• Heather O'Neal

Kathmandu, Lukla, Namche - A Himalayan Trek

Mountain Airport in Lukla

October 5-8, 2016

I am iodizing my water. Two tablets dropped into my water bottle, which I've been using over and over since leaving Kathmandu, does the trick. I have to wait thirty minutes for the iodine to kill anything lurking - but I have a backup, a second bottle already treated. It's basically stream water, river water, runoff from the mountain top, but the problem around here is there's always someone, a village or an animal above, who is unwittingly putting contaminants, bacteria and the like into the water supply. There's plenty of water, snow and ice further up, it's just not clean. Iodine takes the bad stuff out, making just about any water safe to drink - I hope.

"Drink water and pee" is the mantra of the Himalayas. Acclimatizing is essential. If the body has trouble adjusting, the thin air can be life threatening. We are doing well. I'm trekking with Elana, from Alaska. She's lots of fun, meeting many fellow trekkers on the gray stone and rocky trail through the Himalayas toward the high peaks and what seems like Oz ahead. Mt. Everest and the wall of snow-capped mountains to the north are a few days walk up and up and down and up and further up.

Randomly, this morning at breakfast, another Alaskan was sitting near us in the dining room. Turns out Elana and this woman had met or at least had been in the same room at a recent conference in Anchorage. The woman was a photographer, hired for the event that Elana's office had organized. Again the world is extremely small. Then another trekker from California knew a friend of a friend of Elana's. What are the chances?

We left the busy air of Kathmandu two days ago. A lot happens in a day on the trail in the mountains, a lot of steps, that is. But before we got here, our flight into the Khumbu region was delayed and then canceled. We spent the long part of Wednesday (Oct. 5) waiting at the domestic terminal in hopes of flying out, but unfortunately, no luck that day. Around 3 they called it quits. The weather was not cooperating - rain and clouds in Lukla, our destination. So we headed back downtown to our hotel in Kathmandu.

I joined Elana for a yoga class that afternoon, which I loved. It was especially nice that the teacher was praising me for my flexibility. He said, "You are very strong." No wonder I loved the class and him. No one has ever said 'you are strong' to me! The class was technically "Ashtanga" yoga, a word I had not heard before. I will have to look for a class in Ann Arbor when I get back. I felt great after - flexible and strong!

After yoga we found an interesting talk to attend at the nearby Paddy Foley's Irish Pub. The topic: 'ethical volunteering' which I found especially fascinating. It is so hard to give money, to volunteer, to make things right in such a poor place like Nepal. Westerners want to throw money at the smattering of problems poverty creates. I struggle to find good ways myself, to truly 'help' this very poor country. I hope education, writing my stories, co-owning a shop that focuses on Nepal, leading tours to this funny, fascinating, frightful place will in some ways help this country. The Nepalese are a special breed, and their land, religions, traditions, geology, geography, too. And despite the many hardships, most people have extended families, solid communities and generally the world's best smiles. Although monetarily poor, the country is extremely wealthy in many other respects.

The man giving the talk was from an aid organization that helps children who are "trafficked". There was some discussion on what that word means, and his definition was broad, meaning abused, taken advantage of, bought and sold and more. Such a sad state of affairs in this country.

He said all of Nepal's 'orphanages' are concentrated in the tourist areas. It is a bit suspicious. Based on their studies, 85% of the children in these homes actually have families. Unfortunately, in some cases they've been captured, taken to these homes by criminals who then raise money by publicizing sad photos and stories of how poor, malnourished or perhaps abused these children have been. The man said there is evidence that kids are taken from families with promises of a better life, of a well paying job abroad, of a free education at a boarding school - yet they end up, sadly in 'children's homes'..mainly for the benefit of the home's director, manager and owners. Ugh. The problems are intense.

The kids bond with their transient caregivers, like the many volunteers shuffling through each year. After a month or sometimes a year, the volunteers leave. The kids my write to them but basically they are gone forever. The kids are left with attachment disorders, no sense of family or belonging. It's a hopeless situation. Research confirms, it's best for kids to grow up in families. The people in charge of such homes go to poor villages in southern Nepal and tell the parents that their children will be taken care of and will have a better life and because the families are so poor, they send their children away - only to never see them again. So very sad.

The talk was great and we ended up chatting into the night over Everest Beer with an interesting 78-year-old man from New Zealand. He had been volunteering and working with the Himalayan Trust for the last many years, an organization started by Sir Edmund Hillary.

This country is a kaleidoscope, angular pieces that don't match together, that change and fluctuate over time, that collide and mesh, are symmetrical and then move again. That there can exist a place like this on the same planet as a place like the United States - so orderly and well defined, so straight and rigid, so predictable - I find the extremes fascinating.

So the next morning we were up early and at the airport again. Hurry up and wait, and wait. Finally the rainy air was clear and sunny at Lukla, and we were on our little plane. About 20 passengers fit on the aircraft, including a single stewardess. She announced some instructions in Nepali and in English, pointed out emergency exits, and then passed around a tray of half hard-candy and half cotton fragments (to be used for one's ears). The little plane was loud on takeoff and soon we were airborne, gliding above the mismatch of housing structures below, tall and short buildings, which surely had never seen a city planner. It looks like utter chaos and harmony at the same time. These people live so peacefully together. No one is angry, even in the midst of road-rage prone streets. The Hindus and Buddhists live peacefully side by side - although individually they are quite different.


Soon above the scattered clouds, the sun greeted the plane. It must be fun to pilot such small flying machines around cotton-candy clouds, suspended in blue skies, fluffy, scattered obstacles to weave around. And as we rose into the atmosphere, so did the land. About halfway through the short twenty-seven minute flight, the mountains grew taller. The Himalayan foothills surrounding the Kathmandu Valley towered toward our plane. It's wings propelled higher as the mountains below also reached to the infinite sky. In the cloudy distance a wall of white Himalayan peaks poked through a layer of fog, clearly defining the border of Nepal, Tibet and China. We weren't going that far, nor would our plane be able to lift high enough to get over the tallest peaks. Instead, we angled down toward the short airstrip in the mountain town of Lukla, the gateway to the Everest Region, the land of the Sherpa people at about 9,500 feet.

The plane steadied above the tarmac at just the right distance so as not to nose into it or hover too high above it. The now paved runway was built at an eleven-degree angle with a cliff at the lower end, including a raging river in the valley far below, and an immovable Himalayan mountain at the high end. It takes some skill to land at this airport. If you have pilot friends, ask them if they've heard of Lukla. They may have practiced landing here on a simulator in order to perfect their skills. A good captain must learn to be precise when it really matters. The History Channel calls it the world's most dangerous airport! Don't let their video scare you.

Our pilot landed us solidly and safely on the ground - and loudly as he hit the breaks in a tremendous roar as we barreled up toward the mountain ahead. That toy-like airplane turned just in time and came to a complete stop next to a building with a sign that said, "Tenzing-Hillary Airport". The stewardess came to the front to announce - we had Lukla. Spontaneously, all passengers offered a round of applause. What a show it was!

Outside the plane, the mountain air was cool and crisp. It's easy to feel breathless at that elevation. Inhale deeply, pant, try to hyperventilate, and that will help. Drink water and pee, too.


We collected our bags, met our porters and headed down the main (and only) Lukla road to a nearby tea house. We had some quintessential milk tea. I gazed out the open window of the second floor dining room. There were a few stray doggies roaming the cobblestones below, among chickens and a cow, as a team of six zopyaks (a cross between a yak and a cow) ambled through the village.

I was looking for the brothers and sisters of my dog, Khumbu, who came to me seven years ago at this very place during my last trip to Nepal. He was a tiny, fuzzy puppy - now full grown. None of the dogs in the first little while of being in Lukla were looking much like him. I was still determined I would see his family. Little did they know their brother, Khumbu, was the first in their lineage to ever have a name, and the first to fly on a plane and the first to live with unlimited dog biscuits, dog toys, green grass, daily walks, food and water at easy access and the first in his family to live abroad. Some of his brothers and sisters must have survived all these years - they must have - I thought.

Easily Khumbu's sister!  I found a family member.

After the last sip from the mug of Nepali milk tea (yum!) we were soon on our way down the medieval-looking street. Just like Roman times, chickens were here and there, a rooster cock-a-doodle-do-ing, more zopyaks moving near us with loads. On the trail between towns, we had to get out of their way. Hug the mountain! Watch out for the cliff-side as these large animals have been known to push trekkers over the edge. And never cross a bridge with yaks or zopyaks on them. Their horns are deathly sharp. Rarely do they attack, thankfully. Hopefully they haven't been beaten into submission. Beasts of burden, they ply the trails, transferring cargo like trucks on a highway.

This well-trodden route is narrow in places, rocky and sometimes steep. Wheels are useless. The furry yaks and zopyaks serve as wheels here.

From Lukla the trail goes on and on, up and down, down and up. It's a rocky staircase in some places, a well warn dirt trail in others. Then there are bridges where a pathway is otherwise impossible. Speckled throughout the Himalayas, these works of art glide over landslides, dangerous rivers and canyons, downward streams and next to waterfalls, connecting towns along each trail. Some bridges are big, some are small. Some are a couple boards and others are incredible steel marvels of suspended engineering. How did they place those giant cables across those seething rivers far below? At 400 or 500 feet above ground level? They somehow did - without the help of heavy equipment. There are no roads to get machinery into these parts. Helicopters help transfer supplies, but man-power is much cheaper. The more men, the more power.

Bridge - suspended work of engineering, see the old bridge below?

At altitude it is easy to flow down to the center of the longest suspension bridges, but the 50 or 100 foot climb up to the other side, while the bridge is moving under foot, swaying from the asynchronous footsteps of fellow trekkers, porters and at times pretty stiff winds, well that's difficult. After crossing such gigantic monkey bridges, one's legs feel like noodles and give way at the knees. A short rest to regain composure may be required.

We met and befriended a few people instantly, fellow Americans, Dutch, Israeli, British, German, Japanese, Chinese. Trekking strikes me as similar to the story of "The Wizard of Oz" where travelers are on their own journey from their homeland to the mountains - in search of something, as if off to meet the Wizard... Maybe the snowy peaks up ahead will fulfill their requests.

It is a United Nations, all sitting around tables in the dining rooms of Sherpa lodges. We are waited on, hand and foot, by our porters and guides. We order from menus, are served our dinner, our lunch and breakfast, veg fried rice, spaghetti with tomato sauce, veg or meat momos (like dumplings), dhal bhat (traditional Nepalese food: rice, curried veggies and lentils - yum), ramen noodle soup, omelettes, hot fruit-flavored Tang, coffee, milk tea, and more between long hours of hiking through spectacular rhododendron forests (not in bloom this time of year), twisted tree-like shrubbery among green mossy stone and dirt walled trails - like Hobbit Land in Tolkien's stories. Tolkien did spend time in Nepal. This United Nations is cordial, polite, courteous, considerate, curious about one another. How come we get along so well when our political leaders are not watching? In these mountains, Mother Nature is supreme. She is the ruler, and as her subordinates, we stand together in awe.

The Sherpas live in this area and turn their homes into lodges for the United Nations of trekkers. These determined, fit souls pass through their lives on their way to Oz or wherever they think they are going. The dining rooms are full of conversation, and heat - if lucky. There are typically benches surrounding the perimeter of the dining rooms, under windows with views, next to narrow tables and sometimes additional chairs opposite the carpeted benches, fancy Tibetan carpets, that is. In the center of the room there is usually a cast-iron stove, where the locals burn yak dung. They collect and dry the patties, like saucers, which they throw into the fire. The dung burns hot and long and saves trees. Deforestation is a problem in this region, so the recycling of waste is welcome. Plus, the practice keeps the trails somewhat clean. The heaters have chimneys so there's no smoke (or smoking) inside. You'd be surprised how many trekkers smoke, actually.

After two days without a proper shower, my hair stopped blowing in the wind. I could almost shape it into whatever style of choice. I found a pony tail worked well to hide this fact. But when the wind blew across my ears at times, I put my hair back down like a cap, keeping me warm. It was't hot nor cold necessarily, but trekking/hiking in the Himalayas was a workout, which was sweaty at times. A wind breaker felt right in some places, and a light-weight fleece layer was perfect during lunch outdoors.

Porter with huge load

Up and down and down and up, across bridges, through these little towns, and up and down and down and up again and then up and up and up. The mountain that Namche Bazaar is perched upon is gigantic. My Fitbit said: 384 staircases that day - I think it was more. The grand hoist up to 11,300 feet is a doozy. There's a false summit at nearly every turn in the long switch-back climb. If you're there near a Saturday, as we were, you'll see people carrying loads unheard of in the USA. They might as well have couches on their backs, futons, dishwashers, large, bulky, heavy items like boxes upon boxes of Ramen noodle soup, cases of beer, meat, cheese, tobacco - all staples of daily life in the mountains.

Namche is the biggest town in the area, a crossroads between towns, valleys, rivers, Tibet, China and Nepal. The weekly Bazaar is Saturday morning, a local market where vendors travel miles and meters of elevation to sell their wares. Mostly the shoppers are the locals and lodge owners who are in need of ketchup, soap and TP for the United Nations of visitors.

Namche Bazaar

Elana bargained for a watch. Without one, it's quite easy to loose track of time of day, day of week, month of year, place on earth! Trekking is a lesson in fully being in the present. The days blend together, punctuated at times by monstrous mountains, grand rock staircases, super cool bridges, heavenly vistas, hearty meals and deep, vivid dream-filled sleeps in a sleeping bag - not to mention (treating) drinking water and peeing!

The United Nations that finds itself here - outdoes itself daily, beaming with pride as Sir Edmund Hillary must have done when he defeated Mt. Everest. A Hillary quote: "It's not the mountains we conquer but ourselves." I love this phrase because trekking in the Himalayas is purely individual and genuinely personal, the agony and the glory of making it to the top of the next ridge - and beyond.

Khumbu Lodge Dining Room

I write sitting at a bench at a table in the Khumbu Lodge dining room in Namche. I am now overhearing the conversation between the Lodge owner and two guests. The young German man says he has sprained his ankle, and he cannot possibly walk back down to Lukla to catch his flight back to Kathmandu. The Lodge owner advises a 'chopper'. Insurance will cover it, he instructs. A reminder of the importance of 'helicopter evacuation insurance' - which we also have, of course - and hopefully won't need. The Lodge owner says he knows the pilot, so the young man appears calm and is in the right hands.

Sounds like they'll be flying later today. $600 to $700, the lodge owner said, will get them to Lukla to catch their flight - or they can pay more $$ to return by helicopter all the way to Kathmandu. I guess this couple was in the Gokyo Valley when the man fell. They were trekking a long day yesterday, which was when he sprained his ankle. Poor guy. The lodge owner is taking care of the business of the mountains. He is making helicopter arrangements as I write. The young couple should be on their way down this afternoon.

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