x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

My trek in the land of dreams

A solo trip across Tibet was a life-changing journey of self discovery for a ‘workaholic’ Emirati who returned a more self-assured and giving person. Now her goal is to launch a community project for youngsters, reports Asmaa Al Hameli

Deena climbed to Potala Palace, the administrative capital of Tibet, overlooked by the spectacular Lhasa. At 3,490 metres, Lhasa is one of the highest cities in the world. Getty Images
Deena climbed to Potala Palace, the administrative capital of Tibet, overlooked by the spectacular Lhasa. At 3,490 metres, Lhasa is one of the highest cities in the world. Getty Images

The most important lesson Deena Al Mansoori learnt on her trip to the Roof of the World was to master the art of solitude.

“In that small camp, I was completely disconnected from family and friends. I was alone,” says Ms Al Mansoori, 30. “That moment I realised that I shouldn’t always rely on people. Life is a journey and I should walk alone.”

Since her childhood, she says, she has always been travelling, at first through books and then to other countries.

Last October she turned 30 and realised that it was time to face her fear of the unknown. The self-described workaholic took a long period of unpaid leave to quieten her mind and lose herself in an unfamiliar land – Tibet.

“I have been travelling around the world alone since 2010,” says Ms Al Mansoori. “I prefer travelling alone so that I can observe, learn and experience. I want to find every single way to grow as a human being and help others grow.”

Her life-changing experience began on May 13 when she arrived in Tibet, which has an average altitude of 4,900 metres.

Ms Al Mansoori says she has “always been curious about Tibet”. But the breathtaking views and the intricate architecture in terrain on which it seemed impossible to build were more than she could have imagined.

“When I landed I wanted to capture every bit of scenery, every sound and every smell,” she says. “It was an excitedly weird feeling. There was also the feeling ‘what if I fail in my mission?’”

Ms Al Mansoori believes she is the first Emirati woman to hike across Tibet, and everything about the journey seemed to transform her.

Although some aspects of the journey held less appeal – the cold showers, for example – she saw the experience as a chance to rediscover her true identity and purpose in life.

Her companions on the journey were a guide, a cook and one she calls “the yak man”, who loaded her bags on to the native pack animal.

“I visited many monasteries and nunneries and learnt about the religious practice of Buddhists,” says Ms Al Mansoori, who explains that the main reason for the trip was to gain independence and overcome her fears of the unknown.

A project manager for an investment company, her long-term goal is to create a community project for young Emirati men and women who can share their common issues and with the slogan “Keep smiling and make a difference”.

First she wanted to learn more about herself. “I had to start from somewhere. Tibet was a step to discover myself,” she says. “I live in a society where materialism is prevalent. We need to go to the basics and support each other.”

In four days of climbing, she managed to get to 5,300 metres. Reaching a summit was not the target, but rather to discover how much difficulty and hardship she could tolerate while being disconnected from her comfortable lifestyle.

“I would easily get tired before, but the journey empowered me. I hiked for 12 hours and it was amazing,” she says.

On the road, she learnt how few material items she actually needed to survive. Her food was served in small portions and while the local butter tea was not her favourite cup of tea of all time, it was something that had to be tried, she felt.

“While walking, a group of Tibetans invited me to their gathering for a chat. I was offered butter tea again. I sipped it slowly lest I hurt their feelings,” she recalls with a laugh.

She also learnt to appreciate even the smallest things in life. “At the camp, I couldn’t sleep for even an hour. No place to take shower. Even if I wanted to use water, I couldn’t because it was freezing. At one point I started crying. I didn’t feel comfortable being alone for a while, then I calmed down and accepted the reality.”

Not having access to Twitter and unable to upload photographs on Instagram, she instead kept a journal, recording details of the people she encountered. There were conversations with Buddhist monks and nuns and in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. She watched monks debating in a courtyard to obtain their doctorates, a test of their knowledge of the many volumes of Buddhist scriptures.

On a hike to the Chusang nunnery, she learnt about sky burials, where the bodies of dead are dismembered and left for vultures to devour.

Looking through her photographs of the journey, she shows a picture of a village where it is the practice for a woman to marry several brothers.

“According to their law, the elder husband stays at home with the wife and the rest go out to make a living,” she says.

However strange the practices seemed, she says that respect for other beliefs is fundamental. “We don’t have to accept other’s views, but at least respect it.”

As she returned home, her family were waiting to hear her traveller’s tales. “My mother took me to her arms, happy to see her daughter standing in front of her safe and sound,” she says. “Her prayers are always for my good.”

Back in the UAE, Ms Al Mansoori is already making plans for a new adventure. Her next destination is Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro, but this time she plans to go with a friend.

aalhameli@thenational.ae