This summer, Beth and Michael spread maps and books across the table of their screened-in porch in Vermont and gave us an introduction to hiking in Nepal. The impressions were lasting -- their reverence of the culture, their reassurance about the physical demands, their gorgeous photos of the landscape. But my notes from that day were cryptic and scattered. "Renjo, but next pass closed." "IGH/leave bag Kathmandu." "No shower 3 weeks." And, "Everest: start in Jiri."
There are endless options for trekking in Nepal, and I had a few top choices: the Everest region, the Annapurnas in the central hills, and the possibility (later discarded) of serious wilderness trekking in western Nepal. Andy and I would trek in the Everest region together, and then I would head to the Annapurnas solo later in the Fall. The draw of Everest is self-evident: it's EVEREST. And not just the highest mountain in the world, but one surrounded but almost-as-high mountains that surpass it in beauty and the ability to dislocate your jaw.
But there are two downsides to trekking in the Everest region:
1. People. So many, many friggin' people. A massive region that is almost devoid of settlements (save those tiny villages that exist to support the trekking routes) should not feel so crowded, but it does when you pile scores of bucket-listing tourists onto the same trail and steer them in the direction of Everest Base Camp.
2. Altitude. This one is serious: Acute Mountain Sickness is no joke, and visitors to the Everest region are warned constantly to be vigilant about symptoms. (I'll write about the day-to-day experience at high altitude in a future post.)
To help remedy both of these issues, Beth and Michael suggested that we start our Everest trek from the town of Jiri, rather than the traditional starting point of Lukla. From Jiri, it is one week's walk to Lukla; the trail runs roughly from west to east across farms and foothills that gradually acclimatize the hiker to altitude, but it's not nearly as well-traveled as the trails we'd meet once we turned north toward the big mountains. The landscape, vegetation and interaction with locals are all of a totally different stripe than we should expect closer to Everest, they said. If you have time, do it.
And so on October 12 we left Kathmandu at 5 a.m. in a Jeep to Jiri, and by early afternoon we were walking south on the dirt road out of town.
Lonely Planet's Trekking in the Nepal Himalaya and Himalayan Map House's incredibly detailed topographic maps were our best resources, in addition to knowledge we gleaned from people on the trails. LP suggested that Jiri to Lukla would take eight days, but on October 17, six days later, we stopped walking just before sunset in the town of Phakding, several towns beyond Lukla, now noticeably on the Human Highway of Everest-bound trekkers. (This would not be the first or last time that our walking speed grossly outpaced Lonely Planet's estimates. But I feel for the writers -- they have a very broad readership of wildly varying physical abilities.)
Distance is not a dimension used in Himalayan trekking; instead, everything is measured in hours between locations, and the meters to ascend and descend the mountain in front of you. In the six days between Jiri and Phakding, we hiked anywhere from four to eight hours a day, and the cumulative ascent was approximately 6,100 meters (20,130) feet and descent was around 5,400 meters (17,820 feet). We stayed overnight at guesthouses in Shivalaya, Kinja, just below Lamjura La, Ringmo, Bupsa and finally Phakding.
About 10 minutes down the trail from Jiri, we came across a small group of goats and my heart skipped with elation! Of all the animals that I easily fall in love with, goats smite me every time; they are really damn adorable. I didn't know it yet, but the goat/cow/ungulate-to-human ratio for the next several days would be maybe 1,000-to-1. The main "Jiri to Everest" trail crosses directly through tiny subsistence farms, bumping right against the side walls of people's houses, stepping through their dooryards and past their laundry lines, down across the terraced fields that they've plowed into the mountainsides with hand tools and horsepower (cow power, actually - very few horses here).
The trail undulated up and down river valleys, around hills and through settlements, constantly revealing new panoramas of green terraces, dense forests and red earth. The thin line of the first suspension bridge stretching over a roaring milky blue river was a thrill: the footbed was aluminum grates, the sides were chainlink attached to cables, and the span was guarded by a barking dog. I stepped energetically across as a way of casting off any wariness. (A few days and many more suspension bridges later, I'd be casually ducking around porters and stopping mid-span to take in the views.)
Day 3 on this hike was straight uphill from Kinja to near Lamjura La, the high point for this stretch of trail. The profile of the hike suggested an eight-hour walk from 2,500 meters (8,250 feet) in altitude to 3,500 meters (11,550 feet). I felt encouraged that I was moving faster than Lonely Planet predicted but it was a hot, relentless uphill slog. At one water break, I admitted aloud, "This is hard," while remaining aware that the real mountains loomed in the near future. "By this time next week, it will seem quaint."
Teahouse trekking is a special style of backpacking. You don’t carry tents, sleeping bags or food (though I did have a stash of Snickers bars). Instead, your backpack holds just your essential clothes and personal needs for the trip, and you stop at trailside teahouses or trekking lodges for meals, and then to stay overnight at the end of the day.
The lodges vary in simplicity and size, but the basic deal is the same everywhere: a bed for the night is very cheap -– just one or two dollars. The lodges make money on serving you dinner and breakfast, and that can run a few dollars or several, depending on what you order. (Always order dal bhat! Delicious, nutritious, and you always get seconds.) A hot shower, boiled drinking water, an electric outlet to charge your phone -– sometimes these things were free and sometimes there was a small fee for them, too.
Laundry. At first, I rinsed out a few pieces of clothes every few days and dried them in the sun if we finished hiking early enough in the afternoon, or by the fire if it was evening, or sometimes by draping them on the back of my pack while we hiked. This seemed worthwhile when we hiked in the lower elevations, where the hiking was hot and sweaty. Once we hit the cold temps further north and higher up, I basically just wore the same clothes constantly for days, adding layers and rarely subtracting them.
Along the main trekking route, there was intermittent cell service, and some lodges had WiFi. In Kinja, a German trekker asked for the WiFi password and Dumbar, the man who ran the hostel, said it wasn’t working.
“What if there’s an emergency?” the German asked, a little put out by the lack of connectivity.
Dumbar gestured to a small wooden box, a black phone receiver visible inside. “We have satellite phone for emergencies, to call rescue helicopters or anything important.” He smiled broadly at the man, “You want me to make emergency call for you? I can call Angela Merkel!” (We declined his offer to call Donald Trump.)
Welcoming towns and people
Trekkers wandering through were normal enough not to raise notice among the people who live on the trekking route, yet every person we encountered greeted us with a warm, genuine, "Namaste!" Sometimes it was joyfully drawn into a singsong, "Na-ma-staaaay!!" which I loved and tried to mimic back.
Hiking down from Lamjura La through a forest of rhododendrons, we walked into the idyllic valley that cradles the town of Junbesi. The village was alive in the sun, with kids playing at recess in the schoolyard and artists painting the decorative entrance gate at the town center. As we neared town, a handful smiling boys passed us on the trail; they had shorn heads and were dressed in the burgundy robes of monks, clearly students at the monastery. (The youngest of them, maybe seven years old, had white earbuds snaking down into the collar of his robe.)
After climbing up the far side of the river valley at Junbesi, we got our first view of Mount Everest, some 50 miles away as the crow flies (and there are lot of crows here). We ate lunch on the sun-soaked patio of a lodge that had a perfect view of the snowy distant mountains. The owner trimmed pieces of yak cheese from a huge wheel and his wife perched on the stone wall and took in the view through her binoculars. There are people who radiate good feelings, and these two effortlessly warmed the air with their kindness and humor. Also, hands down the BEST vegetable soup I’ve ever tasted.
Company on the trail
One particularly cloudy day deposited us at a lodge that was nestled up near the ridge of a mountain pass in a dense fog. Ducking into the dim gathering space around the fire, a dozen or so trekkers who were staying the night warmed themselves by the open stove, sat on thick carpets that lined the benches around heavy wooden tables and sipped milky hot tea. The Nepalese women who ran the lodge were kind and good-humored, and we sat in awe watching them crank out plentiful servings of dal bhat and more for our dinner. Four Aussies had been our consistent leapfrogging companions for a few days, and we played Uno while shivering off the damp air. Outside, well after sunset, the fog had lifted and we stood together in the cold, mesmerized by the Milky Way and the massive sky that had been hidden from us all afternoon.
A few days later, we shared a lodge dinner with four guys who had just met at the trailhead -- a Brit, an Israeli, a Chinese and a Russian. If it sounds like the beginning of a joke, it should: I hadn't laughed that hard in awhile when I listened as Ivan tried to explain to Pham, using the English that they both struggled to command, that you don't want gastrointestinal distress while trekking because there are no port-o-lets on Mount Everest. Pointing dramatically at a poster of the Khumbu Glacier on the wall, Ivan exclaimed laughing: "Go to photo! Where is toilet?! All malfunction, no toilet!" (In this case, "malfunction" was his term of art for diarrhea.)
Trail friends come and go easily in this environment. You match pace for awhile, sometimes you exchange names but not always; the Aussies, the Three Musketeers, Abbey & Corey, the Minnesota Not-Nice Guy are just some of the people who made the trail more memorable, as if the trail needed the help. Strangers can stand together comfortably here and just revel in your mutual appreciation for the surroundings or your pride in finishing the climb, and move on. It's transient, but not sad. Chances are, you'll see them again few days or hours down the trail; and if not, you had a rare shared moment.
Part-way through this trek, a German family heading in the opposite direction gave us a preview of the terrain that was ahead. Among other things, Katya told us, there are a LOT of "mullays." The native English speakers among us looked at each other quizzically. Was this a religious group? A native flower?
"Mullays," she repeated. "You say, M-U-L-E-S?" Mules. MULES. And man, was she right, so many mullays! After the town of Ringmo, the cargo traffic on the trails picked up dramatically and it was all carried by mule trains -- teams of a dozen or two dozen or more mules, laden with water cans, grain sacks, gas cans and pretty much anything that needs to move from one village to another. This region of Nepal has almost no roads, and all goods, merchandise and people move on foot and pack animal, up and down trails across the mountains.
As we neared Lukla we met the influx of people who were starting their trek from there. So many people, most of them in guided groups, too many of them under-prepared for what they were attempting, and all of us funneling onto the same trails heading north. Trekking in Everest is NOT a wilderness experience, but we tried to create some separation from masses by choosing a slightly less traveled and harder route through Everest: the Three Passes.
[Jiri to Phakding: October 12-17, 2017.]