I am, as of Wednesday, back in Kathmandu and slowly but surely contaminating the general Nepali population with what is fondly known to trekkers as the “Khumbu Cough”. It would seem that I picked up a nasty nasal/chest/additional unpleasantness infection while trekking during my last week in the mountains, and so am now splitting my time between drinking fresh fruit smoothies, reading, sleeping, and coughing up parts of my lungs. However! I refuse to let the fact that no one will sit near me at this internet cafe get in the way of updating my blog for my dear readers. So, without further ado, here’s an update of my last three weeks (broken up into readable chunks, so look for multiple entries) complete with photos! Thanks for reading!
Week 1: Jiri to Namche Bazaar
Our journey began October 7th as the Steyers (Bill, Judy, and Ben) and I took a local bus to Jiri, a town about 10-12 hours from Kathmandu and a good place to launch our trek. We had originally hoped to fly to a village called Tumlingtar, but due to the price differentiation between locals and foreigners and that the flight was largely booked with locals, the flight didn’t find it profitable to fly and we were left to make alternative arrangements. So to Jiri we went! The bus ride was a one-of-a-kind experience; Ben and I were allowed to ride on top with the rest of the overflow passengers, and so spent 9 hours bumping across the top holding on to bags, railings, and fellow passengers during the steep ascents in the mountains. Certainly a fun experience, but my tailbone notified me the next morning that perhaps it was a one-time thing. We spent one night in Jiri, and the next morning started out early to begin what was to be three of the hardest but most rewarding weeks of my life.
Our morning took us up and over a mountain, and not half an hour into the trek, I was already huffing and puffing in the heat and thinking of things to throw out of my pack at the next convenient cliff. It soon became apparent that I hadn’t packed as carefully as I should have, and wasn’t going to be able to keep up the Steyer pace (which is quick!) as heavily loaded as I was. So, for the next week, Ben and Bill were my saving grace and took a few pounds of clothing from me each day to allow me a lighter pack and a quicker gait.
With the pack thing sorted out, we settled into our respective paces that would persist for the rest of the trip. Bill, our “musher”, and Ben took the lead each day and Judy and I would typically walk 10-20 minutes behind them. I was glad to have someone who hiked at my pace, and over the next three weeks Judy and I would have many conversations that would give me good grad school fodder to chew on while sweating over yet another hill.
Anyway, back to the trail. We bridged the mountain after only a few hours, and I was treated to spectacular views of the agricultural valleys that are typical of most of the mountains between Jiri and Namche. The people in these areas live in much the same way they have for generations: step terracing, squeezing livestock and poultry into every level (and sometimes not) bit of land, and raising families amongst the jungle-y hillsides. In more recent times, the men of these families have been forced to seek work as porters or move to larger cities in Nepal and India to find work and support their families. Thus, many of the places we stopped to have afternoon milk tea (a chai-like drink pronounced “dude chee-ah”) and sleep for the night were run by women. Often these women had children running around, some helping with fuel gathering, food preparation, and serving guests. Some of my favorite moments came from these guesthouses when the children would shyly sit by us and attempt some English. In one case, a young boy actually was attending school in a nearby village and was able to talk to us and we helped him sound out words in his English primer. There was a section on North America, and we got a kick out of reading through it and seeing what the authors had determined to be accurate representations of “America”. Namely, baseball, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, and grain fields. America in a nutshell.
On our second day, Ben got a nasty stomach bug that left him vomiting throughout the night and weak and dizzy during the day. We did a half day hike, and then stopped to let him recuperate in Kinja. It was nice to have a day to let my shocked muscles rest before heading into our third day which consisted of a 6,000 foot climb up into a 10,000 foot pass. A very exhausting day, but well worth it to finally step through the pass gap at the top and look down into the next valley. The hardest part of the trekking for me wasn’t the uphills or long days, but the stone steps and rocky trails that have been carved into the hillsides. My feet, shins, and knees did not like the slowly and steady pounding of walking downhill on slabs of rock, and within a few days I had to tape up my knee to be able to walk. Painful, but thankfully anti-inflammatories and Ace bandages kept me mobile.
The next few days passed in somewhat of a blur. The food steadily got more expensive and less exciting, but the scenery and disposition of the local people remained fantastic. By the time we reached Namche on our 7th day, I was very happy that we had started with this additional week of trekking. Not only was I in much better shape than when I started, but we were able to experience a week of trekking without many other foreigners and had a chance to share quality time with the locals.
So allow me to demonstrate a little more clearly exactly what we trekked over. The hike from Jiri to Namche Bizaar is known for its steep inclines, and as luck would have it, we had a lot of rain during our journey due to our timing flirting with the end of the monsoon season. Check out this picture: the red line on the bottom traces our route with a fair amount of accuracy on our way to Namche. One of the things we noticed (and Bill and Judy were able to make a comparison from when they did this same trek 20 years ago) was that the Lonely Planet travel books, indispensable guides that they are, tend to recommend particular routes and lodges to travelers. While this can be helpful to people who have never been in the area (certainly, I would have followed its advice more carefully if I had been alone), it can also lead to large groups of trekkers patronizing only particular lodges and communities that aren’t really superior in any way to any other village or lodge further along the trail. To avoid the crowds and try and support locals who aren’t so lucky as to be listed in Lonely Planet, we tried to end our treks in the village just before or just beyond the one most commonly recommended in the popular travel literature. This allowed us more personal accommodations with smaller groups (usually solo trekkers or couples traveling off the beaten path) and get to know people who were generally moving at our same place. My recommendation if you are interested in doing a trek similar to ours: don’t stick with the book. Use it as a guide rather than a say-all end-all, and use your own judgement in selecting places to stay. Also, live like the locals; Lonely Planet is going to recommend places that are going to make its readers comfortable. Places that have modern toilets, electricity at all times, and their proprietors probably speak a least a little English. Live on the wild side a bit and give up modern amenities, even if just for a few nights. Some of the most bare-bones places we stayed were some of the most culturally interesting, and always treated us with respect and made huge efforts regarding our comfort.
Another constant marvel were the porters that we met frequently on the trail. They ranged from around 15 to what appeared to be 70 years of ago, and can carry exceptionally large loads. When I say exceptional, it is truly because I lack any other word to really express to you the magnitude of these mens’ (and sometimes womens’) strength; it was not atypical for us to see a man staggering up a steep hill loaded with up to 80 kilograms (that’s around 175 pounds) stacked on his back. Nepalis transport things primarily using their heads and necks as the load bearing agent. They usually have a strap that wraps around the crown of their head and is attached with various fraying cords to huge and awkward loads that rest against their backs. Usually two straps then hang down for them to grab and balance the load during uneven footing (so, all the time). Some porters even have radios strapped to their loads – entertainment to keep their mind off of what must be incredible discomfort during the hours and hours that they trek each day. One man told us that he could make the journey with an 80 kilo load from Jiri to Namche and back in 10 days. It took us seven days with just 10 kilo packs to go one way! And yet, these men are paid a pittance for their hard labor and must do the trip several times a month to make ends meet for their families. Still, we never heard a Nepali porter (or guide, or sherpa, or any other person employed for the benefit of foreigners) complain about their loads, their clients, or the daily interruptions in their lives by wide-eyed tourists. Not that I would have understood if I had, but Bill and Judy (as I’ve previously mentioned) both speak Nepali with a decent level of fluency and never reported such an occurrence. Truly the level of satisfaction and basic joy that Nepalis find in their lives, poor and unfortunate as they may appear to Western lives, far outstrips the happiness I think most Westerners find amongst their comparatively vast wealth and bountiful opportunities. I left the trek from Jiri humbled and with a whole new appreciation for Nepalis and the good trekking life.