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?
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.
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.
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.
Angtu acts as translator and go-between, making sure they have everything they need.
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.
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: 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.
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.
L: 3%. Hardly any. And guess how much is barren land over 5,000 metres?
L: Too slow. 69%! Most of it’s over 5,000 metres!
D: What’s the rest?
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.
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.
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.
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.