I continued walking until I got to the next village. Although the weather had not changed the ambiance was very different. When I entered Thanchowk there was a man standing outside his restaurant. I asked if he spoke English and if he knew anything about what had just happened. ‘I heard on the radio there’s been an earthquake. Apparently it’s bad. Many are dead in Kathmandu. Electricity has been cut in the villages. Never in my life have I experienced anything like this in the Himalayas.’ After hearing this information I decided to break for lunch and take rest. The man asked where I was headed and told me to stick to the road instead of the path because it was open valley. As I sat quietly waiting for my vegetarian curry, my mind was blank; I didn’t really know what to think. I realized I didn’t really have any information about what was going on, so I told myself to get to Chame village as planned.
Not long after I arrived in Koto – a small village about 25 minutes before Chame. When I entered the village the streets were filled with crying tourists and locals. People were either on their phones in a panic or huddled in small groups outside their homes and shops. I walked to the end of the village and calmly spoke with the police officer at the permit check post. Just as he asked where I was headed, we were interrupted by a thunderous sound… Land slide. We looked up and saw several rock piles tumbling from the mountain tops. People shrieked in terror and pointed in disbelief. After the rocks rolled to the ground, the officer looked at me and suggested that I spend the night in Koto, I didn’t argue… The Czech couple I had met earlier were behind me and together we walked to the nearest tea house, got a room, and immediately collapsed for a nap. Once we woke up, the villagers were setting up tents outside in the open field. Our host told us that it would be ‘safer’ if we all slept in the dining hall; as such, we helped pull mattresses into the hall and had a big slumber party.
Setting up tents outside the tea houses.
Dining Hall Slumber Party.
That night we awoke several times from aftershocks. The hall would rumble for a few seconds then fall silent. Each time the hall shook everyone sat up, paused, and then lied back down. Between the dogs barking and howling, nerves and the frequent ground shakes, we didn’t get much sleep. At around 5am we got up and began to re-arrange the hall. Barbara, the Czech woman, sat across from me and while waiting for our tea we both starred at eachother puzzled. ‘I don’t know what to do…’ she said. ‘Same.’ I replied. ‘I feel numb.’ By that time the mobile network had dropped which meant we were in the mountains with no means of contact. There was no information coming in or going out; as such, all the news we heard came from other trekkers and Sherpa’s (going up or coming down from the mountain), and boy did rumours start to develop.
I was told that Lower Pissang, another village further up in the mountain several hours away, was on a different electricity line and they might have power. This meant my chance of connecting to the Net and getting a message out was possible. I asked the police what the path looked like moving forward and it seemed I would be in open valley if I were to carry on up the circuit. Overall, at this time I had very little information about the earthquake and no matter what was happening in Kathmandu, I was not there; I was in the mountains on my own journey dealing with whatever was before me. As such, I decided to carry on and walk to Lower Pissang.
The first few hours of walking were very dull. The sky was grey, I didn’t have any desire to take pictures and overall, I felt empty. When I passed people along the path no one joyfully said ‘Nameste’ like they did before. You could see and sense that everyone was scared. I became very cold and frustrated… After some time the sky broke and the sun lit the endless mountain layers, and far off in the distance I could see the snow-capped Himalaya’s beaming with beauty. In that moment I realized I was in Heaven on earth, and wallowing in confusion and upset wasn’t benefitting anyone, including myself. I reminded myself that ‘All is well’ and that I could choose whether I wanted to spread love and joy or fear and worry. I took a deep breath in and decided to be extra chipper, smile bigger, and passionately say Nameste to all! Sure enough, the second I changed my attitude I began to enjoy myself and the scene around me also changed; I cracked jokes with the locals and resumed acting like my goofy self. Although I could see that the people were scared, they responded to my attitude and mirrored my happy demeanour. Never doubt the power that can come from the ripples and waves you create!
Hours later I arrived in Lower Pissang. Just as I entered the village and walked past the first few tea houses, the ground began to shake. Instantly people fled their houses and without hesitation they leapt onto the open road. ‘Oh man. Not again…’ I thought. The shaking didn’t last as long as the first earthquake but it was definitely more than an aftershock. As I walked into the village the streets were flooded with trekkers and locals – many crying and shivering in terror. I didn’t even process what had just happened; instead I started asking people where I could find Wifi. People responded with strong glares; as if I was completely oblivious to what had just happened. But I knew if that was in fact another earthquake, they were going to cut the power lines again soon meaning no electricity and no connection. I was told the locals cut the electricity purposely because they didn’t want the power lines to fall on the villages. Good idea in theory, but because we were on a ‘high alert’ status for the next 72 hours, that meant it could be days before the lines would be turned back on. One guy responded to my Wifi request by pointing to a hotel a few metres away. I turned and ran up to the man locking the hotel front door. Before I could say anything he looked at me and said, ‘Sorry miss, it’s not safe here. I’m closing the hotel and going to open ground with my wife.’ In his hand was a tent and two sleeping bags. Of course I completely understood his concern, but he was the only host in the village with Wifi, and the next village was another full’s day walk away. There wasn’t much I could do, (sigh) so I hiked up a hill behind the village with the rest of the locals and trekkers, sat in the open field and waited… After the second quake, no one wanted to be inside – all of the locals closed their shops and restaurants, and for about 3 to 4 hours everyone just sat on this hill in the open valley. Eventually, people started to get hungry and some of the locals decided to re-open their restaurants and hotels.
Trekkers and locals chilling in the open valley.
I made my way back down to the village and passed a few local men who were sitting and chatting. I walked right up to them and said some kind of ridiculous phrase which made them chuckle and smile. The one man then looked at me and said, ‘Have you contacted your family?’ to which I replied ‘No. But there’s not much I can do about that.’ He then asked if I was travelling alone and I nodded. The man happened to be the hotel owner that had Wifi who I saw earlier… He then said, ‘Ok, come with me. I’ll turn on the Net for a few minutes so you can send a message to your family.’ I smiled and quickly followed him to the hotel. At that point, I was able to get my first message out to everyone that I was fine. That hotel owner was a man of his word because he literally gave me a ‘few’ minutes of connection BUT I was very grateful for those minutes and his thoughtful gesture.
Sure enough, my prediction served to be correct. After I sent out a few messages and the man locked the hotel door the electricity line was cut; once again, no power. But I was happy – everyone knew I was fine and I was still in the beautiful Himalaya’s ! I met a fabulous couple from Australia and spent the evening with them chatting and exchanging travel stories. They decided to not complete the circuit and walk down while I was eager to walk up and cross the widest Pass in the world! There was a young man I met from Germany who also wanted to continue to the Pass so we decided to walk together the following day. Most people and trekking groups were either staying put or walking down, but I saw no reason to end my trek nor was I in any rush to return to Kathmandu. Additionally, it’s not like the city is a hop, skip and a jump away; I was high up in the Himalaya’s. Even if I managed to get a jeep ride down to the city, it would still take days before I reached the city. I assessed the situation and felt confident in my decision. I spoke to many of the locals and decided to take it day-by-day and continue my journey and cross the Pass as planned.
The next morning, I woke up excited to trek the path with my new friend and wouldn’t you know, it was the most beautiful day! The Australian’s suggested we take the arduous, steep high route instead of the low route but it was well worth the huffing the puffing. The weather was simply superb – the sky was bright blue, clear and overall the journey was peaceful, quiet and spectacular! That day was probably the most beautiful and memorable day of my entire trek and I’m so happy it wasn’t spent sitting in a village.
Later that afternoon, we arrived in a little village about 20 minutes outside of Manang called Bhraka. Manang is the last ‘main’ village where you can get just about anything before you head to the Pass –they even have mini movie theatres. I didn’t want to stay in Manang since I always enjoy the ambience of a small village, but it was nice to be in close proximity to the essentials. Once we picked a tea house to spend the night, I immediately went to bed. I had an awful headache from all the altitude we had gained that day and I needed to sleep early. The next morning, I decided to have a ‘rest’ day so I could acclimatize. My German friend already had two acclimatization days at the previous village so he continued up the mountain with some other trekkers. I ended up meeting a lovely man from Ottawa, Canada (my favourite place) at my hostel. He was not well and was also taking a day to rest. While he slept off his indigestion, his private guide and I decided to do a side trek, so we walked 1000m up to Milerpa Cave for some additional exploring. Along the way, the guide taught me a lot about the snow and how to pin-point snow pockets and such. The trek took about 5.5 hours, because I was walking very slow, but we enjoyed eachothers company and took pleasure in yet another magnificent view!
Later that afternoon, I walked the 20 minutes to Manang village to pick up a few items and use the Internet. When I walked into one of the shops, the place was flooded with tourists crowded by a TV watching CNN. Almost immediately I turned away and walked out of the shop. Filling my head with all the news about Kathmandu was not going to benefit me and my journey, so instead I spoke to the locals and asked them what life was like moving forward up the mountain. All of the Wifi shops were flooded with tourists talking to their families and discussing possible ‘next steps’ among themselves. I actually didn’t want to connect to the Net, but I felt it was important that I communicate a more detailed message now that I had time. I sat next to a lovely woman from France, turned on my phone and the two of us decided to connect to the Net briefly, send a few messages, and then enjoy a cup of coffee together. Afterwards, I headed back to my tiny, electricity-free village for the night.
The next morning, the Canadian (Don) felt better so we decided to trek together. Don is 69 with the spirit and energy of a 10 year-old boy and was beyond in shape. Not only was he was fun to listen too but he was a challenge to keep up with! We arrived at our lunch location earlier than expected meaning we only had another 30 minutes before we reached Letdar – our village for the night. We took an extra long lunch, filled up on pastries then began the short walk from Yak Kharka to Letdar. Although the walk was short there was a 150m increase in altitude which makes a big difference once you’re high up in the mountains. Don’s guide said the walk would take max 40 minutes if you walk slow so it seemed we were in for a ‘light’ afternoon stroll. As soon as we left the village and began walking, I immediately started to feel light headed. I told Don and his guide to go head and that I would take my time and walk slow. The walk ended up taking me 1.5 hours, and it was awful – my head pounded the entire time! It felt like someone was repeatedly cracking coconuts on my scalp and drilling a screw driver in my forehead. Even though I had taken a day to acclimatize, the altitude was getting to me. I literally walked 10 steps and then I had to sit. I saw a Sherpa and asked ‘How long?’ to which he replied ‘Only 10 minutes’ I nearly started to cry… Thankfully, Don told his guide to go back to assist me and his guide carried my bag the remaining 200m distance. As soon as I got to the hostel, I fell into bed and slept. Don came in, propped me up so I slept on an angle and then gave me some medicine. I slept for about 3 hours until Don woke me up at around 7pm for dinner. He ordered me garlic soup, ginger tea and set me up by the hot stove. Garlic helps with acclimatization so another one of the trekkers gave me some additional gloves to chew on. Yum! Within the hour I felt much better, but still very light headed.
The next morning, Don and his guide were ready to carry on, but I felt it would be best if I stayed back and rested. I wished them well on their journey and spent the day reading, hiking around camp and eating garlic soup. I played a traditional game with the Sherpa’s called Carrom and spoke to passing trekkers, but not many were around. There are 4 hostels in Letdar village and that night only 3 more trekkers came to the village. After the quake, many people went down so the high camps were very quiet.
The following day I woke up and felt great, so I started my journey to High Camp – the last stop before the Pass. Along the way I met an Israeli named Maidad. He, along with 2 other Israeli’s I had met back in Manang, were the only other trekkers headed to High Camp that day. We stopped at a little village before High Camp which is said to be the highest bakery in the world! There I had a filling veggie burger on a delicious homemade bun. A nice break from all the garlic soup and Dal I had been consuming. The higher you go in the mountains the more expensive food becomes; as well, options are less and very simple. In the city, one roti may cost 10 rupees. At High Camp, one roti cost 200 rupees. In any case, trekkers have to eat so there’s not much you can do about it.
Those moments in the mountains arise when you ask yourself ‘Why in the heck am I here?’ When you’re filthy, exhausted and freezing, it is then you begin to wonder ‘What’s the point?’ From experience, these questions of doubt usually come right before the breakthrough. I’ve encountered this a lot with running. After months of training and keeping to a committed schedule, you reach that phase of exhaustion and question everything you’ve done up to that point. As tired, fed-up and cold as I might find myself sometimes, I repeat the words ‘Everything leads to something. Trust in an outcome you have not yet experienced.’ Lao-tzu encourages us to seek to uncover the root of our stiffness. In doing so, one will achieve greater flexibility when the ‘storms’ arise in life. Be willing to adapt to whatever may come your way. If you bend with the wind you will not break. Sure enough, the moment I reach that peak or cross that finish line, I feel a deep sense of joy that not only illuminates my being but alters who I am as a person. One needs to give up what they know, extend their perspective, expand their limits and acknowledge that their inner vision (whatever it may be) is possible and available. When you believe in your vision, all those physical limitations dissipate and you’re able to connect with the outcome you desire.
When I crossed Thorong-La Pass (5416m) it was pristine! The moment you see the peace flags waving in the wind and the ‘Congratulations’ sign, the world freezes… The lines of Matthew Arnold provides some kind of an explanation:
Ye are bound for the mountains?
Ah! With you let me go,
When yon cold distant barrier
The vast range of snow
Through its loose clouds lifts dimly
Its white peaks in air:
How deep is the stillness:
Ah! Would I were there.
In those moments, life seems to come together. You feel grounded yet resilient and you are instantly reminded, ‘I can do anything!’