The hardest thing about starting the trek was breathing! Because air pressure is less high up, each puff you take gets less oxygen in your lungs than at sea level
. When I arrived at Lukla even going upstairs left me slightly breathless. It was worst on the second day when we reached the killer hill up to Namche Bazaar. THis is about 3 hours of unrelenting walking up- and was the first time I regretted not hiring a porter to carry my bag for me! Most people were travelling in groups with guides and porters, and seemed to whizz up carrying tiny daysacks. There was me feeling like a tortoise with my house on my back, and moving at a similar speed. Slow and steady with brief rests seemed to work though, as inevitably we caught up with the groups who sped on ahead then needed long rests. Whatever the approach, it was agony- my legs felt like they were about to drop off by the time we sighted Namche Bazaar. And we still had quite a way to go- including more up- before we got to the lodges. First priority was getting a cup of tea. Second was finding a book exchange (I'd finished my book at Lukla and had been without reading material for nearly two days! My reading speed continued to cause problems throughout the trek, and led to me devouring bad historical romances, and even to obtaining a book in what I think was Swedish (the title was in English and was a book I knew so I didn't check the blurb on the back... big mistake. I swopped it for the bad romance in a lodge in the middle of nowhere- at least I could understand the romance. Some day a Swede who has read to quickly will be delighted to find a copy of Catch 22 at the only lodge in Orsho (which also happens to be the only building in Orsho, and home of very good dal bhat).
After an acclimatisation and rest day at Namche (where we tried to persuade our legs to work again after the hill), we set off for Tengboche. This was a pleasant walk, with more big hills. The problem with going to the biggest mountain range in the world is you tend to spend lots of time walking up
. And when you go down it is inevitably into a valley you probably have to go up the other side of. I was delighted a week or so into the trek when we tackled the hill above Thakla, on the way to climb Kala Pattar, and I found it was easy. At this stange, however, my legs were still complaining, although my eyes were glancing round going 'wow!' as we passed deep gorges with raging rivers at the bottom, evergreen forests scattered with rhododendrons and bamboo, and little villages such as Phunki Tenga (the coolest village in the Khumbu?), where we stopped for lunch and watched the water powered prayer wheels revolving.
Tengboche is a vilage known for its monastery. The original was built earlier this century, on a site seen as sacred because one of the Khumbu's infamous flying lamas had landed there, leaving footprints in a rock. Flying seems like a great way to get over those hills.... I'm suprised more people don't try to cultivate the necessary levels of inner peace! Anyway, the monastery was burned down a few years ago, and rebuilt, so we popped along for a visit.
The gompa was a riot of colour and noise. We had arrived during the monk's evening ceremony, with the usual overwhelming effect on the senses. The huge drums and horns could be heard miles away, and the noise of the instruments was interspersed with long periods of chanting
. The inside of the gompa was all painted with intricate designs in vibrant colours, depicting Buddhas, Tara (the female Buddha), dragons, phoenix, tigers and some particularly terrifying deities, displaying a lack of Buddhist tranquility. Amazingly intricate mandalas made from yak butter and presented as offerings by believers were brought in, and incense and juniper wood were burning, adding to the sensual overload. The initial effect was awesome, but what was most interesting was observing the individual monks. Two young lads at the back were clearly having a natter when they were supposed to be chanting, and an elderly monk seemed to be on the verge of nodding off and was always about ten seconds behind everyone else when it came to donning and removing his curved range hat. Later we went to the visitor's centre, where we watched a video showing the local work done by the monastery, who are very involved with education and conservation. I presume people pay attention- one of the educational techniques is to poke young monks with a pencil if they get a word wrong!
The following day I was woken at 5.30 by a pair of monks playing cymbals and conch shell by the kami gate near our lodge (the gate is intended to prevent evil spirits from entering the vilage. I'm sure the music would scare off any lurking malevolence- it certainly got me out of bed). We got ready, taking care not to fall down the toilet. This was my first Khumbu squat toilet experience, and it was a classic. The loo was in a wooden outhouse, locatable, as the local toilets always are, by its smell. THere was an unusually short distance between the door and the big hole in the middle of the floor, obliging the user to keep very close to the wall to avoid putting a foot wrong (the hole probably wasn't big enough to fall down, but the drop was short enough that you could certainly end up with a very smelly leg)
. At the back of the hut was a pile of leaves- this gets pushed into the hole occasionally so that it mixes with what has been deposited down there to produce compost for the fields. I am glad to know that during my trek I have helped with next year's crop growing.
Going to the loo is made more perilous by the fact that if any other user has a bad aim, the result is likely to freeze on the floor over night, making the floor slippy. Some of the holes are very small and learning to aim properly takes time so this happens more often than is desireable. Occasionally lodge owners try to make their outhouses a more pleasant experience for there guests. One lodge at lobuche added bomb-proof metal doors with sliding latches that looked like they fronted a bank vault, and even had double glazing. The effect was let down by the holey dry stone wall, through which the wind rushed, and the usual wobbly floorboards. In Gorak Shep the loos was inside, which saved cold dashes across fields at night but meant our rooms all smelt. At Luza, a real porcelain throne had been carried up, with a hole knocked in the u-bend to allow access to the pit. Sadly it had no seat, making it very hard to use.
It is amazing to think that everything in the Khumbu has been carried up there
. Even if it gets flown into one of the few airports, from there it has to be carried to its destination by porter or yak. This applies whether it is a tv, case of beer, mattress or packet of noodles. Most things go by porter, who carry loads using tamplines which strap round their heads, and conical baskets fixed to these which rest on their backs. Using this, porters can carry loads of beer as far as tourists are likely to go to buy it. The most amazing sight I saw were 3 porters each carrying 6 metre long lengths of thick drain pipe, either balanced on their head or shoulder. I'm not sure how they managed to get the things round the sharp corners of the switchbacks carved into the mountain sides. Another guy set of with a bale of mattresses, taller than him, loking from behind like a cuboid with legs. Porters are even capable of carrying people in their baskets, if friends or tourists get sick and need to be taken down the mountain quickly. The really unbelievable thing is most of them do this wearing flipflops, on steep hills I found hard with hiking boots and a load a fraction of theirs. Most of the porters are men, although sometimes we saw women and children as young as 8 carrying loads. THe women tend to run the family lodge or teahouse, look after the finances and find work for their menfolk. THey also have the amazing ability to make any discussion sound like a raging arguement. I don't think Sherpanis lose many arguements, except maybe with each other!
Our first day of walking was a relatively easy induction. One of the limiting factors when trekking in the Himalyas is the altitude. We had to be careful how much height we gained each day, or risk altitude sickness. Oli and I both had a relatively relaxed approach to fixing an itinerary, which meant we'd be able to take it easy if necessary. We had also both been to altitude before, and hadn't had any problems, which was a good sign. During the trek we met many people who were forced to abandon their plans because of AMS (accute mountain sickness), usually brought on by schedules which took them too high too quickly and didn't give the flexibility to allow them time to adapt (this seemed to be a common problem on group treks- if you can't keep up you get turned back).