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Fly and Hike, A Month in the Nepali Himalaya – Part 1

March 2, 2009

| Image by photos by Uli Loskot

The next day I get up very early, making sure I get a hot, sweat chiya (what the Indians call chai) into my belly before I am heading off to the airport in Kathmandu. I say good-bye to Satram and Dinesh leaving much of my things in the hotel storage and taking just a small backpack of about 13 kilos.

The airport of Kathmandu is small. This morning there are only geared up trekkers and a couple of Sherpa and guides there, eager to be flown into the Everest Region. Check-in is done manually with lines forming whenever flights are called out.

I end up on a flight full of Nepalese and get to sit next to a western dressed Sherpa, who lives in Kathmandu and is visiting his family in the Solu Khumbu. Solu Khumbu is where we are flying to and how the region around Mt. Everest is called. It is mostly inhabited by the ethnic group of Sherpa. Sherpa, in literal terms, means people of the east in the Tibetan language. Originally from Tibet about 500 years ago they have a close affinity with the Tibetan language, culture and religion. Sherpas major occupations include agriculture, animal husbandry, trade and have become famous for trekking and mountaineering. Today they are known worldwide for their skill and hardiness. They follow Buddhism as their major religion.
After the take-off we are handed candies for our nerves and cotton wool to stuff into our ears so they won’t hurt when the air pressure changes in the cabin of the tiny airplane.
The flight to Lukla takes less than an hour, can only be done if sight permits, and is spectacular. The pilot navigates us along rolling hills lined with rice fields and small villages, until the snow covered giants of the Himalaya slowly appear in front of us and the steep mountain slopes left and right seem close enough to be touched. The landing in Lukla at an altitude of 2800 meters is the most adventurous I have ever experienced. The landing strip seems extremely short, angles upwards, starts a couple of meters after the edge of a huge cliff and ends just barely before the face of a mountain slope. We make it down safely.

Welcoming us at the airport is a mob of mostly young and poorly dressed men (and also a few women) waiting behind the exit fence in order to score a job as a porter with one of the many trekking groups that arrive every day or to carry supplies up to the numerous lodges. Hardly any of these people are Sherpas, they come from the lower hills up to this region for work and are mostly ethnic Rai and Tamangs. They are small and petite men and women, wearing only sneakers or even worse just plastic slippers without socks, carrying unbelievably heavy loads strapped to their foreheads up the steep trails into the mountains. Their relatively low wages are determined by how much they carry and how high they carry it. This system would never work nowadays for example in the Austrian Alps, because nobody could pay how much an Austrian porter would cost. Andi told me that for a period of time they started using helicopters to carry supplies up to the lodges, which seems more progressive, but left hundreds, of porters without work. So they stopped that service again. There is a good documentary from BBC about the lives of the porters called “Carrying the Burden” that any conscious trekker should watch before hiring a porter. I guess I could consider myself a bad tourist here, not leaving enough money to the local economy. I did not book my trek with an agency in Kathmandu and I neither hired a guide to show me the way, nor a porter to carry my 13 kilo backpack. But trekking with a group would not be for me. I want to experience this time as a solo trekker, being able to walk and stay wherever and whenever I feel like it. The way, I am sure, will be very obvious since the Everest trek has been a beaten path for many decades.

By the time I leave the airport the mob has gone and so are Andi, Andreas and Tina. I have not had breakfast yet, but the “German bakery” around the corner serves apple pie, which turns out to be just as tasty as in Austria. In the bakery I meet a group of mountaineers from Latin America, Alejandro from Mexico and Diego from Ecuador, who are going to attempt Mt. Everest. We chat over a chiya, and I tell them that I will be moving to Mexico later that year. Synchronicity.
Prices are understandably quite a bit higher here than in Kathmandu, and they will raise further with the altitude.

The village of Lukla is lined with picturesque stone houses and many shops, lodges, bars and bakeries that cater to the trekkers’ needs. Here you can still purchase essential gear you have forgotten to buy in Kathmandu. I can’t see my Austrians, but the path to our next destination, Phakding, is infallible. I keep meeting the same porters and trekkers throughout the day, exchanging many Namaste greetings. I walk through small villages situated on the slopes of the mountains, and a teahouse or lodge is never far. This is still the dry season and the beginning of spring with occasional rain showers, but still very bright and clear skies. The trails are fairly dusty, the landscape a bit barren and the fields are just being planted with new crops. Up at this altitude you can still find barley, vegetables, fruit trees and potatoes. I often have to make way to herds of what look like heavy loaded yaks on their way in and out of the mountains. I learn later that most of the yaks seen along the trails of the Khumbu are in fact called Dzo (male, sterile) or Dzomo (female, fertile) and are crossbreds between yaks (male) and cows (female).
I have been feeling a bit strange and uncomfortable taking photograph. Most of the trekkers here are shooting pictures of the same stuff and I want to do something different. The Nepalese are all very friendly and smiley, but they seem more reserved and distanced than the Indians. There is something magical and untouchable about them. It might also have to do with the fact that they are dealing with so many tourists every day. I meet Andi, Andreas and Tina in a lodge at the entrance of Phakding sipping tea. Just as well, because I would not have known which lodge we were going to stay in this night. We are booking ourselves into the Star Lodge, a welcoming stone building with all wooden interior and a large kitchen in which the fire in stove never dies. It’s a bit drizzling and cold. I check into the dormitory for fifty Rupees a night and end up having the room to myself. Rooms are generally very cheap in the lodges, if you also commit to eating in the same place. In the dining room there is a cozy fire burning and everybody is talking about trekking, Everest Base Camp, altitude and oxygen.

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