The sun had set by the time we arrived at Tribhuvan airport, Kathmandu. After locating our taxi driver outside the baggage claim, we were accosted by a group of five stocky men claiming to be porters for the hotel. Our bags were wrenched from our hands and we found ourselves inside the taxi, several arms waving through the car windows, impatiently demanding payment. I grabbed a couple of coins and threw them into the nearest palm and we sped off into the tumult of the city.
Drivers in Kathmandu follow a more darwinian code of practice than most westerners are used to, but it seems to work. Extreme tailgating is the only way to ward off the multitude of motorbikes and scooters which attempt to zip in and out of traffic flow with no indication. Our driver continued along the pot-holed roads for several miles, dodging cars that careened nonchalantly out of every intersection.
The poverty of urban Nepal was conspicuous as we neared our destination; stray dogs and raw sewage lined the streets until we finally pulled into the oasis of our hotel. That night we headed out to take a look around and ended up in the Irish Pub in Thamel, the main tourist area of Kathmandu. Overhearing our conversation about Everest, a pair of American tourists sidled over.
“You guys going to Lukla?” the taller one scoffed, long greasy blond hair and an air of self-satisfaction. “Hasn’t been a flight out of there for two weeks ’cause of the bad weather. We’ve been here for four days already, bro.”
Restlessness permeated the bar full of stranded tourists. Would we make it out of Kathmandu in time to accomplish our goals? Would we make it off the mountain afterwards or be stranded up in the clouds for weeks, hoping in vain for transport back to civilisation?
“Two weeks?” I probed.
“Uh-huh. There’s a growing backlog of people trapped up there in Lukla”
“But we have a flight booked for 06:30 tomorrow,” I said.
“Makes no difference, man. The only way to get up there at the moment is to hire a chopper – five hundred dollars, one way.” He shook his head and chuckled.
“Good luck!” he barked, planting his hand on my shoulder, before marching out of the bar.
I shrugged and then downed the rest of my beer. Robert settled up with the manager then we left for the hotel, thinking about the journey ahead.
Kathmandu to Lukla
We arrived at the airport early the following morning on the advice of the locals. Bribery is rife in Nepal and our paper tickets might become worthless if someone else bought their way into our seats. Bored officials tossed our backpacks onto the unmonitored x-ray conveyor belt, before checking the tickets and signing our luggage into the flight storage. It looked like we had secured the seats. If the flight actually took off that is.
Scanning the headlines about the risks of landing on the short runway of Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla did nothing to ease my anxiety about the flight. One crash earlier in the year had led to the death of a pilot and there were several other reports of tragically misjudged landing attempts within recent memory. The previous night’s conversation regarding the static nature of all flights between Kathmandu and Lukla also started to prise its way into my mind, as our flight was delayed for around three hours. Relief came and we eventually got the call and flew out of the stifling Kathmandu heat in the tiny passenger plane.
It was exhilirating to fly so high in such a small plane, sporadic turbulence rattling the rickety fuselage. Si pointed to a small sign inside the cockpit that said ‘no acrobatic manouevers, including spins, approved’. This was reassuring that at least that this wasn’t standard practice on the descent into Lukla. Adrenaline surged as the mountainous runway finally came into view and we edged towards the landing strip. The plane seemed to dip at too steep an angle. The sheer rocky face of a few hundred feet directly below the strip stared us in the face. Every part of my body clenched as we dipped further. The plane vibrated thunderously as I closed my eyes and braced for the impact.
A wave of applause and joyous exhalations abounded as the aircraft landed and taxied over to the exit gate. Lukla itself seemed fairly grim despite its surroundings, the main street lined with hotels and shops catering to tourists; a Scottish pub, an Irish pub and a fake Starbucks. After showing all the necessary paperwork at a checkpoint, we left through the exit gates of Lukla and into the valley beyond.
Lukla to Monjo
The first thing you realize after a few hours on the trail, is how cut off you are once you have landed in Lukla. There are other ways to access Lukla besides flight, the main one being trekking a further week from a village called Jiri. The historical expeditions to Everest would almost exclusively begin in Kathmandu and pass through Jiri, including the famous expedition during which Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary first summited the peak in 1953. Nowadays ninety-five percent of people trekking to Everest Base Camp avoid this preliminary trek and fly straight into the eponymous airport at Lukla.
Due to the remote location, the trails service three main groups besides locals. The steady stream of trekkers, porters travelling to and fro between villages and herds of hulking, belligerent yaks. Yak bells tinkling in the distance became a beautiful sound to hear ebbing down the valleys. A reminder of an ancient way of life, still vital in this inaccessible region. When the herd gets up close however, survival insticts take over and you tend to perch on the nearest boulder until the brutes have passed by.
We stopped after a few hours at a teahouse. I returned from the latrine behind the building to find Robert and Si gorging on a plate stacked with small vegetable dumplings called momos.
I turned my face from the glaring sun. “You still want to come back via Gokyo?”
Robert continued chewing loudly, contemplating the question.
“There’s a storm predicted on Cho La pass.” Si said. “We’d better play it by ear. People have died up there.”
“I want to see some of the other valleys,” Robert said. “Less touristic.”
He paused and looked at the scenery. “I might even stay up here for a while after the trek. Try and find the real Himalayas. I’m technically homeless now as you know. With cash to burn.”
“Why not?” I said, waving away a mosquito from the momo I had picked up and took a bite.
We followed the trail through several villages, until we reached Phakding; the standard first night stopping point for many trekkers. Feeling energetic, we pushed on along the track. After a quick rest and a carton of mango juice in a sleepy village called Benkar, we decided to continue to the village of Monjo, where we thought there might be more action. A few hundred metres from Monjo, the path plummeted to the valley floor, leaving a steep dogleg climb up to our destination. I forged ahead, thinking it would be a short sprint, leaving Robert and Si below. My legs burned as I stumbled up the hill which seemed to stretch out further with every step. Twenty minutes later I reached the top and collapsed on a wall, panting with exhaustion.
The lodgings along the trail are known as teahouses due to the primary beverage they serve. After securing the last available room in the place, we proceeded to drink greedily from the huge flagons of sweet tea we ordered throughout the night. I found it hard to sleep that night; altitude sickness can start to rear its head around the 2500 metre mark, trouble sleeping often being one of the first noticeable symptoms.
Monjo to Namche Bazaar
The next day we set off for Namche Bazaar, the Sherpa capital. The entrance gates of the Sagarmatha National Park on the outskirts of Monjo are guarded by an army gatekeeper. I skulked impatiently as the clerks processed the paperwork. An hour later, we continued down a long rocky staircase out of the village. Panting, sunburnt trekkers periodically staggered up the staircase towards us from the valleys beyond and I wondered what lay in store for us.
Tracing the river’s course a striking view emerged ahead. Two suspension bridges hung high in the distance linking the outcrop we were about the ascend and our destination. A torturous two-hour crawl up the zig-zagging path to Namche Bazaar ensued.
Perhaps it was a combination of the exhausting climb and the diminishing oxygen levels, but a wave of euphoria washed over me as I rounded the final corner that revealed our destination. The market town and Sherpa capital of Namche Bazaar gleamed above, a crescent of buildings cut into the thousand-foot escarpment ahead.
A helicopter whirred over us and into one of the valleys below as we strolled up the slope to look for a place to stay. As the chopper pulsed above and trekkers ambled about in their fluorescent windbreakers, a group of yaks grunted past, indiscriminately jettisoning dung. The atmosphere of the place felt wild and atavistic but also vaugely 1970’s.
After finding a hostel for the night, we headed out to enjoy the remaining daylight as the afternoon mist inched towards the settlement from afar. The eponymous bazaar is run weekly in the village, although a market usually appears several times a week and the streets of Namche are lined with many permanent shops trading food, trinkets and mountaineering paraphenalia. Luckily the market was open for business and I strolled around bartering for fruit, which is in short supply in the mountains due to the cost and logistics of moving anything in the Khumbu valley. Si beckoned me up to a covered stall, just above the market floor. A line of carcasses hung behind the counter from meat hooks, flies buzzing about the carrion. I now realized why the predominant advice was to stick to a vegetarian diet on the trek, despite already growing tired of dal bhat at every meal. After purchasing some shriveled, flyspecked apples, we left and settled down to the now familiar routine of cards, chatter and copius amounts of sweet milky tea.
Khumjung and the Everest View Hotel
It is recommended that trekkers take a day to acclimatize to the altitude when they reach Namche Bazaar, so we took the advice and set off for a hike around the local area. The amphitheatre shape of the village became even more apparent as we climbed higher towards the crest of the hill. The geography of Namche limits expansion and despite servicing many tourists, never felt crowded. The smell of cow dung and the cobbled streets felt almost familiar, recalling the rural villages I had hiked through in Yorkshire as a child.
At the crest of the hill above the village is the Everest View Hotel. We took a look around on the balcony at the view.
I stared into the thick mist. “Apparently rich people fly up here in choppers all the time. Take in the view for a few hours then fly off to the next destination.”
Si chuckled. “Sounds about right, have you seen the price of a cup of coffee in there?”
I considered the cost and struggle of building and maintaining such an edifice bearing in mind that porters and yaks are still the only form of transport in the area besides a chartered helicopter. The prices could be justified as a smart investment by local businessmen. The hotel was run by wealthy foreign interests however, with minimal trickle-down to the local economy and the prices were genuinely extortionate, even for westerners.
We strode on to the nearby village of Khumjung, at 3790 metres above sea level. Passing a dry stone wall Robert noticed a group of local teenagers playing football with some tourists and struck up a conversation.
I sauntered over. “How about a game?”
Two captains picked their players one by one, dividing the local teens and children, two Russian trekkers and us. I felt confident with my choices and stood tall at the kickoff, ready for some altitude training.
It was near the end of the match I felt something wasn’t right. One of local boys was running with the ball and he seemed to zoom ahead of my attempts to catch him. It felt like a scene in a dream. My legs turned to jelly and I felt I was running in slow-motion. Robert was sitting on a nearby boulder periodically taking snaps with a camera. I opened my eyes widely in an attempt to refocus.
The game was heading towards a whitewash as the other team scored again. We were losing 5-1. At the next kick-off I composed myself, managed a neat play with Si and one of the teens and found myself with a shot on goal. Drawing back leaden legs I blasted the ball past the child between the goalposts.
Si high-fived me. “We really showed them,”
“It’s the altitude. Every breath is an effort.”
Excuses aside, I was breathing heavily and a nasty headache took hold. We had climbed around 400 metres on the day we were supposed to be acclimatizing so I made the decision to retreat to Namche, hoping the headache would relent. Many people have died from altitude sickness in the Himalayas, so it is always wise to listen to any early warning signs and head to lower ground.
I recovered quickly back in Namche. We spent the rest of the day trudging around the shops and cafes. Robert ran into two Israeli women he had seen a couple of times on the trail and starting chatting to them.
I returned to the guesthouse with Si and we got talking to an American couple we had previously had some brief conversations with earlier along the trail – Montana, a US Air Force officer and his wife, Steph. We made a plan to set off with them the next day at 06:00. Our destination would be Tengboche, home of a remote Buddhist monastery nestled high in the clouds. There was a mystical appeal in the idea of this place for me and I fell asleep in a strange reverie.