“You’ve got to be kidding me?!” I exclaimed, rounding a bend to find yet another seemingly endless set of jagged stone steps. Wiping my sweaty brow, I looked down at the hundreds I’d already scaled, tightly zig-zagging up the hazy valley, the bottom of the river basin barely visible from these heights.
I had no choice but to push on, to get to the top of what I nicknamed the staircase of hell—and before the fast approaching nightfall.
Nepal. For millennia the former kingdom had remained far removed from the rest of the world, caged in by its strict rulers and the mighty Himalayas. A landlocked country that is home to some of the planet’s kindest, most genuine people, its most picturesque landscape and its tallest mountains, which I now found myself trekking—or rather huffing and puffing—through.
Growing up on in rural Ontario, I’d spent countless hours roaming the forests and fields of our old farm. Be that as it may, I’d become a firm urbanite when I’d moved to Paris, France in my early twenties, all but rejecting the countryside.
My idea of “hiking” was a day of exploring a museum or the streets of a new city rather than wandering through the woods. However, when I recently fulfilled my promise to visit my longtime friend Linda in Nepal, I knew I’d have to pull up my (hiking) bootstraps and do some real trekking. It was a “must” for any visitor to the Himalayan nation after all… right?
Nepal would actually be the last destination of a two-month solo trip that would take me on a three-country hop from the pristine beaches of southern Thailand to the cultural hotspots of Malaysia and then to my final mountainous destination.
I’d taken big trips before, often with long stretches alone, nevertheless, this one would be different. As much as I loved Paris, I’d actually started escaping its drizzly grey winters on annual “working holidays” to warmer climes.
But that wasn’t the only reason for this particular voyage. I’d spent the last 10 years working my butt off to establish myself as a writer. A decade during which I’d managed to publish two books and get enough other writing gigs to quit my day job. I was now free as a bird, perhaps too free as I suddenly didn’t know which direction to fly in.
Taking some time “off,” whether for a few days or a few months, is one of the best ways to reflect on life. We might not find all the answers, but it gives us the chance to put our day-to-day routine and obligations on hold, to seek out our true essence, to hone in on what we ultimately really care about. This is what I was hoping to achieve during my trip.
“If you want to do an easy hike of a few days, you can do it all by yourself,” suggested Tashi, a new friend I’d met on my first day in colourful Kathmandu. “You don’t even need hiking boots!” He added, glancing down on my dusty running shoes.
Most people hire a guide to lead them, but as owner of his own trekking company, Life Door Treks, and having grown up in an isolated village four days on foot from the nearest town, I knew I could trust his advice. He’d given me the itinerary, told me the route was well marked and that there were plenty of teahouses, rustic bare-bone hotels where I could get a hot meal or simple lodging for the night.
It seemed a little (or a lot) crazy, yet the challenge, and the time alone, seemed like just what my “life” doctor had ordered. A week later, I was in Pokhara, the gateway city to the Annapurna Mountain range, waving goodbye to Linda as I rode off into the misty morning on the back of her boyfriend’s motorcycle en route to the starting point of my adventure, fists clenching the straps of my stuffed to the brim backpack.
Tashi’s recommended route would take me on a short section of Annapurna circuit, from the villages of Nayapul to Ghundruk, yo-yoing between an altitude of 1050 and 3210 meters and along an ancient path through forests of tall trees and trickling brooks, dry fields of grazing cow and goats and sporadic Gurung villages frozen in time. Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it?
“The first day will be the hardest, then you’ll be fine!” Tashi’s reassuring words were not echoing in my head as I found myself on that never-ending gruesome staircase. But it did finally end, some 3,200 steps later in the tiny village of Ulleri, after having already walked on a gradual incline six hours from where I’d started. I had to push on, I wasn’t going to cave and stay at the village at the bottom.
I could do succeed at this first hurdle — and I had to climb them one way or another if I was going to pursue the hike. Up I went, a feat made somewhat easier by two Chinese gals I’d run into, who quickly became my partners in cheering each other on after reaching the top of one section and commiserating that it only led to more and more crooked steps. Maybe I really should have done some day-hiking to prepare, living on a hill in Paris really didn’t cut it!
I wasn’t the first nor will I be the last inexperienced hiker along the trail, nonetheless, I was the only guide-less, solo foreigner I saw over the course of those four days. A newly married Turkish couple, a pair of young free-spirited Spaniards, a British father and son duo, the two Chinese of the steps, a South African whose wife had sent him on a trek to lose weight and whose efforts were thwarted by the many bottles of Gurkha beer he ordered along with his nightly meals.
These were just a few of the fellow trekkers I’d chat with over a mid-morning hot cup of chai tea or a meal of dal bhat, Nepal’s unofficial national dish made up of rice, lentil soup, curried vegetables and homemade pickle sauce, seated cozily around the fire at our teahouses, bearing similar names like “Deluxe Mountain View” or “Super Mountain View.”
And super deluxe views I did start to—finally—have. “Turn around,” said the sweet Spanish couple staying at the same tea house that first night at the top of the “stairs of hell” and to whom I’d grumbled about making all that effort to get up there and still not see the snowy mountaintops the hike is famous for. I gasped. There it was, my first peak: the formidable Machapuchare, also known as Fishtail.
Blown away by its beauty, I virtually forgot about my stiff legs as I gleefully embarked on day two, which would end, not with another deadly staircase, but with the jaw-dropping panorama of numerous peaks gracing the horizon of the village of Ghorepani.
This wasn’t even the ultimate view as the following morning, like most the villages other over-nighters, I uncharacteristically got up at dawn to climb an hour up to Poon Hill, the highest summit in the area at 3210 meters, to witness the sun rising reflecting on, what seemed to me, the whole Annapurna range. Simply Magical. Not a hiker and not a morning person, this feat added to the many ways I pushed myself on this small journey of physical and mental exertion.
As I’d aspired, the trek did give me time to think, left to my own thoughts as I continued along the serene mountain path, broken by the occasional trekkers coming from the other way and a few enchanting run-ins with stray ox munching away at grassy knolls next to a stream and a fairytale-like horse appearing out of nowhere, casually passing me as if I wasn’t even there.
I can’t say I totally found that new direction I’d been seeking at the beginning, nevertheless, the experience forced me out of my comfort zone, provided me fresh perspectives and reminded me that we can succeed at our dreams and goals if we put my mind to them.
Well, that wasn’t exactly what was on my mind as I reached what I thought was the end of my trek in Ghundruk, only to discover that I had to hobble 45 minutes further to the next hamlet of Kimle to catch the bus. There might be some wretches in our plans, but that doesn’t mean we won’t reach our final destination.
Lily Heise is the author of two lively memoirs on searching for love in Paris and her travel writing has appeared in The Huffington Post, CondeNastTraveler.com, Business Insider, Playboy.com, GLOW Magazine, Frommer’s guides, DK Eyewitness guides, among others.