May 4, 2017 – 8:00AM
So it’s that part of the trip where I’m not skiing all the time. But I am still as excited as ever.
Kim and I have just finished our breakfast in the tiny village of Shivalaya, which is a little less than 200 km east and north of Kathmandu. It also happens to be the trailhead of our three week long trekking route that will lead us into the high Himalayas, to see some of the tallest mountains in the world.
For me personally, this trek has been a long time coming. Longer than since I’ve known Kim, longer than before I moved to Vancouver, even longer than since I finished high school. Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air, based on the 1996 Everest disaster where several climbers were caught in a storm and died high up on the mountain, first triggered my fascination with Mount Everest and the Himalayas. The first time I read the book I think I was in grade 10, and soon after finishing it I decided that one day I would trek to Mount Everest Base Camp to see what it was all about. Now that I am 32, yes still 32 thank you, that means I’ve been dreaming about this trip for basically half of my life. Understandably, being here in the foothills of the Himalaya is all still a little hard to believe.
Getting to Shivalaya wasn’t the easiest thing either of us have ever done. I arrived in Kathmandu six days ago from Istanbul and Kim flew in a couple days later via Beijing and Bangkok. It was a wonderful reunion when I met Kim at the airport. It was less so when I arrived to Tribhuvan airport on my own: when my driver from the hotel arrived a few minutes after I walked out of the terminal it was clear that alternative transportation was needed: the tiny little Suzuki car he showed up in was shorter than my ski bag, and probably weighed only a little bit more. Fortunately the taxi touts in the parking lot were helpful, but not pushy, and soon I was off to the hotel in Kathmandu’s Thamel district, with ski bag in tow.
We’ve spent the last couple days wandering around Kathmandu, trying not to get food poisoning or hit by unpredictable motorcycle drivers. Kathmandu is busy, dusty, and dirty. Apparently these days the concentration of particulate matter in the city air is almost five times greater than the limit recommended by the World Health Organization. There are still piles of rubble lingering from the devastating 2015 earthquake, cows lying in the middle of busy streets, and garbage stacked neatly on sidewalk corners. The Thamel district, our home base before heading out, bustles with tourists, touts and bicycle rickshaws. Despite all of that, I was immediately captivated by the city. Not necessarily by the beautiful skylines and modern infrastructure (there is little of either of those), but for what the city represents: a starting off point to the highest mountain peaks in the world. For Kim and I, that exact starting off point was the Ratna Bus Park, at 5:45 yesterday morning.
The bus ride from Ratna Park to Shivalaya was a serious exercise in patience, but we arrived in mostly one piece. Prior to getting on the bus I’d read nothing but horror stories about the trip: the buses break down; the drivers are crazy; one blog post I read even said that on one trip the rear wheels of the bus went over the edge of a cliff before the driver pulled it together. Fortunately, our driver seemed to value his life, and so at no point did either of us really fear for ours. However, it was long (10.5 hours instead of the advertised 8, for an average trip speed of less than 20 km/h); it was bumpy (we had “good” seats near the front, but our knees were still jammed into the seats in front of us), and it was hot (windows opened most of the way to allow a nice flow of dust into our mouths). The driver seemed to have a collection of horn tunes, and cycled through them depending on his mood and the riskiness of his uphill-blind corner passing manoeuvres. Music blasted loudly (presumably to keep the driver awake), and people (and the odd animal) hopped on and off throughout the journey. At about 5:00 PM we hopped off in Shivalaya in a cloud of dust, and the bus crawled along to the remainder of its destinations and out of our lives. The highlight of the ride was at about 5:00 PM when we hopped off in Shivalaya in a cloud of dust, seconded closely by a first delicious lunch time meal of dahl bhat, prepared at some random roadside pullout along the way.
Shivalaya itself suffered quite a bit of damage during the earthquake. Our host was explaining that it took them an entire year to rebuild their “Hilton Shivalaya” lodge, and the building across the street is still under (presumably) re-construction. The lodge owner also told us that there have been far fewer trekkers on the route post-quake.
But we are here now, and just about ready to go. Backpacks are full (Kim claims hers is “way heavier than mine”), hiking boots tied up nicely, all set for our first day of trekking. From Shivalaya it’s a 6 day walk to the town of Lukla, considered by many to be the gateway to the Everest region (saner people just opt for the 45 minute flight to get there instead of the full day bus ride + 6 days of walking). From Lukla we’ll continue climbing towards Mount Everest for another two weeks and change, and if we are fit and fortunate, we’ll complete the “Three Passes” trek, which cross three alpine passes over 5000 m in elevation, all in the Everest region. But for today we’ll just focus on the walk to Bhandar, the next small village about 4 hours east of here.