Saturday, December 1, 2012

A trip to Nepal -- Part 1

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Back in November 2011, my friend Greg emailed to say that viewing Everest had been on his bucket list for almost thirty years, and that he had booked a trekking trip to go do it. Trekking in Nepal has been on my to-do list as well, so I signed on shortly thereafter.

Jill decided to skip this trip. She went trekking in the same area back in the mid-1980s -- before it was spoiled, so to speak -- and didn't want to ruin those memories by seeing how the area had changed. Greg's wife Dianne decided to go, and our friend Lee signed on as well. This trek was a bit too tame for Lee's boyfriend (he summited Ama Dablam a couple years ago), so Lee and I went as roomies. (Thus explaining the blond woman in the hotel room pictures...) Terrie signed up a couple months later, so our crew made up 5 of the 14 slots on the trek.

We bought plane tickets in May, boarded the plane in Jackson on 20 October, and arrived in Kathmandu on the 22nd. Korean Air is my new favorite airline: lots of legroom, comfortable seats, good service, and a USB charging port at every seat!

The arrival day in Kathmandu was mostly unstructured time. After checking in to the hotel and unpacking our bags, the five of us squeezed into a taxi to the Thamel district (the backpackers/foreign-travelers part of the city) to look around, do a little shopping, and find some dinner. Traffic in Kathmandu was crazy, though not quite as bad as I had expected it to be. It turned out that we had arrived during Dashain, a major religious festival/holiday, so traffic volume was much lighter than usual. After a few days I acclimated enough that I could ride in the front seat of a taxi without stomping my foot on the brake pedal that wasn't there.

For the second day, our trekking package included a guided tour of some of the sights around Kathmandu.We visited the Boudhanath, one of the holiest Buddhist sites in Nepal; the picture above is the stupa at Boudhanath. It is an impressive monument, and a serene spot in spite of the crowds. After lunch in a Tibetan restaurant, we were off to the Monkey Temple (named for the sacred monkeys there) and then the Durbar Square area in Patan for more ancient temples and royal residences.

The next morning, we had a break-of-daylight departure from the hotel to the airport. We flew from Kathmandu to Lukla, a 27-minute flight into the most dramatic airport I've ever seen. Landing at Lukla (elevation 9380'),  the very short runway ends in a vertical wall of granite; taking off, the runway ends when the ground suddenly disappears down a 1000-foot cliff. No second chances here... On the left side of the plane we had spectacular views of the Himalaya, and the view on the right side was almost as amazing. The plane was a Twin Otter, a classic short takeoff/landing aircraft. There was no door between the cockpit and the passenger cabin; it was very interesting to watch through the cockpit windscreen during the approach and landing.

After arriving in Lukla, we walked over to a nearby hotel. The porters carried our duffel bags from the airport. We had tea on the lawn, and sorted through duffel bags and daypacks for some last-minute equipment shuffling. At 9:30 am, we started walking and were finally officially trekking in Nepal! 
There are no motor vehicles driving around Lukla except for very few motorbikes. The streets are crowded with trekkers' hotels, equipment shops, and restaurants; it's a busy place. After ten minutes or so, we were outside of the town. Since there aren't any roads in this region, the trail is the main thoroughfare for the Khumbu region. The trail is a busy mix of trekkers with daypacks or backpacks, locals on their way to wherever, porters carrying staggering loads suspended from their heads, and other beasts of burden.
Our group casts a large footprint on the trail, perhaps larger than some other trekking groups because we have our own kitchen team. We have 14 trekkers, 1 chief guide, 3 assistant guides, a cook and an assistant cook, a sirdar (chief of porters), 3 porters, 7 kitchen boys, a dzopio driver, and a packstring of dzopios. (A dzopio is a cow-yak cross, used as a beast of burden). While we're on the trail, it's just us and the guides hiking together, while the support staff is well ahead of us. The guides set a slow hiking pace; not as slow as the pole-pole pace on Kilimanjaro, but noticeably slower than my regular pace. The same two or three of us were usually at the head of the group just behind the lead guide, ready to hike a little faster if only we could.
After five hours on the trail, including a lunch stop, we arrived at our first night's lodging in Phakding (elevation 8487'). The views are spectacular, and we haven't even got to the good stuff yet! Our lodge rooms are rustic twin-bed setups, with a dim overhead light and ensuite facilities. Alas, cold water only.
The lodge routine is almost identical to what we saw on the Kilimanjaro trip. Shortly after we arrive, the porters bring pans of warm "washing water" to our rooms, and then it's time for tea and cookies in the dining room (unlike Kili, we didn't have popcorn daily). Mornings start with "bed tea" (or coffee, or drinking chocolate) delivered to our room at the appointed hour, usually 6:00 am. On the Kili trip we slept in tents and could just reach out to grab the teacup; here in the lodges we have to get out of bed and open the door. Fifteen minutes later the porters bring washing water, and we have time to get dressed and pack our duffels before breakfast at 7:00 am. While we eat breakfast in the dining room, the porters are loading our duffels onto the dzopios. We are usually walking by about 7:45 am.
Continued in Part 2...

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