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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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