Why it’s good to get dirty and cold sometimes 

By Jane Marshall 

Our ascent today will be over 1,000 vertical meters. Rain pours down and our boots squish deep into the muddy nomad path. I’m in the Nepal Himalayas and I’m about to do my favourite thing. Wilderness camp.

Many of Nepal’s treks are termed ‘teahouse treks,’ meaning that you get to hike all day, then tuck into simple accommodation where someone brings you food and tea. Nepal is famous for its trekking hospitality, and it’s something I, too, love about the country.

But this trip is different. I am here for material for my next book project, called Searching for Happy Valley. It is my third time to Tsum, Nepal, yet this time I’m leaving the main trekking trail to go where few foreigners have gone before. 

I’m in a team of five — myself, my guide Tanzin, friend Ani Pema (a Buddhist nun), and two porters named Tenzin and Rinzin. All my companions are Indigenous Tsumpas (meaning people from Tsum). Together, we are exploring a place their culture holds as extremely sacred. 

Ani Pema, Tibetan Buddhist NunAni Pema, Tibetan Buddhist nun

Getting our Hands Dirty

This trip will not be easy. It has involved years of planning and research, and we must carry stoves, fuel, food, tents, and all associated gear. We are leaving behind creature comforts in the spirit of adventure. 

After a long climb, we make camp beneath an overhanging cliff and spend hours hunched together around a campfire, holding various pieces of clothing to dry over the smoke. 

This is not comfortable — and yet we laugh even as we shiver. 

Slowly, slowly, our little group gels. We begin to hold hands when crossing turbid streams, and spot each other when using bouldering moves across chutes.

Camp 2, Sarphu, Nepal (Ganesh Himal range visible down-valley)
Camp 2, Sarphu, Nepal (Ganesh Himal range visible down-valley)

By day two we reach snow line, then set up Camp 2 at an elevation of 4,272m (according to my Garmin InReach satellite point). My legs are tired, the muscles worked. 

We spend seven days in the sacred valley and find an abandoned monastery and holy caves. We’re like children as we explore the land. Soon, I have not one pair of clean underwear or dry socks. Wood smoke permanently scents my hair. My once-shiny pot is now black with soot from cooking over many fires. 

But none of this is a problem. In fact, it enriches everything. Getting dirty allows me to relax.

So often we spend great amounts of time on appearance and hygiene. We prize new gear, and feel it will always look pristine. There’s perhaps an unspoken pressure around all this ‘perfection.’ In the wilderness, one can let all that go.

Learning from Indigenous Culture

Being the only foreigner (‘inji’ in Tibetan language), I get full immersion into a way of life deeply connected to nature. Ani Pema is a nun who lives in a remote hermitage. Wakling together, she observes the flora, often picking leaves, squishing them between her finger and thumb, then getting me to smell. Many are used as incense in religious ceremonies. 

The Tsumpas know the local fruits we see in the mountainside, such as wild rhubarb and bright little blueberries. 

And I have never seen such fire skills. They know what types of wood to select, how to light them quickly, and how to purse their lips together to blow the flames. (When I try, the fire almost goes out and they offer to do it instead.) 

We meet a nomad at the valley’s uppermost reaches named Tsewang Norbu. He lives alone for four months in summer, grazing his cattle. I am feeling nervous about writing about such a pristine valley, fearing that too many trekkers might come and disturb it. So I ask Tsewang for his opinion, and perhaps his permission, too.

I await his answer as we sit in a yak house.

“This valley is holy,” he replies. “Anyone who wants to come here, they are welcome.” I’m touched by his generosity. At the same time, I hope to myself that all who do come to this happy valley will respect it and leave absolutely no trace. 

Though the route is difficult and the living hard, we find there are few places as happy as this. And that comfort, well, it isn’t everything. 


Want to trek with Tanzin? Having a local guide is critical. You can check out his website here: http://www.tsumvalleytreks.com