Magic in the Mountains: My 10-Day Kuari Pass Trek (Part 1)

Let’s just get the tough stuff out of the way: my ten-day Himalayan trek in Northern India was hard. While I didn’t get altitude sickness, I did suffer from blood blisters and sunstroke. And obviously, there was the whole not showering for 10 days thing and hiking EIGHT HOURS UPHILL under the blazing sun.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not that outdoorsy. My cardiovascular health leaves something to be desired and as a Michigander, I’m naturally averse to hills.

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So yeah. The trek was character-building. But it also got me in the shape of my life and was full of some of the most beautiful moments (and views) of my travels.

Plus, how often do you get to spend 10 technology-free days with good friends in the Himalayas?

And thankfully this was no bare-bones camping trip. This was glamping. We had two guides, a cook, five porters and a team of mules to carry our bags. Not only did we enjoy multi-course meals each night, the crew set up our tents before we got to the campsite.

We even had a TOILET TENT. Who knew those existed?

Also, because this was India, our ten-day trek cost us $440 each- an absolute steal.

I set off from Rishikesh with my three trekking buddies (McCall, Alice, an English girl from Yoga Teacher Training and Joe, McCall’s friend) to reach the starting point of the trek. Meaning we endured the dreaded Party All Night song for ten hours in a minibus on tiny mountain roads. Also, Alice puked about 10 minutes into the trip so not only did we have to listen to moronic Hindi music on repeat, the bus smelled strongly of vomit.

The first night, and I kid you not, we camped in a field of marijuana. And we took selfies with a few ornery water buffalo.

After our first night camping, the real work began: hiking. And despite a rigorous month of Yoga Teacher Training, hiking uphill made my heart beat faster than a chipmunk’s.

The highlight of the day? (Besides the rest stops?) Passing through a lovely little mountain village.

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The village was quaint in a ramshackle Himalayan way: awash in turquoise and blue and smelling of sun-warmed cilantro. As we passed the villagers said, “Namaste” and tipped their heads to bow.  The streets were strewn with red rose petals, and golden wheat and fields of potatoes grew outside the slate walls.

And being India, there were lots of cows.

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We stopped at a middle school for a lunch of yak-cheese sandwiches and hard-boiled eggs. The kids seemed excited to see foreigners, smiling and waving. They lined up in uniform to greet us, the girls with floppy white bows in their hair. I noticed their features were almost Nepalese and many of them had beautiful yellow-green eyes.

When we finally trudged into camp that afternoon the tents were already up, and water buffalos, donkeys and cows grazing.

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As I gazed out of the tent I had a “I’m-so-lucky-what-on-earth-did-I-do-in-a-past-life” kind of moment. It was surreal. I felt so much joy and gratitude to be in the mountains.

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Soon after we settled in dozens of kids approached, and we ended up spending the rest of the afternoon entertaining them. I felt like I was babysitting again as McCall, Alice and I played jacks with the girls, while Joe played cricket with the boys.

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At one point we sat in a circle with the kids and sang Sanskrit hymns. Oh yoga school, what have you done to me?

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At four we convened in the tent for a chai break. Over the course of the trek, I grew to love tea time, as we sipped our chai over cards, cookies and jokes. There’s no quality time quite like camping.

That night we fell asleep among craggy rocks and little white flowers, listening to the jingling of the cowbells and the snort of water buffalo.

Okay fine, that made sleeping in the tent sound way more idyllic than it actually was. More like I slept fitfully during a violent, tent-shaking rainstorm. Also, I decided that I hate sleeping bags as they make me feel like I’m going simultaneously sweat and freeze to death.

The second day of hiking was a bit less blissful, as blood blisters began forming on my feet. Also, McCall got severe food poisoning and we had to wait out a storm in a shepherd’s hut. A.k.a. we spent two hours wet, freezing and crouching in animal excrement.

But our campsite that night made up for any of the day’s woes. We slept in a fairy glen full of enormous white flowers and tiny streams. 

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(Confession- when I was drying my boots by the fire I partially melted off the back of them. I would.)

And if I didn’t think sleeping in a sleeping bag could get any worse, I was wrong. Because that night I tried sleeping naked as I heard it would help me stay warmer. Uh, no. During the night I periodically awoke shaking from cold and slick with sweat, my nose transformed into an actual icicle.

The third day was the hardest of the entire trek. Despite my SPF 50, I developed a high-altitude sunburn on my hairline and nose. During our eight-hour, mostly uphill hike, motivational mantras buzzed through my head, “Hike at your own pace”, “clear the chittah”, “stronger and stronger.” None of them worked very well.

And finally, out of desperation, I prayed to God to carry me the rest of the way because I was so blistered, sunburnt and exhausted I wasn’t sure if I would make it. I blame sunstroke.

Moments later three children spotted us, shouted for “candy” and followed us all the way up the mountain. As they got closer they started singing songs like “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”, which in their adorable accent sounded like “Tinkle Tinkle Little Staa”.

I joined them in song, racking my brain for childhood ditties like “Baa Baa Black Sheep” as well as the Gayatri mantra, Wakatrunda and Om Asato Ma Sadgamaya.

So what I’m trying to say here is that God sent three adorable Himalayan children to help me get up the mountain. Or something like that.

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As I crawled to camp, I knew I had just begun my Himalayan journey. But already I was proud of myself for pushing myself further than I ever thought I could go.

Read about part two of my Kuari Pass trek here.

Have you ever done a trek in a foreign country? What was your experience like?

Our trekking company, Red Chilli Adventure in no way paid or perked me for this mention. Overall we were blown away by Red Chilli’s food, service and professionalism- I couldn’t recommend them highly enough!

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About Ashley Fleckenstein

Ashley is a travel and lifestyle blogger who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Since college she has au paired in Paris, backpacked the world solo, and lived in Uganda. Her work has been featured by Buzzfeed, Forbes, TripAdvisor, and Glamour Magazine.

43 thoughts on “Magic in the Mountains: My 10-Day Kuari Pass Trek (Part 1)”

  1. What an utterly amazing experience. Tough as nails but one I’m sure you will carry with you for the rest of your life. Did you take anything preventative for altitude sickness or were you just that lucky going without :) ?

    Different continent, but when I was younger I worked at a Mexican orphanage for four months and its the photos and memories of the children that I still love the most 7 years later. Your photos of the kids are priceless.

    • Nope, just got lucky I guess! I’ve never suffered from altitude sickness though, not even when I was hiking at 16,000 feet in Ecuador. And wow, that experience must have been incredible. I love Mexico and am dying to explore it more in depth.

  2. I was so excited to read this as I’m working on my own post about trekking in Nepal at the moment! Well done for surviving the mountains, it sounds hard core. Your pictures are so beautiful though! And it’s all character building, right? :) (Also, if it makes you feel better I melted my hiking boots by the fire too. Fail.) Can’t wait for part 2! x

  3. What an experience!
    This trekking is deffo in our bucket list. Hope to do it in 2015.
    What about insects around there? My wife has serious problems with them…
    Appreciate if you could email me the contact of the trekking company :)
    Loved the pics!

  4. What an amazing journey and beautiful photos. This is something I definitely want to do sometime, need to get my fitness up considerably though!

  5. Beautiful, beautiful pictures. I guess you could say, you had a five start climbing experience with cooks and helpers. The price is great for the service. I was planning on doing the same just about now but chickened out. Well done. I would have been sick in day one. If I ever gain enough courage to do it I will remember to pack tons of candies for the kids.

  6. What a beautiful read, and congratulations on finishing what sounds like a gruelling but seriously rewarding trek! I’m looking forward to testing myself in the mountains next year (likely in Nepal) but I think I’ll need all the luck I can get!

    Thanks for sharing, looking forward to part 2! X

  7. Dear ashley,

    what comments can a person make to such trek, so full for so much, part of
    it so physical and exhausting, and part spiritual and rewarding.
    The kids are so enthusiastic, showing such joy, and the little villages
    have their own beauty. I know you must be very glad you made that journey
    and it will ever be part of your life and thoughts.

    Love,

    Gamma

  8. You are so badass! I would have died! I did one hike in Peru that was only 8 hours… from 8000ft to over 15,000ft and back down and I was seriously convinced I was not going to make it off the mountain. My boyfriend kept having to promise me the beautiful glacial lake we were hiking to was ‘just around this corner’ about 47 times. Thankfully I made it, but it was pretty miserable. I can’t imagine doing your trek!

  9. The trek sounds like it was brutal but it also sounds like it was worth all the pain you endured! Everything from the amazing campsites to the scenery to the adorable kids makes it seem like it was an amazing experience. And I can’t believe you were able to do it for only $44 a day. That’s surprisingly cheap!

    • It was really cheap for the incredible service and food we got! I know some travelers think it’s lame to go trekking with a trekking company but I wasn’t about to hike the Himalayas independently!

  10. Love the photos of you guys playing with the kids! You always crack me up with your quippy honesty. Hiking uphill is torturous and you are a superhero.

    • Oh my god it blows my mind that some people prefer uphill hiking to downhill. Yes, downhill hurts your knees but at least you don’t feel like you’re about to go into cardiac arrest. Priorities.

  11. Ashley. Your photos are freaking amazing.

    And I like to convince myself that I really like trekking/hiking. Then I go and want to die the entire time. But the views are worth it? Good on you for making it all 10 days, I was basically dead after 3 in Burma. Can’t wait to read about the rest :)

    • I feel like the actual trekking is the worst part of trekking, just like travel (airplanes, buses, etc.) is the worst part of travel. What’s incredible is the group camaraderie, being in nature and meeting village kids. Actual hiking kind of sucks half the time!

  12. Sounds like a cool experience. The more I travel the more I’ve actually learned to enjoy hiking and being outdoors. Beautiful pictures as well!

  13. So a cook, a team of mules, and a field of cannabis walk into a bar.
    They order a yak spritzer, as the bar is in the Himalayans…
    Hey this was a terrific blog and so interesting to see!
    I’ve trekked or traveled around a tiny bit and yet never there, and this was a treat!
    Keep on!
    Cheers! – Leah

  14. Hi Ashley – love to see an honest blog about trekking! I know the blisters well! My question is – how do you pack for this within a longer trip where trekking isn’t a part of the itinerary? For example, hiking shoes – what do you do with them?

    Also. You’ve really made me want to do this trek and I’m madly scanning the website looking for something I can do!

    • Good question, Sarah! So my friend brought a lot of my trekking stuff to India for me (I didn’t want to lug it around Europe for the six weeks before that) and then I sent all of it home with DHL in Delhi, which cost a fortune ($250). In retrospect I should’ve waited to send things home in Thailand, where it’s a fraction of the price. You live and learn though!

  15. I love a good trek in the Himalayas. And though they’re often hard, they definitely, like you say, build character. My favourite trails are in the high Himalayas, starting off at the beautiful town of Munsiyari and ending near the Tibet border. The more easy and short ones from McLeodganj are good for beginners and never disappoint.

  16. Hi Ashley,

    Great article, thanks for sharing your experience!

    The photos you took are stunning and I wonder what is the name of this Trek (if you recall it by any chance :-) ). We are planning a trek with some friends and and the one that you did look pretty great!

    Thanks for the tip and have great travels ahead,
    Brewen

  17. Riding on a bus filled with the remnants of your friend’s vomit while music you disliked played in the background does sound like a challenge. Deciding whether or not to share buffalo filled selfies with marijuana plants, possibly, in the background as well would have been a little less of a challenge, but still interesting if you’d followed through.

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