I left Dingboche with a hint of altitude sickness. I had a bowl of garlic soup and filled my bottle with warm ginger tea from the lodge. I told myself that I am quitting tomorrow; Every step was an excruciating pain. I sat on the ground and looked back where I walked - stunning! I guess I will climb a bit more. On my way to Everest Base Camp (EBC).
I landed Tribhuvan International Airport late at night. Getting the arrival visa was straightforward: you submit the information into one of the computers and line up with the excited travelers from around the world. At the main entrance of the airport, boys from every tour company in the town were waving at the fresh tourists to lure them into their hotel. Giri and Maskey caught me. I checked into the guesthouse that they were working for, Pariwar guesthouse in Thamel, the small area in Kathmandu that has everything a trekker would need.
I walked to Nepal Tourism Board office to get the permit to trek in Khumbu region. I planned to take a bus to Jiri to start my trek. It would take a few extra days to reach Lukla, where the trek to EBC officially begins, but I quickly changed my mind and instead took a flight to Lukla. Time and energy were not my constraints but the guys at Pariwar warned me that there will be leeches literally raining onto my head since we were in the middle of raining season. I really can’t …leeches…!
Despite my ticket was for the earliest flight, I waited for six hours in the airport before the flight finally got delayed until the next morning. Actually, we almost took off; the airport bus transported us from the lounge to the plane, the luggages made into the cargo, and we fought for the best seats since no seats were assigned. I was upset because I had to wake up early again but more importantly, I could not understand why the low visibility in Lukla was a problem when the sky was crystal clear in Kathmandu?! However, it did not take long to realize a day of delay was quite lucky as the waiting for the return flight was pretty bad. While panicking, I met Flora and Fernando, a Chilean-Spanish couple who also stayed at Pariwar. We shared a taxi back to Thamel.
…it did not take long to realize a day of delay was quite lucky as the waiting for the return flight was pretty bad…
Next morning, sky as clear, as firm-looking, as blue marble greeted us and the journey from Thamel to Lukla was seamless. The small plane, perhaps carrying about fifteen of us, cruised through mountains, like the opening scene of the Jurassic Park, with the snow covered Himalayas at distance. About three-and-a-half hour later, we safely landed on the world’s most dangerous airport, Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla. Flora and Fernando hired a guide and they began the trek after we had a cup of tea together. At 8:00 AM, I was on my own. The well-paved trail was hard to miss. I called a day in Manjo and checked into Chhumowa Sonam Lodge. The Sherpa lady at the lodge starred at me, puzzled, when I entered the lodge, if I was a trekker or one of them. We really looked alike. In fact, many trekkers asked me for direction saying ‘namaste’ with their hands pressed together (‘namaste’ is the greeting saying in Hindi). I sort of enjoyed being treated as local. The night on 2760 meters was freezing.
I started the day early next morning and left the lodge at 8:49 AM. My goal was Namche Bazaar where I had high expectations because I might be able to see the real Tibetans. Throughout my trip in Asia, I was eager to visit Lhasa, but free travel for foreigners in Tibet was prohibited due to their own political reasons unless a Chinese ‘guide’ was accompanied. Namche was where I could closest to Tibet without sacrificing my freedom. I ate in Jorsale at 10 AM even though I was not hungry because the sign said “the last restaurant before Namche” and I felt I was obligated to eat here - marketing! When I finished the Sherpa soup, it was drizzling outside. The road to Namche was rough, steep, slippery, and endless, the kind of trail I would never want to climb again. I finally checked into Namche Hotel Kamal, where Flora and Fernando were also staying.
I met Pradip at the Sonam lodge. Pradip said he was happy because he is a Rai, the Nepali social class that has broader life opportunities compared to the Sherpa people. He has been traveling in Khumbu region with his friend to explore the Himalayas.
I spent two nights in Namche to adapt the elevation. I had mild headache in the first night but was not sure if it was from the altitude or exhaustion, or both. The majority of street vendors sold second hand mountain gears, but some were selling real gems like hand-crafted necklaces with Om-Mani-Padme-Hum written in Tibetan on one side and the Buddah’s eye on the other. I curiously watched an old man carving this necklace and bought two of the fresh ones with no bargaining. I decided to leave some of my luggages in Namche. The weight of my luggage was proportional to my greed and I was far from being free. Deciding what to keep and what to leave behind was a difficult task.
Flora and Fernando offered me to trek together while I was tying my shoelaces. I was very happy that I got a company! We left Namche at 7:30 AM and headed to Tengboche. Tengboche was only 427 meters higher than Namche, so I naively expected an easy day. The trail until Khumbu Junction was fairly flat, however, the deep valley between the junction and Tengboche awaited us. At 12:30 PM, we got to the very bottom of the valley and Flora got sick due to exhaustion or may be some bad food in Namche. We began to consider hiring helicopter back to Kathmandu seriously. But Flora was strong. She recovered in about an hour and we continued the torturing climbing for two more hours. Tengboche was densely covered in clouds. The lodge I stayed had a few bags of Shin-ramen noodles that Korean expedition team left a while ago. I was pleasantly surprised.
Every store en route had the pronoun, ‘the world’s highest’; the world’s highest bakery, lodge, teahouse… and even toilet!
I headed to the Tengboche gompa at dawn to see the Buddhist service. No photographs were allowed but I recall the colorful Buddhist paintings surrounding the wall and seven or so monks chanting ‘Om-Mani-Padme-Hum’. This phrase can be literally translated as ‘the jewel in the lotus’ with which repeated chanting will invoke a female deity named Avalokiteśvara. Tibetan people believe uttering this incantation will bring them miracles. It is still hard to understand what drives their strong belief, but it only amazed me. We had a relatively short trek to Dingboche (4260 meters) but it was continuous uphill covered in mist. In Dingboche, I stank and I finally paid to take a hot shower. The electric boiler in the shower seemed malfunctioning as the hot water heated by the sun in the water tank on rooftop was the water I was using and no cold water option was available. One of the biggest lessons from my trip was that nice warm shower is a real luxury: cold bucket shower was common in most rural Asia, tap water pipe froze in winter in rural China, and you must shower with glacier water in northern Pakistan. I reiterate every time I shower.
I had another free day to adapt the elevation in Dingboche. I had altitude sickness with bad headache on the second day. I visited the nearest peak (4700 m) to facilitate acclimatization. I was very tired but I had difficulty sleeping this night.
I yearned for something but I did not know what and how to resolve the longing. I felt like I have been stepping on invisible steps in the midst of blackness. I was lonely and my future seemed hopeless. I was not sure where to go next, which still is a frustrating question for me.
I left Dingboche with a hint of altitude sickness. I had a bowl of garlic soup and filled my bottle with warm ginger tea from the lodge. I told myself that I am quitting this tomorrow; I could not see any reason to go further. I mean, what would all this struggling to make to EBC change anything?! Within an hour of leaving the lodge, I was already about a kilometer or two behind Flora and Fernando. I planned to tell them I am going down next time I catch them. Every step was an excruciating pain. I sat on the ground and looked back where I walked - stunning! I guess I will climb a bit more. Two Sherpa boys who were behind me, delivering a case to the next town, smiled at me and asked if everything was okay. I smiled back but I felt embarrassed for being not strong enough. I finally caught Flora and Fernando in Dughla where we had a tea by the furiously flowing glacier stream. Then we climbed another painful hill where I lied on the ground and shrunk by body like a caterpillar when I made to the top. It was frighteningly silent. The top of the hill was cemetery of those who passed away while challenging the Everest. We arrived in Lobuche at 1:30 PM where we called a day. My face got darker as I get closer to the sun. I was the mountain man!
Many adventurers were buried here. It was hard to imagine if their deaths were tragedies or honors.
I left another chunk of my luggage in Lobuche. Before leaving Kathmandu, the boys at Pariwar suggested me to leave my stuff in the guesthouse. The foolish me thought that it was their strategy to force me to stay with them upon return. In mountain, it was obvious that my backpack was stuffed with nothing but junks and now I was stupidly suffering to carry those to one of the highest places one can reach. Thinking back in the time, I should have been carrying foods and essentials for those living up high. We walked for about 4 hours of unpaved route covered with large sharp rocks, with wild yaks on the right and the melting glacier creating turquoise ponds on the other side. EBC was just around the corner.
Watching glacier melting was surreal. No one knew how deep these holes were but it must be freezing in there.
We checked into the the only open lodge in Gorak Shep and had a bite before heading to EBC. The cost of food got impressively expensive and peanut butter and jelly sandwich was the only reasonably affordable food for me. THRILLED. We encountered a group of Australian trekkers returning from EBC, whose faces were filled with the joy of accomplishment. EBC was nothing but a bunch of rocks stacked on top of another higgledy-piggledy wrapped around by the prayer flags. There was no one greeting us for the achievement, no certificate or anything. However, we shouted, hugged each other, and celebrated with a can of San Miguel beer that Fernando brought. Short of oxygen in the high altitude made us hard to breathe and we were afraid of getting sick from putting alcohol into our body so we only took photo pretending to be drinking. We watched the tip of Mountain Everest at distance that was firmly standing as if it was telling us that we have not conquered any of it yet. We returned to Gorak Shep by around 4 PM. The lounge was filled with happy comrades who won the battle. We got a new American friend Kyle, who had a drill-sergeant guide, by the way, and we played Flora’s original card game until late night. Excited to go back down tomorrow.
Insufficient oxygen level kept me awake almost all night. At dawn, we geared up to climb Kala Patthar (5664.5 meters). Despite we were supposed to have the most accessible view of Everest, I could not identify which one it was. Every peak looked all same to me - equally overwhelming - but who cares now. We descended for the next three days. We spend a night in Pangboche, then Jorsale, before finally arrived back in Lukla. At the same time, I collected by luggage and re-stuffed the backpack as I got closer to the reality. It rained during the last few miles before Lukla. An old Sherpa lady, who was also heading to Lukla with her herd of yaks, was blowing whistle to keep her yaks on the track. The whistle shepherded me as well.
I neither hired a guide nor porter partly because I was short on budget but more importantly, I felt sorry for someone to carry my burden. It felt it was irresponsible and selling one’s pain to someone else was the worst thing anyone would do. I was shortsighted. The small amount of money the porters made provided them opportunities: opportunities to eat, stay warm, and healthy, educate their children, and expand their businesses. Many porters were wearing flip-flops while carrying huge luggages, sometimes larger than their body, not because they are avid hikers but they just do not own a nice pair of trekking shoes. This unfortunately often lead to lose of toes to frostbite and the end of their career. Hiring young porters allowed them to gain field experiences so they can be a guide later on. My few dollars could have enriched their lives. I did not see this at the time as wisdom was in its infancy, and I may never get mature. I paid our Mr. Guide the full amount for taking me together. He said no money was no problem, probably because I was not ‘officially’ guided and I kind of followed them, but I gave him his pay anyway. I also gave him my jacket and scarf, because I decided to go to a hot country next so I do not have to worry about hot shower anymore (good intension, but I kind of needed it again later on…).
Lukla was surprisingly crowded. The frustrated trekkers said the airport has been closed for the past four days due to low visibility… AGAIN! At the little fancy donut shop on the main road, I could overhear someone saying that he already has missed his flight back to the U.S., someone talking with her travel agency and the insurance company to check if hiring helicopter can be covered (it was about 500 dollars per person and 2500 for charter; and she actually took the helicopter shouting “my insurance covers thissss…!!!”), someone wheedling naive travelers to walk together to Jiri to get a jeep back to Kathmandu, and the American monk disagreeing with that idea due to the infestation of leeches (and I totally agreed!).
When it was not raining, we enviously watched helicopters taking off carrying either rich or desperate travelers. The flight ticket office was always filled with a guides who were trying to get tickets for their clients. On the third day of being stuck, local people said tomorrow should be the day. Soon, Flora and Fernando excitedly told me that they got the ticket back to Kathmandu for next morning. Mr. Guide promised me that he will get me cheaper ticket, but I have not seem him the past two days! I ran into the ticket booth and battled with the guides to win my seat in TARA airlines. The printer in the office was broken so the agent literally hand-wrote the ticket on the spot. Next morning, cheers from here and there in Lukla woke me up. I opened the curtain and it was a clear day and I joined the shouts for joy. We are going back!
Flora, Fernando, and our guide who taught us the Nepali tongue twister: “No one can do in Kathmandu, only cat can do.”
Every moment in Khumbu was one of the most challenging yet the most precious memories in my life. Several years have passed and some of us are still in touch and we miss those times. I meet some of them in person in the recent years, but for the most, only by facebook - all are working hard to conquer their own Everests in their life. Back in Kathmandu, we checked into Pariwar again. I watched Flora and Fernando getting their luggages back with a complex feeling. First, I had a hot shower then had some Chinese food and donuts and slept. We had many beers and had a nice Daal-Baht lunch. We also lured Kyle to change his guesthouse to ours and we chat on the rooftop until late. We appreciated every moment.