A trek in the Himalayas
An illustrated account of a first time trek after retirement.
Click on photos to expand them
Deciding to trek
At the point of retirement aged 60, I had no idea how my body would stand up to trekking in the Himalayas. I don't doubt that the same question applies to anyone tackling something so new to them. One thing was clear to me; I was not going to commit myself to a £1,000 trek booked from the UK, only to find myself giving up after a few hours.
I arrived in Kathmandu to find I had booked the wrong day at the Kathmandu Guest House; a somewhat in auspicious start. The guest house was remarkably understanding (although they would probably been have been less so had I been 18) and I secured a room where I had to paddle down to the bathroom. Relieved to have arrived, I decided to relax with a beer where the local tour operator set to work on me.
“Look," he said, "you could pay £1,000 in UK and I’m offering the same thing for £500.” I was determined not to cave in despite the obvious advantage of everything being fixed for me. He was equally determined and for several hours I failed to indicate that neither £1,000 nor £500 was an option for me. I was not going to invest that kind of money only to crawl back to Kathmandu after one day. No, for me it was independence.
By the end of the evening my message had sunk in and I received the best advice of the trip. “Fly up to Lukla, start walking and hire a porter. You don’t need a guide, just a porter.” And the prices? The answer quite shocked me when I realised how little the porters were paid.
To Namche Bazaar
Following this advice, the next morning I flew to Lukla. An incredible flight, bumping along in a small twin prop plane alongside some of the most famous mountains in the world. The airstrip is short, but on a steep slope, enabling the plane to come to a halt before a solid wall.
I set out; pack on my back, making sure the world knew that even hiring a porter would be an optional extra. The porters and guides gathered round, explaining my need for both porter and guide and they don’t come cheap. Eventually a deal was agreed with a porter at the price put to me the night before. There had to be a catch, so I set out the ground rules. ‘I might only go a little way and stay in Namche Bazaar. That would mean you pay for yourself to come back. You pay for your own food and lodging.’ This all seemed agreeable so we set off.
Namche Bazaar is quite extraordinary, just like any other small town with shops and hotels, but lacking cars, buses trucks or any other motor vehicles. Everything arrives here on a yak or on the back of a porter. Not only was the place amazing, but I too felt amazing, arriving well inside the time suggested by my guide book. Sixty something and I could still trek!
The town exists almost entirely to serve the trekking population; almost, but not entirely. On wandering into a local gompa I fell into a broken English conversation with a young Tibetan woman. She described how she left her parents in Tibet to make the treacherous crossing into Nepal. To add to the arduous mountain conditions which include crossing the Nangpa La pass at 5,800m, there is the constant danger of border guards. At that time the refugees were being accepted in Nepal, although it now seems China is exerting an influence on Nepal to reduce their acceptance.
The hotels in Namche Bazaar are convivial places where one can quickly strike up a conversation about trekking, weather, quality of the lodgings and inevitably about the price of beer. Somewhat unsurprisingly, the latter is expensive, having been hauled up the mountain on the back of a yak or dzo. Now that I had allayed my fear of failure on the trek to Namche I became more interested in where I was to go. I chatted with a local guide leading a group of American students. She suggested that unless one had a specific reason for visiting Everest Base Camp there were other equally interesting treks. The one she recommended as equally easy, with superb views but without the crowds was to a place known as Gokyo Ri.
To Gokyo Ri
The following morning confronted by a student putting on her makeup and the prospect of a crowded trail, I agreed with my porter that we should embark on the trek to Gokya.
The trail is straightforward, and as I had been advised, the porter was able to book us into ‘huts’ on the way. Mobile phone coverage seemed better here in the Himalayas than at home in the UK. The going was surprisingly easy although there are potential pitfalls.
One concern which is particularly significant on the Gokya Trek, is the effect of altitude. Anyone trekking should understand the symptoms and the potentially serious effects of altitude sickness. It isn’t about fitness, and indeed, the fit are the most likely to suffer. There is one section where it is possible to make a rapid ascent missing out on acclimatisation. The solution is to wait for a day or so, something fit people are unlikely to relish. At over 60 years I was not faced with this problem.
However fit one is, however resilient one is to altitude sickness, the last few hundred meterss up to 5,600m are a struggle.
Return to Kathmandu
The return from Lukla to Kathmandu was not quite as straightforward as I expected. Cloud had made the approach to the airport impossible, and for several days I waited in the ever increasingly over populated town. While a sense of panic spread as more people realised they were about to miss flights home, the affluent were able to secure rides in helicopters which were still able to get in. In the end I lost patience and decided to walk with a guide who was returning to his home village near another airfield. This was reputedly at a lower level and less likely to be covered by cloud. Although less spectacular in scenery, the journey which lasted several days was a fine introduction to the less touristed parts of Nepal. It is one of the world’s poorest nations, a fact which can be masked when passing through the tourist rich areas.
It was to be a frustrating journey. Images of a gentle stroll downhill to Kathmandu melted away as the days wore on. After one night sleeping in a warm hut surrounded by banana trees we set off on an upward path towards a ridge. I pointed and gesticulated to the effect that surely we don’t have to go up over that? The reply came back in the form of pointing to a distant col way back up in the tundra. It was then that my confidence in my physical ability waned. A further blow came at the airfield. No planes were due as the cloud was as dense as at Lukla. We set off for another day. Eventually I noticed that the track had widened with ruts made by the tyres of tractors and to my delight we came upon a tractor with a trailer loaded with potatoes. My hopes were raised. We were off to Kathmandu. Neither my guide nor any of the other passengers on the tractor spoke English. Little did I know that this was not to be a direct route to Kathmandu.
After several hours and in darkness, dampened by a fine drizzle, we arrived at a small town which my fellow passengers indicated to me was not Kathmandu. Nevertheless I was directed to a concrete block which had an eating place and rooms consisting of four concrete walls and a bed. Having eaten and splashed water around at the outside tap I felt refreshed and buoyed by the prospect of the bus to Kathmandu in the morning.
The bus duly arrived at 6.00 am. Kathmandu? I asked. There was a murmuring, but no unequivocal yes or no.
After an hour at walking pace along a deeply rutted track, we stopped. The bus was jacked up and the rear suspension dismantled. We then sat, paced around, smoked cigarettes and waited. Eventually it became clear that a young man, who had earlier arrived on a motorbike, had been sent back to town for a new leaf for the spring. Several hours later we set off. Towards dusk, we stopped at what was clearly our destination. It was clearly not Kathmandu; this time I didn’t even ask. It consisted of a few ram shackled huts. Everyone grabbed their possessions, cumulatively being the obvious cause of the broken spring, and headed off for a long suspension bridge. It was a footbridge and on the other side was a road. It dawned on me then what the earlier incomprehensible conversations about Kathmandu boiled down to. No, this bus does not go to Kathmandu, you will need to change.
Having crossed the bridge we waited next to another small group of shacks. As the sun was setting, the bus arrived. It already had passengers and with our bus load it was clearly going to be full. There was no way I was going to stay and eventually persuaded the bus crew I along with several others could sit on a stool in the gangway. It was obviously going to be a quick hop to Kathmandu.
There is no such thing as a quick hop. As night fell we passed a number of villages, stopping sometimes to change one bald tyre for another, sometimes for people to get on and off, sometimes for chai. At each stop I asked ‘Is this Kathmandu?’. On reflection I was clearly seen as quite insane. The quick hop lasted until 5.00 the next afternoon.
Recommendations for any travel in Nepal. Learn a little local language.
Kathmandu and Bhaktapur
Kathmandu and the nearby city of Bhaktapur are worth visiting even if you never venture into the mountains. My visit of 2010 predates the disastrous Nepalese earthquake which in 2015 killed 9,000 people and razed villages to the ground. Yet long before 2015 and certainly in 2010 locals had been talking about ‘the big one’, a major earthquake rather than the more frequent tremors. These earthquakes are the result of the enormous forces that have produced and continue to produce the Himalayas. The attractions of Kathmandu, the narrow streets lined with half-timbered houses, the ancient monuments make the city vulnerable. As a very poor nation, there is not the option to rebuild with modern earthquake resistant structures as in more affluent countries.