They met on Valentine’s Day while hiking in the Himalayas

CNN  — 

It was Valentine’s Day 1996 when Lee Green walked into a mountain lodge in Nepal, surrounded by the snowcapped Himalayas, and encountered Mandy Halse for the first time.

Lee and Mandy were thousands of miles from their respective homes in England and New Zealand. Both were backpackers in their twenties determined to see as much of the world as they could. They’d found themselves in Nepal by a series of coincidences.

When Lee entered the Nepalese teahouse, the stage was set for a memorable meet-cute.

Except on February 14, there were no sparks between the two travelers.

Two weeks later it was a different story, one that’s still ongoing 26 years later.

A meeting in Ghorepani

Here's Mandy Halse in Nepal on the morning of  February 14, 1996.

For Mandy, Nepal was a spontaneous layover en route from Auckland to the UK, where she was set to visit an old friend. She’d been exploring Thailand and Malaysia, and a travel agent had recommended breaking up the journey with a stint in Nepal.

After learning of Nepal’s trekking routes, she met a British woman, Kirsty, while in line for a permit to hike the Annapurna Circuit. The two decided to join forces to tackle the trail, which winds through Nepal’s central mountains, taking in picturesque villages and incredible views along the way.

Mandy, who’d had no idea what to expect, was awestruck by the spectacular landscape, particularly when she and fellow hikers arrived in the village of Ghorepani, where they set up camp in a “teahouse” mountain lodge.

“It was the most beautiful setting,” Mandy tells CNN Travel today.

She was sitting in the lodge’s common area with her new friend Kirsty and other backpackers when Lee Green walked in.

Lee, a mailman from the English town of Coventry, was traveling Nepal on a career break with colleague and good friend Murray. The two men had originally intended to use their sabbatical to embark on a cycle ride from the UK to India, but had abandoned the plan after just 200 miles, realizing navigating northern Europe in winter on bike was going to take too long.

Instead, they’d ended up flying to India, trekking through the northern part of the country, before making their way to Nepal.

The two friends arrived at the city of Pokhara, and set off on the Annapurna trek. Like Mandy, they’d befriended other travelers en route.

Lee (second from left) and Mandy (third from right) embarked on Nepal's Annapurna circuit with a group of other backpackers they'd met along the way.

“There’s one path that links village to village to village, so most people that go trekking tend to overlap each other, meet up with each other at the tea houses, along the path,” Lee tells CNN Travel today.

When Lee’s group entered the teahouse, they were warmly greeted by Mandy and the other travelers. The backpackers ended up chatting through the night, playing cards by candlelight.

“It was really nice, it was really chilled,” says Mandy. “The teahouse was gorgeous.”

The travelers spent a couple of days there, before continuing as a group onto the next leg of the trek.

Mandy and Lee were friendly to one another on their first few days hiking, but they didn’t have much opportunity to chat one on one.

“We didn’t talk much in the beginning as we were both very quiet, and we walked in different parts of the group: me in the middle with Murray, and Lee at the back with Kirsty,” says Mandy.

A growing connection

The backpackers were trekking through spectacular landscapes. Here's the group near Muktinath Valley in February 1996.

When the travelers reached the Annapurna circuit’s 5,400-meter-high Thorung La mountain pass, they found their way blocked by heavy snow, forcing them to turn back.

Some of the group decided to give up at that point, making their way back, via plane, to the trail’s gateway town of Pokhara. Mandy and Lee, along with their friends Murray and Kirsty, decided to make the full return trek by foot, just the four of them.

So began another two weeks of walking – and it was in this period that Mandy and Lee started to grow closer.

“We’d become quite good friends, and as we’re walking along I started feeling the vibe, the tingles,” says Mandy.

When the group arrived in Tatopani, just up the trail from their original meeting place in Ghorepani, the town’s balmier climate and beautiful hot springs were a welcome change to the snows they’d just emerged from.

“There’s oranges and lemons growing everywhere, citrus fruits growing, it’s like a little Garden of Eden. It’s a great place to relax and chill after the hard trekking,” says Lee.

Mandy and Lee grew closer as the trek continued.

Lounging at the hot springs over the next few days, Lee and Mandy grew closer still. They recall braiding one another’s long hair and talking about previous adventures, their lives back home and travel goals.

“We soon realized we were very similar,” says Mandy.

“We both wanted to travel, we were prepared to work hard and save money, and to achieve our travel goals, which is what we both wanted to do,” adds Lee. “We realized it would be quite nice to do it together.”

They shared their first kiss on February 29, 1996, a leap year. From that day onwards, they were inseparable.

But while they were swept up in their new romance, the two remained keenly aware that travel flings don’t always last, so Lee and Mandy focused on enjoying the moment. They decided, along with Kirsty and Murray, to extend their time in Nepal and embark on a trek to Everest.

The only issue was Mandy had somehow lost her passport. Before continuing any further, she had to head to Kathmandu to get new papers.

So the pair said goodbye to one another, hoping it would just be a short separation, as Lee and Murray went on ahead.

A couple of days in, it looked like Mandy’s passport would be arriving sooner rather than later. With no internet or cellphones to convey the news, Mandy scribbled a hand-written note updating Lee, letting him know she’d be hot on his heels before long.

Note in hand, Mandy hopped onto the bus that was heading to the Everest trail, and asked if anyone heading that way would look out for the two men and pass on the message. She included a description of Lee and Murray on the back of the note.

Here's one of the notes Mandy passed along the trail for Lee.

She did the same thing the following day, and the day after that – and then before long, Mandy had her new passport and she and Kirsty were en route to Namche Bazaar, the gateway to Everest, hoping to catch up with the two mailmen.

The notes successfully made their way up the trail to Lee and Murray.

“As we got closer and closer to Namche Bazaar, all of a sudden people started walking up to us on the trail with these notes, and they were like, “Oh we’ve got a note for you guys,” – you know, in the middle of the mountains in Nepal,” recalls Lee. “We open the note and it’s from Mandy.”

The two men couldn’t believe it.

“More and more people started giving us these notes,” says Lee. “So we wrote some notes back.”

They passed these replies to trekkers walking the opposite way, describing Mandy and Kirsty, and hoping the notes would make it to the two women successfully.

Here's Mandy and Lee on the trek to Everest Base Camp.

Meanwhile, Mandy and Kirsty were walking as fast as they could to catch up – so much so, they ended up overtaking Lee and Murray.

Eventually, the group were reunited in the small village of Jorsale, between the entrance to the Sagarmatha National Park and Namche Bazaar.

From there, they headed to the 5,357-meter Gokyo Ri peak, because Kirsty had read that the view of Everest was more impressive and that the trail didn’t have as many trekkers. It turned out to be a highlight of the trip.

“We were walking on a frozen lake, which if I’d thought about it, I think I would have been scared, but the snow was up to our thighs,” says Lee.

Six weeks in India

Mandy and Lee went on together from Nepal to India, here they are at the Taj Mahal.

By the time they returned to Kathmandu at the end of April, Mandy and Lee were certain their connection was more than a fleeting holiday romance.

“We realized that we wanted to be together,” says Lee.

After Murray decided to fly back home to the UK and Kirsty went off on her next adventure, Lee and Mandy were suddenly alone for the first time.

They both had six weeks before they were due to fly on to the UK – Mandy to visit her friend on a pre-arranged trip, and Lee to return to work – so the two decided to fill the time with a trip around India.

They traveled largely by rail, whiling away the long journeys staring out the window and chatting to one another and fellow travelers.

They reunited with Kirsty in the southern India state of Kerala, and again at Agra to visit the Taj Mahal. The trio traveled together to New Delhi, before Kirsty parted ways again.

It was an amazing six weeks for Mandy and Lee, but they also navigated some trickier moments together – such as when, towards the end of their trip, they fell ill. But they supported one another through these ups and downs, and ended the journey stronger than they’d started.

“You can tell whether you’re compatible with someone if you have to go through tough times together, and we went through some challenging traveling experiences in India, and we came out of it really well,” says Lee.

By coincidence, the friend Mandy was set to visit in the UK lived in Birmingham, which was only 30 minutes away from where Lee was based in Coventry.

“This was the amazing thing – two people from the other side of the world met halfway, and were going in the same direction and heading to the same place,” says Lee.

When Lee got home, he dumped his backpack, went to see his parents and told them he’d be heading to Birmingham the following day to see Mandy.

“I met this Kiwi girl. I quite like her and she’s just down the road,” he recalls saying.

Lee had sent his family postcards from his travels, but hadn’t mentioned that he’d met a girl. Mandy, meanwhile, had written long letters home to her sister describing her chance meeting with Lee.

“I told my sister everything,” Mandy recalls.

Her sister still has the 11-page letter Mandy wrote her from Nepal, describing in detail how she felt about Lee.

“Lee and I slowly developed a wonderful relationship,” Mandy wrote on March 16, 1996. “I’ve never experienced anything like this before.”

Long-distance romance

Mandy stayed in the UK for the next few months. Lee went back to work, but they continued to see one another whenever they could.

It was Mandy’s first time in the UK, and she wanted to see the sights. The two recall walking part of England’s South West Coast Path from Newquay to Penzance. They also visited cities including York, Oxford, Blackpool and London.

Then Mandy had to return down under – her brother was getting married in Australia, and her grandparents were celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary in New Zealand.

Mandy arranged to meet up with Lee again in New Zealand in six months time. Lee had negotiated another sabbatical with his employers, so the couple planned a second stint traveling together.

Meantime, they navigated a long distance relationship.

“I think we racked up $1,000 worth of phone calls,” says Mandy of this period. “We wrote to each other, we wrote aerograms.”

Back in Auckland, Mandy busied herself working. She missed Lee, but she worried that he was finding the separation even harder going.

“Lee was pining, he was working crazy hours at the Post Office,” says Mandy. “He was sounding more and more depressed as the time went on.”

“I decided ‘screw it.’ We discussed things and I decided to fly back to the UK to spend the four months with Lee and then start traveling together from there.”

Mandy arrived back in the UK on Christmas Day 1996. Lee was waiting for her at the airport.

“I’d just come from New Zealand and everyone was tanned and because it was December, Lee was pale, and he looked very different,” says Mandy.

“It was a bit of a shock at first. But then we got on the bus, went back, and we were together in Coventry for four months.”

It was an opportunity for Mandy to get to know Lee’s family, who welcomed her wholeheartedly. And when these four months came to an end, Mandy and Lee flew to New Zealand, before traveling together through Central and South America for the next six months.

A lifetime of travel

Mandy and Lee at Auckland Airport in 1997, about to embark on their travels.

From there, Mandy and Lee started a pattern that would continue for many years.

“Half of the time has been spent working in Australia, New Zealand and England, and the other half spent backpacking, just following our dream and seeing the world,” explains Lee.

Mandy and Lee had been on the same page from the beginning – they didn’t want to settle down, they didn’t want children, and they weren’t interested in a wedding.

But as an international couple with a foot on both sides of the globe, after a few years together the two decided marriage would make living across two continents a bit easier.

Their nuptials took place in New Zealand in August 2001, and Lee’s family flew over from the UK for the celebrations. The couple were married in Mandy’s mother’s backyard.

“We set up food and drink in the double garage, then later on various family members played guitars, and we sat around singing until the early hours of the morning,” recalls Mandy. “It was such a great day, and definitely not a conventional wedding.”

The couple in Thailand in 1999.

The couple had also bonded early on over a commitment to living frugally, and prioritizing spending money on travel.

They say years avoiding splurging allowed them to retire in 2017, when they were in their late 40s.

“We worked out that if we live on a budget of between 20 and 25 US dollars a day, we can travel indefinitely,” says Mandy.

Post-retirement, one of the first items on their travel agenda was a return trip to Nepal, just over 20 years since they’d first met there.

This time round, Mandy and Lee completed the Annapurna Circuit, and also trekked to Everest Base Camp, sans porters or guides.

The two say Nepal had changed in the intervening two decades, but it was incredible to be back. The couple returned to some of the teahouses they’d stayed in on that first trip, and even reencountered local people they’d met the first time round.

“It’s still my favorite country in the world, I think, of all the places I’ve been,” says Lee. “I don’t know if it’s because I met Mandy there and that’s where my life changed.”

The couple returned to Nepal together in 2017, this time sucessfully passing through the Thorang La mountain pass.

In 2018, the couple started a YouTube channel, “Frugal Travellers,” which also has an accompanying website and social media accounts.

“Our goal is to give valuable budget travel advice to help others achieve the travel goals we have accomplished and to show how easy it is to travel the world as we do,” says Lee of the project.

The Covid-19 pandemic temporarily grounded Mandy and Lee – first in Poland, and now in Portugal. But they’ve enjoyed this extended time in Europe. When the two were younger, they’d set themselves ambitious travel goals, aspiring to visit as many countries as possible, but more recently, they’ve enjoyed savoring travel experiences.

“We’re quite happy to travel slowly and see places at a leisurely pace, rather than race to tick off countries,” says Lee.

A Valentine’s Day romance

Lee and Mandy at Everest Base Camp in 2017.

Today, Mandy and Lee live the life they both dreamed of when they met as twentysomething backpackers.

“I think it’s really helped that we’ve been together because I think if I’d have been on my own, I might have just carried on working, maybe stayed in the UK and taken some holidays,” says Lee.

“It’s just so nice to know that you’ve got someone with you – a bit like a best friend, but different than a best friend – a total soulmate,” says Mandy.

They two consider February 29, the leap year, as the day they became a couple, so they enjoy celebrating that date when it rolls around every four years. During the intervening years, they celebrate on March 1, and always raise a glass on their August wedding anniversary too.

“It’s a great excuse to have multiple celebrations and we try to celebrate life every single day!” says Lee. “We usually celebrate with a meal out or having a special experience together.”

Lee and Mandy have enjoyed over two decades over travel together, including to Tajikistan, pictured here.

As for Valentine’s Day, the romantic holiday is another chance for Mandy and Lee to reflect on their life together.

“We always celebrate Valentine’s Day as the day we first met, because that is very special for us,” says Lee.

Over two decades later, the two never cease to marvel when they reflect on the moment they crossed paths in the teahouse in Nepal.

“I honestly think it was fated, so it was meant to be,” says Mandy.

“A million decisions were made for us to come together. It’s incredible. It blows my mind thinking about it,” says Lee.