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Published: November 10th 2009
General view from the trail Day 1
The Solukhumbu of Nepal is a place of incredible, daunting beauty, with fertile, glacier-fed river bottomed pine forest-filled valleys surrounded by mammoth snow-shouldered bastions of stark Himalayan rock. I spent eleven days sharing this landscape with yaks, tourists, Tibetan Buddhist monks, Mount Everest, and the famous Sherpa people, and now I can share a little bit of the experience with you. The first part is my day-by-day, followed by some general observations.
My trip really began at the road entrance to the airport compound. Not wanting to spend too much on transportation, I took a tuk-tuk to an intersection close-by and walked the rest of the way (gear and all—a big backpack with a walking stick and sleeping bag hanging off of it). At the entrance I was ushered into a little holding room, for no reason that was apparent to me, and I waited for five minutes before learning from one of the armed guards that I really didn’t need to be there, and that I could walk to the terminal without fear of being shot. When I reached the building of chaos (Tribhuvan Airport domestic terminal), I looked in vain for a desk labeled with my
Yak Train Coming Through
airline, then finally gave my ticket to the first man in uniform I could find. He looked at it for a little bit, called some of his cohorts over, talked in Nepali for a few minutes, looked stumped for a few minutes, talked some more, and finally told me that they were trying to put me on an earlier flight so I wouldn’t have to wait so long. Nice enough. The earlier flight ended up being a cargo flight (my suspicion is that my flight didn’t actually exist), and I was the only human passenger. It couldn’t have been any better, really—I had a complete panoramic view of the south side of the Himalayas and their foothills between the Kathmandu Valley and the Khumbu all to myself. The destination town is a small place called Lukla. It has a single airstrip, perched on the edge of a cliff, and the plane approaches the landing straight-on, like a player sliding to home base. No problems, and when I arrived I was greeted with a fantastic view of the Khumbu valley and the Dudh Khosi river flowing at its bottom. After a quick lunch of daal bhat I set off on the
trail toward Monjo, my first sleeping place. The hiking was wonderful—it’s generally called trekking here, but the first day was so easy and gradual that I think hiking is a better word. I was greeted for the first time by the sights and smells of yaks, I passed numerous organized trekking groups and super-human porters carrying loads fit for semi-trucks, and I got great Nepali language practice with the many hired guides on the trail, all the while marveling at the beautiful sights of an Eden-like landscape. The conversations with guides always started the same—they would ask where I was from, what I was doing, and where I was going; after five minutes they would compliment my Nepali language, and I would then steer the conversation toward music. One of the guys said he was learning guitar, and that he really like classic rock—Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Deep Purple. One of the older guys said that he hated pop music, did a grotesque impression of pop vocals, and then expounded on the virtues of clean, clear, classical tone. At one point I met a Nepali expedition organizer who lives in San Francisco and was leading a group of Americans, and
I would continue to see him at all of my future stops. Munching on dry fruit, humming to myself, walking stick in hand, I felt like Bilbo Baggins setting out on the road of unknowable adventure. I reached Monjo at about 5 pm; the air was getting chilly and the sun had already descended beyond the western ridge. As a single foreigner I was hesitant to enter any lodge for fear of getting ripped off, so I chatted a little bit with a group of porters who pointed me to the lodge where they were staying (they looked down on me as a weakling when they found out I was a music teacher). The lodge is run by a beautiful young Sherpa woman, and after showing me to my room we both went to the kitchen area where we had rousing conversations in Nepali with the guides and porters about their various adventures in the mountains. After a while I went to the dining room and met a group of young British, Australian, and American travelers on their way back from Everest Base Camp, and we played cards until the stove ran cold (time for bed—around 8:30 pm).
This morning I woke up, ate breakfast in the kitchen (a little unusual for a foreigner, but I could speak some Nepali, so it was OK), and set out on the trail by 8 am. Very close to Monjo is the entrance to Sagarmatha National Park, the heart of the Khumbu (Sagarmatha is the Nepali word for Mt. Everest), and after paying my 1,000 rupee entrance fee I walked through the gate painted with Tibetan Buddhist designs, took a right, and was greeted by a spectacular valley view with waterfalls, Mani stones (boulders carved with ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’, a Buddhist mantra, in the Tibetan script), and the biggest mountain I had seen so far, extending its pyramid summit in rocky splendor above. I walked alone for a while near the river, trying to reach the crossings with the long, steel-cord bridges with footholds for yaks before the yak trains did, and finally came to the first real trekking of the trip. I knew before I arrived that each of my stops would be at a higher altitude than the previous, and I ignorantly assumed that each day would be a gradual ascent. In fact, the trail goes up
and down over the ridges, sometimes climbing over and sometimes descending to river level, all within the single day’s trip. My second day concluded with a very long, rigorous ascent up the side of a ridge to the town called Namche Bazaar, my destination. This trail was very steep and full of steps, boulders, switchbacks, yaks, cliff-faces, and less oxygen than I was used to. I started out by trying to keep up with a local school-girl as she climbed ahead, always a switchback in front of me, and seemingly never fatigued. I gave this up quickly and fell into a more relaxed pace. About halfway up I struck a conversation with a porter who is a big fan of Credence Clearwater Revival. We talked music for a while, and he showed me off to his friends—the white guy who speaks Nepali. He’s also learning guitar, and he wants to make a rock band and tour the world. Higher still, maybe a half hour away from Namche, is the first, glorious view of Mount Everest. It’s glorious only because it’s the first; in fact, the view is distant and tree-shrouded, but it hits as a catharsis—a feeling of immense accomplishment
View from my lodge window
and a comfort that the trip hasn’t been in vain. From there it’s a short, motivated walk to Namche, the crossroads of the Khumbu, with tourist shops, internet cafes, many lodges, and where Tibetan traders set up market. Namche is situated in a natural mountain amphitheater facing west. The peak of Thamserku is visible to the northeast, and another Himal takes up the southwest skyline. The town is terraced, with U-shaped paths stacked on top of each other full of shops, bakeries, and lodges. A quick note about ‘Himalayas’—Himal means snow-shouldered, and only a mountain or ridge with snow is called a Himal. Everest is a Himal, Ama Dablam is another Himal, Thamserku, etc. Together they are Himalayas. After my arrival in Namche I sought out the Pumori Guest House, a place recommended to me by previous Fulbrighters. The recommendations were spot on—the place is an excellent, cosy, family-run establishment with solid walls and sun-facing windows; the family is extremely friendly, and the food is excellent. I unpacked, introduced myself as L’s friend, and experienced a nice warm greeting and equally warm cup of tea. I arrived in the early afternoon, so I had some time to wander around the
How many yaks in this picture?
town a little bit before dinner time. The tourist part is a little bit like the tourist part of Kathmandu, except that the prices are higher and the novelties are focused on Mt. Everest. Dinner was served back at the lodge, and I met a couple of German and Argentinean travelers setting out for Everest Base Camp and some of the other mountain passes. I was fairly tired from the trek up, and I went to bed early (around 7 pm).
This was my acclimatization day—I was free to explore the area, but I would return and sleep in Namche again for my body to adjust to the altitude. I slept in, enjoying the view and the warmth of the sun rising over Thamserku, and after a late breakfast set out on a day trip to Khumjung, a town on the other side of the hill from Namche. The best way to get to Khumjung is up and over, and it’s nearly a two hour ascent to the summit of the little hill—not because it’s high, but because the going is so slow at altitude. I shared part of the journey with an old man who lives
Nighttime in Namche
in Namche. He only had a few teeth left, and I had a hard time making out his speech, but I understood (in Nepali), “I’m an old man, and I have to go slowly. We’re going to the same place, so we should go together.” He went at a perfect pace. Halfway up I ran into an American trekker and stopped to talk, and the old man left me behind. I quickly joined a group of decorated women with big shiny nose-rings carrying full baskets strapped to their heads. They made fun of me for a while in the old working-woman sort of way. At the top of the hill I stopped, awe-struck, as a perfect view of Mt. Everest, Lhotse, Ama Dablam, and Thamserku unfolded in front of me. Everest had its characteristic cloud tail, and Ama Dablam looked as if its arms were getting ready for an embrace. As if this weren’t peaceful enough, the top of the hill also housed an elegant Buddhist stupa (a small sort of monument) with prayer flags strung out all around waving lightly in the breeze. I enjoyed that spot alone for a half hour, after which I was joined by a
21-year old porter with whom I made friends immediately. We chatted the whole way down to Khumjung (he wants to learn guitar), and made fruitless plans to meet up again later. Khumjung was a very quiet town on that day. It sees much less tourists than Namche, and during trekking season I assume that most of its strong people are out driving yaks, portering, or guiding. Khumjung houses a famous school built by Sir Edmund Hillary, and the school courtyard features his statue. I walked around the town idly for a little bit, stopping to talk with some old men knitting yak collars, and made my way to the gompa (Buddhist Monastery). I didn’t go in, but I should have—I found out later that the Khumjung gompa houses a yeti scalp. Khumjung also sits in a little grassy amphitheater, and it opens out toward Ama Dablam. I walked around the outside bowl, getting lost in the dead-end trails, and finally found a place to sit and eat lunch—the only customer in the restaurant. Heading back to Namche, I stopped at the hilltop stupa again, found a good flat spot with a view of Everest, laid down, and took a nap.
Himal and Stupa
When I woke up, refreshed, some clouds had started to move in, and I made my way back quickly down the hill to Namche and the lodge. At the lodge I ran into the Nepali San Francisco expedition guy—apparently he knew the lodge family pretty well—and I joined the group for rigikor, a non-menu Sherpa delicacy of potato pancakes with butter and spicy cream sauce. Over dinner I spoke with an interesting British couple for a while about nothing important, ate a yak steak (very good with ginger sauce), then went to my room to prepare for the trek to Tengboche the next day.
After breakfast and some confusion about the bill, I set out for Tengboche. Rather than going up and over the hill like the trail to Khumjung, the trail to Tengboche goes around the ridge on the east, passes Khumjung, and then turns into one of those ‘descend all the way to the river and then go back up again to an elevation 400 meters higher than where you started’ trails. There was another great Everest view along the first stretch of trail, but that disappeared among ridges and forests as the trail went
Me, Ama Dablam on the right, Lhotse straight behind, and Mt. Everest to the left with the cloud
on. I had every intent to practice my Nepali language and continue to chat with guides and porters, but on the descent to the river I met up with a young Irish couple, ate lunch, and spent the rest of the trek with them, speaking English. They were trekking on their own, spending a short adventurous three-week vacation from work in Ireland. We went very slowly, talking about the usual—sports, music, food, sun protection (for fair Irish skin). I wasn’t in any hurry; talking with them probably kept me from over-extending myself. The plan going into this whole Khumbu trip was that I would trek to Tengboche on my own, then meet up with fellow Fulbrighters B and L and their friends M and S to experience the Tengboche Mani Rimdu festival. The plan sounded great until this day when I realized that I didn’t know where or when they would be in Tengboche. I assumed going into it that they would take care of accommodation, but if I couldn’t find them I would be on my own, and the festival would guarantee that nothing would be available. That said, I arrived in Tengboche with the Irish couple and promptly
The school is in the foreground
couldn’t find my friends. The couple were able to find a room, but I held off, thinking that mine was already taken care of. Tengboche is a small place, and I checked all of the main places, to no avail, and finally decided to pick a place, stay there, and wait for my friends to arrive (they must still be on their way). Let me try to explain Tengboche. If there is a more majestic place on Earth, I haven’t heard about it. Tengboche is on the flat, grassy top of a hill surrounded on all sides by Himalayas. The whole Nuptse, Everest, Lhotse ridge occupies an unbroken vista to the north, Ama Dablam, Kangtega, and Thamserku lie to the east, another Himal borders the south, and the snow-less crag called Khumbila is in the west with distant Himalayas beyond. The town itself contains the largest and most prominent Tibetan-Sherpa Buddhist monastery in the Khumbu, presided over by the honorable reincarnate head lama, the Tengboche Rinpoche. The monastery is by far the largest and most outstanding building in the town, with an ornately painted gate, large prayer-wheel enclosures around the outside, a rock-paved courtyard enclosed by a two-story painted viewing
structure with a tall prayer flag pole in the center, and the sanctuary—unbelievably decorated with innumerable wall paintings, flags, auspicious symbols, manuscripts, instruments, carvings, and more. All around the main monastery structure were smaller dormitory buildings where the many monks quartered. Standing on a small rise in the center of town, it is possible to see the outside of the monastery (the courtyard wall and the elevated sanctuary wall), the gate, two immediate stupas and one distant stupa (all with strings of prayer flags), all of the mountains previously described, some small shops, a bakery, and the waving field of grass around which all of these buildings are situated. I arrived on the day before the festival was to begin, but it was still possible for me to go into the monastery courtyard and watch the monks practice the dances. I did, thinking that my friends would be able to find me there. After maybe an hour (the sun was starting to descend behind the southern Himal), my cell-phone rang, surprising me even at the possibility, and I was once again in touch with my friends. They were indeed on their way, and they had reserved rooms at a lodge,
With Mani stones
and I needed to go make sure the reservations were still good. They were, and we had a grand reunion over dinner that night. Unfortunately, however, we were five people, and only four beds were reserved. We decided to rotate out and have one of us sleep in the dining room each night. I volunteered to be first, and endured a very cold, drafty, uncomfortable night and early morning.
I woke up after very little rest and tried to warm myself around an inefficient wood stove and cup of tea.
Interlude about cold:
Tengboche is very high in the mountains, and in early November is very cold. The only real warmth comes from the sun, and the sun is only direct from 8 am until 4 pm—it has to climb and descend the mountains just like we do. This leads to an inevitable, unavoidable, completely saturating cold for the other 16 hours in the day. Those of you who have lived in snowy climates understand in your minds how uncomfortable cold can be, but until you leave your climate controlled, insulated houses with roaring fireplace to sleep for three nights in a drafty plywood shack, you
Everest and Lhotse
Everest is on the left with the cloud
won’t know what we went through in Tengboche. A down jacket, wool gloves, wool hat, and long underwear kept us from freezing, but only just. Our lodge was indeed made of single boards of plywood on a stone floor, and featured an ineffective iron stove that only gave warmth to those who were within three feet of it. These three feet were overpowered by cold when the door was opened. The warmth of the sun during the day was tempered by the thought of the imminent cold to come. With the night draft at a minimum it was possible to sleep in full clothing, in a down sleeping bag, with an extra blanket on top, but we could only pray that we wouldn’t have to go to the toilet during the night. In the morning we would have to mentally prepare ourselves for the pain of exiting the sleeping bag and entering the frigid pre-sun morning air. Hot tea ended up being the best way of warming up, but this too was frustratingly temporary.
Back to Day Five:
Two cups of tea later, the sun poked out above the Himal, and the five of us spent a lazy morning
wandering around Tengboche. This was the first official day of Mani Rimdu, featuring a public blessing by the monks and the Rinpoche, but it wouldn’t start until 1 pm, giving us the whole morning to explore the town. There’s a very small visitors’ center with gift shop, a very good bakery with chocolate cake, and a magnificent view all around, so we were able to keep ourselves busy. I used the time to take some pictures, get better acquainted with M and S, eat a very sweet, rich lunch, and look at the mountains. M and S are in the middle of a biking trip from Germany to the Philippines; S knew my friend B in college, so they stopped in Nepal for a long time to visit and trek. They are incredibly friendly, smart, and funny, and combined with myself, B, and L we had a brilliant time. At one o’clock we heard the ponderous sound of the long, ceremonial Tibetan horns—kind of like straight tubas—signaling the beginning of the proceedings. These were followed by pulsing higher tones from the much shorter shawm-like horns, and combined with the howl of the conch shell to ensnare everyone’s attention. Presently a
The view from the top of the hill between Namche and Khumjung
procession started from the door of the courtyard, out through the gate, and around the monastery to a large blessing area where we spectators would stand around two rows of seated, chanting monks. Monks in the procession wore the usual maroon and gold robes, but they were topped with large yellow crested ceremonial hats. Two monks played the long horns (and two other monks carried the horns), four monks played the short horns, and two monks blew the conch shells. The other monks chanted, rang bells, or both, except for the ones who carried the shade shrouds for the Rinpoche. It took a little while for everyone to get situated at the blessing area, with the Rinpoche sitting on a decorated seat in a little shelter and rude tourists pointing their foot-long cameras into monks’ and locals’ faces. The blessing consisted of many chants and bell ringings interspersed with food offerings. The monks were offered food, money, and incense, and the gods were offered food and chants. This whole process took an exceptionally long time. After the lesser monks were finished, they vacated the area and all of the local Nepalis lined up for their blessing from the Rinpoche. They
View from the hill
started at the left of the little shelter, offered money and katas (light gold ceremonial silk scarves) to the Rinpoche and his attendant greater monks, and received blessings, a piece of herbal medicine, and a splash of oil for their heads. There were many more tourists than locals, but the Nepalis all went first for the blessing. I didn’t have a kata, so I didn’t get in line, but L did. This took another few hours, and we left before it was over. The Rinpoche had to ring his bell the entire time, and by the time we left it looked like he was getting somewhat tired. That day B, L, and I bought some playing cards to use to keep our minds off of the nighttime cold, and after the blessing ceremony we went back to the lodge, ordered dinner, and played some games. This night we were joined by a fantastic couple from Switzerland; they made a perfect addition to our group, and we spent a lot of time discussing the festival, Buddhism, and playing card games. I taught everyone how to play slaps, proving very popular for us physical, competitive ones in the group. The cold set
in, like we knew it would, and we went off to our various sleeping arrangements. My arrangement changed that day—L, B, and I were offered a bigger room upstairs where we could put a mattress (thin foam pad) between the two beds and ultimately fit three people in the room. Me being the smallest person by far, I volunteered to take the mattress on the floor. In reality it was better than sleeping on a raised bed—I was below the stink level of gas and body filth.
This was the main day of the festival, and ended up being a very LONG day for myself and my group. This day was for the traditional masked dances in the courtyard—very popular for locals and tourists alike—and they were scheduled to start at 8 am. We wanted good seats, so we arrived at the monastery at 7:30. We got great seats (not really seats—places) at the rear balcony, and fended off all of the later attempts by concerned guides to push us out and put their own clients there. The dances didn’t end up starting until after 9, and by this time the courtyard was completely packed. The struggle
Yak Cheese For Sale
On the trek to Tengboche
was worth the effort—the costumes worn by the dancing monks were magnificent, and the dances themselves were a testament to the beauty in simplicity. They were obviously rehearsed, but not complicated, making geometric movements around the square stone area with practiced turns, kicks, and hops. Some dances were more energetic than others, and some featured dancers with drums and cymbals, but all of the movements tended to be variations on a theme.
Interlude about monastery music:
I have already described the wind instruments played at the monastery—the large horns, the small horns, and the conch shell. These are joined in the orchestra by handbells, cymbals, and a large diameter, shallow, two-headed, painted drum played with a curved stick. The music they play sounds nothing like western music, sounding instead like a pulsing collection of very different noises played at the same time. The large horns would blast and sustain alternately, establish a tempo, then speed it up until they had to start over again. The small horns would play pulsing patterns of pitches that sounded reminiscent of voices chanting—they would pulse on one pitch for a while, rise to a different pitch for a shorter while, rise again, fall
Monks practicing for the dances inside the courtyard
below the original pitch, then go back to it. The pulsing is done with volume and with upper neighbor notes. The conch shells just play their single notes, but they only play sparingly in processions, not in the general run of dances or stay-put ceremonies. The cymbals would sometimes blast with the large horns, and sometimes create a sustaining wash in combination with ringing handbells. Sometimes only the cymbals and the drums would play, setting up a followable beat (the most common beat I heard was in 5, not our western common 4). Sometimes the dancers would play their own beats on smaller handheld versions of the big painted drum (also played with curved sticks). These instruments and sounds sometimes played together, separately, and in various combinations throughout the dances and the rest of the festival ceremonies. I made some small sample audio recordings during the proceedings—email me if you would like to hear a small snippet.
Back to Day Six:
The first few dances were very serious and formal, and the audience paid rapt attention (between camera shots). After maybe the third dance there was a comic interlude performed by an old man clown-like character who picked out
View from Tengboche
some foreigners in the audience and picked on them. It was very funny, and all done in silent mime by the clown. I moved down to the first floor front row to try to be a subject of ridicule, but I wasn’t that lucky. This was followed by more masked dances and more elaborate costumes. At one point I was so close to a dancer clothed as the god of death that I could literally reach out and touch him. I took a picture instead (with my small, un-intrusive one-hand camera). All of the dances had some story-telling significance, but I don’t know what they were. The day went on, and people started moving around more—a lot of tourists left to go eat lunch, people had to go to the toilet, and little kids became restless. My group had bought snacks the day before, so we held out longer than the general population. Throughout the morning monks came by serving hot tea and crackers, and when the afternoon hit they came around again with plates of cold rice and yogurt. It tasted fine, but the air was cold enough that I really wanted something warm to eat. This was overpowered
Inside the crowded lodge
by my desire to stay for the whole show, so I stayed and watched in mild discomfort. At around 2 or 3 pm another comic interlude started, this time with two old man clown figures. They interacted with each other, mocked the dances, mocked the huge-camera tourists (brilliant!), but then started in on a few routines that seemed to drag on and on and on. They were drinking alcohol and energy drinks throughout to keep them going. They pulled out some tourists again and made them do funny things, they started blessing people with phony gifts and then unwrapped them to show the rock, underpants, or yak dung that was really enclosed in the fancy paper, they did a mock funeral for a sock doll, and they spent a long time sitting across a small table from each other talking. I couldn’t understand a word, and I wonder how funny it really was. By this time many of the tourists had left permanently, and the show became increasingly more for the local Nepalis. One old Nepali man sat cross-legged on a small piece of carpet, counting his prayer beads, always a smile on his face, during the entire day-long proceedings,
Me, the mountains, the stupa, the gate, and the prayer flags
never getting up or moving from his cross-legged position. I started thinking of him as ‘infinity legs’, and he’ll be my new hero as I struggle to stay in that position when I practice tabla. I got quite bored during the second comic act, but I stopped and considered that it was a very special day in the town, and special days don’t come very often, and in hard living conditions the length of the entertainment is much more important than its entertaining quality. With this in mind I set myself up to enjoy it much more. After another eternity one of the clowns gradually left the courtyard, leaving one who became increasingly more serious—he started chanting in earnest, then proceeded to take off his shirt (in the bitter cold—the sun had just gone down), and bow down to the direction of the Rinpoche (seated on the north side second-story). He then rigged up a ladder so that he could climb up to the Rinpoche, which he did to offer and receive blessings. I was very worried with the ladder—he was still hopped up on alcohol and energy drink. After the ladder-blessing he launched into a display of potential self-mutilation:
The monastery gate
he unsheathed a thin sword and proceeded to put it on the ground and lean into the tip. People threw money and katas at him to make him stop, and in the end he just bent the blade without actually piercing himself. At the end of this he left the courtyard, and it was a considerably sobered audience who stayed on for the rest of the dances. The dances lasted until after darkness fell, and it seemed to me that the whole ceremony didn’t know how to stop. When it finally did I rushed to the lodge, muscled my way to the precious three feet of warmth around the fire, drank some tea, and ate dinner with the group, warming up with discussions about what had just taken place. Some informal local Sherpa song and dance was supposed to take place at the monastery that night, so despite the cold I went out with the guys to see what was happening. There were some Sherpa line dances going on, but there were also some tourists in their faces, so we backed off and walked around the town outside for a little bit. We ordered some momos (Tibetan dumplings) from a
The public blessing ceremony. The Rinpoche is in the shelter on the throne.
Tibetan trader’s tent, and enjoyed some hot tea with a small touch of Nepali rum. We then went back to the monastery, this time with minimal tourists, and enjoyed the ever-increasing line of Sherpa dancers and singers. At around 10 pm we braved the cold outside to get back to the cold inside, and slipped into our frigid sleeping bags.
To our amazement, most of our group woke up this morning having gotten some measure of rest. The main festival day being over, the tourists started to move out, and the scheduled festival event for this day didn’t start until 1 pm. Just to the east side of the grassy field of Tengboche is a small forested hill with prayer flags leading up to a small stupa, and we thought it would be an excellent way to spend the late morning to hike up to it and see the view of the town and the mountains from a slightly higher elevation. It was well worth it—the town looked spectacular, and the stupa was a very peaceful, relaxing place (especially in the warmth of the sun). L had some research business to do at the monastery, so she
Cymbal intro for the dancers
left us early, and the rest of us ended up wandering around town, ultimately back to the bakery for lunch. The festival event for this day was a fire puja ceremony. I didn’t know anything going into it, and in my mind I envisioned a college football like bonfire with crazy dancing around the outside. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It was a very subdued affair with a small, square fire on top of a new sand madala, and the customary two rows of monks seated with their offerings and texts alternately chanting and playing instruments (only the bells, cymbals, conch shells, and small horns this time). A few tourists watched, but only a small fraction of the number from the previous day. The ceremony lasted two hours, during which the cantor would chant while the Rinpoche prepared things to put in the fire, and then the instrumentalists would play while another monk brought the offerings from the Rinpoche, down the middle of the two rows of seated monks, and put them into the fire. Some of the fire offerings included melted butter, thin sticks, some kind of seeds, dry brushwood, and colored streamers. Again, after two hours of
this I wasn’t sure if they knew how to stop; sometimes the fire would get low, but another monk would just pile some more wood on. The fire smelled very sweet at first, but soured after many of the offerings had been given. The ceremony finished abruptly at 3 pm, and the monks adjourned to prepare for the final part of the festival: the destroying of the sand mandala. Something like this is featured in the movie Seven Years in Tibet—the monks spend days making a large, intricate, complex, colorful, exhaustive design with colored sand, and then at the appropriate time it is wiped clean and washed away. It serves as a lesson in impermanence. The group and I very much wanted to see the mandala before it was destroyed, so we came back to the monastery at 4 pm as per the advice of one of the monks, entered the sanctuary (for the first time—magnificent!), sat on the cold floor as the monks chanted and rang their bells for a while, and then, finally, for about 2 minutes, got incomplete, angled views of the mandala during the transition between uncovering and destroying. It went very quickly: the Rinpoche first
Monks watching from above
picked some sand from the middle to bless the other monks with, then traced the outline of one of the inner designs, and halfway through this some other monks started wiping the table, pushing the sand to the middle to be collected in a big vase. After the wiping and the blessings, the sand was taken in a procession to the water tap in the middle of town, and with much ceremony dumped into the stream of water. The sun had gone down, and it was very cold. More chants later, the monks left the scene, the tourists put their cameras away, and the only thing left at the tap was a thirsty yak. This really marked the end of the festival, and my group and I returned to our cold lodge in the cold to eat dinner and discuss the festival and our future, in the cold. We ordered hot tea and risked our lives with a little touch of rum (there had been some bad alcohol in the region during the past year), and got down to the business of figuring out the lodge bill for the last three days.
Interlude about lodge billing and prices:
Me and the view to the south
lodges in the Khumbu usually offer incredibly cheap room rates (around 200 rupees, almost three dollars), and subsidize these with incredibly expensive food (average 400 rupees per complete meal). I shouldn’t say incredibly expensive; the food prices are similar to food prices in the US, but they are much more expensive than food prices in Kathmandu. Any luxury item, like a hot shower, candy bar, Coke, hot chocolate, beer, cookies, etc., can be bought from the lodge for many rupees more. The bills are cumulative by room, and they are all recorded as lists in big notebooks which also serve as food order books. When it’s time for a meal, everybody in a room (or 5 person party, as was our case) writes what they want to eat in the book, and the book is taken to the kitchen to be a reference for the cook (usually the same woman who does everything else for the lodge). When it’s time to leave, all the food is added up and added to the total room charge for a grand total to be paid by the customer. It’s a great system, but it takes diligence on the part of the customer to
Me and the view to the north
write exactly what they want, and flexibility in case there are last minute changes.
Back to Day Seven:
Our lodge bill was two pages long, including meals for 3 days for 5 people, numerous pots of hot tea, and inflated festival room rates. We had to go through it, initial our own expenses, share the pots of tea, add everything up, and hope that our individual totals combined would equal the separately calculated grand total. It didn’t, at first, but after thirty minutes of calculator work in the cold we figured it out. This done, we went off to bed looking forward to the day of walking ahead of us and the solid lodge back in Namche that would greet our arrival.
After breakfast in the cold, and an endless stretch of time for packing, small delays, and goodbyes, we hit the road back to Namche. This road, you will remember from the previous journey, descends to river level, then rises again to the next ridge and the next town. This was exactly the case on the return, making for an easy morning descent and a tedious afternoon uphill climb. We only stopped a couple of
times for quick snacks and water, but otherwise the four-hour long trek was done in one big push. The weather was great, and with a group of five we were able to keep our spirits up and our minds off of our legs for most of the trip. L stopped at all of the stores to look for the perfect wool hat. I vividly remember passing an enormous boulder next to the river with the remains of an old bridge attached to its side (not on the top where I would want a bridge to be attached). One hour from Namche we reached a junction in the trail; one way went to Namche, one to Khumjung, one to Gokyo (a town near glacial lakes—very popular for trekkers), and one to Tengboche, where we approached from. B, M, and S hadn’t been to Khumjung yet, so they decided to take a detour, and L and I continued on to Namche by ourselves. L and I have both run marathons in the past, and we comforted ourselves on the walk by discussing how completely exhausted we get during the races, and comparing that with the considerably less exhausted states we were achieving
Pose with Ama Dablam
on the trek. Shortly we reached Namche for a big homecoming at the Pumori lodge. L had stayed at Pumori in the past for months at a time, and she is generally considered family there. She helps out in the kitchen, plays with the kids, has her own room reserved, goes shopping with the matron, and is constantly joking around with the family in a strange mix of English, Sherpa, and Nepali languages. I am her friend, so I got to experience some of that carry-over goodwill for friends of friends. At the lodge we immediately received hearty greetings, warm cups of lemon drink, and heaping plates of daal bhat. The Tibetan market had multiplied during the time we were away (a result of the Chinese government issuing more visas), and we made plans to take a look at it. First, however, I had a nap to take. I woke up an hour later to the sound of B, M, and S arriving from Khumjung, and together we set out for the market. The Tibetan market was big, but it was very redundant. There were many colorful thick synthetic blankets, ‘North Fac, Hortn Face, Ozark Gear, Zarko Gear, etc.’ brand
View from above
down jackets and vests, an assortment of socks, some pajama pants, shoes, and lightbulbs, but not much else. It didn’t take us long to exhaust our interest, so shortly we walked to a nice, warm, stove-heated bakery to relax. B, against my recommendation, wanted to download his email onto his ipod, so he went next door to use the wi-fi (yes, wi-fi in Namche Bazaar). Like I thought, he became burdened with a ridiculous amount of messages to go through. Not wanting to pay outrageous prices, I didn’t get anything at the bakery, and instead waited until dinner at the lodge to eat. Back at the lodge we had yak steak, egg soup, and fried Tibetan bread with hard honey—delicious! After dinner we ordered hot chocolate and watched two of the lodge’s three movies on their new, Tibetan-brought, Chinese DVD player. One was a documentary about ‘The Beyul’—Buddhist ideas that the Khumbu is a sacred valley, and the other was a made-for-TV dramatization of Jon Krakauer’s book ‘Into Thin Air,’ which was both cheesy and serious at the same time. Time for bed soon followed, and we luxuriated in thick blankets, hard walls, and greenhouse-like windows.
Preparing the fire mandala
M, and S had different flight itineraries than L and I for getting back to Kathmandu, so on this day the three of them had to walk to Lukla, while the two of us got to spend another day in Namche. The morning was thick with goodbyes, well-wishes, and plans to meet back in Kathmandu. Resultantly, they didn’t get going until around 10 am, a problem of sun for the 8 hour trek back (they would probably reach Lukla after dark). L and I had a relaxed breakfast, and then split up to do various items of business. Her business was research related; my business was mountain watching related. I climbed up a different ridge this time to go to the Sagarmatha National Park Headquarters, a small hilltop compound with an old, free museum about climbing, nature, and Sherpa culture, and a great Everest viewing area. This would be my last full day with the mountain, so I made it count. L and I planned to meet for lunch, so a few hours later I descended again to Namche and the lodge and joined the family for another course of rigikor. The man of the house was outside playing a
The Lodge in Tengboche
Single board plywood and aluminum construction
dice game with a neighbor. I watched for 45 minutes straight, and because of language problems (I don’t know a word of Sherpa) and quick calculations, I gained absolutely no insight into the rules or objects of the game. The players take turns (sometimes) slamming a cup containing two dice upside down onto a catcher’s-mitt looking leather pad. When the cup slams the leather, the guys say a word really loud (a lot of times it sounds like ‘TOK’, but not always). They then look at the dice, manipulate quantities of shells and coins in a line around the leather pad, and repeat. At some point a winner is declared, and the game begins again. It’s a gambling game. I left for food after 45 minutes, but the game lasted for hours, and once I saw 5 guys playing at a time. Women aren’t allowed to play (L asked about that). After lunch L and I went together around town, greeting her old friends and checking up on the market. We ended up buying some warm stretchy pajama pants, and now I can say that I bought goods from a Tibetan trader in a mountain market in Nepal. The Tibetans
camped in tents in the market area with their goods, and they all had a kind of dark, haggard, scarred, long-haired mountain man look. Some of them were heavily decorated with bone rings, necklaces, earrings, and stones in their hair. They acted friendly enough, but they were very pushy if they sensed you might buy something from them. I assume that they will soon be going back over the pass to Tibet, to repeat year after year. L and I then went back to the lodge to dump our things, packed a little bit for our own long trek the next day, walked to a few stores to find last minute essentials, and settled down in the kitchen for dinner and visiting the rest of the night. We requested thukpa for dinner, a simple noodle soup that’s common in the mountains, and it turned out to be the best, most satisfying meal I ate during the entire trip. The noodles were enormous, the broth was hot (temperature) and spicy, there were no onions in it, and the bowl would refill itself (with the help of the matron) when it got low. The soup included these little rich bits of mystery
meat—my two guesses are intestine or brain. The lodge family also has their own kind of spicy mint achar that can make even the most vile foods palatable (as told me by the man of the house). I totally agreed—the achar is fantastic. The thukpa wasn’t even vile (on the contrary, it was delicious), so the mint achar just made it all the more delicious. Lips burning, I sat back around the good, warm iron stove, listened to conversation, and let it all digest with a warm cup of hot chocolate. Also around the stove were two Nepalis; one was practicing for next year’s Everest summit expedition, and the other was his climbing coach. The coach was 21 years old, and he had already summitted Everest three times—once from the Tibet side and twice from the Nepal side. His client was 41 years old, and he was raising money for social work initiatives in his village. We had some great discussions—it’s not everyday you meet a 21-year old 3 time Everest summiter—and they invited us to base camp in April to have tea. The night wore on, and L and I reluctantly said our goodnights and prepared for the farewells
Me with the very kind lodge family
the next day.
We woke up early. Our plan was to have breakfast and farewells at the lodge from 7 to 8, farewells around town from 8 to 9, and hit the trail at 9. Our breakfast and farewells at the lodge took from 7:30 to around 8:50 in actuality, we skipped some farewell tea around town, and we were on the trail at 9:20. Naturally we ate our breakfast in the kitchen with the family, and I was very impressed by the devotion that the man of the house showed toward his morning Buddhist practices. He sat up in bed (his bedroom opened out through a sliding door into the kitchen) and chanted for an hour, alternately counting beads and spinning his prayer wheel. I had a sense that it was the real Buddhism of the people—not the highly touted and somewhat arrogant Buddhism of western foreigners, nor the fancy Buddhism of the monasteries. The goodbyes were heavy, shy, and tearful; L and I were presented with katas and tea for our journey, and we insisted on taking many pictures. When it was time to go we were led around the town to the trail by
the matron (carrying L’s hiking sticks), stopping occasionally for quick goodbyes and more katas from L’s other friends, and we finally departed at the wooden gateway to the town. Like I mentioned before, this would be an 8 hour trek. We wanted to go straight from Namche to Lukla in one day—a trip that I took in two days on the way up. We also wanted to stop for lunch at a lodge in Jorsale where we heard they might have a real stone pizza oven. They did have a real stone pizza oven, but it was only 11 am, so it wasn’t on. We ate anyway, and set out again for 20 minutes to Monjo, where I had to stop and say goodbye to my friends from the trip up. The woman who was so kind on the first trip wasn’t there, but she would return in 10 minutes, so we should stay and drink tea until she arrives. I was hesitant—we had gotten a good pace going—but we were convinced in the end and spent another half hour and 2 cups of tea in Monjo. I’m glad we did; it was a nice farewell, and for once it
was with my own friends, not just L’s. The rest of the trip was pretty much a straight shot, walk for hours, stop only for water and candy, some downhill but mostly gently uphill trek. We weren’t totally sore at the end like after steep uphills, but we were wiped out from the sheer endurance. I felt my calves afterward and impressed myself. The views from the trail were absolutely lovely; we headed away from the stark snow-shouldered mountains and down into the lush fertile valley with farms and gardens and Swiss-like lodges and cafes and forests and the rushing river and many prayer flags and prayer wheels and fewer trekkers than before and the omnipresent yaks and some horses with bells running purposefully along the trail. L and I tied our goodbye katas to the last bridge over the river before Lukla, ensuring that we would be back some day. Really, it’s out of our hands. We will be back. On the trail we talked about food and prices and luxuries that we were looking forward to in Kathmandu, but there was still a tinge of sadness. Kathmandu may be a place of cheaper, easier living, but at the
Final view from Lukla
end of each day in Kathmandu you don’t get that feeling of accomplishment that you have endured yet another day, and that you’re alive despite the cold weather and harsh altitude, and that when the sun is out you will be rewarded with another day of unimaginably beautiful landscape and culture. We arrived in Lukla at 5:30, tired, filthy, and hungry, and went straight to the lodge. The family at Pumori called ahead of us to make a room reservation and to confirm our plane tickets, so we were well taken care of upon arrival. We ordered dinner—a nice hot Sherpa stew—desert—a fried Mars bar—and went to the room to prepare for the early next morning. My flight was scheduled to be the first of the day, and I needed to arrive at the airport (a five minute walk from the lodge) at 6:15 am. L’s was an hour later, so we would have different schedules in the morning. The room was cold.
This day is really only a morning. I woke up, rolled out of bed, grabbed my pack, paid L for the room, and walked to the airport. It was light outside, but the sun still had a couple hours of climbing to do before anyone in Lukla would see it. I was the sixth person at the airport, behind one big group, but before any airline officials arrived the place was teeming with tourists, porters, big expedition bags, police officers, and tax collectors. The checking-in began in the midst of this pure chaos. Luckily for me an old man behind a different airline desk pointed me out and waved me toward him; he would take care of me, he said, as soon as I paid the tax. I did, and surprisingly enough, he did. My bag checked in, boarding pass in hand, I moved through security (a pat down and a questionnaire), and found myself in the cold, open waiting room next to the runway. Boarding passes in Lukla are merely cards with a single number stamped on them. You wait with your number card until a plane lands (all planes come from Kathmandu first—there are no hangars or mechanics in Lukla), an official will run through the waiting room yelling a number, and if it matches yours you run to the plane and hop on before it takes off again, all within ten minutes of touching down. Luckily, again, my number was for the first plane, and I was on my way back to Kathmandu before 7:30. I grabbed a seat on the right and watched as we flew parallel to the Himalayas stretched out before me. I could see Mt. Everest for the first 15 minutes, and marveled at the thought that we were cruising thousands of feet below the altitude of its summit.
There were some experiences and observations in this trip that don’t fit neatly into a chronological account. Below I’ll try and describe some of them.
Everything in the Khumbu smells of yak. The trails are full of yaks and yak excrement, the wool products at the shops are made from yak, cheese is made from yak, yaks occupy fields along the way, and yak dung is burned for fuel. It’s not a bad smell, but it’s an earthy smell—kind of like an essence of cow mixed with old parmesan cheese. It isn’t a strong smell either, but it is always present. It’s possible to say how far from a yak you are by the percentage of yak smell in the air, and it’s certainly possible to predict fresh yak dung on the trail. Other than yak, the air is dusty on the trail from windblown dirt, and has some freshness from the smell of pine. I’ve already described the cold, and breathing through your nose invites the mild pain of cold air.
The trail varies in intensity, difficulty, and grade from urban running trail to serious rockslide steep. Much of the trail is wide, dusty, and rocky, usually with one side up a ridge and the other side down the valley. That means that when a yak train comes through you have two choices: risk being crushed against the ridge, or risk being pushed off into the valley. The really steep parts of the trail sometimes have crude steps—never even, some solid, some shaky, some shallow, some steep. During the long ascents and descents the trail takes the form of a series of switchbacks and usually becomes quite narrow. Aside from helicopters, the trail is the only way to get from place to place, and it is variable to the point that only a being with a brain and feet can negotiate it: people, yaks, horses, and donkeys. There is no motorized ground transport in the Khumbu.
The view is always fantastic, no matter where in the Khumbu you happen to be. The Khumbu is a valley that extends south of Everest’s Himal, and from many points you can look straight north through the valley and see it. Himals border the east and west also, leading to a sometimes panoramic snow-shouldered landscape. Thamserku is visible from many points along the Lukla-Namche trail, from Namche, and from Tengboche, so it was the mountain I saw the most often. The earth is so massive around the Khumbu that it is easy to feel exaggeratedly dwarfed. Thinking about this summer in the Colorado Rocky Mountains and the Utah Wasatch Front, those mountains seem as toy train landscapes compared with the sheer mass of the Himalaya. In the lower part, toward Lukla, the view is of an intense, clean, concentrated fertility. Predators are at a minimum, and the land is host to the small musk deer. From mid-ridge it is possible to see ever-fading foothill ridges extending far to the horizon.
Since the 17th century the Khumbu area has been a place of Nyingmapa Tibetan Buddhism. I arrived to the area uninformed, but made many observations throughout my trek and throughout the festival. It is at once personal and impersonal, and includes an intense formalism of practice. People can accrue Karmic merit (for their next lives) through spinning prayer wheels, stringing up prayer flags, walking clockwise around stupas and mani stones, watching monastery proceedings, and other impersonal, physical practices. Karmic merit isn’t the only thing worth pursuing in this life, however, and there are many formal practices for cleansing peoples’ minds of desires of this world and putting them in a state of peacefulness. The monks at the monastery chant ad-nauseum and ring bells, and people keep track of repeating mantra prayers on beads. These are some of the physical practices I witnessed. During conversations with Sherpas and researchers I was surprised to learn about all of the gods and spirits that occupy the Khumbu cosmology. The spirit realm is a crowded place with deities responsible for different landscapes and practices, each with its own personality and myth. The myths are detailed and explain some of the practices and attitudes toward geography and culture/lifestyle. Also interestingly, Buddha himself hardly features in these myths; they are dominated by a different human figure called ‘Guru Rinpoche’ who subdued the spirits, carved out the valley, and brought Buddhism to Tibet around 1300 years ago. Buddha seems merely to be an example for human practice, and not an important cosmological figure. Personally, I highly value the attitudes toward inner-peace, cooperation, and peaceful relationships among people and between people and nature that stem from Tibetan Buddhism, but at the same time I chafe at the formalism and repetition that make up its day to day practice. I highly value innovation, curiosity, and change in science and art, and I can’t help but think that if I were diagnosed diabetic in a Tibetan Buddhist society I would have a much harder time staying alive.
Tourists in the Khumbu are an interesting lot. There are travelers on long journeys around the world, there are mountaineers bagging some more summits, there are outdoor people on holiday from work, and there are rich people who have heard of Everest, want to see it, and can afford to do so. There were few researchers/anthropologists/culture-oriented people, and this was an unfortunate situation at the culture-centered Mani Rimdu festival. I can’t say how irritated I was to see foot-long camera lenses stuck in the faces of meditating monks and little Sherpa children. There were some tourists at the festival whose faces I never saw because they were always behind their cameras; the group and I would have to refer to them by shirt color. I found that on the trail and in the lodges I could meet some very interesting travelers with some great stories; they came from many different countries and spoke many different languages, and often they were at least a little bit informed about where they were. It was hard for me to be around the rude and crude tourists because I, in the Khumbu, was inescapably also a tourist. In Kathmandu I’m adamantly not a tourist, but even Kathmandu Nepalis are tourists in the Khumbu. I wanted very much to be able to separate myself, but if the category is ‘tourist’, that’s where I belonged. I spoke Nepali as much as I could, and I really tried to make connections with locals, but in the end it was high season, and I was many times just another customer.
I’ve described already that lodging prices are low and food prices are high. There’s also a phenomenon that happens in the Khumbu in which the prices rise with the elevation. The higher you are, the more you will spend. It makes sense if you think that it costs more to hire porters to carry all of the expendable supplies to higher elevations, but there’s also the skeptical feeling that the money isn’t being spread around in quite that way. For those of you considering a trip to the Khumbu, it’s reasonable to budget for 1,000 to 1,500 rupees per day ($13 to $20). Add that to the cost of flying in and out of Kathmandu, $113 each way, and the cost of getting to Kathmandu, and the initial cost of the equipment you’ll need (backpack, warm clothes, water purifying method, sleeping bag), and you’ll have an idea of what it takes to make the journey. Every piece of equipment can be bought or rented cheaply in Kathmandu.
The lodges also vary by elevation, and as the prices and elevation get higher, the lodges get worse in quality. I only know of the large difference between the lodges in Monjo, Namche, and Tengboche, but I hear from other travelers that they get considerably more crude as the elevation rises. Every lodge I stayed in provided me with a room with two small beds (wooden platforms with foam pads), a community bathroom (sometimes a sitter, sometimes a porcelain squatter, sometimes a wooden hole in a platform, always cold and sometimes outside of the lodge building), and a dining room with a wood stove for meals. The lodges are generally run by an old woman who cooks, cleans, and takes care of all of the business. Their husbands are generally out trekking, guiding, or portering. Each lodge also has a kitchen area where tourists don’t generally go; this is the command post of the lodge, the domain of the matron, where guides and porters go to take care of the wishes of their clients, and then eat out of sight.
An average menu will include daal bhat, eggs prepared various ways, potatoes prepared various ways, and various noodle soups. Some have things like pancakes and pizza. The staple food in the Khumbu is the potato, and most Sherpa dishes include potatoes.
I would trust my life to a Khumbu porter. These guys work incredibly hard under incredibly awful conditions. We have laws in the States that protect working people from having to carry much more than 50 pounds at a time; these guys were carrying up to 500 pounds, up the same steep hills and mountain faces that westerners trek with light backpacks for recreation. I think an organization of ‘Chiropractors Without Borders’ needs to be formed, and the Khumbu needs to be their first stop. Seriously, hats off to these men and women.
Elevation affects people in different ways, and an ever-present danger at altitude is altitude sickness, or AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness). The elevation of Lukla is 2840 meters, Monjo is also 2840 (after descending to the river and climbing back up), Namche is 3440, Khumjung is 3780, and Tengboche is 3860. My highest point was on a hill above Tengboche. I don’t think I broke 4000 meters, but I got close. People have died of AMS at Tengboche, and sometimes it’s the most physically fit people that just push themselves too hard. I didn’t seem to be affected at all internally by elevation; I never got the characteristic headache or dizziness. The biggest effect on me was that I became winded easily when climbing stairs or steep trails. I also ended up using only about 70% of my normal insulin intake, but I don’t know if that’s a result of elevation or exercise or just plain cold. To put the elevations in perspective, Everest Base Camp, the destination of most treks, is at 5441 meters, Denver, CO is at 1609 meters, and Kathmandu is around 1400 meters.
The common local language in the Khumbu is Sherpa, derived from Tibetan, with the same Tibetan script. This situation was frustrating to me; I spent so much time learning and practicing Nepali in Kathmandu, and then, still in Nepal, I was a place where Nepali was along the same lines as English—another language. A Nepali-only speaker is still a foreigner in the Khumbu. It was very interesting to hear some of the Nepali and Sherpa guides speaking languages like German, Japanese, Korean, and French with their tour groups. Language is a hugely marketable skill for guides, and these ones know it. The lodges were also full of tourists from all over speaking their own languages. On the way back to Namche I passed a guy from Kyrgyzstan.
Unfortunately I can’t tell you much more about the festival. It’s at once a Buddhist and Sherpa festival; it’s been localized to the Khumbu and celebrates some of the myths and deities specific to the Khumbu. I think, in some way, it’s a festival that pushes evil away and makes the way clear for another year, but I’m not sure. If you’re interested in the meaning and purpose of the festival you should probably buy a book.
There’s something in the area called ‘The Khumbu Cough’. Nearly everybody who lives in the Khumbu or visits the Khumbu develops a cough, at least for the time that they are there. I had it, my friends had it, and everyone I met on the trail had it. The locals had it really bad; I guess it doesn’t go away for them. Mine left as soon as I got back to Kathmandu. It involves a mild cough at various times of day, a runny nose during the daytime, and a stuffed up nose at night. I met a researcher investigating the Khumbu cough. His theories are that it has to do either with yaks, the dusty trails, the cold, an indigenous plant, or a combination of these. I wished him well, then blew my nose.
I sincerely hope that this post has given you even just a little taste of my experience in Nepal’s Solukhumbu. If you need a direct recommendation, here it is: the Khumbu is an absolutely essential landscape, journey, adventure, experience, and culture for anybody who has as little as a single cell in their body with a yearning for mountainous, fertile, peaceful, striking beauty.
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