I set my alarm for 4.15 am. Enough time to pack the last essentials in my kitbag, deposit my suitcase with the hotel reception for safekeeping and still have a few minutes to spare to wolf down a spot of breakfast. My flight to Lukla is scheduled for 6.00 am.
Ashok may well have irked me by changing my departure date, but having secured me a seat on the first flight out turns out well worth it. As the early morning skies are usually clearer, I stand a better chance of getting to my destination on that day. And indeed, only a couple of early flights make it to Lukla that Monday. Anyone booked on later flights is left to think up a plan B. Maybe better luck tomorrow? Some with deeper pockets, such as the two ladies I meet at the teahouse the next evening, manage to salvage the day by snapping up a pricey helicopter trip. Others, such as a young backpacker I met in Pokhara who waited two days for his flight, change destination and settle for a different trek altogether: Annapurna Base Camp, Langtang perhaps… And there is always the option of a bus ride to Jiri and adding a day or two of hiking to make it to Lukla. The roads between Jiri and Lukla are notoriously bad and motorised transport beyond that point probably not advisable and not available.
Luckily for me, Fortuna’s wings take me across. My flight takes off ahead of schedule and by 7.00 am I sit in the Paradise Lodge in Lukla, enjoying some hot coffee and meeting Sonam, my guide and porter for my epic journey to Everest Base Camp.
Unsure about how well I would cope on this trek, and mindful I do not want to be the one holding everyone up, I have decided to go solo. This way I can hike at my own speed, neither rushed nor slowed down by others. However, my map reading skills being what they are, it would be an adventure too far for me not to have at least one guiding hand at my side. And let’s not forget the other advantage of a guide-cum-porter: I will only have to carry a small amount of stuff in a small backpack… Sonam will carry the bulk of it in his slightly larger backpack.
No point in delaying the start of the trek. No sooner have I swallowed my coffee, and we’re on our way. Sonam and I. The first leg takes us through alpine forest, lush greenery under a cornflower sky, to Phakding, a mere 3 hours walk from Lukla (4 according to the itinerary). Sonam is impressed. ‘You’re strong, mam,’ he assures me approvingly, as we have walked much quicker than he had expected ‘considering my age’… ‘Fifty nine, mam, you’re very strong.’ Since he put my age somewhere around 45 earlier that day – it is amazing what a little bit of hair dye can achieve -, I suppose he was preparing for a leisurely hike up to Base Camp.
Contrary to what logic may dictate, by the end of the first day we have descended a full 200m: from Lukla’s elevation of 2860m to Phakding’s 2650m. It’s called the ‘Nepali flat’: a little bit up and a little bit down, a phrase used to describe the up and down nature of Nepalese hiking trails…
‘Day 2 is the killer,’ Ashok explained to me a few days before I set off as we combed through the finer details of my trekking schedule. Maybe not in those exact words, but you get the drift… ‘A long distance, numerous steep inclines and then there are the yaks and mules on the path,’ he continued. ‘Make sure you hug the hillside when they pass. For safety.’
With a tough stretch ahead of us, we leave early on the second day. Breakfast at 6.30 am; out of the door by 7.00. The trek to Namche Bazaar at 3440 m takes us to higher altitude territory. Nothing too serious yet, but altitude sickness can rear up its ugly head from now on. The key is to take it slowly, very slowly to let your body adapt and I set the pace for Sonam to follow.
I am grateful for the countless mule trains we pass as each time it gives me a chance to catch my breath. And, of course, the heavily burdened yaks lumbering over the metal suspension bridges give everyone a break too. There are plenty of those bridges between Phakding and Namche Bazaar and I quickly learn to look straight ahead, not down at the raging rivers and gaping valleys below. Not for the faint-hearted and I hold onto the steel-cable handrail to steady myself as the floor bounces up and down with the steps of other trekkers. But lots of bridges means lots of ups and downs as often the only way to reach the opposite side of a valley is by walking down a few hundred metres to a narrow suspension bridge and then climb up again…
On this second day, we pass two checkpoints: Monjo and Namche Bazaar. Busy places packed with scores of trekkers, guides and porters, all showing their permits and having their passport details registered. Not only do the permits bring much needed income to a still very poor country, the records held at the checkpoint mean that the authorities know exactly who is on the mountain. Useful in case of an accident or disaster, or even to alert people when someone does not return in the expected time frame.
More and more trekkers opt to go solo which involves more risk. Guides are familiar with the routes and are trained to recognise the symptoms of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness). Although the trek to Everest Base Camp is considered relatively safe, each year some trekkers die.
My notebook diary entry for Day 2 reads as follows: ‘I think we just finished day 2. Not as bad as expected. Shorter than everyone made out. But I’m not looking forward to doing this in reverse. Too many steep inclines now, so a lot of downhill stretches awaiting me on the way back. Knee doing well so far!!’
Ashok pays me a visit at my hostel in Kathmandu. I have met him before, during my first trip to Nepal in 2015 a few months after the big earthquake, when I did a shorter trek in the Annapurna Range near Pokhara. This time he – or his travel agency more precisely – has sorted out my Everest Base Camp trip and he has come to shed light on the finer details of my itinerary…
‘You will be leaving
for Lukla on 22nd October,’ he explains. The 22nd? This is the first time this date has been
mentioned to me. I had previously
discussed 20th October and led to believe this was THE date. ‘Ashok,’ I deplore him, ‘why am I the last
one to know about the change of date? My
visa, my insurance, flight to Malaysia are all based on leaving for my trek on
the 20th…’ As trekking over
4600m is considered ‘extreme adventure’, my normal insurance does not cover EBC
and I have had to purchase an additional policy, just in case of an emergency requiring
a helicopter rescue…
I had given myself
some leeway at the end – or so I thought – as flights to and from Lukla are
notoriously unreliable and trekkers often get stuck for a day or two waiting
for the weather and flying conditions to improve so that planes are able to
take off and land on one of the shortest and most dangerous runways in the
world… Having spent enough time in the
Far East now, the sudden change of itinerary should not have come as a
surprise. Without any malice on their
part, travel agents and tour operators assume they know best and have the right
to make changes as they see fit, without any prior consultation. I take a deep breath and decide to go with the
flow. Not that I have any other option
really and it gives me two extra days to get my legs and muscles into shape.
After five weeks on
the road, I have not seen the inside of a gym since the end of August. Apart from scaling the Lang Biang peak near Dalat
on a very wet and soggy afternoon and some short cycling ventures in Vietnam
and Cambodia, exercise has been seriously lacking in my daily routine. So I arrive in Nepal 10 days (or 12 as it turns
out) ahead of my EBC trek and set off for Pokhara, for some pre-trek trekking. Nothing too serious, mind, merely a few day
trips in and around the town to give my boots a feel of the ‘real’ surface they
will be tackling, not just the cushioned version of the treadmill.
Money conscious and
adventure hungry, I make the journey to Pokhara by bus. It may not be as comfortable as a flight, but
at least you get to see more of the country.
Ashok has purchased my ticket, and I have been allocated seat 17A. Early the next morning I make my way to the
bus depot on the outskirts of Kathmandu’s Thamel area: a long line of buses
from various companies all heading in the direction of Pokhara. It is festival season, Dusshera and Tahir are
imminent and many city dwellers go back to the villages to be with their families. Buses are packed, no seats left unsold. I find the right bus, suitcase in the hold, first
passenger on the bus and am shown my seat…
Of all the seats in the bus, mine happens to be the middle one on the
back row. ‘This is my seat??’ I query
rather pointlessly… ‘The middle one with the broken seat belt??’ There is no sympathy from the bus ‘conductor’
and I reluctantly take my seat. If the
dust and uneven road surfaces of Kathmandu are anything to go by, I am in for
an eventful ride.
The roads out of
Kathmandu are gridlocked. Cars, buses, lories crawl along and the air is choked
with exhaust fumes and dry earth. It
does not take long for the caravan of traffic to spread out a bit and our bus finally
picks up speed. On the upside, we may
actually get to Pokhara in one day, on the other hand… the driver does not seem
to mind racing through the myriad of giant potholes sprayed across the road surface.
With nothing to hold onto – apart from
my fellow travelers on the right and left side of me – it is but for the grace
of my still rapid reflexes that I do not end up on the driver’s lap. I am catapulted forwards, propelled upwards at
every bump and pothole as the driver plows on regardless, not even slowing in
the least when the road surface may demand it for the safety and convenience of
the passengers, or to prolong the roadworthiness of the vehicle we are
‘Are you a Christian?’
my left-hand neighbour asks. The
question takes me by surprise, it is not one of the usual ones: ‘Where are you
from?’ ‘What’s your ‘good name’?’ and ‘Where
is your husband?’ Although, come to
think of it, the last one has recently been replaced with a surprised ‘You’re
traveling on your own?’ ‘I thought I heard you say ‘Jesus’,’ he continues… Having just survived a particularly nasty hump
in the road which literally lifted me off my seat, I count myself lucky that
nothing more offensive escaped my lips… Still, I like honesty, so I admit to
being Christian, albeit one who doesn’t very often set foot in church… He is also Christian, only a ‘New Christian’
recently converted in the wake of the last earthquake in Nepal, one who
believes that God is about to send his son again to Earth. ‘Soon,’ he explains, ‘he needs to come very
soon to show people how to live. Before mad
people such as Kim Jong-un from North Korea start the third world war.’ I cannot recall whether he added Trump to
this list of potential hazards to peace on the planet… Definitely a different
take on Christianity than the one I am familiar with, but to every man his
Left-hand neighbour speaks impeccable English. Clearly intelligent but not particularly studious, he left school at an early age and spent a few years in Dubai ‘working in sales’ and perfecting his English – the lingua franca amongst expats from poorer countries such as India, Nepal and The Philippines. The expats who do all the hard work and have literally built the Middle Eastern skyscrapers and emporiums…But missing his home, he returned to Nepal and now makes a living as a porter. On this trip he is part of a team of guides and porters accompanying a group of Indian trekkers who are aiming to reach Annapurna Base Camp. Left-hand neighbour enjoys this work. ‘It may be tough,’ he agrees, but this way he can afford to travel and see the fantastic sights in his own country… Sometimes it is easy to forget that visiting these amazing and incredible places on earth is a huge privilege not granted to everyone, not even the local people… Still, left-hand neighbour is only 22, with a life of opportunities ahead of him.
After a long eight-hour
journey, we reach Pokhara. Whilst
left-hand neighbour sets off to transport the luggage of his charges, I head
for my guest house and my first short-distance trek the next day. I just potter around really. With brand new
inner-soles in my hiking boots – a concession to plantar fasciitis – I know
that my feet have to get accustomed to the new arch support before I should attempt
longer hikes. But as everything seems
well after day one, I feel ready for a serious uphill stretch to Sarangkot, a
popular tourist destination with a viewpoint at 1592m. On a clear and cloudless
day, the hilltop not only offers incredible views of the Pokhara Valley, but
also spectacular vistas of the snowcapped mountains of the Annapurna Massif, Fishtail
Mountain, Dhaulagiri range and Manaslu. As
my previous visit to Nepal coincided with the tail end of the monsoon, I never
saw the full panoramic stretch and I am counting on having more luck this time
at the top of Sarangkot.
‘The hike up to
Sarangkot will take about an hour,’ I am assured at my guesthouse. ‘The trail starts where the paragliders
land,’ the host adds for good measure. I
had already walked as far as the landing spot – or at least one of the spots –
the previous day, so I have some idea of where to start … and for everything
else, there is Google Maps, I reason. On
my way I stop to ask some further directions from a fellow hiker. We both consult Google Maps on our smart
phones and yes, it seems we have identified the spot. ‘But,’ he tags on, ‘if I can give you some
advice??? Don’t focus on the
destination, enjoy the hike…’
It turns out to be sound advice! What had been described as a one-hour uphill hike ends up lasting about three to four hours. Admittedly, I stop on a few occasions to take interesting photographs; I am distracted by a young girl showing me her house and the fat, juicy goat that will be slaughtered for the upcoming festival;
I watch some children trying to coach their kites into the air – flying kites is part of the fun of Dusshera;
and I am mesmerized by the paragliders twisting and twirling as they float over the Pokhara Lake and valley…
But my main error is to rely on Google Maps which shows the 4×4 track up to Sarangkot, not the hikers trail. ‘Look,’ a German hiker later clarifies, ‘the hiking trails are clearly marked on MapsMe…’ as she points me in the right direction for a shortcut to the top. I make a mental note to download yet another app on my phone for future solo hiking adventures… By then I am puffing up the hill, and my knees are starting to protest even before I make it to the hundreds of steps up to the viewing point… I persevere all in the name of ‘practice for the real trek’ because the panoramic mountain view I am hoping for is stubbornly cloaked in clouds… At least the greenery of the valley and the colourful paragliding parachutes make for a worthwhile spectacle. The downhill route, although much shorter, is even more arduous than getting up to the viewpoint. My knees are definitely not happy, so I hobble and limp down the steep slopes and the countless steps on the way down. It doesn’t bode well for my intended EBC trip…Maybe a rest day is what I need!!
What better way to
give my legs a break than getting up into the air. A spot of paragliding seems a good plan, and
maybe, just maybe the cloud cover will lift to reveal the mountains… This time I get a ride up to the paragliding launch
spot, along the windy roads to Sarangkot.
Much quicker and easier than a hike!!!
Although the paraglide is indeed awesome, the weather does not play ball
and apart from a glimpse of The Fishtail, the rest of the mountains remain
hidden behind the clouds… Still, it does not detract from the fun and adventure
of using the thermals in the air to get a bird’s eye view of Pokhara.
With the pain in my
knee slowly subsiding over the next few days, I continue my (shorter and
easier) treks in the area and visit parts of Pokhara I missed last time. I take a boat across the Phewa lake and climb
the many steps up to the World Peace Pagoda, a stunning Buddhist monument to
peace, with on a clear day amazing views of the Himalayas… Not when I am there unfortunately.
I hike to the Davis Falls, named after a Swiss woman who drowned there when she went for a swim, and the Gupteshwor Mahadev Cave opposite. As it is holiday season, the cave is packed with tourists making the journey down the dimly lit path and the slippery steps a little treacherous. I actually find it a very claustrophobic as I am swallowed up by the crowd, so I don’t take time to enjoy the stalagmites and stalactites and just take a quick snapshot of the bottom of the waterfall, barely visible through the mist and a narrow gap in the rock face.
Later, I walk amongst rice paddies, cross wonky bridges and watch locals prepare for the festival of Dusshera.
With just a couple of days left to the big day of Dusherra, goats are being slaughtered, houses cleaned and garments washed…
And in parks and other large open spaces, enormous bamboo-pole swings have been erected and children of all ages are testing their agility. Nepal is getting ready for its biggest festival of the year.
My bus ride back to Kathmandu is rather uneventful but at least this time I have a safer seat. Kathmandu, and even the touristy Thamel area,is rather quiet on my return. Many shops and restaurants have closed for Dusshera and the few that remain open are packed with tourists in need of food and coffee. Luckily, most of the outlets selling and hiring trekking gear are open for business. It may well be festival season, but October and November are busy trekking months so it’s also the time for businesses to make their money.
I spend my last three
days before leaving for Lukla sorting out my trekking kit: hiring sleeping bag
and down jacket; buying warm thermals and a fleece and plenty of energy
bars… I even (optimistically) add some
shampoo sachets. And of course, the
packets of painkillers I brought from the UK in February… A little bit of discomfort is not going to
keep me from climbing that hill, but better be prepared for the downhill
stretches that will definitely test my knee joints…
And this is where I must abandon the chronology of my blog.. Events kind of overtook my ‘well-laid’ plans plus I had clearly not considered that the amount of time taken up by adventures and fun would leave me woefully short of time to chronicle it all. Maybe I was trying to cram in too many countries and exploits in too short a time? Central and Southern Vietnam, Cambodia, Nepal and some parts of Malaysia in the space of three months may have been a little ambitious. Not that I hadn’t allowed for restful periods: in Cambodia a whole week had been set aside for beach and island romps, a little respite before tackling the ruins and temples of Angkor Wat. However, as one of my sisters passed away quite suddenly in Belgium, I went on a hurried one week jaunt across the globe to attend the funeral, whilst Liz found her wings and ventured solo to the island of Koh Rong before completing the rest of ‘our’ Cambodia itinerary – Siem Reap and Angkor Wat – on her own. As plans go, it is my intention to catch up on the parts of Cambodia I missed before heading back to Vietnam early next year, so I will make a little detour via Siem Reap and its famous and fabulous ‘city of temples’. Blog posts about Cambodia to follow then.. In the meantime, on to Nepal..
It is early October and I stay in a hostel in Pokhara. Being a traveler on my own, finding company once in a while is a must and hostels are usually friendly places full of friendly, like-minded people who are often interested in similar experiences. In Nepal, chats about completed and impending treks fill the air over breakfast, mid-morning coffees and dinner. It’s a comfortable place to be, no one queries the sanity of my planned endeavour – reaching Everest Base Camp before my creaky bones and knees give out. It is not necessary, we understand each other, we dream the same dream. We know it is going to be tough and arduous and maybe we will not succeed, but the pull to test our limits in one of the world’s highest mountain ranges is irresistible.
‘You can see the Himalayas and Mount Everest on the TV,’ my brother-in-law pointed out just a few weeks ago; he does not get it and I struggle to explain the difference. One evening in Pokhara, over bowls of ramen in a Japanese restaurant, on the eve of her Annapurna Base Camp trek, a Dutch girl sighs, ‘Why are we doing this? The cold, the exhaustion, the headaches at high altitude? It’s going to be sooo tough…’ There are only smiles because we all share her sentiment and, still, none of us waver in our resolve to answer the call of the mountains. It is a compulsion, as necessary as the air we breathe.
I cannot honestly pinpoint the exact moment I decided to attempt trekking to Everest Base Camp, but the seed was planted in my mind quite some time ago. Almost 10 years ago, I joined a Charity Challenge, trekking through the Lares Valley of Peru and visiting Machu Picchu. At the time, the five – or was it six – day trek did not seem challenging enough; there was discomfort, don’t get me wrong, but as a ‘challenge’, it did not match my expectations.. I did not feel challenged!! Kilimanjaro beckoned… Maybe a summit at just under 6000m would be more taxing.
Somehow Tanzania and Mount Kilimanjaro remained a fantasy as so often life gets in the way and plans needed to be adapted to reality… Kids at uni, job uncertainty all took priority. But my life and options changed dramatically when in 2014 I embarked on my ‘5-year gap year’ and ended up working in South East Asia. Suddenly the master of my own destiny, Everest Base Camp – rather than reaching the peak of Kilimanjaro – moved into the realms of possibility. It was just a case of finding the right time between contracts to coincide with the most opportune trekking weather: spring time in March or April or the autumn months of October or November… Neither period fitted particularly well with the normal school year, and with the window of opportunity shrinking each year (I have noticed, I am not getting any younger.. what went wrong??), I knew I needed to plan for an extended travel period around any EBC venture… My contract in Vietnam coming to an end early September, and a promise to the kids to be in the UK for Christmas, there seemed no better time than now…
Reaching Everest Base Camp is not an easy feat, but with the right preparation and mindset, and of course the right footwear, it is not impossible to achieve. Many people with fewer and many people with more grey hairs than me have proven this.. Good, well-worn boots are essential though… Just a year or so ago, I owned a lovely pair of snug, warm walking boots bought in China to keep my feet warm in the minus-20 January temperatures of Harbin. But in the cull of possessions that inevitable accompanies a move to a different country (from China to Vietnam in this instance), they did not make it into my suitcase when I slipped away… Surely, it would not be that difficult to replace them in Vietnam, the country of good quality (?) counterfeit brand names, I had reasoned. And although I’d had the opportunity to purchase a new pair in February during my last UK visit, there were too many things to cram into the two-week holiday, so I dispensed with such errands, focusing instead on quality time with the kids. On my return to Vietnam, I scoured the shops in Quang Ngai, I traipsed recommended stores in Hanoi, I even tried my luck in the many hiking gear shops in Sapa but a pair of decent-looking, reliable boots that would stand a chance of taking me blister-free to EBC and back again appeared elusive.
In desperation, I combed through the depths of the internet for the Vietnamese equivalent of Amazon… And, hey presto, I found them!! The perfect pair of boots, exactly the same as a pair I owned before, so they were sure to be a perfect fit. And at an excellent price… a bargain, indeed… until they were delivered. Being British, and still part of Europe’s free market, I was totally oblivious of the existence of ‘import duty’… What had seemed such a good buy at the time, turned out a rather expensive purchase as the import duty more or less equalled the cost of the boots… Still, I needed them. Everything else I could buy or hire in Katmandu, but comfortable boots were non-negotiable.. So I grumbled and grumbled even more, but with no alternative I chalked this one up to experience, an experience to avoid in future…
The rest of my pre-EBC groundwork mainly happened in the Quang Ngai gym. Every week, without fail, two hour-long sessions on the treadmill wearing in my new, clean boots on ever steeper inclines with temperatures rocketing to above 35 degrees Celsius… I wasn’t sure how effective it would be as preparation for high altitude trekking, but it was the best Quang Ngai had to offer and would have to do until I reached Pokhara in Nepal where I could practise on real hills and slopes…