Tag Archives: namche bazaar

Getting High in the Himalayas – Nepal – Chapter 10

P1020634 (2)

Namche Bazaar (3440m) – Phortse Tenga (3680m) – Dhole (4200m) – Macchermo (4470m) – Gokyo (4790m)

 Date = 19 – 22 March

P1020627 (2)A crumbling path rises vertically behind Namche Bazaar.  Angtu groans loudly at intervals, grinning widely, as they climb 400 metres in under an hour, overtaking a steady stream of panting, less acclimatised trekkers.

Angtu:  Not easy!

D:  It’s not a race.

L:  Of course it’s a race.

They reach the top and stand there gasping.

D:  Are you alright?

L:  No.  I can’t breathe.

D:  Is it the altitude?

L:  No.  It’s the views.

Ahead in the distance rise the iconic black pyramid of Everest, the twin peaks of Lhotse and the sublimely gorgeous cone of Ama Dablam.   D&L stumble on across an undulating grassy plateau, muttering like lunatics.

D:  Awesome.

L:  Ridiculous.

D:  Epic.

L:  Extraordinary.

D:  Stupendous.

L:  Amazing.

D:  Where’s Phurba?

Angtu:  He took the low path.  He’s seen it all before.

A helicopter is parked outside the €300/night Everest View Hotel.  They pick a table on the terrace and order probably the world’s most justifiably expensive hot chocolate.

P1020642 (2)All day they walk towards Ama Dablam pointing haughtily skywards, a backdrop to stupas, prayer-flags and picturesque yaks.  It photo-bombs their pictures.  It demands to be admired.  It’s the most beautiful peak they’ve ever seen.

At the top of a long flight of ancient stone steps clinging to the steep mountainside, is the village of Mong, balanced on a ridge just shy of 4,000 metres.   Here they find Phurba, sitting on a wall, smiling and fiddling with his phone.  Stopping here for lunch, they observe a pair of British guides gathering their group of gap-yars.  The guides bark orders, treating their charges like children, not to forget their belongings, not to be late.  They outline the itinerary for the afternoon and following days, which is far more ambitious than D&L’s.  Angtu makes a face.

Angtu:  Too high, too quick.  They could get sick.   Could need an Everest taxi.

L:  What d’you mean a taxi?  We haven’t seen a road for two weeks.

Angtu:  A heli.  There are many helicopters working every day here.

L:  How many?

Angtu:  Maybe 7 companies – 25 helis in all.

D:  For millionaire sightseeing?

Angtu:  And deliveries.  And medical evacuation – every day there’s rescues for people who get sick.

Trekker travel insurance in Nepal demands a USD $750 excess to be paid if a helicopter evacuation is required.  It’s to act as a deterrent.  Tour operators routinely walk their groups on a tight schedule, designed to allow most people to acclimatise – most, but not all.  Those needing more time are left behind, or struggle on, taking serious – potentially fatal – risks to their health.  As many trekkers in Nepal are on a “once in a lifetime experience”, they become determined to reach their goal whatever the consequences.   Once altitude sickness sets in, the only remedy is to head downhill – fast.  In a region with no roads, this means a “heli”.

P1030436 (2)Often, pushing trekkers too high too fast is simply down to a battle by tour companies to offer competitive prices and so a tightly timed itinerary.  Sometimes though, the reasons are a lot more sinister.   There are scams where companies deliberately cause their clients to become ill, with altitude sickness or food poisoning, and then call in a helicopter which delivers the trekker to a private hospital.  There are plenty of winners – kickbacks for all – the trekking company and guide, the helicopter company and pilot, and the private hospital.  There is also one big loser.  The trekker gets a curtailed holiday, a life-threatening illness, a helicopter ride, a stint in hospital, and a gigantic bill.

The group set off ahead of them, setting a fast pace as they have further to go.  D&L work their way slowly down a steep path.  A wave of Hindi pop music rises up from below, getting ever louder and closer until it crashes over them.  The source is an elderly porter, his straw doko empty on his back, his face blank, dance music blaring deafeningly from his pocket.  L&D greet him, shouting “namaste” over the noise.  Angtu and Phurba ignore him.

L:  Have you noticed that Nepali interaction is the opposite to British?

D:  In what way?

L:  Nepalis are really friendly, but they don’t talk unnecessarily.  If we’re passing other people walking, and there’s nothing to say, they say nothing at all, not even a greeting.  But if there is something to say, they launch right in – they don’t bother saying hello.   There’s no formalities.  And when talking they seem immediately comfortable, laughing and joking and smiling readily.

D:  You’re right.  Whereas us Brits are tremendously good at the formalities, with lots of hellos and excuse mes and thank yous and sorrys, but pretty hopeless at genuine conversation!

***

The following morning, the sky dawns blue.  Their room is cosy, but cold.  L snuggles deeper into her sleeping bag.

L:  Bruh!  What’s the temperature?

D:  4°C

P1020729 (2)Birch and rhododendron woods line the path, moss hanging from tree branches and the river is occasionally visible far far below.  Frozen waterfalls and torrents of snow and ice stripe the cliffs overhead and cross the trail, incongruous in the strong sunshine and soft woodland.

The forest dwindles out at around 4000m.  This is the treeline.  They’ll see no more vegetation much over knee-height for almost a fortnight.   The little there is, mostly the juniper shrub, is under serious threat, having been gathered for firewood for decades.  Without the juniper’s soil-binding roots, hillsides become eroded and barren.  Juniper grows very slowly, and in these harsh high altitude conditions it’s cold and windy and dry with only a 3 month growing season.  It’s not enough time to recover the damage – up here it takes 100 years for a juniper bush to grow a mere 4cm diameter trunk.

Dhole spreads comfortably on a two-tier open shelf, with mountains rising behind, and the ground ahead dropping sharply into the river ravine.  One of the region’s three kerosene depots is in this village, ensuring that expedition groups don’t use shrub-wood for fuel.

Despite arriving at 10.30am, they are now at 4,200m and have gained enough altitude today.   They sit in the sun, sipping hot tea.

Angtu:  How are you feeling?  All good?  No headache?

D:  We’re good.

L:  What actually is it?  Altitude sickness, I mean.  AMS.

D:  Acute Mountain Sickness.  Two things.  The higher you go, the less oxygen there is in the air, and so in your blood.  Which is what makes you breathless and tired.

L:  Makes sense.  And the other thing?

D:  The higher you go, the lower the air pressure, which means that liquid in your body sort of oozes out into your lungs, or your brain – a pulmonary or cerebral edema – either of which could kill you.

L:  Nice.  But by not going too high too fast, our bodies adjust as we go along, right?  If we give them time to?

D:  Yes – but it’s not an exact science.  Ideally we shouldn’t sleep more than 300 metres higher than we slept the night before.  If one goes way over this, take a rest day to acclimatise.  Walk high but sleep low.  Drink lots of water – dehydration doesn’t help and the air gets drier the higher you go.

P1020742 (2)L:  And what are the symptoms?  Apart from feeling tired and breathless.

D:  OK.  Headaches.  Dizziness.  Feeling sick.  Not being hungry.  Not sleeping.  Grumpiness.

L:  And how do I know if I’ve got an edema?

D:  If it’s in your lungs, you’ll cough a lot and spit pink.  If it’s in your brain, you’ve probably got a splitting headache and you act drunk – malcoordinated, confused, irrational.

L:  What about taking drugs – like Diamox?

D:  Diamox isn’t a cure for AMS.  It just makes you breathe better, but if you’ve got other symptoms it won’t hide them or make them go away.

L:  So what are your symptoms now?

D:  None.  I’m happy and hungry.  You?

L:  I’m happy and hungry too.

They rinse trail dust from their clothes in a bucket.  In a sauna-warm tin hut with transparent corrugated plastic roof they find a smart shower tray and a hosepipe dispensing tepid water.  As the afternoon cloud builds over the peaks, the temperature drops.  At 5pm, the yak-dung stove is lit in the centre of the dining room and chairs are pulled close around it.  Angtu is happy, having spent the afternoon with friends, other guides passing through the village, drinking home-made wine.  L&D play cards and listen to melodious Nepali chat and laughter drift over them.

***

L:  So?

D checks the temperature.   Despite her thick sleeping bag and the heavy duvet, L has slept in all her clothes including her woollen hat.

D:  Minus 1.

L:  Minus 1?

D:  Minus 1.  Happy Birthday.

L:  Oh.

L sits up in bed.  D has bought gifts in Namche Bazaar and has stuffed them into a sock – a donkey bell, a bangle, a pendant and some prayer flags.  L is delighted.

Later D lights a candle, hands around Snickers bars and with Angtu and Phurba sings Happy Birthday – all of them looking acutely uncomfortable.  It’s a sweet gesture.

Their walk to Macchermo only takes a couple of hours, but they’ve gained another 270m, so they stop to acclimatise.  It’s not enough activity for D who heads off for a walk alone towards the bowl at the head of the valley. P1020769 (3)

L:  I was so worried!  Where on earth have you been?

D: For a walk.  I said so.

L:  You were gone for ever!

D:  For just over an hour.

L:  But it’s dangerous!  There are yetis!

D:  I think you mean yaks.

L:  No, I mean yetis!  A woman and three yaks were killed.  By a yeti!  Right here!  The police said so!

D:  What?!  When?  Today?  While I was out?

L:  No.  In 1998.

***

It’s minus 1°C again in their bedroom this morning.  D&L are developing new skills: how to get dressed in a sleeping bag; how to clean their teeth in bed with a swig of water and a spit-mug pilfered from the dining room the night before.

They follow a broad scar of pebbles and boulders and water and ice snaking down from the pass ahead.  The turf beneath their feet is dissolving into sand as they gain altitude.   Beyond the pass, the horizon ends at the great white wall of Cho Oyu, at 8,188m the world’s 6th highest mountain, an impassable barrier between Nepal and Tibet.

P1020780 (2)At a lonely teahouse skirted by stone-walled yak paddocks, they stop for tea.  The sun gleams off the blue tin roof, the pristine whitewash and the silver dish of a solar kettle.

L:  It’s beautiful.

Angtu:  13 people died.

L:  Here?

Angtu:  Yes.  In 1995.  An avalanche came down and buried the lodge – not this one, there was another, at the foot of the slope.  A group of Japanese trekkers were staying there.

D:  How terrible.

Angtu:  There was so much snow.  I was stuck in Gokyo, 2 hours from here, for 11 days.  Many people needed rescuing.  I was helping as cook, feeding stranded trekkers and helicopter rescue teams.  There were no phones, no wifi.  It was more difficult back then.

L:  Were your family worried about you?

Angtu grins cheerfully.

Angtu:  They thought I was dead!  They’d heard all the stories, of the snow and the avalanches, and they knew I was here.  Every day I didn’t come home.  When I got back to my village, they were all so surprised.  They said “What are you doing here?  You’re supposed to be dead!”

A man skips towards them, moving at a trot down the trail, talking on his mobile.  He stops to greet Angtu, finishes his call and whoops with joy.  They chat, laugh, shake hands and move on.  Angtu explains.

Angtu:  He’s very happy!  He’s just been told he has 3 months work as an Everest expedition porter.  He can earn a lot of money – enough for a year.  He said to me that he sent his son away to work in the Gulf so he could send money home to the family, but he never sends any money – there’s always some excuse.  Now he can tell his good-for-nothing son to come home and look after the yaks while he earns the money instead!

P1020811 (2)At the top of the pass they enter a long valley strewn with boulders.  They pass the first of Gokyo’s sacred lakes on which a pair of orange Brahminy ducks glide and preen on the metal-grey water.  Further on they reach the second sacred lake.  It’s fringed with decorative cairns, placed there by Hindus and Buddhists for whom these lakes have religious significance, or by trekkers taking selfies.

L:  It’s frozen!

D:  I can see that.  It’s awesome.

L:  But it’s supposed to be blue.  In the pictures it’s blue!  An amazing turquoise blue.

D:  Not today it isn’t.

L:  But it’s on the cover of the guidebook!  Looking blue!

D:  I don’t think shouting’s going to change it.

Angtu:  The photo must be summer.  It always freezes in the winter.

L:  Oh.

P1020817 (4)A train of yaks lumbers by, calmly picking their way across the rocky ground, and swinging their big gentle lethal-weapon heads from side to side.  Some have untidy white face markings on otherwise black woolly coats, as though they have been apple-dunking in a trough of whitewash.

As they continue up the valley, the sun goes in, the frigid air nips their skin, and the landscape turns shades of white and grey.  Over a small rise fly tattered prayer flags, and beyond lies the village of Gokyo, on the shores of the third sacred lake.  The surface of the water is a solid crust of ice and snow, and the village is cloaked in sombre shade.  In sharp contrast, at the head of the valley, Cho Oyu dazzles whitely under a clear blue sky.

At 4780m Gokyo seems impossibly chilly and isolated, set amongst an unforgiving landscape of rock and ice.  Behind the village a high ridge of glacial moraine threatens to break surf-like over the buildings, and in front, the lake, ringed by spectacular mountains, breathes icily over the huddle of lodges.  To one side there is a gentler sight, its scale deceptive, seeming almost a hill, a soft dome of parched brown grass.  This is Gokyo Ri.

P1020833 (2)In this remotest of backwaters is a cluster of trekking lodges.  Their bedroom has a carpet, a lake view and clean linen on the twin beds.  The internet works and there is a plug for charging phones.  A skylight lets the sun heat the space in the day.  They look in wonder at the en-suite bathroom with Western loo, a basin and a shower tray.

L:  It’s fantastic.

Hotel:  Yes.  Only one small problem.  Last winter our caretaker forgot to drain the pipes, so they all froze.  And then they split.  So everything is broken.

D:  Oh.

Hotel:  But we’ll bring you a bucket!

D:  That sounds great.

After a walk around the lake, they get into bed.  It’s mid-afternoon.

L:  I  have to say – I didn’t expect to spend quite this much time in bed.  It’s brilliant of course – I love being in bed.  But I sort of imagined us wandering about and exploring more.

D:  And just sitting.

L:  It’s a bit chilly for sitting.  Or wandering.  Or exploring.

D:  We’ve become too used to central heating everywhere, all the time.  It’s much better for the planet to do it this way – just heat one communal room for a couple of hours in the evening.  And wear more clothes.

L:  I’m already wearing all my clothes.

D:  And you’ve got your hot-water-bottle.  At 3 dollars a fill.

L:  That’s 3 dollars of happiness.  Worth every cent.

P1020628 (2)

Advertisements

Superhuman Sherpas – Nepal – Chapter 9

P1020585 (2)

Route = Namche Bazaar (3440m) – Thame (3820m) – Thame Gompa (3970m) – Namche Bazaar (3440m)

 Date = 16-18 March

Today is a rest day.  Angtu is shocked that D&L want breakfast at the ludicrously late hour of 9am, but joins them anyway.  They have coffee, tea, cereal and toast.

D:  No, no eggs thank you.

The waitresses bring bacon, fried potatoes, and something sinister called chicken sausage.  They gaze at Angtu in dismay.

D:  We didn’t ask for any of this.

Angtu:  Don’t worry.  I will eat.

He tucks in happily.

They amble around Namche Bazaar, admiring the multi-coloured buildings nestled in their horseshoe valley surrounded by high white peaks.  They explore the paved and stepped alleys, the hiking shops and souvenir shops, the cafes and grocers.  They scoot past the meat market where dogs wait expectantly for discarded cut-offs, and through the busy weekly market selling eggs, onions and garlic, aprons and kitchenware.P1020490 (2)

Angtu:  Namche is a trading town.  With Tibet.  For over 100 years.

L:  What do they trade?

Angtu:  Grains and hides and dried potatoes.  Nepali paper and cotton.  All carried over the pass to Tibet.  And they’d bring back salt and Tibetan wool.

L:  Does that still happen?

Angtu:  Only a little.  Now things in China are cheaper than Nepal, so Tibetans come here to sell us Chinese goods.  Sherpa people don’t make a living from trade any more.  Now it’s from tourism.

They peer through the doors of the monastery, which is closed, but circle it (clockwise) and turn all the prayer wheels.  They eat pizza and drink cappuccino.

They examine an exhibition of Nepalis who have summited Everest.   There are a lot of them.

L:  How come they’re all Sherpas?  Like Phurba.  Almost every single one?

Angtu:  Sherpas are very strong.

D:  Sherpas make the best mountaineers and high-altitude porters.  They’re really good at it.

L:  Why?

D:  They’ve been living up here, at altitude for so long, centuries, that they’ve become physically superior beings.  Their blood whizzes oxygen around the body better than the rest of us.

Angtu:  Sherpa people have been in this region for 400 years.  They came from Tibet, and when they arrived there was nothing here – no people or walking trails or bridges or fields.  Just forest and grass and rivers.

D:  So were Sherpas the first people ever to come to this region?

Having listened magnanimously to Phurba described as a superior being, Angtu feels it is time to give a gentle shout out to his own ancestors.

Angtu:  Maybe.  Or maybe not.  There is some evidence of earlier people.  Maybe Rai people – shepherds.  I think Rai people were maybe here first.

P1020531 (2)He takes them up to a viewpoint above town.  On the northern horizon, the clouds shift briefly.

Angtu:  There!  There it is!

D:  There what is?

Angtu:  Everest!

He points out the unmistakable dark pyramid of Mount Everest, jutting up from behind its lower neighbours, its formidable south west face too steep for snow to stick to.  The clouds shift again and it is gone.

***

D&L need to work on acclimatisation, so they’re heading higher, to the village of Thame for a night.  Clouds are rolling over the higher peaks, hiding the sun, as they make their way up a rocky valley.  The trail is theirs alone, except for a giggling family helping their very drunk grandfather home from a boozy morning in Namche.  And an army of litter pickers.

The SPCC (Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee) has been busy in the area since 1991.  They manage rubbish and recycling collection and disposal in villages, on trekking trails and on popular mountain climbing routes.  They have installed bins along all the major trails – with waste sorted into burnable and non-burnable.  They’ve built 3 incinerators to dispose of burnable waste and dug more than 100 pits for biodegradable rubbish.  They’ve banned glass drinks bottles entirely from the park – wiping out injuries from broken glass and the high cost of transporting heavy and bulky glass waste out of the area.  They even manage a couple of public toilets on the busiest trails.  They promote environmental awareness to local people and businesses and tourists, and organise annual clean-up campaigns.  And it really works.  For all the people living, visiting and walking through this landscape, it is remarkably litter-free.

They pass a patchwork of ploughed fields.

L:  What can they grow up here at 3500 metres?

Angtu:  Potatoes, barley and buckwheat.  Only one harvest a year – there’s a short growing season because it’s cold and dry.  It’s difficult to grow enough to live on.  Many people leave their village for months to work as climbers and guides and porters for the trekking season.

L:  Like you?

Angtu smiles.

Angtu:  Yes – like me.

Three laden yaks make their way past, ponderously, swinging their heavy heads and long sharp horns in the manner of absent-mindedly handled weapons.  They wear their hair long, like a skirt around their knees.  Their legs are short and their long-plumed tails swish gently behind them.

As D&L pause under a soaring overhang of rock, brightly painted murals of deities looming down on them, it begins to sleet.  The final half hour to Thame is a cold one.  Needles of ice-cold rain pummel sideways into their faces as they zig-zag up a crumbling slope of scree to reach the village – a wet green-grey carpet of close-cropped grass, stone walls and low buildings.

In their lodge they are the only guests.  It is achingly cold but there’s an electric blanket.  They get straight into bed.

L:  D’you know that Thame is a village of superheroes?

D:  I did not know that.

L:  There must be something in the air.  This tiny place has produced all the world’s best ever Sherpa mountaineers. Edmund_Hillary_and_Tenzing_Norgay-2

D:  Like who?

L:  Like Tenzing Norgay, the first person ever to summit Everest along with Edumund Hillary in 1953.

L:  Like both Apa Sherpa and Phurba Tashi Sherpa who share the record for having summited Everest 21 times each – more than anyone else ever.

L:  Like Ang Rita Sherpa, who holds the record for having summited Everest without oxygen 10 times.   They all come from here.

Outside, a narrow clear-sky window reveals a gigantic sun-lit snow-wrapped peak, floating in a choppy sea of dark grey storm clouds.  It’s a little bit magic.

Dinner is excellent, and copious.  They’re not very hungry.  Luckily Angtu is with them.

Angtu:  Don’t worry.  I will eat.

***

Angtu:   Don’t worry.  I will eat.

Angtu helps himself to lavish portions of breakfast.   He and Phurba have slept well, in a room in the lodge.  This morning D&L find their private bathroom rather wasted.  The water pipes are all frozen.  They scrape the iced condensation from the inside of the window and look out.  It’s a stunningly beautiful blue-sky day.  The valley is ringed by mountains – to one side a low shrub-covered hillside, to the other a gigantic slab of snow and rock.

From the crumbling, scrubby ridgetop above Thame, they can see almost into Tibet.  A woman walks by, ceaselessly mumbling under her breath the Buddhist mantra – “om mani padme hum”.  They follow the stupas and shrines set at intervals along the path, until they reach the monastery, built around a courtyard.   The terracotta-painted gompa stands in contrast against the towering wall of rock behind.  They sit on the sun-warmed flagstones, their backs against the sun-warmed wall, and wait for a monk to unlock the door.P1020584 (3)

D:  There’s been a monastery here for 350 years.  There are over 260 monasteries in the Sherpa region and this is one of the oldest.

L:  Never mind that – look at the views!

A white prayer-flag flutters on a tall pole in the centre of the courtyard, which has buildings on three sides.  The fourth side has nothing – just an immense sky and magnificent views, down over the village and further, to layers of jagged white mountains edging the horizon.

L:   Is that a reservoir, down at the far edge of Thame?

Angtu:  A little hydropower plant.  The river goes into it and makes electricity for all the villages from here down to Namche.

L:  For lighting?

Angtu:  And for grinding grain and rice.  And for cooking and heating water – so local people don’t need so much wood.

They examine the beautiful interior of the gompa, which despite the wooden floors and brightly coloured decorations, is dark and chilly.  Two lines of low wooden prayer platforms are lined with neatly folded, thick cloaks, for the monks to wrap up in when meditating.  Clearly, despite the hydro-power, both heat and light are resources not to be squandered.  They head back outside, to the sunshine and the views.

D:  It’s quite different to a Thai Buddhist monastery.

L:  It’s a different sort of Buddhism.  This is Mahayana.  In Thailand it’s Theravada.

D:  What’s the difference?

L:  I’m not really sure.  Except that possibly in Thai Buddhism the ultimate goal is to reach personal enlightenment, whereas here it’s to become enlightened and then help others to get there too.  Maybe.  You’d need to ask an expert.

D:  But otherwise it’s similar?

L:  I think so, in many ways.  They both believe in reincarnation, and gaining merit, which in Nepal is called “sonam”, to improve their current and future lives.  And here they believe that mountaintops are the home of the gods.

D:  I can believe that too.  Just look around – if one was a god, where better to live?

Angtu: Mount Khumbila is home to Khumbila – the god who protects this area.  The mountain is too sacred to be climbed.  It’s not so high – just 5761m – but it has never been climbed.

D:  Where is it?

Angtu: Just above Namche – I will show you on tomorrow’s walk.  And of course Mount Everest is sacred too.  The goddess protector of Everest and the whole region is Miyolangsangma.  She lives at the top of the mountain and rides a golden tiger.  She’s the goddess of giving.

They walk back down along the ridge, looking northwards towards Tibet.

L:  Angtu?  Could we walk into Tibet?

Angtu looks startled.

Angtu:  Now?

L:  No, not now!  Just generally.  Can people just walk across?

Angtu:  No.  Sometimes the borders with Tibet are closed and sometimes open.  Right now a few are open, but only five or six, for local people to trade.  But tourists need permits.  And in winter they are closed with snow.

P1020590 (2)They cross the yak paddocks in Thame.  Yaks are lying or grazing, wearing woven collars and big bells and wisps of crimson wool.  On their withers is tied a white prayer-flag with Tibetan script printed in gold.

Angtu:  Yaks are very valuable for local people.  If you have a yak, you have milk and curd and cheese, you have wool for clothes and rugs, you have power to plough your potato fields, you have dung for fuel and cooking and warmth, and you have transport to carry heavy loads.

L:  Can the yaks stay there all year?

Angtu:  No – in the summer they will go higher to pastures further up the mountain – to Gokyo – and then they will come down here again in the winter when it snows.

L:  That happens in Europe too, in the mountains.  Not with yaks of course.  With sheep.  And cows.

They find a little used path to take them back down to Namche on the other side of the river.  It starts well but dwindles out.  They weave their way comfortably down a grassy slope, slaloming between clumps of juniper.  The slope ends at a bluff.  A thin crumbling animal track zigs on down to the river far below.  D finds a better way, but longer, and sets off away from them.  L is torn.  She chooses to follow Angtu, not wanting to undermine him or hurt his feelings.  They slip and slide, Angtu grimacing and guiding L from below, while D tactlessly emerges underneath them on a flat trail, looking smug. P1020605 (2)

Angtu:  Slowly, slowly.

Angtu:  Not easy.

Angtu:  Be careful – slippery.

At the water’s edge they rest, sun bouncing off the turquoise surface and the broad white river stones, smoothed and flattened by centuries of winter torrents.  The air is cold, the water icy, but the sun is hot on their faces and the scenery spread out before them is like a cinematic backdrop – too big and beautiful to possibly be real.

P1020617 (2)

 

 

Trekkers & Treats – Nepal – Chapter 8

P1020416 (2)

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.

P1020392 (2)