A Trek Through the Otherworldly Dreamscape of Nepal
Two years after the earthquake that devastated this lofty kingdom in the Himalayas, one family journeys to Kathmandu, Chitwan National Park, and the legendary Annapurna Circuit to see friendly elephants, ancient mountain villages, three of the world's highest peaks, and a country that turns out to be as resilient as it is beautiful.
My youngest son, Nicholas, came for the highest mountains. My daughter, May, to find her nirvana (and to hold as many babies as she could). Our eldest, Leo, came with his traveling guitar, dharma bum that he is. My wife, Sara, wanted to frolic with elephants. And me, I came to scatter the ashes of a friend and, once more, to get thrown beyond myself, petty concerns be damned. I came to find awe. Was that too much to ask?
Here we were, then, on our family vacation, an hour after touching down in Kathmandu, after passing through 10 discombobulating time zones. We had gone straight to the famous Boudhanath Stupa, a large dome that from the air looks like a mandala, and lost ourselves in a writhing carnival of Nepalese humanity. It was an auspicious occasion, the official reopening of the stupa after the 2015 earthquake that not only cracked the spire of one of Buddhism’s holiest structures but left almost 9,000 people dead and millions more homeless. Its reopening served as a hopeful, symbolic moment: a rebirth, or at least a partial declaration that Nepal was open for business again.
The stupa at Boudhanath, one of the largest in all of Asia, draws hundreds of pilgrims a year who come to pray, purify, and even buy yak butter. Now thousands packed the square. Monks chanted; pots of sage billowed smoke; prayer flags fluttered. Before we knew it we were swept along by a fast-moving human current doing kora, a ritual circumambulation, in a clockwise flow around the stupa. Nicholas appeared wary, jostled as he was; conversely, May was enraptured, wanting to experience it alone. I was filled with dread by her independence: if we lost touch with her in this crowd, we might never find her again. (Meanwhile, Leo was back at the hotel, in a dead man’s sleep.) From left: Swayambhunath Stupa, in Kathmandu; appetizers at Dwarika’s Resort, in Dhulikhel. Stefan Ruiz
From the trance of travel — from planes and passport lines — we were suddenly defibrillated back to life with the blare of the ceremonial horns, rumbling low and farty, as if the Buddha himself had gas. Rotating around the stupa, in the crush of the crowd, we gazed upon the pilgrims gazing up at us, smiling kindly. There was no escape. When I looked back at Sara, her expression said it all: an ecstatic-trepidatious smile that shouted, "Oh my God!" and "Oh my God, I’m not at all sure about this...."
Yes, here we were now, in this floating land between the North Indian Plain and the high Himalayas. We had our agenda, and an itinerary listing where we planned to go. But those were immaterial. Free will isn’t really a Buddhist concept. The mountains decide — and the babies. The elephants and ashes. In the last crush, our breath was taken from us, and then we were expelled. We’d been in the square for all of 25 minutes, but it felt like eons. Going backward like this — one of us fast asleep, three of us in a slight panic, our daughter in om-bliss — we lurched forward into the country.
Beyond the quixotic, I must confess that we came looking for something else in Nepal as well. Proof of a country on the mend. "The most amazing people on earth with the most corrupt government" was how one expat I met put it. And news reports supported the assessment. Of the more than $4 billion pledged by international donors, little had found its way to the hundreds of thousands still living in temporary shelters. The government had proven itself mostly useless in its relief efforts. Rebuilding in some areas had yet to begin and remote villages in the hardest-hit areas were still in distress. Tourism had only just started to recover.
But something else was happening here, too. The earthquake had strengthened the country’s NGO network, fueling a new spirit of collaboration. I was invited to a meeting at Shechen Monastery, in Kathmandu, and the experience reminded me of one small but obvious fact: people, forming a stubborn, caring chain of action, might be the only antidote to all that corruption. Founded in part by the famous author and French monk Matthieu Ricard, Karuna-Shechen is one of many organizations marshaling its charitable forces to implement an array of ongoing programs, from battling human trafficking to bringing solar electricity to villages.
It seemed almost perverse to think of being a tourist among such need. But visitors were, in fact, a sight for sore Nepalese eyes — a happy occurrence for everyone from the outfitters to the yak-butter sellers. Was there a way, then, to make sure that our dollars reached the right people? In a world in which eco-travel often means just reusing your towels, was it possible to enter Nepal as it existed, taking advantage of all it had to offer, from luxury to backpacker simplicity, while limiting our eco-footprint?
We began with a short flight from Kathmandu to the southern plains of the Terai region, on the edge of Chitwan National Park, a 360-square-mile UNESCO World Heritage site and former hunting ground of the Nepali aristocracy. We stayed at the unfussy Tharu Lodge. The property is operated by Tiger Tops, whose other lodges have attracted A-listers like Mick Jagger and Selena Gomez. For a long time the company ran the legendary Jungle Lodge inside Chitwan, but it was shuttered in 2012 when the government prohibited any lodges from operating in the park. Still, Tiger Tops has been instrumental in forging a new era of eco-consciousness. The best part of all, especially for my wife: they had elephants. Sandra, Saraswati, and Dibya; Sona, Raj, and Dipendra — the pachyderms at Tharu Lodge went by name, lolling in their new, spacious pens. Gone were the old-world elephant safaris. In their stead was this new enlightenment: elephants left to their own devices. Tiger Tops naturalists offer a choice of daily activities. Guests choose from morning and evening walks with the elephants, as well as wildlife safaris, river trips, a visit to the local school, and a peek at a "vulture restaurant," a fascinating innovation to rehabilitate the decimated vulture population. From left: The village of Ghandruk, Nepal, is a popular starting point for treks into the Annapurna Range; an elephant at Tharu Lodge, outside Chitwan National Park. Stefan Ruiz
To my wife’s glee, we walked with the elephants at dawn, as they fed, and at sunset, when they went to the river to drink. We spent the middle of the day rolling "elephant sandwiches," hay wrapped tightly around millet and molasses, which they eagerly munched. In this way, we became intimate with the huge animals. With their exotic canopies of skin and glimmering glass eyes, their funny butt wiggles and slightly knocked-knee shuffles, Sara felt, for some mysterious reason, a levitating kinship. A big girl-crush.
Meanwhile, we saw crocs, monkeys, barking deer, and rhinos, two of whom, a mother and child, we took by surprise, which resulted in a pulse-racing standoff. On a day trip we made into Chitwan itself — unarmed, by boat and on foot — we came within 50 yards of a tiger in the bush. The briefing ahead of time, led by the naturalist, had offered a sanguine assessment: If attacked by a tiger, try to beat it off with a stick. If attacked by a rhino, zigzag, then try to climb a tree. And if attacked by a sloth bear, you might as well forget it — you’re toast.
We left the south with difficulty, but departure was made easier by the dream that lay before us: Nicholas’s obsession, seeing the high peaks of the Himalayas. Our choice of routes was along the Annapurna Circuit, six days of trekking, including a sunrise stop at Poon Hill, with its astounding views of the entire range, which incorporates three of the 10 highest peaks in the world.
The staging area for the Annapurna Circuit is Nepal’s second-largest city, Pokhara, a burgeoning metropolis with a strip of outdoor-gear shops, restaurants, bars, and places for bodywork. Twentysomethings float through, dreadlocked and tattooed, trying to squeeze the last of their money before returning to reality. A T-shirt on one woman read UNLOCK YOURSELF, as if it spoke for all of us.
We stayed at the Pavilions Himalayas, a collection of beautifully appointed stone villas in a valley away from the hubbub. The property has an infinity pool, piped-in jazz/trance/raga, and a decked-out kitchen. At night, fires were lit in the rooms, and despite the chill, we dared a swim at twilight, emerging Popsicle-cold, swaddling ourselves in robes. Besides being entirely solar-powered, Pavilions Himalayas offers 70 percent of its profits back to the local community. If you were to half-close your eyes and ignore the pearl-white pagoda on a nearby mountaintop, you could imagine yourself in Sedona, Arizona. From left: Building restoration in Kathmandu; a moment of rest along the Annapurna Circuit. Stefan Ruiz
Here we were, then, the night before our trek. I stashed my friend’s ashes safely in my pack and, gripped by uncertainty, watched the last embers in the fire go dark. What awaited us in the mountains? When you travel with family, the nature of uncertainty is different, heightened. A fever, a fall, food poisoning. It’s multiplied. By leaving the main road and climbing the mountain, you’re making a small leap of faith, asking the universe to hold you in the palm of its hand and keep you awhile.
The next morning, we were met in the lobby by our guides, Pemba and Kadal. After a two-hour van ride, we were dropped next to a ramshackle line of wooden snack bars at the side of the road. We grabbed our gear and started walking, down a slope, over a bridge, and up. Then we kept going up.
Trekking is not a sprint event. You’re meant to walk at the pace of your heartbeat, which seems slow at first. And the first steps of any journey are often the most tenuous, the dirt and stones, the little water crossings, calf muscles firing, Achilles stretching. Walking has the power to put you utterly in the here and now.
Soon the pleasing rhythm of our trek overtook everything. Hours of walking, then a flare of hunger. We stopped for lunch and had our first encounter with the set menu that repeats throughout the Annapurna Conservation Area: pizza, french fries, dal baht, fried noodles, banana pancake. That first night we stayed in our own comfy hobbit home, a delightful teahouse run by a family with little kids underfoot. To her great delight, May inherited two of the children and became their auntie. When I later went to peek in on her, she was reading to one of the boys in bed, while Leo strummed his guitar on the other side of the wall. By the time we all went to sleep, the night had turned cold and silent, a silence really deep and profound. A nothing silence. A silence tucked in between mountains. We slept in it like a hammock.
The next day — like the day that followed — was uphill, climbing stone steps that took us 12 miles and 200 floors skyward. There were no complaints from the kids; they just kept hoofing. Especially on the last climb of the day, through a rhododendron forest, to a stone-terraced village called Ghorepani (in the mist, it might as well have been called Winterfell, from Game of Thrones). Leo’s mouth was agape at the slate otherworld. "Is this really real?" he said.
The teahouse that night was my favorite, with a big metal boiler warming the dining room. There were two Korean men, both teachers, one of whom claimed to have been trekking in Nepal about 20 times. At another table sat three Japanese trekkers with a bottle of whiskey, the pitch of their conversation increasing with each sip. In the far corner was a party of French sojourners, enjoying themselves so thoroughly they brought their own gales to the room.
We were up the next morning at 4:30 a.m. It was dark outside, and Kadal led the way. We moved in a ghostly procession. Across the valley, we could see a line of firelight — controlled burns allegedly, but it appeared like a strange necklace, or harbinger. Then, at last, as the sky lightened, we scrambled to the bald nub, joining the horde, all, like us, swaddled in polar fleece and Gore-Tex. I’d heard complaints about the crowds, but the communal excitement at being on a summit, gazing out at the entire Annapurna Range, looking down on clouds below and high mountains above, was a kind of religious moment disguised as a picture-taking moment. This is what Nicholas had come for: the world’s biggest mountains in their full glory. Floating up on his toes, his eyes wide, he gawked at the mountains, and then gawked at the people gawking at the mountains. When a group of Italian guys shed their clothes for a bare-chested bro-hug, our son photobombed them, mugging for the camera. From left: Boats on Phewa Lake, in the Pokhara Valley; Bhairavnath Temple, in Bhaktapur, the interior of which was damaged in the earthquake. Stefan Ruiz
This is what I’d come for, as well. With the sun cresting upward, I shuffled away from the crowd. From my backpack I took the ashes of my friend, a great lover of the mountains named Arne who’d died suddenly a few years ago, though it felt like yesterday. His wife had given me these to spread in various places of the world, and I’d doled them out, until I carried the last of them to Nepal. In college, we’d talked about what it would feel like to reach that Himalayan planet — and here I was, for the two of us, satisfied, his ashes mixing with the schist and sandstone, imagining his molecules carried by the wind to those glaciers and then, with the melt, rushing back to us in the wilder currents of river, to the Ganges, and the sea.
In writing this now, Nepal feels like a dream that happened to us, a fold in time. We continued our trek, Leo strumming his guitar at every stop, May’s child-radar finding little ones along the way. And because it was a proper adventure, we had to contend with Nicholas’s getting a concussion (he bumped his head so hard we were forced to carry him down the mountain). We returned to Kathmandu, and, before leaving, we stopped in Bhaktapur, a medieval city adjoining Kathmandu that was once a jewel of ancient homes and 16th- and 17th-century temples. This is where the earthquake hit particularly hard and where the slow pace of recovery is most visible: those gorgeous, tiered temples in rubble, the houses pulverized. And yet school groups and tourists were undeterred — and construction crews were hard at work. It was a reminder that while the country may not yet be entirely ready for prime time, its pleasures and mysticism — the spark light and soul hum that people come here looking for — transcend its physical and political reality at all times.
On the last night, I sat in a vegetarian restaurant with May. She was near tears at the thought of leaving. "We haven’t even begun yet," she said plangently. The rest of our brood was back at the hotel, but she wouldn’t let the night end. The hummus plate, the mint juice, the clientele floating through from all ends of the earth: beautiful, wrinkled, flowering, in ruins. Nepal itself was that room of stone, ice, and cerulean sky. It was elephants and children in villages high above. Even now, we are still walking up its mountain steps, awed. Young, old, forever.
The Details: What to Do in Nepal
Fly to Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport via a connection in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, New Delhi, or another Middle Eastern or Indian city. Tourist visas are required and can be obtained at a Nepalese embassy or consulate before your trip or at the airport upon arrival.
When to Go
Visit during the winter and spring months for optimal mountain views. In December and January, you’ll want to stay in Kathmandu, as the mountains can get extremely cold and many lodges are closed. In March and April, the days are longer and wildlife is more active. Avoid visiting between June and September, during monsoon season, when road conditions are poor and leeches are abundant.
Classic Himalaya Travel: This Kathmandu-based operator offers a variety of Nepal trips, many of which are ideal for families. Whether you opt for a 14-day Sherpa village trek or an eight-day cultural tour, Classic Himalaya will handle all of the logistics, from lodge arrangements to wildlife safaris.
Hotels and Lodges
Dwarika’s Resort: The natural design aesthetic of this property makes it the perfect place to unwind. Relax by the infinity pool or try one of the ancient healing treatments at the spa. Dhulikhel; doubles from $390.
Pavilions Himalayas: Located in a valley near Phewa Lake, this resort offers 15 eco-friendly villas surrounded by beautiful farmland. Spend the day wandering the grounds before indulging in Nepali momos. Pokhara; villas from $168.
Tiger Tops Tharu Lodge: Eight resident elephants are the highlight at this pleasantly secluded lodge. Stroll with them to the nearby Narayani River and watch as they play in the water. Ratnanagar; doubles from $105.