Thursday, December 21, 2006

Trekking Mt. Everest region

After a night of packing and preparing, we woke up at 4:40am. A nice, hot shower was enjoyed throughly since it will be bucket washing in the mountains (or so we were told). We met with Gyan (tour manager) in the lobby and we were off to the airport while it was still dark out. No street lights and fog made the drive seem more dangerous than the day before. There were more people than I imagined out on the streets, they were preparing their shops for the day or walking to work. There was a small fire by the side of the road warming up a solitary figure. Further down the road, in what seemed to be a square, more people were gathered around a lit garbage can. We stopped along the side of the road and picked up a person with a backpack. Although we were never introduced, we were assuming he was our guide or our porter. But he didn't speak English very well and didn't attempt to make conversation, so we didn't really know.

In order to get into the airport property, you need a ticket or a special pass. The military was guarding the entrance as we drove through. Once parked a flood of boy/men came over to carry our bags. As they struggled, two of them broke loose with our baggage in hand- that was a sight. Once inside we had to go through "security". One closet-like room for the men and one with a curtain for the ladies. They asked if we were carrying lighters or matches, looked in our bags, patted us down and let us through. Shawn was able to pass with his leatherman (knife) and mase! Strange little airport, very simple, few small shops surrounded the perimeter.. and cold! When your flight is called you go out the back door and hop onto a bus/trolley. But our plane was delay 3 hours due to fog, while we hung out with the stranger from the side of the road- hardly a word spoken. Finally, the bus took the passengers to their 18 seater plane. One-at-a-time boarding, and we were off!

The flight was a lot better than I expected, a few bumps when we got close to the mountains and landing took away my breath! Think about landing in a small plane on a short landing strip that starts at the top of a mountain! Whew!

We landed at Lukla Airport at around 10am and began walking a steep incline of stacked rocks and mini boulders immediately. We were still unsure if the man we were following was our guide or our porter. This information became clear at our first stop when we met up with another Nepali that took our lightly packed red duffel bags ,from our guide, and began to tie them tightly together using very worn stretches of nylon rope. He then attached another stretch of nylon rope that included a three inch nylon strap tied in the center. This strap would be placed on his forehead so that the bag would suspend from his head across his back by only using the strap. As we were instructed to take a seat we were asked by our guide "Tea, Coffee?"to which we replied "Tea please, with milk and sugar?" and subsequently added a look of hope and concern of whether he understood. That doubt was soon confirmed when two cups of a steamy milky white liquid were placed in front of us. Kristine and I said thank you, as I was in the process of trying to hide another look. This one was of curiousity and a hint of disgust. I'm sure that it was that moment that Kristine and I began to worry about the fate of our eating habits over the next nine days.

We began our trek from the Lukla Tea/Coffee, which were what the locals referred to the guesthouses as. We were struggling to take in the scenery and at the same time stay vigilant to the next series of events. Undoubtedly, this initial confusion could have been avoided if we would have enabled some form of conversation between ourselves and the guide but it seemed that both parites, us and the guide and porter, harbored some form of reservations toward initiating conversation. It wouldn't be until the second day that I would introduce us and come to learn the name of our guide and porter. Prem and Rhamesh. It also wouldn't be until a few days after that when we would be introduced to the map of the areas we had been and the few we had remaining. Prem struggled with his English but in conjuction with a friendly smile, a point and a nod, communication was pleasant. Rhamesh didn't speak much at all, but he seemed to understand English very well and he could actually write in English more legible than I can. By the end of our trek we learned quite a bit about them.

We arrived at the first Tea/Coffee we would spend the night in at around four in the afternoon. We were taken to our room that was located down an open corridor, up a steep and very narrow set of uneven stairs, followed by a small hallway to our room. The room was possibly, at most, eight foot by eight foot with doll house-like wood lining the walls and a single light bulb suspended from the ceiling. There were two twin beds made from 2x4s and the same thin plywood that shared the walls. The mattresses were just thin enough to be distracting, but not enough to be pointless. There was no heat but there was a single window to offer an escape for any heat than you may have tried to smuggle in using a sleeping bag or long-johns. This would be the basic template used by every guesthouse and every room we attempted to sleep in.

After taking a short nap we made our way down to the common room/ dining hall. These rooms had an open center space with bench like seating lining the perimeter and chest-like tables pushed slightly in front of the benches to create an eating space that was a little higher than the bench you sat on. It was just enough to force you to eat leaning forward and to rest your elbows on the lowered table. There was always a wood-burning furnace in the center of the room. There usually had to be at least six or more people sharing the room to enjoy the privileges of heat though. We ordered from a menu, written in English, an hour or so before lunch and dinner and the night before, for breakfast. Every meall was prepared from scratch and cooked individually. Sometimes we would see Rhamesh stoking the flames of the wood burning stoves to help finish cooking the many orders of fried eggs and toast that Kristine an I had ordered. For the most part, the food wasn't too bad, we generally stuck the same foods for every meal: eggs, toast, pancake (only one), rice, fried vegetables & noodles. Occasionally, we would venture to another part of the menu and be reminded of the comforts of predictability. It wasn't until our newly acquired German friends, Radul and Manfred, introduced us to Momos that we finally got to enjoy the greatness that is, MOMOS. Momos are a dish that would best be associated with Perogies, they can be boiled or fried, vegetable or potato, etc. Once we tried the tried the boiled potato Momo we knew that we would not be disappointed for another meal.

Radul and Manfred were two German trekkers, traveling with just their guide, Harry. They were carrying their own packs and were trekking a few more days longer than us and a lot higher as well. We ran into them at every guesthouse we stayed in and we would talk with them for hours. Radul spoke English very well and seemed to be the type that could carry the conversation on his own. Manfred shared the same qualities as Rhamesh, quiet but understood everything. They got us very excited about one day traveling to Germany.

Everyday our treks brought forth new challenges and amazing view at every peak and every turn. From following a gushing sea foam-green, white water rapid river, to climbing over 2,600 feet in a single afternoon. The first few days, we walked at a pace that stole your breath, but as the trek carried on we slid into a pace that all aspects, visually and physically, could be enjoyed. It's amazing what one can get used to. it became part of our routine to share the trail with small herds of yak and walk across bridges that would be reflective of an Indiana Jones movie. And then there were the Nepali men that transported extremely large quantities of goods, some had to be in upwards of 60 - 100 pounds, using the same forehead strap Rhamesh used to carry our bags. They would stack goods and foods needed to supply their family or village in a basket, sometimes four feet higher than themselves and would take breaks by placing a sturdy wooden pole under their basket to ease the tension from their heads. They would use the same wooden pole to climb the mountains that would sometimes take them a few days to reach their village. In some cases, there would be a single man carrying a one inch thick PVC pipe, a foot in diameter and 12-15 foot in length, walking sideways up the same trail that Kristine and I did only wearing a backpack. These people have to be listed under the ranks of some of the hardest working people in the world and rightly so.

We spend Christmas Eve at our highest point, Teng Boche, 12,615 feet. We walked into the common room of our guesthouse to a small group of trekkers from all over the world travelling together. There was a surgeon from South America with his wife and daughter, a young woman from California, a man from New York, etc. We also met Mike Wickham from Maryland. They were getting ready to enjoy a Christmas Eve feast set up by both their guide and the guesthouse that included decorations, a Nepali-style Christmas tree,a huge dinner and even chocolate cake. Mike Wickham was traveling with his porter for his third or forth time to base-camp. We spoke with Mike for hours while he offered us advice on destinations in Thailand and New Zealand we are sure to use. We awoke to the sunrise striking the face of Mount Everest from the seclusion of a jagged mountain peak that sheltered the sun until mid-morning. With the summit of the world to our back we ventured forward to the infamous Mount Everest View Hotel. This was the site that only two days earlier we had to abandon our climb do to AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness), on the part of Kristine and slightly on my part as well. After a well needed rest and proper acclimation, we finally arrived at the View Hotel with nothing short of incredible as a description. We took our time to appreciation a site that soon would only be enjoyed from a photograph.

Christmas day was spent trekking to our last forward progressing destination. Christmas night was spent in celebration with our friends we had met along the way. We ate our potato Momo, while Radul, Manfred, Harry and Prem danced to Nepali music in the center of the room, spinning and moving their arms similar to a Hawaiian hula dance. Rhamesh watched and smiled, as did Kristine and I. It was a very festive Christmas where we thought there would be none.

We arrived back at the Lukla Airport with a bittersweet feeling. We were ready to get back to civilization , but not without the mountain range inflicting it's cruel sense of humor on us. As is turns out you could be held up at the airport for sometimes up to four days due to fog. After meeting Amy and Jason, two school teachers from California, we spent the next day in the lodge reading around the fireplace and playing cards with them. Fortunately, after only losing one day we were set to take the morning flight back to Kathmandu. After saying goodbye to Prem and Rhamesh we boarded our flight for one last adventure. It seemed that the runway is very short and take off is only achieved well after the runway ends from off the top of the mountain. As we fall off the end of the runway and begin to gain altitude, we sit in the tiny cabin of our 18 passenger propeller airplane and watch the shadow of the plane cast itself against the clouds, we felt the impression left by this majestic region.