There’s a Caviar House at Heathrow Terminal 4, where you can sup fizz and fish eggs before you board. We looked at its menu, then at each other – then went and had burgers in the Wetherspoon instead. Tone set.
My husband and I aren’t really champagne people. Which may help explain why we were at the airport, bound for Nepal – far from the nearest overwater villa – for a somewhat unconventional honeymoon, schlepping considerable distances up big mountains with 10 complete strangers.
We were married the previous year, but our first attempt at a honeymoon, in France, was cut short by family bereavement. This drew things into sharp focus: don’t put off a bucket-list trip a minute longer than necessary. We’d long dreamt of a serious trek in Nepal and the Manaslu Circuit, a loop around the world’s eighth-highest peak, near the Tibetan border, was – we’d been told – one of the greatest treks you’ve probably never heard of.
So, we wondered, why not make it our official honeymoon? Might this be the best way to cement a relationship? If we could survive two challenging, luxe-free weeks with strangers, surely we could survive anything? Previous hikers who’d travelled with Mountain Kingdoms had called this trek “life-changing”, which sounded more newly-wed-appropriate than a week in the Maldives.
And the Maldives this wasn’t. Our first foray from the sheltered haven of the Kathmandu Guest House was into brilliant chaos. Scooters whizzed every which way, narrowly missing dogs, shrines and jet-lagged tourists; electric cables hung like some evil Spider-Man’s dark webs. We’d ventured out to buy gifts: I bought the husband some metronidazole (23p a pack!), in case he got giardia up a mountain. Very romantic.
That evening, we met our group – aged mid-30s to 72, three solo women, three solo men, two friends, one other couple. I think they thought us mad: why honeymoon like this? We also had our first briefing, which ranged from overview to intimacy. “Pee-pee should be clear,” Santosh, our tour leader, declared romantically. Over the coming two weeks, we’d stay at simple teahouses. Heating, reliable power and potable water were off the agenda. Hot showers, if available at all, would cost extra. Likewise Wi-Fi – though that I welcomed. The husband huffs if I tell him to put down his phone. Here, I wouldn’t be the nag. And no one should be doom-scrolling when the Himalayas soar outside.
Morning arrived with its unfamiliar magnificence, and we were off, piling into a “Super Deluxe” bus that claimed: “Smart TV, Air Cooler, Wi-Fi Zone!” None was true. Or important, as we departed Kathmandu for a rich taste of Nepalese roadside life: precipitous valleys, milky rivers, marigolds, monkeys, banana stalls. At our lunch stop we sat with Kate and Tim, the other couple, who told us about their honeymoon. After a resort week in Bali, they climbed a volcano and ended up sharing not only their tent but their sleeping bag with a woman who’d forgotten hers. Perhaps our choice wasn’t so unusual?
It was already dark when we arrived at our teahouse in Machha Khola. Man, our sirdar, pulled aside the husband and me: don’t tell, but we’ve got you a top-floor double! Our tiny “honeymoon room” was sickly pink but had an en suite and windows overlooking the valley beyond. Luxury? Maybe not. But the service from Man and all our crew was never anything less than five-star.
When morning dawned, bright and blue, so did the realisation that this trip was going to be astonishing. I’d thought we’d be some days in before encountering the high drama of the Himalayas. Technically, that was true – but Nepal isn’t like other countries. Its pre-hills sport the sort of giant gorges and waterfalls that would be the headline attraction elsewhere, but don’t even have names here. And everywhere you looked there were prayer flags, endlessly flapping blessings into the universe. What better world for newly-weds to walk into than one infused with compassion and goodwill?
When no one was looking, I gave the husband’s hand a squeeze.
On the first of 11 days’ trekking, we soon fell into a rhythm: wake up, squat loo, breakfast, off we go; tea break, cooked lunch, dal bhat dinner – always with the group, no romantic meals for two. Luckily, our trek-mates were all interesting, positive people. The husband and I often spent much of each day chatting with others, not with each other. We’ve been together 20 years; it was good to know we can still exist as individuals, not just as a couple.
The rhythm became familiar but no two days were the same. We advanced over suspension bridges and along the banks of the Buri Gandaki river, its personality changing from wide and laid-back to tight, white and raging. Lush forest gave way to pink-blossomed buckwheat, glowing autumnal larch and crimson berberis. The higher we hiked, the taller the mountains towered, so heaven-scraping as to seem impossible. Manaslu itself loomed largest, its mighty peak always first to catch the dawn.
And there were always villages. This isn’t unpeopled wilderness but a landscape lived in for centuries. As we hiked, Santosh – a fascinating font of all knowledge – translated the mani walls, recited mantras and led us around monasteries, offering a window into Tibetan culture so crammed with meaning and divinities.
One night, he lent me a book, Tibetan Diary: From Birth to Death and Beyond in the Shadow of Manaslu. Chapter 6, “The Merits of Matrimony”, caught my eye. Buddhist clergy consider marriage an obstacle to enlightenment, it said (oops, I thought). Yet for most “humble householders” it’s key to social validation. Hence the Nubri proverb: “A singe wild ass doesn’t get water, a single man doesn’t live life fully.” I told my husband he should be grateful not to be a single ass.
Though did he still want me? I wasn’t at my most alluring: nose bunged, nostrils red-raw, hair limp, armpits questionable. We did “share a shower”, if you count wet-wiping ourselves in the same room at the same time.
All this effort was building to one thing: the day when we would wake at 3am to hike over the Larkya La (16,752ft), the route’s most oxygen-sucking pass, then down, down, down the other side. Snow fell the previous evening as we huddled at Dharamshala, our most basic stop. There weren’t even bedrooms, just makeshift mini-dorms; on that night of my honeymoon, I didn’t even share a room with my husband.
But what a night: bitter cold, sky star-spangled. As we set out to climb, massive mountains started to appear, first as gargantuan apparitions in the moonlight, then in increasing detail with the waxing dawn. Incomprehensible behemoths, they seemed to make silent mockery of our little lives and worries. Existential claptrap? This place had that kind of effect.
It had other effects, too. The lack of oxygen strained our lungs, making each step feel semi-heroic (though the crew were always there to help). Together the husband and I got there, slogging up the final slope to the field of prayer flags marking the pass. Did we hug and kiss? Not really. We were too sumo-ed in layers, gasping for breath.
The romance came later. We spent all day descending to Bimthang, which was, at 12,336 feet, still frostily cold. But here we had our own wooden cabin, while a log burner cosied the dining room. As the group gathered there, Santosh revealed a surprise: for the whole trek, Namkha, the assistant guide, had lugged two bottles of wine in his backpack, a honeymoon treat. Nepalese wine, no less. Full of lentils, bonhomie and the thrill of success, we poured mugs for everyone and chinked them delightedly. I can think of no better way to toast our future together than that.
What was Paul’s take?
In fairness, ours was never likely to be a typical sun-sand-spa affair – we’re just not that kind of couple. And the Manaslu Circuit is, though not technical, graded “strenuous” – no lounging beneath swaying palms or swan towel sculptures, then. So we’d girded our loins (or, rather, intestines) for lentils and curried veg each night, aware that any loving smackeroo would reek of garlic and cumin. And we knew there’d be no whiff of a hot shower for several days – though other whiffs aplenty.
Yet some “deprivations” proved boons. The Wi-Fi desert was blissful: at no point did either of us gaze lovingly at the other only to find our spouse gazing fixedly at a screen. Meals, though variations on a theme, were always fresh, tasty and usually bottomless – some people pay a fortune for such organic, zero-food-miles, plant-based, all-inclusive cuisine.
Accommodation ran the gamut from “simple” (read: chilly and basic) to characterful and cute, but always clean and even, notably the Kathmandu Guest House, stylish. And our leader, guides and sherpas couldn’t have been more professional, smiling and determined to make our trek enjoyable. That’s not to downplay the challenges, though.
But, but, but.
If variety is the spice of marriage, those 11 days epitomised conjugal bliss. We both sported near-permanent grins wide as the Himalayas are high, broken only to allow for eating, more or less. Less at 16,752ft, if I’m honest – but even that grimace faded rapidly once I’d caught my breath and drunk in the jaw-dropping vistas.
And how could we not beam? We trekked by moonlight and starlight and the glow of dawn reflected from snowy 23,000ft-plus summits. Alongside quartz boulders and icy peaks sparkling as vivaciously as any diamond. Beneath waterfalls evoking the most diaphanous bridal veils. Through larch-woods blazing fiery gold, out-autumning New England in October. I even picked up a few nuptial tips from some rather racy murals in Tantric Buddhist monasteries that would make Sting and Trudie blush.
Ultimately, the Manaslu Circuit set my heart pounding. OK, that was partly the altitude – but doing what we both love for a fortnight validated our yen for tackling wild adventures together, no matter the discomfort (which was never too arduous).
Would I recommend it? Clearly, if your idea of romance is cocktails, pillow menus and infinity pools, a group trek in Nepal isn’t for you. But as an experience – those peaks, that culture, those smiles, that food, those diverse scenes – it’s an extraordinary thing to share with your most special someone. And sharing it with another 10 like-minded people multiplied rather than subtracted from the rapture.
Sarah Baxter and Paul Bloomfield were guests of Mountain Kingdoms (01453 844400; mountainkingdoms.com), which offers an 18-day small-group Manaslu Circuit trip from £3,310pp including flights, accommodation, most meals, guides and porterage, and use of a quality down jacket and sleeping bag on trek.