It was only a week before our journey to Lawudo, when my sister called me from England and mentioned how much she admired what I was undertaking — leading a group of 23 people up to a remote retreat center in the Solu Khumbu (Mt. Everest region) of Nepal. When I hung the phone, I realized how in denial I had been about what we were all planning to do. Of course, it was all well planned, thought out and supported, but when traveling to a high elevation, in a remote area with incredibly challenging terrain, dire things can happen. I swallowed my trepidation and forged ahead landing in Nepal on September 28. I wanted to be rested and bright-eyed for the groups’ arrival on October 5.
We converged at Khachoe Ghakyil Ling Nunnery (Kopan Ani Gompa) for dinner. Our group came from Australia and Wales, from points all over the United States, from North and South America, and Europe and they penetrated deep into my heart. Within a week, we were family, helping each other in a variety of ways: listening to each other’s coughs, passing around diarrhea remedies, tissues, and advice about the toilets. We shared laughs and compared our lifestyles that were incredibly varied. We were nurses and teachers, paramedics, mental health workers, and yoga instructors, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers and grandparents, nuns and aspiring yogis and yoginis, massage therapists, healers, and retired civil rights workers, administrators and cleaners, and human beings all who had an urge to explore, to test the outer edges of the envelope, to reach this place called Lawudo.
After an introductory day walking the dusty lanes of old Thamel in Kathmandu, visiting the holy Chenresig and Tara Temples near Asantole, and the magical Prajnaparamita Temple, the magnificent Boudhanath Stupa, and Kopan Monastery (where we enjoyed a lovely visited with Ven. Tenzin Rigsel Rinpoche, the reincarnation of Khensur Rinpoche Geshe Lama Lhundrup), we prepared to fly up to Lukla the next morning.
It was a challenging time at the domestic airport, especially getting a group of 25 up in two planes.
Somehow, the red sea parted after one group had to wait 8 hours, but at 2:00pm on October 7, with the clouds in Luka still sitting high, they landed on the mini landing strip and we were all ready for our walk.
Getting a late start, we offered tea lights and incense at the famous naga tree just outside of Lukla to aid our journey. We then crawled through some slippery rain and eventually the dark to arrive in Phakding for our first night’s stay in the mountains. All was well.
The next day was our most rigorous with the Namché Hill enroute and most of us struggled our way to the top. We were beat and experiencing the altitude, but had 3 nights here and a hot shower (!) so there was time to reenergize.
Our lodge owners were lovely – Dawa at Himalaya Lodge in Lukla, Namaste Lodge in Phakding (old friends of mine) and Nuru and Nawang at Holiday Lodge in Namché, but the most phenomenal support came from Amber Tamang, our ground operator, and his amazing staff (Mingmar, Gausman, Pemba, and Sangay, along with a team of 8 wonderful porters). We could not have done this without any of them.
We explored the rich trekking town of Namché, taking in views of Mt. Everest in the morning, hiking to the Everest View Hotel for lunch, visiting the gompa (the Buddhist temple above the town), seeing museums, shopping for last minute items, acclimatizing, while becoming more and more bonded to each other. The anticipation of Lawudo dangled and finally on October 11, we were off ambling through the easiest part of the walk before the next big hill. We stopped for noodles in Teschio, at the bottom of the hill and then the final climb began. A turn in the pine forest opened up a view and I gestured toward the massive expanse of mountain, up, “Lawudo.”
We arrived to Lawudo in the afternoon of October 11 to a wonderful greeting of Anila Nawang Samden and Sangay Sherpa (Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s sister and brother) coming across the yard. The support they gave us, the spoiling, the amazing team they hired, the delicious food – it was all quite stunning as it is such a hard place to live and work.
We settled in and I was able to sit with everyone in the cave that afternoon. Our 3-day silent retreat began the next evening and our group all joined whether Buddhist ornot. It was heart-warming to feel the interest of everyone, how hard they worked at their meditation, and how the Lawudo Family was joyous to support us.
At the end, much to my total surprise, Anila and Sangay offered a mandala to me (as if I was some holy being!), but I was able to convince Anila to move the mandala to Rinpoche’s throne as it was all a bit much for me. So kind!
The holy blessings of the Guru, the concentration of the retreat in such a holy place, the tremendous effort made by the participants who were suffering from various colds and ailments, and the fantastic seamless support we received made it one of the richest experiences of my life. It felt like we were held in a sacred net of love…
The retreat finished the morning of October 16 and we went on some outings toCherok (20 minutes walk behind Lawudo) to visit Pema Choden, a holy nun who lives in a cave, and Thamo (about a half hour down the hill from Lawudo) to visit the grand nunnery there and see some old friends. On the way to Cherok, we had the great fortune to pass and briefly talk with Tenzin Trinlay, the Cherok Lama, whom I have known since he was a child. However,
Anila Pema Choden is not one to open her home to 20-some westerners. I was just hoping to borrow the keys to Merry and Harry’s caves and show the group. She had other ideas and ushered every last one of us inside for hot tang. Truly amazing! We then hiked off to find the caves and then slowly headed back to Lawudo for lunch before heading down the hill to Thamo.
The gompa is over-the-top in beauty and it’s wonderful that the nuns finally have an adequate place to live and practice. We were warmed up with tea while some of us sat in one of the nuns rooms and the rest sat in the gompa during a puja (ritual). All were welcome, but clearly, as one pilgrim mentioned, it was a place of powerful women. No doubt!
The next day was a major trek to Thamé where we enjoyed lunch at Thamé View Lodge (now run by the brother of dear friends in Queens, New York who are Rinpoche’s cousins), were moved by the humble poor origins of Rinpoche’s birthplace, visited Thamé Gompa, and the new Stupa modeled after the Boudha Stupa. We were fortunate to see wild mountain goats and returned to Lawudo for our last night.
After one week, we said our farewells to Lawudo, to the amazing team, to Anila and Sangay, the holy cave, to a few pilgrims who were either staying at Lawudo for retreat or heading off to other treks, and we beat it back down the hill for lunch in Namché. It felt a lot easier descending and spent the night at Monju Guest House before heading back to Lukla the next morning. It was lovely to reconnect with two pilgrims who stayed in Namché, and other than our 3 guys who split off, we were all together again.
And then there was our fly down day from Lukla. And it didn’t go very well. So we waited and Amber called everyone he knew to try to get us down off the mountain and we were divided up to take helicopters. Some left, some didn’t. Some people we thought
had gotten down, were still standing around hours later. Some got down and waited on the tarmac in Kathmandu for luggage that hadn’t arrived. Twelve of us got stuck in Lukla overnight and after much eager anticipation that morning of being at the luxurious Hyatt Hotel that evening, by 6pm, we were back at Himalaya Lodge, dazed and confused, meekly ordering yet another veg fried rice.
Yet the resiliency of the group prevailed and for the most part, everyone just dealt with what was without complaints or negativity. Our group energy, the family feeling, was a true boon for keeping our spirits high and our sense of humor in tact. After all, Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s interest is often in how disciples bear hardship. Not that the participants were all disciples, but I think we were doing our best with this. Amber’s efforts along with lodge owner, Dawa, were fully admirable and we would not have made it down so early the next morning had it not been for their efforts.
And it seemed once down at the Hyatt and ensconced in their overwhelming breakfast buffet, most of the airport fiasco went away. Many commented how the experience really makes us appreciate the ease of our lives in the west.
So now most everyone has moved on to return home or to other journeys. I have never felt such gratitude for being held by all the powers that be so we could make this trip and be safe and relatively healthy.
There is much to digest that I hope to do back on the mountain. I am hoping to fly back up tomorrow morning, trying to make it to Thamo Nunnery for two nyung nés and then back up to Lawudo for 6 weeks retreat. I will no longer have to count if everyone is with us, making sure the spirits of those slower on the trail are still upbeat, that everyone has food and is warm enough. It will be a party of one, but I will miss them all and have decided it’s best that I carry them all in my heart. And during my retreat, if they need extra support, I will make sure Anila keeps them safe and warm in the folds of her robes.