ON our way to from Lukla to Phakding, we shared the path with yaks carrying 60 kg loads, mules with lovely decorations and lots of puppies and dogs. The landscape was dotted with teahouses where you could get a bed for the night. You could also buy fried rice for $2 and lots of honey tea with ginger. The view of the peaks was amazing, and there were magnolia trees and rhododendrons in bloom, all laden with the blossoms of spring.
Here is a video of yaks with bells descending the trail. It’s only short, but one of my favourites.
And here is a somewhat longer one, though with less deafening sounds of bells. I call them yaks in these videos but they are probably dzos, it took me a while to figure out the difference!
And they all start out as cute calves! This following video is actually quite a good illustration of where dzos, yak-cow hybrids, come from.
The mother looks like a regular black and white cow of the sort that you might see on a farm in New Zealand, though with a bit more ‘fluff’ to her coat given the harsh climate of the Himalayas. On the other hand, her wooly offspring looks quite different and is obviously part yak.
Here are some more still photographs of the trail.
Every village we passed through had a stupa with the painted eyes of Buddha as well as prayer wheels decorated with ancient Tibetan mantras.
The phrase prayer wheel is a misnomer: ‘mantra mill’ of ‘mill of good karma’ (positive spiritual energy) would be more accurate. The words on the so-called prayer wheels, which are in fact cylindrical, are not lengthy prayers but short repetitive mantras that would normally be repeated or chanted. Whoever spins the prayer wheel may as well have chanted the mantras for as long as it keeps spinning.
Some prayer wheels are kept in motion by water wheels, some by wind (when it blows), some by rising hot air from flames (a gas turbine, technically speaking) and some, today, by electricity. These spiritual mills come in many sizes and degrees of sophistication, from serried banks of large ones at the most important monasteries to small hand-held ones that are operated individually and by hand.
And that’s another reason to call a prayer wheel a mantra mill. It’s a device by which Tibetan Buddhism industrialised the production of chants that would bring them good karma. The parallels include the search for sources of power and realisation that something endlessly spinning was the most efficient producer.
It really is a valid parallel to the Industrial Revolution. You automate or industrialise the spinning of whatever you think is a really important substance. For nineteenth-century Britons it was cotton; and for Tibetan Buddhism it is the good karma of the religious chant.
The mills of good karma must always rotate clockwise as viewed from above or from the eye of the beholder, since anticlockwise is regarded as the evil direction just as it traditionally was in the West. For instance, before clocks were invented, the British called the anticlockwise direction widdershins: a word with all sorts of spooky connotations.
Some say widdershins means ‘opposite sense’, a cognate of German widersinnig. But I prefer the other possibility that it literally meant against the sun (sin in old Scots) or against the light, wider Schein in German. This seems just as likely, since the clockwise direction used to be called ‘sunwise’, the way the sun moved around a sundial in the Northern Hemisphere.
Anyhow, if you should come across fairies dancing in circles at the onset of twilight, you should hope that they are dancing sunwise, not widdershins.
A Tibetan-Buddhist prayer wheel spinning against the light or anti-sunwise, if that’s what the other direction means, would thus grind out negative energy and darkness: a bit like a vinyl record played backwards by black-clad heavy-metallers back hoping to hear the voice of Satan, I suppose!
For, twentieth-century gramophone records obeyed the sunwise rule too. And CDs and DVDs, even in the modern electronic age. Most probably the hard drive hidden away inside in my computer also spins sunwise as viewed from above. I’m starting to hope so, now!
There’s another parallel to my hard disk, by the way. Along with the messages on the outside, prayer wheels are often filled with pieces of paper on which additional mantras are written. That’s the main reason for the large size and drum-like shape of public prayer wheels. These are not just mills of karma, but karma drives.
I was told never to stop a correctly rotating prayer wheel. At a minimum, I would be robbing whoever had set it in motion of their rightful reward of good karma from the mill. And no doubt, I would probably get an electric-shock dose of the bad stuff too.
The next morning, we were preparing to set out for Namche Bazaar, but many people in the group were down with a fever. We shared our medication and wished them all the best. We were to climb to 3,480 metres that day, giving ourselves a further day to acclimatise to the altitude in Namche Bazaar once we arrived. The morning was sunny after an early start at 4.30 a.m. Breakfast was porridge and an apple. We walked slowly, taking in the beauty all around us. There was a great view of Thamserku Mountain.
The walk was straight uphill to Namche Bazaar, with steep cliffs that dropped away on either side of the trail. Namche Bazaar is a small town which is an important stop for climbers, as they stop for a while before continuing higher into their ascent.
People go to Everest for all kinds of reasons. Some on the group had not done any hiking or training in their home countries to get fit. In fact, one man did not even have boots that fitted him properly. This man and his wife were recovering from a very tragic episode in their lives. Their son had become brain-damaged at the age of 29 from a mysterious illness. Until a year ago they were his caregivers, but they couldn’t cope any longer and decided to put him in a home. I felt immense respect for this couple when I heard their story. They came down with the flu on the trip and I was surprised this was all they came down with given their lack of preparation. We also had an Australian nurse in our group who must have had over 200 tablets of Diamox which she distributed very freely. Her generosity was marvellous.
There are lots of wire suspension bridges on the trail, including a very high and scary one officially known as the Sir Edmund Hillary Bridge. If you are coming from Phakding, this bridge is the last bridge to cross before you get to Namche Bazaar: with about another two hours’ walk ahead before you get to the town.
The high bridge was erected a few years ago, above a now-decaying bridge built, I believe, in the 1960s with the help of Sir Edmund Hillary, and also known as the Sir Edmund Hillary Bridge in its day.
The old bridge is still there. But I don’t think anyone is supposed to use it now.
The trail and its bridges are used both by trekkers and porters, and also by local people moving goods on yaks, dzos and mules. The resulting traffic jams can get dangerous given that the trail and its bridges aren’t very wide.
Trekking slowly, we came to the Sir Edmund Hillary Bridge. It looked like the bridge could take only eight to ten mules carrying heavy loads. It scared me when there were forty people on the bridge, not to mention the mules and the more massive yaks and dzos also bearing heavy loads. After three attempts, I managed to get across! It snowed that day which provided a beautiful first view of the Himalayas.
We made it to Namche Bazaar where we dined on dal bhat. Dal bhat is the Nepali national food consisting of curried potato and lentil soup with rice. If you were hungry, you could get second or third helpings.
During the acclimatisation day, we ascended another 400 metres to the Sagarmāthā National Park, a protected area with a rugged terrain cut by deep rivers and glaciers. Sagarmāthā, the Sanskrit name, comes from sagar meaning sky and māthā meaning head or forehead, and is also the everyday Nepali-language name for Mt Everest.
The Tibetans and their Sherpa relatives call the mountain Chomolungma, or Chomolangma, meaning mother goddess of the Earth.
Established in 1972, Sagarmāthā National Park was an initiative of Sir Edmund Hillary. It covers an area of 1,148 square kilometres, and over the years it has been the site of an afforestation project as well. We had great views of the mountains of Lhotse, Ama Dablam and Kusum Kanguru from the park, but we were still waiting for our first sight of Mt Everest.
There was a great museum at Namche Bazaar. They had information and exhibits about the Sherpa people and rhododendrons (which are native to the region and are the national flower of Nepal), and information about the decline in numbers of snow leopards and bears. I also learnt that people were chopping down wood for fuel in the park, with deforestation becoming a real issue.
I finally got a view of Everest that day: a great view. I decided to celebrate. I gave up my less-than-a-week-vegetarian status and enjoyed some chicken curry — yum! The local farmers were fertilising their fields and planting out potatoes and bok choy for the spring. There were crows plucking hair off cows for their nests. Some teahouses we visited had no mains power, but all the teahouses used solar energy: conservation of power was a must. I went to an outdoor market and there were so many bakeries with delicious smells wafting around. There were a few people stocking up on hiking items, as Namche Bazaar is the last town on the trail where you can purchase tents and gear.
By this time, some of our group members had developed altitude sickness and were taking Diamox. Others had chest infections.
We left Namche Bazaar for Tengboche Monastery, which is at 3,860 metres. The day was overcast and the ascent gradual. For the first time we saw yaks, as they do not live below this altitude. They looked like hairy cows and had bells around their necks. They are worth $500 each, and their owners were known to be wealthy by local standards.
Tengboche was a beautiful town full of craftspeople, with a famous, lavishly decorated Buddhist monastery. I saw people making windows and a new house for the monks, as well as the highest bakery in the world. The next morning, we rose to attend a seven-a.m. meditation service in the monastery. It was really cold outside the monastery gates, with beautiful views of Mt Everest and Ama Dablam. Twenty people went in, and the monks burnt incense, chanted and banged drums for thirty minutes. There was beautiful, fantastically detailed decoration with many images of religious scenes and different Buddhas (for there are many Buddhas, though Gautama is the one usually meant), and other spiritual beings.
At the time, two films were being made about the Sherpas — one was a British production and the other by a New Zealand filmmaker. Dzos and porters were carrying loads of equipment that looked like they weighed at least 60 kg. A voluntary code of 35 kg was meant to be implemented, but this was often ignored. International film crews should have known better. By 8.00 a.m. the next morning, we had beautiful views of Mt Everest and Ama Dablam, but as we climbed to Dingboche, the next village at a height of 4,410 metres, the weather closed in. By the time we reached Shomare, halfway along our day’s journey, the visibility dropped rapidly, and we needed our snow gear. People in our group were suffering from altitude sickness, and some were shaking and going from feeling hot to feeling cold.
That night I went to bed early. Altitude sickness is a very deceptive illness. For reading, I had brought Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, a book based on his 1996 expedition to the Everest in which eight climbers were killed and many stranded following a storm. In a little more detail, Into Thin Air is a non-fiction book about how Rob Hall, a climbing guide with the New Zealand company Adventure Consultants, perished on Everest in 1996 along with four others. Krakauer is an American, who was a member of the New Zealand-led climbing team. Krakauer blamed the Russian guide, Anatoli Boukreev, for the disaster. For his part, Boukreev, who was killed on Annapurna on Christmas Day, 1997, also co-wrote a book rebutting such claims. Just after I finished my own trek to Everest Base Camp, fourteen Sherpa had perished on Everest in an avalanche at the Khumbu Icefall.
(I give full references for both books at the end of this chapter.)
In Into Thin Air, Krakauer also mentions how both Sherpas and Western climbers can be in denial about altitude sickness, which can lead to them endangering expeditions and, ultimately, dying.
There are two main medical causes of death in the mountains, altitude sickness and heart attacks. Blood clots are another one that has been the cause of numerous deaths and failed attempts to ascend Mt Everest.
On the way out from Tengboche, there were beautiful magnolias. The trek to the Chukhung Valley was part of our acclimatisation. We climbed 400 metres and had great views of Ama Dablam’s southwest face as well as Imja Tse (Island Peak), Lhotse and views of glaciers by what the locals called the Holy Mountain. This was at 4,730 metres. Many in the group had by now acquired puffy faces from the high altitude and had to take Diamox. I learnt that locals have to leave town throughout June and July as the mountain authorities require that they leave. We returned and stayed the night at Dingboche.
On our way to Everest Base Camp, we paused at Gorak Shep where we would return to spend the night on the way back from Base Camp. It took five hours to reach Gorak Shep where we were welcomed by an overflowing toilet! It oozed and overflowed everywhere. Apparently, the problem was longstanding and trekkers called the place Gorak Shit. Maybe it’s been fixed since then. I hope so.
After lunch we trekked on towards Everest Base Camp alongside big rocks and boulders. The views were divine: mountains everywhere! I almost felt drunk from the views.
Gorak Shep was a monumental stop for me as it was the original site of Sir Edmund Hillary’s base camp. Due to changes in the landscape, melting of glaciers and global warming, it had to be moved to its current position higher up the mountain.
It was a long day, with an eight-hour ascent, but it was a truly beautiful day for the climb. There was ice all over the trail and you had to be careful not to slip. You had to watch every step you took, as there were crevasses to the side and it would be so easy to slip and fall in, never to be seen again. Surprisingly, there was quite a bit of traffic on the trail! We had to dodge mules and yaks and dzos loaded with supplies and other people coming back down the mountain. I remembered the complaints about ‘yak poo’ everywhere, and, well, they were right. If it wasn’t mule poo on the trail, then it was yak or dzo, and it was everywhere! The yaks and dzos were carrying food to other climbers or going down to the nearest town to find more. It could get very crowded in places, especially along the narrower sections of the trail. You could hear the yaks and dzos coming, as they had bells on their collars, and the lilting jingle became very familiar. A few times I found myself hugging a cliff face so that I wasn’t bowled over by one.
I loved every moment of the day, even though I was suffering from flu-like symptoms. I was the only woman to carry my day bag. We arrived at base camp and the scenery was dramatic and beautiful — beyond words. We stopped and had our photos taken before getting some much-needed rest. I was beginning to feel some of the effects of being up so high. It was a big achievement for me.
That night in Gorak Shep the low oxygen levels got to me, and I also had a cold.
The following morning, some of the group left at 3.00 a.m. to climb Kala Patthar and watch the sunrise. By this stage, many of the group were exhausted and after three nights of terrible sleep, I was in no state to go. Later, while trekking in Manaslu, I heard that sunset is a good time to go to Kala Patthar, and the photos taken then looked just as good. I think it was unwise of the touring company to have had this in the itinerary at that point. Instead, they could have given us a break. Later that day we trekked to Pheriche and spent the night there.
Khumjung is known for a school that was started by Sir Edmund Hillary in 1961. Since then, Sir Ed’s Himalayan Trust has supported over sixty schools in the area. It was interesting to see how the locals still revere him. The weather closed in for our descent and it began to snow. It was amazing. What a beautiful valley to travel through with yet more mountains to view.
We stayed the night with the cousin of one of the Sherpa guides. The district is known for growing potatoes and everywhere cow dung was being used as manure in the fields. The people were busy ploughing and planting the potatoes from the year before. The potatoes were stored by burying them. That night I had potato instead of chapatti (wheat bread), which made for a nice change! I was also surprised by the use of yak poo on the burner, which was the first time I’d seen yak poo keep a fire awake! That night there was dancing. One of the Sherpa guides, Pemba, loved to dance — especially after a few drinks of the local drink, rice wine.
Six of us of from the group of twenty went for an overnight trek from Khumjung in order to see a particularly impressive view. There were two brothers in the group of six, one a lawyer and the other was in the army. One of the brothers just couldn’t breathe and began crying. He had a serious case of altitude sickness. I approached Robin, the Australian nurse, and asked her to speak to him. She talked to him, rubbed his head and gave him Diamox, after which he was fine.
The views from Khumjung to Mt Everest were constant, it was right there, a majestic beauty surrounded by tranquil ranges.
We stayed the following night in a teahouse in the small village called Monjo. That night a little girl danced with flowing hands in sync with her entire body, with steps that matched the music.
The accommodation was adequate. Most of the time the accommodation was warm and comfortable and had wooden beds. The Sherpas slept on printed cushion covers, but they never complained. They always said they were comfortable.
Monjo was roughly where Sagarmāthā National Park ended and the ordinary countryside began. But we didn’t finish our trek till we got to Lukla, the airstrip town from which we had set out on the trail so many days before.
After we stumbled back into Lukla, we were each asked to give a $100 tip to the porters. Some members of the group felt $100 was a lot to give out as a tip. But as the porters only earned about $3 a day otherwise, it was clear that they deserved more.
I didn’t have an issue with the tipping, as I had been informed beforehand that this would be expected at the end. It did amaze me that after the privilege of going to Base Camp, people could still think that way. The Sherpas had given us a monumental experience and got us all back safely.
Among us, there was a retired Kiwi couple. The husband had decided to collect interesting rocks along the way. He’d filled his pack with these rocks and one of the porters, who had to carry the bag in question, had removed the rocks. This porter was accused of stealing, and so wasn’t going to receive any tip. I can understand that the man didn’t want the rocks he’d collected removed, but everyone’s bag had to be under a certain weight.
The same porter had helped an elderly Australian woman carry her day bag, even though he didn’t have to. So, she decided that she would give him a $50 tip for the assistance. This meant he ended up getting half the tip he would otherwise have received (which was better than nothing).
After Lukla it was back to Kathmandu, the capital of three million with no traffic lights! We were soon to discover an area of Kathmandu that sold all Western-style food and where no hawkers were allowed. This was on the privately-owned Mandala Street in the Thamel district, which had great restaurants.
Mandala Street was a pedestrian-only street with pedestrian alleys off it. We ate lemon cheesecake with unsweetened yogurt in the Himalayan Java Coffee café, one of many in the area now, but also one of the most long-established. It was founded in 1999. I think teahouses were probably more the thing in the hippie era, when Kathmandu first became a popular destination for travelers and tourists.
Thamel and Mandala Street added up to a nice place to have some time out. They sold great coffee and desserts there; I went back a few times.
I stayed at the wonderful Kathmandu Eco Hotel, and I got to know all the staff there very well too. I met a guy called Bhimal, who wanted to explore the western part of Nepal, and meanwhile promoted honey made in caves by the Himalayan Giant Honeybee (apis dorsata laboriosa), which is over 3 cm, or more than an inch, long. Apparently the giant honeybees sip nectar from a poisonous plant that, in combination with other sources of nectar, gives the honey psychedelic properties. So that’s a bit of something extra with your morning toast, I guess.
I was glad to have had such a good introduction to Nepal. It felt safe to have a guide and be taken up to Base Camp. A lot safer than I had expected. I also liked the fact that the company knew the area and the accommodation in the teahouses was a great experience. I created lifelong memories here and I am forever grateful.
Anatoli Boukreev and G. Weston DeWalt, The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest, N.Y., St Martin’s Press, 1997
Jon Krakauer, Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Everest Disaster, London, Pan Books, 2011 (originally 1997).
For an account of the beasts of burden used on the trail to Everest Base Camp, see Alton C. Byers, ‘Too many mules on the Everest trail’, Nepali Times, 31 October 2019, on nepalitimes.com/banner/too-many-mules-on-the-everest-trail/. It seems that mules are a comparatively recent introduction, brought in to cope with increasing volumes of climber and trekker traffic, and that things were generally less pressured in the days when only yaks and dzos were used to carry goods in this area.
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