The first glimpse of a suspension bridge in the high terrain of Nepal's Everest region can be unnerving.
It's easy to see why locals refer to these long, narrow, slatted steel footbridges as jhulungay pul, or rocking bridges.
But by the time I was swaying hundreds of feet above the confluence of two churning rivers in Sagarmatha National Park last May, I'd crossed three others (though shorter and lower down) and was unfazed by waist-high, chain-link guardrails and the rolling, bouncing gait the bridges necessitated.
In fact, I looked forward to it and even had a momentary fantasy of running across, just for the springy joy of it. But my fellow travelers, some already clinging to the rails, would not have been amused.
We were trekking, seven of us, at the midpoint of a weeklong Nepal trip organized by Kathmandu-based Yeti Holidays, a Sherpa-owned, sustainability-minded travel company.
We'd set out on our trek after flying from Kathmandu to Lukla, a town at an altitude of 9,184 feet that serves as the starting point for most journeys to the Everest base camp.
We landed by helicopter at the Tenzing-Hillary Airport, named for the climbers who first reached Everest's summit in 1953 and infamous for its short, uphill landing strip.
The journey begins
We began the week in Kathmandu, where we had arrived via Turkish Airlines, which started four-times-a-week service to Nepal's capital from Istanbul last fall. The Gokarna Forest Resort, away from the clamor of central Kathmandu but convenient to the airport, is situated on land that used to function as royal hunting grounds. Today guests can indulge in spa treatments and play 18 holes of golf but are admonished via a message on their room key envelopes: "Strictly Do Not Feed the Monkeys." As if on cue, two appeared in the tree outside my window minutes after I checked in.
It'd be tempting to hole up at Gokarna for a while, but the ancient religious and cultural riches of Kathmandu are irresistible. The area is home to seven monuments that make the Kathmandu Valley a Unesco World Heritage Site. We visited four, including the medieval city of Bhaktapur, the 2,600-year-old Pashupatinath Hindu temple complex and the sixth century Buddhist stupa at Boudanath, the largest such monument in Asia, where we joined tourists, pilgrims, Tibetan refugees and maroon-robed monks in a ritual clockwise walk around its 1,033-foot circumference.
After two days in Kathmandu, we were eager to get to the Everest region. Trekking is manageable even for those (like me) who aren't in terrible shape but also aren't gym rats. I had misgivings before our four-mile, uphill hike from the village of Monjo (9,350 feet) to Namche Bazaar (11,283 feet), the Sherpa capital and gateway to Everest. But Bala Kaji, our Sherpa guide, encouraged (and gently shamed) me with a tale of an American woman in her 80s who made it fine.
Once we got going, it was humbling to pass (or more often, be passed by) locals striding expertly up and down the steep, rocky trails in plastic sandals and sneakers while we huffed along in sturdy hiking shoes, leaning on the walking sticks provided to us.
Three Sherpa porters carried our bags on their backs, and we passed others hauling everything from wooden door planks to cartons of beer and prawn crackers. All supplies — food, fuel, drinking water and hotel provisions — must be carried between Lukla and Everest either by humans or pack animals. Seeing the strength, stamina and time it takes to transport those things makes one appreciate having the provisions all the more.
We stayed at Yeti-owned properties throughout the week. Its mountain lodges were always worth the effort to reach; clean and welcoming, with hot showers and hearty meals for grungy, hungry travelers. Rooms were decorated with local crafts, and windows opened to idyllic alpine views. Our days began at dawn, with hot tea delivered to our rooms, a thoughtful wake-up before breakfast in the dining room. Despite being remote, the lodges accommodated exotic Western dietary restrictions, including, in our group's case, allergies to wheat and a low-carb diet.
"We can't call it luxury, but it's comfort," said Daman Pradhan, Yeti Holidays' managing director.
We returned to Lukla and flew south again, stopping first in Pokhara, a laid-back, lakeside resort town, and then making an easy three-hour hike through farming villages to our hotel, the Mala Lodge. The next day we drove east to the Chitwan National Forest, yet another of Nepal's World Heritage Sites, a spectacular, 360-square-mile haven for Asian elephants, knob-nosed crocodiles, Royal Bengal tigers and one-horned Indian rhinos. The rhinos were poached by the hundreds for their horns (believed by some to cure cancer or serve as an aphrodisiac) during Nepal's decade-long Maoist insurgency, which ended in 2006. The population has started to bounce back, thanks to careful stewardship, and with two well-informed guides accompanying us in an open-top vehicle, we stopped to watch four of these prehistoric-looking creatures in a quiet clearing. As a young rhino nuzzled an adult, it was hard to imagine anyone wanting to destroy them.
The bungalows at the almost year-old Kasara Resort, at the edge of the forest, brought nature close, with bathroom and entry areas open to the sky. My entrance featured a tiny pond where and I watched a thumb-size frog sun itself on a stone.
From there, we set out on a morning elephant safari, with three or four of us seated on a wooden platform attached to each animal's back while an elephant handler steered by adjusting his bare feet behind the elephant's ears. Navigating the jungle from an elephant's perspective is a powerful experience: stopping in the forest to snap off a leafy branch for a snack, swishing leisurely through grassland, sloshing into a river for a closer look at a bathing rhino.
With a day left, we flew back to Kathmandu for some last-minute shopping and a farewell dinner featuring traditional dishes such as momos (meat dumplings) and dal jhaneko (lentil curry). The venue was Dwarika's, a five-star hotel featuring intricate wood carvings, doorways and other fittings salvaged and conserved from some of the capital's older houses that were slated for destruction to make way for new buildings.
Our trip had distilled Nepal's iconic essentials into a single week; in one tiny country, we'd experienced some of the most extraordinary scenery, wildlife and religious and cultural heritage in the world.
Visit www.yetiholidays.com or contact Steve Powers, business development manager for North America, at [email protected].