Trekking is basically a mind game. Initially it involves a desire to drag one’s overweight and unfit carcass across the landscape in some remote, possibly dangerous, but gorgeous environment. Then a series of decisions are required – not just about the destination, but also being realistic about the distances involved, contemplating any special challenges (such as altitude), and then the effort required to get there and to survive. This is followed by a whole lot of planning.
In Nepal there is no shortage of companies willing to support your trek, organizing travel bookings, obtaining permits, booking domestic flights and hotels, and arranging guides and porters. They cover everything from an individual trekker to a large group. And the trekking choice is practically unlimited covering different regions in Nepal (Annapurna Circuit, Mustang Trip, Khumbu Region, Dolpo Snow Leopard Trek, etc ), different durations (9, 12 , 15, 28, 33 days etc), and different degrees of difficulty (something for everyone from the lounge lizard to the triathlete). We opted for the rather modest 9 day Glimpse of Everest trek.
Then it’s about selecting and accumulating the right gear to take, especially being able to deal with wet conditions, cold conditions, travelling light, sleeping rough, etc. So buying gor-tex jackets and pants in Nepal is not recommended. Gor-tex products made in Nepal come with fancy brand names and labels but are anything but waterproof or breathable. Then a day pack, water bottles, walking poles, and sleeping bag. Trekking is also about dealing with the joys of infrequent showers (if any) and handling altitude and consuming a very ordinary teahouse diet.
At the start of the trek you are aware that you have 9 days ahead of you, and that involves 50-60 kilometers of walking and days where you may ascend or descend 700 metres or more. I think the first few hours are the biggest challenge. “Does the day pack feel right?” “Is it packed evenly?” “Have I got the straps too loose or too tight?” “My boots are worn in, but are they feeling OK?” “Will I develop blisters, are the laces too tight, should I have worn the padded woolen socks.” “Did I pack enough energy foods (read Mars bars or Snickers)?”
Then there are the aches and pains that invariably arise, often temporarily. But these set your mind working overtime. Am I developing blisters? Is the pack rubbing the small of my back? Are my knees going to be able to take this punishment for another 8.75 days? Then there is a slip and an ankle takes some serious weight. As the trek progresses you start to climb to some more serious altitude, and the lack of oxygen starts to impact and altitude sickness may become apparent. If you are prepared perhaps you are already taking diamox, but then you have to deal with the side effects.
But eventually a rhythm develops and the walking becomes easier.
The trek started with an early morning taxi (4:30am) ride to Kathmandu airport. Being among the first ten at the airport meant little as we were bumped off the first flight. Because the weather was pretty ordinary there was talk of flights being cancelled, so there was an anxious wait for the next flight, but it was all ok and we landed in Lukla around 8:30am. Unfortunately the domestic terminal in Kathmandu is not equipped with comfortable, clean and well appointed amenities so the wait was in rather pedestrian conditions.
The entire flight was dogged by low clouds so there was no breathtaking scenery, but it was entertaining to watch and listen to the other passengers (1) who had not been on such a small plane, (2) were extremely nervous, and (3) as they observed the pilots land the aircraft on a runway slightly bigger than a cricket pitch! In the Khumbu region there are impressive mountains including Everest (8,848m), Lhotse (8,511m), Nuptse (7,879m), Ama Dablam (6,856m), Thamserku (6,623m) but they remained very hidden during the flight and for the first three days of the trek.
The trek involved meandering along woodland tracks, dodging mud and shit, scrambling up and down steep rocky paths, synchronizing with the swaying of suspension bridges, and not slipping or tripping. It rained almost constantly for the first two days as this was towards the end of the monsoon. It made the trail damp and slippery in places, and challenged the faux-gor-tex which failed miserably.
An important trekking lesson in Nepal is courteousy and giving porters right of way. Porters carry unbelievable loads ranging from trekkers gear, to huge loads of supplies for the tea houses, building materials, generators, gas bottles, even the proverbial kitchen sink. We saw porters carrying 85kg generators and heavy timber, with some loads in excess of 100 kilograms. You also encounter yaks, donkeys, and horses on the trail carrying supplies for the teahouses and shops.
Porters loads – beer supplies and over 100kg rice
One of the more special sights on the trek was the Yaks. Yaks typically live above 3,000 metres (10,000 feet) and are used for heavy lifting in the Himalayas. They are heavy, lumbering creatures with short legs and long hair and they huff and puff as they ply the trails through the mountains. The rhythmic sounds of their bells gives each trekker early warning of their approach. The bells are considered the age-old sound of the messengers of the gods. At lower altitudes, chauri (Yaks crossbred with cows) operate. While we may follow in the footsteps of yaks it is highly advisable to get well out of their way as they move along the trails.
Along the Glimpse of Everest journey we passed through small communities or hamlets – including Phakding, Monju, Jorsalle, Namche Bazaar, Phortse, Pang Bouche, Tengboche, Somare, etc. Each of these hamlets has teahouses which provide meals and accommodation and stores selling every conceivable consumer items (especially chocolates, beers, biscuits, SD cards, etc). Teahouse trekking is pretty easy and comfortable. The traveler stops at a teahouse each night to eat and sleep, and to recharge batteries and replenish water supplies. The choice of meals at each teahouse is pretty limited in choice, and access to fresh food is quite limited. A word of caution – the higher one goes and generally the further from Lukla, the higher the price for water, showers, battery recharging, etc.
Teahouse kitchen and the ubiquitous pressure cooker
Each teahouse is part of a vibrant local community. These communities have been in place well before the age of the itinerant traveler, although they now clearly cater for the passing trekker. Nevertheless they have historically had an agrarian existence, based on the potato with harvest and preservation over winter an important cyclical event. Not surprisingly, potatoes form a very large part of the diet. The other big business is collection and drying of yak manure for fuel. Avoid the toasted marshmallows!!!
Potato harvest at Pang Boche (September 2012)
Shopping on the trek
Walking in the footsteps of yaks – the messengers of the gods.