Tag Archives: Lukla airport

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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The Way to Shivalaya – Nepal – Chapter 3

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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.

P1030686 (2)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.

L:  Humph.

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.

D:  No?

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.

D&L:  Namaste!

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.P1010989 (2)

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.

Angtu:  Good?

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.

P1000311 (2)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.

L:  Oh.

D:  It’s going to get quite a lot colder.

L:  Oh.  Is it bed time yet?

D:  Definitely.

L:  What time is it?

D:  Half past seven.

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