bye!

Also, these are all out of order a bit but all from 2018

 

Thanks to Thibaud for being such an amazing hiking partner throughout all of our adventures!

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India: Ladakh: Markha Valley: And into the valley we go!

Gonda La Pass!

Thibaud and I hiked and slid very carefully down the icy descent of Gonda La Pass. Luckily, the descent wasn’t very steep so it was relatively painless even through the ice and snow.

Markha Valley Trek, Ladakh, India

We hiked down and eventually came across a tiny village that was nestled perfectly into the rocks of the nearby mountains. It was the most beautiful, tiny settlement.

Shingo!

“Where are we?” I asked Thibaud as we checked the downloaded maps on our phones.

“Shingo!” he said. We walked up to a guesthouse that seemed very inviting. There was a table and two plastic chairs overlooking the garden and an old woman came out,

“Sit!” she cried, motioning for us to sit down.

Markha Valley Trek, Ladakh, India

They brought us milk teas and I indulged in several before deciding to spend the night there. Later, we climbed up over the village in order to watch the sun setting as the Markha riverbed slid into twilight. We slept each night on mattresses on the floor and the communal kitchen areas hosted a small wood-burning oven that was typically fueled by cow dung (but didn’t smell like it).

This homestay had an outhouse that we had to walk outdoors and across the staircase to get to – which consisted of a hole in the ground and a pile of dirt. You simply scoop some dirt into the hole when you are finished. The door also had wide slats so that you could see inside at any time when walking by!

Markha Valley Trek, Ladakh, India

The young, ill-equipped German couple showed up later in the evening and found that late in the night, we were all locked in and they were unable to get to the outhouse. They were very distressed the following day. Luckily, neither Thibaud and I had any bathroom emergencies during the night and slept like babies. We woke up, had our breakfast, collected our box lunch and took off down the beautiful trails.

Mani walls

We enjoyed a peaceful, beautiful hike along the river. The fall colors were shining bright and the entire valley seemed to be lit up by the bright red, yellow and orange colors of the trees. The air was brisk and perfect for hiking. We passed mani walls, chortens, stupas and enjoyed the traditional Tibetan Buddhism landmarks along the route. Chortens are Buddhist shrines and mani walls are long, stone walls covered in chiseled rocks of various Buddhist symbols. You are supposed to always navigate these blessings on the trail in a clockwise motion.

Markha Valley Trek, Ladakh, India

We passed a different German couple: young, fit and extremely capable and perhaps, they were the only people we saw all day besides the locals in the town of Skiu, where I desperately tried to find someone to serve me a milk tea. My addiction to milk teas with sugar had surpassed availability on the trail. Every single ‘tea tent’ that I had read about no longer existed on the trail.

Markha Valley Trek, Ladakh, India
Our homestay in Sara 🙂

Once we arrived in Sara, we were lured into the first tiny homestay that we saw. The house was miniscule and the love that we got from this tiny shack was enormous. The woman who hosted us was the sweetest, loveliest woman that I have ever met, ever. She heated water for us so we could attempt to take bucket baths behind the outhouse. She brought us into the dung-fueled warmth of her tiny kitchen and brought me milk tea after never-ending milk tea. She put blankets over our legs and cared for us with so much love and warmth that I never wanted to leave her wonderful little house.

Our homestay in Sara!

It was by far, my most memorable and favorite homestay that I have ever had. Later that night, after Thibaud had gone into our room, which consisted of several mattresses on the floor, I stayed in the warmth of the kitchen, reading a guidebook that I found in her house. Most of the village locals (four men, it was a tiny village) gathered into the kitchen and I read while they talked and we all shared pots of warm tea.

Those colors!
Not my rock but this is what some of them look like 🙂

The next day, we hiked up, down and around with the beautiful autumn colors even more bountiful. I came across a junction in the river that had a mani wall that had a single rock far away from the wall. It was the exact replica of something that I had seen during my DMT trip in Berlin. I was very far ahead of Thibaud at this point so I sat down with the rock for a while and entered a sort of a trance-like meditation. A wave of inner-peace filled up within me like I’ve never felt before.

Markha Valley Trek, Ladakh, India

We went through the bustling village of Markha, the largest town in the valley. Then, on the way to Hankar, we passed a very steep ascent to a monastery. It was at the highest altitude that I had ever seen a monastery sit.

The steepest monastery!

“How did they build that?” we speculated as we dropped our bags and hustled up the extremely steep and scary path. It had an amazing view and we could see the young, fit German couple arriving at the base of the hike (the surly Germans were long gone).

At the top! looking down..

We climbed carefully back down, still in awe of how anyone could build this type of monastery so high in the sky and headed into Hankar.

The hike to Nimaling

We stayed in Hankar with a lady who didn’t seem so apt on hosting us. Perhaps, she wasn’t so mean but just not as loving and caring as the delightful woman that we had left that morning in Sara. But we met Marco, a Spaniard who was trekking alone. He joined us the following morning and the three of us hiked to Nimaling together.

The hike to Nimaling with a mani wall 🙂

The trek to Nimaling was uphill and fantastically stunning. We reached a beautiful lake and gompa that was hard for me to enjoy because for the first time, we had run into a tour. There were about 20 loud, young Americans running around and it gave me an idea of what the trek would be like during high season.

Mouse hares! -Photo by Thibaud!

However, once we departed the lake, it was quiet and peaceful all over again…just Thibaud, Marco and I all hiking at our different paces. The fit Germans were nearby throughout the day as well and it was nice to have a small, collective group of ‘trail friends’ along the way. The best part about the hike into Nimaling are the mouse hares, which are tiny, white animals that look like a mixture of guinea pigs and marmots.  They bop up and down out of holes everywhere you look and since we were hiking on snow the closer we got to camp, they would shoot out and back under the ground like one of those whack-a-mole games you used to find at an arcade.

Walking into Nimaling

Hiking into Nimaling was like hiking into a white, wonderful world of tents at a very high altitude. It was the highest that I’ve ever camped at: around 4900 meters (or 16,000 feet.)

The tent designated for sleeping was very large and had rips in the side of it. I had a feeling it was going to be a bitter cold night.

Nimaling Camp

The outhouses were filled to the brim with poop. In fact, shit was towering out of the holes so that you couldn’t hover over the hole if you tried! I decided to only do my business outside at night. Everyone at the camp seemed cold but jovial. We sat down for a few cups of warm tea and met Nicole from Paris. She was hiking with a female guide and a female porter, which is rare to see on the trail.

“I found a company that only employs female Ladakhi women for their guides and porters,” she told us excitedly. “It has been so wonderful to have them.”

Markha Valley Trek, Ladakh, India

Nicole was down for more exploring so she and I, along with the young, fit German couple hiked quickly up the steep ascent towards the pass that we would be summiting the following day. We hiked up and up and up until we all stopped and looked down to see the camp. It looked so small and tiny below us. We hiked back down and I joined Thibaud in our tent after sunset.

Marco, Thibaud and I curled up in our sleeping bags with all of our clothes on and piles of blankets that we found inside the tent over our sleeping bags and all laid there shivering. It was quite miserable and then, after some time, the flap of the tent opened, and the tall, fit German, Dominic, came in:

“What are you guys doing in here?” he asked. He had carried their own tent and camping gear so he and his girlfriend were camped a distance away from us. “It is freezing in here. Come, come, we are all in the kitchen tent.”

Dancing at night in Nimaling 😉

We slithered out of our sleeping bags and I found that all of my water bottles were already frozen. We stepped into the cold, although it didn’t seem too much colder than our tent and walked over to the kitchen tent. It was warm and inviting. Nicole sat inside with her guide and porter, along with two Chinese girls and their guide. Thibaud, Marco, the German couple and I quickly took off our boots and sat down in the warmth around the dung-fuel fire. Everyone wrapped blankets around us and we quickly warmed up as we all ate a delicious meal of dal baht.

Trying to fill up with non-frozen water!

Afterwards, as we all sipped on tea, Nicole’s guide jumped up and started dancing in front of us. Then, the man who was in charge of Nimaling started dancing with her. They put on a show for us until they finally forced us all to start dancing. Reluctantly, we stood up and began dancing. It felt so good and weird at high altitude and then, all of a sudden, we were all very warm.

“Competition!” they said, making us each go up in pairs and dance for everyone in the tiny tent.

Once our dancing competition was complete, we all ran in different directions outside of the border of Nimaling in order to find places to use the bathroom in the snow, and then we tried to go to bed. Thibaud, Marco, Nicole and I were all lying there, wrapped in everything that we owned and all of the blankets and I was still shaking rapidly. To make matters worse, I had stuck my contact solution inside my sleeping bag so that it wouldn’t freeze and then it spilled. My sleeping bag was soaked for most of the night. I woke up to icicles covering the outside of my sleeping bag including all the way on my chin! My hat was covered in ice as well and I was freezing.

I went outside to try and find unfrozen water to wash my hands in order to put in my contact lenses. Nicole’s guide kindly shared some of her warm water and then, as I took my contact out of the secured case (that I had kept in my boobs overnight to prevent from freezing), I tried to put it up to my eye.

It froze and shattered!

From the distance it took to move my finger to my eye, my contact lens froze and shattered. I sighed and tried another one, faster, but it froze and shattered too. I tried to do it in the kitchen tent since it was warmer and somehow, finally got one in each eyeball.

Bye Nimaling!

Then, I put on my bag, refilled my water bottle and set off for the summit.

India: Ladakh: Markha Valley: The Trek of Paradise

“You SHOULD be okay without a guide,” Tashi said to us.

Tashi!

My hiking buddy Thibaud had already arrived in Leh, and I had just returned from Turtuk. We were about to embark on a 7-day trek through Markha Valley in Ladakh, India. We were sitting in one of the adventure shops in Leh talking to Tashi, the amazingly nice and helpful Ladakhi guide who had secured my permits for Turtuk. We had been planning on doing the hike ourselves but the recent snowfall had left us worried about the descent from the highest pass.

“You will be wading in snow,” he said. “But unless there is a snowfall on your trek, you should see a path from the mules.”

He looked at the trusty trail runners that I had been wearing on all of my treks for the past several months. They had holes in them and my pinkie toe was peeping out.

“But you will need different shoes.”

And so, we found ourselves wandering through town to pick up some last minute items such as warmer socks, polarized sunglasses and hiking boot rentals. There were only two places left in Leh that were open (it was October and the very, very end of the hiking season) that offered hiking boots for rent. The cheaper place had really smelly, horrible boots that were around $10/trip. The more expensive place offered comfortable, higher quality, non-smelly leather hiking boots for around $20/trip.

The boots did come in handy!

I hate hiking boots and planned on carrying them for the entirety of the hike, wearing them only when necessary if the snow was too deep. Therefore, I opted for the non-smelly ones (and more comfortable ones) since they would be in my bag for most of the trek. I also bargained my way down since I wasn’t even going to wear them for all but two days of the ten-day rental.

Thibaud and I stocked up on essentials such as charcoal for our stomachs and snacks for our hike. I was carrying water purification tablets and a few empty plastic bottles. (I hadn’t planned on hiking in the Himalayas when I left the US, therefore, did not have a proper hiking backpack or any of my gear, including my Hydroflasks or water bladders that I normally would carry). I had to improvise a lot during the next six weeks of trekking.

Spituk Monastery

I had just purchased socks (I didn’t even have more than one pair!) and some warmer trekking tights and a shirt in Romania before I left and we planned on wearing the same thing every day in order to lighten our loads. I had my hiking clothes, with a few layers and my trusty Big Agnes puffy jacket. I also had my ‘homestay’ clothes to change into as soon as we were done hiking for the day – a pair of dry, warm yoga pants and a dry long-sleeve shirt. When you are hiking, even in freezing weather, you want to be sure that you have dry clothes to sleep in since you will sweat no matter the temperature outside.

We hired Tashi to drive us to the trailhead the following morning, with a stop at the Spituk monastery on the way. We woke up very early in the crisp, cold room of the guesthouse with the donkeys outside. Grabbing our larger bags, we ensured that we had everything we needed and left our small bags and a duffel filled with miscellaneous items such as books and my laptop at the guesthouse’s kitchen door. We walked into the frigid morning air and found Tashi, smiling and waiting for us with a small van.

Spituk Monastery’s view!

On our way out of Leh, we drove past gray dusty piles of rocks that almost appeared to be that of a construction zone but probably seemed that way because it was somewhat lifeless, an area of destitution – lacking trees, plants, and animals. Then, we arrived at the winding road that leads up to the Spituk Monestary where Tashi gave us a tour and answered all of our thousands of questions about Tibetan Buddhism.

We learned that when the head lama had died, the search began for his reincarnated soul, which was found in a young child. They found and retrieved their new head lama from the child’s parents and began his Buddhist studies. The child, as a baby, could name very personal details regarding the head lama’s life and was found through meditation of the monks in all of the monasteries around the area. The soul doesn’t always reincarnate nearby and sometimes, the new lama can be found quite far away (in one instance, a young boy from the United States).

As I stared at the young head lama, who stood proud at 12 years old in the photo on the wall of the monastery, I imagined what it would be like for a young lama to be found somewhere such as the USA with a team of monks seeking to take the child from his parents and into their monastery, far, far away.

The very, very beginning! (and those trusty trail runners!)

After leaving Spituk, Tashi drove us to the trailhead of the Markha Valley trek. I instantly wished that we had hired him to be our guide for the journey. Not for the guiding through the terrain but for his knowledge of the culture and the religion of the area. But, alas, it was too late.

“Goodbye! Goodbye Tashi!” we said as we took pictures and hugged him. We watched as he drove away, and then we began our journey into Markha Valley.

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Markha Valley: In the beginning…

The Markha Valley trek in Ladakh is a very popular trek that can go anywhere from 4-9 days pending on where you start or finish. It is one of the most trekked routes in Ladakh. Yet, it is still remarkably 1,000,000 times more authentic and cultural than any treks in the Nepalese Himalayas (See: Upper Mustang).

There was definitely snow! Hiking down Ganda La pass -Photo by Thibaud

Thibaud and I were at the very, very, very end of the trekking season so luckily, we missed the (alleged) hordes of people that can be found on the trail during high season. In fact, when we left Leh, most of the shops, restaurants and cafes were closed already for winter. I couldn’t even imagine what it would be like when we returned a week later. The end of trekking season marks the beginning of winter, where the air is bitter cold and everyone stays inside for several months just trying to stay warm.

“I don’t know if the high camp is even still open,” Tashi had said to us in Leh before we left. “We need to make sure that you have somewhere to camp before the last high pass. It will be very, very cold.”

Yurutse, Ladakh, India

We had already heard stories of hikers that had been turned back by their guides since the high camp was covered in sheets of snow and ice from the blizzard that I had hit coming back from Turtuk. But by the time we left for the Markha trail, the blizzard had hit days before and we figured there would be a new mule trail showing us a path by the time we got there. And we had received reports that although people were wading in thigh-deep snow, the higher camp was still open for trekkers.

And so, we set off!

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Yurutse, Ladakh, India -photo by Thibaud

We first hiked to Yurutse, which is a village of one family and only one building! And, within that family, only one man actually resides in Yurutse. We had hiked up and around beautiful mountains with the glow of autumn hanging onto every single leaf. We had passed only a few Chinese day hikers who had long, expensive lenses on their fancy cameras. They were trying to find the elusive snow leopards that can be spotted in the area. We had also passed a very young German couple that were currently studying in a hot, bustling Indian town and had come here for a brief holiday without the proper gear or clothes. They complained a lot so we tried to always stay ahead of them on the trail.

The beginning of the Markha Valley Trek -Photo by Thibaud

I tend to hike at a rapid pace and Thibaud kept up with it so we arrived into Yurutse very early. We had enough time to explore the area and wander about to see if there were any more buildings in this tiny village. We talked with the only man that lives there and found out that he runs the guesthouse during trekking season and then goes to Leh for the harsh, Himalayan winter.

Yurutse, Ladakh, India

That night, we filled up on delicious dal baht and had wonderful conversation with the four other young hikers sharing our space. Two of them had a guide and it was nice to hang out with him and find out more about his life.

In the morning, we woke up wrapped in our sleeping bags (I was so happy that I ended up carrying mine with me since the nights were well beyond freezing.) I laced up my rented hiking boots as we had a pass to reach that day and we heard reports of a lot of snow!

Yurutse, Ladakh, India

We set off and hiked up and down and around beautiful mountain slopes before hiking up and up and up on a fairly easy high mountain pass. We reached the top of Ganda La pass at 4,970 m (16,305 feet!) and admired the views. It was very beautiful. The air was so frigid that I struggled with taking my gloves off for even a few quick photos. We ran into two older Dutch hikers whose guide had spotted snow leopards on the way up! I contemplated running back down the pass to see if I could spot them but they had been spotted near the bottom of the pass and we still had a long way to go.

Gonda La Pass!
Gonda La Pass!

Instead, Thibaud and I ate our celebratory ‘high pass’ snickers bar (we had only brought two!) and then started sliding down the icy descent.

Gonda La Pass, Markha Valley Trek, Ladakh

More to come from the greatest trek in the world! 😉

India: Nubra Valley: Turtuk: The Final Frontier and a Brush with Death

A hidden paradise!

The old woman from our tiny local bus (See: Turtuk) had led us straight up a mountain slope and into a surprising paradise: an entire village was secretly hidden high on a plateau that you couldn’t see from the dusty road from where we arrived.

Rosie and I were delighted as we walked into the village as the sun was setting. Children were running around us happily and Shina, one of the young girls who ran up the mountain slope with us to the plateau, led us to a guesthouse. We followed her along a tiny path through gardens and bright flowers as we were led to a large, beautiful guesthouse.

Photo by Rosie!

We ran into Wocky, our new Japanese friend from the Jeep ride to Diskit who was traveling solo and had dinner with her at the guesthouse. As we sat on plastic chairs outside sipping tea surrounded by a beautiful garden, the guesthouse whipped up some delicious dishes: three types of veggie masala and dahl. We sipped on the local tea – saffron tea, which was the tastiest tea that I have ever had. We went to bed in our delightfully freezing room with heavy blankets tucked up to our faces and giggled at how lucky we were to be in such an amazing place.

>>>>

Our room 🙂
Our morning view!

Rosie and I woke up and looked out our window for the first time in daylight. The mountains were towering around our windows and the bright green trees and gardens were in front of them. We could hear children running and laughing. We quickly splashed the icy cold bathroom water on our faces and went out to explore.

“Julley!” we said happily to everyone we saw. “Hello!”

“Ab Casayo!” we said, practicing our limited language skills. “How are you?”

“Meh Teekay,” we heard.

“Meh Teekay!” we replied. “I’m fine.”

Photo by Rosie!
Photo by Rosie
Photo by Rosie

After exploring the village and taking a tour of a local man’s house who showed us tools and clothes from the past, we learned more about this region. The village of Turtuk has been an ongoing battle between India and Pakistan, which was evident by the hordes of military outposts that we had seen while taking the local bus to this far, remote village close to the Pakistani border.

Our house tour

It has only around 4,000 residents and the older ones have witnessed their families and lives changed by the ongoing border disputes.

Photo by Rosie

In 1971, India recaptured Turtuk from Pakistan and gave its residents a choice: Take Indian citizenship and stay in your homes or leave and go to Pakistan. Some family members who were working or studying in Pakistan weren’t allowed to come back. Those that were in Turtuk during the war became Indians or outlawed from their homes all in the matter of a brief period of time. Some families have never been reunited with the rest of their family living a few mere miles away on the Pakistan side.

Turtuk, Nubra Valley, Ladakh, India
Turtuk, Nubra Valley, Ladakh, India

Unlike the rest of India, Turtuk is a Muslim village and every woman and girl wears a scarf over their heads. The sounds of the call to prayer can be heard throughout the village several times a day and everyone in the village wears traditional clothes. Turtuk residents go on living as if they are still back in another era.

Harvesting before the snow comes in!

Rosie and I had made plans to tour the rest of the Nubra Valley but once we arrived in Turtuk, we knew were weren’t leaving until our permits expired. We became friends with Hajira and Raheem, who owned the most beautiful restaurant that I have ever seen in my life.

The best place to start a book! – our favorite restaurant

It consists of a minuscule building where Hajira and her beautiful girls cooked for us and a table with plastic chairs nestled in between a beautiful garden.

Chilling at our favorite place!

Hajira, her husband, Raheem and their three children run the restaurant. Turtuk hosts whatever foreigners that make the journey between the months of May – October. In fact, Rosie and I were the very last foreigners to eat there and to stay at our guesthouse. Everyone stayed open for us and closed for the winter right after we left (or even, as we were leaving). Winter is very, very cold and everyone stays inside for three months to stay warm.

“We don’t work,” Hajira told us. “We just try to stay warm, eat and sit around with family.”

Hajira’s Shakshuka

She cooked us buckwheat pancakes to my delight as buckwheat is the main grain to harvest in the valley. She brought us lots of kefir and cooked the Israeli dish, Shakshuka. We had saffron tea with almonds sliced into it and on our last day, she gave us a tour of her organic garden and taught us how to peel almonds from her almond trees.

>>>>

The Mosque.

The mosque trail is to the far top left!

“Let’s hike up there,” I said pointing to an old mosque high on a mountain one day in Turtuk. There was a sketchy path snaking its way to the mosque on a steep, vertical face.

Rosie and I were sitting in Hajira’s restaurant garden, sipping on tea. She looked up at it, seemed to hesitate for a moment before saying,

“Yeah! Let’s do it!” in her usual enthusiastic voice.

Photo by Rosie
Finishing up the harvest before the snow! – Photo by Rosie

We finished our leisurely lunch of buckwheat pancakes, fermented curd and shakshuka before enjoying another leisurely (Khawah) saffron tea while chatting with a nice brother and sister from Delhi about traveling. The clouds started rolling in so we decided to make our move before it was too late.

“Goodbye, goodbye!” we said to Hajira and her daughter in the kitchen. We set off on our journey up the side of a mountain with only a photo on my phone of the hand drawn map that was at our guesthouse.

The mosque on the mountain

We found our way to the polo grounds, which hosted a new school in town and then began wandering through a small forest and passing many villagers hard at work creating irrigation systems or harvesting before winter set in. We eventually found the path that snaked its way straight up the side of a mountain. Going up was wonderful (as all inclines are!) but it was tough as we were already at high altitude. We hiked and hiked and hiked before reaching the mosque.

At the mosque

The valley was so far below us and the Shyok river, which is known as ‘the river of death!’ actually seemed small.  We explored the outside of the Mosque before taking the winding trail on the other side of it to find the waterfalls. The trail was very, very narrow and cut straight into the side of a mountain, which was terrifying at times. Once we caught a glimpse of a waterfall, we quickly turned back as we didn’t want to be caught on these trails in the dark!

At the mosque

We rushed back to the mosque to take a few more pictures with the fading sunlight and then began the terrifying descent straight down. I wore gloves and gripped the side of the mountain in order to prevent myself from falling but the descent wasn’t nearly as scary as we anticipated and before we knew it, we were back at Hajira’s restaurant to eat our last meal.

>>>>

Photo by Rosie

“Come with us,” said the nice German couple that were eating at Hajira’s restaurant that night. (They were the only other tourists that we met that weren’t from India and that were actually spending the night in Turtuk during our whole four day visit in Turtuk)

“We have a private Jeep. We will give you a ride back to town.”

“Really!?” Rosie said excitedly. “That would be great.”

The drive back to Hunder with the German couple 🙂

We had been dreading waking up at 5 am to try and catch the local bus going back to Diskit. Instead, we woke up at the leisurely hour of 7 am and climbed up to the monastery one last time to say goodbye to this village of paradise. After another delicious meal with Hajira, we set off with the German couple and their Jeep.

On the drive back to Hunder…
On the way to Hunder

It was very fast and very different than the local bus! We stopped to take a billion pictures and still made it back to the beginning of the valley in record time, as opposed to the slow-moving local bus.

Rosie and I hopped out at Hunder and said our goodbyes to the German couple. We had another night on our permit and weren’t ready to go into Leh quite yet. We walked around Hunder to find that during the week we spent in Turtuk, the rest of the valley had closed for winter. Everything was closed with locks on the gates. There were no people in sight and the further and further we walked, we found nothing at all. Eventually, we walked all the way back towards the highway when we were picked up by a local,

“Everything closed,” he said as he drove us to the highway. “Good luck!”

We stood on the highway and looked in the direction of Diskit. It was going to be a long, long walk. We started walking on the highway and miraculously when a Jeep passed and we stuck out our thumbs, it stopped!

Several good-looking Indian men stuck their heads out of the Jeep,

“Come, come!” they yelled. “We will give you a ride.”

Photo by the German couple 🙂 On the way to Hunder

They were in town to shoot videos with their drones in the sand dunes and we stopped a few times so that they could get the right shots. They were from Kashmir and a funny, lively bunch of men! They dropped us off in Diskit where we found an open guesthouse with a big, comfortable bed and a bucket of hot water for a bucket bath.

The calm before leaving Diskit.

The next morning, we had to get back to Diskit so we walked to the local bus stop in order to try to purchase a ride in a shared Jeep back to Leh.

“Yes, yes,” yelled the nice man selling tickets. “I have tickets for you. Here! Just wait to fill one more seat and you leave. You in the back.”

Rosie and I sat down on the dusty road, staring at the beautiful mountains and the rows of Jeeps waiting to fill up. It was a beautiful day, chilly but very sunny and clear.

“Welcome, welcome,” said the nice men who were sharing the Jeep with us as we squeezed into the backseat once our Jeep had enough people.

They were all in the Indian military and going home for the first time in years. Our driver was in the military as well and proved to be quite handy with his seemingly lack of fear as he expertly maneuvered the Jeep along the steep road and around other slower or stopped vehicles along the way. Eventually, the crisp cool air turned bitter cold and Rosie and I wrapped ourselves in all of our clothes. As we neared the top of the pass, we realized the dark clouds that we had observed the past couple of days were a blizzard that was hovering straight over the pass.

The road from Diskit to Khardung La in a blizzard!

As we climbed further up the steep mountain pass in our old Jeep, the roads turned from crystal clear to white and icy. The snow was falling and the roads became very slick. It was also very scary since Rosie and I were crammed into the back row of the Jeep and were quite helpless as our Jeep skidded all over the steep icy road.

A Jeep driving slowly down the slope stopped as we passed it. The driver quickly handed our driver a set of chains for the tires through his window. Our driver took them and kept on sliding up the pass. We slid and skidded and the started sliding towards the edge. Rosie and I looked at each other and I stifled a scream.

As our Jeep skidded to the edge on the ice, I realized that no one in the world knew where I was at that moment. I hadn’t had internet for days and I’m not great at staying in touch with anyone while traveling. Right before the edge, our driver managed to turn the wheels and we skidded back towards the side of the mountain. I quickly stuck my passport into the pocket of my puffy jacket in case we slid off the mountain so I could be identified.

“Please, please, please put on the chains,” I cried out since I had no control of the Jeep and was mentally going crazy being crammed in the backseat.

The road to Khardung La from Diskit in a blizzard!

Our driver stopped and chained up our Jeep. With chains on two of the tires, he turned into even more of a badass. He gunned it up the mountain and swerved around all of the stuck cars and sliding Jeeps that didn’t have chains.

Badass Driver!

He managed to get us all the way to the local bus (the one that Rosie and I had tried to take in the morning, sat on and didn’t feel safe so we had walked to the other bus stop and found this Jeep). The local bus was stuck in the snow and there was a large semi-truck that was stuck in the other direction.

Jeeps, cars and buses kept sliding and getting stuck

It looked like a scary accident waiting to happen if the truck started sliding. Our Jeep was stuck behind both of them and I was terrified that they would slide into our Jeep and push us all off the mountain.

We were terrified!

“Let’s get out,” Rosie said.

The military guys were also quite frightened and one of them walked with us passed the heavy, stuck vehicles. We, ourselves, slid on the ice as we tried to walk up the pass. We walked through the snow and into the thin, thin air (the Khardung La Pass is nearly 18,000 feet high). Once we reached the top, we celebrated surviving by high-fiving and our new military friend bought us each a chai at the small shack at the top selling hot drinks.

We hiked to the top in the blizzard!
Getting a hot chai at the top of the pass in the blizzard

There were long lines of Jeeps, buses and even some stranded motorcyclists on the pass in the blizzard, trying to figure out what to do on these icy roads. I think they actually closed the pass for good right after that.

Our badass driver roaring around everyone up this pass!
Bonding with the military!

Eventually, our badass driver came roaring around all the lines of stranded vehicles, picked us all up and ripped and roared straight down the mountain with controlled sliding and whizzing around all of the other stranded vehicles. Once we reached Leh, I felt as though we had all achieved living over dying and felt bonded to this Jeep full of military men (and Rosie) forever.

Rosie!

Rosie and I hopped out, happy to be alive and meandered our way back through town to find that Leh had been shut down. Everything was closed due to a conflict with police harassing Ladakhi women and protests had been happening all day.

I said goodbye to Rosie at my guesthouse and walked inside to look for my hiking friend, Thibaud, who had arrived in order to spend the next month hiking in the Himalayas with me.

More from the hiking in the Indian Himalayas!

Turtuk, Nubra Valley, Ladakh, India

Nepal: Upper Mustang: Part Three: The End of the Road

“Your friend!” Rain, my guide, said in a manic state. “Your friend!”

 

I had just come back from running to the border of Tibet and had lost my friend along the way (see: part 1 and part 2). I had assumed that my mate, Thibaud, was ahead of me after spending an hour looking for him and running into a local man who confirmed that he saw him walking in the direction of Tibet.

 

“What?” I replied, my joyous feelings from the run instantly evaporated. Fear in the form of anger rose quickly out of my mouth. “What happened to him? Where is he?”

 

“Why? Why?” Rain replied. “Why did you separate?”

 

“WHERE IS HE?” I said again. “Is he OK?!”

 

“Yes, yes, he is okay,” Rain replied. “He is at the guesthouse.”

 

“He left me!” I cried, now angry at Thibaud all over again, mostly because I felt like an asshole for running to the border without him and for worrying Rain enough to make him scale a mountain and shout my name for hours.

 

“I am so glad you ok,” Rain replied. “I was so worried. I am responsible for you and …”

 

Chhoser, Upper Mustang, NepalRain and I proceeded to have our only heart-to-heart, where for about 24 hours, I felt happy to have him as our guide (up until the next time that he didn’t know the route, argued with us and threw his trash all over the ground.) However, I should’ve saved that heart-to-heart for my real friend, Thibaud, who I found sitting on the rocky hill overlooking our guesthouse looking very forlorn and worried. Just the night before, we had a very special moment there as friends, overlooking the beautiful guesthouse while watching the sunset and the sky change colors with the prayer flags flapping in the wind and no other hikers or foreigners in sight.

 

“Why did you leave me?” I shouted. “WHY?”

 

I regret the next 24 hours of how I handled this situation. In hindsight, I should’ve hugged my friend for being alive and well. Instead, I was angry, even though I had an amazing time to myself and likely needed it. I was angry that he had gone ahead and hadn’t even looked for me. Of course, when we actually did talk about it, it was just a huge series of unfortunate events. When I was looking for him in the tunnel, he was searching for me on the trail, etc etc etc.

 

We immediately left Chhoser in order to make the trek back to Lo Manthang for the night. The sun was already setting and my foot/leg hurt so bad that I started using my hiking stick as a crutch. I didn’t tell anyone about the pain, since we still had 4-5 full days of hiking left. We had to hike to Lo Manthang that night so that Rain could have our permits stamped. The hike back to Lo Manthang was beautiful but somber as Thibaud and I were still not on good terms.

 

While waiting for Rain to find the policemen to stamp our permits, I ran back into the beautiful thangka store that we had visited the day before. The local man inside spoke English very well and had been the one to give us advice on everything that Rain told us we couldn’t do. I wanted to purchase a thangka painting from him before we left.

 

thangka painting of Mahakala
I never took a picture of my painting but this is similar: Mahakala – the guardian

Sometime on one of the trails (either in India or Nepal), I began having dreams of these blue deities throwing fire at everything negative that was trying to come into my dream. It began happening regularly: I would start dreaming and negative thoughts would come in and float around me in a cloud. Then this blue fire man would come, stand in front of me and throw fireballs at them. All of the negativity and fear quickly exploded in a white poof and dissipated.

 

Later, I saw this blue man on a wall in one of the monasteries that we visited: He was Mahakala, one of the ‘defenders of the doctrine’ and uses his powers to cut through all negative or materialistic attitudes. Sounded about right, since that is exactly what happened in my dreams. I had to have him in my hand and wanted to buy one from Tashi, the renowned thangka painter in Lo Manthang as a thank you for helping us.

 

“This is for good luck,” Tashi said after rolling up my Mahakala painting into a tube for me and waterproofing it for the rest of my journey. He took out a thin white scarf and placed it over my head. I felt so happy and so lucky to have met him and to have spent time in his delightful store.

 

“Thank you! Thank you!” I said as I walked out and back to our guesthouse.

 

My foot and shin hurt so bad by the end of that day, I had to limp up the stairs. I had hiked and ran 19 miles that day to and from Tibet and back to Lo Manthang!

 

>>>>

 

Sometime during the next day, Thibaud and I made amends.

“I couldn’t find you,” he said. “I was so worried. I looked everywhere and I went ahead, thinking you kept hiking without me.”

Turns out, he had gone to the border himself, only had gone the correct way (he had the map!) and in a much shorter period of time. We hugged it out and went on hiking in our peaceful bliss.

 

>>>>>>

 

The best way to wake up in Lo Manthang!

That next morning, I awoke to find two beautiful horses standing in the doorway of our guesthouse. After washing my face outside with the frigid cold water, I had breakfast and then we packed up for another day on the trail. We were heading back to Jomsom and were taking an alternate route that Thibaud and I planned before we left.

 

The day was beautiful as was the long, steep winding trail high on a ridge that cut scarily into the side of the ridge at times. I hiked far ahead of Thibaud and Rain and enjoyed the bliss of being along in the cool, crisp air. I thought a lot about relationships, having long decided that it isn’t for me, not in this life at least. But, during that moment, hiking alone on the ridge, I put it out to the universe:

 

The ridgeline of that day 🙂

“If I’m meant to have a partner, let him be open, loving and as adventurous (if not more) as I. I am not looking but am open and accepting if he comes into my life.”

 

I literally said it out loud and not but a few moments later, I ran into the first people that I saw all day coming in the other direction. Three horses with an old local woman riding on top and a local man in front of the other. Then, a bearded, hot rugged mountain man came around the corner. We smiled at each other as we passed and I looked up at the universe and laughed.

>>>>>

On the way to Yara!

We hiked and climbed and descended up and around and over again until we did a very painful descent into the village of Yara. I was quickly finding out that whatever was wrong with my foot and shin hurt the worst whenever trying to go downhill, which was unfortunate since that was half of every day we had left. I had tried to use my hiking stick as a crutch but fell going down the steep, rocky path many, many times. It is much easier to run down those types of terrains but that wasn’t a possibility with my heavy bag and the state of my foot at that point.

In our guesthouse in Yara

In Yara, the local people came together to sing us songs while we sat in the community room (which are typically long benches with tables and are quite cold at night). I splurged on a shower in Yara, where I do believe I washed my hair for the first time during the trek. However, the solar water heater only came out piping hot so I had to turn on the faucet in the stone room and rinse my hair and body with the icy cold water. (Most other days were a bucket bath or no bath at all).

The bridge!
The bridge!

The next day, we hiked up, down and around over and over again before coming to a long suspension bridge that hung very high over a mostly dry riverbed. Hiking across the bridge and down the scary steep trail was a highlight of the day as it had the most beautiful views.

Upper Mustang, Nepal
View from the bridge 🙂

We hiked into the village of Tangye after a severe downhill slide on a rockslide (I couldn’t physically move my foot up or down by this point). Thibaud and I explored the beautiful village that had marvelous yellow and red trees as autumn was quickly approaching. We used the community water spout to wash our underwear and socks and laughed with the locals as they shared the space with us.

Upper Mustang, Nepal
Photo by Thibaud!
Upper Mustang, Nepal
Heading into Tangye

We left Tangye the next morning to start a very, very long, steep ascent. It was so wonderful that I giggled to myself in glee during most of it. However, it was also quite painful for my aching foot and shin and every now and again, when I was far enough ahead of everyone else, I would lay down and cry in pain for a few moments before forcing myself up and hiking again.

The ascent that I mostly giggled with glee but sometimes cried 🙂 Upper Mustang, Nepal

There was a couple that had joined us on our route for the last few days. We were all heading in the same direction on the same route at the same pace so it was inevitable that we would wind up hiking around each other. The guy stayed around my pace for most of the climbs and it was refreshing to have someone nearby but not too close to me. I think it is what helped me achieve the climbs during those last few days with such pain in my foot.

The ridgeline 🙂

We hiked and hiked and hiked forever on a never-ending beautiful ridgeline that overlooked the Annapurnas on one side and the Upper Mustang on the other side. It had a deep valley to our right and we kept hiking around it corner after corner, anticipating the drop on the left. It was such an amazing but long day of hiking (16.5 miles). We arrived in the bustling town of Chhusang that night, which represented the end of the peaceful Upper Mustang bliss for me.

Our dog for the day!

Our last day, we hiked to the town of Muktinath and started the day with a companion. A local dog ran with and around us for the entire day, from Chhusang to Muktinath. It was nice to always have a friend nearby especially since I hike so fast uphill and can be alone for a lot of the time. We hiked up and up and up and up until we reached our final pass which overlooked the Annapurnas and our last village.

Heading into Muktinath was where my pain level finally broke me.

The downhill was so painful for me, that I remember crying at least once. My foot and shin hurt so, so bad by this point that I couldn’t stand it. I still hadn’t talked about it because my guide was worthless in anything to do with guiding or hiking and I didn’t want to complain to Thibaud as there was nothing he could do about it anyways. But by the time we reached Muktinath and he sat down with our trusted map to show me the route that he planned for us (we were going to ditch Rain once and for all) for our last day, I shook my head,

“I can’t. I can’t,” I said as the pain in my leg and foot was so bad that the thought of doing more downhills was the equivalent of death in my mind.

And so, the next day, we got on the local bus back to Jomsom. We tipped Rain on the bus (I don’t know why we tipped him. It was my choice and having grown up in a tipping culture, I couldn’t not give him a tip even though he was so, so bad.) He didn’t even say thank you, just took the money and ran to the front of the bus, never even saying goodbye to us when he hopped off before reaching Jomsom.

Upper Mustang, Nepal

Happy to be on our own again, we immediately got a local bus to take us back to Pokhara, skipping our overnight in Jomsom. Of course, the local bus was as terrifying on the way back as on the way there but we survived!

We averaged 13 miles per day during the Upper Mustang trek and experienced many ups and downs (literally and figuratively) on this adventure!

More to come from the adventures of joy 😉

Photo by thibaud!
Upper Mustang, Nepal
Upper Mustang, Nepal
Upper Mustang, Nepal
Upper Mustang, Nepal

Nepal/Tibet: Upper Mustang: Running to the Border: Part Two

The top of the trail to the right of the icy waterfalls

It was a mixture of both fear and bliss. I was trail running to the border of Tibet alone and without a map. I had lost my hiking mate along the way (See: Part One) and was worried about him. However, I had spent an hour waiting around for him, screaming his name and ensuring that he hadn’t slipped and died on the icy waterfalls that he scaled so quickly. As soon as I started heading back to the village, I realized that it was likely that he had gone ahead to the border, instead of back home. So, last minute, I turned around and decided to forge ahead, looking for him and for the border.

 

Where I sat and waited forever!

I ran past the mani wall that I had sat next to, while waiting for him for so, so long. The wind was whipping through my hair and creating a whistling sound so strong that I couldn’t hear anything else. I stopped to pee behind a rock and even my urine flew horizontally along with the wind. I forged on, straight into the wind, following the riverbed until I reached the split. Luckily, Thibaud and I had carefully planned our route the night before so even though I didn’t have a map, I remember him saying,

 

“Once we reach the split, we turn left.”

 

As I was nearing the split, where the river that I was following suddenly splits into two different directions through two different canyons, I could see a tall figure in the distance.

 

“THIBAUD!!” I screamed, waving my arms. “THIBAUD!”

 

The figure stood up and walked away.

 

“STOP!” I yelled as I tried to jog faster into the wind. “Wait for me!”

 

Instead of being happy that my travel mate was in the distance, I only felt anger at him for leaving me in the first place. But as I walked closer and closer through the harsh wind to the split, I realized that it wasn’t Thibaud in front of me. It was a local man, who wasn’t even standing, he was bending down to collect manure that they use for fuel. He would then stand, shake it out and bend down again.

 

I ran up to the man and his property, which consisted of a large stone rectangular fence and a small, simple house.

 

“Nameste,” I said, happy to see someone but disappointed that he wasn’t my friend. “Have you seen my friend?”

 

I found a photo of Thibaud and held my phone up to the man. He smiled and pointed towards Tibet.

 

“Really?” I said, now a little more angry that he went on without me. “You saw him? He was here?”

 

The man didn’t understand me, of course, and just looked at the picture, smiling and pointing towards Tibet.

 

“I’m sure I will run into him along the way,” I said to the man, even though he still had no idea what I was saying. I smiled widely, waved goodbye and watched as he went back to his harvesting.

 

Past the split, going towards the three canyons

As I walked towards the flat riverbed that cut a natural trail towards a few different canyons, I was so angry and disappointed that he had gone so far without me. I rushed off over the flat, crumbling plateau that ran alongside the dry riverbed to the spot where three canyons hit a junction.

Since I didn’t have the map, I was forced to rely on my Maps.me app that didn’t show a trail or the pass that we were trying to reach. Rather, it showed where the rivers branched off and then where two more rivers branched off. I had to guess where to go based on my memory of finding the Y in the rivers that collided further up and then try to stay in the middle of it until it hit the pass.

 

Where those two rivers form a Y and split to the left was where I had to go -trying to stay in the middle of the top of the Y
Upper Mustang, Nepal
That direction! No trail, no other maps, no landmarks…

Also, I had to rely on my arrow on the app that didn’t always point in the direction that I was actually going. So really, it was just a big guessing game.

 

Once my anger dissipated and I realized that Thibaud was okay and hiking ahead of me somewhere, I felt free and happy to be alone. I hadn’t really been alone for a long, long time, since running in the mountains of Romania. I decided to run towards where my arrow pointed until my turnaround time, figuring that I would run into Thibaud along the way. The three canyons loomed in front of me and I started down the middle path, climbing up and up and up rocky slopes that did not, by any means, ever resemble a trail.

 

I gained altitude at a rapid pace, running when I could, and then I stopped to look at the arrow on my phone. I was going in the wrong direction.

 

Damn, I thought. I am never going to find Thibaud.

 

From the flat rock at the first plateau that I climbed to..

I decided to veer off this ‘path’ and head towards the right, which seemed to resemble the area between the two rivers. But, I was already too high and the canyons cut too deep to really get across so I just zig zagged up the mountain hills towards the direction of the arrow without losing too much of the altitude that I had gained. I looked at my app again and realized that I was still pretty far left to where I was guessing the pass was so I cut a hard right in my zig zag running and climbed straight up another steep mountain.

 

This was the moment that I really realized I would never find Thibaud. I looked at the time. It was just before 12:00, which had been our designated turnaround time. I looked up and saw a  flat rock at the top of the next mountain hill over towards the direction that my arrow was now pointing – another hard right. I decided to hike straight up to it and look over the edge.

 

Maybe Tibet is right there, I thought. I can’t be this close and turn back.

 

My view!

The sky was at its brightest blue and the weather was perfect. I was running up these clumpy grassy, rocky mounds when going up each mountainous hill and had to be really careful not to sprain my ankle, especially since I was somewhat lost and alone. I got to the top and looked over. There was nothing but more rocky, grassy hills to climb. I couldn’t force myself to turn around.

 

“Just one more mountain hill,” I kept saying as I looked at the time. I climbed over a series of thorn bushes that were quite painful and onto another plateau, expecting to see the border but there were only more hills. The turnaround time was only two minutes away so I ran as best that I could through the rocky, craggy terrain until my timer went off at noon.

 

I waited around for Thibaud for so, so long, I thought. Surely, I can just keep going for a few minutes past the turnaround time.

 

(We had set a designated turnaround time to mimic that of climbing Everest. Clearly not the same thing but the idea was that we would have enough time to get back to the village before dark if we were lost. I was still trying to honor the turnaround time even though, I now understand how and why those on Everest keep on climbing past their turnaround times ;))

 

So I pressed on. I noticed to my far, far right, on the ridge of another canyon, there was a tower of some sort. I figured it was the pass. I kept going straight up and over my hills. One after another with the sun beating down on me and a big smile on my face. I kept watching as the arrow got closer and closer to the border and I pushed myself up and over another mountain hill (around 4600 m at this point according to my phone, or 15,000 ft.)

 

And then I saw it. A row of spikes on the next canyon ridge to my right.

 

What is that? I thought as I kept going further and further until I came up and over my last mountain hill and saw it:

 

The fence!

The fence.

 

The border between Nepal and Tibet.

 

I walked towards it, glancing around fearfully as though a ton of Chinese soldiers were going to rush me at any second. I noticed a structure of some sort on the Chinese side, surveying the area. The fence was barbed wire with pretty serious holes alongside the bottom. I wanted to stick my foot under it but was too scared to fuck with the Chinese so I just merely walked up to the fence instead. The surveying structure was moving an antenna in my direction.

 

At the border – Nepal/Tibet
The border 🙂

I stepped back and admired the landscape on the Tibetan side. The mountains were pink! A tall snow-capped mountain top stuck out in the far distance. It all looked so peaceful, pink, and serene. I admired it for five minutes, took a few photos and then went back down the hill a bit on the Nepalese side to hide from the strange antenna pointing at me.

I managed to take a selfie 😉 This is the Nepalese side.
At the border!

I sat down to eat lunch while admiring the beautiful mountain ranges that took up my entire landscape view on the Nepalese side.

 

Eating lunch at the border 🙂

It was perhaps the most perfect moment in my entire life.

 

As mad as I was at my friend, for the moment and the moments leading up to reaching the border, I felt utterly happy to be alone and to enjoy this peaceful moment in my own state of bliss. I realized that my omelet wasn’t in my packed lunch so I scarfed down the two buckwheat pancakes while appreciating being in the moment more than I have ever done before.

Lunch 🙂

Then, I stood up and happily meandered my way down the dry, steep canyon riverbeds in the general direction that I was guessing was the village of Chhoser.

 

Unfortunately, as I joyfully ran down the slopes that I had just labored to climb, there wasn’t even a remote hint of a trail, which made it far more difficult for me to descend than it was to ascend. I reached a series of small cliffs in the canyon. I looked around and realized that the only other way around them was to climb back up and go down a different canyon. The time was late and I was getting worried about Thibaud worrying about me at this point since it was far past our original turnaround time. I had spent too much time enjoying the peacefulness at the border.

 

I stood on the edge of the small cliffs and started jumping and climbing my way down. As I scampered down the cliffs, one proved slightly higher than I had guessed and I landed hard on my left foot. My shin had been hurting and I had already assumed it was a stress fracture as I have had them before in the same area (as an avid trail runner my entire life, it is quite common). When I landed, it felt as though my shin had snapped as well as the ball of my foot.

 

“OOOOOOOOWWWWWW” I cried as I sat clutching my shin and foot for a moment. I drank some water and mentally relieved the pain through a few meditative trances.

 

It’s not real, it’s not real, I said to myself over and over again as I forced myself to continue on down the canyon. The pain isn’t real.

 

I kept going and eventually got used to the pain. My shin had certainly not snapped and it, along with my left foot, just hurt so I tried to put more weight on my right side as I hobble-ran back to the village.

 

When I reached the plateau that I had waited for Thibaud on for so long that morning, I stopped and looked around, half expecting to see him waiting for me. But he was nowhere in sight and I knew I needed to get back to the village before dark. Despite the pain in my foot and leg, I was still quite happy with my day and joyfully limp-ran along the trail into town.

 

“OOOOOYYYYYEEEEEEE” I began hearing as I neared the caves and cliffs from where we split off in the morning. I couldn’t really hear what was being said with the harsh wind still buzzing in my ears but assumed the locals were yelling at each other high on the cliffs.

 

“OYYYYYYEEEEEEEE” I continued to hear as I got closer.

 

“JOOOOYYYYEEEEEE”

 

It was then that I realized that the noise was my guide, who was standing on top of a nearby cliff, and shouting my name in panic, over and over again. My heart sunk and my anger and fear returned.

 

He ran down the side of the cliff with grace that I have never seen before, like a mountain goat running down a 90-degree angle. He ran up to me with both glee and terror on his face,

 

“JOYYYEEEE” he cried. “Your friend…Your friend…”

 

The border 🙂

More to come from the Upper Mustang in Nepal!

Nepal: Upper Mustang: Lo Manthang and The Run to Tibet: Part One

Lo Manthang, Upper Mustang, Nepal

As we walked into the ancient walled city of Lo Manthang, I stood in awe of the tiny village. Lo Manthang was supposed to be the most northern point of our trek, the closest that we would get to Tibet (but it wasn’t ;)). It was formerly the capital of the Kingdom of Lo, which was constructed in the 15th century and high on a plateau at 3800 m (12,467 ft). It was built on an ancient trade route which cuts through the Himalayas and runs alongside the Kali Gandaki River.

 

The Lobas (the locals) that live there practice many of the same rituals and ceremonies as former Tibet. Until recent times, their king was still recognized by the government of Nepal. The region of the Upper Mustang is on the Tibetan plateau and represents one of the last examples of pure Tibetan culture. It took us four days to hike to Lo Manthang, and as we started exploring the village, I realized that it was well worth the costs of the permits and the stresses caused by our guide (See: Rain).

 

Thibaud and I snuck away to wander around and explore on our own. We were soon cornered in one of the long walled alleys by a very mean-spirited bull. As we hovered in a doorway with the bull sneering and stamping at us, a local man came around the corner and began waving in our direction. He scared the bull off and we ran over to him,

 

“Thank you! Thank you!” we said.

 

“Come see my roof,” he said, grinning happily. Weary of the costs that we would incur from this little venture as nothing came free in Nepal, we almost said no but he was too friendly to walk away from.

 

The view from the roof 🙂

“Ok!” we said happily as we followed him through a tiny doorway and up some ‘stairs’ that required a lot of maneuvering and gripping tightly onto the roof to get through.

Once I climbed onto his roof, I didn’t care what he charged us – his view was amazing. We were suddenly standing on top of Lo Manthang. I could look out and see the cow dung drying on all of the roofs of the village. I could see the beautiful pink mountains of the Tibetan region in one direction and the snow-capped peaks of the Annapurnas in the other direction.

 

“Come, come!” he said, happily running along the ridge of all of the rooftops and giving us a rooftop tour of the village.

 

“That was king’s house,” he said. “Before earthquake. Now he builds big house there.”

 

He pointed outside the walls to a magnificent building that we had assumed was a new fancy guesthouse. There was a devastating earthquake in the region in 2015 that damaged many of the buildings, including the king’s now former palace.

 

“Take picture! Take picture!” he said as he put horns on his head that were sitting on his roof.

 

“Take picture with me!” he said again, pulling me into the picture. We laughed and laughed and took pictures with the horns before climbing back into his home.

 

Lo Manthang, Upper Mustang, Nepal

“See my store!” he said proudly as he took us into a room filled with very old jewelry and trinkets. I would have loved to purchase something from him simply because he was so great, happy and didn’t ask us for any money. But, his price tags were fairly high and my budget was super low.

 

We all happily said our goodbyes and Thibaud and I sauntered on out to enjoy the rest of our self- tour of Lo Manthang.

 

>>>>

 

Chhoser, Upper Mustang, Nepal

The next day, we hiked to Chhoser, a small village of the Upper Mustang, north of Lo Manthang. We had been arguing with our guide for days over visiting a monastery that the travel agent, Ashok, had told us about… (Ashok planned our route with us and found us the guide, who didn’t know the route at all):

 

“You HAVE to go to this monastery,” Ashok had said. “It is very remote. Very far hike and very wonderful. It is a must on your day off.”

Chhoser, Upper Mustang, Nepal
Chhoser, Upper Mustang, Nepal

However, since Day One, our guide had simply said,

Upper Mustang, Nepal

“No, not possible” whenever we mentioned the monastery. Since he also said that about everything we wanted to do, including hike on the actual trails of the Upper Mustang, we didn’t believe him and it turned into an ongoing argument. This also involved calling Ashok several times to confirm the route that he had told us (which were the trails that we ended up doing using our own map and Google maps.)

Chhoser, Upper Mustang, Nepal
Chhoser, Upper Mustang, Nepal

By Lo Manthang, we were tired and weary from arguing about the trail with Rain so we decided to ditch him on our day off, along with the monastery (which was very possible and not that far, we found out from an English-speaking local we met in town). We were going to sneak off to the border of Tibet instead!

 

We helped her move a fence and she said that I could take a picture 😉

Chhoser was a very small, remote village. The locals were happy to see us, waving and even helping me as I washed my underwear in the community water spout (used for everything, including laundry). They smiled, waved and laughed with us as we explored the caves around the town. We stayed in a homestay that finally felt similar to what we experienced with the Tibetan culture of Ladakh.

 

My favorite (and only real homestay)!

The two women who lived in the home invited us into their kitchen while they cooked us dinner. They made Po Cha, the traditional butter tea from Tibet, which is a deliciously rich mixture of churning tea, salt and chunks of yak butter. I must’ve drank the entire pot… it was so, so delicious and they kept pouring me more and more. It was my favorite night on the Upper Mustang and the only night that we were alone in a homestay with locals.

 

>>>>

 

The hike to Tibet

The next morning, Thibaud and I woke up very early for breakfast. We took the foil-wrapped pancakes and eggs from the lovely women in the beautiful kitchen that was filled with the warmth of a dung-fueled fire and set off on the trail towards Tibet. It was going to be a long day and we had only our map and a guesstimate of where to go.

 

We started the day with a dispute about the route very early on:

 

“We just follow the river bed,” Thibaud said.

 

“Yes, but there is a trail just above it,” I said. “I found it yesterday and asked the locals about it.”

 

Right before we left!

And so we uncharacteristically argued before setting off on different routes. I want to say that the argument was due to our stresses from arguing with our guide, Rain, every day about the route. But, we had also spent the past month together nonstop at this point so maybe we needed some time apart. I took the high road (literally, the trail was higher up ;)) and Thibaud hiked along the river bed. I passed many locals carrying large bags of grains along the way. We smiled at each other and every now and then, I glanced down into the riverbed to make sure that I could still spot Thibaud, who was happily walking along the river.

 

After some time, we came together and reached a frozen, rocky series of waterfalls.

 

“There is a trail over there,” I said pointing to the trail on our left that winded up the mountain and out of sight.

 

“No, no,” he said. “We need to stay on the riverbed.”

 

I watched as he rushed ahead and scaled the frozen, rocky waterfalls. He was out of sight in no time at all. Not wanting to lose him and against my better judgment, I started to follow him. It wasn’t a path, nor was it meant to be climbed in the way that he just did. I give him mad props for making it look so effortless but as I began climbing, gripping my hands on the icy, sharp black rocks and looking for a foothold as water from the waterfalls fell around me, I decided it wasn’t worth it.

 

“I’m scared!” I yelled upwards, even though I hadn’t seen him for a while. The wind was whipping furiously and no other sounds could be heard. “I’m going back to take the trail.”

 

I climbed unsteadily back down the steep, sketchy waterfalls, slipping a few times and banging my hand or foot on sharp rocks. I walked back to the trail and easily hiked up the side of the canyon. I arrived at the top of a very large plateau that overlooked the entire riverbed and trail that we had just hiked. The wind was picking up even more and was howling in my ears.

 

Thibaud was nowhere to be seen.

 

“THIBAUD!” I screamed into the wind. “THIBAUD.”

 

I strained my ears for the sound of my name. I couldn’t hear a thing past this impenetrable wind. I ran alongside the plateau, hopping across the river that was creating the waterfalls and realized there was a long tunnel that Thibaud must’ve taken. He never came out on top of the plateau. He was under me. I ran alongside the tunnel and screamed for him, but never saw him. I asked the local woman who was farming in the tunnel if she had seen him. She shook her head.

 

I ran back onto the plateau and back down the trail to the waterfalls and screamed,

 

“Thibaud! THIBAUD!”

 

Where I sat and waited forever!

He was nowhere to be seen. I ran back up the trail and back to the plateau and waited. I walked down the tube that he had come up but he wasn’t there. I sat at the point where my plateau met the trail and waited and waited. I ate a snickers bar and waited by a beautiful, long mani wall. I didn’t know what to do.

 

I decided to go back to Chhoser to see if he was there so I got up, looked around one last time and headed back to the village. As I started running down the trail to the base of the waterfalls, I stopped and gazed at the trail all the way to Chhoser. I didn’t see him on the trail or in the riverbed. I changed my mind and went back up the trail, for the fourth time and back onto the plateau. I ran alongside the tube one more time, looking for him and screaming his name.

 

Then, I started off in the direction of Tibet, alone and without a map.

 

More to come from the border! (and my last trail run for the next six months!)

Nepal: The Upper Mustang: Finding my Bliss

Upper Mustang, Nepal
Upper Mustang, Nepal -Photo by Thibaud

The beginning of the Upper Mustang was filled with both stress and beautiful hills to climb. The inclines were my favorite, (not the stress ;)). I practically ran up them while carrying my big bag, smiling with glee and filled with all of the joy in the world. If I could choose one thing to do for the rest of my life, it would be to hike up mountains (not down, just up and up and up) forever.

 

Arguing with our guide over the route every day was not so joyous (See: Rain) but once we were able to dissociate him from our experience with the trek, (which was very hard to do) then we found our own path (literally, we had to find the path every day). I’m choosing not to go any further with my feelings on our guide and the large guesthouses, menus and non-community tourism that has infiltrated this beautiful region, I will only highlight the trekking part of this tour:

 

The trek to Syangboche, Upper Mustang

We left Chele on Day Two and started towards the tiny village of Syangboche. We walked over a long, metal suspension bridge and hiked through a desert-like plateau with mountains rising in the distance and wild horses running amok.

Upper Mustang
Upper Mustang, Nepal
Upper Mustang, Nepal

We hiked up and up and up to gaze down into the beautiful valley and back down and around. During the hike, Thibaud and I happily made up short stories about trekkers going to the border of Tibet as the wind whipped dust around us from time to time.

 

Upper Mustang, Nepal

Each day, we had a few steep inclines that represented nothing but glory and happiness for me as I could feel the muscles on my thighs growing stronger with each big step up. As the sweat poured down my back while wearing my heavy, large backpack (we did not use mules on our trek), I felt more alive than ever before.

 

Upper Mustang, Nepal

On Day Two, I reached the top of one pass, dropped my bag and ran up to the next mountain top so that I could gaze down at the valley, other hikers and everything surrounding this beautiful, isolated land.

 

The cave monastery of Ranchung
Upper Mustang, Nepal
Upper Mustang, Nepal – photo by Thibaud

We hiked to the cave monastery of Ranchung which required a wonderful, steep hike straight up a mountain. This monastery (as we leaned in to hear another guide explaining to his trekkers since our guide wouldn’t even agree to take us there) was where the guru Rimpoche was said to have spent time in deep meditation.

Photo by Thibaud 🙂

The following day, we hiked up and down peaks and through valleys to Dhakmar. The way to Dhakmar was perhaps one of my favorite moments (and last trail runs for a long, long time). We reached a pass and ran further up to the very top to find a beautiful plateau overlooking the entire region.

Upper Mustang, Nepal
Upper Mustang, Nepal

The mountains were pink in the far distance towards Tibet. I ran along a trail for some time without my big pack, soaking in the fresh air and the ultimate beauty of this region seemingly untouched by the world (besides the roads being built by China, but that’s another story).

 

Finally! Prayer Wheels 🙂

Later, we reached a small village and I finally felt as though we had reached the Tibetan Buddhism culture with its long rows of prayer wheels, gompas and stupas. Prayer flags were flapping in the wind on the top of every building and as we cross a creek outside of the village, Thibaud and I stopped to fully appreciate the culture and the beauty of the Tibetan region.

 

Upper Mustang, Nepal
Photo by Thibaud

We climbed and climbed and wandered along a long, desert-like plateau and it was one of the first times that I lingered behind, trekking as slowly as possible to the dismay of our guide and really soaking in the beauty and appreciating all that was around me.

Upper Mustang, Nepal
Upper Mustang, Nepal

We passed an extremely long mani wall and some beautiful stupas. It felt as though I was trekking to my spiritual home as the prayer flags became abundant and the lines of prayer wheels were seen in every small village we passed.

Upper Mustang, Nepal
The trail we snuck up….overlooking Dhakmar at sunset.

Once we arrived in Dhakmar, which is famous for its beautiful red cliffs, we dropped our bags and ran away from our guide to explore on our own. We found a secret path going straight up a mountain and ran up it to find the most beautiful views of the entire hike.

 

The pass I found with Tibet in the background.

I ran the trail further up and to the back of the mountains in order to find a pass that overlooked the beautiful pink mountains of Tibet. That solitude and the moment that I took to appreciate the beauty was well worth the dismay we later received from our guide who wanted us to stay put in the guesthouse ;).

 

The trees in Dhakmar!

After we came back down our secret trail, the sun was setting so we quickly found the time to explore the village of Dhakmar, which had rows and rows of these amazing trees where the branches shot straight up in vertical lines. We walked through the small alleys between the buildings and came across a few savage looking cows before finding the large Gompa.

 

It was locked.

 

“Let’s find the keys!” Thibaud said. We were both so excited to be away from our guide and exploring the village. It felt like Ladakh and the joys of exploration all over again. We ran around the village looking for anyone before finding an older man,

 

“Keys?” we asked, pointing towards the Gompa.

 

“Yes, yes,” he said walking away. We looked at each other, shrugged and followed him up the stairs towards the Gompa. He found an old woman, who pulled the keys off her hip belt that was around her traditional dress and opened it for us.

 

Dhakmar at dusk

We stepped inside to admire the Buddhism culture with the flashlights of our phones, the ancient paintings on the walls before turning back to get back to our guesthouse for dinner. The old woman stood there with her hand stretched out, waiting for the obligatory money that was becoming so, so common in Nepal. We paid her and finally walked back to the guesthouse as the the night grew cold and our dinner was awaiting.

Thibaud and I on the way to Dhakmar

>>>>

 

Photo by Thibaud 🙂

The next day, we quickly reached a beautiful overlook after a steep climb where we could see snow-capped peaks in one direction and as I ran further up to the top of the hill over the pass we had climbed, I could also see the red cliffs along with the pink mountains of Tibet.

The top!
Upper Mustang, Nepal

It was a clear, crisp beautiful day. I started hiking ahead with a few of the porters from other groups of hikers. As I led the way, we reached a frozen river and started hopping on rocks to try and find places to break the ice with our trekking poles so others wouldn’t slip and fall when trying to cross the river so early in the morning.

 

As I leaned to break the ice over a rock in the river, my phone slipped out of my bra (my ‘trekking bag’ had no pockets as it wasn’t made to be a backpack for trekking at all, so I kept my phone in my sports bra every day so I could easily take pictures) and my foot slipped as I tried to grab it. (I only hike in trail running shoes so this entire trek was easily done in a pair of asics trail running shoes). My shoe was instantly soaked by the icy water and my phone was catching the current of the river under the ice. In an instant, it was gone, caught in the stream. I caught myself on my only trekking pole and jammed my hand through the ice and into the river where I found my phone, lodged in between two rocks and grabbed it before it disappeared forever.

 

Upper Mustang, Nepal

“Are you ok?!” asked the other porters as they ran over and helped me out of the river. My shoes were soaked and my feet were freezing. My phone was soaked but luckily was in a waterproof case so I tested the efficiency of the case as I quickly turned it off so that it could dry and warm up.

 

Upper Mustang, Nepal -Photo by Thibaud 🙂

We continued hiking towards a beautiful monastery where there were prayer flags fluttering in the wind everywhere. The path in was a mud pit and the porters and I laughed as we tried to slide through it with our heavy bags. We hiked and hiked and hiked until Rain, Thibaud and I separated from other groups and hiked into the ancient town of Lo Manthang, one of the most northern points of the trek before Tibet.

 

Upper Mustang, Nepal – photo by Thibaud

As we walked through the mud and into the town, with gompas, stupas and prayer flags everywhere along the way, I really felt the spirit of the Buddhist culture.

 

More to come from the Upper Mustang and sneaking off to the border of Tibet!

 

Nepal: The Upper Mustang: Dealing with the Rain

“You can’t hike to Kagbeni,” said Rain, our guide for the Upper Mustang trek. “We have to take a bus in the morning or you have to pay to hire a Jeep to drive us.”

 

It was late in the evening and we had just arrived at a grossly overpriced guesthouse that charged us four times the amount we later paid anywhere else along the trek. Our guide, Rain, had insisted on finding the place and bargaining the price. Unfortunately, we had been on a bumpy, scary bus ride for the past 14 hours and my migraine was so bad that I didn’t care about anything other than sleeping at that point.

 

The following morning, I felt better enough to help Thibaud argue our route.

 

“Ashok told us that we start hiking from Jomsom,” he said. “This is the beginning of the route.” (Ashok was the one who showed us the route on the map, secured our permits and found Rain as our guide).

 

“No, no,” Rain said. “Not possible to hike from here to Kagbeni and then to our next spot.”

 

“But it is possible,” we argued. “We already looked up the route and the distance and Ashok showed us.”

 

“No, not possible.” Rain repeated. “We take the bus.”

 

Waiting for our lost bags and lost bus to come back 😦

After much more arguing, Thibaud and I conceded to taking the bus beyond our better wishes. By the time we sat around waiting for the local bus, hours had passed. Rain had put our backpacks on a bus, telling us it was ours. Then the bus drove away while we weren’t on it. So, we couldn’t even walk to Kagbeni if we wanted to because our bags were now missing.

 

With the frustration rising on Day One with our young, inexperienced but expensive guide, Thibaud and I had to force ourselves to relax through many pep talks:

 

“We have to have a guide,” Thibaud said. “We didn’t have a choice.”

 

“We will just make the best of it,” I said. “It is our only choice now.”

 

We sat, waiting and waiting, watching as other trekkers took off in the same direction, walking and wearing their packs. We watched as other buses left in the direction of Kagbeni but we couldn’t take them because our bags were still on the missing bus. We watched the time pass by and realized we could’ve already walked to Kagbeni by this point.

 

Finally, hours later, the bus with our bags magically showed back up and our bags were still on it. We climbed aboard and began the bumpy ride to Kagbeni. We passed many hikers on the way. However, it was a very dusty and miserable-looking hike on the road. There were Jeeps passing the hikers every few minutes, blowing dust in their faces. It didn’t look like the peaceful bliss that we had envisioned.

 

The line between the Upper and Lower Mustang

We soon arrived in Kagbeni, which is the line between the Upper and Lower Mustang sections. The Upper Mustang region of Nepal is one of the few remote areas in the world that contains what is left of Tibetan culture. It is an ancient Buddhist kingdom that still has a king and was closed off to foreigners until 1992. It lies deep within the Himalayas but contains both beautiful mountains as well as vast open deserts.

 

The price of the Upper Mustang is very, very expensive for permits and the entire trek is around 12-14 days. For example, our amazing long trek in Ladakh, India cost each of us around $150 and this trek cost each of us around $1100. It is required to have a guide and we wanted to find the right guide who could tell us more about the culture. Unfortunately, we quickly found out that our guide knew nothing about the region, not even the route!

 

“We walk on the road,” he said as we were leaving Kagbeni.

 

“No, no,” we argued. “Ashok told us that most of the hike wouldn’t be on the road.”

 

“Not possible,” Rain said. “Only on the road.”

 

Leaving Kagbeni 🙂

We hiked on the road for a while before Thibaud showed me the real route, which was off the road on his map.

 

“We are going to hike on the trail and not the road,” we told Rain after lunch.

 

“Not possible,” he said.

 

Our trail 🙂 (That’s our guide in the photo)

“It is! We have the map,” we said and started off on the trail. It was a long and winding beautiful trail that wove up and down a steep canyon leading into a valley back on the river. It was very windy and very beautiful. Then, it spit us out back on the road and we hiked along the river until we reached Chele, but not before Thibaud nearly was taken out by a herd of goats running full speed down the hill that he was climbing!

 

On the way to Chele

In Chele, we quickly learned that all Tibetan cultures are not the same. It was already quite different than in Ladakh, where we chose our homestays. Our hosts in Ladakh were locals who were very much a part of the Tibetan Buddhism culture and were very, very happy to host us and to make us delicious meals. The Upper Mustang only allowed for Nepalese to build guesthouses and host the hikers, rather than any of the actual residents of this great, ancient kingdom. It seemed to create a discrepancy between the actual locals, who couldn’t profit from the tourism coming through but had to bear the tourist traffic.

 

On the way to Chele (on our trail!)

I think that if we hadn’t just come from the relaxed paradise of Ladakh, then the Upper Mustang would’ve been different for us. Perhaps our expectations would’ve fallen in line with the large guesthouses run by non-locals with large menus of food. Instead, we expected to hike into villages with accommodating locals inviting us into their homes as we had experienced in Ladakh.  So, it was disappointing coming over straight from Ladakh. It was also disappointing to have Rain as our guide.

 

Every day, Rain argued with us over the trail:

 

“We only take the road,” he said. “There is no trail. The trail is very dangerous. No one can take the trail.”

 

On the way to Chele

Then, we would take the trail anyways with Rain trailing behind and find every other hiker on it going in the same direction with their guides happily leading the way. Not one other group took the road. The trails were wide and not dangerous at all. It became increasingly frustrating throughout the 12 days that we spent with him. He would throw his trash on the ground. We would pick it up. He would take it from us, run behind us and then drop it back on the ground. I try to find the joy in every situation but it was difficult to find the joy in Rain.

 

Thibaud was nearly taken out by a massive herd of goats (the aftermath)

But, it was a very expensive trek and we had to put aside our issues with it. Once we were able to do that, we were able to see the beauty of the trail. Most days, I hiked as far ahead from Rain as I could and I was able to find the meditative bliss in my hike.

The rest of my stories from this trek won’t complain about Rain or how he guided us, but I like to show both the good and bad of all adventures and felt this one was worth being shared.

 

More to come from the Upper Mustang in Nepal! (And from the trek in Ladakh! I am catching up still!)

 

Nepal: Pokhara to Jomsom: The Road of Terror

The bus to Jomsom

It was around 6 am in Pokhara, Nepal. I found myself nervously clutching a masala ‘milk tea’ while staring at the bus from my tiny plastic stool at a nearby small convenience stand. There were several dingy looking dogs hovering around and a cow. The bus station consisted of a few old buses with large hefty wheels and one convenience stand that served fried vegetable samosas. Thibaud was eating a few of the greasy samosas while I indulged in another cup of milk tea.

We were waiting for the local bus to take us from Pokhara to Jomsom in Nepal while preparing to start a 12-day trek the following day in the Tibetan Buddhist region known as the Upper Mustang. The distance between Pokhara and Jomsom is 155 km (96 miles) and our agent, Ashok, in Kathmandu had said,

“It should take about 6-8 hours, with no problems.”

But as we sat, waiting and waiting for the driver to start the journey, we started discussing what Thibaud had discovered about the road, which happens to be one of the ‘world’s most dangerous roads.’

“This road is going to be so scary,” Thibaud said, having been the one to do research on the trip. “It shouldn’t be too bad until we reach Beni. After that, it is really, really bad.”

“I’m going to wait until we get to Jomsom to eat,” I replied. “I don’t want to get sick on the bus, it is only six hours or so.”

One of the many, many ‘traffic jams’

We waited and waited until our bus driver, a small, skinny Nepalese man with a big grin came running around from the back of the bus. He was wearing tight jeans and a camouflage jacket and motioned for everyone to get on the bus. Thibaud, Rain (our guide), and I were in the only seats available, in the very back row of the small bus.

We squeezed into the back row. I had to press my knees into the seat in front of me to fit and I’m only 5’4 (162 cm). I immediately felt claustrophobic as Rain and Thibaud squeezed in next to me. Thibaud, being much taller, had to sit in the middle of the back row so he could spread out his long legs into the aisle, which was quickly being filled with bags of grains and other random items.

One of the many, many ‘traffic jams’ on the ‘road’

The bus driver got in and sounded his horn – which was a delightful array of melodies during a 2-second period, before taking off. We immediately started bumping around and each bump caused my knees to dig into the seat in front of me, which was stuck in a reclined position. The seats in front of us were empty, even though all of the tickets were sold out. So, I squeezed out of my tiny backseat prison and moved up a row by the window in the second to last row of the bus.

I stared out the window as we drove past large shiny, colorful multi-story Nepalese houses. Many of them contained a business at the bottom, such as a convenience store or a restaurant and then there were two more stories to house the family or to serve as a guesthouse. The road was bumpy but in a fun, adventurous way.

A ‘traffic jam’ with a view

We stopped for about an hour on the narrow road during a traffic jam where two trucks were unable to pass each other. Everyone got off the bus and stood around in the hot sun. The bus behind us blared Indian music. Each bus was quite old but had very large, sturdy tires and an enormously loud sound system.

After stopping several times for long breaks where most everyone got off the bus and sipped on milk teas or ate large meals of dahl baht (rice, lentils, potatoes and vegetables served on a large, round metal plate), Thibaud finally joined me in the second to last row as the bus started to fill up with each stop.

“The worst part is coming up,” he said. “Once we pass Beni, then the road isn’t really a road anymore.”

Twenty minutes later, we stopped in Beni for another break where everyone piled off for milk teas and food. I got my fifth milk tea of the morning and a small snickers bar. We had been on the bus already for four hours and were quickly approaching the infamous ‘treacherous road’.

“Tooo Tu too too tu toooooooooooooooooooT” We heard the familiar horn of our bus and watched as everyone began piling back inside. We jumped back on, leaping over all of the debris on the floor and sat down.

On the way to Jomsom…

“Let’s take a selfie!” I joked. “In case we die!” I held out my camera and Thibaud and I snapped a quick photo.

I slid the window open as we started driving in order to breathe in the fresh, mountain air. However, we were already bumping quite a bit and the dust from the dirt road started pouring into the window. I tried to push the old, beige curtain back and tie it out of the way. There was a metal bar running horizontally along the windows of the bus and it sat right where my head would hit if we hit any big bumps. I tried slouching down for some of the ride in order to avoid hitting my head on the bar.

The bar that I tried to avoid slamming my head into with each bump!

We quickly hit a bump that sent everyone flying. Then another, and another and another. I glanced over to the old, Nepalese couple in the row next to us. The woman was dressed in a beautiful sari and was gripping the handle on the back of the seat in front on her with all her might.

WAY more than six hours later, as we were speeding around a very tight turn on a single-track bumpy dirt road with a 1,000 foot drop to the right, a large truck happened to be turning at the same time from the other direction.

“But in the end, it doesn’t even matter,” screamed Lincoln Park over the extremely loud speaker of our tiny bus.

Thibaud and I looked at each other in terror as the driver expertly turned the bus into the side of the mountain and the large truck expertly spun by, likely on only two wheels as there was no way that the other wheels weren’t hanging off the cliff. The bus behind the large truck passed us too. It was so close that I could’ve reached my hand into the windows and touched the other passengers. Instead, we sat, looking at each other in fear.

“Are their tires even on the road?” I whispered to Thibaud as the bus squeezed by on the tiny single track dirt cliff.

We hit another bump and everyone went flying. Eventually, I got used to the hours of being jolted and tossed and flying through the air. An hour later, we gripped the seats with all our might. The already super bumpy ‘road’ had taken a turn for the worst. It appeared as if the Nepalese government was trying to build a road out of a rock quarry through a canyon with a 1,000+ foot drop and a raging, white river screaming at the bottom, but then stopped five minutes into the project. But everyone didn’t know they stopped and decided to drive through it anyways.

I let go of the tight grip on my seat for a second to try and pull on the metal window handle to shut the window. Dirt and dust had been blowing in for some time and I couldn’t get the window to shut. Every breath I took was about 10 percent oxygen and 90 percent dirt. I gripped the handle and yanked on it as fast as I could but it was stuck.  I was too scared to keep my hand off the handle on the back of the seat for long. Dust from the dirt road was pouring through the window opening and everyone was already coughing. We hit a bump and as I flew out of my seat, my hand jammed into the metal opening.

I fell back on my seat as we hit another bump and flew back up. I hit my head on the ceiling of the bus, again.

“OW!” I yelled as I looked over at Thibaud. We grinned at each other. I looked at my hand and realized that I had blood running down it from the last bump. The back of the old beige seat cover was also streaked in my blood as well as some blood on the window handle.

>>>>

You know, just stopping to build the road.

After another hour of bumps and narrow misses with steep cliffs, the bus pulled up to a stop in front of a creek.

“Why are we stopping now?” I asked as I craned my head to see what the holdup was going to be this time. I couldn’t see any marooned busses or turned over Jeeps and the creek appeared to be shallow enough to easily handle the bus, especially with the expertise of our bus driver.

Thibaud shrugged and I stood up and jumped over the many small woven stools and bags of grains that were permeating the aisles. I stepped off the bus and stood next to the bus driver who was staring at the creek with a look of dismay. He looked at his watch and shook his head. We had already been on the bad part of the road, since Beni, for five hours now, making for nine hours on the road since leaving Pokhara that morning.

A yellow excavator was rolling over the top of the hill that was leading down to the creek. I saw the problem. They had to build the road. Everyone on the bus had stepped off by now to watch as the poor Nepalese kid in the excavator moved one rock at a time. He would choose a rock as an older fat police officer would yell directions at him while he pushed the large rock over the edge with the excavator. There was a crowd of people standing on top of the hill where the excavator had come from. They were all impatiently watching the excavator move slowly, pushing one rock after another.

Watching the motorbikes go up the ‘new road’

Two hours later, everyone watched as the excavator pushed his last large piles of rocks over the edge and everyone cheered. Our bus driver began pressing on the horn impatiently in order to get everyone back on the bus quickly. By the time the frail, old woman had climbed back on the bus, it was too late. The other side had already started making its way down the newly built road and across the creek. After we watched every single bus, Jeep, and motorcycle come down the ‘road’, we had to wait for all of the motorcycles on our side try and make their way across the creek and up the hill.

One of the many,many ‘traffic jams’. (I don’t have any photos of the scariest moments. It was too bumpy to take photos

After a while, it was finally our turn. The bus driver revved the engine, blaring loud rock music and effortlessly drove the bus straight through the creek and up the steep, rocky ‘road’. The sun had started to set and our nervousness was reaching a scary level. The enjoyment of the novelty of the scary trip had ended about an hour ago when the cookies that I scarfed down sat uneasily in my stomach. My headache worsened as the clouds grew darker and it began drizzling through the haze of the dust.

Every turn we made was along a razor sharp edge. I watched as the raging waters, 1000 feet or more below, slammed against rocks. The ‘road’ runs along the Kali Gandaki Gorge, said to be one of the deepest canyons in the world. We had to stop multiple times as large trucks tried to pass each other on the narrow road that is barely meant for one vehicle. I looked down the cliff at the fallen vehicles and burnt out shell remains of those that didn’t make it in the past.

You know, just stopping to fix the bus window that shattered during some of the bumps

The enjoyment of it all turned into pure terror and by the end, my head was pounding and I was trying not to vomit in a bag (but we were bumping so much, it would’ve missed the bag for sure.) I kept hitting my head on the ceiling even though I was gripping the seat with all my might. We kept stopping or even backing up on the scary winding high cliff, because buses or trucks would get stuck.

Several more bumps, gashes, and hitting my throbbing head on the ceiling later, we made it to Jomsom. All in all, we were on the road for nearly 14 hours. Somehow, we survived!

I don’t recommend it.

 

(Although, we took the same road back to Pokhara at the end of our trek)