We began our trek in a small town, Birethani. Our guide, whose name I had forgotten, told me the name of the town as we started walking. I promptly forgot it.
We waved goodbye to our taxi driver, and started walking downhill from the road, into the valley. A small town sat nestled next to a good-sized river—carrying snowmelt from the high mountains, no doubt. The town was bustling with activity. Trekkers were common, both coming and going, but they weren’t the only people around. Big mining trucks filled with rocks rumbled down roads, and shops and vendors bustled with activity. For a serene mountain trek, there sure seemed to be a lot of people and cars.
After about ten minutes walking, we found ourselves at the TIMS checkpoint, where our papers and registration were checked.
Although when we think of trekking in the west, we might default to the romantic image of a lone traveler wandering into the mountains in search of enlightenment, that’s not quite how it works out in practice. Nepal’s tourism industry is huge, and trekking comprises the majority of it. In order to manage the huge number of trekkers, the government requires everyone to register their itineraries and pay a small fee for the TIMS permit. Even here, atop the world, government bureaucracy is unavoidable and omnipresent.
While our guide dealt with the paperwork at the checkpoint, the Malaysian and I loitered outside. We watched the street: trekkers coming and going, buying last-minute supplies at any of the number of trading posts that lined the streets. Some, done with their treks, were trying to sell their packs or trekking poles. Others sat around, greasy-faced and covered with grime—pilgrims nearly at the end of a long, long walk.
Nervous, fresh-faced hikers, struggling under the weight of their huge packs, asked the veterans if it was worth it. “Oh, absolutely,” everyone answered. “It’s gonna change your life.”
The Malaysian and I eyed each other, warily.
But we had nothing to worry about.
They were right.