Published: April 13th 2007April 13th 2007
Montreal and Kathmandu are a world apart. Excluding stop-overs: 6 hours to Los Angeles, 17 hours to Bangkok then 4 hours to Kathmandu adds up to 27 hours worth of leg cramp, and not much sleep. It would actually have been slightly shorter (but more expensive) to fly the other way around the world.
But before I can start trekking, there's a 10-hour public bus ride to survive, switch-backing for hours as we climb to a high pass then dig-zagging down to a river crossing, only to repeat the cycle over and over again. Other than a ruptured break line and my first meal of dal bhat (more on this delicacy later), the bus trip from Kathmandu to Jiri was not too scary.
Why on earth would I want to go through all that to reach a tiny village in rural Nepal? Because it's just about as close as I can get by road to the Khumbu region in the Himalayas of North-Eastern Nepal, bordering Tibet. It's the home of 5 monster mountains (including Everest) that exceed 8000m (26000 ft) and many other close contenders. There's nowhere higher and arguably nowhere more beautiful on earth.
Birds-eye view of the Trek
With some help from Google Earth. This blog entry covers Jiri to Namche.
have flown to Lukla at the doorstep of the Khumbu but I chose as the first half of my trek to walk the traditional approach route through Sherpa villages to Namche Bazaar. This is a pedestrian highway used by the hundreds of porters who provision these villages just as they have done for centuries. After acclimatizing in here in Namche Bazaar, the second half of my trek will be to hike to Gokyo for spectacular close-up views of the Himalayas, but that will be for the next edition
This first part is not a wilderness trek but rather an intimate view into rural Nepali life. There are people everywhere and the abundance of children is a testament to Nepal's explosive 2.3% annual population growth rate. The trail not only crosses countless micro-villages but it seems to almost dissect homes because so much of life here happens around the house.
Many homes also serve as tea-houses or lodges, serving meals and accommodation to passing porters and the occasional trekker. A typical tea-house is small, dark and smoky; smoky because all meals are prepared on an indoor open fire (photo), often without the benefit of a chimney. Smoke just
oozes out from beneath the eaves (photo). Lodges, larger and therefore somewhat less smoky, offer multiple guest rooms. Both types of establishment are unheated, uninsulated and necessarily draughty. It takes some courage to crawl out of the warm sleeping bag in the morning when it's 5 C in the room. Lodge room prices have ranged from a low of $0.75 per night when I shared a room with 2 others, to a high of $2.00 per night for a private room. I once bought a bottle of beer at a lodge that cost 6 times the price of my room! But of course the beer had to be carried for days on a porter's back.
My daily routine starts by getting up at 6 AM and having a breakfast of porridge and pancakes before hitting the trail for about 3 hours. Lunch takes an hour and a half because there's no such thing as fast food here. I trudge for another 3 hours in the afternoon, have supper at 7 PM and I'm fast asleep by 8. Some days I climbed 1000 to 1300m in the morning only to descend almost as much in the afternoon. Other days, the
order is reversed but flat terrain is nonexistent.
There are no roads at all in this part of Nepal but yet houses cling to steep slopes everywhere. Anything that cannot be produced locally must be carried by streams of porters that trod a network of steep mountain the footpaths. These porters are surprisingly small for the enormous loads they carry. Most are in their teens and some are even younger. Child labour among porters (photo) is an issue that aid organizations are attempting to discourage.
Porters take orders in various villages and then walk for days to supply points such as Jiri before hauling these huge loads back. They are paid by distance and weight carried. From Jiri to Namche Bazaar (the first week of my trek) a porter would earn the equivalent $0.75 per kg. So how much can they carry? A standard load is 30 kg but some women can carry as much as 50 kg (1110 lbs) and men up to 80 kg (175 lbs). I saw one 18-20 year-old man grunting his way up a hill with 7 full 18-liter containers of kerosene on his back - that's about 100 kg (220 lbs)! (photo)
They are human transport trucks.
Many villages now have some form of electricity, usually from local micro hydro-electric generating stations that provide barely enough power for dim lighting, but certainly not enough for cooking or heating. When I arrived at one lodge in the midst of a thunderstorm, I was told that they had disconnected the electricity as a precaution. That seemed overly cautious to me but I didn't mind. A few days later, another lodge did not take the same precaution. Several times during the storm, an empty light socket near me flashed over with a loud snapping zap. This didn't seem to bother the lodge keeper at all and he just reset the breaker when it tripped. Thoughts for Food
The standard dish in Nepal is dal bhat. When I say standard, I mean that it is offered absolutely everywhere, even when it does not appear on a menu (it goes without saying). Nepalis eat dal bhat every day, usually twice per day. So what is it? A bowl of lentil soup (dal) is poured over a pile of rice (bhat), then the "diner" tosses curried green vegetables or potatoes onto the heap and
massages everything into a mush with bare hands before scooping into his mouth, using gooey fingers as the only utensils (photo). It's a sight to see but a hungry trekker is well advised to get used to it because it's usually the freshest and most edible dish offered. Dal bhat is almost always all-you-can-mush, not that I've asked for seconds.
Other good choices include Sherpa stew (photo) or Tibetan momos but any Western sounding menu item is a risky undertaking. I tried pizza once. It looked like they just threw a little bit of everything they had in the kitchen, including a soft-yoke egg, onto some chapati bread and smothered it all in ketchup for an authentic red look.
There are no ovens so food is either boiled or fried. I have not had meat since starting the trek.
I knew from previous trips that sooner or later I would crave some familiar comfort food, so I brought a couple packages of the powdered spaghetti sauce that I like to take camping. One evening, there was nothing appetizing on the lodge's menu except spaghetti and I shuttered to think how they might mess that up with no
tomatoes in sight and the ketchup bottle suspiciously handy. I asked the cook to just cook plain noodles and let me make my own sauce on the kitchen fire. It was exactly what I needed and I rarely remember spaghetti tasting so good. My mouth is watering now as I write about spaghetti and await my dal bhat to be served. Next:
I'll be heading still higher over the next week, eventually to my destination of Gokyo Peak at almost 5500m (18000 ft) which promises one of the best panoramic views of the Himalayas.
There are more photos below