Several months earlier…
L: Did you know that Lukla is known as the world’s most dangerous airport?
D: Don’t you say that about every airport we go to?
L: But this time I mean it. The internet says so.
D: Oh, well then. Everything’s true on the internet.
L: The runway is ludicrously short, with a massive cliff to fall off at one end and an enormous mountain to bump into at the other. And no runway lights. And high winds. And thick cloud.
D: (tapping phone) I’m sure it’s fine. Look – Lesotho’s runway is shorter. And so is Shetland’s.
L: But we’re not going to Africa or Scotland. We’re going to Nepal.
D: Fair point. (tapping phone) Lukla’s also one of the world’s busiest domestic airports – they have up to 50-60 flights a day landing or taking off. So statistically, the chances of a mishap are really very small.
D: It’ll be fine.
L: I think we’ll walk.
Back to the present….
L: I’m so glad we’re doing it this way.
D: 10 hours in a bus and a week on foot to avoid a 40 minute flight? Makes no sense whatsoever, but I’m delighted with all the extra walking.
L: Oh no – we can’t go by bus.
L: No. All the buses crash.
D: Surely not all of them?
L: And everyone will puke on us.
D: Of course they will. And you know this how?
L: The internet said so.
D: Ah yes, the internet.
L: The blogs say the journey is a terrible ordeal and everyone gets car-sick and the bottom of the ravines are littered with dead buses.
D: You really shouldn’t read….
L: And statistically the bus to Jiri is actually MORE likely to kill us than the flight to Lukla.
D: So are we back to flying?
L: No way. We’re going by jeep.
D: Sounds safe. If expensive.
L: We just need to book one with brakes. That explorer fellow Levison Wood was in a jeep with no brakes. It drove off a cliff and fell 150 metres into a ravine.
D: Was he alright?
L: Not really. I think he broke his arm rather badly.
L sends text: Good morning Angtu – could you please make sure our jeep is a lovely new one with good brakes?
Angtu sends text: OK sir. Japanese.
D: So will the jeep drop us in Jiri or take us all the way to Shivalaya, so we save half a day of walking?
L: It depends. The road to Shivalaya’s supposed to be the worst bit.
L sends text: Hello again Angtu – we would be very happy to drive to Jiri and stay the night there if it is easier than Shivalaya. We are happy to walk from Jiri.
Angtu sends text: Ok sir.
D: Stop worrying about the jeep and the road. Anyway we’ll be at the mercy of the driver.
L: Crap. I hadn’t even thought of that. What sort of drivers are Nepalis?
L sends text: We would like the drive tomorrow to be calm and safe. Please could you ask the driver to go nice and slowly and to stop the car if he needs to use his cellphone?
Angtu sends text: Ok sir.
D: For pity’s sake – will you stop hassling the poor man?
L: Sorry. Shall I text Angtu to say sorry?
D: No. Leave him alone.
They get out all their clothing and equipment, and pile it on the bed. Then they look at the waterproof bag that Angtu has given them. And then back at the bed. It’s never going to fit. They put aside some stuff – a sleeping mat, a pair of thin sleeping bags, some extra fleece tops and trousers. They add their bulky 4-season sleeping bags and new thick down jackets.
L: We’ve just added more than we’ve taken away.
Next, clothes are pared to a minimum – compromising on hygiene rather than warmth. A pair of trainers is discarded. They are triumphant. It fits. They weigh the bag.
L: 27 kilos. That’s too much.
D: I thought we were told 30.
L: We were, but we can’t give a porter 27 kilos of our gear to carry, plus his own stuff. Remember it nearly killed us just carrying it across the train station.
They identify the heavy things and reluctantly reject spare batteries, bottles of toiletries, insect repellent, wetwipes. They buy a Kindle version of the guidebook and unpack the paperback.
L: We’ve now got no changes of clothes and nothing to wash with.
D: Just weigh the bag.
L: 25 kilos – that’s better. It’s still stupidly heavy though. 55 lbs. And his own pack as well.
D: How d’you know the limits?
L: The International Porters Protection Group has a website. It says how much a porter should carry and reminds people to check that any porters they hire should have proper clothing, food and shelter for the conditions. And insurance.
D: Doesn’t that happen anyway if you book through a tour operator?
L: You’d hope so, but not always, no. In 2014 there was a gigantic snowstorm which trapped lots of trekkers in Annapurna. Some of those who died were porters and guides who just didn’t have the right clothing to keep warm. Or any insurance to be evacuated. And until recently trekking porters were sleeping in caves and wearing sandals or even going barefoot – in all weathers including snow.
D: But our guys are sorted?
L: Yes – Angtu says that both he and the porter have the clothes and kit they need, and I’ve checked that what we’re paying covers food and accommodation and insurance for both of them. Which it does.
The next morning, a gleaming silver and maroon 4×4 awaits them at the foot of the hotel steps. Angtu stands beside it looking cheerful. He is wearing new leather walking boots and, despite the balmy 24 degrees, a fleece hat.
Angtu: Sorry sir. Indian jeep, not Japanese.
D: Morning, Angtu! Looks great to me. Nice boots!
Angtu: A client gave them to me. One size too small I think, but very good!
L&D pause to think about walking for a month in uncomfortable boots. Angtu walks for a living. They decide not to interfere.
L: Has the car got brakes?
Angtu grins, removes his hat and rubs his head.
Angtu: Yes mam. Good brakes.
D&L have prepared for their journey by popping a Nepalese anti-nausea pill each, taken the night before. This has the effect not only of successfully staving off all symptoms of car-sickness but also rendering them both curiously relaxed for a full 24 hours. They wonder what’s in it.
They set off promptly at 7am and drive through the haze of a Kathmandu morning. Dogs and the occasional monkey wander the pavements, keeping company with brightly clad women in pristine saris of vivid pinks and oranges, while the traffic swerves around cavernous potholes, street-seller carts, and at intervals a thoughtful-looking cow. The streets throw up dust and are edged with rubble and litter and puddles and mud and bricks and sand and rebar. Taxis, mopeds, buses and lorries shift lanes gracefully, without the aid of line markings, and without antagonism. There are few car horns, but at the junctions the shrill blasts of the policemen’s whistle keep the traffic flowing. Through it all weave bicycles, pushed – not ridden, heavily laden with fruit and vegetables, bundles of laundry, recycling waste, and even furniture.
They stop in a gateway on the way out of town.
Angtu: Here we meet our porter.
L and D shuffle along the back seat to make room. Phurba gets into the boot with the luggage.
L: Oh! Wouldn’t he like to sit…um…?
Angtu: No – he’s comfortable there. He will sleep.
They lean across into the back of the jeep and shake hands, introducing themselves.
Phurba: Namaste. Phurba Sherpa.
Phurba smiles, showing bright white teeth and fine bone structure in an unlined face, ties his floppy hair into a topknot, plugs his earphones into his ears, fiddles with his smart-phone, and settles down comfortably amongst the bags.
Angtu: Phurba means Thursday. He was born on a Thursday. He’s Sherpa – very strong.
L is relieved that the burden of porterage has fallen to someone young and fit.
As they leave the Kathmandu Valley, the road is mostly good, mostly tarmac, and mostly along river valley floors. Low mountains rise, dry and dusty, from swathes of lush green crops – buckwheat or rice. For an hour or so they climb and then contour the tortuous ridges high above a steep sided river valley, the road now dirt beneath their wheels. Lorries swing wide around corners into their path, but somehow there is room for everyone. There are no barriers, but concrete posts are set at intervals along the vertiginous outer edge to marginally lessen the chances of an unwanted plummet. They see no dead buses at the bottom of ravines. Not one. It’s a surprisingly stress-free journey. Or it could be the pills.
Back on flatter ground, they stop for lunch. The little restaurant has a balcony overlooking a cultivated valley, a river winding through it. In the foreground is a haystack up a tree, well off the ground. They are served dal bhat – the Nepali staple of rice with curried potatoes, green vegetables and lentil soup. They have asked for one portion between them.
L: I’m really not hungry.
D: Try some.
L: OK. Just one taste. Oh – that’s delicious! Maybe I am hungry after all.
Angtu, Phurba and the driver sit at a separate table. Angtu tucks in to his lunch with enthusiasm, eating with his hand, and pouring water into his mouth from a shared plastic jug. Phurba uses a fork. Angtu grins over at them.
D: Very good.
Angtu: Any more?
D: No more. Thank you.
Angtu has a vast second helping of everything.
The route is uphill for much of the afternoon. The driver pauses, adjusts his gears, and continues. He stops again, pumps the clutch, and carries on. Eventually the jeep comes to rest. They lift the bonnet and peer inside. Angtu explains.
Angtu: Very hot.
The clutch is overheated, or overworked. The jeep is slipping out of gear or sticking in gear. They wait for things to cool down a bit, and then set off again. It gets no better.
D: My old Escort did this. Angtu – try turning on all the heating full blast, and it’ll cool the engine.
Angtu and the driver politely ignore this suggestion and they limp onwards with frequent pauses.
D: Really Angtu, it’s worth a try.
They nod and do nothing. They wait for the car to cool down enough to get back into gear. D leans forward through the gap between the front seats.
D: Just give it a go. Look – turn on all the heating, as high as it’ll go, and open all the vents.
There is a chorus of dismay as Angtu and the driver are hit full in the face by a cloud of hot dust.
D: And maybe open the windows.
The jeep crunches into gear and moves forward. It continues. The plan seems to be working, though those in the front are less than happy. Fortunately, fifteen minutes later, they reach the top of the hill. The heating is turned off and the vehicle coasts all the way down the other side in neutral.
L: I’m glad it’s got brakes.
After 8 hours and 137 miles, they reach Jiri. They have averaged 17 miles an hour. To their surprise the driver seems happy to continue to Shivalaya. The jeep behaves perfectly, but their progress slows further. They descend steeply on a very rough dirt road, thankfully dry at this time of year, but despite picking their way carefully over the ridges and ruts, hit the underside of the vehicle several times. At the bottom they cross the river, on the other side of which the track is suddenly beautifully paved with stone cobbles – a painstakingly constructed Wizard-of-Oz-like yellow brick road undulating beside the river to the village of Shivalaya. They arrive as the sun slips behind the mountain, blanketing the village in shade. The final 10 miles have taken them an hour.
Shivalaya sits at 1784m altitude on a patch of flat land next to a shallow rocky river. Terraces are carved into the wooded hillsides above, and the valley floor is a patchwork of cultivated plots beside the water. Several shops and half a dozen lodges provide accommodation and food, though business is slow – tonight they’re sharing half a dozen trekkers between them. Angtu chooses a lodge. D&L take one room, Angtu & Phurba another.
L: What about the driver?
Angtu: He’s going back to Kathmandu.
L: What – now? But it’s getting dark and the car’s broken and he’s been driving all day!
Angtu: He’ll stop somewhere and sleep. Somewhere with a mechanic.
Their tiny room has plywood walls and ceiling, two narrow single beds – each with a foam mattress, bedcover, duvet and pillow – and a padlock on the door. There is a bare light bulb and curtains on the windows. There is a plug socket in the room, and astonishingly, wifi, though neither of these actually work. This is the template for pretty much all their accommodation throughout the month-long trek.
At the end of the corridor is a loo. The cistern is broken, but beside the toilet is a large bucket of water and a jug. Although L describes this in her journal as “one v. basic loo”, avoiding the need to squat over a hole in the floor is in fact a luxury rarely to be repeated.
In the dining room they drink tea and peruse the menu. They will soon recognise that almost identical choices are offered by all the lodges and tea-houses along their route. There are pancakes and porridge and chapati bread and eggs. There are soups and omelettes. There is dal bhat, curry and fried rice, pasta, pizza, spring rolls, and momos – Nepali style dumplings stuffed with vegetables or meat, served boiled or deep fried. It’s a mind-boggling array provided by even the remotest places – often many days walk from the nearest road – and from kitchens which usually cook just two hearty meals of dal bhat every day. However it’s a carb-heavy list, with dollops of protein, and precious little fruit & veg.
D: Are you warm enough?
L: Yes thank you. Why?
D: You seem to be wearing absolutely all your clothes. Your thermals and your fleece and your slipper socks.
L: We’re in the mountains!
D: But it’s 19°C.
D: It’s going to get quite a lot colder.
L: Oh. Is it bed time yet?
L: What time is it?
D: Half past seven.