One More Step: Mantras, Mindfulness & Meditation while Hiking the Himalayas of Nepal
Let me just preface this by saying that I had no idea what I would be getting myself into with this whole trekking thing. I had lived at sea level in Florida for the past decade and in no way trained for this experience. Neither I nor my parents were particularly outdoorsy when I was growing up so this was super out of my comfort zone in several ways.
But I was in Nepal and trekking is pretty much the top tourist magnet here. Turns out, it's totally worth the hype and I learned a lot about myself, meditation and mindfulness along the way.
For five days in April 2016, I trekked the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal with a small group of local guides and fellow foreigners. This translates to hiking thousands of stone steps and several steep inclines up and down a bunch of rugged mountains that rose as high as 3,200 meters (about 10,500 feet).
DAY 1 / KATHMANDU - POKHARA
The first leg of the trip involved a six hour bus ride from Khatmandu to Pohkara. Fellow trekkers Julienne from Canada, Deepak from Singapore and Julienne's Nepalese guide, Babu were on the bus as well.
After arriving in Pokhara about 6 hours later, a driver took us and all our luggage to our hotel called Third Pole. Pokhara is a lovely, lakeside town that is just as touristy as Kathmandu but much cleaner, calmer and quieter. This is where Deepak and I met our guide, Kumar.
DAY 2 / POKHARA - NAYAPOL
The following morning, Deepak and I combined a few things into my rucksack, left electronics and non-essentials locked up at the hotel and met our adorable, young porter named Subus. Now that our six person group was complete, we piled into a van and left Pokhara around 9:30 AM.
It was a rather perilous road trip up the mountain. The roads are in desperate need of repair in several places. Our guides said the India trade embargo is one reason the roads are not being maintained. The air is very hazy and often obscures the view. No doubt air pollution from the cities in Nepal, China and India sadly drifts and settles here.
NAYAPOL - TIKHEDUNGA
The car dropped us off in a small village called Nayapol. We walked on a rocky road for about an hour and a half before stopping at a roadside cafe for lunch. I thoroughly enjoyed my ginger tea and veg momo; steamed dumplings stuffed with basil, onion, carrot and mystery greens with a pink dipping sauce of tomato/garlic/spices. (Mo mo and dahl bhat are the two most common dishes on the trek, and in Nepal in general.)
We walked maybe another hour and arrived at guest house around 4 PM. Since donkeys are the main mode of transportation up here, you have to constantly be on the lookout for piles of poop. And you'll probably stop more than once to let a caravan of the them pass by.
I am eternally grateful to our adorable young porter for carrying my bag. I feel guilty and overly privileged to have someone carrying most of my belongings. Makes me think about how much I REALLY need in life after traveling for so many months with this rucksack and even moreso now, watching someone else carry it AND his own things.
The first guest house is simple but has clean looking linens, beds and hot showers. There were no outlets in the rooms so I have to charge my phone in the kitchen. (Used my phone only for taking pictures and notes.) So glad I didn't bring my GoPro and a bunch of other gadgets that would need charging. I really did try to pack minimally and mindfully. I decided to find a place to meditate before dinner.
This really is luxury trekking. I enjoyed a hot shower (even too hot at times before I figured out the knobs) and a delicious dinner. I had Dahl bhat with rice, sautéed spinach and potatoes with hot ginger tea to drink. Afterwards, our guides surprised us with an artistically arranged plate of apple and orange slices surrounding a pile of pomegranate seeds in the middle. Julienne, Deepak and I conversed a bit more before bed and I think the two of us may have persuaded him to commit to vegetarianism again.
I retrieved my phone from the power strip in the kitchen and went to my room, 105. I did my anti-rheumatic yoga series and some reading before snuggling up inside my sleeping bag for the night.
DAY 3 / TIKHEDUNGA - GHOREPANI
Day three was the most intense part of the trek. It was a 5.5 hour uphill battle against steep inclines and ancient stone steps. It was me, two other trekkers, two Nepali guides and a porter - but the only person I was competing with was myself. I knew the only way to get through it was to go nonstop so for four hours from roughly 8 AM to exactly noon, so that's what I did. (I did have to pause briefly a few times to make way for a few caravans of transport donkeys to pass but I kept my feet moving.)
I had no idea how many steps there were ahead of or behind me and I had no sense of time. I was just completely focused on the next step. My unofficial mantra was "one more step." Because no matter where you are on the trail, there's always one more step. I felt incredibly present and so focused. We stopped for a lunch break at noon but after refueling on fried rice, I finished the remaining 1.5 hours the same way.
My journey became a live tortoise and the hare parody. I kept trudging along at my glacial pace while my guide Kumar would hike up ahead of me, plop down on a rock, sometimes making a phone call or two or nibbling on a pre-packaged snack. I would walk by, gain a bit of ground and then he would catch up and overtake me again. Slow and steady finishes the race. I'm not guaranteeing you'll win, but you'll at least make it to the end. And that was my only goal: finishing. Also, by taking slow and mindful steps, I'm sure there was less impact/wear & tear on my joints so that should help prevent some future physical pain and suffering.
A few thoughts wandered into my mind but I just acknowledged them and let them briskly pass by, like several German-speaking groups surely born and raised in the Alps who whizzed past me with walking poles and carried their own large, puffy packs.
And even they are no big deal compared to the local Nepali people that hike up and down these steps like it's their job - because in most cases, it is. I passed a group of kids (or rather they passed me) that were practically sprinting down the stairs towards school in their uniforms. Which means they commute up and down these steps five days a week for probably at least a decade. And then there's the adults who carry heavy loads on their backs that are tethered around their foreheads while wearing flip flops. Not to mention how exponentially more work it is to build the steps in the first place than just to traverse them. These passing thoughts helped keep me motivated. After all, thousands of other people have completed this trek before me and thousands more will do it after I'm done.
Our guides claim that we climbed over 3,000 steps toward the summit. Uneven, randomly spaced steps that were just flat rocks hammered into the dirt. But the only number that mattered to me was One. One more step. This little droplet of enlightenment really makes me excited to make trekking more of a regular habit.
DAY 4 / GHOREPANI - POON HILL
I woke up early at 4 AM to trek up to the summit of Poon Hill to watch the sun rise over the Annapurna range. You guessed it, more stairs, only this time in the pre-dawn darkness and extremely packed with people. (The sunrise trek is somewhat of a bottleneck on the trail; this is the only time I encountered so many other people at once during the trek.)
Not to mention poor Julienne was sick and vomiting most of the morning but she's a rock star and still managed to reach the summit and trek to Tadapani later. The mighty mountains looked just as I had expected; jagged snow-capped peaks rising out of the mist. I saw a splash of color from the sunrise struggling to paint the sky but it was mostly obscured by clouds.
GHOREPANI - TADAPANI
After breakfast, even more stairs led us into an enchanted-looking, fairytale forest. So many beautiful trees exploding with colorful blossoms, especially pink rhododendron. I got many more great views of those frosted peaks. I finally gave in and got a walking stick, or rather, Kumar found one for me. It was such a relief and really helped me get up and down those steps and steep inclines.
I saw a European family of four with an older porter carrying three full rucksacks lashed together on his back. Supposedly there are regulations that are supposed to limit the loads that porters carry, but I think they are rarely enforced. Just feels wrong to make one person bear that much weight, especially when most of it is probably luxuries you don't truly need in the first place. The family didn't seem all too concerned and trotted along between breaks to take pictures, hardly acknowledging their poor porter.
Kumar and I arrived in Tadapani around 3 PM. I had to wait for Subus to arrive before I could take a hot, solar-powered shower. Then the temperature dropped and it was so, so cold that evening. The chill made me eat too much for dinner: dahl bhat plus two ginger teas plus rice pudding plus fruit. I shivered myself to sleep, wearing two layers of clothes and socks, tucked inside my sleeping bag and under an additional blanket.
But what this guest house lacked in comfort, it made up for with consistent power and Internet. There was a big, loud German family that I passed on the trail that ended up staying the night here as well. Some of them even slept in a yellow tent outside instead of in the rooms. They could be annoying but I liked the fact that the kids were all interacting with each other, talking & playing cards, instead of being zombified by electronic devices. They were even whittling away at their own walking sticks with legit hunting knives the next morning. What an awesome way to grow up. I hope the appreciate it someday, if not now.
DAY 5 / TADAPANI - GHANDRUK
Day five led us mostly down through a magical, mossy meadow. Sometimes I felt like I was in Middle Earth on a mission to take a ring to Mordor. Other times I felt like I was wandering through a pre-historic landscape and would surely discover dinosaurs around the corner at any given moment. (All I actually saw was a lonely, old yak once.)
We came upon a metropolis of karsts, or stacks of stones, that countless tourists had built and left using the smooth, flat stones in and around the river. They were everywhere in all shapes and sizes. Of course I had to stop and build a couple, myself. (NOTE: I now realize this can be incredibly destructive to the natural environment and no longer build them.)
Remember the amazing meal I had on the first trek day? I ordered Mo Mo again, which this time only consisted of bitter greens and no other flavor except maybe some salt. I learned the hard way that while the menu is pretty much the same at all of the guesthouses along the way, the taste and quality is wildly inconsistent. But I’m still grateful to have food in my belly, even if it kind of made me want to barf. After about an hour and a half more up and down hills with Stickly (as I named my walking stick) by my side, Kumar and I reached our destination for the day: Ghandruk.
Our guesthouse in Ghandruk was by far the best place I've stayed in Nepal, period. The food was incredible and the rooms had all the luxuries: en suite toilets and showers and power outlets in the rooms and very few power cuts. It rained that evening which was a bit of a bummer at the time but helped to clear the air for spectacular view the following morning.
DAY 6 / GHANDRUK - NAYAPOL
While I was waiting for breakfast, a Tibetan refugee named Tenzing showed Deepak and I his arts and crafts for sale. He said that he has a wife and two children living in a refugee camp and so I was a bit guilted into buying a black onyx bracelet bearing a white Om symbol from him for 300 rupees (about $3 USD). Not to get too political, but it's pretty terrible how China annexed Tibet and is basically eradicating their amazing and unique culture. And even worse how most of the world doesn't seem to care because it doesn't affect the global economy. Sigh.
The trek back from Ghandruk was almost all downhill. I passed countless villages and was fascinated by the sight of people here just going about their daily lives: herding goats, working the fields, hanging fresh laundry, cooking and weaving baskets. I greeted pretty much everyone with a friendly "Namaste" and often got the same response. (Yep, that word we yoga teachers use at the end of our classes is a common greeting in India and Nepal.)
Our group reached the last tourist checkpoint and crossed the bridge to a guest house for lunch. The clouds were closing in ominously around us and we knew the sky would open up any second. We ate quickly, put rain covers on our packs and rain jackets on backs and double timed it towards Nyapol. We reached a covered shop just as big, fat raindrops were starting to fall. We waited a while for the storm to blow over but it was still a wet, slow ride down the mountain. The bags that had been tied to the roof on the way up, now had to be stored inside on laps since the rain refused to stop. We arrived back at the same hotel in Pokhara about two hours later. That night Deepak, Julienne and I gladly indulged with a pizza each for dinner at a super touristy spot called The Godfather. So worth it.
DAY 7 / POKHARA - KATHMANDU
We were packed, fed and back on the TOURIST bus by 7:30 AM. Again we stopped at several random spots to pick up locals and had short breaks for breakfast and lunch. Then we got stuck in a massive traffic jam on the mountain back to Kathmandu since there is only one road in and one road out. There was no AC on the bus but some of the fans worked... sometimes. I'm pretty sure there was one truck broken down about half way up the mountain that both lanes had to take turns detouring around. This return trip totaled almost 9 hours, 3 hours longer than anticipated. Once we were finally freed, I had to say some hasty goodbyes and catch a cab out to my next destination/adventure: a workaway homestay in a rural village called Changu Narayan.
I am very proud of this physical and mental accomplishment because for the past decade I lived at almost zero elevation and have virtually no trekking experience. I’m not entirely sure why I wanted to do this trek, but I completely credit my dedication to yoga and meditation with giving me the physical and mental strength to make it up and down these mighty, Himalayan Mountains. It's also the first time I feel like my sporadic meditation has had a noticeable effect on an otherwise unrelated aspect of my life. This of course makes me want to meditate more regularly. I actually did an hour's worth of sun salutations and other asanas (with emphasis on the hips) prior to and during the trek and I'm sure this helped me make it to the top. And every bit of effort was worth being able to see that spectacular sunrise over those famous, jagged, snow-capped peaks.
I wrote most of this during my trek in 2016 and it’s mind-blowing to see where I am now in 2018 over two years later, running a mountain-based yoga, meditation & mindfulness business. I knew this experience would have a significant impact on my life, but didn’t think I could or would make a living, creating a way for others to have a similar experience. Ok, it’s on a much smaller scale, but it’s a start! Maybe one day I’ll host insightful & meditative multi-day yoga hikes, but I’m super happy with where I am now. Wow, y’all! I can confirm that introspection, focus, patience, hard work and dedication totally pay off.
What’s an out-of-your-comfort zone experience that has positively impacted your life? Would love to know in the comments below. :)
Namaste & Have A Great Day!