“There’s always a first time for everything”, I tell myself as I suck my stomach in, roll my hiking pants past my ankles up to the shins, and get down to work; we have leeches to pluck. Despite having hiked the Himalayas and traipsed through jungles for most of my adult life, I always managed to steer clear of leech attacks—until now.
In all fairness, I had been warned about the perils of monsoon trekking in Nepal, but I am one to never pass up any opportunity to explore new trails. So here I was on the lesser-known Helambu Circuit with my guide Raj, removing leeches for the first time in my life.
We are barely 200 metres short of our destination for the day: a tiny, obscure monastic cave I have been trekking downhill towards for nearly eight hours. I can finally see it just around the hill, but what I cannot see yet is how it will transform my journey.
Unlike my previous leisurely trips to Nepal, I’m on a whirlwind trip to Kathmandu with a slim chance of squeezing in a trek. But I question that thought, and find my answer on the Helambu Circuit. One of the most easily accessible and beautiful short treks starting near the capital, this circuit takes people into the Helambu region that overlooks the mountain ranges of the more popular Langtang trail. Typically, the trek starts from Sundarijal at the eastern end of the Kathmandu Valley, and goes up to Chisapani on the first day. In my attempt to shorten the week-long trek, we drive directly to Chisapani instead, where I am tempted to go ‘just a bit further’. My laziness is rewarded just in time with a road block, so I finally bid adieu to my ride, haul my small pack under the darkening skies and begin walking.
When we finally break camp for the night at Chipling, the rain comes pouring down. I settle into my guesthouse room (the personal, teahouse feel hasn’t quite started yet), and begin to wonder if this monsoon trek is a good idea after all. Then, the rain quietens and the night dissolves into the sounds of distant barking deer and nightjar.
Early next morning, I awake to a fogged-up valley. The mountain views would have been stellar, but I’ll have to wait until Tharepati, the highest point of this trek. Most of the trek we are skirting Sindhupalchowk district. This district was the worst affected in the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, and as I go past some temporary settlements that have become more-or-less permanent, my grudge with the weather and other problems seem trivial.
After three hours we reach Kutumsang and stop for a cup of tea. Most hikers stay at Kutumsang, but I’ve already disturbed my route by not starting from Chisapani. We begin the climb to Tharepati, but by late afternoon, thunder threatens us and we decide to stop for the night at Mangengoth. The lone teahouse and adjoining couple of houses don’t qualify as a village, but I am happier in the wilderness and glad we didn’t stop elsewhere. My host here is lama ji, a monk who moonlights as a ‘hotelier’ (if one may call a teahouse owner that).
I express my disappointment over the lack of views through the cold, foggy and rainy sky, and lama ji laughs out loud. It triggers a conversation that lasts all evening, about the journeys one goes on through meditation where external weather doesn’t matter. I listen intently while devouring delicious pancakes that his nephew, also training to be a lama, has prepared. Of all the life lessons lama ji tells me, it is the one about finding sunshine within and carrying it that stays with me.
With renewed enthusiasm and sunshine in my heart, I climb to Tharepati, at 3600 metres, the next morning. I don’t see its famous panorama but instead look down through a cedar and oak forest dotted with white rhododendrons, wild orchids, and local wild berries. We go all the way to the monastery near Kharchung, where I am welcomed by those leeches. It was the lama’s words, and my lunch stop at Melamchigaon at a lovable Sherpa woman’s house, that keep me going and don’t make my first encounter with leeches revolting.
Melamchigaon is where the legendary Guru Rinpoche, Padmasambhava, is believed to have meditated. There’s a shrine here dedicated to him. It is at this tiny monastic cave where the last of my angst finally blurs into the soft glow of over 100 butter lamps.
The gompa is still being rebuilt after the earthquake, but this cave — also believed to be the great Tibetan yogi Milarepa’s meditation stop — stands firm like a lighthouse of hope in a storm. Watching the congenial Buddhist lady who walks miles from her village to light the lamps every single day, it dawns on me that this trek is supposed to be an inward journey.
Despite having strayed from the teahouse trail, I am not worried anymore about where I will spend the night. Or whether I will get to see any views at all. Or whether this rainy trek was even a good idea. I join her in lighting the lamps, and a meditative calm washes over me as we sit together in silence. I whisper a prayer of gratitude for simply being blessed enough to be where I am. It is precisely this weather that has allowed me these quiet moments of reflection and immersive experiences that have led me inwards on this trip.
Night falls and we are unexpectedly invited to stay with a local family; we take our leave early the next day for our last day of walking before catching a taxi back. As we go up the ridge, the mist rolls out to reveal a dramatic forest and a snowy backdrop. It is a brief window that lasts long enough for me to know that all that is meant to come to you, eventually does.
Shikha Tripathi is a journalist specialising in outdoor writing and Himalayan ecology with an added interest in culture and sustainable travel. Her stories appear in a wide variety of publications. Born and brought up in the Himalayas, she is a qualified mountaineer who enjoys napping under the mountain sun as much as writing about her highland explorations. Shikha shares her photo stories on her Instagram handle @shikhatripathi.travel