A narrative by Sakari McGregor
We sit in an airplane. Breakfast digesting awkwardly inside of us. The seat cloth is blue. We look out of the window at the airstrip. We look back inside. A drum of anxieties revolves in our consciousness. We notice a luggage label affixed to someone’s carry-on as they lift it towards the rack above the seats. We tap a finger on our inflight screen. A broken nail on our middle finger catches our eye. It starts to rain. A drop wends a path down the window. We wonder where our boarding pass might be. We look back out at the airstrip. It continues to rain. At last the aircraft starts to move. It passes a terminal, after which it stops and turns. A flight attendant appears. And yet we might only have reached the end of our first minute of a comprehensive account of the events lurking within the deceptive sentence ‘we journeyed through the afternoon’.
“A lot can happen in a minute if you really take notice of what is happening as described in the previous paragraph – this essay will be a narrative of some of my seconds in Nepal”.
I found myself in a hotel room, tired. The long sleepless flight from Finland had drained my body and mind. And as I killed the lights in my room and closed my eyes, my mind lingered on Kathmandu: had it changed a lot since my last visit five years earlier and would I still manage to find my favourite chai maker at one of the random side streets just off Durbar Square?
Kathmandu’s chaotic life style has the power to suck even the seasoned traveller into its vortex. Squeezing between motorbikes and cars on streets that in general do not have the capacity to take even half of the traffic load they have can put one’s mind into constant overdrive. Everybody seems to be in a rush to go somewhere, or nowhere.
The honk of a car or motorbike are used as indicators in a town where indicating is useless. Hawkers are instantly your new best friends and also very successful businessmen, or I have never met so many people on one street who own the best hotel in town, are the most experienced trekking guides and sell the best hashish in town – but to escape a bit of the chaos one finds in the vivid city of Kathmandu luckily is not that hard.
Durbar Square | Kathmandu | Nepal | 2014
I had quite a clear vision of what I would be doing in Kathmandu as I had spent time there five years’ prior to my current visit. It still took me a day or two to get my bearings again and find peace within the chaos. I needed to leave the tourist district of Thamel and ignore the Sadhus’ of Durbar Square who offer a smile for your lens in exchange for a donation. To do so I just needed to start walking in any direction from my guesthouse into the side streets. There you will find peace from the hawkers but still be engaged by the vivid colours, life and scents of what Kathmandu is made off. You might stumble across stupas and smaller temples that are not described in your Lonely Planet. Just open up your eyes, be brave and walk into the narrow corridors between buildings and look up to see carvings on top of the houses. If you get enough of the hundreds of people rushing past you, find a little teashop and step in – wait a second or two for your eyes to get used to the dim lighting and you will soon realize that you have entered a time machine that has taken you back years. Smile as you wait for a cup of Masala tea and enjoy the quietness that the language barrier makes or try to interact with some sign language.
The reason for my return to the Kingdom of Nepal was simple. I wanted to walk among the giants. The white peaks of the Himalayas. I wanted to re-visit places like Pashupatinath – a famous sacred Hindu temple located on the banks of the Bagmati river. I wanted to walk the steps of Swayambhu once again and watch the world go by, accompanied by the hundreds of monkeys that call it their home. Walk through Patan and watch as eager Nepalese children try to fly their kites high above the temples and remember that Kathmandu is a melting pot of religion, culture and history. I wanted to rejoice in the fact that I was a long way from home, and several adventures were looming behind every corner.
“The courtyard was architecturally miserable, and the scent from the streets of Kathmandu sneaked in over the brick wall and mixed with the smell of frying oil. The breakfast that was served was glutinous and the tables were dotted with islands of dried tomato sauce dripped from the meals of long departed travellers, yet something about the scene moved me. Maybe it was the notes in front of me from my walk up to the high Himalayas, or the first proper shower I had in weeks. Or had I found something that I didn’t expect in the himalays”?
Two ago my alarm had gone off at 4 AM. Rather than the usual morning sounds of Kathmandu’s busy streets waking up, I could only hear the hum of the ceiling fan in my room as I brushed my teeth and pulled on my clothes. As I made my way to the domestic airport of Kathmandu I passed people who were getting ready for another busy day in this city located in the vicinity of some of the highest mountains on the planet. I was actually happy to get out for a while and find solitude away from the fumes and traffic of the city.
Planes into Lukla have a tendency to fly all the way there and then be forced to return to Kathmandu because of bad weather. The possibility of having to spend a few more days in Kathmandu, now that I was ready to leave, made me anxious. I stuffed my ears full of cotton for earplugs as the small twin-engined Otter aircraft rolled onto the runway. Not seeing much because of the clouds, my mind was racing with the question; will we be able to land or will we forced to return back to Kathmandu?
The aircraft started to lose altitude and I realized why some people have told me that landing in Lukla is almost like jumping off a bridge with a bungee cord loosely tied around ones’ feet. The adrenaline rush was immense as I saw in what angle the plane was closing in onto the runway. I comprehended that we would only have one chance to attempt the landing on the 400-meter long runway.
You hardly ever hear people clapping after a successful landing except if you are on an all-inclusive holiday in Crete, but as the Otter came to a halt all nine of us passengers rejoiced and gave the pilot a big hand of applause. Personally, I thought that I had just been on a ride piloted by the best aviators in the world. I picked up my luggage and walked out the gates where I was met by many smiling Sherpa’s offering their porter services to me. I returned the smiles but declined their offers as I walked around the airport. I picked one of the first lodges I found and ordered some breakfast. Unlike many others who usually start their trekking on the same day they fly into Lukla I decided to stay for the night. I wasn’t in any rush and the rest of the day I sat outside and watched planes come and go as I drank cup after cup of tea. The owner of the lodge shared his stories about his home town of Khumjung and gave me general advice for my upcoming walk in the Khumbu region.
The weather had dramatically changed during the night. The dense mist had disappeared and the sun broke through the clouds as I started walking towards Phakding. I could feel the weight of my backpack on each step, and already knew that I would curse my camera to hell and back in the upcoming days. But as I walked up the rocky incline and saw the enormous loads that the Sherpas were carrying I instantly quit the whining in my head. In the following weeks that I spent in the mountain area, I chatted with many Sherpas. The strongest of them can carry up to 130 kilos in supplies. This of course is in no way a healthy way of making a living and it leaves its marks. As you walk down the streets in Kathmandu, you can quite often see elderly people with their backs hunched from all the loads they have carried in their lives.
I reached Phakding in less than two hours. My original plan was to spend a night there, I didn’t have any kind of timetable and I just wanted to go at my own pace. After some lunch, I decided that I would walk up to Monjo as it was still early in the day. There is something serene about walking on a path that you know will lead higher and higher – I was immersed in my own thoughts and as I wondered about life in general I quickly arrived at Monjo.
There aren’t many places to stay in the small village, not that it really matters as every guesthouse is usually identical to the nest. I ordered myself a pot of tea and rested my feet as I downed a portion of Dhal Bat and chatted to a young Sherpa guide. Raindrops fell as I sipped my tea in the guesthouse at Monjo and as night fell I was hoping the weather would clear by morning so I could walk to Namche Bazaar without getting soaked. The sound of yaks ambling past was the only thing I could hear as I sat alone with my thoughts and my eyes peered around the empty seats of the darkening dining hall. Walking in the Khumbu during off-season is a pleasant change from jostling through the busy streets of Thamel. It is about walking in solitude and finding comfort in the little things: a friendly Namaste from the local children, the warmth of a cup of tea, the filling sensation of Dhal Bat in the evenings and bumping into fellow travellers and sharing your own story with them.
I woke up during the night, as I had acquired a new roomie. A little red mouse was running around the room like crazy and I wondered if it would come up and join me in my sleeping bag to share the warmth of it. But as I woke up around 7AM the mouse had decided to leave me alone and no trace was found of its nocturnal roaming. The rain had stopped rattling the roof during the night and as I got out of bed I was greeted by the sun and clear blue skies.
As I walked out of Monjo I was greeted by the Nepalese military who checked my TIMS permit and wished me a pleasant walk up to Namche. But before I would get to the ‘stairs’ that would lead the way up, I passed through a Rhododendron forest and crossed suspension bridges that gave me a safe passage over the roaring Dudh Koshi river. I chatted with a few Sherpas before I started my two-hour ascent up to Namche and what a two hour it was. The sun was shining down hard and as I took baby steps up the steep hill my lungs were fighting for more oxygen. I tried not to stop and just concentrated on taking another step after step. After two hours of sweating I reached another TIMS checkpoint and I knew I was close to my destination for the day.
Navigating through Namche bazaar is like being a kid in a labyrinth. Each corner gives you a new sense of the place and you want to continue walking until you reach the end just out of pure excitement. Night falls quickly in the mountains. The darkness rolls in very quickly and as Namche Bazaar doesn’t get regular electricity until the season starts on the 25th of September the guesthouse was pitch black by 7pm. That first night in Namche I struggled with sleep, and as I woke up I noticed that my flu had gotten worse. I still had a bit of pain in my head from the altitude but I knew if I just rested I would be fine. I spent the morning in bed, finishing a book and writing down notes into my journal.
As I got up in the afternoon the weather had improved and I decided to take a walk towards Tengboche. It did not take long after leaving Namche before I saw my first snowy mountains, and even if the peaks were mostly behind a thick curtain of clouds it made my day and I found myself smiling. The cold breeze at 3600 meters felt fresh and I was looking forward to the days ahead of me.
It was still dark as I got out of bed. As I made my way down to the reception I could feel that the temperature had dropped during the night but my spirit was high. Today I would walk to Tengboche and hopefully see my first sighting of Mt. Everest. I left most of my belongings at the lodge in Namche, they would wait there for my return – no need to carry my laptop and a bunch of clothes up the path. I retraced the steps I had taken the day before and as the morning sun rose and cleared the mist I started to see the snowy peaks again. With a rest day behind me I made good progress and reached Phungi Tanga in a few hours.
I knew that the next section would involve a steep uphill rise to the monastery. Someone had told me that the steps can take a long time as one ascends higher into the Himalayas. For me it was the opposite and I was surprised how little time it actually took me to reach Tengboche – maybe it was the fact that I had a cluster of yaks trailing me and I was not going to lose the race to them.
A few minutes before I actually saw the lodges of Tengboche I ran into two Irish travellers – Páidi and Nina. At this point I did not know that I would share many beers with them in the future as well as dance in a weird local street rave with them on our return to Kathmandu. As the mist settled into the village we walked the last meters together and found ourselves a lodge next to the bakery. After settling in and eating a second lunch we walked up to the monastery to see the Buddhist monks practicing one of their daily prayer rituals. As night fell the village was covered in a dense fog and we spent the evening chatting away – the two had lived in South Korea for a few years, teaching English in a school. I learned that Koreans adore hiking gear so much that they even go out for coffee in their gear just to show it off. They also told me that Ebola is feared in Korea to a point where some cafes do not let in people from the African continent in fear of the epidemic. Also, that taking the trash out in South Korea involves either finding an existing pile on the street or just starting a new one.
Like any other night so far, I was tucked away in my sleeping bag by 9PM. I woke up as my alarm went off at 4AM. I walked outside to see if the weather was clear but the fog was dominating the area and as no mountains were to be seen I retraced my steps back into my sleeping bag. Another few hours spent in a deep slumber and I heard my alarm go off again. As I walked to the dining room to order breakfast I noticed that the weather had improved enormously and the sun was shining. I grabbed my pot of ginger tea and walked outside. As soon as I saw the scenery I ran back inside to grab my camera. Mt. Everest was dominating the scene and as my tea cooled down I shot frame after frame of the stunning Himalayan mountain range.
The day went by watching hikers passing through and several helicopters flying in the distance – this made me wonder if they were just taking supplies up or were there people getting rescued because of altitude problems. I was happy to just sit there, watch Ama Dablam, Mt. Everest and scribble notes down into my notebook. As night fell the daily trekkers arrived from Namche and I shared my dinner with a few Americans, Israelis and Germans. Chatting away in the room warmed up by dried yak droppings we discussed about our pasts, the present and our futures until it was time to warm up our sleeping bags. My sleep was interrupted by Brendan around 6AM as he came knocking on my door and told me that the view outside was astounding. Once again, the mountain range was in full view and I spent my morning sipping tea and letting my camera timer to click frame after frame. A larger group of trekkers walked past me and I said my hellos to the mix group made out of Australians, British, and Germans. Not long after they had passed I packed up my bag and started to follow in their tracks.
I hadn’t walked for that long when I came across Dave. An Australian who was going up solo like me. As we chatted it became clear quite fast that he had grown up in Newcastle, the very same city I had done my university degree years before. We exchanged stories from our old hometown as we walked and soon we shared a table while having a lengthy lunch in Shomare before heading towards Dingboche. When we arrived at the intersection of Pheriche and Dingboche the sun was shining down hard, we used the river to cool our heads and filled up our water bottles. From the intersection, it was a quick 35 minutes to our destination of the day and we followed the mixed group into a lodge. At 4300 meters, I could feel my head throb again, but setting down our packs in a tiny boxy room and settling down for a cup of coffee made my head a bit better.
After a good nights sleep and a lazy morning filled with large amounts of sugary milk coffee – which became a big part of Dave and my daily diet for the rest of the trip. We decided to spend our rest day by hiking a bit higher for some stunning views. When I say a bit higher, I mean about 500 meters in altitude. This in a Finnish standard would be called a mountain but in Nepal where mountains rise above 8000 meters another 500 meters in altitude can feel like a small stroll.
After another morning filled with coffee Dave and I packed our packs and decided to start our walk towards Lobuche. But before leaving Dingpoche we headed out higher in the village to find a satellite phone – it was Dave’s moms birthday and even if one is high up in the Himalayas it is compulsory to phone ones’ mother and wish them well. Even if our day had started out slowly we made our way quickly to Thukla, we weren’t even trying to go fast but after walking up and up for a few days and then suddenly walking on flat ground it is relatively easy to speed up without noticing. This part of the Khumbu region reminded me of New Zealand and it feels like you are walking through the same landscapes as you see in a Lord of the Rings movie.
As we sat and ate lunch we noticed Sham and Ruben approaching the lodge, we cheered during their last meters. We had met the South African couple a few times already. The two of them were walking up to celebrate Ruben’s birthday, I can’t recall how old he was going to be but it was between the age of 75 and 80 years old. I really hope by the time I hit their age that I will be as active and positive as they are. Ruben was actually going to the Cederberg National park in South Africa after Nepal to do a five-day walk through the old donkey trail. The very same trail that I have started to walk several times when walking towards a climbing sector called Roadside in Rocklands. We talked about their home country and their home in Cape Town. Not forgetting about the great food opportunities in Kalk Bay a village not that far from Cape Town and by the end of our lunch Dave and I had been invited to stay with them if we would find ourselves in that beautiful city. I have been to South Africa twice before and it is one of my favourite destinations and I will definitely go back there once again and visit these lovely people when I get the chance.
Another hour from Thukla and we had reached the graveyard where a lot of climbers who died during their mountain quests have been buried. The vast number of graves really made me question if it was worth it. I do not mean climbing mountains shouldn’t be practiced but the amount of inexperienced people who get pushed up Mt. Everest is insane. The local Sherpas risk their lives going up to fix ropes and then drag unfit people up. It is just wrong. I understand the mountain business in Nepal brings a lot of income for the locals and that the Sherpa guides get paid very well compared to the normal wages in the country, but it is still ridiculous for the tourists to risk their own and other people’s lives just so they can claim that they have stood on top of the world and during the process left all their trash on the mountain.
After walking past the graves, it was another hour until we reached Lobuche. We walked into a lodge and as we arranged for a room I heard familiar voices. Páidi and Nina had arrived the day earlier but had decided to stay another extra day. Not because of the altitude but because they had partied all night long with the locals and had discovered that hangovers get worse the higher you go. The weather wasn’t great but we decided to take a short stroll to the Italian pyramid – a laboratory high up in the Himalayas. That night we chatted away and played cards. After a slow morning, all four of us started to make our way towards Gorak Shep. During the walk Dave and I had been asked how do we find our way from one point to the other. My usual answers were always that you can’t really go wrong if you know the name of the next village, also there is only one way up. However, the very last part before Gorak Shep was tricky. The path disappeared once in a while and we started to wonder if we had taken a wrong turn at some point. Luckily we decided to continue for another 30 minutes and soon we saw the ‘outskirts’ of Gorak Shep.
A quick check-in later I found myself walking up a path towards Mt. Everest to find a quiet spot to sit down and scribble into my journal. There is something magical about sitting approximately 5 600 m above sea levels and listening to avalanches roll down around you. As the rumbling continued I checked my phone and was happily surprised that I actually had reception. I gave my mother a call telling her that I was alright and my location, sent messages to my siblings and father as I was unable to reach them and then started to walk back down to the lodge. I crashed into bed, it felt like someone was hammering an ice pick into my forehead and I thought a bit of sleep might help but as I woke up I found out that it was just getting worse and worse. I was after all, at around 5300 meters above sea level where the oxygen content of the air is quite depleted. I was enjoying large quantities of ginger tea in the dining room when the others got back. My form had gotten a bit better and as the night went along Dave and I talked about the weather and what we would do if it didn’t get better. The owner of the lodge informed us that the weather for a good sighting from Kala Pattar was four days away. We decided that we wouldn’t wait for that long and came up with a plan to walk out from the Khumbu and hop on a plane in Lukla in two days’ time.
Waking up to a misty morning isn’t what people look forward to when in a place such as Gorak Shep. It was exactly that when Dave and I got out of our room. The surrounding mountains were covered with clouds and walking up to Kala Pattar seemed useless. We drank a part of our daily milky coffee when the silhouettes of the mountains started to show. After a while we had a glimpse of the peaks surrounding us. We were lucky to have woken up early and for this reason I believe we were awarded a short but gratifying scene of some of the tallest peaks on the planet.
The night before, Dave and I had talked about pushing on back to Namche in one day and soon after our breakfast we grabbed our backpacks and started our walk out of Gorak Shep. I won’t start explaining the route back to Namche as it is almost the same as we took up. The only exception was that we skipped Dingbuche and made our way through the valley where Pheriche is located. As we hopped down, looking forward to warm showers and beer in Kathmandu our speed was fast. An uphill trail in the Himalayas makes you walk like a turtle that has a heart rate around 200bpm but as we went down we felt like gazelles hopping down the path.
I’ve heard that some people can get a high when dropping altitude quickly and at one point I started to think that I was blacking out once in a while. I would be walking and then suddenly realizing that I had no memory from the last ten minutes. Trying to concentrate on the path was my only mission for a long time and after five hours I was rewarded when we arrived at Shomare where we stopped for lunch once again. Another few hours decent from Shomare and we were eating chocolate cake in the familiar monastery village of Tengbuche. The path between Tengbuche and Namche starts out with a downhill stretch, which felt easy but the downside is that once one has crossed the river at the bottom of the valley one has to walk back up again. But with some Snickers-willpower it didn’t take long and soon we had passed the stupa that honours Tenzing Norgay.
Another 15 minutes past the stupa and we arrived at the outskirts of Namche Bazaar. This was also where it started raining. It was the only rain I experienced during the time I was actually walking in the Khumbu region and I consider myself very lucky with the weather. After checking into the lodge Dave and I consumed huge amounts of dhal bat and enjoyed a beer before passing out in our room. It had taken us 11 hours to reach Namche and we knew the next day wouldn’t be that much easier.
We woke up later than before as we knew there were not going to be any flights out from Lukla in the afternoon. So, we were in no rush to reach the airport. After a simple breakfast of chapatti’s and eggs we arranged our flights for the next day. The road to Lukla from Namche retraces your steps, starting out with a long downhill section and then some ups and downs before gradually rising up to Lukla where an arch located on the entry greets tired but happy walkers. It took us roughly eight hours with breaks to finish our last day. We celebrated our arrival with beers in the pub with a bunch of Americans and Israeli travellers.
Lucky for us the weather was good the next morning and we found ourselves boarding our flight out of the Khumbu around 6.45AM. We arrived in Kathmandu and shared a taxi to Thamel. As we went our separate ways we decided to meet up in a restaurant familiar to both of us in a few days. I spent the next day’s resting, washing my clothes and enjoying warm showers.
I spent my next days sitting in OR2K drinking mint lemonades and iced coffee. Editing photos and studying my notes from the walk. I met up with my Nepalese photographer friend who gave me good advice on how to tackle the upcoming Hindu festival Dashain.
Klash had told me that if I wanted to photograph the sacrifices of Dashain that I should be on the move very early in the morning. So when the day of the sacrifices came I was up and about at 3AM. I walked towards Durbar Square just to find that the line in to the temple was enormous. I wasn’t willing to wait hours for what would maybe give me a chance to see a sacrifice. But as I roamed around the surrounding area I saw a lot of locals trying to peek into the military compound located between the square and Thamel. I hung around for a while and peeked as well, when an officer started waving his hand towards me. I tried to show him that I wasn’t taking any photos as it is strictly off-limits to photograph any military base anywhere in the world. But he kept on waving, so I walked up to him and said that I wasn’t taking any photos. He said he knew that and asked if I would like to come inside to take a closer look and actually take photos. I was stunned – there I was hoping to catch a few photos and suddenly I was in a VIP section of a military compound taking as many photos as I wanted, while a captain of the Nepalese army explained the whole ritual to me. I sat there for hours and drank tea with the captain and when the ritual ended and I was about to leave he stopped me and said that the head of the Nepalese military would like to meet me. So there I was, shaking the hand of a Nepalese general, him thanking me for being interested in their culture. I thanked both of them and made my way back to my hotel. People were having breakfast and talking about how they were going to go and see the sacrifices, I informed them that I was sorry but they were too late and that this year they had started very early. As I write this the sacrifices of Dashain have been stopped, a ritual that went on for centuries came to an end last year while I was taking photos of buffaloes getting beheaded.
From the parallel runway, an A340 ascends for Sydney and, over the Malay Peninsula, retracts its flaps and wheels, which it won’t require again until the descent over the Opera house at Darling Harbour, after cruising over 6680 kilometres and eight hours of sea-and-cloud and red outback. I was watching the planes come and go as I sat in Kuala Lumpur airport. The night before I had caught a 9PM flight out from Kathmandu and I was trying to kill some time before boarding my flight to Denpasar, Indonesia. I had another adventure in mind that in exchange for the dusty roads and massive mountains of Nepal, I would enjoy beachfront scenery and salty ocean air. Little did I know that my upcoming time in Indonesia would really shape me as a person.