First published in ‘The Green Parent’, Feb/March 2016, Issue 69
My family and I stand entranced on the roof of the world, pausing for breath as we gaze at the awe-inspiring view of the Langtang Himal before us. We are on the summit of Kyangjin Ri, thousands of prayer flags fluttering in the wind, awesome snow-capped mountains rising majestically in every direction around us. The silence and almost unearthly stillness of 4,779 metres is suddenly broken by the soft chuckles of my twenty-month-old daughter Tessa, as I pull her round out of the sling to join us for a proud family photo. We stand relieved, exhausted, amazed, as our trekking guide freezes this moment in time. I hold Tessa tightly in my arms as our four-and-a-half year old son, Ewan, stands safely between me and his Daddy. As we continue our fifteen-day trek, I muse on what has brought us to this moment; four faces smiling into a camera, snow mountains projected sharply behind us, dazzling azure sky above, like a family airbrushed into a photo-shoot, yet this is real. So, what led us to embark on the adventure of a lifetime, six weeks in Nepal with two young children?
Seeds of an idea
At eighteen years old I took a gap year, spending part of it living and teaching on a Tibetan Refugee Camp in Nepal. This formative year infused in me a wanderlust, a deep love of Nepal and a yearning to be in the mountains whenever possible. Nepal became my second home, a place of dreams lived and deep friendships forged. In 2007 I returned with my partner and vowed if we ever had children, I would bring them here.
Travel as a family
We married two years later; our son was born in 2010 and our daughter in 2013. Having children did not stop us from pursuing our hobbies or curb our love of travel; instead we adapted to life with a young family by incorporating their needs into our many interests and lifestyle choices.
By Ewan’s second birthday we had stayed in camping bods (historically fisherman’s houses) on the remote Shetland islands of Fetlar and Yell, gone on a road trip along the St. Lawrence River in Quebec, Canada and travelled in Bali, where we spent time in an Ashram, trekked in the jungle and climbed Bali’s highest mountain. We had also wild camped and stayed in bothies (basic shelters in the mountains) in the Lake District and Scotland a number of times. Ewan’s home was his parents wherever we were,as long as we had the sling and I was able to nurse him. We continued to travel after Tessa was born, accommodating another child into the family and adapting our trips accordingly. My long-held dream of returning to Nepal started to germinate once I realised travelling with two young children was both possible and fun.
A year of preparation
2014 was dominated by planning for our upcoming trip, booked for the autumn. We needed to be physically and mentally prepared for travel and have the right equipment to embark on this trip. We were already an active family. We increased the frequency of our physical activities outdoors to help prepare us for the rigours of trekking in the Himalayas. We undertook a micro-adventure in the summer, walking for six hours to a youth hostel carrying everything we needed on our backs. We stayed one night in the hostel before walking back to our car in a loop. This successful trip reminded us that travel is more about the journey, not the destination.
I was also involved in fund-raising for the Tibetan Refugee Camp I had once lived on, with help from the yoga school I attend. As the trip drew nearer I felt very excited as well as a little apprehensive about what the reality of trekking as a family in remote areas in one of the poorest countries on Earth would actually entail. However, we felt mentally and physically as ready as we could ever be for this trip, so we went for it!
Even after sixteen years of development, which has altered Nepal in fundamental ways, arriving in Nepal still felt like a homecoming. However, I was also conscious of the differences this time. We had two small children to care for and gently introduce to another country. To ease them in, we carried them a lot in slings, helping them feel at ease and safe in a very different world. After settling in, we met my Tibetan friend Sonam, who instantly made us feel at home. After teaching Sonam English as a child in 1998 on the Tibetan Camp, my family and I sponsored her through high-school and university. Sonam was now in her twenties trying to forge a life for herself in difficult circumstances. She was so pleased to see me again and to meet my family at last.
Our first trek
We embarked on a five day trek in the Annapurna Foothills with Sonam, trekking up to Poon Hill at 3,210 metres. This trek was a reconnoitre for the longer trek to come, with Sonam acting as our de-facto guide as well as friend. We thoroughly enjoyed trekking in this popular region, although we were keen to walk more off the beaten track in a less touristy region of Nepal. After the trek, we returned to the Tibetan Camp, where we met Sonam’s family and distributed the funds I had raised through the yoga school to those most in need.
Trekking in the Langtang region
I shall treasure the time we spent trekking in the Langtang, Gosainkunda and Helambu region of Nepal until the day I die. We walked for fifteen days straight, on average six hours a day, for almost one hundred miles, on very undulating terrain, peaking at an altitude of almost five thousand metres. I am grateful to the trekking company, Pure Adventure Nepal, who agreed to our unusual demands of trekking with two young children and supported us literally every step of the way. Most companies turned us away, concerned the risks with children under five were too high. Our guide and porter were wonderful; they treated Ewan and Tessa as if they were their own, carrying them when tired, offering them space by the warm fire in tea-houses and giving them sticks to play with, spending countless hours playing and laughing with them.
Time as a family
My family and I spent twenty-four hours of each day together, trekking, eating and sleeping side-by-side without many of the usual distractions of modern life. Having time to ‘just be’ together was precious,bringing us closer together as a family. I felt more connected to my children than in everyday life and more content and at peace in myself.
As we trekked I carried Tessa in a sling on my back or suckling on my front. Breastfeeding helped Tessa to stay healthy, nourished and secure in any situation. Having her so physically close to my heart was a beautiful and very memorable experience. My husband carried Ewan in a pre-school sling for long periods of each day too, especially on steeper sections of the route. Both children also became confident little trekkers when walking on easier ground.
We had to be very selective about what we took with us on the trek, mindful of our porters load and our own. Our limited range of lightweight toys were soon replaced by more appealing natural objects. For example, sticks became every conceivable toy and also served as handy walking sticks, supporting little legs on huge mountains. The sticks served as a reminder that we can survive with far less stuff; we are in fact more creative and resourceful if we do so.
Trekking with two young children literally opened doors for us, as local people showed such warmth and generosity of spirit towards us all. We were frequently met with total astonishment that we were trekking with two young Western children, as it is simply something that doesn’t happen. The smiles, arms and tones of the Nepalese hill people expressed their joy and love for our children more than a thousand words ever could. People repeatedly scooped up Tessa, tenderly carrying her around as if she were their own. Their kindness knew no bounds; our children were offered the first place at the fire on cold days in the mountains, as well as countless sweets and treats. They became mini-celebrities, photographed hundred of times by locals and trekkers alike!
It is therefore with great sadness that I write that so many of the people in the Langtang region were killed in massive landslides caused by the Gorkha Earthquake of April 25th 2015. This natural disaster reminds me of the fragility of life and how we should make the most of every day we are blessed with.
Our last week in Nepal
After the trek we explored some of the holy and historical sites in the Kathmandu Valley with Sonam. This cumulated in four days spent in Namo Buddha, a Tibetan monastery forty kilometres South East of Kathmandu. Here we were afforded a glimpse of the life of the monastery by living in the guest quarters and eating with the monks. On returning to the frenetic streets of Kathmandu, we bid Sonam a fond, tearful goodbye, wondering if we would ever see her again.
As the aeroplane took off I peered out of the window at the lines of glittering lights far below, the endless stream of motorbikes, cars and trucks snaking their way through the ever growing streets of the capital. The snow mountains rose majestically above the valley, ever-present, the real heart of Nepal. I felt the presence of the mountains we had been so fortunate to have moved in only days before. I whispered a prayer of thanks that this trip had been possible, as my daughter suckled to sleep and my son, wide-eyed with wonder at the view, took it all in.
The culture shock hit us on our return to the UK. The season had changed, the cold and dark took us by surprise and the Festive season was in full swing. Its abundance shook me, was it all necessary? I hardly had time to pause, let alone digest our trip, until the new year. Sorting through the photos brought home to me what a massive trip it had been, how only six weeks had felt like a lifetime. I presented slide-shows to the yoga school and to friends and family, which were met with enthusiasm and genuine interest. I wrote about our trip and felt its influence in my everyday life.
There are aspects of the trip I really miss; one of them is the very close physical connection I had with Tessa, which I have found hard to replicate here due to the more fractured nature of our lives. However, Nepal has taught me to strive for more connection and time with my children, which can only be a good thing.
It is our hope to embark on a similar trip in 2016. We also have exciting plans for shorter adventures in the coming months and years on the Continent, in Scotland and closer to home, in our local woods and hills.
Go for it!
If you have a trip in mind and you’re unsure if it’s possible with children, my advice would be to go for it! With the right mindset and preparations, it is possible. My two travel essentials with children are a sling or two and ounces of patience! Travelling with children forces you to move at a slower pace and to take more in. Children don’t break an adventure or stop if from happening, they truly make it. Tessa and Ewan certainly made ours.