In October, 2005, I had the great privilege of traveling with my friend and mentor Skip Horner and his wife Elizabeth, to the very remote part of Nepal known as the Kingdom of Mustang.

Mustang is a country frozen in time. Closed to foreigners for more than thirty years, this tiny feudal kingdom high in the Himalayas has existed in virtual isolation from the rest of the world. Although politically part of Nepal, Mustang is linked by religion, culture, and history to Tibet — and now stands alone as one of the last truly pure Tibetan cultures existing today. With its untouched temples, colorful festivals and red-robed lamas, the kingdom preserves not only the daily vernacular of Buddhist ethic, but a unique heritage of Tibetan religious art.” from The Last forbidden Kingdom: Mustang, Land of Tibetan Buddhism.

Fewer than 1,000 trekking permits are given each year for Mustang, and I am honored to have been one of the people allowed to be in this ancient and spiritual place, even as the small influx of Western trekkers and large presence of the ever-lengthening Chinese road, threaten Mustang’s ancient traditions. We felt the pressures on this fragile and endangered culture facing the influx of 21st century influences.

I am blessed by the gift of this journey. Excerpts from my journals follow. Altitudes are based on a consensus as much as anything as different maps show quite different elevations for some villages, and they do not show the sometimes thousands of feet of ups and downs between villages!

10/12/05 Santa Cruz – Bangkok

10:45 am And so it begins! The excitement hit big time yesterday morning. The important stuff all got done. My worry over bag weight and size and overbaggage all for naught. Of course! They’ve checked my 53-pound purple duffle all the ay to Kathmandu. no LAX of Bangkok schlepping. I feel present and ready for whatever Spirit puts in front of me.

LAX Airport Jonathan checked in on the flight from San Jose to LAX. His spirit celebrates this trip with mine. I have the stone and prayer flag Rob Hall brought me from the summit of Everest and Dad’s touchstone with me. Both connectors to important parts of my life. And the “Do It Sober” bumper sticker which has accompanied me on every trip for the last 13 1/2 years. Crackled, fragile and real. This trip feels new. I love that I feel like a beginner again. Challenges and gifts. I have nothing to prove, no need to be Macho Margo Mountain Climber. That served me well in the past. Today is different. This trip is about just being me, exactly who and where I am in my life, in this 165-pound body, with a strong and gentle heart.

En Route In the timeless and detached-from-the-world space of a 12-hour flight with all the shades drawn. Movies playing, ankles stiffening from lack of movement, mind quietly swimming in all the blessing of my life. May I remember to stay connected with God and Mother Earth and All That Is. To breathe the air deeply into my lungs, letting my belly expand, fill with life and the fullness of my heart. May I allow the beauty of the people and places of Nepal fill my spirit with wonder.

Back on the plane after the layover in Osaka. Following cute little Japanese girls’ orders. Women, I’m sure, and all little and looking like school girls, with their straight skirts, blue sweaters, high pitched voices and giggles, apologizing for the delay as the serpentine line of weary passengers folded back on itself multiple times before finally reentering the security screening.

10/14 Bangkok – Kathmandu

8:35 am Amari Hotel The difference between American and Thai cultures is nowhere more evident than in the attitudes of the wait staff at the Amari Cafe where I had an early breakfast. Such open friendliness! Smiles, coffee filled ongoing, 4 different folks asking if I needed anything. The familiar taste of Nescafe instant coffee reminding me, as much as anything, of traveling to and being in Nepal. Many memories. Memories of trips past and anticipation of what is to come. Sweet chat with Jokhtaphong, my coffee kid. His surprise that I am traveling alone and have no husband.

Traversing the muggy walkway from the airport to the hotel last night sparked many images of times past. 12 times before I’ve walked that corridor, coming and going, beginning and ending journeys that have changed my life.

Men in business suits. It is easy to forget that Thailand is not just beaches and Chiang Mai and a stopover on the way to Nepal. Bangkok is a modern city in many ways, with a thriving business community. Ordinary people living ordinary lives. Alongside 14-year-old girls sent by their village parents to be prostitutes. Just a different version of the juxtaposition of rich and poor than I see in the States. Same inequality, different ways of manifesting.

Drinking Nescafe in my room, curtains open, low gray clouds, a canal, water black and speckled with a sprinkle of raindrops, corrugated roofs, gray, blue rusted, brown, combinations of all. Then, startlingly blue and white pointed, ornate temple roof, screaming its presence in the muted tones of its surroundings. Such contrast to the blandness of the canal shacks and the concrete of the hotel. Traffic passing over the canal bridge, reflected in the water. Some kind of banner hanging from the bridge. Life, moving, flowing, in Bangkok.

6 pm Vaishali Hotel, Kathmandu Completely clear as we flew into Kathmandu giving us spectacular views of the Himal and foothills, carpeted in the steeply terraced fields I so associate with Nepal, richly green from the monsoon rains. Tiny houses here there in the hills south of the city, increasing in number, becoming clumps, then villages with the distinctive style that looks like haphazard squares set atop one another, looking like they will fall over at the slightest breeze or tremor. It felt like coming home in a way I still don’t understand.

Saturday, 10/15, Kathmandu – Pokhara , 5,036 feet

The Cast of Characters

Skip and Elizabeth Horner: our fearless leader and his marvelous wife. Friends for almost 20 years now, Skip a mentor who changed my life forever. It is delightful to be with them once again.
Bob Jarman: Fellow traveler from a 1989 Patagonia trek. Bright, witty, curious about the world, so warmhearted.
Chuck Marting: Currently an NICU nurse with a great passion for and skill in photography; incredible stories and experiences in his life; a fascinating travel partner.
Jill: Corporate executive, outside her comfort zone and eager to experience what is to come; strong; capable; also very bright.

Walking about shooting photographs with Bob and Chuck yesterday: bright colors, sounds, incense, people, light, kukris (Nepali curved knives), pashmina shawls, T-shirts, climbing and trekking gear, stupas, temples, tricycle rickshaws, laughter, many languages, Namaste, beautiful brown-eyed children; poverty and joy, foreign and familiar. My heart is singing to be here.

9 pm Base Camp Resort, Pokhara The flight here was simply, incredibly, mindbogglingly beautiful. Clear, clear day. Ganesh Himal, the amazing ridge of Himal Chuli (Skip’s first attempt at leading a big expedition, a singular nonsuccess), Annapurna II and IV, Macchupucchare (so special because of Jonathan’s photo), Annapurna South, Dhaulagiri. Houses by themselves and in villages, dotting the terraced hills, green on the heels of the monsoon. Sometimes on such steep slopes that the width of the terrace is less than the height between them. Bright dots of color – laundry drying in the sun. Exquisite beyond words.

The visible presence of the Nepalese army in Pokhara bears testament to the turmoil that exists in this country. Many soldiers, barbed wire atop many walls. Also laughing children on a ferris-wheel-swing-thing with Skip helping push, a near full moon casting exquisite light on the mountains, boats on the river, lush green of the trees beyond. And it is a lovely, clean city. Calmer energy, and the peaks are so right there. Tomorrow we fly between them and begin walking. Jonathan and Gary both checked in a good bit today. I love my spirits!

Day 1 Pokhara, 5,036 feet – Jomosom, 8,900 – Eklobhatti, 8,990 -Kagbeni, 9,252
Spectacular flight from Pokhara to Jomosom. Past the Annapurnas with Macchupucchare in the midst of the Sanctuary, our plane far below the summits, following the Kali Gandaki River gorge, the deepest gorge in the world, with Annapurna on the right, Dhaulagiri on the left, a mountain ridge visible through the cockpit window, with seemingly nowhere to go.

Kagbeni is a village of opposites. Old Kagbeni is drenched in the atmosphere of ancient:: old gompas (monasteries), narrow, narrow “streets”, dark doorways, little nooks with yak calves peeking out, firewood on all the roofs, the amount symbolizing prosperity, friendly people, wonderful chortens (Derived from ancient burial mounds, a chorten is a spiritual monument usually containing relics of some kind. Chorten is a Tibetan word, commonly interchanged with stupa, the Sanskrit version.), sheep skull fetishes above doorways, narrow steep ladders. I could feel the history in the walls and the air. New Kagbeni wears new wooden doorways painted in bright colors, its version of a 7-Eleven and YakDonalds with internet connections. The old and the new clashing together in such odd juxtaposition.

Kagbeni is the separation point between Upper Mustang and the rest of Nepal. A sign reminded us, “Nepal is here to change you; you are not here to change Nepal.”

Day 2 Kagbeni, 9,252 feet – Tangbe, 10,039 – Chhusang , 9777 – Chele (or Chaili), 10,007
I’m lying in my sleeping bag, Ipod playing gentle music, hearing Skip’s voice over and over today saying, “This is an amazing place!” It’s like we’re walking into another world, another era, and in a way we are. We have not seen a single non-Nepali since we left Kagbeni. 3 1/2 hours of dry and dusty up and down into our lunch spot in Tangbe. By myself for much of the time. So much peace. Singing Om Mani Peme Hung, reciting my mantra, one foot in front of the other in the extraordinary and harsh beauty of this place. Desolate, dry, settlements/villages only where there is water. Lots of apple trees with delicious fruit. So hardy to survive here. Up and down and in and out of ravines, from far above the Kali Gandaki down to its river bed. Old Dzong (fort) ruins above Tangbe, wonderful multi-pieced big Chorten just as we enter the town of Chele. Lunch on a rooftop, kids gathering, showing us ammonites from the river bed, some of which we bought after some spirited and fun bargaining using Skip’s Nepali and many hand signals. The afternoon wind buffeted us with the dust of the riverbed which combined with sunscreen to create gritty, streaked faces for us all.

Chhusang folks working with harvested grain, tossing it into the air, letting the wind separate the chaff. Laughing, chatting, young boys carrying huge sheaves of whatever the grain was. Laughter between boys and girls, little ones running around giggling. Just sweet.

Day 3 Chele, 10,007 feet – Samar, 12,008 – Ghiling (or Ghilling or Geilling or Gelling ) 11,712
5 am. The sound of zippers in the night. So many memories of so many journeys in so many places are attached to that sound.

Evening. What a day! We were told one pass, 2 hours to lunch, 15 minute walk up to gompa, then lunch, then 4 hours to camp. Reality a bit different.

A mountain pass is called a La in Nepal. The first pass (Taklam La, 11,890) was 1,900 feet up right out of Chele; steep, beautiful, adding a stone to the pile at the top for good karma. Then down almost as far to lunch. Much harder than I’d anticipated. Gompa two hours away, not 15 minutes so that didn’t happen. Another 1,500 or 2,000 feet up right out of lunch to Dajori La, 12,257 feet. Very steep and gorgeous, following a fabulous gorge with cliff walls of conglomerate, amazing trail with stone wall support on downhill side with long, long drop to the river below. Himalayan Griffon Vulture flying below me, 2 of them above us as Elizabeth and I stood on the top of the second pass. Amazing views of Nilgiri and the Grand Barrier that prevented Herzog from seeing Annapurna until he was right below it so many years ago. I am running out of adjectives to describe the exquisite appearance and energy of this place.

Then very steep down again, really steep, losing all the altitude we had gained, having been told by Phurba, our sirdar (head Sherpa), that it was flat. Having already climbed and descended 3,000+ feet twice, knowing we had even more altitude to gain before reaching Geiling, not knowing how the route was. Aware that the expectations of the day were making me more tired than the actual walking. Continuing lessons about expectations: they never serve me! Had I paid attention when Phurba said he had never walked this particular part of the trail before, I would have paid attention to the map which told the truth about the difficulty of the day, rather than just assume that what he had been told was accurate.

And up we went one more time on the long and steep trail out of the gorge. We were all tired and discouraged as we plugged along, just putting one foot in front of the other, toward the pass we could see and seemed never to come closer. The last hour I walked with my head down, paying close attention to the primitive trail under my feet, not wanting to be more discouraged by the distance between me and the pass. Suddenly, there was the chorten that signaled the top of Syangboche La (12,467 feet), surrounded by a herd of goats, opening to a stunning view. We stood in shadow with a cold wind blowing, watching the surrounding peaks with their snow-covered crowns still in sunshine. Just magnificent.

I am proud of myself. Sonam, one of our wonderful Nepali crew, told me I am brave and strong. It was a hard day, probably 4,000+ up and more than 3,000 down, all above 10,000 feet. (When I looked up the elevation when I got home, it was probably even more than that.) We are at 11,700 tonight. Dinner was quiet as we are all tired. And the rewards of the day far outweigh its challenges. I am so very blessed!!!

Day 4 Geiling, 11,712 feet – Nya La, 13,156 – Ghemi (or Ghemi), 11548 – Takmar (or Drakhmar or Dhakmar), 12,533
Humor at breakfast: If a man says something in the woods and nobody hears him, is he still wrong? It is a treat to have an equal number of men and women. So many of trips have been male dominated. I much prefer this balance.

A beautiful walk today. Quick visit to the gompa above Geiling. Wonderful paintings on the walls, blackened by centuries of smoke from butter lamps. Again the amazing sense of antiquity.

Long low angle up to the trail leading up to the high Nya La. The trail switchbacked up alongside a road built by the Nepalese government all the way to Tibet. What a travesty! Roads do not belong here. I fear for the access the Chinese now have to Mustang, and I am glad to be here now, before the road has an even bigger impact on the people here. It gives them a lower price on rice, and at what cost?

The wind began to blow at lunch, forcing us inside to escape the blowing dust while we ate. It had spritzed rain early this morning, and though we had walked in sun in the morning, clearly there was weather moving in. The wind has blown each afternoon, creating yet again the gritty mask of sunblock combined with wind-blown dust. This afternoon it was a cold wind, and we were not unhappy to reach Takmar at 2:30 after a relatively short day of walking.

This is by far the best campsite we’ve found. We entered through a marvelous gateway of stone, down a path bordered by stonewalls and lined with poplars turning yellow. Above us rise astounding red cliffs, with wind- created caves etched through out the sandstone, some of them large enough that we are quite sure they once served as meditation caves. Several village children peer out whitewashed windows at these strange foreigners who have appeared in their meadow. Pack ponies rolling in the grass as they are freed of their loads. Tea and Pringles around 4. Yummy meat momos for dinner. I am full: of good food, of this amazing place, of gratitude, of peace.

Later. It’s snowing now. The storm has come. And gone by morning, I hope. Time will tell.

Day 5 still Takmar, 12,533 feet

10 am It’s been snowing hard since around 5:30 so we are here for another day. Had hoped to move into a teahouse a half hour up the road, and apparently it’s pretty awful. So we’re here. And I made the careless mistake of putting my pack on my Camelbak nozzle in the tent so I have a wet tent floor and very wet mattress. And a leaky Thermarest. I am pretty embarrassed and unwilling to let anyone know. And part of me wants to tell Panuru so he can just offer me a dry one. Definitely not appropriate.

I think to put it in the cook tent makes sense, and I don’t want to do that without asking Panuru. So for now I’m in the dining tent with Bob, enjoying one another’s company. We’ve been so blessed with the weather up until now, and this is just no fun. I admit to disliking to camp when everything is wet. A sign of age? And I can still choose to be grateful to be here. The worst that can happen is I’ll spend a long, wet, cold night. I have enough clothes for it not to be dangerous. I will not die from being uncomfortable. More than anything, I am embarrassed and don’t want anyone to know. And yet I need some assistance in drying out the mattress.

8 pm And it’s still snowing. Almost a foot at this point. I am snug in my bag after a delightful day, despite muddy tent vestibules and the growing bog in the dining tent. It was clearly not a day to move, so our itinerary has been changed by this extra day here. Long conversation with Bob in the morning. He is a bright and funny man. We shared old Aspen memories, talked about life now, relived our 1990 Patagonia trip. A nice reconnection.

Was able to pretty much let the wet pad go until I saw Skip or Panuru. skip came in for lunch around noon, and I sheepishly told him what had happened. He came to look at it after the Sherpa had eaten, and Panuru showed up and took the pad to the cook tent. Then back to the dining tent with a more relaxed heart, for an afternoon of hearts. Knowing something is being done about it makes the wet camp much less uncomfortable!

After lunch came an afternoon of hearts with Skip, Bob, and Chuck. Laughter, good-natured kidding, discussing of strategy, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat! With a break every hour to shake snow off the tents. Lots of snow! It’s not supposed to snow in Nepal in October. And this is Skip’s 3rd October Nepal trip with lots of snow! Hmmmm. Perhaps a change of travel plans in the future!

Went back to my tent to get a hat just before tea time, and there was my pad dry and even warm. I can’t say enough about the crew, this one and all the others here in Nepal. Mostly Sherpa, they are cheerful, hard working, wanting to please, looking for ways to make our trip better. Skip has worked with Panuru several times in the past and requested him as sirdar for this trip. I understand why. He had not been to Mustang before and perhaps know the area as well as someone who had. His infectious laughter and dedication to us more than makes up for that. Buddha Singh has been here before and acts as our guide, as well as seeming to be a right hand man to Panuru. Also endlessly cheerful and always looking for what needs doing.

Phurba, our brilliant and fabulous cook, never ceases to amaze me with the quality of food he produces in these extremely challenging conditions. The whole kitchen gets packed up and moved after virtually every meal, and yet we eat better than in many hotels I’ve been in. Just amazing. And again, tirelessly cheerful and eager. The 2 young cookboys who help him and carry food and dishes back and forth between the cook tent and the dining tent speak little English. Here in the snow, with their athletic type cloth jackets and green sneakers, they have to be wet and cold and yet their smiles and giggles belie any physical discomfort.

Sonam and Prakash are the support team both in camp and especially while we are walking. It seems to be their assignment to keep an eye on us during the day and take our packs if we seem tired or help us in any way they can. Prakash has become Chuck’s personal porter, carrying his camera pack, curiously watching when Chuck shoots photographs. Prakash is quiet and shy, and his English improves by the day. Sonam is tireless, cheerfully offering to carry packs, take on heavy items, keep us company. And the minute we reach camp, everyone dives in full on to help set up our moving village. This trip would be far less comfortable and enjoyable without these wonderful men.

Sweet black dog has been around yesterday and today. Barking at some other dog from right outside my tent. Sound asleep under a tree this morning, not moving when we went to breakfast. Just kind of hangin’ out. Barking at Chuck’s tent as Chuck banged the snow off from the inside. Skip bent to say hi and pat him on the head. the dog looked up at him with such admiration. Pure adulation. So very grateful for a simple pat on the head. Life is hard for the animals in third world countries.

Day 6 Takmar, 12,533 feet – Tsarang (or Charang), 11,680

We awoke to broken clouds and 18 inches of snow. Black dog curled up on the perimeter of our camp, buried under last night’s snow, ears pricking up as I emerge from my cozy yellow cave into the brightness of snow-reflected sun. Eventually his head emerges from the blanket of white, to see what is happening. Do we go? Do we not go? Will it clear? Will it cloud up again? Those were the questions of the morning, with all of us looking up at the rapidly moving clouds time and time again as if the they would tell us what the afternoon would bring. It continued to clear so we finally packed up and began walking after lunch.

A short day distance wise, made immensely more challenging – and fun, at least for me – by the foot and a half of snow. All trails were obliterated by the snow so we set out cross country, following an old man from the village who said he could lead us to Tsarang. Over hill and dale (more like mountain and valley!), wet boots, bright sunshine, good spirits, arriving in a timely fashion to another wonderful Mustang version of a “hotel” which is really the private home of a Loba family, expanded to allow room for trekkers.

Chuck and Bob used the benches in our “private” dining room for sleeping, Jill and I were housed in a wonderful big room that served the family as a “main” room. It had windows on two sides, looking out on the fabulous snowy mountains of Mustang, with built-in benches beneath, upon which we slept. The windowsills were filled with geranium plants, struggling mightily to survive in this high altitude, oh-so-dry, soil-with-no-nutrients environment. They are like the Lobas, the residents of Mustang, who survive against such challenging odds.

Skip and Elizabeth were not as fortunate in their housing, as they found themselves in the bottom floor of one of the outbuildings, dodging drips from the leaky roof and remnants of former non-human occupants. Jill and I invited them to share our “palace” with them, and they declined, I believe wanting a bit of rare privacy even if it meant some discomfort. I so enjoy how they are a couple.

Day 7 Tsarang, 11,680 feet – Lo Monthang, 12,497

We are here! Our goal, Lo Monthang, the capital city of the Kingdom of Mustang. We have been walking through snow-covered mountains that very few trekkers see. It usually doesn’t snow until the end of November. Exquisitely beautiful and multiplies greatly the difficulty of the walking. Conditions we had not anticipated.

We visited the gompa in Tsarang before we left, my heart singing at the beauty as we climbed the hill on which the gompa sits. Photos were not allowed inside the gompa so the memories remain in my head: fabulous mandala on the wall outside depicting all the tortures of Buddhist hell; collection of sacred texts, volumes bound between intricately carved covers, stacked in cubbyholes in the walls; Lama with his Gilligan type sailor hat the same color as his robes; beautiful paintings and statues. The inside of the gompa brought tears to my eyes. Jonathan, Rob, Gary, Chantal. Spirits. Om mani peme hung. Guru Rinpoche who brought the dharma from India to Nepal.

Then the walk. Down, down from Tsarang (of course!) to cross the Ghyung Khola. then steep up (of course!) to join the Chinese road which we followed a good bit of the day. I hate that the road is there. Long, long, long (or so it seemed) walk, just consistently, gradually uphill to Windy Pass above Lo Monthang. Pack lunch at the base of a big chorten about midway. Only time we sat from 8 to 3. Very hard work for me today. Hips tight and sore, sciatic type pain and numbness in the foot of my right side. Wondering what’s up. Finally gave my pack to Buddha Singh. the Sherpa had offered many times during the previous days to carry my pack, and I had said no. This time I was the one who asked, admitting I needed help. Watching my feelings flow from “I’ll be fine tomorrow” to “I’ll need a pony.” Breathing myself back into the present, putting one foot in front of the other, trudging the road of happy destiny. Trudging, indeed! Sloppy uneven footing because of the snow just made it hard work. And I have the grace of having done much harder work in the past and knowing that all I need do is put one foot in front of the other. That I can do.

And that I did, all the way to the Lo La where the first view of Lo Monthang brought tears to my eyes and celebration to my heart. So very ancient. My inner horse smelled the barn, and pain or no pain, I was off. Down, down, down, down. We’ll have to go up it when we leave. Of course. Up and down is the only way to get places in Upper Mustang. Final small up to this ancient walled city, walking with Buddha Singh, his pack with cover on his back, mine on his front. Even with the pain in my hips, I thanked my body for what it was doing for me. Aside from the hip, my energy was still good when I got here, and I was able to offer comfort to a fellow traveler who was exhausted and wrung out from the very long day. Skip hugged us both which I greatly appreciated. Who comforts the strong? I was able to give to myself what I used to need from others: the comfort and love that we all need. I am strong out here. I can celebrate that and myself, with the not-strong parts as well.

Hot juice, noodle, soup which tasted soooo good, unpacking, then off around town. Walled city, narrow streets, old mud walls, colorful windows, incredible drainage system, huge piles of snow, This Way sign so we didn’t get lost in the maze that is Lo Monthang, young Karma with his regular paper business card. Kids, monks, people, man with rake picking hay out of drainage canal. Karma, our tour guide, invited us to his house for a small ceremony. We heard quiet chanting as we entered the lower floor of his home, growing louder as we ascended the half-stairs, half-ladder leading to the second floor. Several young monks were sitting on the floor, each chanting a different prayer from prayer books on the ground in front of them. It was a ceremony for long life that is done twice a year. It was lovely to see and be a small part of.

As we descended the steep stairs, Elizabeth heard horns from another house, and she walked into the downstairs. We followed and peeked up stairs. Clearly there as a ceremony going on, with young Tibetan girls carrying things back and forth. One of them saw us and waved us up. Up another steep staircase, passing a fabulous bone and brass butter churn, into dark typical Tibetan room with about 8 monks, older than in the first house, one quite elderly, chanting the same prayers, older one from memory, 2 short horns blowing, a drum and two of te big sets of cymbals, each monk knowing when to start and stop and start again. Just wonderful. So blessed to have both happen. The second ceremony, especially, brought tears to my eyes and a catch in my heart. Just very special

Day 8 Lo Monthang, 12,497 feet

A fabulous day: 3 monasteries, audience with the king, lots of wonderful very ancient Tibetan artifacts, photos, prayers, monks, children, sheep, finding our way through narrow alleys filled with melting snow, cold feet, happy hearts. The weather broke last night. Stars at bedtime, wind picking up, temperature dropping. Cold wind and bright stars upon arising this morning. Folks are excited about the prospect of a hot shower, and I have little interest. Feels like too much trouble, can’t wash my hair, no towel or soap. And the truth is I don’t feel dirty. Baby wipes get what needs to be gotten, clothes are dirty anyway, so what’s the point? One of my secrets is that part of what I love about this kind of travel is the permission to be dirty!

Only about 10 miles from the Tibetan border, Lo Monthang has changed little in its structure since the 15th century, and it is truly like traveling back 600 years to be here. The entire city is surrounded by 20-foot high walls with watchtowers in each corner, prayer flags everywhere, dominated by the white central palace and the 3 large red gompas. Such a sense of ancientness for me. Only the school, police post, and a few dwellings of “outcasts” lie outside the city walls. The inner space is packed with more than a hundred houses, the king’s palace, 3 monasteries, with a maze of alleys running between, some so narrow you almost have to walk sideways. The noble families can have three stories to their houses, commoners only 2. A book I read before I came described the town as “a living anachronism.” I totally get it. We were told that the Kingdom of Lo is referred to in a 7th-century Tibetan history called The Blue Annals, and that its culture was 1,000 years old before Nepal came into existence.

To the gompas first, guided by another Tsewang, who is “sort of brother” to our friend Tsewang in Tsarang. He is also grandnephew to the king. His family is the proprietor of our “hotel”, the provider of hot shower, and the owner of a marvelous antiquities shop. A true entrepreneur in this land of so much poverty. He is very, very proud to be related to the beloved king Jigme Palbar Bista.

Champa, the first gompa, its entrance guarded by the image of Mahakala (my personal favorite deity!) is huge, dedicated to “the Coming Buddha”, who is called Maitreya in Sanskrit, Champa in Tibetan. There is a huge clay figure of him behind the altar – 50 feet tall which so indicates the size of the whole room. This figure and the superb round paintings surrounding it are said to be the world’s greatest surviving collection of 15th-century mandalas. Construction on the gompa was begun in 1412 and completed in 1435. Walls are being restored so the wonderful paintings show their color again. It’s a 5-year project funded by American Himalayan Foundation who brought an Italian artist in to do the work and train locals to work with him. 1,000 Buddhas and 21 Taras. Just exquisite. Again, for me, the sense of connectedness to this heritage. Sakya Buddhism. Both Panuru and Sonam prostrated themselves three times, clearly touched to be there. There is a deep heart of sacredness here. Panuru thinks it’s the biggest gompa in Nepal.

Tugchen , the second gompa, is even older, begun in 1387. Just so very ancient. It is smaller, less impressive than Champa yet its altar room is one 115 feet long, 65 feet wide, and 30 feet high, as large as in all but a few Tibetan temples. The room is saturated with spirit and the Dharma. Statues, paintings, a very old drum. The feeling goes so far beyond words. Spirit, Buddha, connected, heart, Nature, mountains, serenity, old. So very ancient.

Chodi, the third gompa is the monastic school with 62 student monks. It is the smallest of the three, not restored, showing its age much more. Very active with kids around, building new dormitory, lots of activity. The young monks curious about us in an indirect way, peeking around pillars to watch. About 10 of them sitting on the porch of the main room, chanting prayers together, rocking forward and back as I have seen so often, every now and then peeking up at us, the foreigners. I do not feel like a foreigner here. All but 200 of the 1,400 resident of Lo Monthang go to Pokhara or Kathmandu or India for the winter which is so very harsh here. The students continue their schooling there.

And then the audience with the king. We bought katas for 50 rupees and tickets for 100 rupees (it’s an interesting concept to buy a ticket for an audience with a king), and Tsewang led us up a typically very steep set of stairs, down several long corridors, arriving promptly for our 4:00 audience. The king is an older man, very unassuming, in tennis shoes and a navy watch cap, fingering his mala beads in a graceful, rhythmic manner, thumb moving around each bead. His personal secretary translated for us. We were served a lovely, sweet tea. Panuru and Sonam, the only two of our crew who accompanied us, so obviously tickled pink to meet the king.

We asked some questions about the road, his trip to San Francisco several years ago, how we can help have Lo Monthang made a National Heritage site by UNESCO. His answer regarding the road was what we’ve heard from others: he doesn’t like it and it helps the people. When we had asked Tsewang about it, he was very much against it and clearly believes that the Chinese have paid off the Nepalese king. Like us, he believes the road will bring about the ruin of the local culture. It was built in 2000, and he says that the chinese rakshi (a type of hard liquor) is already having a big effect, much more drunkenness than when only the local chang (a type of beer) was available. It sounds similar to the coming of rum to the Sherpa people. It was a great experience. I felt nervous like a little girl as we first entered the room. The others also, judging by body language. Very cool to meet a king!

Vision and memories of Lo Monthang: there are 3 castes: Bistas (the royal family, Gurungs (commoners), and outcasts (blacksmiths and a few other professions). Images from yesterday: woman playing harmonica beneath huge black water tank as we were on town roof, Bob dancing to her music, as she played, eyeing us, aware we were watching, not wanting us to know she knew. Karma’s daughter, maybe 2, fat teeny little fingers, like 2 starfishes, clapped together into a baby Namaste. Playing peek-a-boo from behind the door frame and behind my hands. Tongues sticking out, giggles.

And so the end of another wonderful day. The snow will prevent us from walking down the east side of the valley as we had planned. I am sorry about that, and it also means there’s at least a chance of seeing Looloo here. (Looloo is a dear friend from high school. We knew we would be in Mustang at the same time, and originally on quite different itineraries which meant we wouldn’t see each other.) That would be so fun! I hold that vision. And so to bed.

Day 9 – Lo Monthang, 12,497 feet – Garphu, 12,785 – Lo Monthang

What a day! Again! And it almost didn’t happen. Skip had mentioned yesterday the possibility of riding horses up north. It was still cold and very windy at 8, our first departure time. I had pretty much written it off, and we went shopping for Tibetan artifacts. Back to our teahouse about 9:45, and Panuru comes and says Johnny Ho, his version of Let’s Go. i was definitely worried about the cold and asked if we could turn around earlier if we wanted. Six hours felt way too long. So we all put on all the clothes we had, walked down the steep hill, across a stream, up on the ponies, and off we went. My horse (definitely pony-sized) was a little gray. The “saddle” was some kind of wooden or hard leather base with several blankets tied on the top for padding and stirrups that weren’t quite even. Surprisingly comfortable. I’m not sure about the ponies. I had a hard time not feeling sorry for them. It’s as hard a life for them as it is for the people.

We rode full on into the cold wind for a good while, and I was glad to be wearing all the clothes I had with me. As the sun got higher, the wind quieted, and I could more appreciate the barren beauty of the high, dry river valley through which we walked. Panuru and Sonam, both on horses for the first time, had a great time getting the horses to trot or canter and hootin’ and hollerin’ and hangin’ on for dear life. We all laughed a great deal. The “villages” this far north consist only of a few inhabitants, fewer primitive structures and small herds of sheep barely surviving on the sparse fodder in this dry, dry land. With the snow finally melting, the multitude of shades of tan and beige and ochre and siennas of this part of the world somehow embody the parched dryness of the land.

Almost a couple hours to Garphu. We are now less than 5 miles from the Tibetan border I think of my journey around Kailas in 1995, of the genocide that is happening in Tibet, and my concern for the future of this wonderful Kingdom is great.

Garphu has several fascinating cave monasteries and an incredible network of cave dwellings, joined by narrow, low corridors and wooden ladders. We walked up to the main monastery and had lunch in its main hall, with marvelous views of the valley below. The gompa seems to grow right out of the cliffs, its red-painted walls delineating it from the pale cliffs. We walked through the village, with children running after and around us in laughing curiosity, going from dusty trail to mud, the last indication of the snow, either slick as ice or sticky as glue, out to the cave dwellings and up into them. Fabulous. Some of them are simple small caves, smooth walled, empty now. Others are larger with remnants of clothing and personal effects still in them. God only knows how long they have been here. Many centuries. We wandered, bent over under the low ceilings, peering out the windows and waving at the villagers below us, looking out over the valley, breathing in the sacredness that lives in the walls. Here again, I felt an odd sense of connection, of belonging. Perhaps I have lived in one of these caves in a past life. I don’t know. It is just, somehow, familiar.

The ride back to Lo Monthang seemed shorter, perhaps because it was so much warmer. Again Panuru and Sonam laughingly trying to get their horses to go faster. Bob joining is as well. They laugh with great abandon, like a child does. It’s a wonderful sound to hear. And a great reminder of how much that kind of unbridled joy fills my heart.

Quite simply – another fabulous day.

Day 10 – Lo Monthang, 12,497 feet – Tsarang, 11,680 feet – Lo Gekar, 12,200 (?)

6 pm. In my cozy tent outside Marang. It’s cold! Dinner later than usual because we’re having “rack of goat!” A glorious walk this morning. Lo Monthang to Tsarang in less than four hours, in warm sunshine, not difficult conditions for the most part though some good and slimy mud. I slipped while walking with Jill and Sonam. Almost a great save and ended up on my butt, fortunately on a grassy spot so avoided the worst of the mud butt. We all laughed. Again, the infectious laugh of the Sherpa.

We walked right at Annapurna I, Tilicho and Nilgiri from the top of the La outside of Lo Monthang. Just gloriously exquisitely beautiful. All the scenery. Snow melting more each day. Walked by myself most of the day, singing the Pacific Voices version of Om Mani Peme Hung aloud and in my head for much of it. Also Great Trees and Prayer for the Children. I like having that music in my head. Will play some on my Ipod tonight.

The tent is really cozy now. Sitting in my thermalounger with feet and legs inside my bag, toasty and warm, Ipod charging, headlamp lighting the way. I have not enough words to describe the beauty of the morning. It fills my heart and soul to overflowing just to think about it.

We had lunch at Tsewang’s roof again, this time sunny and warm rather than windy and cold. He gave us lots of information about the Lo Gyalpo Jigme foundation and the project they’re doing in Mustang, supported by the American Himalayan Foundation: financing high school kids, three kids from six different villages down to Jomosom; daycare centers which provide a safe place for kids to be while moms are working in the fields and much improved education and health resources; rebuilding collapsing stupa roofs; smaller repairs in monasteries. Wonderful work. It is a foundation I will give to.

Short walk up to Marang, maybe 1 1/2 hours, maybe 2, felt very tired. Legs heavy, arms also, winded, tired. Felt like hard work. Seems we all felt that way except Skip, of course, and King Bob who is riding his bay pony, Chhongba, because of his lung infection. Chuck, especially, struggled this afternoon after being pretty well done in by the big hill into Tsarang. I have a wonderful photo of him taking a nap in the sun at lunch. I haven’t peed in almost 12 hours, so I imagine dehydration is a good part of my tiredness. Coughing more today as well after several days of not much. Drink more, Margo! But that means peeing more – twice during the night last night, and it’s f—ing cold! The price is harder walking and more coughing and generally harder on the body. The choice is mine. So drink! Now! Okay!!! I did, and I’ll have tea at dinner. I can pee next to the tent tonight instead of going all the way to the blue tent. Just got cold again thinking about it! And I’ll be warm again. Hot water bottle will help. Pacific Voices on the Ipod in a a fabulously beautiful and spiritual part of the world. What’s a little cold! No Looloo today. I think the odds decrease now as we are on a less traveled track. Oh, well, it would have been fun. It’s in Spirit’s hands.

Day 11 – Lo Gekar, 12,200 (?) – Ghar Gompa – Mui La, 13,681 – Takmar, 12,533 – Ghemi (Ghami), 11,548

Cold night last night. Woke with cold spots, several times and still slept quite well. Able to walk just in cotton pants today. 1/2 hour up to Ghar Gompa, the most amazing one yet: built in the late 700’s. Small, dark, mystical. Life sized statue of Guru Rinpoche, Padmasambhava, who brought the Dharma from Tibet (check this), two other statues, “unimportant” according to Sonam, on either side. Beautiful. In inner room all figures on the walls are Makahala. So fierce. A big one on left hand wall, just mesmerizing. It’s almost as if Padmasambhava brought the dharma here and shook his finger saying, “you better get it right.”

Opening on right side where ancient lamas ashes are buried. Also a very fierce Makahala along with two figures, one on a yak and one on a horse. So beautiful and so ancient. Just amazing. Outer room walls were all blue-haired Buddhas. A cylinder made of snow leopard skin hangs to the right of the second door to ward off demons. And all with the mystical feeling of centuries and generations of history. Just F—ing amazing.

Big up above the gompa. Steep only in places, just consistently up. Skip and Elizabeth and others saw what they think were snow leopard tracks on the way up. I believe I saw them, too. And dismissed them as a dog. But what I saw were dog prints. They belonged to a cat of some kind. I just didn’t dare believe it was a snow leopard. Now I choose to believe it was. Very steep down into Upper Takmar. Cut into a sort of ravine in the rock which the trail followed. Understand why going up it in the snow would have ben impossible. Part way down I stopped to look back up and saw 1, then 2, then 3 lammergeiers soaring on the thermals. So huge, and their wings never moved. Just riding the air and its thermals, playing soaring, then sweeping over the la to disappear form my sight. I hope the others behind me saw them as well.

Down to lower Takmar where we expected to have lunch but the kitchen crew had gone on to Ghami. So we trudged around and down and up once again to Raju’s roof. A 4 1/2 hour morning. And I still felt pretty good. Very hungry. I heard Panuru tell Skip that it’s a 3-hour walk to tonight’s camp, and Skip said, “Not possible.” I was not unhappy, and it will make for 3 long days if we are to get to Muktinath. Chuck has decided to ride. Skip says my pace is fine to do the long days, and I am proud of that. my only concerns are my sore hip and the new neuroma pain in my left foot. I am coughing a fair amount and feel fine. No sickness, just the respiratory irritation that is so familiar at altitude and very manageable.

We’re camped in a field only a few minutes outside Ghami. Another beautiful spot, surrounded by mountains and red and gray and beige hills. Wonderful to see the red cliffs of Takmar once again. So different from when we left six days ago, then coated in white, walking through more than a foot and a half of snow. Today that rich red, only occasionally brushed with a veneer of white. About an hour to Ghami, not so bad.

Partly cloudy today. Gloves on, then off, then on, then off. Bandanna to keep the sweat out of my eyes for uphill, removing it for downhill in an attempt to ge rid of the white stripe it leaves on my forehead. Soup ready…

8:10 Not quite tucked in. I’ll need to pee soon. Nice camaraderie at dinner. I do enjoy listening to the stories, with less need to tell my own. Sounds like it will be a long day tomorrow. I can put one foot in front of the other for as long as I need to. What an incredible gift this trip is. I love walking alone most of the time. It’s a meditation for me. The Go Mod Mantra, photos, breathing, stopping to look around, connecting with Spirit, at my own pace. I am blessed.

Day 12 – Ghami, 11,548 feet – Nya La, 13,156 – Tamagaon, 12,172 – Samar, 12,008

Looloo Day! It happened! And Leelee Bonney, Jill Uris and Mary Jo Kimbrough were with her. Such fun to run into four folks I know way out here.

Gorgeous morning and cold til the sun hit. Frost on the tents. I pretty much gave up seeing Looloo last night. Figured they’d be above us by now. Then I dreamed about her. Still figured it couldn’t happen. We started walking early, about 7:30 because we knew we had a big day. Clear blue sky, pony bells jingling as they are fed. Chuck and bob both riding horses. Long up out of camp. About 500 meters to the Nya La, then down 300 to lunch at Tamagaon.

Just past Chhunggar (or Chyunka), the last village before Tamagaon, I had a chat with a Nepali who, like many, asked where I was from. When I said America, he told me he was with a group of four women from America. I asked what their names were, and he didn’t know. I asked if they were giving jackets to children, and he said yes so I knew it was Leelee’s gang. He was their cook and said they were about 1/2 hour behind. I hooted loudly and raced down the trail. So excited that I would see her. In this place that was so special to Jonathan. And she’d finally meet Skip, after hearing about him for all these years. I couldn’t contain my joy and giggled out loud as I walked as fast as my lungs would allow.

I saw Jill Uris and Mary Jo first. Totally didn’t recognize either one as I’d forgotten or didn’t know they were on the trip. Then Leelee Bonney. Then I spotted Looloo, and as I had envisioned it so many times, I hollered “Looloo!!!” and she hollered back, “Migger!” All 4 were excited to see me, as was I them. We took a photo of me and the two Leelee’s for the Garrison Alumnae Bulletin (we all went to the same boarding school). Then one of Looloo and me for posterity. Then Skip and Elizabeth introductions. So very much joy to have these three people who have been so very important in my life meet one another. My smile threatened to jump off my face, and my heart was just having a party in my chest.

Leelee’s team had been stuck in Pokhara for 3 1/2 days with no flights to Jomosom because of the weather that had produced all the snow up here. Finally got out on an old Russian helicopter. They’re pushing hard to get to Lo Monthang at all and will most likely have only half a day there. Such fun to make the connection. It added a shining spot to a day already filled with brightness. I practically ran all the way to Tamagaon. I was very jazzed. Perfect timing, perfect weather, perfect time of the day, Skip and Elizabeth not far behind. Thank you God!!!

The remainder of the day was about up and down, up and down, up and down: Syangboche La, 12,631, Yamda La, 12,554, Baga La, 13,123, Bhena La, 12,592. Even more so than usual. Not giant ones like the morning. We stayed fairly high, weaving in and out and up and down with the terrain the kholas. Some very steep downs to rivers, usually less steep ups. The Baga La, the highest of the four passes we crossed in the afternoon, was festooned with many, many khatas (prayer scarves) as well as prayer flags. Just wonderful. The down to the river just before Samar was long and steep. I was glad I had spotted the tents before I hit the main part of it. Camp is in fields just below Samar, and some disgruntled locals came to tell us to move into town They were not very nice about it, and there was a great hubbub. All worked out in the end but Elizabeth said that one of the local men peed right next to their tent, not interrupting even when she shined her headlamp on him. I heard the story after the fact and am glad I was in my tent with my Ipod on during most of it. It’s the first locals we’ve come across who haven’t been friendly.

Another spectacular day! Coughing hard at times and still feeling really good. I am hugely grateful!

Day 13 – Samar, 12,008 feet – Tangbe, 10,039 – Kagbeni, 9,219

Long day. Certainly the most miles we’ve done in a day. Huge down from Samar to the bridge below Chele. Around 2,100 feet, much of it on a trail with a drop-off of many hundreds of feet to the river below. There were places that were washed out or had slides through the trail from the storm that made it uneasy walking. Narrow, slippery. It was somehow like walking forward in time, from ancient to present, to cross the blue bridge. A marking of passage from Upper to Lower Mustang. Just as walking up it on our way in had been a walk back in time. Less dangerous then, though, without the mud and snow.

About 3 1/2 hours to Tangbe then another 3 3/4 of the steep and big ups and downs of the trail above the Khali Gandaki into Kagbeni. We had hoped to walk much of the way in the river bed but the high water from the storm made it impossible. So big ups and downs, and ups and downs, and ups and downs. The nature of so much of Nepal! Even bigger than I had remembered form the way up. I think Jill was not far off the mark with her guess of a couple thousand feet up and as much down when you added it all together. And many miles. Maybe 15 kilometers, which would be nine miles, a lot with all the vertical. Such a different perspective here. 9 miles on the flat is a reasonably short day, here it is quite different!

Places in the trail below Tangbe that were badly washed out making very, very narrow or very, very steep passages. Some I couldn’t imagine the ponies navigating. And they did. Very hot at lunch so the headwind of the afternoon, not strong, just enough to soften the heat, was welcome. Arrived about 4:15 after the final very steep drop. Help from a Nepali with route finding toward the end of the day as Jill and I had lost sight of the others and weren’t sure which routes were passable and which weren’t because of the high water. He saved us about a thousand feet of up and down!

We are sharing a courtyard with stack of freshly harvested barley. They were threshing when we arrived, four men with long sticks beating a pile in a rhythmical, circular pattern. Trekkers in the lodge where we ate dinner telling stories of 6 feet of snow in Manang, on the other side of Thorong La. 14 people, French trekkers and porters, killed in an avalanche just east of Manage. We were very fortunate with our 18 inches.

Up to Muktinath tomorrow. Not steep, I hear, and close to 3,000 feet. I have little memory of walking down the same path in 1989 on the Annapurna Circuit. Panuru estimates four hours. We shall see. Lunch there. Big day in a different way. My legs are much stronger with some definition returning. I like that. Another wonderful day, despite its length and my negative thinking for a bit below Tangbe. I’m so grateful to not get stuck in those places. Thank you Spirit!

Day 14 – Kagbeni, 9,219 feet – Muktinath (Chumig Gyatsa), 12,300 feet

Dead asleep when bed tea came this morning after a night of much coughing. Good sleep in between. Probably 8 times waking myself up with coughing or the funny, wheezy sound I get when I exhale. Pretty good walking and active cough again when I stop. It’s just what I do up here. I have no sense that I am ill.

Woke up tired and not tired enough to get a horse. Just bistari, bistari – poli, poli – slowly, slowly, with absolutely no need to hurry. By myself the first hour or so, shooting a few photographs, then just putting one heavy-legged foot in front of the other. Many Europeans coming down, finishing up their Annapurna Circuit trek, most not very friendly. Gorgeous sunny day. Close to hot and not quite. Very, very muddy in places. Chatting with Elizabeth for a while, both of us disappointed in the power lines and the many people – almost no Americans – walking down, many of them not even answering our Good Morning’s. Such different energy from Upper Mustang, as we knew it would be. Still somewhat disheartening.

Followed the ponies for a bit, then had a chat with a woman named Sarah from outside Sacramento. She said she’d seen very few Americans on the Circuit. We seem to have been scared away by the State Department’s cautions about the Maoists. There seems to have been little trouble with them on the Circuit. I’ve heard some talk about some Army presence, and it’s all rumor. At any rate, after Sarah, just slowly onward. Romeo and Juliet Hotel about 1/2 way. Brought a smile to my face. I don’t know where the names of teahouses come from! Several villages, lots and lots of mud, just plugging away bistari. Just a tad over 4 hours, even with the chat with Sarah. More than 3,000 vertical feet, a good sign that although tired, I am fit. It didn’t seem like that much vertical.

We are camped in a field high in the town. The Sherpa cleared spots of snow away for sleeping and dining tents as there is still much melting snow on the ground. It’s a great spot, with exquisite views up to the Thorong La and down toward the river. So much better than being in a teahouse. Lunch al fresco, with a visit from a sweet female dog who we coaxed closer with Spam and cheese. So thin and clearly beaten. It took her a while to get that my putting my hand out did not mean I would hit her. Ate everything I gave her and looked for more. When we came down from the eternal flame, walking slowly through town, she recognized me and trotted over, tail wagging gaily in a circle. Today may be the only real kindness she gets in her life. The hard life for both animals and people.

Lovely nap after lunch in my tent, open to the sun. Body decidedly tired. Up to the Gompa/Temple/Eternal Flame around 2:30. The uphill of it was just hard. My legs are sore tonight. The site, a very holy Hindu place, is now “managed” by Buddhist nuns “to promote spiritual harmony.” It’s a wonderful example of how two great religions can share a very holy place with mutual respect and support. A lesson for all of our planet!

They’ve done a good job with it. 108 fountains, bulls heads, many bells and prayers wheels, prayer flags. And the eternal flame: Sale Mebar (burning soil) which has burned for centuries from a somewhat mysterious source of natural gas. We saw only one flame, and I am told that there are two others: Do Mebar (burning stone) and Kla Mebar (burning water). There are many trees growing around the shrine, most unusual at this 12,300 elevation, which is said to be another sign of the holiness of this place. It is a fascinating place which I will read more about when I get home. The trip up here was well worthwhile.

Got called to dinner, and the propane fumes were really bad. Panuru “fixed” it and said it would be fine. It wasn’t, and I have been well and truly zapped. Coughing worse but also in the emotional way that happens with many chemicals. I stayed longer than was in my best interest cuz I didn’t want to be different than. I’m paying the price now. And getting better as I breathe the fresh air. Tears come. Harder to say in my Higher Self. Not how I wanted tonight to be. And I don’t want to add feeling miserable to not feeling well. No, it’s not what I wanted. And it is what is. The internal kids are afraid they’ll forget all about me. They won’t. They’re kind people. I am liked on this trip. I can rock the little ones and let them know they are loved, completely and unconditionally. We all are. Again, thank you Spirit for my knowing I don’t have to choose the drama. All it is is a chemical allergy. It doesn’t make me weird or separate from. It just is. I have jerky and M&M’s. I am fabulous!

Day 15 – Muktinath, 12,300 feet – Eklobhatti, 8,990 – Jomosom, 8,900

About 3 hours down;, leisurely. Cold, cold this morning. Coldest night of tent camping;coldest night except for Lo Monthang when we were inside. Cold enough that my feet ached in the damp boots when I started walking. Last night Jill brought me dinner – very kind of her. I ate maybe 1/3 of it and put the plate outside. She’d also brought me a Fanta so I did get my wish of Fanta in bed. About 20 minutes later I heard the rattle of silverware on a plate and called out Donyabhat (thank you), thinking a cook boy had come to take it. But I heard it again about 30 seconds later. Peeked out, and there was our black and tan 4-legged friend cleaning my plate. I was delighted. Such a sweetie. I’m glad to give her a bit of happiness and nourishment.

The walk down to Eklobhatti was quite pleasant. Chatted with Phurba, our cook, for a while. He’s 40, with 4 kids, lives in Solu Khumbu. He’s done a fabulous job for us, producing astoundingly tasty and varied meals cooking in a tent with propane stoves or in strange kitchens, sometimes in very challenging conditions. Pizza, really good cole slaw, potatoes cooked in a number of yummy ways, popcorn, always soup for dinner that warmed hands and insides chilled from the walk from tents to kitchen. His cook boys have been great as well. Smiling, in the worst of conditions, as they brought us food, walking in the snow in sneakers; getting us up with the always cheerful, “Good morning, tea, coffee?” Ah, the smell of Nescafe in the morning!

I celebrated with a little dance when I hit the warmth of the sun this morning. Phurba laughed behind me. Missed most of the bad mud cuz the cold temps had frozen it. Made the walk much less sloppy than yesterday.

Off into the wind of the Kali Gandaki after lunch. This I do remember from 1989! Here’s a description from then, ” Stiff wind – 30-40. On a river bed for what seemed like days. Lawrence of Arabia music playing in my head. Looooong. Sand blowing, rocky footing, I was not having a good time.” Not so hard today, just one foot at a time on the river bed, against the wind, blowing dirt sticking to the sunscreen as it had on the way up. (When I read the 1989 journal entry when I returned home, I was aware of the difference in how I experienced what, in essence, were the same conditions. Much more tolerant and positive now, 17 years later, than then. I am grateful for that.)

We had heard blasting at lunch and been told they are building a road. One that will meet up with the Chinese road eventually so there will be a “road” – and it is a road only in a very loose sense – all the way from Pokhara to Tibet. Yuck. As we were walking, a Nepali guy sort of ran by us waving his arms around. We wondered what all his excitement was about, and then Panuru came by and waved us out further into the river bed, away from the cliff face above it. Turned out they were getting ready to blast again. So we hurried along and about a half mile later, heard a blast, turned around and watched a whole set of charges go off like dusty fireworks high above the river floor. 15 or 20 of them. I hated it!!! I hate that they’re building a road. Sonam is in favor of it, saying it will improve trade. When I voiced my concern about the Chinese taking over the way they have in Tibet, he said that will not happen here in Nepal. I pray he is right, and I fear he is not. The remainder of the walk, less than 2 hours after lunch was gustily uneventful. Consistent wind in the face, just head down and go until we reached Kagbeni.

I am tucked into bed in Room 102 at the German Bakery in Jomosom. Will sleep under my bag tonight rather than in it. My knees can go where they want. Yippee! The timing is perfect. I am ready to go. It has been a very special trip, even with all the traveling I’ve done. The sense of being in a different century or even millennium was extraordinary. Spiritual, ancient wisdom and footprints and gompas and stupas. So many spirits about me. The Crew. Much to sink in and settle. Part of what travel time is for. We fly to Pokhara then Kathmandu, leaving very early tomorrow morning.

Day 16 – Jomosom – Pokhara – Kathmandu

Up at 5 to catch an early flight to Pokhara which turned out to be not so early. Hurry up and wait, a favorite Nepal sport. Then a flight to Kathmandu only an hour after arriving. Showers, reorganizing, unpacking, repacking in the afternoon and a final dinner together. Everyone looks so different than when we arrived. Tanner, thinner, a bit more haggard perhaps, definitely tired. And content, filled up in some way, eyes mirroring the extraordinary experience we have shared.

Tuesday, 11/1 – Kathmandu – Bangkok
Somehow it’s fitting that the month changes today, as the journey home begins. It is the last morning. Walking the streets once again with Chuck, this time without my camera. Watching, listening, breathing in the sounds and smells, strange words. Sweeping, pouring water, cleaning the stores, the stoops. Festival day to celebrate Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, part of a 5-day festival.

Yesterday was the one day of the year that dogs are honored rather than kicked around. They had red spots and marigolds. Today they are ignored and kicked once again. The city fascinates me. With all that it also makes me uncomfortable, it has a magnetism and familiarity for me as well. There is something about Nepal that still feels like home. The Saddhus wanting to bless us with red flour and marigolds – for baksheesh (money). The bargaining, the begging, the saying no, keeping beggars hands off me – that is the part that’s the hardest for me. Dealing with aggressive beggars, people who grab hold of me, follow me. And I’m getting better, holding my own space more strongly. I so remember how completely uncomfortable I was in India in 1989, the first time I encountered this kind of behavior.

It is bittersweet to leave. I am ready to go, and also sad. It’s exactly perfect. Beautiful, crisp morning light on the streets this morning, much of the stoops shiny with water, broomswept. Glad to end as I began, walking with Chuck. Thank you, God, Goddess, Spirit, Grandfather, Grandmother. I am blessed.

8 pm Amari Hotel, Bangkok It’s getting more “normal.” Closer to home. Closer to western, to the familiar. Had a nice conversation with Pascal, owner of a small adventure travel company out of Montreal. He just led a kora around Kailas, going up from Simikot like we did in 1995. He gets the spiritual part of it and has been to Mustang. We spoke about the ancient energy. He gets it. It’s always great to talk with people who get it.

The goodbyes were only a bit teary. More about the experience than the people in a way. I’m ready to be done with the people, not these people in particular, just people in general. Ready to have a meal by myself, spend time without being “on.” It was the perfect length trip. Such fondness for these delightful interesting and somewhat quirky folks. Each of us with our own story and history and interests and strength and challenges. Bob is bright and interesting, keeper of fascinating facts and stories. Chuck is bright, eclectic, has lived an extraordinarily diverse life and is a great story teller. Jill is a gutsy woman, also bright, determined, and a warrior woman like me. Skip and Elizabeth, as always, are quite simply delightful. I share so much history with them now that it is simply being with good friends. In very exotic places!

Home tomorrow. It feels good to write that. I am looking forward to being home. Much more so than I used to when I was traveling in the past. I love Santa Cruz, love my home, love my cat, love my life. This kind of adventure travel is something I adore and will do as long as I am able. And at 57, home holds much more appeal than in the past. That is a good thing.