Heaven in Helambu

Posted on March 1, 2011


I’ve just returned from a glorious few days trail running in the Helambu region of Nepal. I now sit in the bar at the Summit Hotel, sipping a cheeky glass of red and reminiscing about the days gone by.

Last Friday morning, deprived of sleep yet bubbling with eager anticipation, I met with my fellow runners for the first time. In a dark Nepali tea-house on the edge of the Gokarna Forest we sat, sipping hot tea and chatting about the days ahead.

There were six of us in total, four guys, two gals; Peter, the incredibly kind-natured KTM-based NGO volunteer from Belgium, Rekha, a gorgeous young Dane and another NGO worker in KTM, John the effortlessly funny yet hugely well-read and well-informed Aussie, currently volunteering at the Sunrise Orphanage, Upendra, a lovely local guy, with a larger than life laugh, a contagious smile and an ability to bound up hills in his stride … and Roger … the truly lovely Roger of The Summit Hotel. We had been emailing previously but only when you meet him do you fall for the charms of his rogue smile and winning cynicism.

It’s been one of those trips when you want to remember so many details but you know fine well that once back in the throes of life much will be forgotten. Some things I know will remain however. These …

Binding bonds

Not for the first nor will it be the last time that I write about the bonds formed between runners. John and I talked about it today though and this adventure was another classic example of forming bonds with people I probably wouldn’t cross paths with normally. Different work, different lives, different countries but a shared love for running and the outdoors creates bonds that are hard to break.

Being gracious

With my current knee injury, despite the strapping and painkillers, I knew going downhill would be a problem. And so it was as on the final leg, I was unable to run. A good fast walk I could maintain but I still felt bad for the group. I have a tendency to be guilt-ridden if causing others to be put out. But when I said that I would need to slow down I saw nothing but gracious and compassionate team spirit. Peter and John immediately began scouting for walking sticks and sawing off the jagged edges, Rekha organised the loan of a phone. All offered to stay behind and keep me company. John and I ended up having a treasured couple of hours together, putting the world to rights and discussing love, life and much in between. When I expressed my feelings about holding him back he shrugged and said provided I’m always gracious if someone else was in the same situation, why shouldn’t others be towards me. Very true. I think we could probably all be reminded about the importance of being gracious at times.

Fuelled by Families

In these Nepalese villages, and indeed countless other countries, a key source of income is the remittance of monies from overseas; the husbands, sons and brothers who leave their families behind and work night and day to support those they love at home. In rural Nepal this is rife, especially in the Helambu region; the building of dirt roads has reduced the number of trekkers so what once may have been a thriving tea house now just has a small drip of custom. Without these remittances, the families are reduced to dribbling incomes from agriculture at best and at worst, sending the kids off to dirty Kathmandu to find their fortune although more often than not, this will result of a life in the slums. (Dubai has Nepalese workers aplenty … security guards, waiters, cleaners … remember this next time you chat with them and slip them a note. Little to us but life-changing to them)

Right time right place

After an early start on our last day, fuelled by hot milky tea and steaming porridge, we enjoyed a stunning trail run through the forests to Sermathang. We pondered whether to break there or to continue to the next village for our mid-morning hot tea and noodle soup combo. The former won. Minutes later, a local guy came and told us that a previous winner of the Everest marathon lives there and ran the community school. An hour or so later we had visited the loveliest of schools, toured the classrooms, explored the staff room, greeted the kids and learnt about the Danish funding that makes it all possible. We also learnt that Tashi Lama is in fact organising a marathon there in April. As soon as he mentioned this I knew I would be back for it. And so, I think, did all the others.


We ran through countless villages and viewed many more from afar. The region seems pretty affluent in Nepali terms, but relative to Western standards, it’s frightfully poor. Yet still … every home you enter, every tea-house you visit, every door you peer into, all are looked after with pride. You can have so little yet still your home is your castle and it’s where you call home. Beneath the vibrant blue roofs and fraying prayer flags are brushed fireplaces and orderly jars with rice and lentils bearing down on deep, dark shelves. And outside, terraces sit neatly on the hillside waiting to play their role. All look so neat and systematic … and they are. These communities have systems that work so you can’t help but wonder if our Western influences are always a real help, rather than a hindrance.

Train the terrain

I am fit – yes. I am strong on hills – yes. But this adventure certainly gave me a taste of what I’m letting myself in for with Racing the Planet Nepal in November. No amount of running on flat desert or around and about Dubai with my pack on can prepare you for the majestic mountains in all their glory, the snow-capped peaks and rugged trails, the thinning air and the chill of the night. To train for this, you need to train on this. So that I will do. I plan to return again in a month.

Unsung heroes

Roger is lovably cynical and sceptical … and he loves a rant. On day 1, I was at the tail end of one of these but I couldn’t help but nod in complete agreement with every word. We were discussing a particular American runner who has conjured up a remarkable yet pretty inaccurate world record in Nepal and in doing so been a crafty engineer of exceptional self-publicity. Such claims really boil down far more to the building of fat egos rather than true pioneering spirit. They are inaccurate at best and lies at worst. Besides, the true heroes up in these mountains are those who are most humble … who effortlessly bound up the hills yet don’t need to make a song and dance out of it. People like Upendra for example. And when it comes to climbing expeditions, there’s no doubt who the true heroes are; not the rich clients being suffocated by their fancy down gear whilst they cradle hot coffee in their top-of-the-range tents. It’s the Sherpas who go quietly about their job, risking life and limb to lay down the ropes and prepare the camps for days ahead.

Back to basics

Roger (& Rich who was out with a ligament problem but really made the weekend come to life in the first place) sit refreshingly in the less is more camp when it comes to kit and gear. Roger poo poos the triathletes and Ironmen of the world who get so caught up in their fancy bikes and million dollar trainers. He’d quite happily wear cheap Chinese trainers and think no more of it. In a similar vein, Richard advised me to roll up and down a Nalgene water bottle to stretch my ITB. The advice given in Dubai was to buy some big fancy noodle to do same … at the exorbitant price of AED 300+ (£50). Think I shall stick to the old Nalgenes that otherwise sit gathering dust awaiting eagerly for their next venture outdoors. Going back to basics and finding simple remedies are often hard to beat and there’s without doubt something very alluring about doing away with all the fancy gadgets and technical nonsense and just getting by with accessories to a minimum.

Cooked with love

Before packing into the jeep to return to the city, we sat in one last shop house to quieten our grumbling stomachs. Sitting on low-rise benches and the family bed, in this electricity-starved abode, we devoured pile-high portions of delicious chana and saag aloo washed down with hot tea, content and exhilarated. On this and every other visit in Nepal, the food I have eaten has been utterly delightful yet prepared and cooked in a manner beyond basic. How, I wonder, would these women react to seeing the kitchens we have in the West? The state of the art industrial kitchens armed with every conceivable cooking aid yet which so often produce food far inferior to what we experienced.

I shall sleep like a log tonight … warm and clean once more … and then awaken to a day of exploring and excitement in filthy Kathmandu. I love it though … the raw edges of this city remind me that there is real life beyond the gold-encrusted bright lights of Dubai. So although still here I look forward already to my return.

More then.

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