Some travel to the Caribbean for a week in the sun to help them feel better. Others want a spa in Sedona with pampering and daily massages. For a different breed of traveler, there is the desire to head to the hills and get ‘back to nature’. Explore the land one footfall at a time. Let time move slowly as they soak in their surrounds with all five senses.
For that breed of traveler, a visit to the Himalayas is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Stretching over 2,400 kilometers through five different countries, the Himalayas not only define the people living amongst the jagged peaks, they have a way of reshaping visitors who are willing to leave most modern comforts behind.
My own experience is with the area of the Himalayas centering on Mount Everest. The benefits of a visit to this stretch, which defines the border between Nepal and Tibet/China, has gotten under my skin, causing me to visit time and again with my fourth trip coming next Fall. Why do I keep going back?
In the Everest Region of the Himalayas, there are no roads. At a certain elevation the bus line ends and it’s time to start walking. Otherwise, take a flight into Lukla to knock off a couple of trail days. After that, cars, busses, trucks and their pollution are long gone. While yak-dung fires are common to heat most homes and teahouses and homes use kerosene as a cooking staple, the opportunities to inhale pristine alpine air are as vast as the landscape.
Away from the towns, on the open trail, the breeze rushes down from peaks over 8,000 meters tall, scraping the edge of the troposphere. Far from the industrial hive that is Kathmandu (which is the oxymoron of why you would visit the Himalayas) the freshness can be felt as well as smelled and tasted.
With trips lasting from one week to months long expeditions to untouched peaks, the way to traverse the Himalayas is with the very feet you are using today. At first you might bristle at the idea of walking day after day, but the pace is up to you according to the trip you desire. You can either pack lightly and let a yak or porter take most of your load, opting for a daypack with essentials, or get more serious about the effort and carry all your belongings on your back.
Either way, just a week in the Himalayas will work all the muscles in your body. The first few days are the hardest no matter how much you train. By day four, though, your body is responding to the terrain and lack of oxygen above 12,000’ where most of your trek will occur. The trail will harden you and only a scant few souls actually gain weight while on the trail. If you weren’t in shape before you leave, you will be when you return.
With the choice of the right guide or tour company, daily logistics will be handled for you. This leaves you with one task; walk from this village to that village. Carry some water, snacks and a rain jacket in case the weather turns. When you get to your daily destination, chances are your overnight gear will have arrived before you and be placed in your room, or, if you are camping, your tent will be setup and ready. Meals are prepared for you unless you are going without a guide.
All this attention to the minutia allows for one of the greatest freedoms: time. With those details taken care of, you have time to relax and reflect. Life becomes simple; walk two hours, stop for lunch, walk two hours, arrive at the next town and change into warm clothes, relax until dinner, sleep. Wake up and do it all again after someone prepares your breakfast. No winding streets to navigate, no worries about crossing borders and not often will you need to be concerned about money (depending on how your trip is arranged).
The path to this simplicity in the Everest region of the Himalayas is through the excellent care and attention of Sherpa hosts. Tightknit and adapted to the climate and altitude, the mountains have shaped the way of life for the Sherpa and inter-reliance is a key to survival. The Sherpas I have met and befriended treat foreigners as true guests in their country and their hills. Not only will they carry your pack with a smile on their face, with no sign of being winded while you gasp for breath heading uphill, they anticipate your needs, bringing you a jacket before you realize you get cold.
Most of the culture in the mountains is shaped by Buddhist beliefs. The religion drives daily lives with prayer flags and mani stones (stones with prayers carved into them and then painted) as constant reminders of the interconnectedness of life and the will to treat others in kind. Each town has a monastery or two and these temples are meeting places as well as having religious significance.
When the sun sets and if you planned your trip around a new moon, the display of stars at higher altitudes is breathtaking. Few places on earth rival the Himalayas for stargazing. While light pollution exists in towns, higher up, away from the teahouses and farms, only the pitch black of night exists. And billions of stars in which to get lost until morning.
Oh The People You Will Meet
Not only will you meet a variety of Sherpas while on the trail, the Everest Region is a magnet for travelers the world over. It’s easy to find a traveler from every continent, include those who have spent time in Antarctica, while on the trail. On the trail there are two types of people; those going up to their chosen goal and those going down, heading to Kathmandu. This daily flux and choice of accommodations creates a swirling soup of languages, faces and stories around the teahouse cook-stove each night. Communal dining areas ensure ample mixing of visitors.
You will meet young backpackers fresh out of high school taking their Gap Year. There is always a young married couple and the couple thinking about marriage, but taking that first ‘big trip’ to (unwisely in my opinion) ‘test the relationship”. There are retired folks and plenty of Aussies and Germans with their ample holiday allotments. World-class climbers from South America dot the trail on their way to those tall peaks you see each day. And with Nepal right at their backdoor, travelers from Southeast and Far East Asia find the joy in a different topography on their own continent.
The last benefit of travel in the Himalayas is change. Few come home from Nepal, having trekked for weeks with time to walk and think, without some change in their persona. Sometimes good, sometimes bad (not everyone loves being without constant internet connections or walking for hours each day….but they get roped into it by their friends or family), I have only met one person who honestly stated he really didn’t feel any different.
Most come home with ‘something’. A feeling. A memory. A way of looking at the world. Something is different. There are many benefits to traveling through the Himalayas of Nepal and I can’t tell you everything you will find.
The best way to earn those benefits is to walk the trail Sir Edmund Hillary walked, to listen to the wind on a ridge 18,000’ above sea level, to eat what the locals eat and find for yourself the benefits of the Himalayas which will draw you back, time and again.