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.

Time to Stretch Our Legs: Shivalaya to Lukla

May 4, 2017  – 8:00AM

Shivalaya, Nepal

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.