My lungs are coated in dust and exhaust fumes.
My ears are ringing with the sound of barking dogs and the incessant honking of car horns.
This entire country has the feeling as though it’s running purely on impulse, and although chaotic and overwhelming at first, I came to quickly, and absolutely, love it.
When I landed in Kathmandu, I had the privilege of flying in during both Diwali and the New Year celebrations of Nepal Sambat which meant the city was electric, lit up and partying…hard!
The evening views from my airplane window seat were incredible as quite literally every building was glowing with colourful strands of string lights from top to bottom. Once landed, we drove through the winding, narrow side streets passing corner after corner of people playing music and dancing in the streets around every turn – what a party to walk into.
With a few days to spend in Kathmandu, I joined a group of friends who invited me to crash their day-off plans and take a day-trip to a place nearby called Nagarkot.
It was an amazing welcome as we had a perfectly clear day and panoramic views of the Himalayas, a rarity given the amount of haze/pollution that typically clouds the sky!
The parties were going strong even during the daytime as music and celebration seeped into the streets along the drive.
We actually hit a guy on a scooter, or rather, he turned a blind corner and ran straight into us with the drunken excuse of “it’s festival!” and with a shrug of his shoulders he continued, somehow unscathed, down the treacherous snaking road that we just drove up, leading us to our sought-after view point. Oh, Nepal.
After a few days of finding comfort in the chaos, it was finally time for me to start into the real reason for season, which was my chosen hike of the Annapurna Circuit Trek reaching the pinnacle of Thorong La Pass, standing at a staggering 5416M in elevation.
It was often a mystery, to a foreigner like me, how this country developed even to the point at which it has given some of my experiences here – the local bus system being the epitome of this.
How anyone knows which bus to take and when is beyond me. There is no set stop, no bus number, no set price – there is simply a young man leaning out of the open bus door, shouting and whistling at anyone passing by to see if they want to jump on and ride to whatever direction was ahead.
Truly, there are live chickens in a bag beside me as I write this, and let’s not overlook the sacredness of the cows who have free reign of these streets!
When there are police nearby or a check-point to pass-through, that open bus door gets swiftly shut and locked, leading me to believe these ‘local bus’ services are mostly less than legit.
You can’t make this stuff up – on the way out, our bus driver actually pulled over, jumped out and got in a fist-fight (!!) with another bus driver for ‘stealing’ fares while we all waited for him to finish his squabble and get back to getting us on our way. See what I mean about running on impulse?
That aside, once we finally disembarked the dirty, crowded bus in Besisahar and caught a Jeep to Jagat (which was the starting point for our hiking days) the ride from here on out was stunning.
With rice paddies and lush, rolling green hillsides – everywhere I looked was truly like another scene straight out of a National Geographic magazine. I was awestruck.
And the next day, we walked.
In total I walked for 11 days from town to town, and over one of the highest Passes in the world, Thorong La Pass.
You know for a second there I thought maybe I was becoming a beach baby, but one step in these foothills and it was so clear to me that this is where I was meant to be. It’s the mountains, beyond all else, that truly serve my soul.
This trek was a mental game. Physically I knew I could handle it (or at least stick it through), but spending this much time with myself in the solitude of the mountains genuinely worried me. I mean, really, you’re essentially doing a walking meditation for 6-8 hours a day, for 11 days straight. I think that would be a lot for anyone.
So many times I’d panic and question why the fuck am I doing this, how will I ever finish, what will happen if I just give up and stop walking right now?
But of course, the whole purpose was for me to learn how to let this go. I had to adopt the mentality that wherever I was at any point along the way, that was the destination. This rendered that nagging question of, “are we there yet?” completely obsolete, because in this mindset, the answer was always yes.
I was learning to take things slowly, and to ‘simply’ meet myself wherever I was at.
One of many personal mantras I leaned on throughout was, “right here, right now.” Tomorrow didn’t matter, two hours from now didn’t matter. All that mattered was the step or the breath I was taking, followed by the next. I couldn’t even attempt to think beyond that as not only would it have been completely unhelpful, it only ever prompted feelings of inadequacy, overwhelm and anxiety about how far I’d still have to go.
Let’s be honest, I was also playing ‘The Amazing Race Nepal’ with anyone around me, unbeknownst to them, to keep me going and to keep my mind occupied. This was in strict opposition to the behest of my guide, Tika, who kept trying to tell me to slow down…but, I couldn’t stop and wouldn’t stop…I had a race to win! Ha.
There were moments that I loved, and moments that I hated. Moments where I was completely paralyzed with fear or anxiety and moments where I felt such sheer exhilaration unlike anything I’ve felt before. There were moments where I wanted to quit. And moments where I was so sick I didn’t think I could go on.
And that was where the most amazing thing started to happen. That was where I really started to be there for myself. I was able to be there for myself in a way I’ve never known. Granted, there was no one else to turn to, but that hasn’t stopped me from bailing on me before. It was really cool to have myself to lean on, to pick me up when I was quite literally falling down from exhaustion or illness, and to come to genuinely enjoy my own company.
Of course I had my amazing guide as well, and when I got tired of being in my own head, conversations and local language lessons with him offered a welcome and enjoyable change of pace from the constant racing thoughts that I forever battle in my own head…and of course the views. Views for days that offered the most welcome distraction.
It is worth noting that I booked my guide and itinerary through Swotah Travel, a local travel agency that I would suggest looking into for an elevated and intimate experience – I was able to go it solo but you could also book into a group if preferred.
After a few days, we hit near the 4,000M mark and then of course, altitude sickness.
I really thought this was the end for me. I was sure I wasn’t going to be fit enough to move on, so after a complete melt-down, lots of rest and total surrender, I told myself that I simply had to embrace that where I stood (well, laid, wrapped in my sleeping-bag in a cold, brick room), might be the end of this journey for me. Amor Fati.
I had recognized that so much of this journey was less about seeking pleasure, and more about learning how to navigate the pain. It was in that surrender, that I actually found the strength to go on.
And so we went.
Despite one other sickness and nearly thinking I would, again, have to quit, I made it.
I’ve never been quite so proud of myself before, and this was a new feeling for me to begin with. It was beautiful in every sense.
The climb down was nearly as strenuous as the hike up. A descent of nearly 2,000M within four hours left my legs shaking, toes cramped and calves burning, but nothing could kill my vibe at that point.
The destination of Muktinath took longer to reach than I would have wished, but what a beautiful greeting. Vibrant, bright colours, a lively main street, the friendliest of people saying, “Namaste,” all day – I loved it. The culture, clothing and language were different here, as it had been at every landing point along the way, but there was a greater sense of inclusion here that was tangible to me.
A quick and welcome rest brought the final day of walking. Predominantly downhill, and in this sort of black sand mountain-desert if such a thing makes sense, it felt like a pilgrimage fighting mirage and the direct sun the whole way.
Hoofing it along the highway, to a dusty dirt path, to an even dustier dirt road, we finally made it from Muktinath to Marpha and I was absolutely in heaven.
The colourful hand-made crafts and clothes that line Marpha’s stone streets are accented by the vibrancy of laughter and life brought to this mountain-town by the dozens of children playing in the picturesque alleyways.
And alas, my walking days were done. Though the interesting thing was at this point I could have easily gone longer. Had it not been for a few plans that book-ended my time in Nepal, I honestly might have.
So back to the dreaded local bus I went to get from Marpha to Pokhara for a bit more ‘city-life’ as I slowly made my way back to Kathmandu. For context, this ride spans 61 KMs and it took thir…teen…hours to get there.
Aside from the ridiculous length of the ride, this was actually a really cool drive as I had completely forgotten that I’d been above the tree-line for however long, and it was like seeing this lush, green, oxygen-filled jungle for the first time as we slowly wound further down. In its full glory of rice paddies and banana trees, it was stunning! Evidently, I’d missed it.
I was pleasantly surprised reaching Pokhara (aside from my cab driver dropping me at the wrong location), to find how quiet and peaceful it was along the lake. Being basically the main attraction, I really thought that it would have been crowded with tourists but to my surprise it was actually a really nice place to wind down.
There were so many little Warung-style restaurants lining the pedestrian path it almost had a bit of a Bali-vibe (which we all know I love). Fittingly, it’s called “Foot Track, Lakeside.” The perfect spot for lunch or a beer, well, lakeside.
The weather was warm but otherwise hazy, and I was being lazy, so I really didn’t do too much here. The highlights were lunch at OR2K, yoga at Mudra Yoga & Fitness Studio and – the best of the best – was the outdoor theatre, Movie Garden. This place was totally epic with a candle-lit path to a rock garden where the seating is etched into the cliffside and lined with blankets and pillows to keep things comfortable. Serving only beer, wine, popcorn and pizza, the concept was awesome and the experience one to remember.
That, and shopping. The shopping options were amazing! I typically don’t make too many purchases when I travel, but I couldn’t stop myself here.
Then, my favourite stop yet, the sweet, secluded mountain-town of Bandipur.
I’d spent three nights in Pokhara, leaving two nights for my stay in Bandipur, but I wish I would have had this in the reverse. I much preferred the quiet, humble culture that thrived here vs. the bustle of city. That being said, it was amazing for the time I had, and I met some lovely people here who I was able to adventure with for an easy (minus the heat) day-hike to nearby Ramkot.
The ‘hike’ to Ramkot is a bit of a misnomer especially after having just climbed over 5,400M, but even still it was the perfect way to pass time for the day in an otherwise sleepy town, and the owner of our home-stay was generous enough to be our guide. Though him, we gleaned so much more insight into this area and the simple (enviable) way of life here.
I would highly recommend my accommodation choice to anyone looking for a place to stay in Bandipur. Depche Village Resort was a little slice of heaven nestled onto the edge of the hill, with unobstructed views of the full Himalayan range to which I marvelled over every morning and each night from my tiny private balcony.
With my crew of wonderful adventure-seekers, it was a beautiful experience to stay here and visit with new friends, great food and local beer.
And just like that, I was back to Kathmandu and jumping on the next flight to Taipei.
Nepal was an incredible whirlwind to which the only thing I could fathom when it was all said and done was, “Let’s do that again.”