An unexpected email, a sister's birthday and a spirit of adventure lead to the trip of a lifetime for Nikki Marshall.
'Look!" my sister says, pointing at the sky below us. "Look!" We're 3200 metres above sea level, standing in a field of wildflowers atop a Himalayan hill. Snow-capped peaks surround us, the sky is bright blue, and puffy clouds hover over distant villages in the valleys below. And we're looking down to watch a plane fly past.
We're not hardcore trekkers. I'm not even particularly fit. But in just three days of hiking, I've dragged myself higher than this aircraft's cruising altitude. It's a nice moment.
Our adventure started with a group discount email offer. The sort that clutters up inboxes all over the world. "Today's deal: catch glimpses of Everest as you explore Nepal on a 12-day tour with yoga, boat cruises, temple visits, trekking and so much more."
Michaela had always wanted to see the mountains. And I was casting around for her 40th birthday present. After a few hours of furious online research, we were booked on a Bohemian Tours trip to Nepal.
But I can't claim credit for all the good ideas. Sis suggested a stopover in Bangkok. We'll have earned some pampering, she said. How about the Mandarin Oriental? It's only meant to be one of the world's greatest hotels ...
As the months count down to our trip, we receive several emails from the tour operator. They all urge us to ensure we are fit for the challenge. We land in Kathmandu with no idea what sort of punishment awaits. Our excitement is only matched by our nerves.
We're delivered to a friendly hotel in Thamel, the tourist enclave bordering the old city. With moneybelts strapped under our armpits, we venture out. There are no pavements, so trucks, cars, motorcycles, bikes, livestock and pedestrians jostle for space.
It takes a while to get used to being brushed by passing scooters and pestered by hawkers (we wonder if whispered offers of "Tiger Balm" are code for something more illicit). But we soon find good coffee, delicious "mo-mo" dumplings, enticing gem and pashmina stores, and trekking shops crammed full of super-cheap "essentials".
Back at the hotel we meet the beaming boss of the local company partnering with Bohemian, Rajan Simkhada of Earthbound Expeditions, who outlines our six-day route along part of the Annapurna circuit. You'll be fine, he tells us. Just go slow and drink plenty of water.
The next day, after pre-dawn yoga on the roof, we stop at Swayambhunath, a stupa also known as Monkey Temple, on the way to the airport for the 25-minute hop to Pokhara, Nepal's second city. Our hotel here is new and a short stroll from Pokhara's glorious lake. There's a surprise when we draw back the curtains the next day: the rain clouds are gone and snow-covered peaks have been revealed.
We pile into a coach for the 45-minute drive to Nayapul, our starting point. There are 14 of us, including Aussies, Americans, an Italian and a Mauritian - all, it turns out, lured by that email offer. Our guide, Shree Adhikari, tells us to expect a mostly easy four-hour hike, and urges us to look out for one another. As we climb alongside a rapidly flowing river, it's clear that though our four porters find it an easy stage - they surge past us loaded with three packs apiece - many of us are struggling in the heat.
The scenery is spectacular. Waterfalls burst out of the forest canopy; rice-paddy-stepped villages can be glimpsed up steep slopes far above. After a lunch of surprisingly good vegie chow mein at a farmhouse and a final climb, we arrive at our first teahouse in Tikhedhunga village, just before the heavens open.
We queue for cold showers and settle into our rooms. They are bare and very basic, but clean. (This turns out to be true of all the teahouses we stay in along the route, though the rest have warmer water.)
We're up at six for day two, the toughest stage. In the next eight hours we're going to climb almost 1300 metres. And the first four hours, Shree stresses, will be straight up thousands of stone steps. Everyone goes at their own pace. I climb, stop, gasp, then push on. It is hot. It is arduous. It is immensely rewarding. Soon we're looking down on the villages that seemed so far up the day before.
Despite the gruelling climb, the trek is oddly comfortable. There are rest stops all along the path and water taps are everywhere (Michaela and I are using purification tablets). The scenery is growing evermore gob-smacking, but I'm falling in love with the Nepali people. Almost everyone we see greets us with a smile and "namaste".
At the top of the steps we stop for lunch: platters of fried rice, dumplings and noodles. Three sorts of fried carbs! Delicious.
Next we enter a cloud forest, a magical place of mossy trees and running brooks. It's a relief to be out of the sun, but the climb is still demanding.
Exactly eight hours after we set off we're trudging up the final steps to Ghorepani village. Our hotel overlooks the school sports yard and, as the afternoon rain clouds roll in, we sit to watch a volleyball game on the roof of the world.
As we gather for dinner I'm feeling on top of the world, too. Endorphins unleashed by all that exertion are coursing through me. But we're exhausted; 7pm feels like midnight and it's time to crash.
We're up before dawn for a 45-minute climb to catch the sunrise on the highest point of our trek: Poon Hill. At this altitude I feel slightly breathless just lying in bed, so every couple of steps I have to stop and pant.
It takes me 90 minutes to reach the summit. Caressed by the first fingers of light, the mighty peaks of Dhaulagiri, Annapurna South (Dakshin) and Machhapuchhre - aka Fishtail - are rising in all their snowy majesty from cloud-carpeted valleys below us. Finally, I understand all the fuss about mountains.
Back down the hill for breakfast, we discover the delights of deep-fried Tibetan bread and sweet marsala tea. This will be a day of rest, to give us time to acclimatise. We pass it exploring Ghorepani, buying trinkets from Tibetan refugees, watching mule trains pass through, and playing pick-up sticks beside the wood stove.
The next morning we set off up a "piece of cake", as Shree terms it - a climb almost as high as Poon Hill. I surprise myself by going hard. The acclimatisation day has worked wonders.
As the trek goes on we learn another important term: "Nepali flat" - as Shree describes it, "little bit up, little bit down". Or, to translate further, steep ascents matched by equally steep descents. Turns out there's not much level ground in the Himalayas ...
Our days settle into a happy rhythm. Up early, walk hard, eat well (despite the carb-tastic meals, we're all shedding kilos), then sleep the sleep of the utterly knackered. We're in the moment. Every night before bed, my sister and I tell each other this is the greatest trip of our lives.
So we return to civilisation a slightly sad and subdued party. We have a day in Pokhara, boating on the lake, then a final day in Kathmandu seeing the capital's great sights: Durbar Square in the heart of the old town, the Hindu temple of Pashupatinath where we see bodies burning by the river, and Boudhanath, a mighty Buddhist stupa. It turns out the Everest glimpses promised in the email are only available from a plane ... and at an extra cost. Despite this quibble, we feel wonderfully well looked after. The city is dirty, crowded and crazy, but we've relaxed into it. Mostly we're knocked out by how trustworthy people are. Grim poverty is evident, but Nepalis leave bikes unchained and keys in their cars. Shopkeepers urge us to take their wares and worry about money later. It seems everyone we meet sees it as their duty and privilege to look after us.
We were expecting to be longing for luxury in Thailand. The Mandarin Oriental has a lot to live up to.
Bangkok doesn't begin well. We get embarrassingly lost on the way to the hotel, so it's two grumpy and grubby travellers who are handed into the care of a butler in an elegant, teak-furnished room with views up and down the River of Kings.
We cheer up quick-smart. The sumptuous surroundings would dazzle anyone who hasn't seen a flushing toilet for two weeks, but it's the service that sets this place apart. Staff greet us warmly by name; lift attendants know our floor. Above all, we admire the Oriental's all-pervading sense of calm, as if everything is unfolding exactly as it is meant to.
We surrender to it and for the next three days stay put. Spread across both sides of the river, this is more like an island resort than a city hotel. We have silk robes to swan about in, a glam pool to sip cocktails beside, the health club and spa a brief boat ride away, and dining options galore.
But it isn't until after our final dinner here that we meet the Oriental's most pampered guest. We're waiting for a boat across the river when two staff members beckon us into a garden.
Clad in immaculate uniforms, they're crouching near a pond. We have to bend to see what they're up to - feeding fine slices of watermelon to an imperious tortoise.
We join in what is clearly a nightly ritual. And in that garden, in the moonlight, everything is exactly as it should be.
Getting there Thai Airways has a fare to Kathmandu from Sydney and Melbourne for about $1380 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Bangkok (about 9hr), then Kathmandu (3hr 30min). See www.thaiairways.com. Get a window seat on the right going to Kathmandu for a possible glimpse of Mount Everest.
Trekking there Earthbound Expeditions offers tailor-made cultural and trekking tours for small groups. Expect to pay $75-$100 a day, which includes accommodation, transport and most meals. See enepaltrekking.com.
Staying there Bangkok's Mandarin Oriental has rooms from about $360 a night, twin share. See mandarinoriental.com/bangkok.