Trip to Nepal: Kathmandu and Everest Base Camp Trek

I just got back from a glorious three weeks vacation in Nepal. Heather picked me up at the airport in Kathmandu, put a garland of marigolds around my neck, and whisked me off into the city. There are six of us in the group, plus Heather and our guide Pemba (Saturday -- many Sherpas are named for the day they were born). Ellen, Jo Ann, Sandy, and Tom are from Ann Arbor, and Bill is from Traverse City. We enjoyed getting to know each other while travelling.

We had a few days in Kathmandu before leaving for the mountains. We saw lots of temples and markets, and just got a feel for the city. There's a lot of energy and a lot of color (also a lot of pollution), with a comfortable mix of the very old and very new. There are both Buddhist and Hindu temples: multi-story pagoda-like buildings, stupas with the all-seeing eyes of the Buddha gazing in all directions, and innumerable little sidewalk temples with just an image of a god inside a small structure.

One morning we drove out to Pashupatinath, one of the most important Hindu temples in Nepal. It is located on the banks of the holy Bagmati river. The temple complex was bustling with activity -- worshippers giving their offerings, souvenir-sellers hawking their wares, sadhus posing for photographs, cremation fires being tended, and tourists observing it all. Just a short distance away from the activity, in a serene location in a cliff above the river rapids, were the hermit caves where some sadhus lived.

In the afternoon we went to Bodhnath, one of the most important Buddhist temples in Nepal. Prayer flags flap in the wind, and a ring of prayer wheels surrounds the stupa -- pilgrims spin them all (we spun a few). There are a couple of monasteries in the area, and of course plenty of souvenir stands. We had lunch at a delightful restaurant overlooking the stupa, and I had my photo taken to send back to Michigan and explain why I couldn't be at an upcoming meeting.

On my third day in Nepal, we got up early and headed to the airport for our flight to Lukla to go trekking. The weather was a little cloudy, but we were optimistic. The 6am flight was delayed to 7am, then 8am, then 9am, then 10am, then 11am, then it was cancelled :( All morning we sat at the airport, drinking Nescafe from the coffee machine, and waiting. The group from the Everest Marathon was waiting there too. One of the participants is blind (we met him later -- Mark from Ireland -- and he finished! Amazing).

Back to Kathmandu, we went to the same hotel and even had the same rooms. We had some lunch, and then went to the Garden of Dreams. It's the European-style garden of an old palace that has been beautifully restored. It's an oasis of calm in the chaos of Kathmandu. A good place to relax after a long and frustrating morning at the airport!

The next day started out as a repeat. Get up early, go to the airport, and wait (except this time we'd packed our carry-on bags with books to read while waiting!). The flight is delayed... but then, flights to Lukla start going. We are off! Well, not quite... We are on the plane, but then the pilots get off and say that Lukla is closed again, they are going for coffee. Maybe another hour delay, maybe two. What can you do if it's cloudy in Lukla? We are standing around on the tarmac debating the possibilities when the pilots come marching back and this time we really are off!

The tiny Lukla airport has been carved into the side of the mountain. I completely understand why the pilots would want to see where they are going to land on the little strip of runway. We got off the plane and went to Pemba's house, his wife served us milk tea, we met our 5 porters, and we were off trekking! Lukla is 2840m (9300 ft) above sea level.

Trekking has a nice rhythm. Hike for awhile in the morning, stop for lunch, then hike some more in the afternoon, stop for dinner, sleep. Go to bed early (it gets dark by 7:30pm) and get up with the sun (5am). The views along the way were amazing. The first few days it was still mostly cloudy, and we could only get a few peeks at the peaks. We were below the tree line though and could see the forests and rivers. Once the sky cleared -- wow! We were surrounded by snow-capped peaks in every direction.

There are many guest houses all along the way that cater to trekkers. The food was pretty good overall, although there wasn't a huge variety. I ate a lot of fried noodles with vegetables, rice with lentils (dah bhat), eggs, oatmeal, etc. The rooms at the lodges were basic, just a platform bed (bring your own sleeping bag) with a shared toilet down the hall (byotp). Some of the larger villages at lower altitudes had sit-down flush toilets, but more commonly you had to squat over a pit (my favorite was a pit toilet with a sit-down velvet-covered toilet seat!) Hot showers were extra and got more expensive the higher up the mountain you went (somebody has to carry up the propane to heat the water).

It took us 9 days to get up to Everest Base Camp (including two rest days), and 3 days to get down. On the "rest" days, we hiked up to a higher altitude then came back down to sleep, to aid with acclimatization. It was always a nice break to stay at the same place two nights and not have to repack in the morning. The hikes were not that hard -- maybe 3-4 hours in the morning, and 2-3 hours in the afternoon. It was longer on the way down, but then we were getting so much more oxygen that it felt great to set a good pace and just go!

While we were heading up the mountain, some of the climbers who had summited Mt. Everest were on their way down. It was fun to meet them and share their excitement! We met the Nepali television team, including Kami Sherpa (6-time summiter) who made the first live TV broadcast from the summit, and the team from the Philippines who were the first women to make the traverse (up from Tibet, down through Nepal). Kami was nonchalant, whereas the women from the Philippines were a bundle of energy and enthusiasm behind their sunburned faces!

Our guide Pemba liked to show us all of the good shortcuts on the trails. Several of these involved climbing over rock walls and through potato patches (but "don't climb on the potatoes"). One day he took us on an adventurous cross-country hike past some yak pastures and small houses where the yak boys live in season. We crossed several rushing mountain streams via climbing over large boulders, and tried to hang onto the scrub brush on the side of the mountain, until we finally arrived at the "Chhukung Resort" (it seemed like any other trekking lodge to me, I never found the spa). We had a nice lunch of garlic soup ("good for altitude") and took the easy way back along the river.

Altitude sickness is a serious issue problem in the Himalayas; many people die from it every year. We made sure to drink lots of water (treated with iodine) and pay attention to the symptoms. Fortunately the cure is simple: just go down the mountain. I had some minor headaches off and on, but then during the night in Lobuche (4930m, 16,200ft) I woke up with a bad headache and trouble breathing. At this altitude, there is only about half of the oxygen in the air at sea level (note: the altitude of Ann Arbor is a whopping 250m or 820 ft!) I took a Diamox (called "vitamin D" by climbers) and the symptoms went away; I kept taking them until we came down below that altitude and never had any more problems ("better living through chemistry"). I even slept well at Base Camp, although every time I'd roll over I'd need to take several deep breaths to catch up on oxygen. Unfortunately not all of those in our group were as fortunate. Altitude is one of those things you just can't train for, each person's reaction depends somewhat on the luck of the draw.

Our high point on the trek was Kalapathar: 5550m or 18,200ft. From the summit of this small mountain (really, no more than a tiny hill in that neighborhood) are the best views of Mt. Everest, the highest mountain in the world. It was a long, hard hike up but we were rewarded not just with Everest but the whole panorama of snow-capped Himalayas. We came down from Kalapathar and slept at Gorak Shep before making the final leg of the trek into Base Camp.

Everest Base Camp (5365m, 17,600ft) is located on top of the Khumbu glacier. During the climbing season, 1500+ people live there in tents supporting the climbing expeditions -- cooks, porters, guides, communications, etc. There are generators for power, plastic pails inside toilet tents, and everything there has been carried up (and will be carried down) on the back of a porter or a yak. It was towards the end of the season; one climber told us that half of the camp had left in the last few days, but it still had the feel of a small city. We were affiliated with Peak Promotions who was supporting the Nepali Television expedition, the BBC "Everest ER" miniseries filming, and the Himalayan Rescue Association medical tent.

All the time we were going up the mountain, the people we met who were coming down kept telling us that when we finally got to base camp, we had to try the apple pie. Before leaving the US, Tom had seen a web site about the bakery at base camp, and the pie became a legendary quest. When we first got to base camp, our guide Pemba told us that the bakery was closed :( Further investigations revealed that the bakery was open, it was the last day. The sign had gone off the tent, and the oven had been sent down the mountain. But there were enough slices of the fabled apple pie for all of us to indulge, yum! It was pretty good :) and a fitting reward for a long trek.

Other than eat apple pie, there's not a whole lot to do at Base Camp. We watched some climbers come down through the ice fall and did a little climbing in the ice fall ourselves. We chatted a bit with the BBC team, and tried to balance the need to drink a lot of water for altitude acclimatization with the dread of having to get out of a warm sleeping bag in the middle of the night to find the toilet tent in the dark and balance on a pile of stones over a plastic pail. It was a neat experience to stay at base camp (most trekkers only go for a day trip), but one night was enough.

As we were leaving Base Camp, it seemed like every yak in Nepal was on its way there -- a veritable yak parade. They didn't carry anything except their own food, so they were all planning to take away the tents, stoves, and other equipment from the camp. Passing them on the narrow, rocky trail across the glacier is a little tricky, but since they are much more experienced at it than we are, we usually just got out of their way.

Sometimes it was nice to just sit on the side of the trail and watch the traffic go by, and check out what was going up and down the "highway to Everest" on the backs of porters: lumber, lawn chairs, folding tables, generators, duffel bags, kerosene jugs, cases of beer, slabs of meat (vegetarianism becomes attractive)... pretty much anything you can think of that somebody might need or want will go by sooner or later.

On our way back through Namche, we convinced our guide Pemba to lead us through the Sherpa museum. In addition to a traditional Sherpa-style house, with the requisite stash of split logs and yak dung (for fuel), there are photo exhibits about Everest and the Sherpa culture. There is also a crashed helicopter in the courtyard -- in the "traditional Sherpa style" (i.e., it is too much work to break it up and carry it down the mountain). Bill and I found the museum to be quite interesting, but Pemba (who had seen it a hundred times before) was bored to tears. He told us it was a tourist trap -- but we were tourists and tourists sometimes like to be trapped! We celebrated our return to the lower altitudes with a beer, it was refreshing even at room temperature after all the dust on the trail!

On our last day of hiking, we had stopped to rest by the river and I saw some red berries near its bank -- wild strawberries! They were tiny so you had to pick lots of them to get even a little taste, but they were delicious! We also met these two charming girls, 11 and 13 years old, they started by asking us some simple questions in English, then Heather chatted with them in Nepali. There names were Mingma and Pasang -- Tuesday and Friday, just like Heather and me!

We made it from Base Camp to Lukla in three days, and caught our flight back to Kathmandu on schedule. The flight back was so easy the co-pilot was reading the newspaper on the way (the Kathmandu airport is harder to miss than Lukla). Back to the same hotel, and refreshing long, hot showers, ahhh!

In ancient times, there were three kingdoms in the Kathmandu valley, each with its own royal palace and temples. One of the best museums in the country is in the old Patan royal palace, with well-displayed stone and bronze religious artwork from all over the country. We also visited the Golden Temple in Patan, and watched two woman polishing the brass (no worries of unemployment with that job). On the way back from Patan, we visited the Tibetan Refugee Rug Factory, and watched the women spin the wool and weave it into beautiful carpets. I bought one for my living room.

The next day we drove to Bhaktapur -- a bit of time travel with grain drying in the streets, chickens running amok, and no cars allowed (although motorcycles are exempt). The traditional lifestyles stay active through tourism (of course there were plenty of shops). We wandered through the streets and found the "famous peacock window" carved out of wood -- the next window had a live hen peeking out of it, we dubbed it the "soon-to-be famous chicken window" (it will be famous after all the pictures we took of it!) Near the peacock window was a paper-making studio, we got a nice tour and of course hit the gift shop. We also visited the potters square before heading back to Kathmandu for dinner.

On June 1 there was a strike, no traffic was allowed in Kathmandu. According to the news reports, the strike was called to commemorate the 9-year-old Supreme Court decision that all legal documents have to be in Nepali. A significant blow to the rights of minorities, with 25-100 different languages in Nepal (depending on how you count dialects). Politics aside, the strike was actually kind of nice for a break -- several of the tourist restaurants and shops were open, most regular shops were closed but many vendors had set up their wares on tarps in the streets, the air was not very polluted. We walked around the city, read, and relaxed.

Unfortunately the strike caused the cancellation of some of Ellen's concerts. Heather had planned for her to play at several charitable organizations as part of the "Random Acts of Kindness Fund". She did give concerts (and Heather made donations) at the Mother Theresa home for the elderly, a home for children whose parents are in prison, and two different hospitals. It was great to see the faces of people brightened by the music, and to watch them sing along and even dance. It was an honor just to help carry the piano.

In between two of the concerts we stopped for lunch at an upscale shopping mall (converted from an old palace) -- quite the respite from the dust and chaos of the streets of Kathmandu! Quite the city of contrasts. Then it was over... except for the long flight home.

Click the links for some photos:

Highlights from the Everest Trek

Highlights from Kathmandu

6/8/07 dmt