We Made It, Without a Scratch

May 31, 2017 – 8:00PM

Kathmandu

It is our last night in Nepal tonight. We are back in Kathmandu, at the same hotel where we stayed before heading off on our trek.  Amazingly, my giant ski bag (and a few other pieces of luggage) survived in the hotel storage while we were away. Tomorrow morning, we’ll have just a bit of time for once last wander through the Thamel before heading to the airport for our flight to Bangkok.

The last few days have been eventful, exciting, and enjoyable. After flying back to Kathmandu from Lukla, we spent a few days in Chitwan National Park to see some of the amazing wildlife that calls Nepal home.  Getting back to Kathmandu, and to and from Chitwan, were adventures in themselves.

Rewind to May 27th, the day we flew out of Lukla.

The Lukla airport is without doubt the scariest airport that I have flown out of.  When we arrived in Lukla a few days ago, we walked over to the airport to re-confirm our seats for the flight (a box-ticking exercise that seemed totally redundant) and we watched a couple planes takeoff.  The runway is about 500 m long, has a 12 degree slope, and aims straight at the mountains a short distance away on the other side the valley. The whole thing looks like one of those scary roller coaster rides that you see at amusement parks, except that it’s not.  It’s real.  Flights in and out of Lukla are notoriously cancelled due to bad weather, and crashes are not uncommon.  The days leading up to our flight were no different.  Multiple flights were delayed the day before we left and some friends that we had met along the trek didn’t fly out until a few hours before us (a day later than scheduled).  And then literally only a couple hours after our plane took off, an inbound aircraft missed the landing strip on the final approach and crashed.  The plane only had three people on board, but sadly the pilot died on the scene and the two others suffered serious injuries.

Our flight (flight number 7 of the day) was a bit of a waiting game.  First we had to wait for the day before’s backlog of passengers to fly out, and then cross our fingers that the weather stayed clear enough for the pilots on our flight to see the other side of the valley.  Eventually we boarded, about two hours later than planned, but in good enough conditions to fly.

The takeoff was as exciting/nerve-wracking as it looked while watching the day before.  The Lukla airport doesn’t really have room for planes to “taxi” out to the runway, so the planes basically turn around in the boarding area and then promptly rocket down the downward sloping runway.  The guy beside me had one hand on the seat in front of him and the other clutching his own seat. I watched him catch the odd glimpse out the window and then quickly return his gaze to the seatback in front of him. I think he was a little nervous.

The flight itself was not that bad.  A little bumpy initially, to get through some of the clouds, and at times it looked like the dual props were going to trim some of the tree branches on the hillsides below us, but eventually it smoothed out and within about half an hour we were already back in Kathmandu.  I can’t remember why we decided not to fly to Lukla.

After spending a night Kathmandu, during which we both enjoyed a first real hot shower in over three weeks, we headed to Chitwan.  Chitwan is 160 or so kilometres west of Kathmandu and home to a wide variety of animals including rhinos, crocodiles, tons of different birds, and elusive Bengal tigers.  It is also the first national park founded in Nepal, and has been a World Heritage Site since the 1980s.

One would have thought that a single, long-distance bus ride in Nepal would be enough to confirm it as a “challenging” mode of transportation. However, we decided that at least two rides were needed and booked tickets on one of the larger and supposedly comfier “tourist” buses to get ourselves to the park.  We assumed it couldn’t be any worse than the ride to Shivalaya, especially considering the bulk of the driving would be along Nepal’s main east-west highway, and our handy travel agent near the hotel booked us “good” seats near the front.

Unfortunately for us, and perhaps conveniently for others, nobody bothered to tell us that the main highway was undergoing major construction works until after we had paid for the bus tickets.  To make matters worse, when we boarded the bus at 6:30 am the conductor informed us that our “good” seats at the front were already booked and so invited us to enjoy the very last seats in the bus, about 8 feet behind the rear wheel axle.  Guess what? The ride to Chitwan was worse than the ride to Shivalaya.  Bus travel in Nepal is indeed challenging.  The whole ride clocked in around 8 hours, and every little pothole we went over was amplified by the fact we were basically sitting at the end of a diving board.  Had it not been for the price tag of a 25 minute flight back to Kathmandu, we likely wouldn’t have endured a third bus ride in Nepal, but that is another story.

The dreadful bus ride was redeemed by another delicious lunch-stop dahl bhat meal, and the quiet lodge that we checked ourselves into in the village of Sauraha, on the northern park boundary.  For a little more than the cost of a six pack of craft beer in downtown Vancouver, we settled into a nice little bungalow next to a fish pond and tried to spot some of the many birds that could be heard in the trees.

The lodge was very peaceful and offered a variety of jungle activities to explore the park.  We opted for a full day trip into Chitwan, which included a two-hour canoe ride down the Rapti River, followed by a jungle walk for the remainder of the day.  It seemed like a nice way to get a good perspective of the park.

Our guide, Bishnu, was excellent.  Before we even stepped foot in the canoe – a long, wooden boat carved from a single tree trunk, that sat pretty low above the water – he pointed out a rhino taking a bath in the river upstream, at least three crocodiles lying not far from our launching point (presumably waiting for a free breakfast), and a half a dozen different kinds of birds.

“I think my work here is done for the day”, Bishnu said.

He then went on to explain the difference between the Gharial crocodiles (the ones with long skinny snouts, who feed primarily on fish), and the other, aptly named “mugger” crocodiles (who, according to Bishnu, prefer to snack on white tourists)! Then we all hopped into the canoe and floated off.

The canoe ride was very pleasant. None of us actually had to paddle – there was a boatman at the back who guided us down the river with a long pole and a paddle when he needed it. Bishnu sat at the front and rhymed off different bird species – kingfishers, egrets, cranes – faster than any of us could spot them; we stopped and took pictures of a couple of rhinos that were eating in the reeds; we spotted a couple wild boars; and every so often the assistant guide sitting behind me would whisper “crocodile” in my ear and quietly point to the lazy looking animals lying on the shore nearby. Awesome.

Towards the end of the canoe ride, we came around a corner in the river and Bishnu loudly whispered “TIGER!”  There was another couple in the boat with us and I was the only one who didn’t see it.  The guy in front actually got a great picture of the beautiful animal before it darted off into the woods.  Instead of carrying on our way down the river, Bishnu quickly commanded the boatman to head ashore so that we could follow the tiger into the forest.  So. That. We. Could. Follow. The. Tiger. Into. It’s. Natural. Habitat. Kim and I gave each other a kind of “WTF?” look, and then shrugged it off, feeling safe in the knowledge that both of our guides were carrying six foot long bamboo poles. Surely enough to knock out a grown Bengal tiger should we come around the corner and meet it face to face, get into a staring contest, and piss the thing off.

Shortly into the forest, Bishnu sniffed a wet spot on one of the sal trees – “Tiger urine, fresh“, and then pointed out a couple tracks in the mud.  We continued to tip toe along the path in utter silence, bamboo poles and cameras at the ready, to see if we could catch a closer glimpse.  I felt just a little bit vulnerable, especially having read John Vaillant’s book “The Tiger“, where he explains how the Bengal tigers relatives, the Siberian tigers, literally hunt humans.  Fortunately (I think?!) there was no further sign of the great animal and soon after, Bishnu, seemingly dejected, led us back to the boat to finish the rest of our canoe ride down the crocodile-infested Rapti River.

Later, back on shore and out of range of chomping crocodile jaws, Bishnu led us down game paths and jungle roads in search of rhinos (not lions), tigers and bears, oh no.  The heat was sweltering, and the 5 litres of water we brought for the two of us seemed a little underestimated, but wandering through the jungle was exciting and had an adventurous feel to it. Of course that didn’t stop us from looking over our shoulders on a regular basis.

Given the heat, animals were tough to spot, but we were fortunate to get a few sightings:  a rhino up close, hanging out in the reeds, two different kinds of deer, and even a second look at the beautiful tiger that we’d seen in the morning.  This time I spotter her – if only for long enough to process the fact it was a tiger.  But amazing nonetheless!

And of course there were the crocodiles.  After lunch we started following some tiger tracks to a regular watering hole where Bishnu told us that animals often go to escape the heat.  As we came out of the woods and arrived a stream, Bishnu invited us to take off shoes and socks off and wade across the stream.   “There are no crocodiles here”, he assured all of us as we looked at him as if to say “are you effing crazy?!”.  He was right as usual, however, there were no crocodiles and we all crossed with feet, legs, and toes still attached.

As we continued towards the watering hole, Bishnu hung a right down a small path back towards the stream, which seemed to be not more than 100 feet up from where we just crossed.  Apparently here was a place that the crocodiles sometimes hung out!  Sure enough, there was one hiding in the water with only its eyes to be seen – the other girl with us couldn’t believe we’d crossed the stream nearby.  Bishnu approached and soon the crocodile started moving towards us.  Then it started coming out of the water.  Then it hissed at us and opened it’s mouth to say get lost.  I started running away and hid behind Bishnu and Krishna (the assistant guide), while the two of them laughed and thrashed their bamboo poles in the bushes next to the pissed off croc. Of course it was only after we started walking away that Bishnu told us the crocodile sometimes nests in the very sand we were standing in!

The rest of our time in Chitwan provided some much needed rest after our weeks of trekking (and the jungle walk, for that matter).  We wandered through the village, enjoyed sunsets along the river, and visited the elephant bathing area.  It was nice to experience a different part of Nepal – it’s not just all big mountains and glaciers!  This morning, or rather all of today, we toughed out the bus ride back to Kathmandu and are feeling ready for the next stage of the trip.

It has been an incredible month, with wonderful company, and an adventure that will certainly get added to the bank of lifetime memories.  I hope to come back again someday.

Namche, Kati Tha Dhat Cha? (How Far is it To Namche?)

May 11, 2017 – 3:00PM

Namche Bazaar, 3440 m

Today is our first rest day of the trek.  Or rather, we’ll call it our first “acclimatization” day of the trek, because we still wandered around a whole bunch and the trip planning books build in extra days to help adjust to the elevation. We’re in Namche Bazaar, the closest place to a city that the Khumbu valley has to offer, and it is bustling with trekkers and climbers all coming and going.  It is fantastic to be here.

It’s taken us a full seven days of walking to get this far, but the experience to date has been incredible.

The topography of Nepal is such that many of the valleys drain the glaciers of the high Himalayan peaks in the north, along the Nepal-Tibet border, and flow into the plains towards the Indian border in the south of the country.  The route from Shivalaya just about all the way to Lukla conveniently runs from west to east, meaning that for six out of seven days it has been straight down one side of the valley, and straight up the other.  I’ve already lost track of how many vertical metres we’ve climbed (it’s a lot), but there have been at least a few days where 1000 m of climbing is the norm. Throw in a steady flow of oncoming donkey trains hauling materials from village to village (as well as their seemingly incessant stream of delightful droppings) and its been a nice way to get our hiking boots dirty and our legs in trekking shape.

The benefits of all the up and down (if you can imagine any) are actually many:  the trail has been relatively deserted of other trekkers; the villages, though often still under re-construction following the earthquake, are authentic; and our experiences with the local lodge owners have been friendly and personal.  Add to that the fact that we followed along the same route used by Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary during their first ascent of Mount Everest in 1953, and we’re feeling pretty good about ourselves.

Although the trail from Shivalaya wasn’t busy, we weren’t the only trekkers to be spotted.  There were at least three others, and they were usually either right in front, between, or behind us. We met them on our third night in Sete: another Canadian couple from Toronto and moving to Vancouver in July (Scott and Elliot) and a German guy (Laurin).  The five of us have teamed up and been trekking together for the last few days, which has been really nice.  We’re all planning to do the Three Passes trek, so we’ll see how long we stick together.

The walking itself has been straightforward and pleasant, and the locals have been more than happy to show us the way when needed. Big mountain views have been few, thanks in part to the mostly cloudy weather, but we did have our first views of Everest the other morning in the village of Phurteng:  it was the tiny-looking peak way back on the horizon that we probably wouldn’t have noticed if the goat-cheese-selling lodge owner hadn’t pointed it out and if we didn’t have binoculars in my pack.  But the cold smoke blowing off the summit was distinct! And it still brought a little mist to my eyes after dreaming about the trek for so long.

Aside from that we have mostly followed along steep trails on the hillsides and enjoyed many amazing views that the foothills have had to offer: the Dudh Khosi, monasteries and stupas, crazy suspension bridges crossing streams and rivers, terraced vegetable fields, and how could I forget the wonderful rhododendron forests (I’m told that we may have just missed the peak blooming season).

The day before yesterday we merged into the main Everest Base Camp trail, just north of Lukla, and there was an obvious increase in pedestrian traffic.  Our five days of walking prior to that really started to shine, however, as we skipped past many trekkers who had just gotten off the plane in Lukla and were still finding their legs and adjusting to the elevation which approached 3000 m.  The most impressive of all on the trail, though, have been the famous Nepali porters who will carry just about anything to where it needs to go.  Yesterday we saw a guy carrying no less than 15 cases of beer, stacked neatly in and above his wicker basket and balanced perfectly on his back, and our lodge owner in Phakding told us that some of them can carry up to 100 kg of materials.  Crazy!

When we haven’t been on the trail, there has been plenty of time to unwind at the lodges, and read, study the map, or make conversation with our hosts. I picked up a pocket-sized Nepali phrase book before leaving Kathmandu and have been studying most nights and blabbering incomprehensible one line phrases to any Nepali who will listen. In Junbesi the other night an 8 year old boy corrected my Nepali pronunciation while I interrupted him doing his homework and asked him if he likes to play sports.  I would consider that my vocabulary level has reached that of an advanced three year old Nepali child and I’ve mastered how to say “I don’t understand” every time someone responds to my one liners.  There have been many laughs and the local folks really seem to appreciate the effort.

Today we did an easy half day tour through some of the villages near Namche and climbed to over 3800 m to see what the air tastes like (a little thinner than what we are used to in Vancouver).  We are starting to feel like we’re getting into the big mountains now.  The weather was somewhat clear this morning and there were great views of Lhotse, Ama Dablam, Nuptse, and the odd glimpse of Everest when she felt like poking her head through the clouds.  The scale of things is enormous and it is a little hard to believe that our high point for the trek is still over 2000 m higher than where we are sitting now.  From Namche we will continue along the main Everest Base Camp trail for a few more days before branching off to the northeast towards the village of Chhukung.  From Chhukung we will attempt the first and highest of the three passes (Kongma La, 5535 m), before re-joining the main track and heading up to Everest Base Camp itself.  I can’t wait, and it all starts tomorrow.