Publishing your holiday snaps on the net is, of course, the ultimate display of boring egotistical self-importance. If you are bothered by such things, click here now. In justification of this page, I'd just like to say that I would have enjoyed reading such a thing while I was planning this holiday, which I think is a valid reason for me to create it now.
This material is based on a diary which I kept during the trek, but it has been heavily edited after the event. My original entries were in a kind of shorthand, containing only the bare minimum of words needed to later remind me of what I was trying to say. All the content of this account was decided at the time, but it wasn't converted into complete sentences until after I returned home and regained access to a wordprocessor.
This was a group holiday, booked through Travelbag Adventures in the UK, and run by a Nepali trekking company called AmaDablam. Travelbag provided the glossy brochure, collected my money, and organised the plane tickets, and AmaDablam took care of everything else (hotel accommodation in Kathmandu, local flights to and from Lukla, and the trek itself). This sort of all-inclusive booking is by no means the cheapest way to visit the Himalayas, but for someone like myself with only limited time off work and no prior knowledge of the region, I think it is a good way to get the maximum enjoyment out of a two week period.
The two main trekking areas in Nepal are the approaches to Annapurna and Everest. Of these, Annapurna provides slightly flatter walking, but the Everest region has the special allure of the highest mountain on earth, and is the home of the famous Sherpa people. The classic route to Everest involves about seventeen days walking from Jiri (the nearest road) to Everest Base Camp, where trekking ends and serious mountaineering begins. This can be reduced to ten days if you fly in to Lukla rather than walking all the way from Jiri, but our trek was even shorter than this: we turned around at Tengboche (pronounced "tang-bot-che") rather than continuing all the way to Base Camp. I'm sure that hard-core trekkers will consider this to be an incredible cop-out, but the route from Lukla to Tengboche was quite long and difficult enough for me, and avoided the higher altitude (up to 17500') and extreme cold of the Base Camp itself.
I live about half an hour's walk from East Croydon railway station, and I covered this distance on foot. It was a great feeling to set off from my front door armed with nothing but my backpack and walking boots: easy to forget about the forthcoming train journey and air flight, and imagine that I was beginning some epic trek directly from here to the middle of the Himalayas.
The airport is very empty: this is obviously not a peak time to travel. There are some people moving around, and a few more stretched out asleep on the benches (reminding me of when I had to spend a night at Gatwick on my way to Colorado a few years ago), but it is all very hushed and curiously reverential. The clatter of a luggage trolley echoes almost like footsteps in a cathedral, and the occasional boarding announcements seem more like some kind of strange call to prayer than the usual hustle of a busy airport. Going through security, I had to walk about half a mile around a huge zigzag queue barrier: a strange feeling when the place is so deserted. The security guard gave me a thorough frisking after the scanner machine refused to stop beeping at me: he must have thought I looked suspicious (perhaps the long hair?) because other people were being waved through without any problems. I have yet to meet the other people who will be going on my trek, and it is strange to think that they are probably all sitting around here somewhere. There are a lot of trekker-types wearing walking boots and carrying rucksacks: I'm tempted to start asking everyone if they are going to Nepal with Travelbag, but decide this would feel too silly. As you can probably tell, the anticipation is doing strange things to my mind here! Aha, my flight was just called. I'll write some more on the plane...
The best laid plans, etc, somehow prevented any more diary entries from being made during the journey (to be precise, this was because my writing paper was in my rucksack in the baggage hold). The flight was in two very boring legs, six hours to Doha (Quatar) and then another four hours on to Kathmandu, with a total timezone shift of five and three quarter hours (despite the geographical proximity to India, Nepal insists on proving their independent status by imposing a fifteen minute time difference).
Quatar is flat and quite hot even though we land at dawn. The airport seems clean and modern, but the restaurants are all closed for Ramadan (no eating or drinking in public during daylight hours), and the toilets are quite a shock: just a hole in the floor, with a tap where the toilet paper ought to be. Yup, this certainly isn't England any more! Waiting for the Kathmandu flight, the crowd is about a 50/50 mix of youngish Caucasians in walking boots and short, vaguely Oriental looking people. It takes a while for me to realise that they are not in fact speaking Arabic, but Nepali! I strike up a conversation with a young woman who is also going trekking with an organised group and trying to spot her companions: she's headed for the Annapurna region.
Leaving Quatar, we get some great views of the desolate hill country in Oman, but it's too misty to see anything interesting as we arrive in Nepal.
So this is it! Despite the subtropical latitude it is cloudy and coolish, and there is a strong smell of sewage as we cross the runway to the airport building. The customs booth is deserted: I stand around looking puzzled for a few moments before a head appears and waves me through impatiently. Ok, so I don't have anything to declare, but it would be nice if there was someone here for me not to declare it to!
(taken in the
I step outside the building into a flurry of activity: in the few moments that it takes me to spot the person carrying an AmaDablam sign, I have to fend off several dozen offers for hotels, taxis, guides, etc. The guy with the sign points off to the right, in response to which a couple of the bystanders grab my bag and race off in that direction. I hurry after them as they weave through the busy traffic, determined not to let the bag out of my sight until I've confirmed exactly who these people are, but all is well because we soon arrive at a minibus decorated with an AmaDablam logo. Problem: the bag-carrying people want a tip, but I don't have any Nepalese currency yet. They are very insistent ("English coin ok, please!") but my English money is buried at the bottom of my bag, and all I have in my wallet are high denomination travellers cheques. Damn, not a good start.
I'm the first person to make it to the bus, so I have a few minutes to wait until the others show up. A welcoming garland of flowers is placed around my neck, which is a good thing because it masks the distinctly dubious background odour of Kathmandu. The drive from the airport to hotel is quite an experience: this city is a crazy mix of decrepit buildings and advertising billboards, with cars, trucks, bikes, rickshaws, pedestrians, and the occasional cow all sharing the streets without any regard for traffic laws or rights of way. Car horns are blown almost continually, and they seem to be used not so much as a gesture of annoyance or an emergency warning, but simply as a good natured way of alerting people to your presence. At one point there was a policeman standing in the middle of a junction making a half-hearted effort to direct the traffic, and nobody saw any problem with honking at him until he moved out of their way! A few minutes after leaving the airport we overtook an elephant, carrying what looked like a bunch of tree branches, perhaps intended for firewood. You don't see many of those on the streets at home.
Upon arrival at the hotel we take care of some paperwork and then get to know our group leader (A.J.) and each other. There are six people going on the trek, which is rather less than I had expected but I think quite a good number. In addition to myself we have Julian (a British geologist who works for an oil company in Venezuela), Dennis (an Irish financial whiz), Ken (a Scottish electronics engineer who designs aircraft), and Lara (a tax consultant from New Zealand, currently in transit to Brussels after working in Poland for three years). We will later be joined by Peter (a Swiss computer guy who works in Vancouver), but he has made his own way to Kathmandu and is only booked on the trek itself, so he won't be with us at the hotel or for our tourist activities tomorrow.
Dinner that night is at a traditional Nepalese restaurant called the Kathmandu Kitchen. Given that most Nepalese people subsist on a diet of dhal bhat (black lentil soup on rice), which is eaten for two meals a day, 365 days a year, it can't be easy to make a gourmet meal of local food, but the cunning solution is to supplement the dhal bhat with a range of curried extras: potatoes, cabbage, and various meats: vaguely Indian in style, but not so spicy, and add some Tibetan-style dumplings. These are all traditional foods, but I don't think many local people would be eating them all in the same meal! We also sample the local tipple, rakshi (pronounced "roxy"), a distilled grain spirit drunk from tiny wooden bowls. A.J. says we must down these in one, which proves to be almost fatal, and the waiter delights in setting one of these bowls on fire and then dipping his fingers into the burning liquid, coating them with a halo of blue flame.
After the meal we head upstairs for some cultural entertainment, which turns out to be a troupe of girls performing traditional Nepalese dances to a taped accompaniment (drums and Thai-style cheng-chop cymbals along with simple pentatonic melodies played on flute, rebab, and some kind of plucked instrument). The dancing is slow paced and graceful: the occasional sinuous wriggle betrays an Indian origin, but most of the steps and costumes are very demure and seem almost Eastern European: I could easily have believed that this was a traditional Hungarian dance.
One of the|
denizens of the
The next morning we set off on a guided tour of Kathmandu, starting at the Buddhist temple of Swayambhunath, nicknamed the Monkey Temple, which is situated on a hill overlooking the west side of Kathmandu. The nickname is appropriate: for the first time since my arrival in Nepal, the background smell of sewage is masked by a stronger odour of pigeon and monkey shit. It is an amazing scene here, with people burning incense, spinning prayer wheels, and generally just hanging out: I am unable to decide whether this is primarily a religious or social centre.
After the Monkey Temple we make our way to the Durbar Square in the centre of the city, which is home to a large collection of spectacular Hindu temples and some impressive looking Sadhus (holy men with fancy costumes and big beards). I find these people slightly less impressive after it becomes clear just how eager they are to pose for photographs in exchange for a 30 rupee fee, but hey, even holy men have to eat now and then! This is obviously a major tourist centre, and we have to fend off an endless stream of vendors trying to sell prayer wheels, bracelets, knives, and various other knickknacks that none of us want. Some of them are very insistent, and it makes for quite a stressful morning.
One of the buildings around the Durbar Square is the home of the Royal Kumari, who in a curious mix of Hindu and Buddhist traditions is believed to be the Living Goddess. She is chosen as a young girl (aged two or three) by a series of tests which involve recognising the belongings of her predecessor, after which the successful candidate is installed in this building, where she remains until she begins to menstruate, at which point she is returned to her family. In exchange for a small donation, the present incumbent appears briefly at an upstairs window, but we are left feeling more sorry for this poor girl than enlightened by our glimpse of her divinity.
The wealth contrast between the UK and Nepal is clearly demonstrated by our lunch back at the hotel: this is an excellent meal in a fairly high class restaurant, and it only costs 200 rupees (about $3). There is a supermarket just down the road where we go to buy bottled water (nobody is going to risk drinking from the taps here), and they have a man on permanent duty opening the door for people on their way in and out. This feels very weird: I'm quite capable of doing that for myself!
In the afternoon we hire a taxi and make our way to the Thamel, which is the big tourist shopping street. The streets are full of cars, motorbikes, and rickshaws, and there are some good bargains on jumpers, rugs, and all sorts of trekking equipment: we'll have to come back here to do some shopping after our trip. The vendors are even more plentiful and insistent than around the Durbar Square, but now they add "smoke, marijuana, hash, opium?" to their list of offers. I have a hard time getting rid of two kids who are begging for money: the younger one can't be more than three or four years old. This is not good.
I just went for a stroll down the road outside the hotel, which was great. It feels very different from the more touristy areas downtown, as the salesmen and beggars are replaced by ordinary people busy getting on with their lives. I don't usually find cities interesting (the idea of visiting lots of European capitals bores me to tears) but this one is different. There is a constantly shifting mix of odours: sewage, car exhaust and dust form a constant backdrop, but this is overlaid with stronger aromas of food and incense as I walk past different shops. The sound of car engines and horns is incessant, and the pavements are bustling with mangy dogs, beautiful women, and the occasional cow. By the roundabout at the end of the road (I say roundabout, although the traffic seems to go straight through it without regard for any rules of priority), some shopkeepers are squatting on the pavement with their wares spread out in front of them: baskets of chillies, ginger, fruits and various vegetables.
Back at the hotel I picked up my Trek Pack, which is provided by AmaDablam and contains a warm down jacket for the cold nights to come, several layers of sleeping bag, and a sturdy duffel bag to pack everything into so it can be carried by a porter or yak. I will by carrying a small backpack containing whatever I need for the day (extra layers of clothing, camera, and most importantly water), but everything else can go into this duffel bag. It is surprising how little gear I actually have: some spare underwear, a wash kit, and a pair of trainers for relaxing around camp, and that is pretty much it!
A.J. briefs us about what to expect on the trek. It sounds like quite a production, with a huge team of sherpas, cooks, etc, and a military style hierarchy. He explains that if we were for example to have a problem with the way our tea was served in the morning, we should mention it to him, so he can tell the cook, who would then tell the kitchen boy in question. Weird. We were originally going to have a team of porters for carrying our bags and tents, but now it looks as if we will be using yaks instead.
A.J. seems quite worried about the flight into Lukla. This is apparently a very difficult landing, impossible in anything less than ideal conditions, and he's not sure whether the planes will be running. If we can't get through tomorrow morning, there is a chance that we might be able to charter a helicopter (another group is currently stuck at Lukla, so it might be economical to fly us in and them out in this way), but if that fails, on the second day of no flights we will have to give up and go somewhere else a bit more accessible instead. We can only hope that the weather will be good in the morning.
Awoke at 6:30 for a 7:30 start. Urgh, after that whiskey last night this isn't my idea of fun! Outside the hotel we have thick fog, maybe 100 or 200 feet visibility. Not good.
Our flight is supposed to leave at 9:00, but we don't actually get off until 10:00 because the plane is coming in from Pokhara and conditions are too bad for it to land here. It does finally arrive, though: an 18 seater Twin Otter with a distinctly rancid smell, and the views during our 45 minute flight are truly spectacular. We can see snowy peaks off to our left, for the first time since arriving in Nepal (Kathmandu was far too hazy to see anything more than vague outlines of the closest hills), and we fly very low over several mountain passes, enjoying the turbulence as the light plane lurches down into the next valley.
Our plane, just|
after landing at
Lukla. The runway
heads off to the
left from here.
The Lukla airstrip is insane. There wasn't enough flat land to build a proper runway, so the whole thing runs up a hillside, using the slope to stop the plane in a shorter distance than would normally be possible. This is an entirely visual landing, made without any electronic aids whatsoever. The pilot flies straight towards what looks like a sheer hillside, and only at the very last moment pulls the nose up enough to lift us over the edge and onto the bottom of the runway, which cannot be seen until the plane is actually on it. I dread to think what would happen if he misjudged the approach and came in a few feet off to one side, but A.J. says there have never been any accidents at Lukla (Peter later argues that if this is true, why can the tail part of a Twin Otter be seen sticking out of the hillside some distance below?).
It is very hot here in the bright mountain sun, and dark glasses are absolutely essential, but the temperature drops dramatically as soon as you get out of the direct light. There are patches of snow and ice on the ground wherever there is some shade. The air is amazingly clean, in sharp contrast to Kathmandu, but I can clearly feel the altitude (9200') in that even a gentle walk uphill leaves me panting and out of breath.
We eat a picnic lunch on benches outside the Paradise Lodge, and then set off through Lukla along the trail towards Everest. This is a long thin village, and we pass through a busy social scene with kids playing in the street among the goats and hens, and older people sitting by their doorways watching us pass. The houses are clean and colourful, often painted in bright shades of blue and yellow. There are many prayer wheels beside the trail, and strings of prayer flags are hung between the houses and between trees up on top of the ridge. The newer flags are bright and colourful, but most have been faded by the elements so they are now a uniform shade of pale grey. We also pass several chortens, large stone monuments in the middle of the trail with a route leading around them on both sides: these should always be passed in a clockwise direction (although I notice that the local people are not 100% consistent in doing this!). Some of the chortens are built from smaller stones and cement, but most are formed from a large existing boulder that has been left in place when the trail was constructed, with repeated prayers ("om mani padme hum") carved into the surface of the rock and painted in bright yellow or white.
on the trail
The scenery is gorgeous, and the mountain views open out as we walk for about two and a half hours, along a route that A.J. describes as "Nepal flat", ie. never more than a couple of minutes incline in the same direction. It is easy walking, tending gradually downhill, and we soon arrive in Phakding (8600') where we will spend the night. We pitch camp on a flat area outside the local teahouse, but will cook and eat inside: our tents are only for sleeping. We were originally planning to bring our own cook tent, but decided that the teahouses would be warmer and more comfortable both for us and for the kitchen crew. Teahouses can be found everywhere in this region, and are basically family homes with a large living room, equipped with benches and tables around the walls and a wood stove in the middle. Trekkers can sleep on the benches, buy food from the teahouse owners (often very basic, but it saves having to carry your own if you are travelling without a support crew), or you can just come in to huddle around the stove and get warm. As the sun goes down, it gets cold very quickly in this part of the world!
I'm feeling pretty good after our brief exertion, but am aware that my right knee is getting a bit stiff, and the side of my right heel is starting to feel sore. It is interesting that I'm so alert to these details of my physical fitness: normally I would just ignore such minor complaints, but the knowledge that I have several more days walking ahead makes me unusually aware of how my body is coping, on the lookout for any potential problems that can perhaps be averted. It's a nice feeling.
After looking around the camp and teahouse I strip off my boots and walk barefoot down to and across the suspension bridge over the river, which is just below the camp. Two young boys are playing on the bridge, and are amazed that I have no shoes: they don't speak much English, and I don't think they understand when I try to explain that my footwear is waiting back at the camp! They ask to look at my watch, which is very familiar from the streets of Kathmandu where for some reason everyone was fascinated by it and kept trying to barter it from me, but these boys are just friendly and interested, not begging or trying to sell me anything. It makes a pleasant change. Although these villages are remote and very poor, everyone we pass seems to be happy, friendly, and well fed. Even the dogs look healthy, unlike the mangy and flea-ridden beasts from Kathmandu.
This place is a curious mixture of remoteness and high population density. Discussing this, we are unable to decide whether it is the most remote place we have ever been (measured in distance from mainstream transport, and the fact that we don't hear a single engine for the duration of the trek), or one of the cosiest (based on frequency of villages: we pass more houses per mile walked than we would on a stroll through the Shropshire countryside). The trail is busy, but not excessively so, which is the major benefit of coming during the winter. Most people prefer to trek in autumn (October or November) because the nights are much warmer, but I've heard horror stories about how busy the trails can get then, with ten minute queues of people waiting to cross the big suspension bridges.
It is starting to get cold now (5:00), and my hands are becoming too numb to write properly. I have several layers of sleeping bag: I hope this will be enough!
Ouch. My ankle hurts. It is raised up on the bench in front of me, and starting to swell up. The others have gone downtown to look around and maybe do some shopping (on the way up we passed some nice smells coming from the bakery), but I'm staying here to rest my foot.
Yesterday evening we had a truly fantastic meal, rustled up by our phenomenally talented kitchen crew and eaten by the light of a kerosene lantern. Anything would have tasted good after our afternoon of walking, but this food would not have been out of place in a quality restaurant. After a thin, Chinese-style soup starter, they served us with rice and not just one curry, but a whole range of excellent curried side dishes. What heroes!
We moved out to our tents at around 9:30, and it was cold. Certainly well below freezing, but nobody had a thermometer to measure by exactly how much (there was one nailed to the door outside the teahouse, but this read 15 degrees, which I know for a fact was not accurate). It was nice and warm once I got into my bag, though, and I slept well.
We are woken at 7:00 with what is to become a familiar routine: a cry of "Hello, good morning!" from one of the kitchen boys, followed by a hot cup of tea shoved through the tent flap. Excellent stuff. The toilet tent is somewhat less fantastic: this is just a short trench dug in the ground, with a bit of canvas around it to provide privacy. Functional, but not exactly elegant in design.
Loading the yaks|
(this photo was
Our tents and bags are quickly loaded onto the yaks, and they move off while we are having breakfast (four yaks, along with two female herders). Technically these animals are dzopkyo rather than true yaks, ie. a yak/cow crossbreed (or nak/bull, since the term yak only strictly applies to the male of the species), but everyone calls them yaks. True yaks are rarely used for load carrying because they have less stamina, are more irritable, and are uncomfortable at these low altitudes.
As soon as we finish eating breakfast, the kitchen crew (cook, assistant, and two kitchen boys) also dash off down the trail, carrying food, cooking equipment, and fuel in large wicker baskets that are balanced on their backs and suspended by a strap across the forehead. This seems like an insane way to carry a heavy load, but we are frequently overtaken by porters carrying as much as their own body weight of baggage, firewood, water, etc. We are all feeling a bit overwhelmed and slightly guilty about the size of our support crew, but I console myself with the thought that at least we are providing a period of steady employment: I bet that carrying our food pays better than taking sheets of corrugated iron up to Namche, which several porters are doing.
In addition to the yak team and the kitchen crew, there is A.J, the group leader, who is well educated, speaks good English, and is in charge of the entire trek. Then there is the Sirdar, who is in charge of coordinating the rest of the team and managing the operations side of things, and two sherpas to assist with whatever else needs doing (pitching tents, helping out along the trail, etc). Usually only two or sometimes three of these people (always including A.J.) will walk along with us, one in front to show the way and one behind to catch any stragglers, while the others help out with the yaks or wander off to take care of whatever else needs doing. At one point during the walk today, just as we have passed by a house a woman runs out and starts shouting at the Sirdar, who goes inside and only catches up with us later that evening. He refuses to explain what this was all about, so we conclude that he must be a bit of a womaniser, and tease him mercilessly for the rest of the trip. He takes this in good humour, I think because our theory is very close to the truth: it is noticeable that wherever we stop, he soon ends up deep in conversation and flirting with the nearest female.
Note that a sherpa is not the same thing as a Sherpa. With a capital S, a Sherpa is a member of the Sherpa race, one of the sixty odd ethnic groups that inhabit Nepal. These people are of Tibetan ancestry, and live in the Solu Khumbu region where we are walking. Traditionally they survived by growing potatoes, herding yaks, and trading between India and Tibet, but with the Chinese invasion and closure of the Tibetan border they have come to depend on income from trekking parties and mountaineering expeditions. With a lowercase s, however, a sherpa is a job description: someone who helps out along the trail but doesn't usually carry a porter load. Originally Sherpas would tend to work as sherpas, but this is increasingly not the case. One of our kitchen boys and both the yak girls are Sherpas, but both of our sherpas actually come from other parts of Nepal, and A.J. was born in the far south near the border with India. Confusing. Everyone in our team comes from a Mongoloid, ex-Tibetan racial group, though, unlike the Indian castes which are more common in Kathmandu.
The weather is similar to yesterday: hot in the sun but cold in the shade. I'm wearing a thin woollen jumper over a T-shirt, which seems to work quite well: I start sweating if we are in the sun for too long, and get cold if we stop in the shade, but it would be too much hassle to be constantly shedding and gaining layers.
After about two and a half hours walking we reach the entrance to the Sagarmatha National Park, where an armed guard checks that our trekking permits are in order. What a boring place to be a policeman! And then it happens. Just a few metres past the checkpoint, I stupidly try to cross a large expanse of mud, slip, fall over, and twist my left ankle. It takes a while for this to sink in, as I refuse to accept that I could really have done something quite so stupid, but I can't escape the fact for ever: my ankle hurts, especially when I try to walk on it. This is not good, but I grit my teeth and hobble onwards for another half hour to our lunch spot, on some rocks next to the river (our route basically heads up the valley of the Dudh Kosi). As soon as we stop I strip off my boots and duck my foot into the freezing cold river: it is starting to swell up and doesn't feel at all good. I start having horrible thoughts about being evacuated back to Lukla: right after lunch we will begin the steep climb up to Namche, which I was worried about even before I managed to injure myself!
I carry on after lunch, though, and it turns out to be ok. After crossing a couple of big suspension bridges, which sway precariously high above the river, we climb steeply for about two and a half hours up the forested hillside, gaining about 2000' before we reach Namche (11000'). This would have been a difficult climb even without having to contend with the high altitude, but my ankle isn't really an issue because we are going so slowly that I have plenty of time to position my foot and make sure I don't put any sideways pressure on it. It is my knees that really have a hard time of it, and the climb seems endless, but we take it very gradually, putting one foot after another at a tempo that seems more suitable for an octogenarian hobbling through a shopping centre than for a bunch of supposedly healthy and fit trekkers. This low speed works well, though, because we make it to the top with only minimal rest stops. Had I been on my own I would have set out much more briskly, and probably been reduced to a quivering wreck after the first hundred paces. Once you start panting at this altitude, it isn't easy to catch your breath again, so it is much better to find a steadier pace that you can sustain indefinitely, no matter how pathetically slow this makes you feel.
Yesterday night was much colder than in Phakding, and we spent the evening huddled around the fire, burning a mixture of wood and dried yak dung. We went to bed at 9:30 again, but our crew partied until more like 11:30, singing, playing guitar, and consuming large amounts of alcohol. We are on strict orders not to drink because of the altitude: alcohol can simultaneously trigger a bout of altitude sickness and mask the symptoms as it develops, which is not a good thing. I'm a little bit confused by this whole altitude sickness thing, though. A.J. is quite rightly taking it very seriously, encouraging us to keep well hydrated, and carefully controlling our rate of ascent: after all, several trekkers die in Nepal every year as a result of going up just a bit too fast. And yet in America, people routinely fly or drive straight from sea level to ski resorts and passes way up in the Rockies, with no time to acclimatise, and often get very drunk at the same time. What gives? Am I just not aware of how many people die in the Rockies because of this, or are people there actually much more careful than I think they are, or is there some other strange factor that makes the Himalayas more dangerous?
Today is scheduled as a rest day, for acclimatising to the altitude. The others spend the morning walking up to the ridge above the village (about two hours) but I stay behind to rest my ankle, which is still hurting. It seems like a waste to spend my time here reading a book, but on the other hand this is a nice environment in which to sit around and do nothing! Our Nepali crew spent most of the day playing cards, and the Sirdar had a badminton match with one of the yak girls (they weren't very good at it).
In the afternoon I went for a stroll down through the village. Namche is the Sherpa capital, and one of the largest settlements in the area. It has a wide range of stores, and benefits from a cheap supply of hydroelectricity. It is an unusual layout in that it is built around the sides of a bowl, rather than in the usual elongated shape along a trail, and the walk from our camp at the top of the bowl down to the chorten at the bottom end is very steep. Near the chorten some women were washing their clothes in the river, and it was amazing to see kids who were probably about ten years old carrying huge loads of water up through the village, walking straight over slippery patches of ice that I find difficult even when not carrying anything!
After the others get back, we book six hot showers with the teahouse owner. They have a cunning shower room arrangement with a bucket suspended above the roof and a plumbing/tap system to let the water through, but this is frozen solid, so we give up and just use a cup to pour the hot water over ourselves instead. Best shower I ever had.
A German woman called Dugna is staying with us in the teahouse here: she is trekking on her own, carrying a full set of sleeping bags, tent, cooking gear, etc, and planning to continue all the way to Base Camp. Today she met some people on their way back who reported that the teahouses are open all the way up and have a good supply of food, so she can safely leave her tent and stove here, but her pack still looks ridiculously heavy. This is the efficient and cheap way to travel through these mountains, and she must think we are really pathetic to be carrying so little of our own gear, but I'm glad that we have our own cook crew and food. The teahouse cuisine seems to be quite plentiful, but not exactly fun to eat. At one place where we stopped for lunch, I overheard a pair of trekkers being told that their cheese and potato cutlets weren't going to appear quite as described on the menu because there was no cheese, but don't worry, they had plenty of potatoes left!
Yesterday evening was a lot of fun, reading books and discussing Nepal with A.J. The sherpas are playing cards amid much hilarity, and it is obvious that they feel much more comfortable than we do in this low-tech environment. After several evenings without television or any other kind of external entertainment, we are struggling to keep the conversation going: has our society completely lost the knack of keeping ourselves amused without having to resort to machinery?
A continuing annoyance is that none of the local people will close the door when entering or leaving the room, which seems very stupid when we have a warm fire going and the temperature outside is so far below zero. During the first evening here we were constantly leaping up to shut the door, but our crew is gradually starting to get the idea and will now close it themselves as long as we look pointedly in their direction whenever they come in or out. I don't understand why people who are supposedly so well adapted for this environment would never before have come across the idea of keeping a space insulated against the cold!
When we ask A.J. about the Yeti, he is amused and sceptical: in common with most educated Nepalese people, he sees this as a peasant superstition that is only useful for entertaining tourists (he isn't especially religious either, after having been brought up in a Hindu background, attended a Catholic school, and found work in such a profoundly Buddhist part of the country). We are in the absolute centre of Yeti territory here, though, and this landscape certainly deserves to be inhabited by such a creature. It damn well ought to exist!
Last night was the coldest yet. I was wearing a double pair of thick socks, trousers, two T-shirts, and two woollen jumpers inside my sleeping bag, which consisted of a cotton liner, thermal insulating layer, a normal sleeping bag, and then an extra thick outer sleeping bag. With all that, I was perfectly warm, but getting in and out of bed is quite a struggle! It takes several minutes, but at least I build up some nice body heat during the process. One clear sign of the altitude is that after getting into my bag, it takes a good quarter of an hour for my pulse and breathing to return to their normal rates.
During the night I am woken several times by dogs barking and the random clanging of yak bells. It is a curiously soothing, pleasant sound, even if it does keep me from my sleep.
My ankle is still hurting, despite my hopes for a miracle cure during our day of rest. This is the final decision time: do I press onwards, or plead disability and stay here while the rest of the group carries on up to Tengboche? A.J. is clearly not going to advise me about this: he has given me some ointment, and I've got the foot bandaged up nicely, but I'm the only one who can accurately judge whether I will be able to walk on it. I decide to give it a try, on the basis that I can always head back here if walking turns out to be truly impossible.
On the trail from Namche.|
The distant peak with the
plume of snow blowing off it
is Lhotse, and Everest is the
smaller blob just to the left
of this. The trail leads
along the hillside on the
left, down into the valley,
and back up to Tengboche
which is on top of the ridge
directly below Lhotse.
We walked for about three hours before lunch, skirting high along the sides of the valley on a relatively level path, which was nice easy going. For the first time we are well above the treeline, and have some spectacular views down into the forested valley, and across it to the summits of AmaDablam, Lhotse, and Everest, which we can just see peeking over the ridge of Nuptse. Being out of the forest gives more chances to see wildlife, which includes brightly coloured shiny male pheasants, mountain goats, the giant griffon, and hundreds of yaks higher up on the hillside. I am unfortunately unable to get any good wildlife photos, because my 2x zoom lens isn't nearly enough to deal with the distances involved. All the rest of the group have huge, hi-tech cameras, which make me feel hopelessly inferior with my cheap point-and-click autofocus job. I hope that at least some of my shots will come out ok, but the light up here is so intense that I'm afraid it might be too much for my automatic meter: I'd be blinded if I wasn't wearing sunglasses.
Just before lunch comes a gruelling descent back down the valley side, through the forest to the river. Nobody else finds this at all difficult, but my ankle really doesn't like it. Walking along the flat is bearable although I'm limping quite badly, and uphill seems to be fine, but descents are sheer hell, and for me this is the most difficult part of the trek so far. It is a good thing that the lunch stop comes where it does, because I don't think I could have managed very many more steps.
After eating we will cross the river (another cool suspension bridge) and then we have a steep climb similar to the one leading up to Namche, which will take us to Tengboche on the ridgetop. We have calculated that this altitude gain is similar to climbing Snowdon, the only differences being that it is much steeper, the whole thing is at high altitude, and we have already been walking for half a day to get this far. It's going to be fun!
We made it! It was certainly a long climb, but it is amazing what you can do as long as the pace is slow enough, and my ankle seems fine as long as it is going uphill.
Halfway up we catch up with our yaks, and follow along behind them for a while. The yak girls are full of energy and chatter constantly, having no problems breathing despite the steepness of the trail. Their voices blend with the yak bells to create a strangely beautiful and very soothing accompaniment to the climb.
The Lonely Planet guidebook describes Tengboche as one of the most magnificent places in the world, and I have to agree with them. I certainly don't think I have ever seen anything more beautiful than this. It is a flattish plateau at 12500', completely surrounded by high peaks. Most spectacular are AmaDablam to the east and Lhotse to the north east, but we can also see Nuptse and Tawachee in the north, with the summit of Everest just peaking above them, Thamserku in the south, Kwangde in the south west, and Kantega in the south east. At this time of year the peaks are a mixture of white snow and black rock, and the overall effect is impossible to describe. The magic of this place is only enhanced by the high altitude, cold, and difficulty of access: I'm glad that this beautiful spot is so far beyond the reach of day trippers and casual tourists, because the necessity of a pilgrimage to reach a place can only help to make the goal seem more precious.
It is extremely cold here, with snow remaining on the ground even in direct sunlight, and for the first time we have to pitch the tents on top of snow. Tonight I will sleep wearing my down jacket, scarf, woollen hat and gloves in addition to all my clothing from yesterday. We give up on digging a hole for the toilet tent because the ground is frozen solid, opting to use the truly disgusting latrine around the back of the teahouse instead (a simple hole in the floor only works as long as people can manage not to miss the hole, and it gets particularly gross when the results of this bad aiming get frozen in place).
I'm really starting to feel the altitude here: dizzy, a slight headache, and I've totally lost my appetite. It is a good thing we aren't planning to continue upwards, because these are the classic warning signs which mean I must not go any higher without extra time to adjust. I'll be ok to spend the night here, though: this is a good place to acclimatise because if things do start to go wrong, it is right at the top of a steep hill so you can lose a lot of altitude very quickly.
Before dinner we take a look around the Tengboche monastery. This is one of the largest in the area, and major focal point for the local Buddhist religion, although it is not especially old. It was built in 1919, rebuilt after it was damaged by an earthquake in 1934, and then rebuilt again after it burned down in 1989. We are ushered into the large central room, which is dominated by a huge statue of the Buddha at one end, and filled by five or ten monks (the exact number varies as they move around), who are sitting on benches, chanting, playing instruments, and drinking endless cups of tea. They are all wearing dark red robes, and make an incredible racket with their cymbals, huge drum, and some instruments that look like an oversized shawm and make a noise that is both louder and more out of tune than anything I've heard in my life. The effect is raw and powerful, and they seem to continue this indefinitely: what a way and place for a person to spend their life. I feel privileged to have witnessed it.
After visiting the monks we stand around in the snow behind the monastery to watch the sunset, and take what I hope will turn out to be some nice photos as Lhotse, Everest and AmaDablam turn a deep red colour.
Talking about low temperatures is starting to get boring, but with the increasing altitude, each night manages to be a good notch colder than the previous one. At least the teahouse here has plenty of firewood, and a spring on the door to make sure it stays closed. The only problem was that the room quickly filled with woodsmoke from the poorly ventilated stove, which didn't help those of us who were already feeling a bit strange because of the altitude.
In my westernised, numerical view of the world, I am regretting not bringing a thermometer to measure exactly how cold things are getting. Nobody here has a clue: A.J. is happy just to describe Namche as very cold, and Tengboche as even colder! One point of reference is that in Namche, Dugna was sleeping in an unheated but enclosed room, and despite her body heat warming up the space, her thermometer registered an air temperature of minus six. In the morning, when Lara pours out a dish of water to clean her contact lenses, it freezes almost instantly. The temperature inside my tent isn't quite so bad, because the contents of my waterbottles remain liquid, but the condensation on my glasses is usually frozen by the morning. We all fill our bottles with boiling water just before going to bed, which serves both to sterilise it ready for drinking and to help keep us warm during the night.
I was woken at about 6:00 this morning by the sound of chanting and gongs coming from the monastery: what a great way to begin the day!
Our kitchen crew|
I was quite worried about the steep descent from Tengboche, because my ankle is not showing any signs of getting better, but thanks to Julian and Steve, it turned out to be ok. Steve is a stick, about three feet long, which was pressed on us by a very enthusiastic woman when we arrived at Lukla. She was on her way out, and claimed that this stick had already covered about 180 miles through the Himalayas, so would we please take it and continue the tradition. Julian accepted it, but didn't find it to be especially helpful: he named it Steve after his university supervisor on the grounds that they were both equally useless. For someone with a bad ankle, though, a stick can be extremely handy, and Julian very generously let me borrow it. I feel silly as I limp along the trail with my walking stick in one hand, but it reinforces my ankle enough that I can manage a similar speed to everyone else even on the steepest descents, and I no longer need to be quite so careful about making sure that I have a totally flat purchase for my left foot.
We are initially retracing our steps from Tengboche to Namche, down the hill, across the river, and up the other side of the valley, but after lunch we turn ninety degrees to the right and head up the side of the valley rather than continuing along it on the direct trail to Namche. This takes us to the village of Khumjung, the largest in the area and the home of the local school and hospital. These were built by Sir Edmund Hillary, and are located in Khumjung at least in part because this was the birthplace of Sherpa Tensing. Hillary is enormously admired and respected in this part of the world, and he has done a great deal for the region both directly, eg. funding construction of the modern suspension bridges, and indirectly by inspiring the trekking industry which is such a crucial part of the local economy.
Leaving Khumjung, we climb steeply to a high pass near the Everest View Hotel, and then drop even more steeply back into Namche. A.J. claims that this spot is slightly higher even than Tengboche, but my map disagrees with this. In any case, it was a long way up, and a long way back down again! Unfortunately it was quite overcast in the afternoon, so we didn't get much in the way of good views from the top.
On the way down the Sirdar ducks into a lodge, saying that he needs to make a phone call to his family in Kathmandu. A telephone is absolutely the last thing I would have expected to find on this hillside, but the whole region is full of such contradictions. It is quite common to find a satellite dish nestled in a corner somewhere among the chickens and drying yak dung.
Tragedy! Last night in Namche, one of the sherpas was using Steve (my stick) to retrieve a badminton shuttle from the roof of the building, and snapped him in two! Ah well, he did a good job in the stove, and kept us warm for several minutes...
The next morning is market day in Namche, and I buy a replacement stick from one of the trekking shops. This costs me 50 rupees (about 45 pence) and I think the shopkeeper is quite surprised that I don't try to bargain her down from that, but this is too small a sum to bother quibbling about. The new stick does the job quite nicely, but it leaks some kind of smelly rosin/creosote substance all over my hand, and doesn't have nearly as much character as Steve did. I'm unable to decide whether the replacement stick should be called Steve, Son of Steve, or perhaps Roger (to continue Julian's tradition of naming your walking stick after your university supervisor).
The Namche market is a busy affair, and people walk for up to a day from all directions to buy and sell things here. A.J. comments that this must all seem very strange to us, but nothing could be further from the truth. The costumes and commodities are different, but the basic scene is not at all dissimilar to a Wednesday morning at home in Market Drayton.
Today we are returning from Namche to Phakding. The trail leads down the steep Namche hill, over some barren rocks by the riverside, and then slightly higher up the valley sides for the remainder of the afternoon, with several river crossings on long suspension bridges. These are extremely wobbly, especially whenever there is any wind, but although I'm normally terrified by anything like this, for some reason I feel quite safe on them. Lara hates them, though!
The walking is easy, but the pain from my ankle and my resulting uneven gait, along with the anticlimax of descending and retracing our steps, makes it seem like quite hard going: probably the least enjoyable walking of the trek. Ken and I are going perhaps 1% slower than everyone else, and usually end up trailing far enough behind that we are out of sight by the time the others stop for a rest, but I console myself with the thought that I am injured and would probably be on a par with the average level of fitness if all other things were equal.
The cook has been carrying a couple of live chickens around with him today, slung upside down beside his pack. Julian was very interested in these and took several photographs of them. When he asked if they were for dinner, the cook said yes, tomorrow.
The entire kitchen crew sings while preparing food, to the accompaniment of a primitive two-headed drum. The songs are straightforward, usually pentatonic melodies: this folk music is several orders of magnitude simpler than the elaborate classical traditions of India, Thailand, or Java. The singing is often terribly out of tune, but it is all done so enthusiastically that this doesn't matter. The timing between phrases is also somewhat erratic: they will sing one line, and then pause for an arbitrary but often quite long period of time before someone starts up again and cues them all to join in on the next phrase.
My hair is starting to feel truly horrible: I am in desperate need of a shampoo! I did try to shave this morning, but it was less than ideally successful due to the coldness of the water.
We are camped just above the river here in Phakding, and the sound of rushing water provides a pleasant backdrop for the evening. This is the home village of our yaks and the two yak girls, who have now gone back to their families. We all agree that this is a great shame: they were very shy, but also extremely attractive and it was a lot of fun to have them around.
The chickens were duly slaughtered, but sadly proved to be almost impossible to eat. I don't know if this is because they were just too tough, or if it was the fault of the way they were prepared, but although they did make a nice broth, the lumps of meat were almost pure gristle. Very sad.
We got some interesting conversation going yesterday evening, before we were kicked out of the teahouse at 9:00. Our sitting room served double purpose as the family bedroom, and they decided it was time to put their kids to sleep. Oh well, we could easily have stayed up all night talking, but the sleep was probably better for us. One interesting topic was how many and which other countries people had visited. The group average seems to be somewhere in the upper twenties, which made me feel hopelessly inexperienced with my list of countries that fits on the fingers of one hand!
Yesterday night was incredibly warm. The essence of comfort lies in the ability to stick your nose out of your sleeping bag without it becoming numb and/or painful.
Today we only had a short walk, diagonally upwards along the side of the valley back to Lukla. The last half hour was surprisingly tough going: I don't remember it being nearly this steep when we were coming down it at the beginning of the trek! We arrive in Lukla and pitch our tents in time for lunch, and immediately start plotting a major drinking session for this evening, to celebrate the successful conclusion of our trek.
seen in the
Our flight back to Kathmandu leaves early tomorrow morning, but as always this is uncertain and depends on the weather. Some planes did get through today, which is a good sign, but we are limited to morning flights (it is impossible to land in the afternoon because the wind direction is wrong). If the weather does turn out badly, we have one free day to hang around and try again, after which we will resort to chartering a helicopter. That is apparently quite a common event when people get stuck here: it costs about $1000 an hour, which you have to pay on the spot but can later reclaim from your travel insurance.
The Paradise Lodge is very plush, probably the most comfortable teahouse that we have visited. In fact, everything in Lukla seems very solid and prosperous: probably something to do with the proximity to a busy airstrip. Inside the lodge, they have some photographs of Edmund Hillary sitting by their fireplace: this place has had some distinguished visitors!
At the end of a trek it is customary for the tourists to tip the trekking crew. We pooled our resources and came up with a total of about $250, which we gave to A.J, who promptly vanished off into his tent and divided this up using some arcane formula probably based on seniority or performance-related pay or something like that. A.J. returned with a collection of envelopes, and we hand these out after dinner. Everyone seems happy, and a rowdy party soon develops, involving much consumption of beer, singing of songs, playing of drums, and dancing. The Sirdar is the drummer and songleader, but everyone knows the tunes and even we ignorant foreigners are able to hum along. At one point we try to sing some European songs, but soon run into difficulties as we cannot remember enough words. The alcohol goes to my head very quickly, perhaps because of the altitude or maybe because Nepalese bottles of beer are about ten times larger than the standard size from back home. The cook is sitting next to the Sirdar and looking very green: he is already badly hung over from the previous night in Phakding. At one point the lodge owner puts on a tape of cheesy 80's pop music, but this is no good: we make him turn it off and return to the much more interesting home-brew style of entertainment.
Our wakeup call comes at the barbaric hour of 6:45, and we struggle with our hangovers as we pack our bags and make our way over to the airport. The security guy is very enthusiastic about searching through our luggage: I'm not sure what he is looking for. Perhaps he is hoping we are in enough a hurry that we might bribe him to hurry the process up a bit. We stand around for a couple of hours waiting first for the plane to arrive, and then for it to sit on the runway as the pilot goes off for lunch: this transport system does not exactly run on a rigid time schedule. The takeoff is terrifying (accelerating down a steep slope in order to gain enough speed to take off before the drop at the end of the tiny runway, and then instantly swooping off to one side to avoid the opposite wall of the valley), but the flight is soon over and we arrive back in Kathmandu.
What a contrast! Heat, pollution, and foul smells pervade the atmosphere. This place is busy, vibrant, and dirty: coming here from the mountains, it seems incredibly grotty. I'm very aware of the ethnic differences as well, which for some reason I failed to notice so clearly on the outward journey. Gone are the Mongoloid hill people, who made their way over the mountains from Tibet at some point way back in the whenever. Instead we have Hindus, women wearing saris, and on the way back to the hotel we drive pass a shoeshine boy and a barber with his chair and rusty, cracked mirror set out on the sidewalk. I feel like I've just flown straight from Lhasa to Calcutta.
Ken is in the shower at the moment, and I'm waiting for my turn. What joy! The toilets flush properly here, too.
Showers are great things, and my hair is gradually approaching a state of cleanliness, but the effectiveness of washing is limited by the fact that the water is a deep yellow colour and smells distinctly odd.
This morning A.J. took us to a big warehouse selling finely woven silk carpets and other expensive craft objects. Julian and Dennis both spend 1500 pounds on one of these beautiful carpets, and as they clinch the deal, A.J. tells me that this sum represents about two years of really hard work for him. He doesn't sound bitter, just commenting on the absurdity of the situation. I smile and agree that yes, it is a lot of money, certainly more than I could afford to spend on a carpet. But we both know that this isn't strictly true: I may not want a carpet that badly, but I could comfortably afford a couple of thousand for similar nonessential luxury items. A.J. is university educated, intelligent, and articulate, and holds a senior position in one of Nepal's most profitable industries. It is impossible to rationalise or justify this huge disparity of wealth.
After buying the carpets we take a taxi to Bhaktapur, and hire a guide to show us around for the rest of the morning. This is one of the three medieval cities of the Kathmandu valley, each of which used to be the capital of a separate kingdom. Kathmandu has recently swallowed the third city, but Bhaktapur is still separated by a small expanse of farmland. As a result of ancient rivalries between the three kings, the town centre is full of magnificent Hindu temples, built in an attempt to outdo the ones in Kathmandu's Durbar Square. I like this place more than Kathmandu, though, because it seems far more natural and less commercialised. We see potters working their wheels, with huge areas of the ground covered with pottery sat out in the sun to dry, and we visit a workshop where people are painting thankas: enormously detailed Buddhist artwork made to traditional Tibetan designs. We've seen many of these paintings for sale all around Kathmandu, but they were far less finely drawn than the ones here, and Julian, Lara and I are all impressed enough to reach for our wallets.
In the afternoon I make my way back to the Thamel region on my own. It is still an ugly scene, but for some reason I'm getting far less hassle than I did before. Why is this? Am I just getting used to it, or do I somehow look less naive now, so that people are really bothering me less? In any case, it was a successful afternoon: I pick up a pair of beautifully made and nice sounding tabla drums. I dread to think what these would have cost in a music shop back home, but after some friendly negotiation, I buy them for only 3500 rupees (about 32 pounds).
Last night was kind of boring: I managed to lose touch with the rest of the group, so I spent the evening on my own. I went for a long walk through Kathmandu in the dark, which was quite spooky: it was only 9:00, but there were very few lights and even fewer cars and pedestrians. I passed a lot of people who were sleeping or squatting around fires in areas of wasteland by the side of the road, but although I felt slightly nervous, I was never really worried by it. I did take the basic precaution of leaving my wallet back at the hotel and only carrying some loose change with me, but despite the incredible poverty, I think it is much safer to walk through Kathmandu at night than it would be to do the same thing at home in Croydon.
The journey home was very predictable. Kathmandu airport was disorganised: the baggage guy didn't show up for work until 7:00 AM despite the supposed 6:30 check-in time. Doha was flat and warm, but not as hot as I had expected considering that we visited it at midday: the sky was quite overcast. The plane was almost empty, but I was sat right in front of a loud-mouthed and very stupid British family who spent most of the flight making inane comments about timezone confusions. Argh. Since I'm travelling on a US passport, I had to go through the foreign immigration line at Heathrow, which involved queueing up for a full half hour: what an incredibly arrogant and insulting way to welcome new visitors to a country! The trains were still running, and when I finally reached it, my flat was still standing. I got home at 9:00 PM UK time, after more than twenty hours on the move.
I was tempted to complete my journey by walking home from the station, but was defeated by tiredness, the weight of my bag, and the fact that my ankle is still not in great shape. As I got into the taxi, I very nearly fell into the familiar Nepalese routine: "how much to Castlemaine Avenue?", "No, it's too much. I'll give you two fifty". But it doesn't work like that here, so I kept quiet and just paid what it said on the meter.
At home, I turned all the heaters up to full, and then took a long drink of water, straight from the tap without any need for boiling. Only a fortnight ago, I took these things entirely for granted.