Category Archives: Nepal

The jungle knows.

Out of exhaustion, H and I decided to skip the 3 mountain passes and head back to Kathmandu earlier. Now with a few extra days, we decided to head to Chitwan National Park, another tick off the Lonely Planet Ultimate Travelist. Not that anyone’s keeping track.

So, we walked to the bus ticket office (Kantipath station) the day before to purchase tickets to Sauraha/Chitwan beforehand. It was one of those tiny sidewalk offices with a ceiling-to-floor windowed storefront that slid open. Inside was a roughly put together office with desks and desktop computers, almost like a startup. The 6:30am bus would be parked across the street and we were to look for “Loyal Tours.”

When we got to the Kantipath station the next morning, though, there was an endless line of buses parked along the curb. We walked a long way to the front, then back again, but couldn’t find “Loyal Tours” anywhere. We asked one guy and he just pointed all the way to the other end. Then, at the other end, another guy pointed back to where we started. Finally, we just found an unlabeled bus and, after shadily passing around our tickets to 3 other workers, the bus guy just said, “Okay, you can come on this bus.” “So, is this Loyal?” He mumbled an indiscreet answer. We took the risk and hopped onto the un-airconditioned bus and to our relief, reached Chitwan in 6-7 hr with traffic and road construction. As per usual, I passed out for most of the ride and missed seeing 2 overturned trucks and a smashed bus on the side of the road. Thank goodness our driver wasn’t reckless.

Travel tip: Book your Chitwan accommodation in advance. Once we got off the bus, we were all hounded by a swarm of guys, each shouting the name of their lodging/hostel and how much greater theirs was compared to the others. I just pictured a flock of flamingos marching in unison during mating season, their heads turning a pattern of left then right in individual rhythms. Chaos. We just stared in complete amusement before H relieved them and shouted “Gaida Lodge!”

Chitwan National Park (Sauraha), Nepal

We booked a full day (6:30am – 4:30pm) jungle walk for the next day through our lodging. Most of the morning was cloudy and relatively cool, which, given the consistent humidity, didn’t really help much. The above Indian rhino had the right idea.

And, so did this crocodile.

The walk started with a delightful 30 min canoe ride to the place where we were to start walking. Apparently, a tiger was spotted just a few days earlier and since they like to revisit the same area for several days, we were starting there to track him down. Once we started walking, the guide motioned for us to sit in a nicely hidden spot so that we could wait for the tiger. Upon looking at the jungle floor, though, I immediately pictured Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom where Kate Capshaw walks into the passageway of creepy crawlies. The ground was literally moving with all sorts of things that I do not like. But, I held my breath and put my ass to the ground, occasionally slapping an arm or a leg because of a phantom crawling feeling.

The tiger never surfaced. The guide swore that he saw some movement in the grass but, nothing came of it. What did show up, though, were ants on my pants.

We also ran into this Indian rhino who worked the cameras like it was a Kardashian.

Deeper into the jungle, the guide suddenly asked, rather rhetorically, whether or not we wanted to cross a knee-deep river to reach a seemingly better and more adventurous path. A very murky brown river, reminiscent of all things “Monsters Inside Me,” Animal Planet’s show on humans getting parasites. I reluctantly took my shoes and socks off, rolled up my pants, and put my feet onto the squishy riverbed. To alleviate the situation, I then proceeded to talk about one of the episodes where a parasite got into a person through his toenail. That didn’t seem to impress the other guy, David, who was also on this walk with us.

Well, the path on the other side of the river proved its worth. We ran into a mom and baby Indian rhino pair and then another 2 or so pairs. We got a bit too close to one, though, and the mom grunted at us as a warning. The guide told us to run, then started running himself as I trailed behind. But, the guide did turn around and make sure we weren’t too far behind him before leading us to a huge tree to hide behind.

Then came the dark rain clouds and rumbling thunder. It was a good time to have lunch in a slightly sheltered 2-storied wooden tower. The storm came and went, then came and went. I started falling asleep waiting for the rain to stop.

Mahouts, or elephant trainers/keepers, then came by and joined us in the tower as they let their elephants graze freely among the tasty tall grass. The rain finally stopped long enough for us to continue our walk. We were all restless and anxious to go.

In addition to deer, crocodiles, rhinos and a variety of birds (esp the white-throated kingfishers), we then ran into monkeys. He’s the tiny thing in the middle of the photo.

But, then, it started to downpour again. This time, the rain didn’t let up for an hour and all I had for protection was a rain cover for my daypack. We had no choice but to continue walking in the torrential rain. There were times when it sounded like the rain would lighten a bit but, it would only rain harder, harder and even harder. All the pathways became flooded and we were walking ankle-deep in murky brown waters again. I was worried about parasites before and completely didn’t give a shit anymore. I almost dared the parasites.

Finally, we reached the end of the walk but needed a canoe to take us back across. All the rowers were huddled together underneath a shelter across the river. The guide yelled for one of them to come get us and we’re pretty sure the guys drew straws or rock-paper-scissored this one out.

Back at the lodge, H found that his iPhone had become waterlogged in his pocket and we tried asking the restaurant for a small bag of uncooked rice to dry out the phone. But, 30 min later, the waiter came out with a plate of steaming rice. We explained again that we needed uncooked rice and they nodded in what seemed like comprehension. David got such a kick out of it and we bet on what would come out next. Another 30 min later, nothing came out.

Now that we had the rest of the day to chill, I decided to treat myself to a bottle of wine. Just the night before, an Aussie lady at the next table ordered a decent bottle and I wanted one after that. But, after placing my order, the waiter didn’t come back until 45 min later, his face all covered in beads of sweat. I suspected that they were out of stock and had to run out and buy one somewhere. He then happily uncorked the bottle and left me to pour for myself. One smell of the bottle, though, and I wanted to vomit. The description on its label: “Made from bananas and grapes, with a touch of plum and lime.” Fuck.

After a rest day, we decided to do a half-day jeep ride through the park, starting at noon. The whole trip was maybe about 4-5 hr and delightfully breezy in the open jeep. We encountered the usual suspects and covered a lot more ground but, to everyone’s dismay, the tiger and sloth bears eluded us. If we did encounter the latter, though, we weren’t supposed to run or climb trees to escape them. Sloth bears could do both better and quicker than you. Instead, we were supposed to stay in the group and make obscene amounts of noise and big movements to distract it from the approaching guide who would then knock it in its head with a long wooden bamboo stick. Sounded exciting.

And, per usual, I was getting eaten alive by mosquitoes while H remained unscathed, even if I had fumigated myself with bug repellant.

H: “This spray is my second form of protection. You’re my first, you giant bag of blood!”

Kathmandu

We found out that for just 200 rupees more, we could get on the air-conditioned bus back to Kathmandu. Seven hours later, we were back in town but, instead of dropping us off near Thamel where we originally got on the bus, they dropped us off somewhere we didn’t know. Thank goodness for cheap cabs.

Travel tip: You must try the pizza at Fire & Ice.

On our 29th day in Nepal, we walked from our hotel to the Boudhanath Stupa, about 1 hr 15 min from the Thamel area. Again, we successfully bypassed the ticket booths demanding that we pay a foreigner’s tax. It seemed unjustified given that it was in a very public area, surrounded by cafes, hostels and small shops. You couldn’t even go inside and parts of it were still under construction after the earthquake.

Our last dinner in Nepal? Shin ramen instant noodles.

Chhukung to Lukla

On our way to Pangboche, we stopped at Dingboche to hit up the French bakery and raid the jam cookie supply. What was a death walk just several days before now became a literal walk in the park today.

H also came up with the idea of skipping the remaining mountain passes and just heading back with the rest of the group. We were exhausted. This time, I shoved my FOMO to the side and gave in.

Pangboche, Nepal

We stayed at a Holliday Inn in Upper Pangboche. Notice the different spelling in “Holliday.” Our rooms here came with an attached bathroom with a Western toilet. This may not seem like luxury to a typical person but, to us, it really was.

Charley, H and I waited the next morning to get a blessing from Lama Geshe while everyone else made their way to Namche.

Lama Geshe: “She looks like she’s Nepalese!”

In the coming months, I’d also be known to look Chinese, Mongolian, Russian, Thai and Cambodian. He then began chanting and throwing uncooked rice at me, nearly missing my eyes, and placed a kata around my beck. I was officially blessed.

Later, someone tied H’s kata on his daypack and braided it into a nice ponytail, thereby giving his daypack a very feminine persona. I regret not taking a photo.

Namche Bazaar

By dinner, all of us had pruned ourselves in the hot showers. We all split 3 large cans of Khumbu Kolsch for our last group dinner. Ranjan was skipping a rest day and leaving us a day early. As we reflected upon the past few weeks, we came up with a couple of good lessons learned.

Andy: “It takes a brave man to fart in the Khumbu.”

He may have heard this quote from someone else. It relates to stomach bugs.

Charley: “Semper Gumby.”

In the mountains, you always have to be flexible.

“…..Got sore legs? …..Tired of walking? And, still want to complete the trek? What shall one do? HIRE A HORSE.”

Phakding

On our way back to Phakding, the group was going to take a detour to visit a nearby monastery, the Pema Choling Monastery which had been destroyed during the earthquake and was being rebuilt with private funds. I was the only one to voice out that I was tired of monasteries. I know, outrage. So, I broke off from the group and set off on my own. Kami warned that there was a turn that most people seemed to miss. And, I missed it.

I started going up this intense uphill for about 20 min before reaching a stupa that I didn’t remember passing before. Further along, I reached a children’s schoolyard. I definitely went the wrong way. Luckily, I passed these 2 Nepalese men who spoke English.

Me: “Where is Phakding?”
Guy: “Um, over there.”

He pointed back, down the valley, to a set of buildings across the river.

Guy: “Where did you come from…?”
Me: “Namche.”

He was clearly confused. There was no way of getting to this exact spot without passing Phakding. Realizing I was lost, he told me to walk through the schoolyard, then down a zig-zag path down the hill to an old sketchy, rusted bridge, cross the bridge, then walk through the little village to another newer bridge, thereby making a full circle to that missed turn. When I should’ve had about an hour to rest in the sun, I only had about 15 min before the others came. Kami couldn’t stop laughing when I said it was karma. Because, it clearly was.

At lunch, we saw other tourists about to make the same mistake, then turn back around to realize that there was a turn to make. If only I had been that lucky.

Later on, I walked into our room and immediately ran back out.

Me: “H, there’s this HUGE spider right by your bed.”
H: “Okay, hold on.”

He went into the restaurant and came back out with a small mug.

H: “Is this big enough?”
Me: “Ummmm…not sure…”

We walked back into the room and H started looking around the room, not spotting it. Judging by the look on his face, I could tell he was expecting it to be a normal-sized spider and was looking for exactly that. Then, he spotted it.

H: “Oh. That’s a HUGE motherfucker,” eyes open wide, stunned, and holding the cup in midair, unsure of what to do.

So, H went back out and into the restaurant, then came back out with Kami, Charley, Andy and the teahouse owner trailing behind. How many men does it take to kill a spider?

Charley: “We’re only coming to look.”
Andy: “Looks like a Huntsman.”
Kami: “We have no poisonous spiders here.”

The teahouse owner calmly grabbed the spider with a towel and let it go outside. “No need to kill nature.” No biggie.

On the way to Lukla the next day, Kami suggested that we take the local backroads to avoid the tourists. It was the path that I took when I got lost. “You went through all this uphill??” asked the others. Yes, yes I did.

Lukla

We all high-fived each other in the utmost glory and delight. WE MADE IT THE ENTIRE WAY!

We gobbled down lunch at the Paradise Lodge, our final stay in the Khumbu, then chilled out at the bootleg Starbucks.

Afterwards, we caught the tail end of the 4-day Dumji Festival, which celebrates the anniversary of the birth of Guru Rinpoche (who was respected as a “second Buddha”) on the lotus flower. Of course, Kami was good friends with the family in charge of throwing the festival and, we went from standing in the back with the locals to sitting in the VIP area while being served tea. Score!

The next morning (our last morning), Kami was overly confident that the weather would clear and that our flights would go as scheduled. The rumor for the past week was that zero flights were going in and out of Lukla due to poor weather conditions. If our flights had been canceled, we would’ve been placed on an already long waitlist. But, Kami prayed. And, Kami delivered.

Gorak Shep to Chhukung

While Ranjan, Andy and Mary headed to Chhukung the next morning (completely bypassing a night at Lobuche and the Kongma La Pass), I decided to attempt Kala Patthar with H and Charley. I was so exhausted but FOMO had ultimately kicked in and I just had to do it. Though the morning started out cloudy, the winds eventually shoved them away for moments at a time to reveal the mountain peaks.

H and Charley powered along as I began to really struggle. The two of them waited 20-30 min at the top to wait for me to summit together. There were definitely times when I asked the universe to just “take me now.”

But, we reached 5,550m (18,209 ft), our highest altitude to date. BOOYAH. I was such a mixture of elation and exhaustion as I clobbered to the top and perched myself next to H that I didn’t give a shit that to my right was a steep drop down the mountain. A slight shift would have me rolling down to serious injury or death. But, at that exact moment, none of that mattered.

On my way back down, though, I began to lose my appetite and I barely managed a Snickers bar. By the time we reached Gorak Shep for a late breakfast, I felt like someone had punched me with serious exhaustion. I couldn’t stomach anything but dried mango slices. So, in a zombie-like state, I eventually hiked back to Lobuche where we were staying for the night. This time, we specifically requested the nicer rooms attached to the dining area. We then met Kunga, our guide who was to help Ranjan summit Island Peak and H and I the 3 mountain passes – Cho La, Gokyo Ri and Renjo La. He’d already done Island Peak about 30 times by the age of 23. Damn.

By dinner, I had completely lost my appetite and the smell of food made me nauseous. Peach slices were the only thing that made it down. H and I headed back to our room but, as soon as I sat down, I gave H an “oh no” look and, before he could react, I went all Exorcist and projectile vomited on my stuff. Food poisoning, on full blast.

The next morning, Charley gave me 3 options:
1. Attempt the Kongma La Pass at 5,535m (18,159 ft).
2. Go around the pass in a flatter but, longer path to Chhukung.
3. Stay in Lobuche 1 more night.

I definitely didn’t want the third option and, it’s a good thing I didn’t take it. That one more night may have turned into several more nights. And, because I tend to be stubborn with my physical ability, I chose option 1. I still hadn’t eaten anything, though, and Charley made me take some gel electrolytes.

After we set off, the porter carrying our luggage shouted out to Kunga as we were heading towards Kongma La. He was to go the long way to Chhukung but, he wanted to come this way, too.

Then, I vomited out the electrolytes. Option 2, it was. Kunga, H and the porter continued on while Charley began to lead me around the pass. I felt so defeated. I had nothing left in my system and I felt myself getting weaker by the hour, both physically and mentally. Luckily I had the most energy in the beginning, when we had to go rock hopping along a glacial river back to Dughla. The paths became flatter after that but, at times, I wanted to seriously give up. Charley kept insisting that I eat a digestive and even that took me 10 minutes to fully chew. Then, we had an option to take a lunch break at Dingboche but, the idea of food and still having a long way to go made me bypass it. I just wanted to meet up with everyone else. The paths to Chhukung weren’t bad but, by then, putting one leg in front of the other felt like the hardest thing ever. It was discouraging. Even taking small breaks made me feel more tired.

Then, the sun reached its peak and the breezes became delightful, so Charley and I decided to take a nap against some rocks. It was probably the most glorious 30 min of the entire 3 weeks. Charley agreed.

Finally, Chhukung was visible in the distance. But, the clouds started rolling in and it began to snow. I felt so bad for slowing Charley down and I remember thinking, “Just let me die in the cold, Charley.” I didn’t have enough energy to actually say it out loud.

But, I somehow made it. After 7-8 grueling hours. I was in such disbelief as I stepped into the Chhukung Resort. We later found out that the porter zoomed up the pass, dropped our luggage off, then went back to offer to carry H’s daypack, after which he zoomed across the pass again. What the hell. And, when we told Kami that I had food poisoning…

Kami: “I know how you got sick. It was the mushroom pizza you ate in Gorak Shep.”

He said it so matter-of-factly that I had a feeling he was expecting this to happen the second he saw me write down “mushroom pizza” on our order. Apparently, they tend to open up canned vegetables for one order but then leave it in there until someone else orders, whenever that is. Leaving things in cans, especially unrefrigerated, is an invitation to bacteria. Gorak Shep then came to be known as Gorak Shit.

The next day, we had a “Kami rest day,” which was better than a Charley rest day. The Kongma La Pass broke H but, he decided to attempt Chhukung Ri (5,550m) anyway. 10-15 min later, though, he came barging back in, declaring “Fuck this.” Ranjan, on the other hand, had to keep going to acclimatize for Island Peak. The rest of us just sat by the furnace and read. But, the guys ended up making it to Island Peak Base Camp (4,970m) the day after, with Kunga, Charley and Ranjan, while the ladies continued to stay in and rest some more. It took me one more day (3 days altogether) to finally get an appetite back. Thank goodness because the “chicken chilly” dish made here was the best we ever tasted. Even Kami said this was the best in the Khumbu.

Andy, returning from the squat toilet: “I got a hole in one!”

Dingboche to Everest Base Camp

The weather pattern became sunny mornings followed by cloudy middays and eventually snow. We walked past Pheriche, along pastures and abandoned homes, until we crossed a bridge and took a brief snack break at Dughla. (Note: Don’t trust the food at Dughla as they don’t have a reputation for being hygienic. We brought our own snacks.)

Right before crossing the bridge, I really needed to tinkle. I found a nice secluded boulder to hide behind and no one else was in sight. Then, as I pulled down my pants, I heard voices quickly approaching in the near distance. I’m pretty sure they saw me because suddenly, the voices began to approach at a much slower pace. Nice. Then, as I pulled my pants up, a helicopter flew across right in front of me. Great.

We ascended Thukla Hill and walked along a scattering of memorials (also called chortens) dedicated to people from all over the world who have died at Everest and other nearby peaks. Here, we had a beer with Scott Fischer (think Jake Gyllenhaal’s character in Everest).

Lobuche, Nepal

We arrived as it began to snow. We were now at 4,900m (16,076 ft). The main lodge had a lively dining area, a clean Western toilet and relatively cozy rooms attached. However, we were placed in the adjacent building that had an “eh” toilet and extremely cold, dreary rooms. Now that I’ve read Into Thin Air, though, I take back any complaints that ever came out of my mouth. The lodgings here back in the 90s were so unhygienic, everyone who passed through most likely got some kind of stomach bug. Yikes.

The next morning was still dreary and snowy. We were off to Gorak Shep and we conquered yet another uphill. Why are there so many uphills? Oh right, because it’s a damn mountain.

Finally, we saw awesome views of the Khumbu Valley and, when the clouds made a brief clearing, Everest Base Camp in the distance. That was a pretty damn magical moment.

Gorak Shep

We made it to 5,100m (16,732 ft) by lunchtime.

The sun finally made its way through and the clouds cleared. Most of us decided to go for a hike to Rob Hall’s memorial, after which Charley, H and I decided to go even further towards Pumori Camp.

And, it turned out to be a seriously golden day. We passed frozen lakes, and the clouds eventually revealed Everest’s peak.

Charley, snugly soaking in some rays against a rock.

Everest Base Camp

The next morning, we were finally reaching Everest Base Camp. It was an emotional day for all of us. Ranjan, who attempted to reach EBC last year, only made it to Namche before the earthquake hit. Mary had gotten sick a few times along the way and was seriously fatigued. And, the rest of us were just damn excited to go and meet the rest of the Adventure Consultants family who were due to summit in the coming weeks.

H and I, now at 5,364m (17,598 ft).

Insert sunglass face emoji and two hands in the air emoji.

Another group making their way back towards Gorak Shep.

We met Charley’s good friend who was planning on summiting Everest with a prosthetic leg. I told him that he put me to shame. Then, he started talking about the Sherpas who were already making their way up Everest to place the fixed rope and fashion out a stable platform for the camps. They put all of us to shame. Um, damn.

He and the rest of his team took a heli back to Namche to rest up a bit in lower altitude. They were returning in several days to work their way up Everest. Respect.

We made our way to the Adventure Consultants tents and man, they were luxurious. Pure comfort, great service, the utmost cleanliness and awesome chefs who made sushi for us on top of our 3 course meal. Wow. I guess if you’re spending several months to summit Everest, you’ll need any comfort you can afford. I actually forgot that we were heading back to Gorak Shep for the night and became sad at the realization. Andy and I later found out that there was a snack tent (Snickers bars, chips, etc.) but, in the end, we were too chicken to go check it out and raid it.

The Adventure Consultants family, with Mary holding the Philippines flag backwards.

(Suggested reads: Everest: The West Ridge by Thomas Hornbein, and Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer)

Namche to Dingboche

So, Kami won. We had breakfast at 7am and set off at 8am. And, Andy brought out a glass jar of Vegemite. Totally worth carrying up the Himalayas.

The first 2 hours were “a little up, a little down, but mostly flat,” a saying repeated so often in the Khumbu that they sell t-shirts with it ironed on. It’s also a saying that can drive you insane if you take it too seriously. (But, what exactly is “a little up?” Is it really “a little” or, is it a lot but not A LOT a lot?)

Also, if you ask a Sherpa about distance, they’ll respond in “kos” or “cos” measurements. “Well, how long is that, really?” one might ask. It’s the distance between breaks. Figure that one out.

We walked from one stupa to another until we reached Ama Dablam View Lodge for some tea and cookies, specially baked by Tashi, a friend of Charley and Kami. These cookies were damn good.

The toilets, on the other hand, were not so good. They were getting more and more makeshift as we were going up. It was literally a rectangle cut out into a wooden floor, with an excretory history in full view below. Andy, however, put things into perspective. When he had done Annapurna 20 years ago, he was grateful each day that he remained constipated. Okay, so, things were worse.

Another 1-2 hr later, we stopped for a Coke/Fanta at Phunki Tenga before embarking on an expletive-worthy 600m climb uphill. It was one of those zig-zag climbs where you triumphed at the end of one incline only to turn the corner and whimper at the sight of another one. At least the beginning portion of it was through a rhododendron forest.

Andy jokingly called out to an imaginary Jeff to rescue him with a helicopter. “I think I broke my back! Oh wait, it was just gas.”

Finally, I caught up to a herder and a line of cows lugging cargo up the hill. I thanked the Lord for this slower pace but, then, the herder whistled to the cows to stop and make way for me. I mumbled a “thanks” and went ahead. But, now, I realized I needed to keep ahead of the cows or, we’d just constantly run into each other.

Tengboche, Nepal

Note: There are no official English spellings for these village names so, you’ll find different ones in other blogs, books and articles.

After 1.5 hr, I finally made it to lunch. Charley and H were already chilling out by a stupa when I got there. As I plunked down next to them, Charley and H made a bet to see how long it would take for Ranjan to catch up. It became the norm for Charley and H to reach a destination first, then me, then Ranjan, then Andy and his wife Mary. H bet under 5 min and Charley and I over 5 min.

Ranjan showed up at the gate at minute 4. But, he hadn’t yet made it up the steps.

Me & Charley: “Take your time coming up! Why don’t you take some selfies? The view is great from the bottom step!”
H: “Noo! It’s better from up here!”
Ranjan: “Okay! I’ll take one down here first.”

Ranjan had been struggling with taking selfies and perfecting his aim so, he was taking his time down on the bottom step. Then, he made his way up several steps.

Me: “Why don’t you try taking a selfie on that step, too?”
Ranjan: “Okay!”

I started laughing uncontrollably. Finally, he made it to the second to last step at around 4 min 50 sec. Once again, I persuaded him into taking another selfie.

H: “Fuck this.”

H ran over to Ranjan and pulled him up to the final step right before hitting the 5 min mark. Poor Ranjan still had no idea what was really going on. We decided to call it a tie.

We grabbed 2 San Miguel’s and tagged along with Charley to a memorial site dedicated to his good friends who had been a part of the American Mount Everest Expedition in 1963 – Jake Breitenbach, Barry Bishop, Gil Roberts. We were having “beers with the boys” and tying katas (ceremonial scarves) in tribute.

After Andy and Mary had caught up, we visited the well-known Tengboche Monastery.

Some of the murals within the temple were fear-inducing. There was one with a man getting chopped up then measured on a scale against a bird. But, Kami, being quite the religious man, helped to explain aspects of Buddhism, particularly the cycle of life featuring 6 realms – God, demi-god, humans, animals, spirit and hell. Still kinda scary, though.

Kami also always walked with a set of prayer beads, constantly keeping count and muttering mantras or prayers under his breath. He had a wooden one and a clear-beaded one.

Me: “Is there a difference between the two?”
Kami: “The wooden one is more important.”
Me: “And the clear one is for fashion?”
Kami: “Yea.”

I’m not sure if he was being sarcastic.

Just some retired prayer wheels, having a catch-up chat.

Afterwards, we headed to Deboche (about 20 min away) where we were staying for the night. The inside of the lodge was just as cold as the outside and, the walls were so thin that when H went to use the bathroom, we heard Andy next door saying, “Oh, geez, H is taking a piss.”

Deboche

The next morning, H was filling up his water bottle in the bathroom sink (to sterilize), when we heard Andy roaring through the walls, “That’s right, H! Keep it strong!”

Before heading towards Dingboche, several of us tried visiting the nearby nunnery but, it was still badly demolished from the earthquake and it appeared closed. So, we went straight for what Charley said was the “real entrance to the Khumbu Valley.” It was a hollowed out tree with a gaping hole and we all needed to pass through it to make it official. Andy’s attempt was the absolute highlight.

From there, it was a gradual uphill, stuck behind a herd of cargo-toting yak which set a nice slow pace up. We had no idea how the porters made it through so quickly and Andy likened them to “deep sea racing prawns.” Do prawns race? And, are the deep sea kind much faster than the shallower ones? I guess it’s possible.

We ran into some wild dear and this is the best my camera zoom could do. I need a better camera. And a GoPro. And some money to buy all the things.

Three hours in, we reached Shomare for lunch. Kami had been preaching about the benefits of dal baht, made mainly of rice and lentils. I finally gave it a shot and it was quite delicious. But, then, I started eating it everyday and I couldn’t stand it by the end of the trip. It took a month or two after that for me to not gag at even the sound of “dal baht.”

Dingboche

We arrived at our final destination about 2 hr later and, lo and behold, there was a “French” bakery (owned by the son of a famous Sherpa) that served awesome cappuccinos and amazing assorted desserts. Jam cookies became an obsession. We were also now at 4,410m (14,470 ft).

H insisted on getting a yak selfie but the yak definitely knew what he was up to and kept making it difficult. That’s when Charley stepped in. He began coaxing the yak and as the yak became distracted with him, H went in and got his money shot. The yak almost looked defeated.

For the next 2 nights, we stayed at Sonam Friendship Lodge. It had become cloudy and cold, and snow began to flutter down. Because H had a ritual of doing a certain number of push-ups each night, the other guys then joined in and it expectedly became a competition of who could do the most. Then came our second mental exam. Steve, Virginia, Harry, Jason, Stuart. We also had to name as many kinds of fruit as possible. Kami listened in on all our exams and commented on how Charley was the only one to list “peaches.”

Charley: “That’s because you’re my peaches,” then proceeded to squeeze Kami’s cheek.

Kami looked stunned.

Then, we realized that Andy had been calling Kami “camel” this entire time. This was the birth of Kami’s new nickname, Camel Peaches.

The next day was a “rest day,” meaning 2-3 hr of hiking. Kami swore that he knew an exact spot that magically had a 3G signal. Ranjan was desperate and H wanted to post his yak selfie. Shit just got real.

An hour uphill brought us to the spot. Verdict? The world had to live another day without H’s masterpiece. Instead, we got the masterpiece above. Island Peak, Makalu (4th highest in Nepal; 5th in the world), Ama Dablam and what we thought to be Jeremy Jones’ Shangri La on the opposite face. Kami was able to spot a few climbers on Island Peak using H’s binoculars.

Another hour up, and we made it to the prayer flags.

H, me, Ranjan, Kami, Mary and Andy. Only person missing is Charley, the photographer.

As Andy and Mary made their way back down, Charley challenged Ranjan to hike further up to the top within 20 min in an attempt to train him for Island Peak. Ranjan sighed. H and I went along and, as usual, Charley made it up in 20, H a minute or so later, me in 34 and Ranjan in 40. He had to blast Michael Jackson in his earphones to help keep himself going.

Then, the clouds rolled in and we made haste to head back down. We had covered another 200m that day, and I definitely over-exerted myself.

Lukla to Namche Bazaar

Next morning (or arguably still night), we were up so early that everything seemed like a blur. I think presenting it in bullet points feels pretty accurate:

4:30am – Wake up.
5:15am – Leave for airport.
6:30-7ish am – Have luggage weighed, go through security and board a Dornier Do 228.
Shortly after – Stuff cotton in ear canals before takeoff.
8ish am – Land on the smallest landing strip ever.

Lukla, Nepal

Since flights to Lukla are weather dependent, they can be seriously delayed or canceled altogether. We were lucky to have had a pretty seamless morning. I didn’t even have time to finish my small coffee at the airport before boarding.

Once on board, I was surprised to see that there was even a flight attendant on board. With only around 15 passengers, her job was done within a minute. She held out a tray with a bunch of cotton and assorted candy. I had no idea what the cotton was for and went straight for the sweets. Then I saw the others put cotton in their ears as the engine was turned on. Oh.

Travel tip: There is a luggage weight limit, 10kg for checked luggage and 5kg for the carry-on. Since they don’t really check your pockets, we stuffed ours with small things to make our bags slightly lighter. Also, they didn’t fuss about carrying liquids over 100ml in my carry-on for the flight to Lukla but, on the flight back, they suddenly cared. So, make sure to pack your large liquids into your checked luggage. I lost a half-full bottle of sunblock and it still pains me.

I zoned out pretty quickly after takeoff. It was pretty cloudy during the 25-30min flight, with the mountains only peaking through. But then, BAM, the clouds cleared a bit and out came the mountains, then small houses, then the landing strip, in that quick of a succession. “Wait, we landed?” That’s how sudden it all felt.

Then, I found out that this airport was allegedly the world’s most dangerous airport. After seeing how the clouds can suddenly give way to mountains, I understood why. I’m just glad I didn’t know until afterwards. Fear is all in the mind.

We were now at 2,860m (9,380ft).

We rushed off to see another plane and a helicopter takeoff. And, then, it was time for second breakfast.

The great thing about being a part of an organized group is the elimination of worries. Meals, basic snacks, tea and coffee were all taken care of. (And, thus, began my obsession with Snickers, Bounty bars and Texas BBQ Pringles. The “basic snacks.”) You only paid for additional snacks and beverages. The guide carried around a SteriPEN to sterilize water. The flight, lodging and porters were all booked in advance. Most importantly, the guides made sure of your well-being and that you were acclimatizing properly. By this point, another local guide, Kami, had joined us and he’d been through the Khumbu Valley so many times, almost everyone seemed to know him in every pathway and village we passed. And, of course, we had Charley from Colorado who’s summited Everest, K2 and a bunch of others. We were in damn good hands.

After breakfast, we stopped at a bootleg Starbucks to meet Charley and Kami’s friend, Jeff. He’s part of a team that rescues people, typically picking up injured climbers at Everest Base Camp in helicopters.

Jeff: “We just picked up a guy with a broken back, almost dying.”

Then, he went into a story about how they picked up a local woman who had miscarried and needed to be transported to a hospital in Kathmandu. Before boarding the helicopter, she was given anti-parasitic drugs which they thought was weird. Then, mid-flight, she vomited into a bag and out came a bunch of worms. Oh, that’s why.

Jeff: “But, no worries guys! You have the dream team [Charley & Kami]. Your hike will be juuust fine. Breathe in and take in the Himalayas!”

And, thus, we were off to Phakding, a name so fun to pronounce, we found any excuse just to mention it in a sentence.

Just as you spin prayer wheels clockwise, so, too, must you walk clockwise when encountering a stupa.

Phakding

About 2.5-3 hr later, we made it to our first lodging, Sunrise Lodge & Restaurant. We were back down to 2,610m (8,563 ft). The sun was still out so, H and I laid out and read/napped while the others went down to the river to cool their feet. The sound of cow/yak bells became the norm but, an approaching noise seemed too frantic for a cow or yak. I turned to see 2 kids, a sister and brother, each toting a huge bell around their necks. First of all, these kids can handle Everest Base Camp?! Second, I bet their parents greatly regretted buying it for the kids. The constant, frantic noise could drive anyone insane.

Dinnertime came and a few of us indulged in Sherpa Ale, Nepal’s only craft beer made by guys from Colorado. A few of us were excited to try yak steak for the first time.

Waiter: “No yak steak. But, we have chicken. Same thing but with wings.”

He gets an E for Effort. But, later on when we pre-ordered our breakfast,

Waiter: “So, what time would you like tomorrow’s breakfast?”
Charley: “6am.”
Waiter: “6am?! Oh………okay…..”

There was clear disappointment in his voice but, despite that, he was up bright and early to serve our hot breakfast right on time. He gets an A++.

So, we set off at 7am after a full breakfast, including apple pancakes, apple porridge and probably still last night’s apple fritters and pie. You could tell what their latest Sherpa food delivery had been. We were Namche Bazaar-bound.

The first 2-3 hr consisted of gradual inclines and declines. Charley & Kami commented on how some of the paths have changed since the earthquake. Andy, one of the Aussies in the group, went further back and commented on how the accommodations nowadays seem like complete luxury compared to the unventilated, disease prone, bunk-bedded log cabins of 20 years ago. He had done Annapurna back then.

And, now that I’m typing all this out from my Moleskin, I just realized that I had written a similar one for the Adventure Consultants website, April 29th entry. I typed it out in an email and emailed it to Charley to post and, in his copy/pasting, he forgot to leave out “Sent from my iPhone.” It seems like it has been edited since then.

We reached the official entrance to Sagarmatha National Park and after an early lunch, it was uphill from there, another 800m in additional altitude for 3-4 hr.

At one point, we reached a common rest area that Charley had been to already in the past. A Kiwi couple, not realizing that Charley was a guide who already summited Everest, went up to him to exclaim, “Hey! You can see Everest from here!” Charley flatly responded, “Yea, I know.” Then, as we walked over to the spot where you could get a clear view, we couldn’t find it. A few minutes later, we saw that it was actually right in front of us, in a very obvious clearing in the trees. Oh.

You see those 2 bridges out yonder? The lower one is the older bridge, more rickety than the newer one above. I really have no idea how cows, yaks and donkeys make it across these things without falling tragically to their deaths.

Here is a closeup. These bridges soon became the norm and we were crossin’ them like ballers. At least I thought so until I saw these 2 Indian men balancing a whole stand’s worth of merchandise on both ends of a pole, balanced on their shoulders, crossing a similar bridge without a shred of fear. We were just amateurs.

Namche Bazaar

Finally, we reached Namche, a town that has been a major center of trade for the Sherpas, who migrated from Tibet centuries ago, bringing with them Buddhist teachings. We were now at 3,440m (11,290 ft) and we all felt the altitude. I think at some point, the guys joked about having a “lifting shit up” competition just to test stamina. It never happened.

We stayed at the Khumbu Lodge, which was connected to a cafe that served amazing coffee and desserts and provided free wifi for customers. Jackpot.

Now equipped with wifi, Ranjan, another guy in the group, rushed to post photos up on Facebook. One photo featured H with his daypack belt clipped in the front, giving the illusion of a protruded gut, something that was promptly pointed out in the comments. Photo tip for hikers: It doesn’t matter if the clips help to even out the balance of the bag across your back; leave them all unclipped for photos!

6pm then came and that was popcorn time. By 6:30pm, though, we were interrupted by these medical students who were conducting research on the effects of altitude on hikers. We agreed to do a medical survey because we thought it’d be short and easy. But, then, the guy handed over a 3 page survey and proceeded to conduct a mental exam on each of us, testing comprehension, math and memory. Thomas, Luke, Jim, Francisco, Sandy. These were the names I needed to memorize at the beginning and recite at the end. H and I tied for the highest score.

When we thought we were done, the guy then told us we had to do another survey/exam at a future location, Dingboche. Dammit.

We ended the night at a pool hall where the guys played against some locals. H tried to give Ranjan some tips only to have them backfire. But, they ended up marginally winning the round.

Locals: “Another round?”
Guys: “No. We stop after winning.”

Ha.

The next day was a rest day for acclimatization. Charley liked being a strict early bird; however, Kami was a bit more generous.

Charley: “How about we start at 8am?”
Kami: “I think they can sleep in some more.”
Us: “Yea!”

I think by this point, Kami came to be regarded as the “fun dad.”

So, we had 3 options for this day:
1. Hike a 4.5 hr roundtrip to Everest View Hotel.
2. Hike to another viewpoint.
3. Get some history in at the Sagarmatha National Park Visitor Center.

The first option had the literal – a view of Everest. It also apparently has (or used to have) rooms that were pressurized with oxygen for bougie tourists who flew in for the day. Oh, to be rich, huh? Actually, I would still hike the trail even if I were filthy rich. We ultimately chose option 3, though, since we were hiking for 3 full weeks anyway. En route, we stopped by a Buddhist monastery and, through Kami’s connections, we were given a brief tour and history lesson.

I mean, W O W.

A statue of Tenzing Norgay, with a backdrop of Everest and other peaks. Kami then proceeded to name all the peaks in the background with such ease that he probably could’ve done it blindfolded, with just the sound of the wind guiding him.

Inside, we actually found an old photo of Kami from 1982, when he was in his 20s.

Charley: “He still looks the same!”

We started laughing. Even his demeanor and facial expression were the same – mouth slightly open and a deadpan look in his eyes.

One of my favorites in the exhibit – a badass photo of Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary, the first people known to ever summit Everest. They just look so chilled out.

Nearby was a replica of a wealthy Sherpa’s home (pictured below), the only one that remains today. Some of the walls were lined with dried cow dung for insulation. Dung patties were also (and are still) burned in furnaces for warmth.

There were also 2 galleries featuring photos of people who had summited Everest. One Sherpa summited 12 times without an oxygen tank and even slept overnight on the summit. Why? I guess because he damn well could.

We made it back into town for lunch and some last minute gear shopping. If you forgot to buy anything in Kathmandu, you could most likely find it in Namche Bazaar and use your credit card to purchase it. You could also find an ATM in town, though I hear it could sometimes be out of service. Rule of thumb – try to have sufficient rupees with you from Kathmandu.

Charley: “So, what time did you want to start hiking tomorrow?”
Kami: “7:30am. So, 7am breakfast.”
Charley: “If we set off at 7:30am tomorrow, then we’ll have breakfast at 6:30am.”
Kami: “No, breakfast at 7am.”
Charley: “But we would like an hour for breakfast.”
Kami: “Okay, then breakfast at 7am and leave whenever we want.”

Travel tip: Try to bring a portable battery pack and a supply of lithium batteries. You’ll have to pay for charging in most places, and lithium batteries last longer in the cold. The higher you go, the more expensive everything gets – snacks, drinks, showers, wifi and charging. Once you see the immense effort it takes for Sherpas to transport merchandise up and down the mountain, you’ll realize why it ends up costing more.

Monkey see, monkey do

Kathmandu, Nepal

After feeling like almost dying on the Inca Trail, I somehow added Kilimanjaro to my bucket list and became super thrilled about it. That was back in 2009. Then, as the years went by, my mental endurance started deteriorating a bit and I found myself doubting that I could even survive it. The occasional horror story about a hiker dying or suffering on the mountain might’ve contributed to that doubt. So, I erased Kili from my bucket list.

Now, here I was, not only planning to summit Kili in the coming months, but also adding Everest Base Camp for the immediate future. Life seems to have a way of shoving doubt up your ass and making you confront your fears. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Our main Adventure Consultants guide, Charley, was already waiting at the airport when we arrived. Another guy from NZ was also supposed to arrive around the same time but, he ended up getting sick right before the flight and had to cancel his entire trip. That really sucks.

We went through a gear check with Charley back at the hotel and, I needed a warmer outer layer. A little part of me just wanted to test out my luck and go with what I had. But, this was the Himalayas, after all, and $100+ was a small price to pay for warmth up in the mountains. I also needed to increase my supply of ibuprofen in case of high altitude headaches. After going through a severe round of food poisoning in Peru and being saved by my friend’s supply of antibiotics, I also made sure to bring Cipro with me on this trip. Then,

Charley: “Actually, the Khumbu Valley is Cipro-resistant.”

Great.

So, the budget conscious me dragged my feet to Thamel to check out North Face and Mountain Hardwear. On our way to that area, we could still see the aftermath of the earthquake from the previous year, haphazardly put back together again. Bricks were just laid on top of each other without stability. Life couldn’t wait for quarreling politicians to finally come up with a resolution.

Afterwards, we headed off to Swayambhunath, also known as the Monkey Temple but, not before I stepped in a cloudy still water puddle of mysterious colors. I just stared down at my foot in disbelief and with the ultimate scowl.

H: “I bet you got a parasite from that.”
Me: “Thanks, asshole.”
H: [laughing]
Me: >:(

Kathmandu reminded me of a less crowded version of any Indian city. Keep in mind that I’m speaking relatively here. It’s still crowded up the wazoo here.

The riverbed was bordered by trash, discarded regularly by local residents, and visited by goats and cows who lingered long enough to pee and shit in it and, still, I saw children splashing around and playing amongst it. And, it’s not so much that I react in disgust but more in wonderment over how much we take for granted in developed countries and how terribly slow change is happening to provide even the most basic of needs. I mean, how often do we really worry about where we’re going to the bathroom or going to get a bottle of water. When we need to go, we comfortably go. When we’re thirsty, a lot of us just turn on the tap. So, where do we go from here?

Finally, we reached the entrance to Swayambhunath, with a whopping 365 steps to be climbed in 30+°C (think 90℉) weather in the city’s altitude of 1,400m (4,593ft). And, for whatever reason, I decided to wear black skinny jeans. All I could think was how I felt like an overstuffed sausage casing.

As mentioned before, it is also known as the Monkey Temple. Because, monkeys. Here a monkey, there a monkey. Everywhere a monkey.

Swayambhu means “self-created” or “self-arisen,” depending on where a Google search has led you. An appropriate name for a temple that pretty much withstood the earthquake.

The first of many, many prayer wheels, to be spun clockwise to follow the movement of the sun. Imprinted on the wheels are words to a Sanskrit manta, om mani padme hum, something that became a rhythm to each footstep on the mountain and, eventually, drove me bonkers. No more om mani padme hum. No more!!

I know a lot of people wonder why it’s such an Asian thing to wear surgical masks. While it became more of a trend during the SARS scare, there is also the growing problem of smog, the very thing overwhelming the view of the city above. You know it’s bad when schools get closed in the smoggiest of days.

We then stopped at Durbar Square by the old royal palace. Most of the structures were propped up with wooden planks and standing in the midst of some demolished ones. We passed by a small booth from which a man started shouting, “Ticket! Ticket!” I had no idea who he was shouting to and thought, “Who would want to pay for a ticket to buildings you can’t even walk into?”

Well, it turned out that there was a “foreigner’s tax” to be paid. A guard at the other end of the square tracked us down as we sat down on the steps of one temple. I was about to reach for my wallet when H stopped me.

H: “Can you just let us sit down and rest for a second?”
Guard: “Okay, but you have to pay for a ticket.”

He stood around for several more minutes before retreating back to his booth, all the while keeping an eye on us. Of course, he let everyone else through without demanding that they pay for tickets. Because everyone else was Asian and possibly locals. But, many of them were actually Korean tourists. Carrying around selfie sticks in Asia doesn’t necessarily distinguish you as a tourist if you’re of Asian descent yourself. Unfortunately for us, we were a white guy and an Asian girl with a normal camera around her neck. Clearly tourists.

Eventually, the guard stopped paying attention and we quickly walked back to where we entered the square and made our getaway.

On the way back to the hotel, we passed a few pharmacies that appeared shady. By the third or fourth one, though, I realized that all pharmacies were hole-in-the-wall shops selling pills by the packet, not bottles or boxes. So, I asked for ibuprofen. Two packets of pills in the shade of pink more neon than Pepto-Bismol, sold for 40 rupees. That’s less than 50 cents. I checked with the rest of the group later that night and it seemed legit. Cool.

April 26 – May 19, 2016: Khumbu Trek

Travel tip: We booked the Khumbu Trek with the Gokyo and Renjo La extensions through Adventure Consultants. We had originally booked the Three Passes Trek but later joined the Khumbu Trek to meet the minimum people needed to confirm the trip. With the extensions, it was basically the same itinerary but with a slight price difference. We were also joined by the Island Peak team. All of us were heading to EBC together, after which 1 was breaking off to do Island Peak and 2 of us the remaining mountain passes.

Also, there is now 3G in parts of the Khumbu Valley so, bring an unlocked phone and purchase a SIM card. You could get one at the airport upon arrival but, make sure you have a passport photo on you. They need one for the application. After getting one, you can then recharge your balance in a bunch of kiosks and stores throughout the city.

Visa: If you’re doing the entire process at the airport, make sure to bring a passport photo with you for this application as well. You should also bring exact USD, preferably with new bills. To make things easier, you can also fill out the application online up to 15 days before and pre-load a digital copy of your passport photo onto there. Then, print out the receipt and bring that to the visa desk, along with your exact change. It was $40 for 30 days and $100 for 90 days. We bought the 30 day and stayed exactly that.