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Episode 2 - The Lads and Dads Trek the Nepal Himalayas
Welcome to instalment #2 of the Lads and Dads World Tour of Nepal. In this episode: THE TREK!
If you're feeling impatient, here's a quick table of contents. Otherwise, read on down at your leisure.
After we posted the last set of photos, we still had a day in Kathmandu before we left for the trek, and you know what that means - more photos! We went out to visit Bhaktapur, a beautiful ancient city in the Kathmandu Valley (full of temples and ancient people - click here). We saw the famous temple where each statue out the front is 10 times more powerful than the one below it, and there are 5 layers (do your maths to work out how powerful the top one is). We added a layer to the hierarchy (click here), but at the wrong level, we found out later. We had high tea (click here), and were escorted round the town for 3 hours by 3 little hombres who'd allegedly paid their teacher 50 rupees ($1.20) to allow them to wag school that day. After being very helpful we thought that they were going to ask us for money, but they surprised us with a request for English dictionaries. What the hell, we thought, and their reward can be seen by clicking here. Maybe they've got a scam going where they sell the stuff back to the shop owner and try it all again with the next set of gullible tourists. We'll never know.
But on to the trek. Here's a basic outline of how it went down:
We (Greg, Mark, Gerry and Ross) got in a small plane and flew to the outrageously beautiful Lukla airport, at 9000 feet, south of Everest (Sagarmatha) (click here). We met our trekking crew (click here), and wandered off in the general direction of Everest. After three days we had made it to Tengboche Monastery, at 13,000 feet the highest point of the trek (click here and here). Two or three days walk further up the valley would have brought us to Everest Base Camp, but that was never part of the plan. "Next year," says Greg. After a rest day, we turned around and retraced our steps back past Lukla and on for another 2 weeks or so into the Arun valley, south-east of our starting point. We gradually descended (but not without crossing some high(-ish) passes) all the while, ending up at Tumlingtah airport (1700 feet) on the 15th of December, when we flew back to Kathmandu.
I guess you want a bit more detail than that. We're going to give it to you anyway, broken up into the different aspects of the trip:
The only word that can describe the scenery is "indescribable." Photos can never do it justice, of course, but that didn't stop us taking heaps anyway (click here (look familiar?) and here). When we got up to Tengboche, and were surrounded by impossibly high mountains on all four sides, it took our breath away, even Gerry and Mark, who had seen similar things on previous trips to Nepal. It affected some of us more than others (click here).
Of course, Sagarmatha (Mt Everest) presided over all, silently and implacably, irresistibly drawing our eyes to it whenever we were outside (click here and here). It's humbling to gaze at what you know to be the highest point on the planet.
We crossed many bridges over rivers and creeks of all sizes some sturdy and built to last for centuries, others seemingly built yesterday for a bit of a stir, and would be unlikely to survive the afternoon (click here, here, here and here).
The thing that amazed us most about the scenery was its variety. We expected mountains, mountains and more mountains. We certainly got mountains, but also got rolling English countryside, high tundra towns (click here), tropical rainforest and grass-thatched Fijian villages.
When we stepped off the plane at Lukla and walked over to the lunch spot, we were surprised to find ourselves out of breath. "What the hey? That was flat, wasn't it?" We were only at 9,000 feet (2,600m), but it was a noticeable difference. We pondered about the days ahead....
Mark, the youngest and theoretically the fittest, would have plenty of opportunities each day to become completely out of breath as the trail wandered up and down (seemingly always up) cliff faces and chasms. If he was feeling generous after a particularly laborious climb, he would often spare a thought for Ross (click here), who, at 75 and more than twice Mark's age, consistently amazed not only us, but our porters, trekkers coming the other way, locals, lamas and yetis. Uncomplaining, he always made it into camp, apparently without any injuries, difficulties or regrets. The hot tea on arrival did wonders for him though (click here for before and after the tea).
Greg and Mark, in a fit of - well - fitness, decided to carry their packs for a couple of days. Training, you understand, for the porterless months ahead. At the end of a day we felt not only tired. but a new appreciation for the porters, who would daily carry more than twice that load, on bodies about half our weight. We each had brand new, $350 dollar Italian trekking boots (Zamberlans, if you're interested) - thank you Rhett - which proved indispensable. Solid, sure-footed, waterproof (click here), avalanche-proof, bullet-proof and probably getting-lost-proof, we felt smugly that to trek in anything less would be unthinkable, until we watched our porters carrying their loads in thongs and occasionally bare feet. We in the west are spoiled, very spoiled. Or maybe it's just Greg and Mark.
Wherever we went, the digital camera was a hit. The Nepali villagers, especially the children, love having their photo taken at the best of times, but when they can instantly see the resulting photo on a little screen on the back of the camera, they'd call all their friends and a mob would form. Sometimes it would be difficult to spot Greg, submerged in a sea of straining necks and squeals of delight. He could often be seen strolling down the path like the Pied Piper of Hamlin, trailing a line of seven-year-olds who would blissfully follow him to hell. He never grew tired of it, though, and every village would get its 15 seconds of fame. Little did they know, of course, that the photos would be deleted as soon as they were out of sight (what's the Nepali word for "delete?").
Sometimes groups of kids would form anyway, just because we were tourists, and the tallest people they'd ever seen. They'd sit nearby expectantly, watching with unending fascination the circus known as a trekking group that had come to town (click here and here).
On a couple of nights a campfire would spontaneously appear, and the wonderful mountain practice of dancing and singing would permeate the evening air. Don't bother trying to sleep, go and join in! They thought western dancing was hysterical (click here, here and here).
Ah the food! The exquisite food. The indescribable pleasure of trekking food. But I jest. Our cook seemed to specialise in dinners that were at once stodgy, bland and outrageously huge. This confused us, as Gerry had promised us that trekking food was passable to good. Then we learned the secret: our cook had only ever cooked for German trekking groups. Yah, ist nein gute. So Greg and Mark took him round the back of the kitchen tent and explained a few things to him about Australian stomachs. We insisted, much to his disbelief, that what we really wanted was Nepali food - exactly the same as he was making for the porters. That was the most unheard of thing he'd ever heard of. Nevertheless, that's what we got: rice, dhal (lentil soupy thing), curried vegetables (inexplicably chokos most of the time), all deliciously spiced. Very light food - very easy to eat, and extremely healthy, especially for trekking.
Somehow, though, we could never get him to do anything about the soup. I shall explain: The first night of the trek they brought out soup. "What kind soup this?" we enquired in our best pidgin. "Garlic soup," came the proud response. And it was great garlic soup. Well, it was OK. You wouldn't order it twice in a Sydney restaurant, but this was the mountains of Nepal. The next night, "Tomato soup." Yet it was exactly the same as the previous night. Well, it looked different (maybe a little redder - maybe), but the taste was identical. The next nights: Mushroom, chicken noodle, and pumpkin. All the same. Then we'd apparently exhausted the soup repertoire, so it was back to garlic soup again the following night. And so on. This became both monotonous and exceedingly funny. Our little ritual began: "What soup tonight, Santah?" And he'd reply, "mushroom soup," or some such. And we'd all do our best to hide our smirks. But we even tired of this seemingly inexhaustible entertainment, and it just got boring.
Occasionally, the cook would get adventurous, and bring us a cake. Well, he called it a cake. We called it many things, some of them not repeatable here (click here). Greg got impatient at the lack of variety, and tried a few schemes of his own. The first was - wait for it - chicken! He purchased three chickens for 1,000 rupees ($25) (click here), killed them (click here), filleted them and gave them to the cook to make chicken curry and chicken soup. Oh, we were looking forward to that soup! Somehow, and no-one has been able to explain this, the soup ended up tasting only of garlic. Nevertheless we all closed our eyes, thought of Colonel Sanders, and dined like kings. Then Greg made us a damper (click here)! What a treat! Mark decided to splurge and got out the last of the Vegemite for the occasion (click here).
Breakfast was alternately porridge (actually quite good), and muesli, served with bread (Nepali bread), "marmalade" (generic fruit jam), and some form of eggs or omelette (click here). Oh and tea of course. How could I forget the tea? Before breakfast, during breakfast, after breakfast, and at least 14 times throughout the day, the smiling persona of Santah would appear, bearing the inevitable tea. It became almost comforting after a while (and yes, to all those people that know him well, Mark drank it by the gallon. What's next? Coffee? Never!).
We were accompanied every step of the way by the following souls:
We slipped God a few Rupees, and she came through with the goods. Not a cloud in the sky for the first 10 days, then 3 or 4 days of "partly cloudy," then it was back to the boring vivid blue skies again. Daytime temps would be 22 in the sun, or about 12 in the shade. The sun would set behind the mountains at about 3pm, and the temperature would immediately plummet to Brass Monkey. Dark at six and freezing outside, there was not a lot of scope for after-dinner entertainment. Bedtime would often be 7:30pm, just to have something to do. Wake up was always a cup of tea delivered to the tent at 6:30 am followed by our ritual bowl of warm washing water just before breakfast (7:30), so we often had 10 hours sleep (sliding around on our frictionless Therm-a-Rests). An impossible luxury at home.
As we meandered along the trail each day, gawking at the lovely mountains and generally being tourists, our trekking crew would break camp, pack it all up into nice, 100-pound bundles for each of them, then hurry along the trail in their thongs so that they could have the lunch site and the evening campsite ready for our arrival. This involved a full, industrial-strength kitchen that would do the Park Royal Hotel proud, and up to six tents. And we're not talking your lightweight, 2-man, Paddy Pallin expedition condom-style tents here. No sir. These buggers you can walk around in (assuming that you have anywhere to walk to, of course), including small blue pyramids for sleeping (click here) a canvas dining tent, an identical kitchen tent, and, last but not least, the indispensable piece of equipment known as the Toilet Tent. This was a one-foot-deep hole in the ground, over which was erected a tent about the size of a large coat. Inside, to achieve your goal, you squat, or use our amazing portable toilet seat (really! - sadly no photograph available).
To see a view of a typical campsite (albeit a low-altitude one), click here.
You can't go to Nepal and not get Delhi-belly (raging diarrhoea). Or maybe you can. Gerry, Ross and Greg escaped with minor queasiness (which could be attributable to the German cooking). Mark, however, did not escape so easily. After dining on some suspect fried noodles, vegies and Spam, his intestinal tract mutinied and decided to evacuate itself completely - completely! - from both ends. A Total Bowel Replacement (TBR). And so ensued the most miserable night imaginable. Mark put it like this:
"I'd lie in the tent, unable to sleep for fear of wet farts, until the inevitable time came. I'd unzip the sleeping bag, unzip the tent, pause to get a lungful of -5oC air, put on my sandals and headtorch whilst clenching my buttocks for all I was worth, grab the toilet paper and scamper over to the toilet tent. After sitting half-nude in the cold for 10 minutes, completing anything up to four healthy squirts, I'd stand up and try to determine whether I needed to vomit as well. Maybe I'd be lucky and could walk thankfully back to the tent. Sometimes I'd turn around halfway back and re-enter the toilet tent for an encore performance. Sometimes I'd make it back to the tent first go. Sandals off, zip the tent up, find the (now-cold) sleeping bag, get in, zip it up, headtorch off, and spend the next 30 minutes trying to warm up again ..... if I lasted that long, of course. Usually not, and so it would be up again for the next round. Thankfully, I only had to do that 14 times that night. I now know, in all too vivid detail, exactly how much fluid is contained within a gut."
Greg suffered very mild altitude sickness (VMAS), while Mark's attack (consisting of one evening of fairly strong headache - strangely on the way down the mountain) was a little worse. Gerry and Ross escaped this mysterious ailment completely.
Otherwise, the health, strength and fitness of the whole party increased phenomenally. How could it not? Clean air, no stress, 5 hours exercise a day, a diet of nothing but fresh vegetables and rice (with no preservatives, pesticides or colouring, of course), and 10 hours sleep per night! It's actually illegal in some states to have a lifestyle as healthy as that.
We saw a goat (click here).
For some reason, Mark and Greg owned names that were unpronounceable by the sirdar, and therefore by the entire trekking crew. "Mark" became "Mux," while "Greg" translated as "Gruck." Interestingly, Gerry and Ross were perfectly OK (click here).
Our favourite ritual of the day was the pre-dinner reading of a chapter from the wonderful book "The Ascent of Rum Doodle." This is an account of the amazing British expedition to climb the peak of the 40,000 1/2 foot Yogistani mountain called Rum Doodle. Oh, all right - for those people that don't know, this is a fictitious account of a fictitious expedition to a fictitious mountain in a fictitious country. It is a spoof on all mountaineering expeditions, hilarious, and required reading for any trekking or mountaineering groups. From it sprung the timeless quote relating to the attempt on the mountain's summit, "It will go!"
Greg found a baby wandering the streets one day, started playing with it, and was accosted by an old woman (click here) asking Greg to take the baby back to Australia and keep it. Its mother had died and its father was gone. How do you answer a request like that?
Finally, we returned.
Kathmandu was something of a rude shock after the serenity ("How's the serenity?" - click here) of the trek. Luckily, Gerry's fine friend Amer (the owner of the excellent Dynasty Hotel - click here to see their web site) was on hand to look after us, with smiles, meals (click here) and the incalculable luxury of a hot shower. Thank you Amer, Ashok, Ajit, Minerva, Usha, Uma, Anil and the entire Shrestha household.
So, the future. At present Greg and Mark are sitting in Kathmandu waiting. We want very much to go to Tibet, but it's proving very difficult. You see, it's December, and there are no flights to Lhasa from mid-November to mid-February. We could go by road (4 days), but the Chinese f---wits (read "government") insist that tourists must travel in groups of at least five. We may have found a way around that - a Tibetan friend of Gerry's, Dupa Lama, has a carpet factory in Lhasa. He is petitioning the Chinese government to allow two "carpet buyers" to come to visit his factory. Business visas, of course, can be issued individually. This inevitably takes time, and so we wait.
If we succeed, we should be in Tibet for a couple of weeks, before we return to Kathmandu. From there we must get to Delhi, where we have a scheduled flight to London. We'll hang out in London for a bit for tax reasons (gotta make the trip a tax deduction, you know), then pass through the United States on our way to Mexico. For us, that's where our trip really begins! We're going to explore Mexico, the Caribbean, and South America. Our tickets have us flying from Rio to Sydney whenever we feel like it.
But you never know - that could all change tomorrow.
Trekking with my dad was fantastic. Getting away from our usual norms and spending heaps of time with him on the trails by day and in our tent at night has given me a new and huge level of respect and understanding I've never felt for him before. In the physical sense our trek was graded as hard and in some places extreme. Dad would be one of only a handful of 75 year old men who, over 20 days, ascended more than twice the height of Mount Everest and often walked an 8-10 hour day sometimes arriving to camp in the dark (usually to applause). I'm really proud of him and love the deeper connection we now have.
As for me. Well, I haven't been this strong, healthy or fit since my early 20's. There have been many great moments on the trek, but the best for me was when I climbed a little higher than the Tengboche monastery and sat on a rock for a couple of hours, gaping at the splendour of one of the greatest views on our planet. Sagarmatha (Mount Everest) and her companions, Lhotse, Nuptse, Pumori and Ama Dablam. I won't tell you about it or even attempt to show you a photo because it is not just a view but an experience made up from a whole symphony of feelings. And I now really know what indescribable means.
Most of you know one of my key reasons for making this world trip was to take some time to reflect and reassess what is and what isn't important for me. The hugeness of the Himalayas has made some parts of my life seem quite petty, and a purging process has already begun as I discover more of the things that I really want in me and my future. I can tell that I will return to Nepal regularly to experience the companionship, physical wellbeing and sensory gratification that exploring these mountains gives me.
Perhaps you'll join Mark and I next year?
I like to talk a big talk, and go to a lot of trouble to make you all impressed with me, with digital photographs and sexy web pages. But when it boils down to it, the essence of this trip is in the purity of the experiences, the journey, and the quality of the friendship that I share with Greg. The rest of this is all trimmings. Mighty fine trimmings, it's true, and it's easy to get caught up in the fun and potential of a digital camera and a web site. But it's not strictly necessary, and something I do at the end of the day to keep up my larger-than-life image that I've spent so long cultivating. Thank you for indulging me, and letting me know what you think of Greg's and my exploits.
At the moment I feel quite empty. Not drained, but like a clean slate. Believe it or not I spent most of the trek quite withdrawn and quiet. I couldn't seem to find a reason to get involved in the lives of the porters, the locals or even my companions, whom I love dearly. I didn't realise at first, but I believe I was divesting myself of the muck that accumulates when one spends years embroiled in the lifestyle of a city-dweller. I had been to Nepal and trekked before, so there was not too much newness in our trek for me. I was therefore able to use it (and realised that I had even subconsciously planned to use it) as an opportunity to rest. I know that sounds weird when talking about a strenuous trek, but it was always going to be a rest for me. Obviously a rest of the mind. It worked. I feel rested, still, and empty - ready to restock my life with stuff that matters, stuff that is more authentically me. I look forward to the months ahead.
I was struck at the going-away party at how much love I feel for so many people at home. I wasn't expecting to feel anything like that - only anticipation of the excitement ahead. Isn't it wonderful what leaving can do?
Lots of love from us both,
Mark and Greg
December 19th, 1998
PS: Here, here and here are a couple of shots that didn't fit anywhere else.
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