A Walk in the Himalayan Mountains
Adventure means many things to all kinds of people, be it life-endangering or travel and discovery, meeting new people and seeing exotic places. So-called soft-adventure can include a choice of the many treks around Nepal. They in turn are graded from the easy, moderate walking trips to the severe, where the trek rises and falls a great deal in covering a short apparent distance on the map. You can see the lunch stop village, but it is on the opposite side of the valley, which means a couple of thousand feet trek down to the river and then back up again.
The great advantage that Nepal has is its fantastic cultural background, with an endless number of temples, palaces and ancient buildings all in the unique pagoda style of the Nepalese architects over the centuries. It is said that people make places and the Nepalese, with their ready smiles, complete the picture of a magical destination.
I want to describe a special trek I undertook with Asian Trekking, who organised everything perfectly for a strenuous walk to Namche Bazaar, and to have a first-hand view of Mount Everest. My adventure started with a flight to Kathmandu with Qatar Airlines. The aircraft was spacious and the flight attendants very pleasant. We had a change of aircraft at Dohar, and I was surprised to see an Arab gentleman in full regalia, sitting waiting for a flight with a hooded falcon on his arm. I was told that this is not unusual in the Gulf, but that there was a limit of 3 falcons on any flight. A first for me, anyway. On arrival in Kathmandu we were taken to the Shanker Hotel. This hotel is a former palace, and everything about the atmosphere indicated the past, with beautiful wood carvings and carefully-manicured gardens. The service is right up-to-date, though.
We had allowed ourselves a couple of days to acclimatise, even though we had walked many miles at home in preparation for the trek. We had been advised that, for two good reasons, we should take great care in our preparation. The first is that it would spoil the enjoyment of the scenery and people on the trek if we were struggling to keep up a decent pace. The second reason is that we should wear-in our trekking boots or shoes, so that we would not be creating sores and blisters. Our trekking clothes had to be efficient, because at night the air is cool, but when trekking in the sunlight, body temperatures rise rapidly. Thus, we were advised to have ‘layered’ clothing. That is to have items that can be removed and packed away in the day-pack, to be put on again when temperatures fall. Porters make light of our ‘heavy’ packs, whilst we take the lighter ones with water, sunscreen, (a most important necessity), cameras and spare clothing.
Kathmandu is an enormously fascinating and mysterious city. For centuries it has been at a crossroads between the Tibetan and Indian cultures, with many traders, adventurers and eminent scholars passing through. Ancient books and travellers’ journals tell of their great impressions when entering Kathmandu. It is no exaggeration to say that everyone who arrives for the first time nowadays cannot feel the same. Masses of pagoda-style buildings, with fine wood-carvings around windows and doors, and a mix of styles showing that there has been a rich interest in what was happening in building in the west.
After some briefing, and whilst the processing of our trekking permits was being arranged by our hosts, we went on a series of local tours. At every turn there was some new surprise view, and our cameras were working overtime (remember to have spare batteries!). Not only is Kathmandu situated in the valley, but the cities of Patan and Bhaktapur are also ancient kingdoms. Not to forget Kirtipur, which took immense pressure during the siege of the valley by King Prithvi Narayan Shah, and the first in the Valley to become integrated in the foundling Nepal. Each city has its own unique character, and the dynasties preceding the unification encouraged the artistic development of their kingdoms. What a wondrous legacy we can now enjoy. Kirtipur is not much visited by tourists, but is full of history. One temple has dozens of swords and fighting implements nailed to the upper structure, so that the fallen soldiers can reclaim them when their souls return. Also fascinating was to find that in a small temple at the top of the town, the bell was cast in Croydon, South London, in 1897.
Our trek started with a helicopter flight to Lukla, which is the airhead for the Everest region. Unless you see it for yourself, you can hardly believe what the runway is. If you can imagine a sloping strip with a cliff at each end, one rising and the other dropping. You approach over the valley when suddenly there is a runway below. Aircraft have to stop very quickly to avoid running into the cliff. Glad to report that they do. We were met by our guide and porter and set off on our trek. All the way along we had magnificent views of the High Himalayas with their snow-capped peaks. An awesome sight, whichever direction you look.
The first leg was a three-hour walk to Phadking, for an overnight stop at Jo’s Garden, a fine but simple lodge. The walk was a good start for us, being roughly level, and gentle downhill. The friendly welcome and relaxing by the fast-flowing river set in a steep valley quickly removed all the cares of modern life back home. A wholesome supper was followed by an early night, as we were told to expect even more exertion next morning. After being called, and a welcome cup of tea, breakfast and a short appreciation of the majestic mountains all around, we set off. The path is a rough-hewn track, used by traders, trekkers, and local people going about their business. Yaks and cattle carrying loads, as well as porters passed us in either direction. I still wonder at the speed they can make with a steady, even gait, passing us who thought we were doing well, and carrying less than a quarter of their weight.
The trail to Namche Bazaar then starts with a reasonable rise, allowing us to take in the awesome scenery. All is fine until the lunch stop, taken at a roadside lodge. Then the walk to Namche Bazaar became very strenuous, especially the last part. Phadking is at 2610m and Namche is at 3440m, so the gain is over 800 meters. It took us 7 hours instead of the 5 mentioned in the guide book. Snow and ice did make swift progress a hazard. Our guide reckons to do the trip in 2 hours (!), when returning home from Lukla.
We entered the Kumbhu National Park, climbing all the while. At the frequent breath-stops we admired the changing scenery, looking up at the mountains and down at the river Dudh Khosi, along whose banks we had walked a short while earlier. We met people of many nations in groups, or solo. None failed to be impressed with their surroundings. For city-dwellers it was an especially profound experience. At last, relief, not a fair term to use, but after the last 2 hours of unrelenting rocky path it was a relief to see a bit of level ground, there was Namche Bazaar, set in rows of stone cottages in a great amphitheatre facing south.
Namche is the gateway to so many paths in history for great explorers, mountaineers and traders. The place has a magic that you can almost taste the atmosphere in the air, the taste of hope, expectation and wonder! This is a sometimes bustling town, teaming with Sherpa life. Yaks roam the streets like dogs, waking you gently in the morning with the sounds of their bells.
Food here is plentiful, bakeries, small convenience stores and every hotel has its focal point, the dining room. Crammed with people from all over the globe either on their way up or coming back down. Whether you are leaving the trek or just starting it then you have to pass by Namche. There is a weekly market, when trains of yaks appear from Tibet to trade their produce and take back over the border essentials for living on the northern side of the Himalayas. This is why the name ‘Bazaar’ is in the name.
Namche Bazaar Market
We stayed in the Panorama Hotel, where we ate good food and were made most welcome by our Sherpa hosts.
On the next day we relaxed with a walk around the town and then went uphill a bit more to the ridge above Namche to visit the informative mountain museum. On reaching the ridge, there it was – Mount Everest, or Sagarmatha to the local people.
This was the crowning point of the tour, and we spent time pondering the massiveness of the whole view. Mountains crowded us all around, with the feathery cloud hanging onto the top of the greatest of them all. The view made all the effort worthwhile, but I was not tempted to consider climbing the great mountain. The sight at this range is enough for lasting memories. A toast to the mountain and all who climb it with a slug of single-malt whisky from my hip flask was the best I was going to manage.
We bade farewell to this outpost town and started back down again. On our way we kept looking back for that one last view. The journey was that much easier, and we were able to see local people building houses, hewing rocks into brick-shape by hand. No mechanisation here, just hard work. The work put into every brick must be immense.
House Building up a Mountain
It was interesting to take a close look at the suspension bridges along the way, and wonder how they got into place. Eventually Lukla came into view, and we stayed the night in order to be ready for the early morning flight. In mountain regions most flights have to be taken early in the day before tricky winds develop.
Once again we had the aerial view of the mountains and landed safely back in Kathmandu. Some time was spent shopping in the widely varied shops, and then after a good night’s sleep in the Shanker, we returned to the airport for our flight home.