The 20 weeks of preparation (read: fear) leading up to our Everest trek finally dwindled down toward "game time". We (over)packed—everything from emergency blankets and whistles to about 25 Snickers bars—and were off to Nepal. Everest Base Camp was a milestone to mark the big 30 and it did just that! We took a flight from Shanghai to Kunming and started our journey in Kathmandu, an untamed city inhabited by more than a million people and a fraction of that in goats, monkeys and stray, three-legged dogs. Kathmandu is kind of an India-lite, a diet India with a side of lime. Kids fly kites and walk to school. People are friendly. The bakeries are a dream with fresh Black Forest cake, apple pie and cinnamon rolls and thanks to the western hippies of yesteryear there are cafes serving grilled cheese sandwiches and shisha pipes—the perfect 'carrot' to use as a bribe when one is hiking straight up a mountain for two hours.
My boyfriend, my friend and myself are all lovers of travel and enjoy wandering and getting lost before eventually finding ourselves. But none of us knew much about the Himalayas or trekking in high altitude, so we thought it a good idea to join a group for this one. And because of the unpredictable situation in Tibet, and the fact that British citizens are not allowed in to Tibet at the moment (my boyfriend is British), the only way for us to visit visit Everest Base Camp was through Nepal.
Day 1: Getting to know you
Our group gathered the evening before we began trekking to meet each other and dine over a traditional Nepalese meal. It's a nice way to ease into a 15 person dynamic. You want to make the right impression since you'll be spending the next 18 days (in who knows what kind of conditions) with the same people. Team Goyko Lakes and Everest Base Camp consisted of 10 Aussies, three British, one Polish, one American, four Nepalese guides and a team of 12 incredibly strong porters (to whom I tip my hat!). And now for the play by play....
Day 2: The adventure begins...
I'd had no sleep because of an annoying tickly cough that began just in time for our first day. We departed at 5am for Kathmandu Airport with hopes that the place would be somewhat orderly (unlike its description in the guidebook). After a minor one-hour delay, we were on our way to Lukla's Tenzing-Hillary Airport (aka the most dangerous airport in the world according to the History Channel's Most Extreme Airports).
The short, 45-minute flight into the mountains was awe-inspiring and our pilot landed our twin engine 16 passenger plane with ease—I saw because I was practically sitting on his lap! The runway, built in the 1960's by Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, is situated on the side of a cliff, runs uphill and is short, just 460 m (1,500 ft for those of us Americans), with the town of Lukla (2,860 m or 9,383 ft) at the end of it. No big deal!
The stewardess climbed over our carry-on luggage to offer us candies and we landed softly in Lukla in time for breakfast. We quickly learned that the menus were a dieter's nightmare, full of carbs, carbs and more carbs... and deep fried Mars bars and "Sneakers Pie" (a kind of Snicker's Cornish pasty).
After some guilty culinary pleasures, we sorted through our 15 kg duffel bags (provided by the trekking company) one more time and handed them off to our porters, who loaded two at time into the baskets on their backs and took off. With full stomachs, our day packs and walking poles, we headed off on a three hour hike toward Mt. Everest (known as Qomolangma in Tibetan, meaning "Holy Mother").
We passed Lukla's very own Starbucks; real or not, it was luxury compared to where we were going. Climbing is no joke, but after a few days you (and your heart rate) get used to it. Along the way you see many a man (and woman) older than you carrying much heavier loads (91 kg of kerosene vs. your measly 4kg of Snickers bars), and you buck up. As we descended into the valley, we crossed a suspension bridge over a glacial river, shared the trail with yaks and broke our first sweat.
Soon after passing through the small village of Ghat, we reached our lodge in Phakding (2,610 m or 8,563 ft). Our first night sleeping in a teahouse was moderately comfortable, complete with twin rooms, foam beds, blankets and a friendly, matronly woman in charge of the place. Bathrooms varied from a relatively clean squatty potty to a makeshift western toilet held together by means of packing tape and wood. Our adventure was well underway!
Day 3: Breathtaking views & Namche Bazaar
We were woken up at 6am by our guides informing us our "washing water" was available. This was a good incentive to get out of bed while the water was still warm. On this day we had to slowly ascend over 800 m (2,625 ft) in order to acclimatize properly. Our destination was Namche Bazaar (3,440 m or 11,286 ft). It was on our way there that we got great views of two huge mountains: Kusum Kanguru (6,369 m or 20,898 ft) and Thamserku (6,623 m or 21,729 ft)—it was breathtaking. We also entered Khumba National Park where Tashi, our guide, handed in our permits to be checked. We lunched in Monjo (2,835 m or 9,301 ft), saw our first mountain goats on the side of a cliff and finally made it, about eight hours later, to the village of Namche Bazaar.
I spoke with a local shop owner, a Tibetan refugee, who informed me that the town has a population of about 1,400 people and the high school is about an hour away. Mind you, there are no roads in or around this village, so when the high-schoolers tell their story to future generations, they probably really did walk up hill both ways to school in the snow. The village is in a horse-shoe shape on the side of a hill with magnificent scenery all around. We were happy to be finished for the day and celebrated with a filter coffee and a piece of apple crumble from the "German Bakery". The best I've ever tasted.
Luckily, no one in the group really experienced altitude sickness (until later in the trek when I thought I was having a heart attack, but more on that later). It also may have helped that another group of 50-somethings were hot on our trail. We couldn't let people almost twice our age beat us! I'll fill you in on the rest of the trip next week. Thanks for reading and I hope someday you too will visit Everest; it's worth every blister. Until next time. Happy travels!
Amber's journey continues to the glacial lakes of Everest.