Millennium to Remember…Nepal
Wednesday, January 5, 2000[NOTE: January 1, 2000 was a feared date because of Y2K. No one knew what would happen when the calendars in computers switched 12/31/99 to 1/1/2000].
Hello and Happy New Year! I just got back to Kathmandu from the mountains and was glad to see that nothing blew-up or crashed during the count down while I was sipping Baileys and coffee in a remote mountain village. Was anyone disappointed? Was it anti-climactic?I was reassured that the world didn’t come to an end as we know it today. Why? Because without my current perspective, I could not have fully appreciated my latest Nepali experience…going back in time.
I departed for my trek with my guide, Tshering (pronounced “chitting”) Sherpa on Dec. 28th – flying from Kathmandu to Lukla (9,200 feet altitude). This is not a flight for sissy’s…a propeller plane weaves through the high mountains and lands on a tiny little gravel runway which is built uphill…very rustic right from the start. It turns out that many people wanted to be in the Mt. Everest Mountains to celebrate the Millennium. I could hear some people complaining about all the “damn tourists” but I likened the mass ascent to a pilgrimage of sorts. We all have our reasons to be in a certain place at a momentous time and I found it fascinating to participate in the pilgrimage (and besides…this is a big place that can handle crowds).
The first day’s trek was easy. We went down to Phakding (8,700 feet) to acclimatize and get my body used to the altitude. It can be difficult to stay healthy in the mountains and prevention is essential. No problem until day two when we climbed to Monjo (9,300 feet) where I developed an excruciating headache – the first sign of altitude sickness (which by the way can be fatal if left unattended). So, we stayed in Monjo and I took some pills and the headache went away – my body was acclimatizing.
It was my good fortune that evening to meet a large (17 people) multi-national trekking group who were going up the mountain. The group consisted of various couples and individuals who signed up with an expedition company and they were thrown together. Fortunately, they got along great and shared very positive energy with me! We trekked together for 3 days and 3 nights.
Day three, we walked to Namche Bizarre (11,290 feet) which is a relatively large village that trades Tibetan goods. My body was acclimatizing nicely and we spent two nights in Namche with our adopted group. It turns out that my guide was very good friends with their guide so everyone was having a great time.
Before I tell you about my destination and New Year celebration, I want to give you a feel for the scenery. The Mt. Everest region is not a national park. The land is protected by government agencies but we trek through villages – this is where people live – very actively. The people in this region are called Sherpas and they have a rich and vibrant history. They are Buddhist and one can witness Buddhist prayer flags, and prayer wheels and carved stone tablets and monuments along the entire trek. We share the trail with the elderly, children, yaks and lots of porters. The major blessing is that THERE ARE NO CARS. Imagine it! The trekking industry is good for this region because we bring money in and create an economy. Everything – all goods like beer, pop, food, clothing, etc. – is carried up on the backs of porters or on a yak. Being there is like going back to our pioneer days.
We stay in lodges or tea houses which are peoples’ homes. They are stark rooms, which have a fairly comfortable mattress on wood platform beds. Some actually have a light bulb in the room but most don’t. There is no heat and it was cold (December in the mountains!). The toilets are…well…they aren’t toilets. Most of the time they are out houses. A good lodge will have a porcelain squat toilet that you can pour water into when you’re done to keep it smelling fairly fresh. But most of the “rest rooms” were shacks that had a slat in the floor and you did your business and it goes right outside. Aren’t you glad I’m describing the gritty details. Trekking here is not like backpacking in the wilderness but it’s still roughing it.
Of course, I also had a porter to carry my pack which is very affordable and contributes to the economy! The higher up the mountain you go, the more rustic the accommodations.
The Sherpa people work hard at surviving every day. A lot of their living seems to take place outside. Women wash their hair on the porch, people bathe (not naked or anything), socialize, etc. I saw a bunch of Mom’s with their infants harnessed to their backs. They were talking and working in the field and it reminded me of Moms in shopping malls at home. The children are just like any other kids – but they’re dirty – it’s hard to stay clean because there is dirt and dust everywhere.
The Sherpa kitchen is the highlight. Everything happens in the kitchen. Of course, there are no appliances, just one big wood burning stove that cooks many tasty high-carbohydrate meals for trekkers and guides and porters. The Nepali’s (my guide and porters and the owners of the lodge) sit around the kitchen fire and talk and laugh and commune. Meanwhile, the trekkers (like me) sit in the lodge/dining area that hopefully has a stove that cranks heat (they use yak dung as fuel). So, I socialize and meet people from all over the world or sit quietly and read a book or write in my journal. Great fun!
I celebrated New Year’s eve in Namche Bizarre with my fun adopted group. New Year’s day was a “free” day for us (to acclimatize) and I had a Baileys and coffee in a bar/laundry/e-mail café (which was not working) and then joined my comrades at the lodge. A couple from Sydney brought 2 bottles of champagne that still had bubbles and we cheered for the Melbourne and Sydney New Year. We were all in bed by 9:00 p.m. The next day, we climbed to Thyangboche (pronounced TANG-BOW-SHAY) which was my destination goal at 12, 690 feet. At 10;45 a.m., two Americans, myself and a Quebecer celebrated NY time New Year by eating a candy bar.
Thangboche has a beautiful Tibetan monastery and gorgeous clear views of Mt. Everest. The lodge was very rustic – I slept in a loft with at least 10 others above the dining room area – very interesting. In the middle of the night, I woke up with a killer headache and realized that altitude sickness was again happening to me. I could barely get through the night and I woke my guide up early and we immediately descended (the only real cure for altitude sickness). Tshering brought me to this little restaurant and they let me sleep for 3-4 hours in the kitchen so I could recover enough to make it back to Namche. I made it and all was well. The remaining descent was fun and easy.
We stayed in Lukla the last night at the lodge where the “godfather” of Nepal stayed – Sir Edmund Hillary – the first man along with his Sherpa guide, Tenzing Norgay, were the first to climb to the top of Mt. Everest in 1952. The owner of the lodge has pictures of he and Hillary and you can feel the history. Hillary loved Nepal and the Sherpa people and he contributed generously of his time and money to help the villages. He built the airport and schools and is a much loved man. He died about ten years ago and is warmly remembered.
I wish my body wasn’t so sensitive to the altitude – it severely limits my future trip options. My New Year’s friends are heading up to Mt. Everest base camp which is at 17,000 feet! As I write this, cozy and comfortable in Kathmandu with a real toilet and nice hotel room, they are still ascending. Ohhhh…it’s good to be back in “civilization.”
Nepal is truly a magical land – chaotic at times but magical. I will stay here for at least a week – maybe longer – and am planning my trip to India. I’ll be sending a few highlights from Australia…stay tuned.
Miss you all!