Day 0: Kathmandu Reconfigures Your Map
[1,400 Metres / 30°C]
The sonofabitching security guy at the airport in Delhi nicked my Victorinox "Manager" keychain pen knife. After a string of losses in the noughties (mostly at airports while this item is perfectly acceptable at Heathrow security, other airport security apparati take a dimmer view), I'd managed to hang onto this one forever. The security dude at least let me keep the mini-tweezers. So there was that.
So, as previously noted, I scored a nice comfy lounge chair, after also scoring a coffee, and racked out in style. When I finally awoke, it was to the sound of screaming children, and a half-full departures lounge, but I already had the best seat in the house. Waiting to board, I continued obsessively jamming on my Nepali "nice to meet you," it transpires, is five just-killer words, but as notebook notes:
Well, I'm here to report, after the fact, that those five words vexed me across half of Nepal they failed me virtually every time I needed them. So much for effort and good intentions.
After finally boarding, I managed to get some more fitful sleep on the plane. Based on this whole experience, I'm afraid I cannot in good faith recommend air travel in India neither deodorant nor respect for personal space are major themes, and the children run free. But I did get my first glimpse of the High Himalayas on approach, imagining (probably wrongly) that one visible peak might actually be Nuptse.
Had to queue three times to exit the airport, but got out fast for all that. In the first of the very many felicities associated with engaging Mountain Monarch Climbing & Trekking, I was retrieved right at the airport by a driver and our guide for the trek. First impression:
My first impression was exactly right aside from being too timid x100. Aakash turned out to be the best part of our trek, bar nothing. More on that anon. I dug the camera out and started shooting through glass. Freaking Kathmandu! Jeesh!
Checking in, I found the hotel was charming in a scruffy way, with a charming staff, and even had a nice-ish leafy courtyard. ← Darby was scheduled to land at 13.45, but her flight was delayed some, and our pre-trek briefing wasn't until 16.00. This gave me some time to hit the town! What a town… I headed south into the heart of Thamel.
But I also had an agenda. One doesn't like to trek without a good multi-tool or at least pocket knife, and as noted I couldn't afford to check a bag, so knife-shopping was the first order of business. Found a shop pretty quickly, didn't have enough Nepalese rupees to close the transaction, but made a pretty good deal by chucking in some good ole greenbacks.
Did I mention this is a crazy-ass town…?
It wasn't long before I attracted touts for one of the traditional (and ubiquitous) Buddhist Thanka painting academies. The young people touting me were extremely nice and polite, so I let them drag me back and the work was just amazing. I genuinely wanted to buy some stuff (for me, and Danielle), even at prices which were a local fortune; but I also didn't want to mess with it pre-trek (including storing the things). So I dropped a pin in Google maps and promised earnestly to return. (Remember that…)
I ambled south to Durbar Square, the putative center of things, or one of them, in Kathmandu. That's it coming up ahead there →, the Trailokya Mohan Narayan Temple dominating. I found the square itself a little underwhelming, so after a quick turn around it, not wanting to get too far afield, I ambled north again, by another route.
Making the best out of quite a lot of strung-everywhere electrical lines was a major, and somewhat charming, theme. It did rather offset the dirt, mud, noise, smells, and constantly almost being run down by scooters and small lorries, all of which were less charming. On the upside, which was also another downside, they were constantly honking to warn you before running you down. Behold:
It also wasn't much longer, probably inevitably, before I grew a guide. He, and his friend, were completely charming, and gave me an excellent tour of some of the local temples and other sights, to which I was amenable. Below, for instance, and which I probably never would have stumbled upon on my own, is the Katse Simbhu stupa. (A stupa is the oldest type of Buddhist religious monument.) This one is 600 years old and has the Buddha's eyes facing in all four directions.
Next stop was the Seto Machendra Nath Stupa.
My notes are a little sparse and confusing here, but evidently this is a 400-year-old shrine to the God of Rain. Also, evidently, Annapurna is the God of Enough Food. Below you can also see the first of the billions of lovely Buddhist prayer wheels I'd be reverently rolling across half of Nepal, always clockwise.
I paid off the guide first trying £10, then throwing in 500 rupees, but then getting talked up to £20 then wandered off and bought a pair of nail clippers, to deal with my first health and wellness problem: a horribly chipped nail. Then continued ambling, and gawping. Scoring a bag of cashew nuts, I repaired to a secluded garden with a burbling fountain to eat them.
While I sat, I emailed Mark, telling him how much this place reminded me of Stone Town on Zanzibar not least, though not only, because I walked around eating cashew nuts there all day long. Nutsack emptied, I got a text: Dargbles inbound. I headed back. More crazy-assness.
On the way back, in the laundry shop (naturally), my man Assis hooked me up with 3GB of data service for my phone, for $10.
Darby! I found her back in the room like she owned the joint. It'd actually only been a year or two since we got together for an evening when she was swinging through London. Then again, our last (and first) trek together was in 2005. We exited the staging carnage and headed down for our briefing, in the leafy courtyard.
There we met, in addition to Aakash… Pradip, owner and head honcho of Mountain Monarch. This is the lovely, lovely, lovely man who has been patiently answering my infinitude of circular questions, unfailingly politely and helpfully, for over a year unfailingly prefacing each email with “Namaste, Michael.” Get this: HE'S AN EVEN LOVELIER MAN IN PERSON. Just wow. Here are some things we learned at our briefing.
0530 wake-up call
We'll spend 10 days above 5,000m
Highest point: Kala Pattar, 5,545m (18,192 ft)
Breathe through nose to avoid cough, chest infection, dehydration
Never feel 100% safe about food
Nothing is killed north of Lukla any meat will have been carried on back of someone for a week
"If you are doing nothing, you are acclimatizing."
Drinking (booze) only happens *on the way down*
No caffeine in the afternoon
Tell Aakash about any drug-taking
Water will be boiled for us in morning and at dinnertime
Drink 1/2 litre water per day, minimum.
It costs 200-600 rupees to charge a battery
Shower shoes are not optional
I'd definitely learn why, as regards that last stricture. But another take-away was: We were going to see everything great in the Solu-Khumbu.
Since we were operating on a slightly compressed schedule, we were skipping the customary full day of temple-hopping and sightseeing in Kathmandu. We did, however, get our traditional welcome dinner! With… MUSIC! <hand clap> DANCING! We also had a bit of a veganism discussion. Aakash had some British vegans on the last trek, and wanted to try to understand better.
Dinner itself was a set-meal, and fantastic. Aakash was already blocking and tackling waiters who tried to bring me animal products. This made it totally obvious we were going to be looked after well. He even seemed genuinely thrilled about this trip and not just on our behalf. He was actually excited about going back to all these places, despite having been to all of them perhaps literally a hundred times, over 14 years, and kept smiling out loud. [I was to learn more about this, and why.]
We learned that his wife is a year-four teacher, and that they have a five-year-old daughter. From the picture he showed us, she is clearly something special. I necked two 660ml beers something called Nepal Ice. Despite the cautionary name, they were bleeding fabulous and also the last two I was going to see for awhile. An axiom of high-altitude trekking is: drink on the way down, but not on the way up. It messes with your acclimatisation.
Aakash: “Nine thousand died in fifty seconds.”
That put things in perspective… We were to learn more about what things were like there during the earthquake.
But now it was pack slim-down time! We'd be taking two porters with us, in addition to our guide, Aakash. I initially tried to object to this arrangement: for me, it's generally a matter of self-respect to hump my own ruck. However, there was: 1) the altitude (to which no one knows how they're going to react); 2) some extremely rough terrain, and unrelenting climbing; and 3) the fact that this is how these guys make their living. Moreover, Mountain Monarch (henceforth: MM) operates an ethical "one trekker / one porter" policy, to never get in the situation of overloading their guys. And who was I to mess with that?
And but so we got two huge kit bags into which to jam everything we didn't actually need to trek with during the day. We were also given four-season sleeping bags, liners, full-length gaiters, Yaktrax, and huge down jackets. So now we needed the damned kit bags. You can see them in the above picture with Darby, which was actually taken, erm, now.
We also had to get our pack weight down to 15kg each not for the sake of the porters, whom we were soon to learn can carry twice as much as us, at twice the speed, in shitty shoes, without breaking a sweat or losing their smiles but for the internal small-plane flight up to Lukla. They wouldn't allow us more weight than that. As you can see, two major themes (and issues) for Darby were electronics including this nearly unbelievably clever device that tracked our movements via GPS, plotted them on a web-based map accessible to friends and family; and had a panic button which would send the medevac helos flying in and Lara bars. She must have had a hundred. The couldn't all come. I was happy to help (eat them).
MM actually provided us with a hanging scale.
The astute mathematicians amongst you will notice I was still a kilo over. But I was gloating because Darby was still languishing at 20kg in total. (Ha!)
All this unpacking and repacking also of course conduced to some kit-measuring throwing our various bits of gear out on the slab. Against my new Victorinox knife which had a wicked saw, and a full-length file that had me liking my chances if imprisoned Darby produced a gorgeous, matte-black SOG hybrid knife/multitool. Point to Darby. (Hardly for the first time.) She also had her cable ties! and there must have been 100 of them, as well. Seeing this universe of crap laid out on the bed, I realised I was finally getting a look inside her fabled bag of holding.
After the final weigh-in, I found I was so tired I was buzzing I'd had a total of five hours sleep over the last two nights and went down fast and hard. Woke later, in the middle of the night, as I often do, needing to splash some water in my crusty and swollen eyes. As I did so, in the dark, still three-quarters-asleep, I realised I was also dehydrated from drinking, so figured I'd establish some good hydration habits, and started taking a good few big gulps of water…
…three of which went down before I realised: I was drinking out of the feathersodding tap. Then I remembered I'd also brushed my teeth with the gorram tap water, before bed the wages of drunkenness. And, even in that exact moment, my stomach, shaking its head sadly, urged me a few feet over to the toilet. Oops! I had every reason to expect I had just boarded an express train for what they charmingly call the Khumbu Quickstep. (The nearly unavoidable diarrhoea that afflicts trekkers in Nepal.) It wasn't bad yet. But there was plenty of time for that still.