How I Spent My Christmas Vacation 2:
Park of “Trek” Don’t You Understand?
When last we met (read part 1), I believe I’d left you with the distinct impression that my first trek to Nepal was also my last trek to Nepal. Except…I also seem to recall that my final words to you were something like, “I understand Tengboche is beautiful this time of year.”
Oh oh. This little story could only be going one place.
I know, I know. I swore I was finished with trekking. No more squatting over holes in the ground, no more sleeping in tents. Once was more than enough. But you know…the trek I’d actually wanted to take was the one to Tengboche. So, when the brochure poked its tantalizing little head out of my mailbox, I said, well, I’ll read it. Just to glory in the fact that I’ll be choosing some other exotic location for this year’s explorations.
Well, I read the itinerary. And discovered that the accommodations were lodges and not tents. Now, I’m not talking the Ahwahnee here when I say lodge. These are wood or stone structures, some of which make Abraham Lincoln’s childhood log cabin look like a five-star hotel. But still, this was the trek I had originally wanted to do. And – maybe most important -- I still had a few Nepali rupees left from my first trip – rupees I’d forgotten to exchange at the Kathmandu airport. Enough rupees to pay for another visa. And since you can’t exchange rupees anywhere except Nepal, hey! Have you got a better idea?
Maybe, I thought, I do have one more trek left in me. And besides – I’ve been to Nepal. I know the ropes. There won’t be any surprises this time. We’ll be in lodges, not tents. How hard can this be?
Please fasten your seatbelt. We’re about to take off.
December 16, 2000
Bangkok to Kathmandu – Elevation 4200 feet
My tale actually starts in Bangkok, Thailand, at the Oriental Hotel – without question, one of the most luxurious establishments in the world. Lying in my king sized bed, covered with a feather-filled summer comforter, staring out over the Chao Praya, glancing from time to time at the orchid arrangement the hotel had sent to celebrate my birthday, I again questioned my sanity. I could still cancel my trek and spend the rest of my vacation here, in Paradise. With a sigh, I pulled myself out of bed, slipped into my denial and headed for the airport in one of the hotel’s chauffer-driven Mercedes.
Flying into Kathmandu the second time around was nearly as exciting as my previous trip. I was again in a window seat on the right hand side of the plane, the perfect place to view the Himalay as you fly into Nepal. I was dazzled by our flight path over the Bay of Bengal. It sounded so exotic! As we reached the edge of Nepal, I saw the unending row of white peaks poking through the clouds, rising to nearly the same height as our plane flew. Finally, I spotted Everest. This time, I had a much better understanding of the mountains’ grace and grandeur.
What a difference two years makes – if not in the Kathmandu airport itself then at least in how it appeared to me. We landed and taxied toward the terminal, and I saw the same brick building, in what seemed to be the same state of semi-construction. But I’ve gotta admit – for some reason, the airport didn’t look as underdeveloped as before. Maybe my view was colored by the fact that just six weeks earlier, I had flown into Durango, Colorado – on a much smaller plane, to a much smaller and more basic terminal. It’s all perspective, I suppose.
I was the last one through immigration. Who knew Nepal doesn’t accept Thai baht? (Doesn’t say that in my books!) And they don’t even want their own currency for a visa! They want US dollars! I didn’t remember that from my first trip, even though I’m sure it hasn’t changed. Oh well…they finally took my rupees, stamped my passport and let me into the country..
Outside the terminal, the same crowds of people – a crush of young men and boys jostling each other to carry your bags or help you get a cab – all to earn a few rupees. I was pretty sure someone would be there to meet me. And if not – well, since I was an old hand at the ways of Kathmandu. I’d be able to bargain for a cab without a problem.
Within seconds, I saw the sign for the Potala Guest House – and a familiar face! It was Kalu, a guide from my last trek who would be the Sirdir, or leader, on this one. He recognized me, too, and we shouted hellos as we hugged, two old friends. Kalu ushered me to the car – not the beat up old tin can of a van I remembered from last time. But a brand new, barely out-of-the box Isuzu SUV. It seems that Peter Owens, the owner of the tour company, had invested in a car and a driver. I felt positively decadent driving through the streets of Kathmandu in this shiny new vehicle. Things were good. This would be a wonderful trip! I was in such heavy denial!
We arrived at the Potala Guest House, and I was hit with mixed feelings. It was wonderful to see all the people I remembered from two years ago. Since Peter does so much business there, the staff is like family, not only to Peter and his crew but to all of us who take his trips. And it really did seem as if the man at the front desk remembered me. But I was also starting to grit my teeth. The Potala was still no Hyatt (although surprisingly enough, there was a new Hyatt in Kathmandu. In the back of my mind, I toyed with the idea of staying there until the rest of the group arrived. Actually, it wasn’t in the back of my mind. It was in one of my frontal lobes, dancing and teasing.) But as I said, I knew the ropes. Before I left the front desk, I arranged to rent a small space heater for my room.
I met some people who had just come back from the same trek I would be taking. All they could tell me was how cold it had been. Didn’t need to hear that. Then they told me about all the people who had gotten sick – both from the altitude and from some nasty bacterial beastie. Oh, it was just getting better and better. The bacteria didn’t worry me. But I was getting a little queasy over the altitude thing. On my last trip, we had climbed to 11,000’. And I had had no problems. This time, we were going to 13,000’. Not really much higher. My doctor hadn’t even suggested any of the stuff he could’ve prescribed for altitude sickness. But a friend’s parting words to me were, “Get diamox. You’ll thank me for it!” In the lobby of the Potala, I was starting to wonder. And worry. Just a little. Either this was a big bunch of weenies, or I was in deep trouble.
Over the next two days, I ran around Kathmandu, trying to discover something I thought I might have missed the last time. Some special feeling or vibe that the city must give off. Something that would make me feel some magic. I didn’t think I had really seen much of the city before, so maybe I just missed it. By the end of the day, though, I had confirmed it – there is nothing magical about Kathmandu. It’s dirty, dusty, ugly and poor. Cleanliness is certainly not next to godliness in Nepal. I saw the merchants carefully dusting off their goods as they set things out in the mornings, and I wondered why? As soon as the traffic started up, everything would immediately be covered in dirt. And if one more person hocked a lugie and spit, I was gonna scream! More than a few merchants halted in mid-hock when I walked by their shops in the morning. Yuck!
But that’s not to say I didn’t have some fun exploring Kathmandu. Like early one morning when I wandered into a part of town that was just the locals going about their daily business. An old woman was deep frying something in a wok. I saw some cauliflower under the small, low table she had the wok on and thought maybe that’s what she was making. I motioned to the woman that I wanted some. She asked me how many, and I held up two fingers. I honestly don’t know if I told her I wanted two of the things or two orders of the things. She dropped four into a paper cone. I handed her a 20 rupee note – about 40 cents – and she gave me 17 rupees change.
I walked away, biting into one of the balls. It wasn’t cauliflower, but dough. Maybe this was Tibetan fried bread? (I was staying in a fairly Tibetan part of town.) It was ok. I probably wouldn’t go for seconds. But it wasn’t bad.
I also managed to get myself completely lost – but I knew I wasn’t far from home and would eventually find my way back. By this time, though, more merchants were putting out their wares, and pretty soon, I was looking at saris. The owner of one stall invited me to step inside, and I did, thinking that I really didn’t need more fabric, but what the heck! Stuff was very inexpensive.
The man in the stall and I went through a number of saris until I found two that I liked – one was teal with a wide iridescent border and the other red chiffon with a white hand-beaded border. The owner and I sat down on small wooden stools to negotiate the price.
The owner pointed to each of the saris. 150 and 175, he said. I was flabbergasted, absolutely speechless! I knew prices where good – but this was downright ridiculous! I hardly felt like bargaining, but protocol demanded it. I offered 300 for both. The merchant was a little surprised, but said ok. I pulled out 300 rupees, and he said no, not rupees. Dollars. US dollars! I nearly fell off my stool trying not to laugh! Who’d he think he was talking to? I’m off the tourist path, deep in the heart of a local market! Did he think I was so stupid that I’d just fork over $300.00 for a couple of saris in a stall? Well, obviously the answer was yes!
I told him he was much too expensive, that in the US this would only cost about $25.00 (which is true.) I offered him 2,000 rupees (about US27.00) but he countered with about 2200. Too much, I said, and left, laughing to myself.
After a day or so, I realized that I was so over Kathmandu. I was on sensory overload from all the stuff for sale (Isn’t it interesting that so many poor people can have so much to sell?) I was over the beggars, the hawkers (Tiger Balm, five for a hundred) and the men who stand in front of their shops and pick their noses. If I ever come back to Kathamndu (and ok, I probably will), it’ll be for a day to shop and then out!!!
I was more than ready to meet the rest of the crew when they finally arrived. After all, these were the people I’d be living with for the next week. I’d been in touch by e-mail with Linda and Lynda – but not enough to get a real handle on what they would be like. I was delighted when I met them, and the more I got to know them, the more I liked them. They live in Long Beach, where Linda is a high school teacher, and Lynda works for the post office. They’re in their mid-50’s and have been together 17 years. They are so utterly devoted to each other, the kind of love you wish more people shared. I couldn’t help but smile whenever I watched them.
Richard was an odd duck. He lives in Maryland, where he teaches graduate level business classes at a university. But he’s kinda weird. He talked quite loudly in his nasal New Jersey whine, was constantly talking about money (how much things cost, how much he spent, how much he saved – and by the way, how much did you pay>) He seems to have traveled quite extensively. But when it came to this trip, he was like a beginner. He had brought every single item Peter had suggested – and his duffel must’ve weighed at least 70 pounds – 50 more than allowed. We all took turns trying to lift it – even the guides had trouble!
And then there was Robin, my roommate. She’s 41, cute, perky, blonde, nice – and after 20 years in the Army’s Special Forces, getting ready to retire. She’d been to survival school recently and seemed pretty gung ho. But she also seemed like a lot of fun, and it wasn’t long before we were chattering away, showing each other what we had brought, comparing boots and sharing stuff as if we’d known each other for years. I thought we were gonna do just fine. As long as she didn’t order me to drop and give her 50.
Trek Day 1
December 21, 2000
Kathmandu to Lukla
4200’ flying to 9300’ and trekking to 8700’
Our wake up call came at 5:00am. Robin and I grumbled and groaned as we got dressed and finished packing. Upstairs in the room that Peter uses for a trek office, Kalu and
a couple other guides I remembered from the last trek were there to offer us coffee and really, really bad cinnamon rolls. Downright nasty cinnamon rolls.
At about 5:30am, we piled into a van and drove through the dark, silent streets of Kathmandu to the airport. Kathmandu is not a city that wakes early, so not even a cow was stirring. The pre-dawn temperature was mild, so warm that I didn’t need gloves, and couldn’t even see my breath in the morning air. The temperature had warmed so much over the last two days that Robin and I hadn’t needed the little heater in our room I took this as an omen that we’d have good weather on the trek.
The airport was a little surreal at that hour. It was dark and a bit foggy, with uniformed men patrolling outside the domestic terminal. Once inside, we had to pass one-by-one by the security matrons. There were no metal detectors in the domestic terminal – only separate curtained stalls for men and women. Behind the curtain, the matron asked if I had any knives or matches. We were on the honor system to hand over any contraband. I surrendered two books of matches.
After a short fog delay, (we were lucky – at this time of year, fog can slow you down for hours.) 18 of us clamored on board our Yeti Airways twin engine Otter, belted ourselves in and took off on our half-hour flight to Lukla. The “flight attendant” was a young man who offered us cotton balls for our ears and hard candy. I took the window seat, which was just fine with Robin. It turns out Ms. Survival School doesn’t like flying. She can jump out of planes, she says, but she doesn’t like flying in ‘em.
The flight was thrilling – and not just because we were crammed into such a small plane. We were probably cruising at about 9,000 feet – just above the clouds. The words to an old Joni Mitchell song kept running through my head – “Bows and flows of angel’s hair, and ice cream castles in the air.” These looked more like powder puffs, with huge snow-capped mountains poking through the fluff. Along my side of the plane were these magnificent mountains, covered with thick forests of trees, scattered houses, fields and terraced farmland. The mountains looked impossible to climb, but obviously they weren’t because I could see scatterings of houses. As we got closer to Lukla, the clouds seemed to break, although a heavy mist still blanketed the mountains out my window.
Our route took us between the mountains. It was a little bumpy, but not too bad. I thought this must be a little like flying through the Grand Canyon – only on a larger scale. Outside the plane’s windows, the mountains looked close enough to touch.
We landed on a short runway and kind of pulled over to a hard-packed dirt area on one side. The airport, such as it was, was scheduled to close for construction around the first of the year. In the meantime, there nothing more than the landing strip and lodges that surrounded it. I stepped off the plane and slammed into the cold air. Damn! The wind – or rather, breeze, because it wasn’t blowing hard enough to be considered wind – cut right through my light weight trekking pants. I started to worry that’d I’d worn the wrong clothes and that I’d freeze. Now, I was the first to admit that I still wasn’t an expert. But I did have one Nepali trek under my down jacket. Could I have been so wrong about the weather on this mountain? I considered trying to find my thermal undies in my duffle, but passed. I didn’t wanna be the wuss who made the porters undo everything so I could find my thermals. I decided to grin and bear it.
Kalu herded us uphill (uphill being the theme of this trek) to a kind of European-looking lodge where we warmed ourselves by the wood-burning stove in the dining room. Kalu attended to whatever it is he needed to do while we drank milk tea and used the facilities – the first of many squats to come. Then – we were off on our trek! It was about 8:45am and already noticeably warmer than when we arrived about half an hour earlier. It was warming so quickly that about ten minutes into our newly-started trek (in the middle of beautiful downtown Lukla, I might add, where the merchants get an earlier start than their Kathmandu counterparts.) we halted and start stripping off sweaters and jackets. I breathed a sigh of relief – it wouldn’t be too cold after all.
The path seemed fairly flat. I was trying to pay attention to what it was like because we’d be coming back this same way, and I wanted to remember what to expect on the return. What wasn’t flat was a little rocky. There were a few steps, but for the most part, it was pretty easy trail walking. Of course, still being heavily in denial, I was ignoring the fact that we were, in fact, going down hill, dropping to 8,600’. We were all keeping a similar pace, chattering away as we made our way toward Phakding. It was a lazy, mild day, and we made an early lunch stop in a village called Thadokoshi. From our little outdoor terrace, we were looking up at a snow-capped Thomserku. Our first Himalay!
I talked Robin into ordering momo, which are basically Tibetan potstickers. I was introduced to them on my first trip to Nepal and fell in love with them. I’d already eaten them several times in Kathmandu and bought a Tibetan cookbook with a recipe. Mmmm!
There’s a whole system to ordering food in this part of Nepal, we discovered. You record what you want in a sort of log book, which is taken inside to the kitchen. (Very often, the younger guides and porters will study these books, as well as the menus, reading them as if they were text books, repeating the English words out loud.) We also learned something else about dining in Nepal – no napkins! In Kathmandu, we got paper napkins that were about half the size of a normal Western napkin. But once outside Kathmandu – apparently sleeves or pant legs were de rigueur.
Once we’d ordered, we sat back, relaxed and enjoyed the sunshine. There was a steady stream of people passing us, including a number of Western trekkers in ones and twos with their guides. We talked to each of the people, Linda, Lynda and I greeting them with “Namaste!” and asking where they were going. Some, we’d meet again, like Brian and Kimberly, a young couple from Colorado that was teaching in Bangladesh for a couple of years. Richard embarrassed us all when he told them he’d turned down a job in Bangladesh because it’s such an awful place to live. Typical Richard.
This part of Nepal is decidedly different from where I trekked last time. On that trek, we were passing through villages that seemed fairly untouched by the tourist trade. Here, in the Solu-Khumbu region, the main means of support is tourism. We passed one small lodge or tea house after another .It makes sense when you realize that this is the route to Everest. Still, I’m glad I saw a much more unspoiled area on my first trek.
Lunch was pretty bad – the momo were fried, not steamed the way I’d had them before. They were like little rocks and just about as tasteless. I hoped this wasn’t an indication of the food on this trip. The last time, it had been great! But the last time, since we were camping, we had a chef and kitchen crew who cooked for us. Well, maybe this time around I’d lose some weight ‘cause I sure didn’t the first time!
Lunch was topped off by my first experience in the roadside facilities you find in this part of the country. I made my way slightly down hill to a little wooden – shack. The door was hanging by one hinge, the building nothing more than four walls and a floor with a diamond-shaped hole cut in it. Below, in a huge pile, were the remains of those who had gone before. Oh, joy.
After a two-hour break, we were back on the road. (It took almost that long to get our food, which taught us Nepali Restaurant Lesson #1: If we all ordered the same thing, we’d get served quickly. And if we really wanted to get our food fast, we’d order dal bhat – the national Nepali rice and lentil dish. It was what our guides and porters ate, and it was the fastest thing on the menu..)
We passed some odd-looking people, one especially so who was wearing some type of leather knickers and striped boots. They wore their very long black hair in what I later discovered was a very old style the Sherpas also used to sport – braided and wound around their heads, strands of something red woven into the braid. These, we were told, were Khampa, a Tibetan tribe. The Khampa make a week-long trek across the border, traveling to Namche Bazar to sell their various wares – Tibetan rugs, clothing and so on. They speak their own language, one that’s apparently quite difficult to understand, and even the Nepali consider them a little weird.
Our trek for the day was pretty short – about three hours in all. It was early afternoon when we reached Phakding and our accommodations for the night, the Sunrise Lodge. From what we’d seen so far, the Sunrise looked to be one of the more upscale lodges. Two stories of guest rooms topped the two large dining rooms and a huge kitchen. Robin and I chose our room -- #1 – at the farthest end of the “corridor,” way away from the toilet (It’s my policy not to get out of my warm sleeping bag in the middle of the night unless it’s a dire emergency. It was my goal that having to pee in the middle of the night would not become a dire emergency. So farther from the toilet was better, as far as I was concerned!) Our corner room turned out to be great not only for its views, but because we were over the kitchen and got a little heat from below. Not enough to really warm the room, but enough to keep the chill off the uncovered wooden floor.
Now, let’s see if I can give you a good picture of the “guest rooms.”
The room at the Sunrise was typical of what we encountered throughout the trek. The only furnishings were two single wooden cots – good, solid frames – with foam mattresses about two or three inches thick. They were covered with a kind of velveteen spread, red with bright patterns of birds and flowers in yellow and green and purple. And yes, even pillows. Foam pillows. At the Sunrise, they sported neon-bright fuchsia cases.
And before you go thinking these were real rooms – nuh uh. The “rooms” and “hall” were made by partitioning up the floor with plywood. At the Sunrise, the walls went up to the ceiling, but the doors stopped about six inches or so below. Sound proofing or privacy? Nope. There are no secrets in Nepali lodges.
We had a typed page of rules tacked up on the wall – no fires or candles, things like that. But it also said the solar-powered light would be available for 20 minutes before bedtime. That simple statement on its own unleashed all kinds of questions. Did that mean there would be a set lights out time? Did we need to request that the light be turned on? It was all so confusing! I never did get the answers to any of my questions. Kalu negotiated with the management and got us 30 minutes of light, and the light was already on when we got back from dinner. Unfortunately, it wasn’t bright enough to be useful, so we shut it off an used our flashlights instead.
And, of course, no lodge description would be complete without a few words on the lovely communal toilet. It actually was pretty decent, being inside and all. It was a porcelain bowl and had a flushing mechanism. But it also smelled awful. Breathe deeply before entering!
Before dinner, Robin and I had time to walk down to the river, the Dudh Kosi, so she could fill her water bottle. (Soldier Girl had come prepared for war. She had some expensive water bottle with a filter system so she could drink the local water). Peter had given all of us iodine to purify our water. I can’t stand the taste, so I opted for buying bottled water along the way. It cost anywhere from 15 to 180 rupees (about 30 cents to $2.50) On the last trek, we had no access to bottled water. But since Khumbu is such a tourist area, the necessities of life, like bottled water, toilet paper and chocolate, are available all along the way. (Keep in mind that when I say :”tourist area,” I’m not talking Hawaii here. It’s probably only about 17,000 people who trek this way during an entire year. But for Nepal, that’s a lot.) On the way to the river, we ran into three Russians coming back from Namche Bazar. Robin conversed with them in Russian, one of three languages she speaks, and I admit – I was very impressed. (Have I mentioned that Robin’s specialty is interrogation? She spent some time in Germany, debriefing defectors.)
We wandered along the river for a few yards until we came to a massive trash build up - paper and trash and plastic bottles and dozens upon dozens of beer bottles. It’s depressing how people – trekkers very much included – dump their trash anywhere. Nepal is such a beautiful country, but unfortunately, it’s being ruined.
Back at the lodge, I had some salty and not very good dal bhat (ok, so much for ordering what the guides and porters order!) It was cozy in the dining room, and after dinner, we sat around the wood-burning stove that heated the room, and just talked. Something kept tickling my nose and throat, making me cough. (Later, I realized it was the stove. I don’t think they were burning cow dung at this low altitude – but something had me hacking.)
I was quite pleased that I made it from the dining room back to my room without having to put my gloves on. Of course, it took less than two minutes to make the trip. Once in my room, I gathered up my toiletries and went back outside to get ready for bed. Overhead, the sky was full of stars – so crowded there was hardly room for them all. Think of the most stars you’ve ever seen, and multiply that by about 100,000. That might start to give you an idea of how many stars you can see in the Nepali sky!
I brushed my teeth, using the water that flowed freely from a spigot a few yards from the building. (In Nepal, there’s no shortage of water, and there always seems to be a spigot of running water.) Next, I took out the lavender-scented, French-milled soap that my friend, Mona, had given me the night before I left. This, she told me, was a piece of civilization to take with me. Unfortunately, I had forgotten that our running water came from – yes, glaciers. And you know what? That’s really cold! Having soaped my face, I was committed to rinsing. So before I lost my fingers to frostbite, I splashed my face with enough water to get the soap off and scurried back inside! Brrrrrr! So much for the mild weather!
Robin and I crawled into our sleeping bags, with me bound and determined to let the down keep me warm. (Last time, I refused to believe the bag would work and overdressed. Consequently, a couple of times I froze.) I tried reading by my headlamp, but it wasn’t very easy. It couldn’t have been more than 9:30pm when I turned my light off and went to sleep And so far so good – I wouldn’t exactly say I was comfortable, but I was quite warm.
Friday, December 22, 2000
Phakding to Namche Bazar
8600’ to 11,270
I didn’t sleep very well that first night. I kept waking up partly because I just kept waking up and partly because my hips hurt. Robin told me that was because I was trying to curl up. Duh! She thought I was trying to keep warm. Wrong! I was trying to curl up because that’s how I sleep! Either curled up – or sprawled out across my king-sized bed. Take that sprawl and cram it into a sleeping bag and what do you get? Painful hips! But at least I was warm. Actually, almost too warm.
At breakfast, we discovered that Linda was sick. She and Lynda were afraid it might be the altitude, but Dr. Robin thought it was dehydration – that Linda hadn’t been drinking enough to compensate for all the water she lost sweating the previous day.
The rest of us gathered for breakfast in the dining room. (Mine was a fried egg and toast, which comes as a fried egg between two thick pieces of plain bread, sandwich style. The bread was good until it cooled – then it became hard as a rock.) While we ate, we discussed our options. Kalu suggested that Robin, Richard and I go ahead – and instead of spending the night as scheduled in Monjo, just an hour’s walk from where we were, go all the way to Namche. (Namche Bazar is the largest Sherpa village and the trading center for Sherpas in the region. It’s also the main center on the route to Tibet.) Since we’d wanted to make sure we were in Namche for the Saturday morning market, the three of us agreed that was the best plan.
It was about 9:30am when we left – cool but not cold. I was lightly layered, knowing I’d be tossing stuff in my backpack soon. Richard, on the other hand, still hadn’t learned. He was bundled up as if he were ready to tackle Everest. And, as usual, within a few minutes, he started peeling things off. First his down jacket…then his heavy wool sweater. But instead of putting them in his own pack, he handed them to Kalu to carry! As if the porters weren’t struggling enough under the weight of his duffel, he had the nerve to hand his lightweight clothing to our Sirdir.
The walk to Monjo was neither eventful nor difficult – it’s only a 600 foot climb -- but it was beautiful! We were following the Dudh Kosi, and every so often we stopped to marvel at the clear, clean water crashing over the rocks and the huge mountains looming over us. The sound of the flowing water was soothing, almost musical.
The porters climbing the trail were loaded with goods for the Saturday market. Their packs were amazing, even to Kalu, who has made this trip 40 or 50 times over the years. The bulk of the weight of their loads is carried above them, towers of goods that are often piled as high as the porters are tall. The whole load is braced against their foreheads with a strap. On top of what’s in the baskets on their backs, they carry cases of beer and Coke, gallon cans of soybean oil, cases of noodles and so on. I counted seven or eight cases of Carlsberg beer on several porters. Another had four of the soybean oil cans – plus a couple of boxes of noodles. They carried at least double their weight – and twice their height! They also carried walking sticks with thick, slightly curved handles. At first I thought that was odd – the porters I’d seen on my last trip carried heavy weights but no walking sticks. But then I saw these guys lean on the sticks when they took a few minutes break. They braced their butts against the curved handle, resting without putting down their loads.
Our porter, Padam (we left Kumar and one guide, Balakaje, with Linda and Lynda), also struggled with his load. It’s not unusual for the trek porters to carry three people’s duffels, which normally totals about 60 pounds. But with Richard’s 70 pounds, plus Robin’s and my more reasonable packs, Padam was working. Hard. He couldn’t have been more than 5’2” and was easily hauling twice his weight. But he never complained and never stopped smiling.
We stopped for lunch at Monjo, where I immediately bonded with a lovely dog who apparently lived at the tea house. I said hello to her, and she immediately shoved her face in my hand, making it known she was desperately in need of pooch nuzzles – her face, her ears, her neck, and any other part I cared to scratch.
While we rested, I had time to study the Sherpa women in front of the lodge across the trail from us. Most of them wore traditional Sherpa dress, clothing that came originally from Tibet – a long woolen robe called a chuba. Over the chuba, they wore striped woolen aprons. The colors were deep blues and reds and black.
Most of the younger Sherpas wore Western style clothing. But there was one thing all Sherpas shared – all wore some kind of name brand running shoes (like Nike) and sports jackets, and carried backpacks. Ah, civilization comes to Khumbu!
We also saw some people we’d first met on our flight to Lukla. They were American Buddhists, shooting video of ceremonies and rituals that most people can’t get in to see. A couple of them weren’t doing too well with the altitude. And a couple of others also didn’t look as if they really got enough regular exercise to be doing a trek like this. But that, in a way, is what this kind of trip is all about. Each person who goes has his or her own reason. Some want to challenge themselves, some simply want to see a remote part of the world, and others do it for spiritual reasons.
Just past Monjo, we entered the Sagamatha National Park, which is the world’s highest wildlife sanctuary. It stretches from Monjo to the top of the world, Mt. Everest. And while it’s a protected ecological zone, don’t expect to see park rangers patrolling the terrain in Jeeps! To the visitor’s eye, nothing changes when you step through the gate and into the park. Life goes on the way it has up the trail so far.
At first, it was fairly easy going. The path was rocky, but not too steep. We climbed a little, crossed some pretty sturdy bridges, dropped a little and crossed some not-so-good-but-still-really-well-constructed-by-Nepali-standards bridges. And then we started to climb. And climb. And climb. And it was steep. Very steep. And I was puffing and panting. It made me feel marginally better that the porters with their monstrous loads were stopping fairly frequently, too. But it made me feel worse, because I only had a camera, a couple of lenses, antiseptic hand wash and toilet paper in mine. (I was carrying my water bottle so I could swig from it as needed, which was often. Not only do you get really dry from the altitude and the exertion, but the trail is dusty – a very powdery kind of dirt that has you coughing and sneezing almost constantly.)
But if the trail was hard, our surroundings made the work worthwhile. They were just spectacular. Across a small tree-filled gully from us rose a stark, sharp mountain. Down its angular face were what in warmer weather would be waterfalls. They were frozen in place by the winter cold. It was breathtaking. That is, it took away whatever breath I had left.
Kul was leading the pack on this day. Richard was up ahead with him. Robin was kind of doing her own thing, but staying close to me. I kept telling her to go ahead and not wait. I was fine with my own pace, and I was very conscious of not slowing anyone else down, especially someone who’s used to doing a couple of full-rucksack runs each week. But, for some reason, she wouldn’t go ahead. Maybe she didn’t want to be close to Richard. Or maybe – maybe – she was having almost as hard a time as I was. In any case, Kalu stayed with me, keeping an eye on the slowest person in the pack, stopping when I would, giving me words of encouragement.
At one point, I started chanting “om mani padme hum,” the Tibetan prayer, timing my feet to the words. I tried to stay focused in the moment, using the climb as a walking meditation instead of looking ahead to how high I was climbing and how steep the climb would be. This part of the trek was going to be about three hours, and I didn’t want to spend it all concentrating on how hard it was. It helped – a little.
From time to time, I wondered if the altitude was doing anything to me. (I’m always looking for excuses!) I didn’t think so. I mean, I didn’t feel any different than I do at home – except that I was huffing and puffing as I climbed toward Namche. I was still thinking about what the people from the last trek had told me. But nope. No altitude problems. My nose, on the other hand, was getting raw from constant wiping and blowing. Robin, on the other hand, used military training to deal with her runny nose. I saw her hold her forefinger to one side of her nose, lean over and blow out the other side. Yuck! I’d rather have my raw nose!
About mid-way (at least, I thought it was midway), Kalu pointed out our first view of Everest -- just the tip of it peeking over some trees. I saw a small narrow trail off our path, and edged a few yard out to get a better shot.
“Didi, we’ll see better,” Kalu said to me. Didi is Nepali for “older sister. In return, I called our guides and porters by, or “brother.”
“But this is the first time I’m seeing it!” I answered. It was an amazing sight, even though it wasn’t Everest that brought me on this trek. For me, it was Tengboche. But I still wanted to photograph it.
I edged out a little further, skillfully avoiding the yak or not-yak or cow poop that covered the ground. I braced myself, snapped my picture and returned to what was beginning to feel like a forced march. I was doing much better on this trip than the first one. I was warm at night, the trek wasn’t so up and down – just up. But I still wasn’t sure I was having fun. I was pretty sure this would be my final trek.
At a rest stop, the group met up again. I used the public facilities – translation: the local shack – but this one was really gross. Too many misses! Yuck!
I returned to our group just as Robin opened a bag of dried banana chips from the Thai Airlines flight from Bangkok. The moment she pulled the little bag open, a hand shot out, palm up, clearing wanting some of whatever was inside. The hand was connected to a Khumba.
“Would you like some?” Robin asked, putting a few in his hand. Another Khumba walked up, and she put some in his hand, too. The first, who hadn’t eaten any, wanted more. Then a third Khumba walked up.
We’d seen a handful of Khumba along the way, but this was the first time we were face to face. And it wasn’t a pretty sight! These guys have obviously never made the acquaintance of soap and water. Their skin is very dark – not all of it from dirt. Their clothes, on the other hand, are definitely dark from dirt. Their hair is messy and unkempt, but not oily or greasy. Most of them wear their hair wrapped around their heads in the old Sherpa style. Their clothes? Well – odd, just like they are. Kind of bits and pieces of everything. When the Khumba approach you, they tend to stand too close, invading your personal space. Of course, I’m sure that “personal space” is not a concept that flourishes in their tribe. And very often, they have this kind of smile. It could be that they’re slightly wacko in a serial killer kind of way – or it could be that they’re just very gentle. Not sure which.
Ok…so this third Khumba came up to us. Up to this point, none of them had said a word. Then one tried to sell us his bead necklace. Almost every Khumba we met tried to sell us necklaces with a strange-looking stone. Later, I found out these black and white stones are called dzi and are considered precious. The stone has a design in it that looks like eyes, and the more eyes it has, the more expensive and auspicious it is.
Anyway, as this Khumba was trying to sell me his dzi, another suddenly reached out to shake my hand. I didn’t want to touch him, but he was standing so close I had no way out. So I shook his hand. Then he moved to Robin and shook her hand. They smiled and nodded and left. Robin and I looked at each other. Without a word, we dove into our backpacks, searching madly for our antiseptic handwash and handiwipes. As we de-Khumba’d our hands, Kalu laughed his head off. Gotta admit – we were pretty funny! But hey – do you know where those hands have been?
At about 3:30pm, we finally arrived in Namche. Only, to my huge disappointment, it was just the “city limits.” I turned to see Kalu sitting on a rock (I think he was tired, too!) and joined him for a few minutes. We rested for a few minutes before continuing on to the Sona Lodge, which, of course, was still half an hour and another steep climb through Namche. It was quieter up there, Kalu explained. That may be, but at that point, low and noisy would’ve been fine for me.
The Sona Lodge turned out to be somewhat deluxe and exclusive, relatively speaking. It was a sturdy structure, made of wood and stone. There were only five rooms, plus a larger “dorm” room that our staff shared. The rooms were on the second floor. Up a solid wood staircase on the third floor was a large dining room, stocked with stuff to buy! Rugs and hats and gloves and thick wool socks in the colors I’d been looking for! The room had picture windows on two sides, and under the windows were window seat-like benches covered with thick foam pads and topped with brightly colored Tibetan runners. In front of the benches were polished wooden tables, so that diners sat around the edges of the room but not in the middle. There was even a television and VCR (and we were treated to some Nepali videos. Words fail me!)
Hands down, the best thing about the Sona Lodge was that we could take hot showers! Robin and I had passed on showers in Phakding and discovered our decision was the right one. Richard had partaken and described his cold misery in the stone shower “stall” which had no light and only a bucket of warm water. But in Namche, 100 rupees (about $1.30) bought about 10 minutes of steaming hot water pounding down in a good, strong spray. I broke out the lavender soap and lathered up. Heaven!
Now, granted the shower was outside, between the toilet shed and the cow stall. Yes, the cow stall, which housed this cute little black and white creature with soft fur. And there was a small pile of dried cow stuff between the toilet and the shower. But it didn’t smell. Really, it didn’t.
I changed into my sweats and went upstairs to the dining room where I realized I could dry my hair with the heat from the stove. A stove, by the way, that, as is typical in this area, was fueled by wood and dried cow stuff. There was certainly no shortage of it! And believe it or not – it didn’t smell. Really, it didn’t!
Dinner was steamed momo. Finally – decent food! We finished the beer we’d started before our showers, ate our momo and headed off to bed. The Sona Lodge didn’t have running water. So I brushed my teeth with bottled water and used a handiwipe to wash my face. It wasn’t glamorous, but at least I was clean. Robin nodded off about 8pm, but I wanted to read for awhile. Surprisingly enough, after the tough hike, I wasn’t tired. My muscles weren’t sore either, and I didn’t have any blisters. I was pretty toasty inside my sleeping bag – except for my hands, sticking out of the bag, holding my book. I put on my cashmere gloves but then couldn’t turn the pages! About 8:30, I finally gave up and went to sleep.
Saturday, December 23, 2000
Elevation 11, 270 feet
We woke up somewhere around 6:30am or so – that is, Robin woke up. I was already awake, having not slept well again. I was warm enough (if I keep talking about being warm, it’s because I was so cold the last time. And I hate the cold. I hate being cold! So why am I in Nepal in December?) I just can’t sleep well in a sleeping bag and kept waking up. I also kept coughing. I had the famous trekker’s cough you get while hiking here. The combination of the dry air, the altitude and the incredibly fine dirt from the trail is a horrible irritant. Add to that the cow dung in the fires – almost everyone was coughing.
Kalu got us going about 8am. The famed Saturday market was starting. He knocked on our door, calling out, “Go to the market. “It’s starting. Then come back here for breakfast.”
Robin surprised me – she was kinda cranky. She refused to budge from our room until she had finished some kind of moisturizer and face cream ritual. (And this is Soldier Girl, who keeps talking about Survival School. Wait! She said she went to Survival School. She didn’t say she finished Survival School!) I think she was cranky because she was constipated (There are no secrets on a trek. But actually, she told me. Too much information!!) I followed Kalu and Kul to the market. Robin caught up with us a few minutes later and sort of muttered an explanation about how she just doesn’t want to be pushed to go until she’s ready. Whatever. She can spend the whole day rubbing creams on her body. I was going to the market.
We walked down the hill and over to the terraces where the market takes place – and were immediately disappointed. Instead of interesting stuff and trinkets and whatever we’d been dreaming of, it was all basic household stuff for the Sherpas, which actually made perfect sense. It was the cooking oil, beer and other goods we had seen coming up the hill on the porters’ backs. There was also fruit, lentils and clothing. Kalu helped Robin buy some bananas, we took some obligatory pictures and left.
Rather than go back to the lodge for breakfast, I led Robin past the rows of shops in the center of town to a konditerei I had seen the day before. Many of the doors were covered with thick hangings appliquéd or embroidered with Tibetan symbols. In some cases, the hangings covered wooden doors. Other times, they were the doors.
Namche is really quite cosmopolitan. It has a pool hall, a couple of places to go dancing, a lot of shops with Tibetan antiques – and a shop that advertises it specializes in chocolate. This, unfortunately, wasn’t true. (Trust me – I checked.) In fact, I didn’t see a single piece of chocolate amongst the junk that filled the tiny shop.
It was too early for the konditerei to be in full swing, but there were still fresh pastries for sale. I chose a piece of apple strudel, and Robin picked apple kuchen. The strudel was too sweet for me, pretty dense, but not horrible. My crust wasn’t flaky, but I suppose at 11,270 feet you’re not gonna get a lot of flake.
After breakfast, Robin went back to the lodge, saying she needed some time to herself. I wanted to explore. I ran into Kalu and Kul, who were on their way to the Khumba campground to shop. I tagged along, looking forward to a lesson in how the natives do it. I’m pretty good at bargaining for stuff. But there’s nothing like watching an expert!
The Khumba set up their camp in the middle of Namche. Since it was Saturday, each had a large pile of goods spread out on the tarps in front of their tents. Piles of clothing, rolls of Tibetan rugs and runners, and, of course, the dzi like the guys on the road to Namche had tried to sell us. Kalu inspected various shirts and jackets for himself, his kids and his sister. He asked prices, tossing the clothes back on the tarps. Everything was too expensive for its worth.
We parted, and I continued exploring. The first thing I found was yaks! And they were really cool! After days of seeing cows and not-yaks (our term for a cross between a yak and a cow. Sometimes I called them “nyuk nyuks,” but no one seemed to get it.), I was face to fur with the Khumba’s herd of yaks. They just stood there, their long fur flowing and matted, looking kind of, well, dumb. (A little like their masters, actually. Except for the dumb part.) They had brightly colored tassels in red and pink and yellow hanging from their ears – marks identifying their owners, a Tibetan style of branding.
My other great find was a series of four or five prayer wheels in a little stream that were meant to be water powered. Unfortunately, only one still worked, spinning and ringing a little tinkling bell than hung just above it. I enjoyed the sound for few minutes before shooting some pictures of the prayer wheels and a small stupa with its prayer flags dancing in the breeze.
I ran into Robin, who finally decided she was ready to be sociable. We inspected all the goods in town that were spread out for sale, item by item, stall by stall. Everyone wanted to bargain, everyone wanted to deal. It was almost the end of the season, and there wouldn’t be many more tourists coming through. Even so, the villagers were tough bargainers. You’d have to turn away two, sometimes three times to get your price. And if they did finally meet your price, some of them would get sullen looks, as if you’d forced them to do something awful, something they really hadn’t wanted to do. Only one merchant was really honest with me, saying he just couldn’t go down to my price for a yak-bone necklace. I forked over the additional $1.40. I was looking for small stuff – interesting jewelry, nak (the female yak) cheese for my father. Robin, on the other hand, wanted a Tibetan carpet. So back to the Khumba we went.
She kind of liked the first rug she saw, so we got a price just to see what they were asking. As we walked away, the merchant pressed her hard for a counter offer. But we were firm that we were just looking. Finally, she found one she liked, and the bargaining began. I didn’t wanna get in Robin’s way, so I let her do the work, even though I was itching to get in on the action. Robin consulted me on each offer until an agreement was reached. I was sure I could have saved her at least another 500 rupees (about US7.00), but she still got a fair price – a 12’ runner for about US60.00.
Robin hefted the rolled up carpet on her shoulder (yeah, she made it through Survival School), and we trudged back uphill to the lodge. Once there, we learned that Linda and Lynda had made it to Monjo – but no farther. We had serious doubts that they would get all the way up to Namche.
That night, we met another guest, a man from Belgium who was going all the way to Kala Patar. He was hysterically funny, and we laughed and joked about our countries, ugly Americans (like Richard), our air travel experiences and our trek adventures. We shared our rakshi (the local rice liquor), Robin’s Courvoisier and his yak steak and Nepali apple pie (more like a turnover than a pie.) We had a great evening before saying our good-byes – we were off in different directions the next day. It was about 9pm by the time we said good night – the latest night we’d had so far.
Sunday, December 24, 2000
In the dark of the night – or morning – I wasn’t sure which because I woke up so often – I could hear cowbells. Every cow, not-yak and yak has a bell around its neck. As it moves, you hear the sound of the bell. Lying in the dark, I could hear the soft clangs of the two cows below our window. It was a little like a lullaby.
The morning was cold, but not hideously so. I managed to get up and get dressed without shaking too much. (From the first night, I’d sleep with my clothes for the following day in my sleeping bag, so they were fairly warm when I put them on in the morning.) The view from our window was beautiful We looked directly at Kongde, and the top of it looked as if a bowl has been carved out of it. The sunlight was just breaking across the mountain.
Kalu had planned a day excursion for us – a side trip to Thamo Monastery, about two hours hike away. We climbed the stone steps to leave Namche, and immediately I started getting winded. Not a good sign. The weather was mild, as it had been so far. Clear blue skies with barely a cloud and temperatures that were probably only in the low 60’s in the sun – but the effort of our trekking kept us comfortably warm. It was much cooler in the shade and always a little bit of a chill in the air. You certainly couldn’t forget that you were surrounded by the Himalay.
We passed piles of mani stones – stone tablets with Buddhist prayers carved on them. I asked Kalu if they all said the same thing. He told me some (and it appeared to me most) of them have “om mani padme hum” carved on them. Others were specific prayers a monk or villager chants.
We walked through pine forests, a river far below us. The canyon carved by the river was mind boggling in its depth and height. And always along our left side, Kongde, with its chiseled hole in the center.
I was slow on the climbing parts, stopping to catch my breath frequently. I didn’t feel any different at this altitude. I felt good enough to start jogging any time I wanted to – if I wanted to! But I couldn’t, obviously. What’s more, I was starting to wonder if I’d be able to make the climb to Tengboche. If it was that hard for me to get up to Namche, and it was this difficult with hardly any climbing, then I didn’t know if I’d be able to make a second steep climb to Tengboche. And Tengboche was the reason I was doing this.
I was the last one in our little pack, with Kalu behind me to make sure I was ok.(Well, actually, he’d be at the back no matter who was there. On a trek, one guide is at the front, leading, another at the rear to keep an eye on stragglers.) I asked him to sing some of the Napali folk songs I’d heard on my first trip to Nepal. That morning, in the dining room, I’d heard Kalu singing a few bars of the song I like most. I tried to get him to sing it, but he’d only give me a few bars. I think he was probably shy. which was too bad because it was wonderful to listen to. I told Kalu I wouldn’t be able to climb unless he sang. Didn’t work.
I stopped to look at some particularly breathtaking scenery and said, “It’s so beautiful.” And from behind me, Kalu answered softly, “Yes, it is, didi.” I had asked him several days before if he ever started to take the scenery for granted. He said no, he always thought it was beautiful. At the time, I thought he might just be saying that because I was the tourist. But here, I think he really meant it.
We passed through a kind of arch – concrete walls and a flat top. Inside, three prayer wheels brightly decorated with the “om” prayer were set in each side. The walls were beautifully painted with Buddhist pictures, and ornate mandalas covered the ceiling. The arch was similar to one I saw in Namche, only this was in much better condition. Kalu told me it marked the entrance to the village and was probably built either by monks or someone very wealthy who wanted to honor Buddha (and rack up a few points for the next life.) We spun the prayer wheels and continued up the road through the village of Thamo. It was small but quite clean, and the houses looked very nice. I saw a few people and fewer animals. The quiet was wonderful!
We stopped for tea at a place called the Tashidele Restaurant (Tashi dele, in its various spellings, is the Tibetan equivalent of namaste, which means “greetings to you and the spirit that dwells within.”) The view from the terrace outside the restaurant was spectacular – a panorama of Himalay. Ama Dablin. Thomserku. Kusum Kangaru. Strange names that conjure up the exotic. We relaxed in the warm sun for about half an hour before continuing another 15 minutes or so up to the monastery. Again, I was puffing at the tail of the pack as we climbed to the top of Thamo..
It turned out we’d come on a bad day – the lama was out of town, maybe in India, and so the monastery was closed. But the old nun who was there let us in to see some of the renovation work that’s going on. Thamo Monastery is only about 30 years old, but it’s crumbling. Little by little, though, it’s being restored, and one of the rooms we were allowed to see had some magnificent paintings and murals covering its walls. We all donated money – I was the most generous, giving 100 rupees (about US1.30. The others gave about 15 rupees.) I placed it on a small table in front of a photograph of the lama, and knelt for a few minutes with my thoughts. The old nun and I seemed to connect in some way, as if she understood my thoughts. Or maybe it was the 100 rupees.
We bid the nun farewell and went back downhill to the Tashidele Restaurant for lunch. I got Kalu to name the mountains we were facing so I could write it down, but no one else seemed to care. And neither Richard nor Robin would use namaste when we met others along the road (Nepalis are very friendly, and if you greet them, they’ll respond.), nor had they taken to using did and by. I wasn’t surprised about Richard. He was so into himself that he probably didn’t even notice. But Robin, who’s traveled around the world and speaks three languages – well, I would’ve though it’d be a natural. To me, it’s part of the fun of traveling. To them – I guess it didn’t matter.
A trip to the facilities here introduced us to something a little different. Instead of a wood shack, this one was completely made out of corrugated roofing, which made the floor pretty slippery. One false move and – well, don’t go there!
For lunch, I ordered vegetable fried rice. From the terrace, I could see the restaurant’s proprietress go into her vegetable garden (which was covered with a thick plastic tarp to shield it from the cold) and pick some fresh green leaves – the veggies for my lunch. And lunch this day was very good! Our food was definitely improving!
The return trip to Namche was just as hard for me as it was going to Thamo. There were some very beautiful moments – passing through the sun and shadows made by the pine trees, for instance. It was like walking through a painting. And the light green spruce tree that was so bright it seemed to glow. But I was panting and stopping often, and I felt the difficulty of what should have been nothing more than a little walk. Closer to Namche, I sat down on a rock to rest and told Kalu I might not be able to make it to Tengboche. I was almost in tears as I said it. I had never considered the possibility that I wouldn’t make it. But I had to face facts. Kalu was very kind. First he said, “I think you can do it, didi. I think you can.” And I said, “I don’t know – just look how hard I’m working today.” And again, he said, “I think you can make it. But if you can’t, don’t worry. It’s just another monastery, didi, and you’ve seen monasteries.” I said I’d wait and see – I’d try and see what happened..
Robin had taken off who knew where. (She had finally decided she didn’t want to wait for anyone, not even Kul, who was leading.) Richard was behind me, having trouble with some of the downhill. (That made me feel better. I was great on the downhill stuff. Gave me a chance to gloat!) As we passed the gompa, or monastery, above Namche, I felt a wave of relief – with a little triumph mixed in – that I had made it home. I also took a detour so I could stop at the Namche post office to mail a postcard to the US..
I followed the signs to a long, two-story stone building with a small door at the very far end, a door so small you had to duck to get through it. It was a little like something out of Alice in Wonderland. Once through the door, I was in some kind of storage space, filled with firewood. There were no lights, so at first I couldn’t see the wooden stairs off to the side, leading to the second floor. At the top of the stairs, a small room was partitioned off with plywood. The Post Office.
A young Sherpa woman sat behind an old metal desk, carefully checking out the mail set in front of her. I laughed and joked with an Australian man and his daughter who were also there to try and send mail. The man told me one of his guidebooks said that some mail has been known to make it out of Namche! The postmistress took my single postcard (sending it was really just a kind of postal experiment!), examined it closely to make sure it had enough postage, then hand canceled it with a stamp – and enough force to send it to Los Angeles on its own!
A wonderful surprise was waiting for us back at the lodge – Linda and Lynda! Both had been sick, but both were feeling much better. They had decided they wouldn’t go on to Tengboche. Instead, they would stay in Namche, explore, shop and do whatever – and wait for us to come back through and pick them up on the return. It was so good to see them! I was so delighted they’d made it after all!
Since it was Christmas Eve, I brought out the box of candy canes I’d been hauling around. (Ok, ok. Candy canes are not heavy. But it was a pain having to stuff ‘em in my backpack and worry about not breaking them.) There were so many that we passed them around our crew, the lodge staff and even offered them to a group of Japanese trekkers in the dining room. (We couldn’t figure out why the Japanese trekkers got a table cloth on their tables until we saw that they were camping outside the lodge. For that, we agreed, they deserved table cloths – and a lot more!) Lynda had brought packages of different kinds of hot chocolate (with hazelnut, double chocolate, and so on.) And even though it was Christmas Eve, no one seemed inclined to sing any carols.
Sunday, December 25, 2000
Namche Bazar to Lonasa
11,270’ descending to about 10,650’
There was frost on the inside of the window in the morning. This was definitely the coldest night we’d had so far. The people from the last trek had told me about ice inside their rooms, but they had made it sound as if they were sleeping in a refrigerator. I was beginning to think they were big wimps. (I did get a little worried, though – I like warm weather. I like humidity. I don’t want to get used to the cold! If I do, the next thing you know, I’ll be moving to some place like – Buffalo. Oh, gawd! No!)
I’ve decided that I’m good on a trip like this for four days. That’s my limit. Then I’m more than ready to go back into, say, the Oriental. Unfortunately, four days was only our half-way point. We still had two more days of climbing, then two days down. Oh well. In for a penny, in for a pound…
The previous night, I had taken my contact lenses out for their weekly cleaning. It was too cold to wash and rinse them outside – my fingers were freezing without getting wet! So the only place for me to do it was in the toilet – which didn’t make me too comfortable. Now, this was a nice toilet, as they go in Nepal. It wasn’t just a hole in the ground – it was a porcelain bowl in the ground. And there was a little water spigot with a bucket and a little pail so you could rinse down any nasties you might leave behind. There were even three large cans with geraniums on the window sill. But since there was no other place, that’s where I washed my contacts. My ophthalmologist would’ve turned green if he’d seen me.
Waving good bye to Linda and Lynda, we set off for Tengboche. But only a few minutes later, when we reached the top of Namche, I saw that our planned path went straight up a hill. Kul was already ahead with Robin and Richard. I was already panting, just climbing up the steps to leave Namche. I knew I couldn’t make it up that hill. I stopped and, to my surprise, started to cry. Even though the day before I had told Kalu I wasn’t sure I could make it, I still believed I could. Now, it seemed, I couldn’t.
My tears must have embarrassed Kalu, because for a minute, he didn’t seem to know what to do. I told him I just wanted to sit down for a minute and think. As soon as I did that, he suggested that I go around the mountain on another path with the porters. This was absolutely fine with me. I’d at least be able to get to our next stop, even though it was pretty clear that I wouldn’t be going all the way to Tengboche.
Kul, Robin, Richard and Kalu went up the mountain, and I followed Padam and Kumar on our path. They took their responsibility of watching me quite seriously and took very good care of me. They pointed out Monjo far below us and Thomserku farther off. They asked me from time to time if I needed to stop – but the path was pretty flat and easy to travel. Along the way, we ran into a few other porters and trekkers. And older, overweight German woman checked out my camera and lenses and gave me instructions on how to breathe at this altitude. I wondered how she’d made it this far. I was in much better shape, and I was having a hard time. Maybe everyone feels the way I did, but just deals with it. I don’t know.
But on this day, I was truly enjoying my walk. Padam and Kumar hummed and sang softly. Sometimes they carried on quiet conversations in Nepali. I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but that was ok. It was part of the landscape of my adventure. At times, when we were all quiet, I could hear the tinkling of cow bells as herds approached from in front of and behind us. I was having a very peaceful day and felt as if I was finally experiencing a part of the real Nepal. Best of all, it was just us – and the ever-growing Himalay. As we came around a curve in the path, and my porters-turned-guides-for-the-day pointed out Ama Dablin, Loche and Everest. They were going to make sure I knew everything I was looking at!
We made a stop at the aptly-named Good View Lodge in Kyangsuma. It was directly across from Ama Dablin, Loche and Everest and did, indeed, have a very good view! I bought my crew tea (I wasn’t quite sure what protocol was here – but I offered, and they accepted. I was happy to treat them, and the 30 rupees, or 50 cents, was easier for me to spare.) and struck up a conversation with two German men who were traveling our same route. While we were sitting there, a man with a small herd of yaks passed in front of us. It was a photo op from heaven – a yak herd passing in front of Everest. I didn’t know what the rest of the group was doing – but my day was perfect!
A number of porters passed by as we were sipping our tea. Their loads were more “normal” than the ones we had seen on our way up to Namche. But one in particular caught my attention – I heard what sounded like a radio coming from him! But a radio – up here? I thought it must’ve been a CD or tape player. But to my surprise, other western trekkers later told me their porters had transistor radios! No one seemed to know where the station was broadcasting from – but people were listening!
We hit the road again, pushing on to Sanasa, where we would rejoin the rest of the group. To my surprise, it was only about 20 minutes from our tea stop. We got there first, and I relaxed with another cup of milk tea, laughing at a sign on the gift shop across from the terrace where I sat: “Visit World Highest Mt. Everest Bakery at Khumjung 30 minutes walk.” I’d sure love the see the “World Highest” bakery – but not if I had to climb to it! Khumjung was where the rest of the group was this morning (at an altitude of 12,400 feet, just a little lower than our final destination of Tengboche.)
I heard what sounded like a large group people approaching from below. It turned out to be 42 people, ex-patriot families from various countries living in Singapore. About half were kids, and they were on their way back from Tengboche. They threw themselves down around me on the terrace, and pretty soon, we were laughing and talking about everything from our old cameras (one man had the same camera I have – just slightly newer. So instead of his camera being 20 years old, it’s only 18 years old.) to snacks to – whatever! They told me how they didn’t think there were going to make it to Tengboche, but they did and it was worth it. I asked them how the climb compared in difficulty to Namche. They couldn’t really give me a good answer, but the general consensus seems to be it was hard – but certainly no harder.
Finally, Robin, Richard, Kul and Kalu arrived. They’d had a wonderful morning, stopping at the very expensive Everest View Hotel and getting spectacular views of Everest and the other Himalay. I’m sure it was very beautiful – and part of me wished I’d seen it, too. But I’d had a wonderful morning with my porters – and a kind of escape from the regular tourist stuff. I truly didn’t feel I’d missed anything.
After lunch, we set off again as a group on a short, rocky downhill. We passed people coming from back from Tengboche and beyond – people who were obviously having a difficult climb on the return trip. They looked worn out, as if they’d been to the edge of the world and barely made it back.
It was only a short time –not even an hour – until we reached our stop for the night, Lonasa, a village so small I couldn’t find it on the map. Kalu had never stayed here before, and it proved to be an experience for all us!
Robin was in a pissy mood even before we got to Lonasa. The minute we reached the lodged, she turned around and announced she was going off by herself. She told me she was angry because Kul wouldn’t let her go ahead on the trail.
“He just won’t shut up,” she fumed at me and started mimicking him. “’Wait for me. Don’t go.’ There’s only one path. There’s only one way for me to go!”
It was obvious to me why he didn’t want her to go ahead. She didn’t know Nepal, she didn’t know the path, and so on. Plus that very American concept of “liability.” But Ms. Green Beret didn’t understand. I tried to play the diplomat.
“It’s his job,” I said. “Peter’d have his head if anything happened. He’s just trying to do his job.”
“Well, maybe,” she was still mad. “I’m going.” And she went off to who knows where.
Kalu showed me the one double room – and it was awful. Truly, truly awful. The rooms we’d had so far hadn’t been large – maybe 6’ by 7’. But this was barely wide enough for the beds. I could probably touch both walls at the same time! The beds, instead of being side by side, were set up end to end. The windows looked out over the back of the lodge – and the facilities. But hey, I figured. It was only one night. What the heck. And besides, there didn’t seem to be any other place to stay.
The guides were relaxing on a little stone wall in front of the lodge. It looked like a good idea, so I stretched out and closed my eyes. It felt good to lie in the warm sun! I heard people taking softly, a couple of hens and a rooster scratching around and then the sound of cow bells – a lot of cow bells! I opened my eyes, and saw an enormous herd of yaks. They kept coming and coming and coming! I told Kalu I was like the little black one that was lagging behind – the slowest one that doesn’t want to go up the steps. That’s me! No problem, didi, he said.
I stretched back out on my wall, eyeing the rooster and chickens. They were very pretty, as were all the fowl we’d seen. These were plump and healthy looking, their feathers a soft, deep orange. They didn’t seem at all interested until a few minutes later when one jumped up on me, surveyed the scene around her, walked across me and then jumped down the other side I decide it was time for me to move to a table.
I was sitting there, drinking tea and writing in my diary when Robin got back. She was in a much better mood, having been able to lead herself on her own trek. She was in a better mood, that is, until I told her about our room. I saw the black clouds come back, the anger rising in her again. She started talking about how Peter wouldn’t allow this, that this wasn’t up to his standards (since this is her first trip with him, and she’d been on it five days, I’m not sure how she knew so much about Peter’s standards and the available accommodations in Nepal. But she sure thought she did.) She decided she’d better talk to Kalu about the situation.
She came back a few minutes later, much happier. “Management” had moved us to the “dorm,” actually a larger room at the end of the short hall. Ordinarily, it would house six people. But with just the two of us, it was positively spacious! We could each spread our stuff on one bed – and sleep on another two. I admit – it was probably a good thing that Robin talked to Kalu. But still, one night wouldn’t have killed us.
I really liked our lodge and so, it turns out, did Richard. It was very local. The menu was in English and Nepali, but only the Nepali side had prices. We were getting an up-close look at local life.
I had gone inside because it was getting quite cold. The sunlight faded quickly in our little village. But what was left filtered in through the shelves in front of a window and cast shadows on me as I wrote. I was so far from the life I live. I watched the young woman stacking more wood for the fire. She was obviously the cook. She was younger than me – by at least ten years. Her life must be hard, very hard. As Richard pointed out, it was as if we’d stepped back in time 200 years.
I wanted to get as close to the fire as I could – but since the stove was in a little well in the ground, and was being used for cooking, it was inconvenient. I was sitting in the lodge’s kitchen. The dining room and the kitchen were really one big room, partially separated by some shelves. The proprietress wanted to move me into the dining room, which, I gathered, was more appropriate for a guest. I was happy where I was, enjoying watching the cook in the dim light. But she won. To warm me, she piled coals on a type of portable pot-bellied stove. It didn’t really generate all that much heat, but it was better than nothing.
I wasn’t the only one who was cold. Kumar was curled up under a kapok-filled quilt on one of the benches. Pretty soon, Kul joined him under the covers, but there wasn’t enough room for two, and Kumar moved into the kitchen. The dining room, I was sure, also served as sleeping quarters for the owners of the lodge as well as various trek crews, like ours.
I was fascinated by the kitchen. The stove was in one corner – and I never did figure out what it was made out of. It probably was something like adobe. It was shaped like a small igloo, with a place to build a fire, then “burners” on top – holes cut in the adobe to let the fire come through -- room for two or three pots or pans or woks. At least two dozen bunches of garlic hung from the ceiling around the stove. Shelves and cupboards to the left of the stove held eggs and dried noodles and other food stuff. The shelves that lined another wall and separated the dining room held pots, tea thermoses, tea kettles and condiments.
Since it was dark and cold, we gathered for an early dinner. I ordered mushroom soup and Sherpa stew – a thick vegetable stew. I liked the one they’d served in Namche and hoped I’d like this version just as much. We sat back and relaxed, chatting about places we’ve been and places we’d like to go. For the first time on the trip, Richard was behaving in a fairly normal, polite way, tolerable at last.
I glanced over at the cook, curious about what she was doing. But when I saw her reach into a bag next to the stove and pull out a handful of cow dung for the fire – well, I decided the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was the best way to go here. Originally, I had wanted to spend time in the kitchens of the various lodges, watching how they cooked and hopefully learning some secrets of Nepali cooking. This made me decided some things are better kept secret.
The soup was great – the best I’d had in Nepal, and I asked Kalu to tell that to the cook. The Sherpa stew was ok. It had a spice in it I didn’t care for. But it was a satisfying meal anyway. After dinner, when it was finally too dark to see, the lodge’s owners turned on the single solar powered light that hung between the two “rooms.” It didn’t shed much light on us – as far as I was concerned, we would have been better off with just the fire. The staff sat in the “kitchen” laughing and joking with the locals while we sat in the ”dining room,” nipping at Robin’s Courvoisier and carrying on our own conversation. Richard – who refused to have anything to drink on the trip – loved the lodge He liked his room, which had a great view out of the front of the lodge. And like me, he loved seeing a part of real Nepali life.
Monday, December 26, 2000
Lonasa to Tengboche
Climbing to 12,900 feet
It was cold in the morning! Not unbearable – but definitely cold! I needed my down jacket and gloves at breakfast, even though I knew it would be too warm walking with them. This was the first time I’d really needed them on the trip.
We’d finished eating our breakfast, but I got a kick out of watching our crew eat theirs. Usually, the staff would take meals separately from us, in another room and often much later than ours. But this morning, I caught them in the act. They dumped huge amounts of hot chili into their noodles and soup! The cook had made a fried egg sandwich that Kalu carefully cut into four pieces. Kul and Padam let Kalu dump their share into their noodle bowls. But Kumar said no, no – and stuck out his hand for his piece.
I went back to our room to pack my jacket and tell Robin about the staff eating breakfast. But she was a little distracted and didn’t seem interested. Then, it started..
First, she asked me – for the second time since we’d started – how this trip compared to the last trek I took. Was that one as hard?
It was different, I told her – again. That one was difficult because it was constantly up and down. This one was difficult because it was so steep.
“I think Peter should give people a recommended training program when they sign up for this trip,” she said, as she carefully packed her duffel. It started to dawn on me where she was going. And I wasn’t going to play her game. I didn’t say anything.
She went on. Hadn’t I read the map Peter had sent us? Hadn’t I seen how steep it was? I thought I could make it, I said. I had no problem last time – and saw no reason why I should this time. It was just steeper than I had thought.
We went back and forth for a few minute – all very polite. Then she turned to me and said, “What happens if you can’t make it to Tengboche?”
“Then Kalu sends me back with Kul and a porter. It’s not a big deal,” I explained. It hadn’t dawned on her that this is the way it is on treks. Linda and Lynda, for example. Plans change, people get sick, people can’t make a climb. On my last trek, we had a woman with a heart condition. She’d done the trek before and knew exactly how far she could go. She got to that point and went another direction with a guide and porter – and met up with us several days later. Not a big deal. Except, apparently, to Robin.
“And that means changing the porters all around!” she exclaimed, looking like she was starting to lose it. All of a sudden she was concerned about musical porters. Yet two days earlier, when I had said I was having trouble remembering our porters’ names, she had shrugged and said, “They don’t know our names, either.” Now she was concerned about possibly having to switch them.
It also was dawning on me how much she disliked our little lodge at Lonasa. After having seen the Everest View Lodge and Khumjung, she was angry we didn’t stay there. Well, I’ve got news for Missy Survival School – Khumjung may have been on the original itinerary – but we were never going to spend the night at the Everest View Lodge! Much, much too expensive for our trek!
And then I recalled something she’d said a couple of days before – that people over 60 shouldn’t be allowed on these trips. I knew who that was aimed at, even though Linda and Lynda are in their mid-50’s and so by Robin’s standard should still qualify for the trip. At that time, I’d told her that we had five people between the ages of 65 and 70 who’d been on my last trek. And they’d been wonderful, especially Gert, who used to walking sticks, kept her own pace and was so delightful, we’d bought her a t-shirt with her name on it when we got back to Kathmandu.
The conversation was going nowhere, so I left the room. Then, deciding I had a little more to say to her, I stepped back in and said, “Look, I’m sorry if I’m spoiling your trip. But if I don’t make it to Tengboche, I’m ok with it. If it doesn’t bother me, it shouldn’t bother you.” I wasn’t ok with it at all. But I’d never said that to anyone – not even Kalu.
And then she said something about me whining about not making it. Whining? No, I don’t think so. In fact, if you think about it, I wasn’t the one whining about our original room in Lonasa. Nor about Kul not letting her go ahead of him. Or – well, you get the picture. Somebody had to let her know what this trip was and was not about. And that person was me. So very nicely and politely I said, “This isn’t a military exercise. It’s a normal vacation for normal people.” And left the room. Bite me.
I was ready to leave before the others, so Kul and I started. The first part of our trek was downhill – we lost altitude, dropping to Pungo Tenga at 10,650’. Then we started to climb. And climb. And climb.
This morning, I’d decided to keep my face covered as much as possible. I was still coughing a lot – mostly from the dust. And since it was so cold, and I was working so hard, I knew I’d be breathing heavily through my mouth. So I folded up a length of toilet paper and used it as a handkerchief, covering my nose and mouth as we walked. It definitely helped.
I walked slowly, taking my time, stopping to catch my breath frequently. Kul asked me from time to time if I wanted to rest. No, I said, I was ok. Do you want to rest? I asked him. No, he said, and we continued our climb.
I chanted. I tried a walking meditation. I tried to stay in the moment and not think about how hard this climb was. But let’s not kid anyone. It was hard. Very hard. It was all up. No relief. No flat for a few yards to recover. Only up.
I lost track of time, which was fine. I assumed it was going to be about three hours of climbing, so I really didn’t want to look at my watch (my Rocky and Bullwinkle watch, by the way.) I just wanted to keep climbing.
I also tried to look at my surroundings, which was a neat trick on any trail, but especially one that was so steep. Even though I was still walking through thick forest, I could see higher where the trees ended and hard brown and very formidable mountain continued to rise toward the sky, barren but for patches of ice.
Below me, several thousand feet below me, the Dudh Kosi flowed. From time to time, an icy breeze wafted through the air. I was in and out of the sun, and in the shade, the temperature dropped dramatically. A few birds chirped. Otherwise, it was silent. No sign of Robin and Richard.
After awhile, we started to pass people who were coming down. The first ones were monks, dressed in their burgundy and yellow robes. I took this as a good sign.
“Namaste,” I panted.
“Namaste,” they answered, not panting.
Then we started to meet other trekkers on their descent.
Finally, one jovial man said to me, “Hang in there! You’re only about half an hour away!”
“Really?” I exclaimed, not believing him.
“Really!” he answered as he passed me.
“Oh, I love you!!” I yelled after him. I could hear him laughing. But I didn’t take him seriously. Downhill goes so much faster that you can’t always compare your down time to up time. And by Rocky and Bullwinkle, it hadn’t been anywhere nearly long enough.
About ten minute later, Kul and I passed another trekker. He told me I was about 20 minutes from Tengboche. Even though it was just over an hour and a half since we’d left Lonasa, I was starting to believe we might be close. But I also finally had to sit down and rest.
I pointed to some prayer flags high up on a hill.
“Is that it?” I asked Kul.
“No,” he answered, dashing my hopes. But truthfully, I wasn’t sure he understood much English.
While I was resting, Kalu and the others caught up to us. Richard and Miss like-a-good-warrant-officer-I-saluted-and-charged-up-the-hill stopped for a few minutes with me. They continued on with Kul, while I took up my favorite position at the back. A few minutes later, I pointed to same prayer flags I had pointed out to Kul.
“Is that it?” I asked Kalu.
Oh, I was so close! I could make it!
Back on my feet, I trudged onward, upward. And in about 15 minutes, I reached the prayer flags I’d seen from below. I passed through the gate and in front of me was Tengboche Monastery. It was as if I’d stepped into the picture on the postcards I’d sent back home. I was there. I had made it. I had reached my goal. I was so happy I wanted to cry.
I turned to Kalu. He gave me a double thumbs up, and then I gave him a big hug. I had made it to Tenboche!
Tengboche sits on a small mesa. Off to one side, the trail continues, and you see plenty of traffic in both directions. And directly across from me rose Everest. I joined another trekker, an woman from England, at a small table, and we sat drinking tea and chatting, in the shadow of this great mountain.
Robin and I stayed polite to each other, but she wouldn’t speak to me. I guess she hated the fact that, in spite of my “whining,” this obviously undisciplined civilian had made it to the top. I tried not to laugh when I heard her tell someone that she thought the climb to Tengboche was harder than the one to Namche. I tried not to gloat that she had come down with a cold and had almost no voice left. I tried to be humble. But it was hard.
Tuesday, December 27, 2000 through December 29, 2000
We hadn’t been able to see ceremonies at the Tengboche gompa the day before, so Kalu roused us at 6am for the 6:30 ceremonies. A small group of trekkers removed shoes, trooped inside and plopped down on the floor in the main hall to watch. I had been warned about the cold and was wearing two pairs of socks and two pairs of gloves. And I was still cold!
There were only about half a dozen monks at the ceremony. But the chanting was beautiful, the gongs and horns and drums they used added extraordinary, unearthly sounds. The monks sat cross-legged on their low seats, impervious to the cold. The lama who led the chanting read from his narrow prayer book. A young boy (who I was glad to see was wearing heavy socks and a heavy sweater under his robes) poured milk tea for the other monks. And I closed my eyes, lost in the strange sounds. The trip had been worth the difficult hike.
I stayed about half an hour, until Kul tapped me. We had to go. I left the group today to begin my downhill trek. (Peter had shifted the dates of the trek by one day – but hadn’t told me. By the time I discovered the change, I couldn’t change my flights. No space.)
Kul, Kumar and I bid the others farewell and began our descent. Along the way, we passed a number of trekkers climbing. I laughed and joked with some Japanese girls at a rest stop. They made me take some of their snacks (The bad ones, it turned out, were made in the US. The good ones came from Japan!) As I watched the fresh faces on their upward climb, I knew that I had looked like that to those I had passed on my way up.
We made it without incident to Lukla, although there was much more uphill than I remembered from the other direction. And that’s something I just didn’t understand. If we were losing altitude – 3600 feet – how could we be doing so much climbing? Kul, who’s only 19, was like a mountain goat, prancing nimbly along. I, on the other hand, was more like a plodding yak. But I managed to keep up. We passed porters on their way up to Namche, loaded with carcasses of meat, cooking oil, beer and coke. And rush-hour with the yak and not-yak trains carrying more goods up The cycle was starting over again.
In Lukla, Peter had booked rooms with private baths. Ah, the luxury of a shower and toilet in your own room! Not a hot shower, mind you. But a shower. And I was clean! I’d been clean in Namche. But there’s nothing like being clean in your own private bathroom!
I sat in the lodge dining room that evening, trading stories with three British men who had been to Kala Patar, which is nearly to Everest Base Camp, but has much better views. They told me I’d done the hardest part of the climb just getting to Namche and Tengboche. The remaining 5,000 feet to Kala Patar would’ve been a breeze, they said. But I’ll never know. Because this time, I’m pretty sure, is my last time trekking in Nepal. Tengboche was what I had wanted to see the first time. And while I will go back to Kathmandu for a day or so (the shopping is just too good!), I think I’m headed for Bali next. Warm. Dry. Civilized.
And if this time you ask me if I’m sure, I’ll put it this way: You can’t get a view of Everest squatting in an outhouse at the Oriental. But then, you won’t get orchids for your birthday at Tengboche. I think I hear the Oriental calling me now…there’s a room with a view of the Chao Praya that has my name on it…
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