“Sometimes the ‘plan’ is not the only path with a good outcome” – Steve Hill
From a wise and illustrious sage, this statement perfectly encapsulates Nepal, where nothing goes as planned but things usually turn out okay anyway.
Trekking Everest Base Camp wasn’t even on my bucket list, because who would’ve thought a kid from Illinois could make it anywhere close to the highest mountain in the world. But, a few Sundays ago, there I was, in the Kathmandu airport, waiting to board a plane to Lukla, the gateway to Everest and my ticket to a two-week trek to the (bottom of the) top of the world.
And so, there in the domestic terminal of the Kathmandu airport, we waited. And waited. And waited for eight hours. And then all flights were cancelled because of bad weather. The next day we waited again, and just when we had checked our bags and got our boarding passes and were about to board the plane, we were bumped to the bottom of the list by big trekking companies and our late flight was cancelled. And then the third day we waited again, but for unfathomable reasons, the airline never put us on a flight. Helicopters were too expensive, so we went home after 3 days (over 24 hours total) of waiting in the airport, failing to fly to Lukla. Disappointment is an understatement. Everest Base Camp, which is now on the bucket list, did not get a checkmark.
However, I did put a checkmark next to Langtang National Park. The trekking company pulled strings and sent us there last minute, and our 12 day trek was stunning, educational, and physically challenging in a way that Everest, perhaps, would not have been.
The road to Dunche (remember that time I almost died on the road to Dunche? The same road on which I almost lost my bag and all my belongings off the top of a jeep? That road) was miraculously smooth. Before we knew it, we were hiking up the Langtang Valley from Syaphru Besi in the opposite direction from Gatlang. Walking along the Langtang river through blooming rhododendron forests, we climbed over 1000 meters in elevation on the first day, and again on the second day. By then, we had risen above the treeline and were surrounded by snow-capped peaks.
Day three I started taking Diamox to stave off altitude sickness, but that didn’t stop me from feeling dizzy during our early morning hike to Kyangin Gompa. But after a bowl of garlic soup (garlic is said to help the body adjust to altitude, and garlic soup can be found on all menus above 3,000 m), I recovered enough to climb the Kyangin Ri viewpoint. It was hard. But I made it up there, to about 5,000 meters, almost 16,000 feet. And from that point, which is 2,500 feet higher than any point in the contiguous United States, the Himalayas rose above us and all around us. Insignificance, utter awe, exhaustion, euphoria—the “power of nature” may be a cliché, but standing on the windblown knob of rock looking up at the giant, majestic snow-covered peaks, it felt truer than ever before.
As we descended the Ri we passed through a herd of yaks, which are the amazingly fluffy domesticated cow-relatives of the upper Himalaya. Yaks represent the far end of the “domesticated-cow-like livestock” continuum, the other end of which is occupied by cows themselves. Most people in mountain areas say they raise chauri, which is a cross between a yak and a cow. But sometimes chauri are created with a female yak, which is called a nak, and a male cow; and sometimes a male yak, which is actually called a yak, and a female cow. And of course, most chauri are simply offspring of other chauri, but often a male chauri is called a yak for simplicity. And sometimes people call yaks chauri-gaai (gaai means cow), which in my opinion does not make sense, because chauri plus cow does not equal yak.
Specific cow-chauri-yak designations aside, above about 4,500 meters everything is pretty much a true domesticated yak. And yaks are beautiful. However, yak meat unfortunately tastes like a wet yak might smell. I do not recommend eating yak meat.
At one point our way back down the Langtang valley, we descended into the shadow of a deep gorge. As we climbed down a steep section of trail, we heard shouting ahead, and then a strange rumbling sound. When we looked up, a refrigerator-sized boulder had dislodged 2,000 feet above and was bouncing down the canyon like a ping-pong ball. “RUN!!!” screamed our guide, and we turned and sprinted back up the crude steps. Run, run, run, faster, faster, don’t look back…those fifteen seconds felt like eternity. When we finally did turn to look, the boulder had stopped halfway down and hadn’t dislodged any other rocks. We watched for several minutes as the dust cloud cleared, and then turned and hiked slowly back down to the river, aware that what had been a harmless slip could have easily turned into a dangerous landslide.
Next we headed to Gossaikunda, the sacred frozen lake that is the home of Lord Shiva (and also a major source to the mighty Trishuli River). As a popular pilgrimage site for both Hindus and Buddhists, the trail to the lake was filled with Nepali trekkers and the occasional baba (holy man), coming to pay their respects to Shiva.
Walking around the lake, I couldn’t help but marvel at the fact that an entire river, that eventually feeds into the Ganges, which is a holy river and the source of water for millions of people, comes from here, in the Himalayas, from the snow and ice that fall every winter and melt every spring. I am drawn to bodies of water, and even though I couldn’t wade in the sacred lake, I stuck my hand in—the lake is oligotrophic and has few plants and no fish, but I looked for mayflies and snails under the rocks anyway.
And then from Gossaikunda, up and over the Lauribina pass we went, carefully kicking our way through snowfields and pausing to take in the breathtaking views. And then we went down, down to Phedi and Ghopte, and then unexpectedly back up to 3,500 meters, where I forgot to take my Diamox and got so ill I barely made it up the hill. And then we were no longer in the true Himalayas but in the foothills, and the rhododendron forests turned to pine, and it looked and smelled more like Colorado than Nepal. Finally, we walked into Shivapuri National Park, through the thick jungle, passing bird watchers out for a day hike, and followed the aqueduct down to Sundarijhal, where we stopped at a fruit stand for bananas and jumped in a taxi home. Thus, 15 days after my initial foray to the Kathmandu airport, I welcomed myself back to my apartment with a cold bucket shower and toilet paper.
The trek was beautiful, but also challenging. Altitude often subdues appetite, and that combined with 7 hours climbing stairs every day wiped ten pounds off my body. My hiking pants were falling off by day seven. At times, the altitude had me struggling for every step and left me gasping for breath up even short flights of stairs. Then I caught a nasty cough, which combined with the weight of my pack pulled a muscle in my ribs badly enough to visit a doctor in Kathmandu. But it was 100 percent worth it. I would do it again in a heartbeat. And before I leave Nepal in November, I certainly will.
Meet Jessie Moravek
I am a 2018 Fulbright Scholar at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom. Studying for an MSc in Biodiversity and Conservation. Click here to learn more about me!