In 2002, I vowed aged nine, that I would “never ever in a million years” return to Nepal.
My exclamation had come after spending an entire 13-hour flight from Kathmandu back to Heathrow with my head plunged in a sick bag, after a particularly nasty bout of food poisoning. Ironically, it later turned out that I must have become ill from food consumed in Kathmandu’s airport… a nice ‘bon voyage’ gift with which to send me off home.
However, despite this torrid experience and my determined prior declaration, eight years later time had worn its way through the childhood memories that had haunted me, and I set off to the country for the third time in my life.
Nepal’s undoubtedly one of the most breathtaking countries in the world. The sheer disparity in environment – from the harsh conditions of the Himalayas to the urban sprawl of Kathmandu and river floodplain of Pokhara – explains the nation’s growing tourism market. In my visits there, I have ridden elephants, scaled mountains and explored crowded backstreet markets… things which can very rarely all be experienced in the same country.
My first trip to Nepal had occurred aged seven, when I completed the relatively undemanding Royal Trek, along the beautiful foothills of Mt. Annapurna and the surrounding range, with my family. Filled with childhood intrigue and vigour, I scarcely noticed the miles we trekked each day through hilly expanses, let alone my mother’s grumbles that this wasn’t what she called a holiday. My father’s growing unease about the future of independent Tibet had propelled us there from our comfy suburban lifestyle in London; it’s a cause in which he is still extremely involved today and, I have no doubt, will be for the rest of his life.
Two years later, we returned as a family once more, this time deciding to take on the harder Annapurna Circuit. Ranking as one of the world’s most challenging, and thus not undertaken by many, the trek would also help us delve deeper into authentic Tibetan culture. Travelling through four northern regions of Nepal, our path allowed us to explore the ‘Forbidden Kingdom’ of Mustang, a mystical land that was closed to the public until as recently as 1992. The people of Mustang identify themselves strongly as Tibetans, and observe the ancient Bon Po religion which incorporates Buddhism and Shamanism.
Needless to say, my parents were a little worried whether, being so young, I would be able to overcome the difficulty of the circuit, with each day’s walking potentially covering 20+ miles. I convinced them that I was fit enough and, though the journey was challenging and our sherpas couldn’t quite believe how young I was, I did complete the 20-day trek.
In the process, I became the first western child to enter the Kingdom of Mustang and meet its royal family, something in which I will always take pride. Along the way, I reached altitudes of over 16,000 feet and, at one point, had to cross a partially-destroyed precipice on the back of a sherpa while my mother watched through shaking fingers, and my father excitedly clicked away with his camera.
My third visit to Nepal – forgetting my previous vow – came in 2010, when I travelled with a similarly-aged girl who was studying the culture of Tibet for her degree. Not only was I travelling without my parents this time but, due to the time of year, our crew was small and disorganised, with little experience of the route along the Kali Gandaki river basin which we had to take in order to reach Mustang. To say I was apprehensive was an understatement.
Nevertheless, when I returned to England almost two months later, a part of my heart had been wholly captured this time by the Kingdom of Mustang. Surprisingly, this wasn’t due as much to the awe-inspiring environment, but rather the local people who made my trip so worthwhile, and who had really allowed me to understand Tibetan culture. I had the opportunity to teach children in the walled city of Lo Manthang (bordering Tibet) and also to meet the King once again, which I am extremely lucky to have done.
He seemed to remember me by one thing above all, pointing to his hair with a smile on his face. The reason is that in Mustang my fair hair is an especially-rare sight, and also a sign of good fortune. Indeed, at the school where I worked, a crowd of giggling girls would every day descend upon me when I came out for lunch and then play endlessly with my hair. They said “bootiful, bootiful”, as they brushed it with battered combs and fashioned it into tiny plaits.
During my time as a teacher I travelled to some of the children’s home villages in the most rural parts of Mustang, and the hospitality I received was so touching. It was easy to spot the disparities between our western, materialistic culture and theirs, via the closeness of the children’s bonds to their families and peers, and in the mutual respect both teachers and children had for each other. Some children would walk alone for miles and miles across tough, arid land in order to return home each weekend and help their parents, and then never fail to turn up again at school, keen to learn, on the following Monday morning.
The way of life in Mustang is still firmly rooted in agriculture and pastoral living, but parents are aware that a good education is becoming essential in our modern world, and are increasingly allowing their children to go to school. This last trip has, without a doubt, changed my life, and made me believe more firmly that Tibet deserves to become its own independent nation. I came back much more independent myself, and definitely appreciated the experience to a greater degree than when I was younger. The thing I’m most glad about, though, is that I didn’t stick to my pledge!