August 25, 2003 12:00 PM

It was a far cry from yakking with Barbara Walters: Lisa Ling was hiking past a Buddhist temple in Nepal this summer when she spotted an elderly woman who “looked a lot like my grandmother,” she says. “My grandmother had these sort of blue rings around her eyes because she had pretty bad cataracts. This woman had the same thing.”

As luck—or karma—would have it, Ling, who left The View, ABC’s daytime coffee klatch, last December to sign on as host of MSNBC’s weekly National Geographic Ultimate Explorer, was accompanying a pair of ophthalmologists to the small mountain village of Jomsom, where they’d volunteered to perform surgery on more than 100 local citizens suffering from cataracts. (Their story airs Sept. 28.) Ling, 29, asked one of the surgeons, Dr. Geoff Tabin, a corneal specialist at the University of Vermont, to examine the woman, 71-year-old Dhankumari Serchen. “In fact she did have cataracts,” says Ling, who promptly urged Serchen to go to Jomsom for the free operation.

Five days later Ling sat beside the woman as her bandages were removed. Ling held up two fingers and Serchen held up two of her own. Reporter and patient clutched fingers. “It’s extraordinary to be with people who not only get their sight back,” says Ling, “but whose lives you can see improve in 24 hours. They sit up straighter. They become more confident.”

Traveling with Ling and her film crew has been an eye-opening experience for the doctors as well. “When I heard that Lisa was coining, I didn’t know who she was,” says Tabin, “except that she was a kind of pretty-face celebrity interviewer. But to be honest, she has related wonderfully with the people.”

He shouldn’t have been surprised. In her pre-View career, the California-born Ling spent seven years as a reporter for Channel One News, a satellite service for schools, On the job, she witnessed a drug bust in Colombia and posed as a Muslim woman in Afghanistan.

Urged on by an agent, she auditioned in 1999 to become the youngest gabber on The View. Ling beat out 17,000 contenders. “She left everyone feeling warm,” says creator and cohost Barbara Walters. “I thought this would be a wonderful stepping stone for her.”

The View “raised my profile a lot,” Ling says, but “it’s not where you want to spend the rest of your career.” Last year she told her agent she wanted to work for National Geographic. “It was my dream job,” she says, “a place that seeks to cover international stories. They do it with such integrity.” In Ling they’ve found “a tireless worker who’s constantly hopping off one plane and onto another,” says her producer, Lawrence Cumbo. “I think her age is a plus because she can take the long hours.”

Of course, says Ling, “it’s not the most conducive lifestyle for a relationship by any means.” Her last serious one was with actor Rick Yune (Die Another Day). The couple met as celeb panelists at an Asian-American journalists’ convention three years ago. Last fall they broke up, but remain friends. “We were at different places in our lives,” says Ling. “I’ve only spent 35 or so days at home and he practically lives overseas when he’s on a movie, and neither of us wanted to compromise on our careers.”

With her hectic schedule, it’s been “impossible,” she says, to meet someone else. Instead she spends her off-hours hanging out with the two male pals she lives with in a Washington, D.C., house. “I’ll come home and they’ll have dinner on the table for me,” she says, “and the three of us will just sit back and watch basketball on our Ikea couch, and in the wee hours I’ll fall asleep on one of their laps. It’s the greatest.”

But nothing compared to life on the road. Leaving Baghdad, where she’d gone in May to cover the looting of Iraqi museums, “I was with this driver who didn’t speak a word of English, and it was a 13-hour drive to Amman, and I was thinking, ‘I love my life right now being out here in the middle of nowhere, just experiencing history,’ ” she recalls. “I have girlfriends who are wanting to settle down. I’m going to be 30 this month. I feel like a kid, like I haven’t even stopped growing yet.”

Michael A. Lipton

Cynthia Wang in Los Angeles and Jean Macfarlane in Jomsom

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