I sit here, struggling to come up with the words to adequately describe our journey through Far Western Nepal. Somehow I already know that I will be reflecting upon this adventure for a long time after I return home. Now, amidst the craziness, is almost too soon to make sense of it. My mind is stimulated to bursting point as I am trying to understand, trying to normalise and trying to bank away all of the experiences we are having. My eyes, again, are being opened to such different ways of viewing the world. With each visit to Nepal, I peel back more layers, and never cease to be amazed by the beauty of the people of this country, one of the poorest on earth.
I wonder: how can it be that only 2 weeks on foot have passed? It feels both like an eternity and a fleeting moment.
Walking is a way of stitching together many moments, experiences, landscapes and encounters with people. It is a simple, and a sustainable way to travel. We set out on this adventure with a few common goals: to enjoy ourselves, learn as much as we could along the way, be challenged on many levels and somehow, to weave a route through the Himalayan mountains from the Western to the Eastern border of Nepal.
The only thing we were sure of was that we were stepping into the unknown. That simply meant we would be making things up as we went, following our noses. We welcomed the possibility that we could end up getting distracted by a remote mountain valley or stopping to help out or spend time immersed in day to day life with new friends from a village. All of the best journeys I’ve ever been on have allowed for a bit of spontaneity. I find that in adventures there are always surprises in store, lurking in the most unlikely of places, ready to catch our attention or blow us away. So far, this adventure has certainly lived up to that. And we have barely even begun.
Already, with each day, our final destination has become less important. Places, trails, landscapes have begun to blur together, like ragged prayer flags on a high alpine pass slowly fading with the elements. But I will clearly see many faces, hear lots of laughter, remember stories shared and meals cooked together for a long, long time to come. I will remember forcing down a buffalo milk rice paste, while giving Tom a sideways glance, both of us desperately wanting to please our friendly hosts as they looked on, prompting us: how does it taste? Honestly, buffalo milk is one of the only things that absolutely revolts me. With the most enthusiasm I could conjure up I uttered “mito ta” – it tastes delicious – in my best Nepali. Buffalo take pride of place in a rural Nepali home, with most families having at least one of the mighty beasts to tend to – a time-munching and often laborious task compared with many other animals.
Our ears have become accustomed to ringing of bells as donkeys, laden with bags of rice or large rocks for building a house, trot past at incredible speed, leaving us in a pool of dust and almost knocking us off our feet. They have learnt to negotiate these paths with both care and haste, or perhaps have been forced into it with regular whipping. I am glad I’m not a donkey. Alongside donkeys are men, women and children carrying heavy loads, usually in baskets, overflowing with all sorts of supplies. We’re travelling through small villages and towns, on Himalayan trails that have been walked for thousands of years. Some are starting to see motorised traffic, and works are in progress to widen paths so jeeps can rattle their way further into the Himalaya. Some trails will never see motors. Change is inevitable, but occasionally I can’t help but wish things would remain as they are now; sometimes development just makes life more complex.
We have crossed many streams and rivers, on everything from single log bridges to modern, sturdy, wire suspended bridges, suggestive of the size of the rivers when swollen with the monsoon rains.
We’ve passed through expansive areas of wild rhododendron, blanketing the hills in seas of deep red and crimson. We’ve experienced baking hot days, leaving us feeling dizzy as we made our way through seas of cacti taller than us, spotting papaya trees bearing fruit ready to devour in the early monsoon. Merely two days later we found ourselves waking up in the morning to a sharp chill, and after begrudgingly slipping on our smelly socks, trudged through the snow to a large lake that could have come right out of New Zealand.
Already I have spent a bit of time trying to convince myself that I’m having fun, chuckling at how uncomfortable the heat was, with mystery swollen bites all over my legs, sweat pouring down my face. My gaze would move into the distance, uphill, to the trails, still basking in the hot afternoon sun. And I would sigh, wiping the sweat off my forehead with my buff band, and take another step towards the East. It doesn’t always have to be fun to be fun. All of the more difficult times we persevere through build character, helping to prepare us for the impending altitude. And with each step, our heavy loads seem to get lighter as our thoughts move to something else. I know that whatever happens, the memories of this journey will play a key part in the narrative of my life.
With tourists a rarity in these parts, it has been impossible to breeze through communities unnoticed. Often most of the village stop what they’re doing and come to greet us, crowding around our map, or watching us eat as if we’re animals in the zoo. We are just as curious. Curious about all of the things we have in common, curious about the things that appear distinctly different.
Houses are made from stone, carefully hammered away at and placed to fit together like jigsaw pieces. Everything is done by hand. Building a house is a community effort; usually at least one member from each family in a village will donate a days labour to any building project. After the stones comes mud, to stick everything together. Roofs are slate-like stones, or hay, pinned down by heavy stones. And sometimes wood is used, but in many areas there are few trees, possibly suggestive of glaciers that used to lurk in the valleys, but more so of deforestation and the use of wood as fuel for cooking. These modest homes provide warmth and shelter for whole families, and refuges for weary limbs such as our own, as we are graciously welcomed in and fed after a day on foot.
Daily I am asked whether I am married. People in rural Nepal can barely fathom the reality that a happy, healthy and educated 24 year old woman could be single, let alone unmarried. Or that I do not have a family buffalo, a herd of goats or crops to tend to. However, underneath all of these superficial differences, as people, no matter what our backgrounds, we are all inherently the same and it doesn’t take long to find some common ground. It almost seems like pure luck where we happen to be born, what situation we happen to be born into.
Beneath the surface all humans want a roof over their head, food, a loving family and friends, the opportunity to learn. We are all born curious, born with a need to discover the world around us. And we were born to stick together – to share, collaborate, support each other. Whenever I meet a new face, I have a welcoming smile and I immediately search for common ground.
Many days we have stopped walking earlier than anticipated, graciously accepting an invitation to stay with a local girl we’ve met on the trail. Other days we’ve spotted a child washing the family buffalo in a refreshing waterhole, and we’ve succumbed to the temptation of a dip. Moments later we’ve found ourselves surrounded by naked children, shrieking with glee as they jump off rocks, hitting the water with a splash. We’ve stopped to visit children in local primary schools, exchanging national anthems and other songs. We’ve taken refuge from the baking afternoon sun under many verandahs, munched on samosas around lunchtime and regularly gone to bed satisfied with a large helping of dahl baht, the traditional Nepali dish.
While we are in the Himalaya, we are just in the foothills, between 1000 – 3000m. From here it gets colder as we start gaining altitude and head into the real mountains. Our proposed route will continue through the Lower and Upper Dolpa before dropping down into the Annapurna Conservation Area, which will be the first familiar place to me. There we will welcome our first shower, possibly a real toilet, and a tasty slice of apple pie.
These recounts merely scratch the surface; we have had many other moments which will take much more reflection before I’ll be able to attempt articulating them. Many may just stay in my heart. Some things must be experienced first hand to be fully appreciated.
What is the most important thing? He Tangata, He Tangata, He Tangata… It is people, it is people, it is people.
By Dulkara, 31st March