countries

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South(east) Asia Nepal

Himalayas / Hiking Alone, Astray & Everestless

when you set out to see Everest, but Everest doesn’t care

   It was the earliest morning when I stepped out onto the street. Kathmandu was pitch black and asleep and so was the cab driver I spotted a little down the road, sunken deep into his driver’s seat. He looked peaceful and deserving of something much better than the cruel wake up knock I was about to administer. As though he knew no other awakening, his body jumped up in the seat before his mind fully arrived at the scene, and was good to go. I never would have made the bus without his heroic service.

The bus ride was a bus ride like any other bus ride in what I call “real countries,” the ones outside the sweet convenience bubble I grew up in: rock bumpy, nausea windy and eternity long despite speeding that makes your heart race. The journey was so strenuous on my soft bones and gut and soul that hiking the Himalayas up and down afterwards would be salvation.

When I fell out of the bus in Jiri by lunch time, I lunched. I didn’t see any other backpacks around and over the course of the next week I would only see a (six finger) handful: two German doctors, a very old man with a very long beard, a Swiss who would only ever slow down but never pause, a Honduran-Canadian power woman, and a sporty American. Plus that group of German “all-inclusive hikers,” but they didn’t carry their own weight (backpacks).

The journey was so strenuous on my soft bones and gut and soul that hiking the Himalayas up and down afterwards would be salvation.

That’s why I had come here and not gone there, there being all of Nepal’s popular hiking territories in the Langtang, Anapurna and Everest regions – I sought solitude and remote tranquility, and the Jiri to Lukla route has been almost completely abandoned by tourism, ever since the construction of an airport in Lukla allowed hikers to cut out this one week leg when rushing through the Everest Base Camp trek. Shortening the trek from four to three weeks is a luxury that Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary didn’t have when they set first feet on the mighty Mount. I guess it’s as ironic as it is unsurprising that Hillary himself started the construction of the airport which has made a dubious name for itself as the world’s most dangerous.

For better or worse, the airport helped tourism along the trek between Lukla and Everest Base Camp to skyrocket, while the guesthouses along the Jiri to Lukla route remain empty and Sherpa guides and porters are seldom needed. The six people I encountered were the peak season count (pun on peak) and only one of them (the long-bearded old man) had a porter and guide. I felt bad about not hiring someone to carry my stuff, but I would have felt worse about hiring someone to carry my stuff. Perhaps that was selfish thinking.

In a way, by the way, I also did some short-cutting: I had chosen a route that should allow me to see Everest, the peak of peaks, without having to walk all too far towards it. So that’s where I started that afternoon, walking out of Jiri into the thick mist that swathed the hills on the way to Shivalaya.

There are a couple of things I remember distinctively from that first leg: the path narrowing into a very skinny passage that barely separated the steep hillside from a deep abyss, which made me think about the little kids and old people that walk it every day without hesitation; two brothers, I assume, playing badminton in a meadow; two men standing on a little wooden platform amid trees, sawing timber with an enormous two-man crosscut saw.

My arrival to the tiny village of Shivalaya around nightfall was accompanied by the nostalgic feeling of stepping into a past century, straw filling the cracks between the cobblestones, and guesthouses beaming golden warmth into the dark, like signaling a place to stay to a character from a historic novel. Over dinner, my friendly host told me about the existential struggles of local guesthouse owners, who give out rooms for less than a dollar per night, or even for free when tourists use their bargaining power – they propose to eat at the guesthouse and only pay for the meals or move their business elsewhere.

With all the bright orange markings on trees and rocks, it is truly difficult to get lost along that trek, but I did it.

The next day, my early start started without me as I woke up late. In a fierce hurry, I paced up the steep mountain behind Shivalaya, but missed a junction. With all the bright orange markings on trees and rocks, it is truly difficult to get lost along that trek, but I did it. When I realized that I hadn’t seen a mark in like an hour, I was some three to four hours in, supposedly the total amount of time needed to complete the leg, yet with no ending in literal sight.

Due to my late start, it was too late to turn back and so I kept pushing uphill, certain that it would only be a matter of time till I would hit the ridge and see my final destination on the other side of it. I was wrong in various ways: the day was just as grey as the previous, reducing visibility to a pretty small radius; the further I pushed, the more I entered a forest that further reduced sight and orientation; the path started branching out more and more with every step.

Eventually, I arrived at a house. A mother with her two daughters and baby boy invited me in for some tea and offered me to stay for the night in an exchange that included more hand signs than words. In my memory, the inside of the house was more like a barn, big and dark and damp. I was trying to communicate that I had to move on (I only had a week for the round trip), and kept repeating the name of that day’s final destination, Bhandar, while pointing into the right or wrong direction. I’m sure the question marks in her eyes were mostly owed to my poor pronunciation, but later I also learned that a lot of people in these mountainous regions are only familiar with the names of neighboring villages, and, coming to think of it, I guess that’s the same anywhere. Hence, especially when lost in translation, asking for directions translates to asking for the next village, not any far final destinations.

It was getting late and since she couldn’t seem to point me into the right direction, I set out again none the wiser. I continued my mission up the hill, but soon the little path branched off beyond recognition as the slope got steeper and steeper. Finally, there was no path anymore, only trees. I had to turn back. When I reached the house, I tried to express my desire to cross the hill as more of a code red level urgency. Next thing I knew, the Sherpa mother sent her two daughters to accompany me up the hill for a little fee. She had given them a cell phone to stay in touch just in case, but they seemed to know the tiny paths like the back of their hands and I had a hard time keeping up with their pace.

A little later we reached a clearing and the girls started plucking rhododendron blossoms from the trees that were in beautifully full bloom, to leave behind a trail on the ground and find their way back, like in the Brothers Grimm tale of Hansel and Gretel. The whole scene was like from a picture book, but now I arrived at the shameful realization that I had put them at risk with my stubborn hiking stupidity. We took a quick break and they took a photo of me with their old school cell phone and I took one of them with my camera. Then they called their mother, which put my mind a little more at ease.

Soon we reached a trail head leading down the mountain on the other side and distant village sounds reassured me that I could now make it by myself. My saviors hurried back home and I hurried on. The relief of being back on track had turbo-charged my batteries and I nearly ran down the hill and made it to Bhandar in the late afternoon.

The next morning, I started hiking with the German doctors and the Swiss man, guesthouse buddies from the night before. Day three awaited me with a crystal sky that lifted my hiking spirits to soaring heights and made me fly along the path with my feet hardly touching the ground. The first two days had been frustrating – my body had put in the work, braving the steep uphill stretches, but it had been deprived of the reward as the Himalayan vistas were lost to the mist. But now everything was easy, sunny and downhill, in the best possible literal sense, and I was happy.