Monday, December 3, 2012

A trip to Nepal -- Part 4

... continued from Part 3
Just want to see the pictures? Follow these...
We started Day 7 with a one-hour walk up the hill to the Thame Monastery at 13,100'. That was the highest elevation we reached on our trek. The monastery there is smaller than the ones we saw at Tengboche and Khumjung; it had a very intimate feel to it. 
And it's all downhill from here, or at least mostly downhill. We headed down the Bhote Kosi valley back to Namche Bazar, and stayed at the Hotel Snow Land again. This time we have sunny skies in Namche. Though we didn't get a room with killer views, it's still a pretty nice spot. After six nights on the trail, I decided it was worth throwing down a few hundred rupees for a hot shower; it felt pretty good! The propane-fired shower there at the hotel was a bit dodgy; Melissa and Lee both got the cold-water versions :( 
For Day 8, we walked from Namche Bazar back to Phakding where we had spent the first night on the trek. We did finally see some danfe, or Himalayan Monal  (pheasant). It is the national bird of Nepal, the males are a brilliant blue color. My pictures didn't turn out very well, so you'll have to rely on the picture from Wikipedia. When we got to Phakding, the skies were still bluebird and temperatures were in the upper 50s. Our guides and cook crew said "come on into the dining room for afternoon tea", but Lee, Howard, Karen, and I couldn't resist having a beer in the sunshine out on the patio.
Day 9 was the last trekking day; we walked from Phakding back to Lukla. It all seemed a bit anti-climactic except for the promise of hot showers at the hotel in Lukla. Yes, you read it correctly, hot showers. The Hotel La Villa Sherpani had a large water tank on the roof, made of black plastic to serve as a solar hot water heater. Our room there was quite nice, ensuite toilet and shower, even a telephone! Unfortunately the sliding door for the bathroom didn't work, so Lee and I took turns sitting in the sun outside, giving the other some privacy to take a not-hot-but-definitely-quite-warm shower. Our hotel room was right next to the airport runway, like maybe 30 feet from edge of the runway. It was noisy, but we had a good time sitting outside, drinking beers and watching the takeoffs and landings.
That afternoon we collected all the tip money for our group (averaged $330 each, in case you were wondering). After dinner, we had a tipping ceremony for the staff, all 18 of them. There was a large table piled high with gear that each of us was leaving behind as donations to the staff -- hats, gloves, jackets, sweaters, boots, and such -- that was parceled out to each member of the trekking staff by random drawing. Following those ceremonies, there was dancing to a mixture of pop and traditional Nepalese music; how did we ever have a party without an iPod? Everybody joined in the dancing around the fireplace in the dining room (yes, even me and Greg!) Some of the assistant guides were really styling on with the dance moves; our guide Tenzing explained that it is very common for Nepalese men to dance, often by themselves, sort of strutting their stuff for the ladies -- and that Nepalese women tend not to dance as much as the men do in that sort of gathering. Interesting...
Our trekking plans for Day 10 were very simple: fly from Lukla back to Kathmandu. When the weather in Lukla turns bad, all flight operations shut down, sometimes for days. The good news was we currently had clear weather. The bad news was
  1. Saturday (our Day 10) was scheduled to have the highest number of air passengers for the entire season. Between Tara Air (our airline), Yeti Air, and other airlines, there were 75 flights scheduled out of Lukla on Saturday. Even on the best day, it was highly unlikely that all 75 flights would operate before dark. We were reserved on flight number 25.
  2. The weather forecast was for increasing clouds and continuing bad weather starting sometime mid-day on Saturday. For Sunday and after that, the weather forecast was not looking good for flight operations. In previous years, the airport has been shut down for as much as a week at a time, causing food and hotel room shortages in Lukla
The good news was, our tour operator definitely had some clout. After dinner, our guide informed us that we were now rescheduled for the first flight out in the morning; the plane had come in just before dark and was overnighting in Lukla. Our guides were scheduled on a much later flight, and it looked like they might be spending some extra nights in Lukla. There was one other tiny bit of bad news: the 4:00 am wakeup call. So we had breakfast at 4:30 am, and at 5:30 we left the hotel for the 5-minute walk in the dark to the airport.
Not long after sunrise, we boarded the plane and our flight was indeed the first departure from Lukla that morning. I have to wonder how many strings got pulled to make that happen, but more about that later. At 7:30 am we were back at our hotel in Kathmandu. Of course our rooms weren't ready at that hour, so we spent most of the morning in the dining room, drinking coffee and chatting with the owner of the tour company. 
Shortly before lunchtime, our rooms became available and we went for the hot shower routine. Since Lee and I were heading for Vietnam after this trip and needed some clean clothes for that, we sent 2 large bags down for laundry service. (Between the two of us, it cost us almost $50 for laundry!). 
That afternoon, Greg, Dianne, Terrie, Lee, and I took a taxi to the CIWEC Clinic, a travel medicine center in Kathmandu. Dr David Shlim in Jackson was the medical director there for many years, and he had sent a duffel bag of medical supplies over with Lee as checked baggage. We retrieved his now-empty duffel bag, and walked the streets of Kathmandu over to the Thamel district for another meal at the Rum Doodle Bar. They really do have world-class pizza there...
After Thamel, we negotiated a taxi to take the five of us (Greg, Dianne, Lee, Terrie, me) over to the Tibetan Refugee Camp, and then to Boudhanath, for some final shopping. Five passengers plus the driver in a Suzuki Swift -- the standard taxi in Kathmandu -- is a very tight squeeze, at least for those in the back seat; I rode shotgun. As night fell in Kathmandu, we were having dinner in the Stupa View Restaurant overlooking the stupa at Boudhanath. The food was great (thanks Dr Shlim for the recommendation) but I was a tired whipped puppy after a long day that started at 4:00 am.
...continued in the final part

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