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From Temper to Trees – Nepal – Chapter 16

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Gorak Shep (5160m) – Kala Pattar (5550m) – Lobuche (4910m) – Pangboche (3980m)

 Date = 30-31 March

 L&D get out of bed reluctantly.  It’s minus 5°C indoors and snowing outside.  Angtu has booked breakfast for 6.30am.  They’ve got a 400 metre climb to the top of Kala Pattar.

They inspect the sky, which does not look promising.

D:  I really want to climb the mountain.

L:  I don’t seem to mind if we do or not.

D:  I want to see if it clears at all.  If it does I’m going up.

L:  OK, if it does, I’ll come too.

There is a French boy at the next table.  Despite the fact that it’s still only 7am, he says he’s already been to the top and back this morning.

D:  How was it?

Boy:  It was super-cold and not worth it as there was nothing to see.

D:  I think it’s clearing.  The sky’s lightening.  It’s stopped snowing.

Boy:  That’s so not fair!

L:  (joking)  You’ll have to do it again!

P1030397 (2)They leave him to his breakfast and set off.  There’s a thin crust of snow, a bitter wind and a leaden grey sky which is slowly shifting and cracking.  Without the sun the landscape is monochrome and harsh.  There is rock and snow.  Black and white.  Cold and colder.

A helicopter thuds up the valley.  It lands in a snowfield below them.  Three tourists get out, take photos of Mount Everest, get back in, and fly away.

The path up Kala Pattar is clear and unchallenging but steep, until the last 50m of bare rock.  It seems that at 5,500 metres L has reached her temper threshold.  D&L stand just below the summit and bicker.  Angtu looks uncomfortable and pretends he can’t hear.

L:  You go. I don’t even care about getting to the top.

D:  But I want you to be with me.

L:  I can’t breathe.  I’m too cold.

D:  Come with me.

L:  I don’t want to.

D goes ahead on his own and reaches the summit.   L comes slower.  D is delighted.  L couldn’t care less, although through her sulk she recognises that on a clear day the views would be unequalled.  Just behind them, looking close enough to touch, towers the peak of Pumori.  Below them lies Everest Base Camp, and the Khumbu Icefall, and beyond the glacier soars Everest – today glimpsed only fleetingly through the shifting cloud.

P1030423 (2)D:  It’s amazing!  Take photos of everything!

L:  I can’t.  My hands are numb.

She hands the camera to Angtu.

D:  Here – have a celebratory Snickers!  We’re at 5550m!  The highest we’ve ever been!

L:  It’s too cold.  Let’s just go.  Let’s celebrate later – somewhere warm.

D:  Oh.  OK.

L:  Have I ruined it?

D:  A little bit.

L:  It’s just so cold.  And grey.  And cold.

They start down.  L’s mood and fingers thaw a fraction.

L:  Sorry.  I think it’s the altitude.  Now we’re a bit lower, I’m less horrible already.

But she continues to feel negative all the way down.  Bad vibes are streaming out of her.  She’s worried the mountain will feel her antipathy and be offended and cause her to strain a knee or an ankle or fall.  For an hour she mutters “thank you Kala Pattar, thank you Kala Pattar” over and over under her breath, a mantra of gratitude to drown out the rest.

On the descent they are overtaken by a youth, skipping down the mountain.  It’s the French boy, who has summitted a second time that morning, and this time been rewarded with views.  L is pleased for him, and continues her muttering.  “Thank you Kala Pattar, thank you Kala Pattar”.

They arrive back at the warmth of the lodge in Gorak Shep and drink hot chocolate and eat pancakes.  It’s taken nearly 2 hours up, and just over 1 hour down.  D is glowing with a sense of achievement.  L feels nothing – she’s just been for a brutally cold walk and come back again.

P1030431 (2)They set off back to Lobuche.  Without the sun to melt the dusting of snow, the landscape stays monochrome and the windchill is biting.  Once again they across the chaotic maze of glacial moraine.

L:  What’s the most overpriced thing you’ve come across up here?  Bearing in mind that everything’s justified somewhere this remote.

D:  It could be the 4 dollar Kit Kat?

L:  Yes.

D:  Or the 400 dollar horse – for a day’s hire?

L:  Also yes.  One could surely buy a horse for less than that.

They join the wide, dusty, well-trodden corridor of the main trail and stride onwards and downwards.

L:  I think being at altitude might be good practice for extreme old age.  I imagine it’s just the same.

D:  In what way?

L:  Walking everywhere really slowly, with sticks.

D:  OK.

L:  And being always out of breath.

D:  I suppose.

L:  And needing to pee all the time.

D:  I think that’s pregnant people, not old ones.

L:  And not enough personal hygiene.

D:  That’s not old people or pregnant ones.  That’s just us.  I’m not sure this analogy is working.

L:  Oh.  You could be right.

D:  How long ago did we shower?

L:  Does a bucket of warm water attached to a hose count?

D:  Yes.

L:  10 days.

D:  And wash our hair?

L:  Two weeks.

D:  Nice.

L:  Quite.

***

It’s minus 4°C in their bedroom this morning, but outside the sky is clear.

P1030438 (2)A team of yaks, heavily laden with equipment for Everest Base Camp, drink from Lobuche’s stream.  A helicopter lands outside the lodge, throwing up a mini blizzard of fine snow which sparkles in the bright sun.

L is cheerful at the prospect that later today she will have a hot shower.  They have splashed out a shamefully enormous sum for a night of luxury tonight and she’s looking forward to washing two weeks of dirt from her hair.

The blue sky above adds welcome colour to the rock and snow of their surroundings.  As the valley widens, the horizon opens to display a succession of jagged distant peaks, and closer to, in the foreground is a similar series of turrets and pyramids, standing a couple of metres high.  They are spread out across the snow-encrusted plateau, with prayer-flags flying from one to another.  It’s a memorial field to climbers lost on Everest and elsewhere.  Many names are Sherpa, others are from all over the world, and they include some of the biggest and most respected names in mountaineering.

P1030449 (2)Among them is Scott Fischer, the American mountaineer and guide known for ascending the world’s highest peaks without extra oxygen.  In May 1996 he led a group of clients up Everest, assisted by two other guides.  After helping others, he summitted Everest late in the day and during his descent was caught in a violent blizzard that took the lives of 8 people, including Fischer.   In this spot there is also a memorial to Anatoli Boukreev, a respected Russian Kazakhstani climber and one of Fischer’s fellow guides on that day.  After rescuing others, Boukreev did manage to reach Fischer, but he was already dead.  Boukreev survived, but was killed in an avalanche while climbing Annapurna 18 months later.    One of the largest memorials is to Babu Chiri Sherpa, who climbed Everest 10 times, holding the record for the fastest ascent (under 17 hours), and for the most time on the summit without auxiliary oxygen (21 hours), as well as summitting twice in two weeks.  He died on his 11th summit bid of Everest, falling into a deep crevasse in April 2001.

P1030459 (4)From the memorial field, the trail descends through rock-strewn mayhem to the valley floor.  The clouds build, settling on the peaks and draping everything in grey.  The temperature drops.  Porters toil their way up through the boulders under enormous weights bound for Base Camp.  Angtu leads L carefully across an ice-bridge spanning the river, the pair of them slipping and dancing in unison, holding opposite ends of a walking pole.

The broad flat valley floor stretches on forever.  They glimpse the tin roofs of Pheriche at the far end of the plain, but the village remains resolutely distant.   They are now at around 4,300 metres.

L:  Look – juniper!  Actual alive growing things!

They realise that it’s been 10 days or more since they’ve seen a plant higher than a centimetre.

L:  And people living their lives!  Not just looking after trekkers.

They are passing tiny stone cottages, used only seasonally and empty this early in the year, and a patchwork of stone-walled yak paddocks.  A stream runs through the valley and the peak of Ama Dablam soars overhead.  In the sunshine it would be stunning.

In Pheriche they pause in a large lodge to rest and get warm whilst Angtu books rooms for a future group.  On their way out of the village, they spot their kit bag sitting on a wall, and from the interior of a dark tin hut comes a peal of laughter and a quack-quack-quack.  Phurba has found some friends.

P1030470 (2)Over a rise they look down into the next valley, a steep-sided groove cut by a fast-flowing river.  As they drop lower, the vegetation gets taller.

L:  No way!  Real trees!

She points.  On the opposite side of the valley, the hillside is cloaked in woodland.

D:  Oh – how we’ve missed them!

L:  Look how lovely they are.  Even though they’re not in leaf.

The tiny village of Shomare is a cluster of proper homes.  There are hens and little veg plots.  They stop for lunch in one of the only lodges.  The dining room is beautifully draped in wall hangings and the floor is spotlessly swept.  Outside the window a tiny girl toddler stands on a narrow ledge.  She puts her head through the open window and roars like a lion.  Then laughs.  She tries to climb in through the window, gives up and disappears.  P1030476 (2)She potters through the door curtain and climbs up onto the bench next to L.  They stare at each other for a bit.  She puts her face right up to L’s, and laughs.  She pokes L.  L smiles and pokes her gently back.  She giggles and pokes.  And giggles and pokes.  And giggles.  The soup arrives.  Her mother shoos her off the bench.  The little girl tries to climb out of the window, gives up and disappears back through the curtain.  She makes herself busy in the yard throwing cups of water at hens.

The onward path is narrow, high above the river.  They’ve not got far to go, and so amble leisurely behind a train of yaks.  A man scrambles up the bank from the river, hauling a sack of hay.

Man to Angtu:  It’s my mule.  He fell.

They peer over the edge.  On a faint trail 15 metres below them stands a brown mule.  He seems miraculously unharmed by his fall.   Two boys try unsuccessfully to pull and push the animal back up to the trail.  But the mule has had quite enough excitement for one day.  He’s going nowhere.

Pangboche is big and spread out.  There’s the first bit they come to, the bit round the corner, and the bit up the hill.  Their luxury lodge is in the first of these.  The extortionate price buys them a warm welcome with a hot towel, a cup of tea and a large slice of chocolate cake.  After the last fortnight, it’s paid for itself right there.  The room is surprisingly cold, despite the fact that they’ve dipped down to just below 4,000m, and the quality is of European 2-star level.  But it’s easy to forget that this village is still a week’s walk from the nearest drivable track.  It has comfortable beds and proper bedclothes.

P1030501 (2)Lodge:  The hot water bottles are free.  Would you like some?

L:  Fantastic – yes please.

Lodge:  Great.  How many?

L:  Oh – umm….

Lodge:  As many as you like.

L:  I think three.

Their en-suite bathroom has hot running water.  They launder some essentials and then lower the tone by hanging them up to dry in the corridor window.   The loo is all their own.  The gas powered shower is weak and fills the room with noxious fumes but the water is scaldingly hot and doesn’t run out and they both wash from top to toe, thoroughly.

L:  It’s so wonderful to be clean.

D:  Though our clothes still smell.

L:  Who cares?

Angtu urges them not to waste yet more money on forty dollar meals in the hotel so they follow him to the lodge opposite.  D is feeling queasy from the gas fumes.  L orders a cheese & tomato pizza.  Angtu returns from the kitchen.

Angtu:  They have no tomato.  You could have just cheese.

L:  A cheese pizza would be great, thank you.

The pizza arrives.  The kitchen have decided that just cheese won’t do.  They have compensated for the lack of tomato, with alternatives.

D:  What’s on your pizza?  That’s not just cheese.

L:  No.  There’s cheese…and carrot…and cabbage.

D:  Good luck with that!

He smirks and tucks into his dal bhat, though the gas has dulled his appetite.  L is hungry and starts on her pizza.

D:  How are you doing?

L:  It’s OK.  But it’s not right.  It’s great to eat cabbage and carrots, and it’s great to eat pizza, but combining the two should be illegal.

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Awesomest Everest – Nepal – Chapter 15

 

P1030273 (2)Gorak Shep (5160m) – Everest Base Camp (5364m) – Gorak Shep (5160m)

Date = 29 March

There are two inches of snow on the ground when D&L set off from Gorak Shep for Everest Base Camp, but the going is easy.  They wend their way gently up the edge of the Khumbu glacier, the rock and dust beneath their feet covered in clean crunchy snow.  The temperature is minus 6°C but the sky is blue and clear, and the sun is warm on their faces.  On every horizon white peaks soar skywards.  They share the path with few porters and Nepali expedition staff heading for Base Camp, but almost no other trekkers.

The guidebook is unenthusiastic about today’s walk.

“Many people have unrealistic expectations of Base Camp and end up being disappointed….there are no views of Everest…and cloud often rolls down from the peaks, obscuring everything in a grey fog.  The main reason to go there is to say you have been there.”

P1030258 (2)Instead of starting from Gorak Shep, most guided groups walk for 3 hours from Lobuche, pausing for an early lunch in Gorak Shep before arriving at Everest Base Camp in the early afternoon, and then heading back to Gorak Shep for the night.  It saves a day, keeps costs down and reduces the time spent at over 5000m.

L:  But it means they’ve walked for 5 hours to get to Base Camp, instead of 2.  So everyone’s exhausted.

D:  True.

L:  And they’ve gained 450 metres in altitude instead of 200.  So they’re probably not feeling so great.

D:  Also true.

L:  And they’ll get to get to Base Camp in the afternoon, after the clouds have built up.  So they might not see anything.

D:  You’re right.  I agree with the guide book.  Could be a pretty rubbish sort of day.

P1030343 (2)They descend onto the Khumbu glacier at around 10am – the landscape a heavy rolling sea of snow-sprinkled rock-strewn peaks and troughs.  Ahead a train of yaks weaves its way calmly through the chaos.  The path leads them to a small hillock strewn with prayer flags.  They are approached by a tall bearded man speaking heavy accented English with some difficulty.   D&L they recognise the accent and switch helpfully into Italian.

Man:  Ahh!  You are Italian!

D:  No, we’re English.

Man:  But you speak Italian!

D:  Yes.

Man:  Fantastic!  So where is the Base Camp?

They confer with Angtu in English.

D:  Umm…here, sort of.

Man:  But where is the sign?

They confer again with Angtu.

D:  Err..there is no sign.

Man:  But for my photos. I must have a sign!

They explain to Angtu.  The Italian has seen pictures of trekkers posing triumphantly in front of a big yellow sign.  And a huge engraved boulder.  Angtu shrugs and walks away.

Man:  So why d’you speak Italian?

D:  We have a house in Italy.

Man:  Oh!  Where in Italy?

D:  Abruzzo.

This is usually the end of the conversation.  The relatively unknown region of Abruzzo in central Italy is not on most people’s radar.  Except, it seems, for today.

Man:  No!  It can’t be true.  I come from Abruzzo!  Where in Abruzzo?

D:  The Majella National Park.

Now they will lose him.  Almost no-one lives in the beautiful mountains of the Majella, with its harsh winters and lack of jobs.  He will live on the coast, in the region’s capital maybe.  But no, it seems, he does not.  He spreads his arms wide.

Man:  Aah!  It’s not possible!  I come from the Majella!

P1030282 (4)They grin at each other stupidly in disbelief.  Angtu returns and leads them over to the pile of stones and prayer flags, where he has dusted the snow off a couple of small rocks on which people have written EBC and the date, in crayon.  It’s good enough for the Italian.  He gets out his camera phone and then delves once more into his rucksack, bringing out a fist-sized rock on which is written “Majella – Abruzzo – Italy”

Man:  Look!  I brought this here!  To Everest Base Camp!  All the way from the Majella!  From my mountain!  He places it reverently on top of stony pile and photographs it proudly.

L:  That’s some dedication.  You’re going to make me cry!

He hugs her.

Man:  I’m crying a bit too!

They leave him taking hundreds of photos of himself and his trek mates, accessorised with Italian T-shirts, hats and flags.  At this point most trekkers stop, take a few selfies, and then retrace their steps.  But the expedition tents for those attempting to summit Everest are spread out along the rocky glacier for a mile or so beyond them.  L wants to see more.

L:  Angtu?  Can we go on?  Up to where the tents are?

Angtu:  This way.

P1030302 (2)He leads them on through Base Camp.  On their left, Nepali expedition teams are clearing rocks and carving flat platforms in the ice on which to set up tents.  Clusters of tents are already in place, and set apart from the rest are tiny latrine huts balancing on pedestals of ice or rock – a loo seat suspended over a plastic drum.  Beside them, sculptural shards of ice thrust upwards through the debris.   On their right flows the Khumbu Icefall – close enough to touch and unfathomably huge.  Tumbling steeply down from the Western Cwm is a kilometre wide torrent of dazzling house-sized blocks of ice.  It’s on the move, flowing at the rate of about a metre a day, constantly shifting and collapsing, opening yawning new crevasses.  It’s beautiful and terrifying.   Helicopters skim along the glacier, over the camp and back again, providing photo opportunities for non-trekking tourists.  The Icefall is so enormous that the little aircraft dip down behind it, lost to sight from where D&L are standing.

A man emerges from a tent and shouts to Angtu.

L:  Are we in trouble?  What’s he saying?

Angtu:  He’s asking if we’d like some tea.

It’s warm inside the expedition kitchen tent despite the smooth ice floor.  Folding tables support large thermoses and cauldrons.  Soup is warming on a kerosene stove and a tower of egg boxes stands in a corner.  They perch on folding stools, sipping peach tea out of tin mugs and happily pretending they are part of an Everest ascent team.

On the return to Gorak Shep, the trail is now bustling with traffic heading up to Base Camp.   Bunches of slow-moving trekkers, strings of high-piled head-swinging yaks, and porters bent double under the weight on their backs.  A mountain of mattresses walks by.  There’s a guy with a half dozen long steel and wood folding tables.  They step aside for a man carrying a large fridge, and for another with a full size cooker.  One porter has 4 x 15kg gas bottles on his back.  Another is entirely buried under an immense roll of carpet.

P1030278 (2)D:  Base Camp was so clean.  I thought Everest was notorious for being strewn with rubbish.  But it was entirely litter-free.

Angtu:  Base Camp is managed by the SPCC – the National Park pollution control guys.  They do a good job.  But higher on the mountain it’s a different story.

D:  In what way?

Angtu:  The SPCC clear up all the rubbish as far as Camp 2, at 6,600 metres, above the Icefall and the Western Cwm.  They supply the Icefall Doctors too.

D:  The Icefall Doctors?

Angtu:  The guys who fix all the ladders through the Icefall at the start of each season.  They pick the safest route and put maybe 50 or more ladders across the crevasses.  So the climbers can get through it.

D:  Sounds dangerous.

Angtu:  It is.  Very dangerous.  Those guys are the real experts.

L:  It’s impressive that the SPCC are keeping the mountain clean all the way up to 6,600 metres.  That’s some seriously extreme litter picking!  Miyolangsangma, goddess protector of Everest, must be happy.

Angtu:  No.  I think she must be very sad.

L:  But why?

Angtu:  Further up – above Camp 2 – it gets bad.  Very bad.  Climbing teams leave a lot of rubbish in the higher camps.  Equipment, oxygen bottles, ladders, food wrappers and a lot of toilet waste.   Even branded stuff like tents – they just cut their company name off and leave it up there.

D:  But don’t they pay a big garbage deposit which they’d lose?

L:  Think about it.  The deposit’s probably been charged to the client, who won’t be expecting it back.  And if it’s easier for the companies to leave stuff up there and not reclaim the deposit, they exert minimum effort and lose nothing.  The next client’s fees probably pays for all new equipment.

Angtu:  There are supposed to be exit checks.  Counting the equipment going up and coming back down.  To make sure all waste is removed from the mountain, and so they can return the garbage deposits.  But the exit checks aren’t done.

D:  Isn’t every expedition member also supposed to bring 8kg of extra waste down with them?

Angtu:  Yes.  But again – no-one’s checking.

L:  That’s so sad.  It shouldn’t need to be about checking – it’s about respect and common sense.  The companies who come every year are quite literally crapping on their own doorsteps.  It’s ludicrous!  And the clients – how can they spend months in this most awesomest of landscapes and then have so little respect for it as to leave waste behind?  What’s happened to basic human conscience?

D:  You’re really shouting now.

Angtu:  It’s different up there.  The priority is to stay alive.  Get to the summit.  Get down again.  And come home.   It’s a problem.

D:  And I’m not sure “awesomest” is even a word.  Though it should be.

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The Forgotten Pyramid – Nepal – Chapter 13

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Lobuche (4910m) – Italian Pyramid (4970m)

Date = 28 March

L:  So?

D:  Minus 5°C.

The cold is getting colder.  D&L are snug in their bedroom with sleeping bag and duvet and thermal clothing.  They need to cover their heads at night, wearing hats and pulling sleeping bags tight around their faces.  In the mornings, the inside of their window is coated with ice.  The air temperature in their room makes the water in their water bottle freeze when they open it to clean their teeth.  The loo cistern freezes overnight.  Even to flush the loo from a bucket they need first to break the ice in the bucket.

They slurp milky porridge soup at 8am while the lodge cleans around them.  All the other trekkers left hours ago.   Angtu shrugs at the staff.  He’s been trying for weeks to get L&D to set off early like everyone else, with very little success.

Half an hour up the valley they stop at a sign saying “8000 Inn” and pointing off the main trail.

Angtu:  Is this the turn?  Is it a hotel?

They are looking for the Italian Pyramid.  Angtu has never been there.  His clients have always been in too much of a rush to get to Everest Base Camp.

L:  I don’t think so.  It’s supposed to be a research centre.

D:  It says it’s just 5 minutes.  Why don’t we go and have a look anyway?

P1030212 (2)In a little barren side valley a solitary low stone lodge is half buried into the hillside and topped by a large glass pyramid sheathed in solar panels.  Behind, in a perfect mirror image, rises the white peak of Pumori, and opposite, a glacier tumbles straight down the mountain into the valley.   A few dumb-bells and makeshift gym equipment sit on a low wall.  They are definitely in the right place.

The catchily named Pyramid International Laboratory/Observatory High Altitude Scientific Research Centre was built in 1990 by a pair of Italians – a mountaineer and a geologist – to measure the exact height of Everest and K2.  It has been used for scientific research ever since, and is commonly known as the Italian Pyramid.

They are met by the softly spoken manager who speaks very good English and looks very Italian, with fashionably shaved scalp, designer stubble and blue eyes in a deeply tanned face.  After weeks of being immersed in incomprehensible Nepali, L&D prepare to break into a language they can actually speak.

L:  Hello!  Are you Italian?

Kaji:  No, I’m Nepali.

L:  Oh.

Kaji Bista welcomes them, makes them tea, settles them in front of a huge TV showing a cricket match, rustles up a plate of egg & chips for another visitor, and then shows them around.

Inside the pyramid a number of small rooms are crammed with scientific equipment, paper files and work spaces.  In one room a large yellow body bag lies on a table.  Stairs climb to an upper floor and a ladder to a space in the pyramid’s peak.  The glass is not glass – it is flexible Perspex.  The whole building flexed comfortably during the 2015 earthquake, remaining undamaged and protecting the equipment within.  There are Italian electronics labels and stickers everywhere.

L:  Look – it’s just like being at home!  We’re English, but we love Italy!  We live there half the year.

A look passes fleetingly across Kaji’s face, like a twinge of sudden toothache.  He says nothing.  Having clearly hit stony ground, D changes the subject.

D:  So what exactly do you do here?

Kaji:  We collect meteorological data, about the weather, from here and also from Namche Bazaar.  And from the top of Kala Pattar.  Have you been there?

D:  Next week.

Kaji:  You’ll see our weather mast up there.  Webcam too.

He walks to a monitor and clicks his way to live weather info and an image.  It looks cold.

P1030210 (2)Kaji:  We also collect geological seismic data – any earthquake activity.

L: Including the earthquakes in 2015?

Kaji:  Oh yes.

He waves at an information poster.

Kaji:  We gather climate change data on nearby glaciers – how fast they’re retreating.  Every month I go back to see what’s changed.

L:  And the gym equipment?

Kaji:  Yes, we get physiological data from people – on how they are affected by altitude.

D:  And what happens to all the data?

Kaji:  It’s sent back to Italy.  All the data can be accessed and transmitted remotely.  Even the lights here can be controlled from Italy!

The whole place is astonishingly high-tech for somewhere so very remote.

L:  And the yellow bag – is that a decompression chamber?

Kaji:  Yes – we have a portable hyperbaric pressure chamber and oxygen.  This month we’ve treated 7 people.  But the lodges and trekking companies don’t like to bring people.  We don’t charge, so no-one makes any money from it.

L:  And now you’ve opened the place up as a lodge for trekkers too?

Kaji frowns.

Kaji:  I had to.  I’ve not been paid a salary for 3 ½ years.

L:  Sorry – what did you say?!?

He gently explains.  The Italian government stopped funding the centre without warning.  His Italian boss in Bergamo took the government to court, and won, but still no money has arrived.

L: (thinking to herself)  Me and my big mouth.  That explains the tooth-ache face.

D: (thinking to himself) L and her big mouth.  “Oooh we love Italy!”

Kaji:  We used to be a team of 14 people.  Now I am the only one still here.   I collect all the data myself.  If I left, the research station would close.  So now I use the empty accommodation as a trekking lodge.  To bring in some income.  Sometimes scientists visit too.

The lodge is cosy, the rooms thickly insulated.  The enviable bathrooms are tiny gleaming white plastic pods straight from an Italian motel.  D finds a tip-box and discreetly feeds it, attempting to compensate for the behaviour of his adopted country and his wife.

L:  Is there nothing you can do?

Kaji:  I hope the new Italian government will free up some funds.

L:  Couldn’t someone else take it over?

Kaji:  Maybe, yes, we could sell our data to richer countries such as China, but until now it has always been Italian.  For 29 years.  It would be nice if it could stay that way.

L:  How long have you been here?

Kaji: Eleven years.

L:  And does your family come to visit you?

Kaji smiles and shakes his head.

Kaji:  No.  It is too far.  Takes too long.  I have four children studying hard in school and college and I go to see my wife twice a year.

They leave Kaji living alone in his valley at 5000m, gathering data from glaciers and mountaintops, running a research lab and a trekking lodge, and saving lives on the side, working for no pay for a far-away country which has forgotten him.

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Trekkers & Treats – Nepal – Chapter 8

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Route = Paiya (2770m) – Surke (2290m) – Phakding (2610m) – Namche Bazaar (3440m)

Date = 14-15 March

 For a third day in a row Angtu has L&D up and walking by 7.30am.  Today they need to reach their long awaited beacon of luxury, however long it takes.   At last the snow covered peaks are getting closer as the trail turns north towards the high Himalayas.  The landscape is stretching and distorting, becoming taller and deeper and steeper.   Below the path, the slope tumbles 1,000 metres to the cold blue thread of the Dudh Kosi river.  Overhead buzz 18-seater Twin Otter planes landing and taking off at Lukla – so dwarfed by their surroundings that they resemble tiny white insects, impossibly vulnerable.  D&L watch as the insects touch down with absolute precision on the 30 metre wide strip of runway on the edge of a cliff, braking hard as they disappear from view, roaring up the 12% gradient to stop, they hope, in less than 527 metres, at which point the tarmac ends and the mountain begins.

In the village of Surkey, they round a corner to find 30 people blocking their path.

L:  Whatever’s going on?  Is it a wedding?  A funeral?  A protest march?

D:  It’s a trekking group.

L:  Oh.  What on earth are they doing here?

D:  Umm…trekking.

L:  But these are our mountains.  Make them go away.

D:  You’d better get used to it.  We’re about to join the main route to Everest Base Camp.  You’re going to be sharing your mountains with a lot of other people.

Angtu: In the busy season, if the weather’s good, maybe 30 flights land at Lukla every day.  That’s nearly 600 people coming in.  And 600 people leaving.  A lot of people.

L: A LOT of people!

Angtu chats to the group’s guides, shaking hands with them and laughing.  He returns.

Angtu:  Don’t worry.  They’re going the other way.

After a brief stretch of supremely flat engineered trail, they pass a junction, lose the trekkers, and the surface beneath their feet crumbles once more.  From here, for a few hours, there is nothing and no-one, no people or donkeys or lodges, just pine trees and views and the roar of the Dudh Kosi tumbling over boulders far below.   The trail clings to the side of the mountain, and the drops are dizzying.  It’s beautiful.

P1020413 (3)They come to Moshe, a medieval-looking collection of tiny stone cottages and doorways in rock-faces.  The land is worked – divided into little stone-walled fields and compounds.  There are no shops or lodges or tea-houses.  More than anywhere they’ve walked through so far, this place seems utterly untouched by tourism and modernity, separate, forgotten.  Lukla’s town and airport are invisible and yet just a few hundred vertical metres above them.  They are right in the flight path.  Some days 1000 people pass over their heads, but each is oblivious to the other.  They are worlds apart.

The village goes on and on.  And on.  Moshe morphs into Chaurikharka, with its neat, good sized houses newly painted.  There is an almost continuous display of long mani walls, prayer wheels and prayer flags along the main street.  Everything is tidy and well maintained.  There are no people, no donkeys and still no shops or lodges or tea-houses or bustle of everyday living.

L:  Where is everyone?  It’s bordering on spooky.

D:  You’re probably just hungry.

L:  I am quite hungry.

On and on they walk, through the village, looking for anywhere that might provide lunch.  But no-one is opening their kitchens to feed hungry porters and trekkers, and there are no porters or trekkers to feed.  This is a community not on a trading route.  All the foot traffic heading to Lukla will bypass this valley.  However unlike Moshe, it seems there’s money trickling in from somewhere – Lukla’s tourist dollars reaching them by osmosis – to fund the maintenance of houses, walls and lanes.

L:  D’you think a community is better or worse off if they can benefit from tourism without the tourists?

D:  Better off, surely, without hundreds of the likes of us marching through.

L:  But there’s no life here.  Without the passers-by, there’s no commerce.

D:  Or worse off.  I don’t know.  You’re confusing me.  I need my lunch.

On and on they go.  The few buildings that might be lodges are closed.

Angtu:  Hungry?  We’ll find somewhere soon.  At least it’s flat.

L:  It’s definitely uphill.

Angtu grins, dismissing the insignificant gradient.

Angtu:  Nepali flat.

At the very top of the village is a huge empty lodge.  It is open.

After lunch they emerge onto the main route opposite what looks like a smart English country pub.  The engineered paving is back, flat and smooth and wide enough to drive along, lined at intervals with lodges and restaurants and tea-houses, and busy with trekkers and porters.

There is a clear division between trekking porters and commercial porters.  The former work with tourists, and are usually young, well equipped with footwear and appropriate clothing, and their tumplines suspend waterproof kit-bags supposedly limited to 30kg.  They trot along the trails, skipping up and down the steep slopes at twice the speed of the trekkers.   They cover a relatively short distance per day, as they are limited to going only as far as the trekkers can manage, and earn about $15-20/day.

Commercial porters supply stores and lodges with food, consumables and building materials.  They tend to be older and dressed more simply, shod in trainers or crocs or even sandals.  Their tumplines support a doko basket, loaded with as much weight as they can manage – there are no limits.  Often they are carrying as much as or more than their own body weight.   They move slower, rest more frequently, and carry a short T-handled walking stick called a tokma, on which they can balance their load to rest while standing.  They cover more ground and earn less than trekking porters, being paid by the kilo.

P1030455 (2)There is also a hybrid third group – the expedition porters.  These guys tend to look and dress like trekking porters – young, fit and reasonably well equipped.  However, it seems that they too are paid by the kilo as they carry ludicrous loads, the furthest distance, to base camps at the foot of the world’s highest mountains, covering many miles a day.  They are doubled over under towers of chairs, rolls of carpet, steel folding tables, mattresses, drums of climbing gear, cooking gas cylinders, pots and pans.  It’s seasonal and punishing work, but lucrative if they can get it.

As has become a pattern, the day has by now clouded over.  In the village of Ghat, they spot a small tatty-looking sign to their destination, and Angtu seeks directions.  They leave the main route and cross a swathe of landslip.  A young woman overtakes them, cheerfully swinging a large mouse in a small cage, and talking on her phone.

D:  Umm…Angtu?  What’s….?

Angtu:  It’s a rat trap.  The rats eat the food supplies, which is very bad.  So she will take it to the far side of the river, to set it free where it can’t come back.

As if the mani walls and prayer wheels and prayer flags and stupas weren’t clues enough, they are reminded yet again that this is Buddhist country.

They cross the Dudh Kosi on a suspension bridge, feeling the chill of the water waft up around them, and climb through pine forest.  Though surprised at the approach on what is barely more than an animal track, every minute they expect to arrive, to walk through the doors of welcoming luxury.  Forty minutes later they reach a tiny farming village teetering precariously at the top of an enormous landslide.    Angtu again asks directions.  They follow a high walled lane, climb over a fence and walk through a yak enclosure, to arrive at an unsigned single storey stone building.  They have arrived.

The door is opened by a tall slender Nepali woman whose poised stature and fine features are unlike the small, soft, rounded faces that they have become familiar with.   The interior is stylish and comfortable – books and cushions and Buddhist artwork.

P1020431 (2)Angtu acts as translator and go-between, making sure they have everything they need.

Angtu:  Tea?

L:  My usual.  Hot lemon please.

Angtu:  No hot lemon.

L:  Oh.  OK.  Tea please.  Could you ask for the wifi password?

Angtu:  No wifi.

L:  Oh.  Well.  Never mind.

Angtu:  Are you ready to order dinner?

D:  Yes.  Can we see the menu?

Angtu:  No menu.

D:  Right, what is there?

Angtu:  Spaghetti or dal bhat.

L:  I think I’ll have….

Angtu:  And you have to both choose the same.

L: Oh.

D:  We’ll have dal bhat.

Angtu:  And salad?

L:  Green things?  For the first time in 10 days?  Yes please!

Angtu:  OK – we’re going now.

D:  Hold on – where are you off to?

Angtu: Down to Phakding.

L:  That’s an hour away.  Why aren’t you staying here?

Angtu:  They don’t have a room.

D:  Are they full?

Angtu:  No.  There are no other guests.  But they don’t have a room.

He shrugs and grins and rubs his tummy.

Angtu:  We have friends in Phakding.  We’ll eat momos.

Their room is cold but beautifully decorated and the duvet is thick.  The bed is….

L:  Oh.

D:  What?

L:  Hard.  It’s a futon mattress.  It’s less comfy than the lodges.

The dal bhat is tasty, but the salad is scrumptious.  L abandons her rice and gorges on unidentified greenness:  crispy and crunchy and bitter and sweet and lemony and fragrant.  There are herbs and little beans or peas or nuts – she can’t tell which.  She doesn’t care.  She just keeps eating.

D:  It’s risky.

L:  What is?

D:  That salad.  It may make you ill.

L:  It tastes much too good.

D:  You’re living life on the edge.

***

Angtu and Phurba return in the morning.

Angtu:  So was it worth it?

L:  No.  Though the salad was amazing.  But I never would have booked if I’d thought they wouldn’t give you both a room.

Angtu:  We saw friends.  We ate momos.  Maybe too many.

He disappears discreetly for about the 5th time that morning.  This is most unlike him.  Usually he is happy to share his bathroom habits with his trek-mates, having first chosen a nice viewpoint:

Angtu:  It’s my time – natural toilet!

They are alone on a hillside of pines, paralleling the river and the main trekking route.  Between Phakding and the river are fertile fields and a series of polythene greenhouses.  At around 2,600m, this is the region’s kitchen garden, with a 9 month growing season and plenty of moisture, providing greens for the higher, colder settlements further up the trail.  Angtu whistles.  A tiny figure emerges from a greenhouse half a mile away.  They both wave and whistle some more.  Angtu smiles.

Angtu:  My friend.

They join the main trail, following the Dudh Kosi upstream, past small-holdings, stupas and mantra- painted boulders, shops and tea-houses.  They pause to watch a group of laden cattle crossing a suspension bridge.

P1020459 (2)D:  Are those yaks?

Angtu:  Or naks.  Yaks are male.  Naks are female.  But these aren’t either.

D:  So what are they?

Angtu:  These ones are dzopkyo – half yak, half cow.  You probably won’t see proper yaks till we get higher.

D:  OK.  Chopki.  Got it.

They pass through a checkpoint and Angtu heads off with a fistful of paperwork.  A sign says “Welcome to Sagarmatha National Park – World Heritage Natural Site”.  They sit on a wall to wait and read about the park.

L:  As well as Everest, it’s got 7 other peaks over 7,000 metres.

D:  Excellent.  We’ll see some of those.

L:  And glaciers.

D:  Cool – we’ll see some of them.

L:  And “the unique culture of the Sherpa people”.

D:  We’ll see some of that.

L:  And snow leopards and red pandas.

D:  I doubt we’ll see those.

L:  It gets 30,000 visitors…

D:  Yikes, I hope we don’t see all of them.

L:  ….a year, which has massively boosted the local economy and made access for local people much easier to things like healthcare and schools.

D:  That’s good.

L:  And has led to a lot of investment in infrastructure, such as bridges and trails.

D:  That’s good too.

L:  But it also means the cost and demand for food has gone up a lot too.

D:  Not so good if you’re not getting an income from tourism.

L:  No.  Guess what percentage of the park is forested?

D:  Tell me.

P1020921 (2)L:  3%.  Hardly any.  And guess how much is barren land over 5,000 metres?

D:  Umm….

L:  Too slow.  69%!  Most of it’s over 5,000 metres!

D:  What’s the rest?

L:  Grazing.

D:  I’m worried about the 3%.  The trees.

L:  You’re not allowed to burn firewood in the park.  From live trees.  They only burn yak dung.  And rubbish.  And dead trees, though there really aren’t any.  And they’re replanting bits.

D:  OK.

Angtu returns.

Angtu:  Shall we go?  Slowly slowly?

He’s worried about the big climb ahead to Namche Bazaar.  The guidebooks describe it as torturous.  L is coughing much less now but he’s not sure how she’ll do.  He’s still not feeling great himself.

They stop for lunch in a restaurant crammed with several large trekking groups, and sit at the end of a long table feeling overwhelmed by the crowd.  Outside it begins to rain.

P1020476 (2)It’s still spitting when they make their way alongside the river bed, on a path of worn-smooth river stones.  Ahead across the river are two long suspension bridges, one above the other, reaching from one hillside to the next.  The lower one is no longer used.  The higher one is a very long way up.

They start to climb.  People keep getting in the way.  To their surprise they overtake one group after another, one person at a time.  Most of these trekkers flew straight into Lukla yesterday and so are less fit and less acclimatised.  L&D have been walking for 10 days.  They bounce across the suspension bridge happily, watching others cling to the swaying sides in terror.  It is a very long way down.  The drizzle turns to rain and sets in.  They put on their waterproofs and set off up the broad, sandy zigzagging path.  It is mercilessly steep.  They get into a rhythm, overtaking trekker after trekker after trekker – not because they are faster but because they don’t need to stop and rest.  Even Angtu can hardly keep up.

Angtu:  We are strong!

L:  I feel strong.  I can breathe!  It’s amazing!

Angtu:  Stop and rest?  Or keep going?

L:  Keep going.  I’m fine.

D:  It’s not a race, you know.

L:  Of course it’s a race.

They’re treating themselves again. While they can.  The Yeti Mountain Home is right at the top of Namche Bazaar, almost in the cloud.  After last night they are braced for more disappointment.  At the door, boots are traded for the crocs provided.  The sole is flapping off one of L’s crocs so she has to walk with a limp to avoid tripping over it.  They are welcomed, given hot towels and a pot of lemon tea.  The reception area is bitingly cold, but their bedroom is cosy and comfortable and carpeted.  It has panoramic views down over Namche Bazaar.  It has a heater!  An electric blanket!  Great thick duvets and great thick mattresses.  An en-suite bathroom!  The shower dispenses masses of scalding hot water, solar heated on the roof above.  They shower, wash their hair, and get straight into bed.  It’s the middle of the afternoon.  It is heavenly.

P1020478 (2)There’s good news – the hotel is giving Angtu free accommodation and meals.

L:  And Phurba?

Angtu:  He will stay in town.  I’ll find him somewhere.  I’ll look after him.

L:  Oh.  Somewhere nice.

Angtu:  This is normal.  It’s how things are.

It’s not ideal but they accept it.  They’re grateful for Angtu’s free place.  He joins them for supper.

D:  How’s Phurba?

Angtu:  He’s happy.  He’s found friends.  I had dinner with him.  More momos.

Three bowls of soup arrive.

Angtu:  Not for me – oh, ok then.

They finish their soup.  Vast amounts of Chinese food arrive.  The unexpected flavours make a nice change.

Angtu:  Not for me – oh, ok then.

There is much more than they can eat.  But Angtu is not one to waste an opportunity.  He eats until he is about to burst.  One of the waitresses is married to his wife’s brother.  They leave him there chatting and go back to bed.

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