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Tamed by Temples

Once in their lifetime, every person should journey to a place where legends live, where everything is bigger than life. For me, Everest has always represented nature at its most powerful, most awe-inspiring, most unconquerable. The allure of seeing Everest up close was one of the driving forces bringing me to Nepal in the first place, and now for me the dream was close to being realised. On Wednesday, November 17th I set out for the Solu-Khumbu region planning to spend three weeks walking among the highest peaks on earth.

In the Everest region everything in on a scale so fantastic that it defies credibility, prohibits measurement in conventional terms. For example, the last stretch of road leading to the village of Jiri, the trailhead for the walk to Everest, was constructed by hand using local labour. Over one hundred kilometers of road, through some of the steepest terrain imaginable, was built foot by foot, mile by mile, each individual stone cut with a hammer and laid in place by a local inhabitant. T raditional road-building equipment doesn’t exist in this part of the world, and couldn’t be used anyway in this sort of rugged landscape.

The road was a Swiss-sponsored project, as is much of the foreign activity in Nepal – either the Swiss building roads or bridges, or the Japanese organising cheese factories – and we felt very lucky to have it. When Edmund Hillary set out to climb Everest, the roads of Nepal didn’t reach much farther than Kathmandu. He started his trek from the village of Bhaktapur, shouting distance from Kathmandu and nearly 200 kilometers from Jiri, the starting point of our journey.

To get to Jiri on the big day, I conspire with my trekking companion, an American named Dennis, to hire a taxi, which turns out to be a tiny well-worn minivan with tires the size of large english muffins. The spare tire is almost completely bald, and when we stop to check tire pressure I run my finger along its smoothness and Dennis and I laugh nervously. The driver, unfazed by any of this, proceeds along the mountains roads at breakneck speed, tossing the van into every curve and whipping past any locals unfortunate enough to share the road with us. The ferocity of nature in the Solu-Khumbu makes itself felt almost immediately – along the road to Jiri we encounter several landslides, some containing rocks as large as our van. We also encounter several local buses crammed to overflowing with people, both Nepalis and trekkers, reaffirming our decision to hire our own transportation. When quizzed later about the experience of taking a local bus to Jiri, every trekker without exception uses the word “hellish” at least once, often amplified by more colorful language.

The trek from Jiri up to Everest crosses several smaller mountain ranges, each of which must be scaled and descended in turn. As a result, the better part of a week is spent either walking straight up or straight down, often 1000 meters or more in a day. The traveling in arduous, but has its benefits. Not only does it get you in proper shape, but as the terrain gradually rises it also serves to kick-start the acclimatization process, where your body compensates for lower levels of oxygen in the atmosphere by increasing the number of red blood cells in your circulatory stream. With your metabolism continually redlined to compensate for the constant physical exertion and the increasing altitude, your appetite increases enormously, and despite eating like fat pigs both Dennis and I manage to lose weight. However, the climbs gradually become easier as we round into shape, and the continual exposure to cold temperatures brings about another interesting adjustment – extra hair appears on my legs, arms, and stomach.

Despite its arduous nature, the walk to Everest has its own kind of magic that we experience every day. We visit a small monastery located near the village of Junbesi and are enchanted by the magnificent scenery as well as by the hospitality of the monks. Without speaking a word of English, we are quickly able to organise a tour of the buildings and access to the temple. Within the temple, a monk records our visit in the monastery’s journal using flowing Tibetan script, with the sacred teachings wrapped in skins stacked in rows behind him. Over his head hangs a picture of the Dalai Lama posing with the local lama, Lamesh Rimpoche. Brass bowls filled with water line the walls, and sunlight streams in the small windows. Dennis comments on the slow pace of life here, and I mentally compare this place to some of the frantic, chaotic places I have been in the past few years and shake my head in amazement. Geographically this place is not so far from the western world, but in terms of lifestyle, and spirit, this is a world apart, so far removed it may as well be on another planet.

Outside the temple we stop and thank the monks for their hospitality. They are fascinated by our camera equipment, and Dennis gives one monk a crash course in photography. Soon he has borrowed Dennis’ camera and is shooting away happily at anything that moves, which includes not only us and his fellow monks but also passing villagers, who, after some initial confusion and shyness, willingly join the party. Caught up in the spirit of the moment, another trekker in our group, an Australian named Brendan, decides to get his head shaved in the Buddhist fashion. He manages to communicate this to the locals and they eagerly rise to the challenge. Quick as a flash, they have him soaped up and are hacking away excitedly at his thick hair and beard. When they offer to shave his chest hair, though, Brendan politely declines, much to their disappointment. 

On our return from the monastery, we encounter a primitive electrical works established as part of Edmund Hillary’s legacy. It consists of a wooden conduit directing water from a nearby stream to a small generator, which provides electricity for the monastery as well as the village of Junbesi. We sit for a minute in the warm sunshine contemplating the gorgeous valley scenery and listening to the birds singing in the trees and the whisper of the stream far below. A group of monks, school-aged children led by an older man, makes their way up the valley toward us. The old man moves slowly, each step carefully considered, while the children flow around him, skipping and running, their colourful shawls flapping in the sunshine and snatches of their laughter reaching us on the hillside. I am reminded once again how lucky I am to be here, in a land where images such as these are bestowed like precious jewels, each to be savoured and experienced with all senses before being set aside. This also leads to some frustration, though, as the journalist in me attempts to re-create these images in words or pictures and finds that even the best efforts can only hope to capture a fraction of their magic quality.

The walk in from Jiri also affords us the opportunity to experience some of the local culture. On our third day we enter a small village that appears strangely vacant. Nobody is moving about the trails and all the buildings are shuttered. On the outskirts of the village we discover the answer to the riddle: today the village is celebrating the passing of a neighbour who died exactly three years ago. In this region, local custom dictates that every death is honoured on its first three anniversaries with a party thrown by the deceased’s family to which everyone in the village is invited. In theory, these celebrations ease the spirit’s journey in the afterlife and ensure an appropriate rebirth. In practice, it seems like an excellent method for easing the grief normally associated with death and strengthening the communal bonds within the village.

 Later that week we are treated to a home-cooked chicken dinner at a small lodge in the village of Jubing. In this case, though, the chickens are still alive and kicking when we arrive. We watch them being strangled, plucked, chopped, and boiled in their own blood. When the meal is served, we notice that the blood has colored the meat a dark brownish-red, which isn’t really all that appetizing. Even less appealing, we find that the entire bird was thrown into the pot, including such savoury items like the head and legs. Gert-Jan, a fellow trekker from the Netherlands, lifts a chicken head dripping from the pot, and I quickly lose my appetite. The Nepali guides in our party simply shrug their shoulders and continue crunching away at the bones until the entire bird is consumed.

The guides are a unique bunch. They usually start as porters, carrying a load to earn their daily bread while working on their English and becoming familiar with the trails in the area. A porter’s life is a hard one, carrying up to twice your body weight more than 16 hours a day for very small wages. Every porter’s dream is to become a guide, and as a result many will engage you in conversation along the trail in an attempt to improve their language skills. Once a porter becomes a guide, the standard of living increases markedly – guides are able to afford good food and decent clothing, and often have enough money for “luxuries”, such as sunglasses or proper hiking boots. In contrast, porters are often seen dressed in rags and sandals, subsisting on a meager diet of rice, lentils, and potatoes.

For most of Nepal’s history, porters and others members of the lower castes had little hope of working at anything beyond the most menial jobs, generally manual labour of some kind, while members of the upper castes were able to control the land and enjoy the fruits of their labours. However, increasing levels of education and the growing influence of the west has tended to blur traditional lines, and in some cases break them down completely. Younger Nepalis tend to pay less attention to caste when choosing friends or partners, and members of the lower castes are able to aspire to a life beyond their traditional place. While this appears to be positive progress to some, many of the traditional members of the upper castes, including the ruling classes of Nepal, fear a loss of power and are not at all receptive to Western influence. In many cases the government of Nepal has actively encouraged an anti-western sentiment, decrying a “loss of culture”, in order to maintain the status quo. Nepal today is engaged in a tug-of-war between these two very different ways of life, one traditional yet oppressive, the other personally liberating but culturally bankrupt. One can only hope that the two will eventually meet in a way that offers all the people of Nepal the chance for a better life but still manages to preserve some of the traditional beauty and wisdom of the ancient Nepali culture.

After 8 days of hard walking from Jiri, we reach our first rest stop, a large village called Namche. It is situated at the confluence of the two major rivers in the area, the Bhote Kosi and the Dudh Kosi. Namche also marks our official entry into “high altitude”, residing at 3,500 meters (about 11,500 feet) above sea level. Here we will take a day off, washing some clothes and allowing our bodies to recuperate from the long journey. The day off will also give our respiratory systems some additional time to adjust to the thinner air. 

Namche has served as a stopping point for many trekking parties before us, and the western influence is evident everywhere: German bakeries with the finest cakes and pies, western-style pubs with climbing memorabilia on the walls, pizza parlors, and even an Internet cafe. After living a more-or-less traditional Himalayan lifestyle for so long, Namche for me is a total spin-out. I feel the tension accumulated during the walk from Jiri disappearing and thoroughly enjoy the opportunity to relax over a beer with fellow travelers. The pub turns out to be an excellent place to meet people, as trekkers congregate there to share their experiences and bask in the glory of their accomplishments.

Unfortunately, though, the pub conversations are not all entirely pleasant. Some climbers seem to possess an attitude that the mountains are there to be “conquered”, and that summits are to be collected like trophies and displayed for all to see. In this way, climbers are reflective of a more general attitude within the western world, whereby nature itself is meant to be subjugated to our will, to serve our needs. Instead of taking what was given to us and living within nature, as did many of the world’s earlier civilizations such as the American Indian and the Australian Aboriginal, we have come to believe that we can, indeed should, modify nature to better suit our needs. As a result, we live in a world today where the human race has flourished and spread to all corners of the globe, with comforts and conveniences that enable many to lead rich full lives free of physical discomfort and disease. However, in the process we have lost our connection to, and our reverence for, the natural world. Our actions have devastated many of our most important natural resources and created an imbalance in the distribution of wealth that bestows unimaginable riches on a select few while millions are allowed to starve. If some may call this progress, I would argue that we still have a long way to go, and that some of the answers may be found by looking back instead of forward, rediscovering what we used to know but have forgotten.

Above Namche, we enter the high country and enjoy our first up-close view of Everest. On this trek, instead of walking up to Everest Base Camp, Dennis and I will be exploring a nearby river valley that contains the Ngojumba Glacier, one of the largest in the region, as well as a number of high-altitude lakes. The valley was formed by the upper Bhote Kosi, and the peaks in the area serve as the river’s primary watershed. Soon after starting up the valley we rise above the treeline, and from that point onward the only vegetation is small shrubs and grasses. Our destination is the village of Gokyo, located on the shores of a small lake called Dudh Pokhari. From here we are able to explore the glacier and climb Gokyo Ri, a nearby peak about 5500 meters above sea level (about 18,000 feet), where most the high peaks of the area come into view: Everest, Lhotse, Cho Oyo, Cholotse, Kangtaiga, Thamserku. Standing at the top of Gokyo Ri and soaking in the spectacular views, I again marvel at the scale of the landscape in this region. For example, at this altitude, I am higher that I have ever been in my life and higher than I will probably ever be again, but at the same time I am over 3000 meters (nearly two miles) below the peak of Mt. Everest.

On our way down the valley, the weather becomes increasingly colder to the point where our water bottles freeze up at night. I realise how tired I am of being cold, of constantly battling to stay warm, eating dinner while huddling around the yak-dung fires or crouching in a sleeping bag. The bone-cracking cold, along with the lack of oxygen and the treacherous terrain, serve to remind me once again of the power of nature, of the knife-edge between life and death in this region. At any time, the headaches and shortness of breath could deteriorate into something much more dangerous, where survival is dependant on descending to lower altitudes as quickly as possible. Or your next step could start a rockslide, twisting an ankle or breaking a limb. The light dusting of snowflakes could become a blizzard, burying the trail and stranding you for days or weeks. Constantly dealing with these conditions not only wears on you physically, but also takes a psychological toll. One week is more like a month, and a cold night seems to last forever. Upon our return to Namche, I am more than happy to indulge myself in some western creature comforts.

Our final adventure on this trip is our return flight from Lukla to Kathmandu. Lukla is about a day’s walk from Namche, and the direct flight from there to Kathmandu is a good way to cut down your travel time on the return trip. In Edmund Hillary’s time, the Lukla airport did not exist and aspiring climbers walked both in and out. These days trekkers generally fly either into or out of Lukla, sparing themselves one leg of the trip, although increasingly Lukla is being used as a round trip, allowing people to avoid the Jiri walk completely. This saves time, but also introduces a new brand of trekker to the high country – the weekend warrior who is either unwilling or unable to allocate enough time to do the trek properly and instead chooses to buy their way in via a round-trip ticket. Not only do people of this ilk suffer more acute altitude sickness and create more than their share of problems on the trail, but in my opinion they also miss an important part of the total experience. Many of the trip’s special moments occurred on the walk in from Jiri, and many friendships were forged in the small lodges along the way. For all of us, reaching Namche and getting our first up-close look at Everest was no small feat, and the sense of accomplishment we felt was one of the high points of the journey.

The airfield at Lukla was carved out of a cattle field on a high mountain ledge surrounded by sharp cliffs, and supports the landing of small 12 or 18-seat propeller planes. The landing strip hardly seems long enough, but is sloped upward to enable the pilots to brake sufficiently without crashing into the mountainside. On takeoff, the downward slope allows the pilots to get up enough speed to take off without pitching over the cliff. As we prepare to take off, Dennis admits that he does not like flying, and in these conditions I can’t say I blame him. He jokes around and attempts to make light of the situation as always, but when the pilot guns his engines and we pitch and heave down the gravel runway, I can see Dennis gripping the seat in front of him and muttering to himself.

Except for some minor turbulence, though, our flight is rather uneventful, and we land an hour later at Tribhuvan Airport after enjoying a spectacular mountain sunset from the air. On the way back to Thamel, the central tourist area of Kathmandu, our cab gets stuck in traffic and I decide to shoulder my pack and walk into town. After all we have been through in the last few weeks, I don’t mind at all.

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