Thursday, 15 December 2011

Namche Bazaar to Tengboche

Had a bit of a shock when we paid our bill at Moonlight Lodge, turns out there's a marked inflation in hot water prices between Phakding and Namche. Better to have learnt that lesson earlier rather than later though - from now we decided to break into our Aquatabs water purification tablets, which continued to serve us very well for the rest of the trip.

'Garlic toast'
After a hearty breakfast, including James' garlic toast (yes, it really was just a few cloves of raw garlic smeared on marginally buttered toast), we headed off to our next destination, Tengboche. The morning saw probably the only cloud we would encounter for the rest of the trek, causing us to fumble for our cameras every time a teasing view of Everest was briefly unveiled at every turn.

Ama Dablam peeking out of the morning mist
Descending toward our lunch spot was a mixed blessing, as we knew we'd have to make up for all the lost altitude (and then some) later in the day. Seeing the zig-zagging path on the other side of the valley also brought a certain level of dread, but at least it would be no worse than the climb up to Namche the day before yesterday, we thought.

Crossing more bridges
At lunch we had our first food fail, a 'macaroni with tomato sauce' served by the slowest kitchen ever. This consisted of some sad looking pasta served with an alien, pinkish sauce which bore no resemblance to real tomatoes whatsoever. Even after a liberal dose of ketchup and chilli sauce, it was still barely palatable and we left Mark to force down most of it while we stuck to the other dishes.

Waiting for lunch
At least there was some amusement in the form two cute grey kittens, one of which was particularly fond of jumping on our guide (who did not share the kitten's affections).

What a cutie!
After lunch came the dreaded climb, and while it was fairly slow going we made good pace and even managed to pass another group, reaching Tengboche in 1.5 hours - and feeling a lot better than we did when we arrived at Namche!
Our first view of Everest from Namche
We checked out the famous monastery, though unfortunately as it was heading into winter there was only one monk on duty and no chanting to watch. The richly decorated prayer room was still very worthwhile to see though.
Heading into Tengboche monastary
The richly decorated insides
As we huddled around the fire waiting for dinnertime, we finally decided to be a bit more sociable and start chatting to our fellow travellers. There was a Dutch couple who had been pretty much staying at exactly the same places as us the entire way so far, and we discovered it was actually their first trip abroad and first trekking trip, ever. Nuts! There was also a big Singaporean group doing the walk, one of whom was a piano tuner. Apparently it's a lucrative trade in the small island nation, as pianos require tuning every 6 months due to the climate (usually it's a year), plus it's not hard to imagine the multitude of little Asian kids toiling away at the keyboard for hours on end...

Seems to be a given that if you look out the window anywhere, you get an awesome view
Tomorrow, another short-ish day and then off to Dingboche!

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Phakding to Namche Bazaar

The morning portion of our second day of walking was fairly easy, but it was a completely different story after lunch - a constant slog up the hill for about two hours which had us seriously out of breath after each zig and zag. At least we were eventually finally rewarded with our first view of Everest, and when we saw the first signs saying 'Namche Bazaar' we breathed a sigh of relief.

Finally reached Namche Bazaar
Prematurely though, as it turned out there was yet another 130m of punishing climbing through the steep steps of the town before finally reaching our stop for the night - Moonlight Lodge. The last 50m were probably the hardest and even once we were in the hostel, even climbing two flights of stairs to get from the entrance to our rooms was nearly all too much.

Hard to get a better town view than this
Fortunately we were able to rest for the rest of the day and amused ourselves with a retro Monopoly set which was available in the common area.

The common area in Moonlight Lodge
The next morning we were all to happy to have a rest day, apart from a short trudge up the hill to visit the local museum, take some more photos of Everest, and a visit to the town proper which we pretty much ignored the day before in our efforts to just get the walking over and done with.

Shops in Namche
As promised, Namche has everything a trekker needs, from official North Face outlets (accordingly priced), to Irish Pubs, it was by far the most developed settlement we came across in the entire walk. Plenty of souvenir shops abounded as well, with the usual knitted animal hats and yak wool scarves. Prices varied greatly from store to store and we mostly refrained from purchasing anything. No doubt the find of the day were Snickers Crunchers, a favourite of James' and not commonly seen anymore elsewhere.

Probably one of the best things about the whole trek were the consistently amazing views we'd get from whatever place we were staying at, and usually from our rooms themselves too - something which definitely helped us get over the freezing cold temperatures!

The view from our room in the morning

Monday, 12 December 2011

Lukla to Phakding

The surprising thing about the beginning of our trek toward Everest Base Camp was that it was much easier than we were expecting. After mentally steeling ourselves for about two weeks of hard uphill slog, it certainly felt strange to be ambling leisurely downhill for a good hour once we had set off with our porter. In fact, we were so eager to head off our guide told us to slow down from time to time.

The scenery was the very embodiment of 'picturesque', with quaint stone huts, fields of vegetables and plenty of prayer slabs and wheels for that cultural touch. Much later on the walk we would find less and less of these, no doubt due to the fact that carrying huge heavy slabs of stone uphill probably lost appeal after a while, especially when the much lighter prayer flags probably sufficed just as well.

We crossed a lot of bridges on the first day, but these were sturdy steel affairs with plenty of support, so wasn't actually that scary. Festooned with rows and rows of colourful prayer flags, each bridge presented fantastic photo opportunities. The only off-putting thing was probably the well-trodden remains of yak poo between the bits of metal, but at least there weren't any fresh ones - unlike much of the rest of the trail.

After a mere two and a half hours of walking we were already at our destination for the night, Phakding. Given the numerous warnings about not going too high, too fast, it was probably best we didn't try to press on. Upon arriving at our hostel we were greeted by a mute yet highly exuberant guy who gave us a local hot orange drink called 'Tang' on the house, and took our lunch orders.

The highlight of the afternoon was discovering that our guide, Binod, had recently starred (well, featured as a backup dancer) in a Nepali folk music video. Luckily the hostel had a TV and we were able to witness him in action. I have no idea what the name of the song or singer was, but it was a bit like a Bollywood song in a Sound of Music setting - dancing in the grass, picking flowers, mountains in the background - awesome. 

After the sun went down we quickly discovered that the place to be was as close to the wood burning stove in the middle of the living area as possible, with the other travellers who had arrived during the day. Given the lack of entertainment we turned in for the night pretty early at around 8pm, which would become routine over the rest of the trek. Our rooms felt like fridges already and it was only the first night, so that was a bit of a worry - but at least once we got in our sleeping bags it was nice and toasty - we didn't even need the extra blankets they provided.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Kathmandu to Lukla

There are three things to know about the Kathmandu domestic airport terminal:
1) Security is tight
2) It's good to be female
3) Don't expect your flight to leave on time

1) Security

After being picked up at an ungodly hour from our hotel with our guide, we took the cramped and bumpy journey back to Kathmandu airport in the dark. This time, we were deposited at the much less impressive domestic terminal, where we queued in the cold with other bleary-eyed tourists for about half an hour until we were let into the building. There were a real mix of tourists, from obvious scenic flight-takers wearing impractical shoes and no luggage, to fellow trekkers like us, with guides and big packs ready to go.

Everything was fairly well-worn, and even the scales for weighing luggage weren't digital. That's why I was surprised we were herded through metal detectors and had our handcarry luggage put through a scanner just like any other airport, and doubly surprised when I realised I had forgotten to transfer not one, but two pocketknives into the check-in luggage... oops. Fortunately our guide Binod was able to rescue both from the confiscation pile and stuff it in our check-in bag, but lesson learnt - you can't sneak a knife onto a Kathmandu domestic flight!

2) Female preferential treatment

I suppose I can thank the Muslim population in Nepal for creating a need for separate security checking lines for females in all airports. I was able to jump ahead of the boys and go pretty much straight through, while they waited in the much longer queue of guys waiting to go through security. Of course, it's not much help when you're travelling with males, and the plane isn't ready to depart anyway, but still - a small victory for femalekind.

3) Departure time

Our flight was supposed to leave at 6am, but of course the sun wasn't even up yet so visibility was a bit of a problem - hence we had to sit around until sunrise before we could actually depart. Of course you would expect that it would be pretty easy for them to know what time the sun will rise every morning and schedule the flights accordingly, but I guess that's not how things work in Nepal...

The flight itself was quite similar to the one we took to the Grand Canyon from Las Vegas when we were in the states, a small plane with about sixteen seats and full visibility of the cockpit. They even had an air hostess who gave out candy and cotton wool to stuff your ears with for the noise, pretty cool.

And there's one thing to know about Lukla airport:
1) It's really not that bad!

Often described as one of the scariest in the world, Lukla airport does indeed have a short, sloping runway - but given there are as many as a hundred flights a day during peak season, the pilots are pros. Apart from a slight bit of turbulence coming into the valley where we lost a foot or so and I had a bit of a 'whoa!' moment, the landing itself was smooth and all over very quickly - you almost don't have time to be scared. With only four 'parks' for the planes the whole operation is a well-oiled machine, with arriving passengers and luggage alike shunted off with speed, and departing passengers scooting onto the same plane within minutes to take off again back towards Kathmandu.

Once off the plane, we were off to have breakfast, hire a porter, and start walking toward Phakding, where we would stay for the first night of the trek.

Saturday, 10 December 2011


Without the luxury of reliable access to internet and power, I wasn't able to keep this blog updated during our actual trip - so this is a retrospective account of our 18 days in Nepal, plus the consequent 10 days in Hong Kong.

Getting fleeced by a swarm of guys demanding exorbitant tips for touching your bag outside Kathmandu Airport wasn't a great start to our trip, nor a fantastic first impression of Nepal, but there you go, that's what happens sometimes when you visit developing countries. At least things could only improve from then on!

My first impressions of the city from the late night drive to Annapurna Hotel, our accommodation for the next two nights, was that it was a lot like India - but quieter. As expected, many roads were in pretty average condition, narrow and littered with ruts and potholes. Once we arrived we turned in quickly for the night. As we lay in bed I marvelled at the silence, despite the fact our window faced toward the street, a stark contrast to previous trips with city stays - particularly Delhi.

The next morning we didn't waste much time in signing up to a 16 day trek package offered by the travel agency referred by our hotel. We knew we would save money by organising more stuff manually ourselves, but frankly it was still relatively cheap and we didn't really want to waste time haggling with half a dozen places to get what we knew we wanted anyway.

The original plan was to fly to Lukla, do the Everest Base Camp walk, and then go through Chola Pass to check out the glacial lakes at Gokyo before rejoining the main track - thus a loop instead of one way in/out - but in the end we got lazy and got back a bit early, though I'll get to that a bit later.

With our trek and flight tickets to Lukla booked, we decided to take some time to sightsee around the city. After completely failing to find a supposed shopping area pointed out to us on a map, we gave up and took a taxi to Durbar Square, the plazas around the old royal palace buildings, and a UNESCO site!

Upon arriving, it wasn't long before we were accosted by a stream of wannabe-tour guides offering their services, no doubt for some sort of tip at the end. One in particular seemed fixated on wanting to show us some 'erotic paintings', obviously it's successfully lured travellers past, and even though we turned him down immediately he couldn't stop repeating the word 'erotic paintings' like a mantra until we were out of earshot.

Hungry and getting annoyed, we sought refuge in lunch at a rooftop restaurant, one of several in the area. Being out of breath after climbing the six flights of stairs to the place didn't inspire confidence in how we would manage on the trek, but I guess you have to start somewhere.

The view from the rooftop restaurant

Instead of ordering our own meals, we decided to share three dishes - fried rice, potatoes and momos. Little did we know that these would become overly familiar over the next two weeks as we cycled around iterations of the same items for every lunch and dinner. At least in Kathmandu we were able to sample the 'buff momos' (made of what I assumed to be buffalo meat), which were actually quite tasty!

Buffalo dumplings, actually quite tasty

Apart from Durbar Square, the only other 'attraction' of note which we visited was 'The Garden of Dreams', which turned out to be a pleasant, though small, park with an entrance fee - presumably to keep out the riff-raff. After a slow stroll around the entire area (which took about 5 minutes), our plans for afternoon tea at the cafe were foiled by the fact that apparently the staff had apparently all suddenly gone on strike, despite the fact there were obviously still other customers there in the middle of their drinks.

Inside 'The Garden of Dreams'

Back in Thamel, the main tourist centre where we were staying, we browsed the shops for some hats and gloves for the trek, where we found that the local specialty seemed to be hats in the shape of animals. After trying on a couple (and probably annoying a few shopkeepers, though no doubt they were used to tourists laughing at each other while wearing ridiculous hats) we finally settled on a polar bear for me, a beaver for James and a psychedelic monkey for Mark - you'll see in the later photos.

We also discovered that as popular as outdoor brands like North Face and Mountain Hardwear were in Nepal, pirated versions of their products were just as popular. We ended up with some NZ$5 'North Face' drink bottles for the trek, along with some 'Columbia' gloves. Mark also hired a 'Mountain Hardwear' down jacket for the trek, which for all intents and purposes kept him pretty warm the whole time, so you really do have to wonder sometimes whether the legitimate stuff is proportionately more worth it, really!

For dinner we decided to try Yeti Cafe & Restaurant, apparently highly rated on TripAdvisor and only around the corner from our hotel. Alas, the food was pretty disappointing, though at least I got to sample some Nepali wine, while James and Mark had the Everest beer - apparently it wasn't as bad as Quilmes (the brew ubiquitous in Argentina).

Trying the local brew

That night I had my first abortive attempt at a hot shower - basically no matter how long I had any tap on, what came out would be icy cold. Later I would realise it was due to the fact the mains power was off, and while the lights were on due to a generator, they didn't bother with the hot water heater during that time.

The next morning would be an early start to catch the 6am flight to Lukla and begin our trek toward Everest Base Camp!