Bitten by the travel bug? Limited by health concerns? For many of us with special dietary needs, travelling can be an arduous experience. I’ve had two surgeries for Crohn’s disease so I understand the frustration involved in travelling. However, as one of my life long dreams has been to see Mt. Everest, I was absolutely determined not to let my disease control my life.
Now, if health and dietary issues weren’t scary enough, throw in the long air journey travel to Nepal – one of the poorest countries in the world – combined with trekking 134km over 15 days at high altitude, the introduction to the mysteries of a squat toilet, and you have the makings of an insane adventure at best, or, a frightful nightmare at worst!
My first attempt was the latter! When I boarded the flight to Hong Kong in October 2007, I was looking forward to a month of incredible experiences. Sure enough, Murphy’s Law prevailed as I became sick on the flight. Not just a little sick but so sick that I had to be hospitalized in Hong Kong before returning to Vancouver. I survived and was glad to be home, but the trip of a lifetime was cancelled and the disappointment monumental.
Now the question was, would I, and should I, try again?
After talking with family members and friends, I decided to try again in March 2008. I was excited again at the notion of going. However, in February 2008, my immune system let me down and I had an overnight stay in Burnaby General Hospital. I was a month away from going and now had to make a really serious decision. Was I physically capable of trekking in Nepal? I gave myself a deadline of one week before the trip. I made a promise to myself that if I could return to my regular exercise regime consisting of weight training, riding the bike three days a week and hiking intervals of two hours, two days a week, then I would go.
Successful, I arranged my trip through Trek Escapes travel adventure centre.
I boarded the flight from Vancouver to Singapore (a 19.5-hour journey) having pre-arranged with the airline to provide me with specific low fibre (fish and rice or potato) meals. The airline did not disappoint, consistently providing me with appropriate meals on all of my connecting flights.
The first step was two nights in Singapore, a beautiful country with friendly people and Western food everywhere. I was able to dine out on sushi and Western style meals, so things were starting out well.
Night Zoo, shopping districts, well-run transportation system; incredible cleanliness – the best in Asia.
Next stop Kathmandu, Nepal, where I knew things would be different. Upon arrival in Kathmandu I checked into my hotel. The initial shock at the city’s poverty and lack of hygiene was more than compensated for by Nepali friendliness. Outside my usual comfort zone, I became extra-vigilant in terms of my diet. Luckily, the hotel served western dishes so I was going to be fine. I walked to nearby Thamel to purchase some supplies, loading up on bottled water.
It is strongly advised not to drink local water; in fact, you can’t even risk brushing your teeth with it or having ice. I consistently purchased bottled water, always ensuring that the top was sealed. Whenever I ordered a drink, it was either a bottle of pop opened in front of me or unopened bottled water that I mixed with powdered Gatorade brought from home.
Bhaktapur city tour with its ama-zing architecture; Thamel shopping district where you can buy anything you need; Buddhist Stupa and Pashupatinath Hindu Temple tour – providing an insight to Nepal’s religions.
Six day Annapurna (54km)
After meeting eight other trekkers, flying to Pokhara and a 1.5-hour coach ride, I started my trek with an easy 2-hour walk to our first lodge. I immediately inquired about what type of bathroom facilities were available as I suspected that I would be visiting them a bit more often than others! For the duration of the Annapurna trek, I would be using squat toilets. Surprisingly, I adjusted making sure I always carried toilet paper! The accommodation was as expected, two bunks to a room; I was provided a sleeping bag and down jacket for warmth as only minimal electricity was available.
However, as we travelled to the more remote regions, my biggest concern was the food choices. I was extremely fortunate that the Peregrine trek leader was an ex-chef so he understood my concerns and made separate meals for me. Peregrine also only uses lodges where the owners/staff receive training in hygienic food preparation techniques. Based on this, I ate the following:
Breakfast: plain toast with jam or a yak cheese sandwich (mild taste). Lunch: yak cheese sandwiches and finger chips (the Nepali version of French fries) or canned tuna and plain white rice. Dinner: plain pasta (penne or spaghetti) and yak cheese. Dessert: hot chocolate. Mars bars and Pringles chips were available at an extra cost.
For other group members without special diets the trekking menu consisted of a varied selection of Western staples like breakfast porridge, pasta, fruits and vegetables, and local foods including Nepali bread, daal, curry sauces, and the ever popular yak cheese!
I have been following a low fibre diet for many years so having to eat the same food every day did not bother me! I felt safe with my daily menu. Now I only had to worry about the trekking itself! It was very difficult walking up stone staircase after stone staircase for hours on end to reach the lodge each night. In the end, it was worth it as the views were amazing but physically I had dropped about 7lbs to 135lbs and we hadn’t even reached the Everest side!
Fantastic sunrise views of Annapurna 2, 3, and 4 and Annapurna South from Deurali (elevation 3,100m); Pokhara, which is a nice lakeside city minus the hustle and bustle of Kathmandu. During springtime, the Rhododendron flowers are abundant throughout the journey.
Nine Day Everest (80km)
After a small break in Pokhara and Kathmandu, a relaxing massage and some fine dining, I was ready to embark on accomplishing my life-long dream of viewing Mount Everest up close!
I met a new group of trekkers and a new Peregrine leader who was briefed on my dietary requirements. Everything was in order. The lodges had sit down toilets for 8 of the 9 nights…things were definitely looking up! On my first day, I flew to Lukla and walked to Phakding (elevation 2,652m). Over the next week, we trekked higher and higher, our goal being the Thyangboche Monastery (elevation 3,875m), surrounded by numerous 8,000m peaks, including Mt. Everest. My dietary menu was similar to that on the Annapurna trek. I struggled at times with my weight dropping close to 130lbs but I was not going to give up. With the encouragement of the guides and other group members, I slowly made it to the Thyangboche Monastery.
The early morning rewarded me with an amazing sunrise view of Mt. Everest. At 8,848m (29,028′), Everest is the highest mountain on Earth and I was finally getting up close and personal! The air was thin, my legs were jelly, but I had accomplished my dream! It was worth every penny and worth every mouthful of plain tuna and rice! Although I still had to trek for three days to get back to Lukla I felt more energized and time flew by.
Seeing Mt. Everest up close at the Monastery; Namchee Bazaar and its friendly people; and the hair-raising flight into and from Lukla – I think it cured me of my slight fear of flying!
Upon return to my Kathmandu hotel, I was able to enjoy the breakfast, lunch, and dinner buffets and watch my weight slowly creep up! I then went to Singapore for two more nights before heading home. Overall, it was one of hardest but most fulfilling experiences of my life and if all goes well I will go back to Nepal. I hope my story inspires others with special dietary needs to live out their dreams. If I can do it, so can you!