Monthly Archives: October 2018

To Lukla In Limbo – Nepal – Chapter 18

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Debuche (3820m) – Namche Bazaar (3440m) – Lukla (2840m)

Date = 02-06 April

Everything is streaming.  D&L wake up to bedclothes wet with condensation and their noses running.  Descending from the cold dry air of the high Himalayas, it seems that everything’s now melting.

Sunlight dapples the well-paved trail through a forest of tall rhododendron.  This morning the main Everest Base Camp route is swarming with trekkers, moving busily in both directions.   The monastery and village of Tengboche sits perched on a ridge, its buildings encircling an immense open clearing.    Towering peaks form spectacular backdrops in all directions.  In front of the monastery a man lies face down on the ground.

D:  Is he praying?  Prostrating himself?

L:  No.  He’s taking a photo.

On the monastery steps a woman with a selfie-stick tries out various expressions on her fully-made-up face.  She’s a creature from another world – L&D have hardly seen a mirror for a month.

P1030589 (2)Despite the bustle outside, the elaborately decorated monastery complex is all but deserted.  A dog lies flatly on the warm paving stones and four ponies amble through the grounds.  D&L circle the gompa, spinning all the prayer-wheels, and admire the deceptively ancient-looking interior, dating back only to 1993.  This monastery, originally founded in 1919, burnt down 70 years later and was carefully rebuilt.  There is a beautifully serene Buddha, eyes half closed, meditating on the altar, and a wall of prayer books behind.  They study a large painted wood panel.

Angtu:  It’s the Buddhist Wheel of Life.  Right there at the centre of the wheel you see three animals.  These animals are at the centre of every person, and we need to get rid of them to reach enlightenment.  The pig is ignorance.  The cockerel, desire.  And the snake, anger.  One leads to another.  If we are ignorant, then we desire things, and then we get angry.

L:  Where’s the Buddha?

Angtu:  He’s outside the Wheel.  Because he’s enlightened.

They descend steeply, with many other trekkers, on a crumbling sandy trail, dust rising, to the river 600 metres below.  Above the torrent are a series of perpetually spinning water powered prayer wheels.  Beside the river is a large outdoor café where they sit with hot chocolate and croissants.  It’s now April and peak season, and it’s packed with people resting in the sunshine, most of them just setting out at the start of their trek.  It’s like a trendy pub garden on a Sunday afternoon.

P1030608 (2)L:  Just look at them!

D:  What’s wrong with them?

L:  Nothing.  They just look so clean!  Look at their clothes!  Their tangle-free hair.  Their plucked eyebrows.  I can’t stop staring!

D:  Stop staring.

L:  I can’t.

They set off again, walking strongly and enjoying the novelty of abundant oxygen in their lungs as they lose altitude.   High season has brought a wider variety of people onto the trails, including a few less fit, or less appropriately dressed, or less courteous (to their guides) than those with whom they have shared the mountains for the last month.

An astonishingly smooth engineered trail winds its way along the contours of the vertical hillside, high, high above the river, all the way back to Namche Bazaar.  They pass an old man on a deck chair with a collections box.

Angtu:  He needs donations from trekkers to continue building the trail, and to keep it maintained.  His family started the project years ago and it’s grown from there.

Back in Namche, they apologetically hand over trousers and thermal tops, stiff with grime, to their hostess to launder.  On the roof of their lodge is a stylish bakery with squashy sofas, cappuccino, cake and free wifi.  Everything is a treat.

***

D walks out of the bathroom in his boxers.  It’s 12°C and the first time in a month it’s been warm enough to stand around without clothes.

L:  Oh my god – you’re so thin.

D:  Get out of bed.  So are you!

They weigh themselves.  Despite all the porridge and pancakes and dal bhat and pizza and Snickers for medicinal purposes, they’ve lost 10 lbs each.

***

In Namche Bazaar’s monastery, a monk offers them a blessing.  One by one he takes their right hand in both of his own, and solemnly wishes them “good luck”.  He knots a length of red string around each of their necks and gives L a woven wool bracelet.  He presents them each with a cream prayer scarf.

L:  D’you think this’ll help us survive our flight from the world’s most dangerous airport?

D:  Bound to.

***

P1030672 (2)Descending from Namche to Lukla, they pass trekkers panting their way up the long ascent.   In the valley fruit trees are bursting with white and pink blossom and the vivid green of buckwheat patchworks the fields.  Rhododendron trees are in flower.   They trail is teeming with trekkers and porters and donkeys and yaks.

L:  We’ve literally passed hundreds of people today.  In both directions.

D:  I miss the emptiness.  And the hugeness of the views.  And the snowy backdrops.  I miss my mountains.

Despite D&L being fitter than ever, today’s 22 kilometres take their toll.   Lukla’s one main paved street seems to stretch on for ever.  At the far end of town is the airport, its ludicrously short runway sloping steeply downhill and off over the abyss.  Tomorrow they will climb into an 18 seater plane and motor off the edge.

D:  We’ve made it!  Shall we celebrate?

L:  It doesn’t feel like the end yet.  We’re sort of hanging in limbo.  The walking is over, but the journey is not.  There’s tomorrow’s flight out to get through first.

***

P1030694 (2)The day dawns grey.  It’s almost the only really overcast morning they’ve had in five weeks.

Angtu:  The planes fly by sight.  Right now the cloud’s still OK for them to land.  But the flight will take longer – one hour instead of 40 minutes – because the pilot will have to follow the river.

From the window at breakfast they watch the first batch of four tiny aircraft land at first light.  Ten minutes later they are off again, having unloaded and reloaded both passengers and luggage.  By 7.15am, D&L are in the airport, sitting on their luggage in a sea of people.  Planes land and planes take off.

An hour later a rumour ripples through the crowd.  The planes have stopped arriving.

D:  Angtu – what’s happening?

Angtu disappears, confers and returns.

Angtu:  The airport is closed.  The cloud is too low.

The energy in the room begins to buzz as several hundred people work out what to do next.  A dapper Indian gentleman approaches them to discuss sharing the cost of a helicopter.  A young American couple nearby overhear and say they’d be keen too.  That makes six people – a full load.

L:  How much?

Angtu:  I think about $250 each.  Maybe a bit more.

American:  I heard $300.

Angtu speaks to the airline.  D&L should get a refund for their cancelled flight, of around $160 each.  But the price for a heli seems to be rising by the minute.

Angtu:  They say $300 to $350.  It will happen after 1 o’clock, once the airport have officially decided to run no more flights today and can approve the flight ticket refunds.  So we wait.

They wait.  No planes arrive.  Other helicopters land, fill with people, and leave.  The Indian guy gets impatient and finds a seat on another flight.  There is a rising tension among the passengers to leave, to bag themselves a ticket out, whatever the cost.  As the departures hall steadily empties, those remaining dig deeper into their budgets.  No-one wants to be left behind.

L:  I don’t understand.  It’s so much money.

D:  They’ve probably all got flights out of Kathmandu to catch.

L:  But everyone knows that getting out of Lukla is weather dependent.  All the advice is to plan in an extra day.  For exactly this.  It happens all the time.

Another rumour ripples through the clumps of people still waiting.

D:  Angtu – what’s happening?

Angtu disappears, confers and returns.

Angtu:  The airport is open.  The weather is better.

D&L look doubtfully out of the window where the cloud still hovers just above the village.  The airline optimistically checks them in and they move into a chilly waiting room with over 100 other people.  At 18 people per plane, a lot of planes need to arrive.

No planes arrive.  More helicopters land, fill with people and leave.  They wait.  Angtu disappears.  The tension rises.  The crowd thins.

At lunch-time, Angtu reappears.

D:  Angtu – what’s happening?

Angtu:  The airport is closed.  No more flights today.  The airline will give us a refund and find us a heli.

By now the airport seems to be entirely empty of people.  Everyone else seems to have known this already and found space on a helicopter or made alternative plans.  Angtu takes L&D across the lane to a lodge for lunch.   The lodge is just as cold as the airport, but with more comfortable seats.

P1030692 (3)They wait, watching the runway through the window.  Helicopters continue to arrive, fill and leave.

After lunch they go back to the airport where they continue to wait.

D:  Angtu – what’s happening?

Angtu talks to the airline guy.

Angtu:  He can’t find a heli.

Right outside the window, half a dozen helicopters are doing a roaring trade, busily touching down, filling with passengers and taking off again.

At the end of the afternoon they walk down to the dirt yard where the helicopters load up.  The tension is tangible as the last passengers are vying to get out before nightfall.  Everyone is being swept along on a rising wave of irrational panic.

Angtu:  I have got us a place!  On a heli!

L:  Brilliant!  Let’s go!  How much?

Angtu:  A thousand dollars.  For two people.

L:  Err…no!  I don’t think so!

The seats are quickly snapped up by other people and the heli takes off.

L:  Has everyone gone mad?

Angtu:  I have got two more seats!

L:  How much?

Angtu:  Seven hundred dollars.

L:  And you?

Angtu:  No space.  I will come tomorrow.

After five weeks together, D&L consider that leaving Angtu behind now would be highly bad form.

D:  No thank you.  We’ll get the plane tomorrow instead.  Together.

Angtu looks puzzled but resigned.

The last helicopter of the day takes off, leaving L&D in Lukla.  Having saved $700, they splash out $8 on a snug little room with a private bathroom.  Angtu and D close the episode with a glass of local chang each – rice beer with the strength and taste of sherry, served by the half pint.  It hits the spot.

***

P1030693 (2)They are back at the airport at 7am.  The clouds are swirling, but higher, and the skies are much clearer.  Planes arrive and leave.  They check in again.  Planes arrive.  Planes leave.  The cloud builds and lowers.  The planes stop coming.  They wait.

D:  Angtu – what’s happening?

Angtu disappears, confers and returns.

Angtu:  Quickly – we are going.  Follow that man.  We must hurry!.

They are led at a brisk trot onto the runway and squeezed onto a plane with 15 other passengers.  They strap in.  And wait.

D:  Angtu – what’s happening?

Angtu:  The pilot says we can’t take off until the Prime Minister’s plane has left Kathmandu.

D:  When will that be?

Angtu:  Now!

Suddenly the engines roar, the tiny plane bounces forward and hurtles steeply down the slope towards the edge of the cliff.  L grasps her prayer scarf and lucky red string.  It works.  The plane takes off smoothly over the abyss, a tiny white speck suspended in thin air, dwarfed by the world’s biggest peaks.

***

L:  D’you know what didn’t happen on this trip?

D:  Oh dear.  What didn’t happen?

L:  We didn’t get stressed.

D:  No.  Or ill.

L:  Or altitude sickness.

D:  Or blisters.

L:  Or food poisoning.

D:  Or lost.

L:  Or rained on.

D:  Or snowed on.

L:  Or robbed.

D: Or injured.

L:  Or attacked by dogs, or donkeys or yaks.

D: Or yetis.

L:  We didn’t lose anything.

D: Or leave anything behind.

L: Or break anything.

D:  Whatever will we tell people?

L:  Nothing.  We’ll have nothing to say.

D:  We can show them 2,000 photos of mountains instead.

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The Puja, the Yeti, and the Travelling Tailor – Nepal – Chapter 17

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Pangboche (3980m) – Ama Dablam Base Camp (4600m) – Debuche (3820m)

Date = 01 April

L:  So?

D:  6°C.

L:  Plus?

D: Plus.

L:  Plus!

After a fortnight at over 4000 metres, D&L revel in sleeping under real sheets, unrestricted by the confines of a sleeping bag and layers of clothing in bed, and by being able to get dressed without sub-zero temperatures nipping at their skin.  The toilet flush works because the water isn’t frozen, and there’s warm water in the basin tap.

Today they are heading to the foot of the alluring beacon of Ama Dablam.    The sky overhead is a milky blue and the ground is crisp and white.  On the edge of Pangboche, a coating of snow sits prettily on top of dry-stone walls and bushes and trees, reminding them incongruously of the English Cotswolds.

P1030496 (2)They cross the river below the village on a steel bridge strewn with prayer flags, and follow a wide path leading up to an open plateau.  The sun streams from behind Ama Dablam’s peak, throwing it into silhouette and making the broad snow-field sparkle.   Two other small groups, half a dozen trekkers each, are admiring the views back to Pangboche.  L strides away across the plateau.

D:  It’s not a race!

L:  Of course it’s a race.  But we’re winning.  Hurry up.

The route rises in stages, alternating between steep climbs and swathes of flat upland meadows – always open to magnificent views.   It’s jaw-droppingly gorgeous and Angtu waits patiently while they take photo after photo filled with dazzling white landscapes and soaring snow peaks under a brilliant blue sky.P1030504 (2)

L:  It’s so beautiful.

D:  It really is.

L:  It’s all about the sunshine.

D:  What is?

L:  Everything.  How we feel, how we’re experiencing what’s around us.  However magnificent it is, the sunshine affects everything!  Whether we’re warm or cold, whether it’s nice to stop and rest, how many photos we take, how far we can see, the colours that feed into our brains and leave imprints, memories.   Our serotonin levels – how happy we’re feeling.  It’s all down to something as fickle as whether there’s a cloud in the sky.

D:  We’ve been lucky then.

L:  So lucky.  Hurry up – the clouds are building.  And people are catching up.

She charges off again, across the final rubble-covered plateau, to reach Ama Dablam Base Camp.  The huge level bowl, with a stream cutting through it, could accommodate hundreds of tents, but at this time of year there’s just one expedition aiming for the summit.  Angtu shows them the long ridge that the climbers will follow, over the course of 3 days, before attempting the final steep exposed push to the summit at 6,812m.   He also points out the unpredictable hanging glacier below the peak.

Angtu:  The mountain is not so high, but not so easy.  The glacier is very dangerous – it can fall at any time.  When it does, it usually falls to the left, which is why climbers take the ridge route on the right.  But not always – in 2006, it fell to the right and six climbers were killed.

P1030535 (2)They walk towards the little cluster of expedition tents.  A dozen or more people are standing or sitting in a group.

Angtu:  D’you want to talk to them?

D:  No – let’s not interrupt them.  I think they’re having lunch.

They walk on by.  There’s a whistle and a shout from the camp, and they are beckoned over, welcomed, and offered seats and mugs of tea.  The expedition members are not having lunch.

Angtu:  They’re having a puja.

D:  Really?

Angtu:  Yes.  Prayers are offered for blessings, to help them to climb the mountain.  To gain merit.  To clear away any obstacles – on the mountain and in their heads – which may block them in making the summit and returning safely.

On a canvas sheet sit five Norwegian climbers, and between them a Buddhist monk is reciting prayers and mantras from a prayer book.  In front of them a rough rock altar displays climbing equipment to be blessed – helmets, boots and ice-axes, and offerings of sweets.  In a cleft on the altar, juniper sprigs are being burnt.    Four Nepali climbers stand beside the altar, and hand out sweets, chocolate, and fizzy drinks to everyone, including L&D.  A mouthful of Red Bull is poured into every open palm, and then drunk.  A bottle of spirits is produced and everyone is encouraged to knock back a capful.

L&D solemnly follow Angtu’s whispered explanations and think fervent good-luck thoughts for the climbers.

The monk continues to chant as he gives each climber a small handful of grains of rice that he has blessed and they all throw them at the altar.  He gives them each a tiny pinch of grain for them to carry on their climb.  He lights a yak-butter candle.  He rings a bell.  He wraps his prayer book carefully in a cloth and blesses each climber by touching the wrapped book to their bowed heads.  He ties a piece of orange string around each of their necks, and places a white prayer scarf over the shoulders of the expedition leader.  Lastly, one of the Nepali climbers marks every face with flour, on both cheeks, climbers and support staff and audience alike, and everyone cheers and claps.

D&L greet the climbers and wish them luck.  They’ll continue to throw out good-luck thoughts at Ama Dablam for the rest of the week.

By the time they leave, the other trekkers are just arriving.  Patches of grass are appearing from under the melting snow and the sky has clouded over.   Blue and white morphs to grey and brown.  They swiftly retrace their steps to Pangboche for lunch, faces still proudly covered with puja-blessed flour.

D:  So d’you think it’ll make a difference – the puja?

P1030557 (2)L:  I do actually.  I’d really like to think so.  The thing is, this landscape is just so enormous, and the weather and conditions up here are so powerful, that it makes one – well, me anyway – feel very tiny and at the mercy of my surroundings.   And if you can’t control your environment, it’s instinctive to want to do all you can to stay on its good side.

D:  So, taking proactive steps to positively affect your own outcome.

L:  Exactly – but up here, practical steps, such as having all the right experience and equipment is not always going to be enough.  We’re too small, and it’s all too big.

D:  So, what?  Spiritual steps?

L:  Yes – to encourage your environment to be kind and merciful and not give you a hard time.  To appease the powerful spirits, or whatever you believe, by walking the correct way around mani stones, spinning prayer wheels, putting out a string of prayer flags, and by being good, or thankful or respectful.  Or by hoping that each action of a puja ceremony is meaningful.  Because really, those climbers, and all of the rest of us too, are at the mercy of our environment.  What d’you think?

D:  I’m thinking.

L:  OK.

D:  Can we go and see the Yeti now?

L:  I thought you were thinking about spiritual things.

D:  No.  About Yetis.

L:  Oh.  Come on then.  Though it’s not a whole Yeti.

D:  Still.

P1030561 (2)The way up to the 16thC Pangboche Monastery is lined with mani walls.  Lots of them.  D&L carefully pass them all to the left.   Terraced fields are dotted with neat piles of manure and women are preparing the ground for planting potatoes.  Pangboche is the oldest Sherpa village in the region, and this is its oldest monastery.

L:  Apparently the monk who built this place could fly.

D:  Fancy.

The warm terracotta and yellow colours of the building are welcoming.  Inside it’s dark and laid out with a Buddha altar in the centre of the long rear wall, with a high monk’s chair on each side.  The entire wall is set with niches filled with prayer books and the arms of two long raised meditation platforms reach into the room, laid with thick cloaks to keep the monks warm whilst praying.

D:  Where’s the Yeti?

Near the door is a plain, white-painted plywood box on a stand.  A monk unlocks the padlock and opens the door.  Inside is the skeleton of an immense hand with elongated fingers, and a pointed skull covered in short-cropped rich brown hair.

L:  Apparently, it’s real.

D:  Right.

L:  It’s been DNA tested and identified as human or nearly human.

D:  That hand is twice the size of mine.

L:  What can I say?  But this is actually a replica.

D:  Where’s the original?

L:  Nobody knows.  People were so excited about it, that it kept being stolen.  It went for good in 1991.

D:  That’s a pity.

L:  Apparently the actor James Stewart stole it once.  Though he may have been smuggling it back.

D:   Now you’re just making things up.

L:  I’m not!  Wikipedia says so.

D:  Well then.

The mani-walls and stupas and prayer flags continue to line the trail away from the monastery.  A path above a steep wooded gorge leads them gently down to the river and then through a pretty forest of rhododendron.  At the tiny medieval-looking hamlet of Millingo, a travelling tailor sits on the ground on a tarpaulin with an ancient manual Singer sewing-machine.  He is making a child’s padded jacket from offcuts of a sleeping-bag.  Angtu is delighted.P1030571 (3)

Angtu:  Time for tea!

D:  But we’re nearly there.

Angtu:  Time for tea.

He sets down his pack firmly and orders them tea.  He then delves into his rucksack and retrieves two pairs of walking trousers, worn out at the crotch.  He hands them to the tailor and demonstrates the problem helpfully on the trousers he is wearing.   By the time their mugs are empty the trousers are mended.  Angtu is beaming.

As they walk on, Angtu attempts to explain the complexities of the Nepali caste system.

Angtu:  So he’s a tailor.

L:  Yes.

Angtu:  But even if he wasn’t a tailor, he’d always be a tailor.

L:  Ummm.

Angtu:  And his daughter will be a tailor.

L:  What if she’s not a tailor?  What if his daughter wants to work in a bank?

Angtu:  Even if she does not work as a tailor, she will still be a tailor.  And she can only marry within her own caste.  Or she will have to leave her village forever.

Caste discrimination has been illegal in Nepal since 1962, with free education available for all.  But social identities persist.  Society is divided into religious and professional strata.  Jobs are given to people of similar caste, which reinforces the income divide between castes.  Someone born into a service caste such as a tailor will still find it almost impossible to work or marry beyond the confines of their caste.

They meet up with Phurba, sitting on a wall in the village of Debuche.  Without the detours to Ama Dablam and Pangboche monastery he has had a leisurely day.  The lodge is smart and clean with a Lavazza coffee sign on the exterior wall.  Their room is cosy with crisp linen sheets and even a double bed.  Their own spotless bathroom has soap and towels.  It would be the height of luxury but for one thing – there’s no electricity.

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