The Last Leg to Lukla!

In terrain that the guidebook compared with the Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs (whatever that is) we walked along narrow ledges that dropped straight down into the forest as far as you could see. Hearing the warning bells of donkey trains, we had to jump up on the slope above us a couple times to make room. We had amazing views down a valley nearly vertical on both sides and dotted with a couple rivers and waterfalls. We walked past a power pole that was nothing more than a thick tree limb propped up by a couple of large rocks. It was here I went off the path for a bathroom break, and upon standing I looked up to realize the uncoated power line was but a couple of feet over my head!

With dismay (at least I was dismayed) we walked all the way down to the river, knowing we’d have to climb the same height again to reach Lukla. After a long ascent, we finally reached our destination we had been working towards for the last week. We accidentally came into town using a scenic route, first zigzagging through a field of massive boulders and then through a maze of stone-walled paths crowned with razor wire. Compared to the small villages we had been staying at, the lodge at Lukla was more like a massive hotel and though I hadn’t felt like we’d been wanting for much, I suddenly felt surrounded by luxuries I had almost forgot about. We celebrated by devouring yak burgers and fries and a huge piece of chocolate cake. When we went to bed I could hear some poor dog whaling like it was caught or hurt or something, and every time I awoke at night it was still lamenting even louder than the downpour of rain that was falling. It was awful and didn’t stop until morning. We planned to stay in Lukla for one day, and then carry upwards to Namche where we could have more rest days at a higher altitude, which would help our acclimatization. We watched the small planes take off and land on the surprisingly short and sloped runway, wondering how they paved it without any heavy equipment available.

The second night we stayed in a much smaller, family run lodge where they led us through their little kitchen and into the backyard where we could have gas-heated showers. Right after we went to bed a herd of Israelis obnoxious to a degree I didn’t know existed moved in right beside us. Sean even got out of bed to try and find a different lodge to stay at, but everything had closed by then. It was my first encounter with Israelis and I was to learn more about their famously poor reputation the next day.

Sean’s Little Friend: Ringmo to Bupsa

The next morning we left Ringmo in a hurry to try and get a peek at Everest over the nearby Trakshindu La pass before the clouds came in, but again the mountain hid from us. We had breakfast at the pass beneath a poster of Avril Lavigne; I wonder what she would think of that. On the descent from the pass we had to make frequent stops to let trains of donkeys pass, their drivers often busy with cell phones or ipods. Some of the donkeys were loaded down with propane tanks which we could smell quite strongly, and some of the drivers puffed on cigarettes right among them!

Upon arrival at Nunthala we were accompanied by a Nepali boy name Bimba (probably 3 or 4 years old) over lunch. I had a good time drawing him pictures of animals and getting him to mimic their noises, and both of us practiced a bit of our Nepali with him. As fun as he was he had a bad habit of drooling on everything and to Sean’s great dismay we couldn’t be rid of him until he was finally distracted by the arrival of some other trekkers. Then while brushing our teeth outside before bed, we found a big toad in the light of our headlamps!

The next day on the way to Bupsa Sean still carried a good portion of my weight on long downhill sections as my knees were still a problem. We crossed the longest suspension bridge yet, at 109 m across. I thought I would be afraid of these as I don’t like heights but they’re sturdily built. The ascent to Bupsa was extremely steep and seemingly endless, and it was the hottest day yet. Our complaints never left our lips though as below us locals turned up their fields guiding old-fashioned wooden ploughs pulled by cattle/yak hybrids. The lodge we stayed at in Bupsa offered wifi, and in the morning when Sean entered the dining room he found the lodge owner and her toddler asleep on a small mat on the floor behind the counter. Her iphone rested on a ledge beside them, another strange illustration of old meets new that I haven’t gotten used to yet. Bupsa is the last town on our trek before Lukla, where most people fly in to begin their hikes in the Everest region. The promise of a couple rest days had me very excited.

Wild Monkeys & Terrible Homebrew: Junbesi to Ringmo

We split the trip from Junbesi to Nunthala into two half days on account of my knees and the long descent involved. We stayed the night in Ringmo, and on the way there we came across a troop of about a dozen black-faced and white-haired monkeys just off the trail! They moved swiftly with very long tails and we later learned they were Nepal gray langurs, which are relatively common. On the same day we watched a Eurasian kestrel hovering over fields searching for lunch. According to the guidebook we should have been able to catch a glimpse of Everest on this jaunt, but to our disappointment it was a very cloudy day.

The descent into Ringmo proved my knees to be pretty bad, making my eyes water and causing poor Sean to have to carry a good portion of my load in addition to his own. Contrary to its description in the book as being full of apple, peach and apricot orchards which I was so looking forward to, Ringmo was “a town on its way down” as Sean put it. The small orchards were dormant if not completely dead, and there was a much larger presence of guest lodges than tourists, a legacy of the days prior to the airstrip at Lukla being built. There was however, a large group of tents set up for some big-time expedition of tourists. We were the lone occupants of the Apple House, ran by a single woman with very little English and who we increasingly suspected throughout the night to only be house sitting, as she couldn’t even get access to the pantry. We felt bad for troubling her and went on a quest to sample yak cheese and apple brandy, the brandy being so god-awful even Sean had trouble choking down both of our portions. Back at our lodge, the bathroom was a shed elevated above the garden with a missing plank over which to do your business.

Over the Pass to Junbesi

The hike from Sete to Junbesi was meant to be the hardest leg of the trip to Lukla because it involved crossing the mountain pass “Lamjura Bhanjyang”. Maybe it was the exciting scenery,but it was the easiest day yet! On the way up we hiked through moss-cloaked forests of huge trees, the likes of which I’ve never seen. There was some deforestation dramatized by the guidebook, but it didn’t compare at all to what we’re used to at home. The higher we climbed the more stunted the trees became, until we got to a shaded path where everything was frosted over. It felt like we were living the Chronicles of Narnia and getting closer and closer to the Ice Queen.  A steady stream of helicopters and small planes kept passing us overhead, a sign that we were getting closer to Lukla. I was very excited to get to the top of the pass as it was the highest I had been yet at 3530 m. On our descent we walked through drier forest still consisting of massive trees, some hollowed out from fire but still very much alive.

The forest gave way to very steep and sprawling grasslands, where rural kids continually asked us “have you got a pen?,” and I was very sad not to have anything to offer them. I stocked up on pens that afternoon in Junbesi; half of them didn’t work anyways and we never encountered that many kids again. Sean saw two good sized furry and spotted beasts run across the trail and is working on identifying them. The long descent started my knees hurting until I was limping my way into Junbesi; it was the start of a problem that would create a hassle for the rest of the hike. The town of Junbesi had a fair sized “Hillary” school, one of many founded by the first man to summit Everest. It sported an outdoor volleyball court; I never expected volleyball to be so popular in Nepal. There was also a large stupa surrounded by prayer wheels that we heard tinkling from our room as people spun them in the evening and early morning. Small fields surround the town and people plough them up by hand using flattened picks; it would be unimaginably back-breaking work. In contrast, the school-aged girl living at the lodge we stayed at was glued to the TV as any kid at home would be; it sported Indian ads for bleaching face cream called “Fair & Handsome/Fair & Lovely.” The contrast of ancient practices and new technology is everywhere and never ceases to surprise me. Sean wisely questioned whether Nepal could ever really be fully developed due to the near impossibility of opening up the country to transport more efficient than donkeys due to the terrain.

The Cock, the Ball & the Lizard, Not Necessarily in That Order (Bhandar to Sethe)

After thanking the proprietor of guesthouse and tipping him generously for arranging to get my backpack to us we headed downhill out of Bhandar through mossy forest and terraced farmland towards the town of Kinja at the bottom of the valley. Along the way a grinning local man asked if we would like to buy some oranges from the tree in his garden. When we agreed he delightedly picked a couple of the fruits for us and we paid him about 20 cents each for them. Emily’s favorite moment of the day occurred a few minutes later, after another little jaunt down the trail when a small child presented her with one of the many marigolds that seem to be native to the area. She reciprocated with a coconut cracker. Upon reaching the valley bottom and the outskirts of Kinja a couple of lizards scampered across the trail ahead of us, one of them taking shelter under a little overhang beside the trail. We managed to get a good picture of one of them.

In Kinja we showed our trekking permits at the police checkpoint and walked through town with a few local kids on their way to school who seemed to want to practice their English. From here we started the long, draining climb 1080 meters up to Sethe. Along the way we caught up to the fellow that we had met the day before in Bhandar and dubbed the “happiest man alive.” He always seemed to have the biggest grin one could imagine and laughed uproariously at whatever we said to him, even while carrying what must have been over 100 pounds up the steep trail in a basket on his back. This traditional method of carrying goods from village to village is conducted with a large woven basket supported by a strap over the head so the entire weight of the load is supported by the neck.

A little ways on in a village called Chimbu we came across a school with a relatively large, flat, fenced in playing area for the kids so we decided to give them the “indestructible” soccer ball donated by a friend of Emily’s grandfather. The teacher seemed so delighted she couldn’t even open her eyes and she figured it was more of a volleyball. The kids’ reactions were a little harder to read, perhaps confusion or thickly veiled excitement? Anyways, you can make your own decision from the attached picture. After several more hours we finally reached Sethe and got an awesome lunch of fried macaroni at a restaurant with a rambunctious resident rooster that had a fondness for standing on cows. We then got a room in an enormous tinderbox of a guesthouse with a lack of electricity and an abundance of candles, but thankfully survived the night without needing to make a hasty escape out the window.

The Lost Backpack: Shivalaya to Bhandar

Left Shivalaya for the 6.5 hour hike to Bhandar with the Quebec couple we had met, but didn’t walk with them for long as I wasn’t feeling too hot and had to keep taking extended bathroom breaks. It was a steep climb but we finally got our first tiny glimpse of the Himalayas. The hike was exhausting as I wasn’t in good enough shape yet and my hips and feet started to blister from my bag and boots. All in all it was by far the hardest day I’ve had yet and my productive response to was to have a cry sesh over how bad I felt for slowing Sean down so much. He was really awesome and patient and we finally got through it; the hiking has been much better ever since.

Over halfway through the day, just far enough to not justify going back, Sean realized he had left his day bag under the bed at the River Guesthouse in Shivalaya. It had about $50 and his camera charger in it, the latter being much more valuable. When we arrived in Bhandar we found the Buddha Lodge, owned by the brother of the owner of the River Guesthouse, and although we had written off the idea of ever seeing the bag again we asked if he could help us retrieve it. He talked to his brother on the phone several times that night and told us that the bag should be delivered to us the next day for a fee of less than $10. Much to our surprise the next afternoon a Scotsman named Keith showed up from Shivalaya with the bag! He told us that the lodge owner had looked all over town for a tourist or porter headed to Bhandar. All of the money was still in the bag and Keith also told us that the lodge owner had counted it out twice to him, insisting he pay attention. We really couldn’t believe the trouble all these people had gone to for us when they could have just kept the bag and money for themselves. The honesty and friendliness of the Nepali people has been a theme we’ve encountered continuously on our trip through the country and it has really added to our experience.

Jiri to Shivalaya

On October 27 we left Kathmandu early in the morning on a public bus to the town of Jiri, where we would start the week long hike to the town of Lukla. Most people fly to Lukla but we wanted to improve our fitness and altitude acclimatization before hiking in the serious mountains. The bus was quite cramped but I loved the views and even the crazy, repetitive music; Sean didn`t share quite the same appreciation but he`s had enough bus rides to know better. Jiri is a town of 1500 people and was such a welcome change as we had had enough of the big city. The town was surrounded by rice terraces and hills that weren`t hidden by smog and friendly people filled the streets. We stayed in a guesthouse for less than a dollar a night (lucky for us that became the norm) and left early the next day for Shivalaya. The walk was 3.5 hours with only a 600 m elevation gain, so it was an easy first day. The views were amazing and I was mesmerized by the whole thing because I had never experienced anything like it. Terraced gardens and grain fields were everywhere and we walked through many small farmhouses with free roaming chickens, cows and goats. My favorite part was when kids and toddlers would come running out to smile at us and sometimes yell out greetings. We met a German married to a Nepali woman, and she gave us quite a bit of useful information. We came across a brown garter-like snake and she told us to look out for poisonous green ones in the lowlands. I loved looking at all the wild and domestic plants and comparing them to ones I know from home. Shivalaya is another town full of character, and during supper we witnessed a runaway cow, still tethered to a cinder block, try to make his escape through town with laughing Nepalis chasing him. Once he was finally under control it was another spectacle to watch them try to get the cow across the bridge to the other side of the river. After supper we walked through the town and saw a house being constructed out of rocks they had chipped into squares; the road was also made of hand-chipped rocks each placed by hand. The rocks everywhere glitter and look like they`re made from `fool`s silver.` We watched a man fishing with pole and a net and a bunch of boys playing volleyball on an outdoor court; they could have made varsity teams at home! Right before we went to bed a couple from Quebec came in and we decided to hike with them the next day after visiting for a while. Sean made the guesthouse owner`s day when he asked how much we had to pay for blankets; they were free and the owner thought that was the funniest thing he`d heard in a while.