Namaste from Nepal!
The journey from India was a bone rattler on a public bus designed for the tiny frames of Nepalese people. It was 8 hours of having my knees jammed against the seat in front of me the only saving grace was the incredible scenery along the way as the potholed road put my back out of shape. As the bus got closer to Kathmandu the tarmac on the roads gradually disappeared and the bus wound its way up a mountain on an unpaved road until we came out on top and to much surprise, Kathmandu!
Kathmandu is surrounded by the Himalayas and the first thing which hits you is the pollution and the dust which gets trapped in the valley, I haven't stopped coughing since I arrived. I took a taxi with some fellow travellers I had befriended from the bus station to the hostel and the driver and his mate tried every trick in the book to try and convince us that our hostel had closed so that we would stay at a hotel where they would earn commission. They even went as far as getting someone to meet us where the taxi dropped us off to tell us the hostel was closed. I then asked a local who told us that the hostel was open and in the adjacent block!
First port of call in Kathmandu was the eagerly anticipated steak after being beefless in India for a whole month. It probably wasn't as good as I thought it was but you could have put any part of the cow on a plate in front of me and it would have been delicious.
The first 2 days in Kathmandu were spent in the shops of Kathmandu hunting for trekking gear. Just about any piece of North Face, Columbia or Mammot gear can be found in Kathmandu and its dirt cheap as its all fake or factory duds. I brought a pair of boots, trousers, fleece, hats, glove and down jacket for around 100 big ones. I also secured a porter and my flights to Lukla which many of you will know from the recent National Geographic programme as the world's most dangerous airport. Boarding the aircraft at 8am the pilot had already started one of the engines before we were all in! There was no where to keep your hand baggage so your baggage is stowed on your lap making you feel like you are in for a parachute jump rather than a passenger flight . There is no safety briefing and the only chores of the stewardess are the handing out of sweets and opening and closing of the door. In case of an emergency the pilots were stuffed as the aisle was blocked by cases of San Miguel stacked up high enough to impede their exit. Landing at Lukla the pilot has one choice, he has to land, if he messes it up the plane goes into the village which is spread out on both sides of the runway or the planes slams into the mountain. Because of this they only land and take-off in one direction and also because the runway is on a slope! It's only 500 metres long so the plane has to land uphill and take off down hill! As the plane lands uphill it comes to the top swings around and within 30 seconds you are out. The pilot leaves one engine running while everyone disembarks, departing passengers board and within 5 minutes it's off again! Too be honest the landing was no worse than a landing in Guernsey....
Lukla is a small village nestled in the shadow of the Himalayas. As soon as I was off the plane I fell in love with the place. The first day of walking takes you along a ridge of hills overlooking the valley and surrounding snow capped peaks. The trails are a busy highway of trekkers, cows, yaks, donkeys and porters shifting unbelievable amounts of goods up and down the mountains. My porter for the journey was Ramus who like most Nepali in their mid twenties looks like a teenager. I'm pretty sure I pissed him off on the first day after too much walking. He treated me as his boss which got a little embarrassing at times especially when I gave him a Mars Bar and he unwrapped it and passed it back to me thinking I wanted him to unwrap my chocolate bar for me. I quickly discovered that Ramus was a bit of a drunk and even went as far as telling him off for drinking in the day time as did my trekking partner who's porter had become Ramus's drinking buddy. It sounds really grown up of me but you really don't want to be drinking alcohol this high up and I didn't pay for the responsibility of looking after a caned porter. Ramus was very apologetic to me and then confessed that he can't stop drinking, he wants to quit but he doesn't know how. If this was back at home I would probably have some solutions for him but to be honest, doing what he does for a living I would hit the bottle too. The porters and local Sherpa people are superhuman and they keep the mountain economy flowing by hauling ridiculous sized cargo between the mountain villages. Everything required by the villages between Lukla and Everest are transported by Sherpas and some of the loads exceed the weight of the person carrying. A guide told us that some Sherpas can take weights of 100kg on their backs. My personal favourite was a guy carrying 10 sheets of 1/2 inch plywood pannelling the size of doors! Distances between the villages aren't more than a few hours but what makes this back breaking for the Sherpa people (and us trekkers!) is throughout the 60 or so hours to the base camp and back there is only 5 hours or so of flat terrain, it really is up and down.
The beauty of this hike is there are facilities all the way to Everest so you don't necessarily need to plan your days walking, you just walk until you are too tired or you find a nice village to stop for the night. The trekking itself starts off fairly comfortable but as you get higher signs of altitude sickness kick in due to the lack of oxygen in the air. Most notable were the headaches akin to a red wine hangover, loss of appetite (even for me!), nausea and loss of sleep. For me the latter made things rather tough, closer to Everest I didn't sleep for 3 nights which combined with the walking in the day and the loss of appetite meant I was pretty zonked. As you climb above 5000m you experience loss of breath which makes walking painfully slow, a walk which would take 5 minutes at sea level would take 30 minutes and I needed to stop every 10 paces to get my breath back. As well as the scenery there are many local points of interest along the trail in particular a monastery in the village of Tengboche where I sat in the corner at 7AM as a group of 3 monks carried out their morning mantras as well as holding long periods of silence broken only by the sipping of their tea. Closer to Everest you come across memorials to climbers who lost their lives on Everest. During my time in the mountains I was reading Jon Krakauer's "Into Thin Air" which is a true story of the disastrous 1996 climb of Everest. As I got closer to Everest I began to realise from the memorials that most of the charachters in the book die... kinda ruined it for me.
The nights were spent in teahouses which are no more than wooden lodges with rooms and a dining room with a heated stove in the middle which becomes the social area in the evenings. Everyone huddles around the stove which is fueled by wood in the lower valley and as you get higher up, dried out yak shit! (I'll leave you to come up with the puns). I managed to keep surprisingly warm through the use of 3 pairs of socks, 2 beanie hats, 2 pairs of trousers, a t shirt, fleece, hoody, down jack and a rain coat. On really cold nights this was also my sleeping attire! There is no heating in any of the rooms so you layer up and freeze to death until you have trapped enough warmth in your sleeping bag to start taking the layers off. Most nights the outside temperature was around -15/-20c with the thermometers inside the lodges showing anything between zero and -7c. Rising in the morning is unpleasant, your water bottle is frozen and the iced up squat toilets are a death trap and best avoided unless your name is Amy Williams.The rooms were dirt cheap and I even managed to beat my personal best by paying just 70p for a room! I'm still confused with the economics of these lodges as it cost twice more for a roll of bog paper than it did for my room.....
On Day.8, prior to leaving for the Everest Base Camp I trekked to the top of Kala Pattar a whopping 5550metres above sea level, the highest point I have ever reached and by the far the harshest environment I have been in. The wind was nail biting cold and the trek up was a mission as my body failed to get enough oxygen to keep me breathing properly. I only managed 5 minutes at the top of Kala Pattar which was a shame as the view which overlooked Everest and its neighbouring peaks could have been savored for hours.
The following day I made the trip to the Everest Base Camp which was made slightly easier due to my trek up Kala Pattar some 500metres higher than base camp. I took Ramus with me to act as a guide and to keep him off the sauce. The climbing season is in May so there was not a whole lot at the camp other than a pile of rocks covered with prayer flags and various scribbles from other trekkers who had made the trek. The camp is on a moving glacier surrounded by small frozen ponds entrenched in the moving ice and it has to be moved every year as the glacier moves further down the valley. Funnily enough you can't see Everest from the camp but the surrounding mountains were stunning in the early morning light. Being there for just an hour you can hear the ice cracking underneath and witness avalanches which you can feel through your feet!
Being remote doesn't stop your phone from working. I saw two old Sherpa men laughing at the Gangnam style video on their phone and one night of sleep was interrupted by a call on my mobile from Dell Computers who were wondering whether I was happy with the laptop I purchased last December. That woke up a few people in the lodge and got a good laugh the next morning.
I can highly recommend the Everest trek, easily one of the best experiences of my life. So what now? My clothes have now been cleaned and I am now having regular showers after 12 days without - I'm not sure what I'm more proud of, trekking to Everest or not showering for all that time..... I'm off to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia on Thursday and will be spending Christmas with good company in a small town called Melaka. I have just been to the Myanmar Embassy here in Kathmandu to arrange a visa for my next stop after Malaysia. After Myanmar who knows......
I hope you all have a good christmas and new year!