• Heather O'Neal

Khumjung and after the Trek in Kathmandu

Namche from the lodge window

October 9 - 16, 2016

When the United Nations of Trekkers gets to Namche they are advised to stay at this elevation for two nights before proceeding higher. Continuing toward Everest is dangerous if not well acclimatized to the thin air. 'Climb high, sleep low' is the second mantra for gaining altitude. The first is 'drink water and pee'. Thus, on our second day in Namche, our so called 'rest day', we did an acclimatization hike. The following day, Elana would proceed higher toward Everest base camp. I would return to lower valleys.

The weather has not been perfect nor seasonably sunny! On our way up to Namche we trekked in some sprinkles - nothing too drenching but a bit of an added annoyance to that serious up-hill slog. Later that night it really poured, and I could hear water trickling, pitter-patter on the corrugated metal roof of the lodge. The next morning, market day, the skies were clear! Elana woke me up at 6am with excitement. "Look out the window!" she declared. The town of Namche outside faced a magnificent snow capped mountain at eye level and soaring way way above. We took pictures from the room. "I'm going outside," Elana said, grabbing her jacket and camera.

I scrambled out of my rented, expedition quality, down mummy sack, hurried to get dressed and went outside as well. I couldn't find Elana, but instead I ran into our Israeli friend, Elana's yoga buddy who she befriended while doing yoga in the concourse during our long wait at the airport a few days earlier, and who had joined our group while trekking up the mountain. His name, Avinoam - which took us a long while (4 days) to finally pronounce and remember. A beautiful name actually (not sure if I'm spelling it correctly), and a super nice guy. He and I climbed together up the stone staircase leading above the town of Namche, taking pictures. Then fog came up the valley so quickly we lost the view in seconds. When there are clouds, it is easy to have no idea there are mammoth snow capped land masses all around - and Like cathedrals, pictures do not do them justice.

We returned to our lodges, and later that day hiked further up the mountain together, Elana, Avinoam, me and Kajee, our Sherpa guide. First we stopped at the Everest Museum where there is a larger than life statue of Tenzing Norgay, the Nepali man who first climbed Mt. Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary. There would have been a once-in-a-lifetime view here of Everest and Lhotse, the world's fourth tallest mountain, plus several other amazing peaks - if not for the overcast, cloudy, fog-strewn skies. There was another, smaller monument nearby that looked like a metal ring in the shape of the Dead Sea! It was a gift from Israel. There were two rocks on each side, one from the top of Mt. Everest, 29,028 feet, and the other from the Dead Sea, negative! 400 feet. These are the highest and lowest points on earth. Who knew?

Further on, at the start of the trail to the monastery town of Tengboche on the Everest path, there was a large prayer stone, a natural feature of the landscape - although someone(s) had carved Buddhist prayers all over it, as they often do. Like prayer flags, the idea is - as the wind blows over and around the raised, painted-white prayers, the message is sent to the gods and the universe, creating good karma for all. Near this giant, sacred boulder, there was both a prayer pole and a large prayer wheel. Prayer poles are like flagpoles but with a vertical prayer flag, 20 or 30 feet long, flapping in the wind. These are similar to strings of prayer flags but are instead flying vertically. The five primary colors represent the elements - and together, as experienced by an observer - this is consciousness.

The oversized, colorfully painted prayer wheel in the center of the dirt landing, next to the spiritual rock and fluttering pole, felt like the perfect space for me to send out my own message. I pulled the metal bar around the base of the cylinder, and the wheel turned slowly, clockwise. According to theory, with the movement, the painted prayers on the side were activated and millions more on scrolls of paper coiled around the center inside were also. With my hand on the bar, pulling, I walked around the wheel three times, also clockwise. According to the news on CNN, my efforts toward peace, love and enlightenment have not spread very far - but they're still out there.

We trekked further, much further up to Khumjung where sits the famous Everest View Hotel. This interesting spot was originally built by the Japanese in the early 1980s. At first it was short lived. The idea was to fly high-rolling tourists into 12,700 feet and offer luxury accommodations - for only one night. The flight was a quick way to get there, although unfortunately dangerous, because a slow ascent on foot is part of acclimatizing protocol. The body needs days, several hours and overnights to properly adjust. Like all those people who tell me they wouldn't do well trekking in the Himalayas - it's usually because they flew to a ski resort and promptly took a chairlift to the mountain top. If they had hiked there, they'd likely feel better.

With mountain sickness in mind, the rooms of the Everest View Hotel are equipped with oxygen tanks. A speedy return to lower elevations the next day is also required. In the early days, travelers here didn't do so well. For many years, the hotel was abandoned, and then it reopened once life-saving technology had caught up.

Unfortunately, there were no Everest views that day, only high hanging clouds obscuring all vistas. A few times that day, visibility through the thick fog was only 10 or 20 feet! Above Namche, the narrow trail zigzagged almost straight up a tall ridge. It took at least a full strenuous hour and more to get up that. At the top, there's an old airport and trails going in many directions. We were glad to be with our fearless guide, Kajee, who used his internal gyroscope to head us in the right direction in the fog. Another hour or so later we finally found the Everest View Hotel barely poking out of a cloud.

Overloaded porter in the fog

It was later in the day, and we hadn't had lunch so we sat in the small dining room at the fancy hotel and had expensive dishes next to a gigantic panoramic window, which usually boasts impressive views - although not today. Since I had been there before, I knew what we were missing. We were happy to have gotten to 12,700 feet, the highest point for me on this trip. After lunch it was a tussle getting down and just as we entered Namche from above (it is a vertical town) it started to rain. Once inside the Lodge dining room, it rained harder outside and continued all night.

The Fitbit said, 151 staircases, 7 miles, 16,367 steps - that day, our 'rest' day.

The next morning I had to say goodbye to my team. It was hard leaving Elana, but finally she agreed to stick to her itinerary, and I to mine. She would press onward and upward, and I would go downward.

Down and down and down all those staircases, switchbacks, downward trails. My plan was to walk back with my porter, Geljen, the way we had come up, and then just before reaching Lukla, we would veer off the main trail and onto another route leading to Pem's village (my business partner). This was my intention. However, once I got several miles, steps, staircases down into the afternoon - it started to rain, and we hadn't even turned off the main trail yet. At that point it was either: about an hour-and-a-half to Lukla (in the rain) or another two-plus hours (in the rain) to the next town where we would sleep for the night. If I continued (in the rain) toward Pem's village, it would have also been another TWO very LONG hard DAYS before I would reach the small town. And, because of the weather, the rain specifically, Pem's plan with the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers had already changed - meaning once I got to the village - Pem unfortunately would not be there. I was OK with that during most of the day - until the rain started and wasn't letting up. Showers in the afternoon the next few days were expected. Weather-dot-com had confirmed that.

Trekking in the rain seemed not particularly my cup of tea. But I did it anyway. However, instead of going in the direction of Pem's village - I opted to go back to the little airport in Lukla - and thus, would fly back to Kathmandu the next day. It was a hard decision...which had to be made in the rain. I really wanted to get to Pem's village, but being wet and without him even being there - and only after another two long, full days of trekking up and down over Himalayan mountains - likely in less than ideal afternoon weather, not to mention getting what was already wet to somehow dry while en-route - I was at that point - OK calling it quits.

Upon finally reaching the "Khumbu Resort" (?) in Lukla, I was soaked to my skivvies. Yes, I had a raincoat, but I didn't even get it out because it's like wearing a plastic bag, and I was already wet and sweaty. It's only water, I figured, and at least it wasn't too cold. Finally in my room at the resort (?), l changed into dry clothes that were deep inside my backpack that Geljen carried. I was very thankful for him! I hung my wet clothes across my little room on a makeshift clothesline that I made by tying string from the waistband of a pair of sweatpants to two other pieces of string I found in my fix-it kit - to the strap on my small flashlight, to a small bungee cord and then two headband-hair ties. Finally it was long enough to reach across the wooden room, from the curtain rod to the hook on the wall by the door. Holding a heavy and sopping wet load, my perfect clothesline had drooped halfway down leaving my pants kneeling on the floor.

Luckily, I had extra shoes. In hopes of partially drying out my trekking gear overnight, I went upstairs to the sunroom. The windows there were sadly looking out at a downpour. The drip-drop on the roof was soothing. As my hair dried, it felt cleaner, slightly bouncier. I should have gotten out the shampoo in that rain! I checked the Fitbit: 253 staircases, 15 miles!, 35,169 steps - all today? Only? A half marathon on flat land would have been way easier! I'm not sure I could have done the same thing another two days in a row... I was exhausted. So exhausted, I slept almost the entire next day in my comfortable hotel room in Kathmandu. The nap came after a hot shower - as my clothes finished drying out on the balcony.

During my brief stay in Lukla, I ran into Cherring in the Khumbu Resort sunroom, where the new "Everest" movie was blaring on a resort-like television in the corner. Cherring is Pem's cousin and is from the same village. I had met him on past trips years ago. It was nice to see him again and to learn of his four year old son! Hopefully someday our boys can meet. Cheering said he was going to his village in two days by jeep - so for a while it was my plan to join him! Thus I'd fly back to Kathmandu from Lukla and then drive the 10-12 hours one-way up the road, and perhaps maybe I could actually get to Pem's remote village after all! But it turned out that Cherring had the wrong dates and was actually not leavening for another week, which wouldn't work for me. My international flight was a week away.

And going alone to the village just didn't seem like the thing to do - so after chowing down popcorn in front of that loud TV and also considering maybe taking a trip to southern Nepal instead - to the hot and humid flatlands of the Terai, the jungles where rhinos, tigers, elephants, peacocks, sloth bears, crocodiles and more exotic creatures than you can imagine, including a variety of bugs, butterflies and freshwater dolphins! live in the wild - I ended up just staying put. I'd easily while-away the days in Kathmandu shopping for our store (what a great excuse to spend lots of money!), and I could reconnect with my land, my Nepali people, my Kathmandu, my country - Nepal - which had so graciously adopted me 30 years prior. I could maybe do that yoga class again, too.

I'm carrying around my laundry today. I thought the laundry service was open since it looked open, but the man said - "No, not today." In two days, after the holiday, he will be open - and will not just look open but will actually be open. I must wait until then, which I can do. A British man, also inquiring about laundry, said, "Now is when you take those clothes in your bag and turn them inside out. They're clean again!" I said I've already done that, although joking. He leaned back with surprise.

It is so nice being here in Kathmandu. I love this weather. The bright sun and open windows and gorgeous gardens, where inside is out and outside is in, and somehow so few bugs. I better not jinx that - just saw a fly. I wish this weather was where I was a few days ago! The afternoon monsoon rains have now maybe finally stopped?

I'm at a cafe where they serve 'Himalayan Java 100% Nepalese Organic Arabica Coffee' - so the menu says. Sounds good - tastes good, too. Beats the powdered Nescafé they serve at the hotel. I've managed to scoop too much into the hot water the last few days and just can't seem to find the right balance. Oh well. I'll enjoy this cup for now.

Holiday time means Dashain, Nepal's biggest festival. Everyone, well the few natives who are out and about on the streets in the tourist area, are completely dressed up. The women mostly, wearing beautiful red saris with gold sequence, beads, sparkling prints, are dressed like queens, and young girls equally decked out and gorgeous, look like princesses. Last night a little temple on the street near my hotel was lit up, surrounded in lines of candles - short wicks burning in small dishes of oil along a metal fence-like rail on each side. So pretty in the dark night. It made me think the Hindu gods must be happy. I rang the big bell beside the little temple to call them to come see.

Dashain is the longest and most important festival in Nepal. The fifteen-day event celebrates mythical Hindu stories where the outcome is: victory of good over evil. According to Wikipedia the most important days are the first, seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth. The festival ends on the full moon (must have ended yesterday). It's a holiday to worship the Hindu Goddess Durga who ultimately destroys the demon! It's a festival for celebrating family and community by traveling home and having big family diners and joining processions through neighborhoods with drumming, chanting, cymbals and fancy dresses. I witnessed a few of those.

On the eighth and ninth days mainly, and also throughout, the people offer the goddess blood in an ancient tradition of sacrificing thousands of water buffalos, goats, sheep, ducks and chickens. Blood is a symbol of fertility and renewal. Worshippers mimic the bloody battles of the gods against the demons in this ancient tradition. I was glad to miss this. The meat from these ill-fated beings is considered sacred - divine. Animal rights activists (like me!) who are against killing innocents - have some enterprising ideas to stop the inhumanity. They insist on symbolically sacrificing fruits and large vegetables as offerings instead. They say there is nothing in religious texts that condones these acts.

On the ninth day it is customary to worship things that are used to make a living. These items must be kept happy, things like machinery - cars, bikes, blenders, tools and all of the inanimate objects that bring income and livelihood. It is not uncommon to see blood from sacrificed animals on the wheels of automobiles driving by that day...

Great big forty-foot bamboo swings, tied together by tough grasses, are constructed throughout the countryside in villages for children and adults to play on during the festival. The last night of Dashain coincides with the full moon, and is when Goddess Laxmi descends and showers wealth and prosperity on anyone who is awake throughout the night under the auspicious full moon. People stay up playing cards because 'believing' doesn't hurt and 'hope' keeps people going.

I learned yesterday, my little son, the light of my life, had a fall at school, running to the slide on the playground. Bam... Emergency room and eleven stitches later, he is better now. Poor dad, poor him. I probably wouldn't have handled it so well had I been home. At the same time, how hard it is not to be home! Maybe there was a reason I left my overly ambitious trek in the rain early. Maybe I can change my flight to leave Kathmandu early to be with my boys. But my attempts at that have not been fruitful. Qatar Airlines' office is closed like most of the rest of the city's storefronts - until Friday, they tell me. "Sukrabar" in Nepali. Online I see a button that says "Cancel Flight" - but I don't want to do that!

I was hoping to tour the palace museum, but it is also closed. Friday the town will wake up and return to its old self. The upside for now is everyone is away in their village homes for a few days, so the streets are clear of the usual jams. Fewer cars, motorcycles, busses and taxis means it is much more of a pleasure to navigate the matrix of alleyways and boulevards in the heart of town. The capital city is almost walkable now without wearing a mask to filter the fumes. I'm not bothering with sunscreen these days since my fashionable fabric mask blocks the son too!

Yesterday, I found myself walking. My Fitbit said my loop was over five miles! At the end of the book that I wrote when I lived here in 1986-87, in the last chapter - I sent myself out to walk one more time through the city before heading home after that amazing year. Yesterday, I thought of that day, and like a dream my feet were on those same streets once again ... 30 years later.

Everywhere I go, I notice the stray, homeless dogs. There was a mama doggie with her single puppy, both sound asleep on the broken brick sidewalk. They didn't wake as I carefully passed. Her nose was close to my feet, her puppy's back legs hung slightly off the curb. How sad, I thought. How harsh the world is. I kept on my way, trying not to be so sensitive. What could I do?

Homeless stray dog

I noticed by Friday, the city began perking back up to its usual decibel level. The cars, busses, taxes an motorbikes buzzed back into their constant motion, circling around and around the daily speedway. Stores lifted their solid metal gates and were again open for business. Four-times as many beggars and street urchins(?) were out now than a few days prior. Everyone's back from the holiday, well fed, well rested. Good has conquered evil again!

The place was back to it's usual traffic jam sessions. A happy-looking dog came right up beside me as I was attempting to Frogger across an eight-lane boulevard, a chaotic intersection with no traffic light. There's kind of a tiny roundabout there where the absent "Traffic Police" can take cover, but it's mostly a free-for-all. If the dog were a person, I would have said hello, as our eyes met. What does he want? I thought. I have no dog biscuits, no food. Concentrating on the vehicular activity in front of me, which resembled a toy play-land where cars zoomed and honked around and around all day, I realized - the dog was using me as his guide to get across the street. He didn't know the difference between me and a local - he only trusted that I might have a better sense of the traffic pattern than he likely did.

The dog must have known that people bunch up and move across the street through the layers of traffic at opportune moments so as not to get hit! Almost glued to my side, he moved when I moved, first layer, second layer, single motorcycle, two cars, another four - and we were safely across, side by side. Without a thank you, he trotted along on his way straight ahead, and I turned left to cross again. Smart one.

Later that day, there was a western lady who appeared to be crossing the street about where I was hoping to cross. So as is typical - I moved ahead to joined her so we could cross together. This would give the cars, motorcycles, trucks and busses TWO reasons to either stop or slow down... The woman didn't see me or I think she would have waited before she stepped into traffic. I skipped to catch up at the next break in the flow. I noticed the woman panicked and nearly stopped directly in front of a moving taxi, but thankfully she managed to get herself to the center of the road where the oncoming traffic roared in one direction and more wheels whizzed the other way behind her. I heard her yell as if in distress - an indication she needed help! Now I was midst frogging across, and I motioned to her. "Keep moving!" I yelled. Together we sashayed like players in an arcade game, performing the complex dance of crossing Kathmandu streets. Safe at last.

Why did the tourists cross the road? They had to get to the other side!

The chair where I sit is an old backseat from a car. Kind of cool. It's in front of a beautiful wood table that has some writing on it, some scribbles that I can't make out. There's some pigeon activity outside this window. And I hear someone sweeping below. Probably the dust is wafting up to the second floor window, but I'm not noticing. Just had a peek, a woman is scrubbing a hallway with a broom below. Looks like the floor is wet so maybe minimal dust. The more common brooms I see around here are a hand held bunch of twigs. They're primitive looking, but appear to work well. They also stir up lots of dust.

Shop owners are often seen sweeping in front of their shops, and then throwing water out into the road to keep the dust down. If I did the water thing in front of our store in Ann Arbor, Ann Arborites might wonder. Around here, it's normal. Shop owners are skillful in NOT throwing water on anyone, even during the busiest hours. Yesterday I came upon someone with a bucket spreading water with his hand, and just in time, he noticed me before soaking my feet.

Oh, live guitar music. The musician looks like a young traveler whose been around the block a few times, if not the world. Lots of tattoos and an oversized round earpiece, maybe he got that in Africa? He's likely one of those who's on the road for a year or more. Many like him end up spending time in Kathmandu, enjoying the comforts of the tourist area - chocolate cake, croissants, falafel, normal coffee, and a bevy of other young travelers with whom to hang. Plus guitars that say "Play Me" waiting around in cafes. Something about this wayward scene is fun for me. I guess in my younger years it was all so new and fascinating, interesting and exciting. Now I simply observe.

So finally I can organize my flight to depart a few days earlier on my next walk through the streets and old neighborhoods of my past. But my departure date is just a few days away now, maybe best to forget that idea. I finally did check on changing my ticket, $300 for one day earlier, $400 for two days earlier. Never mind. Life is pretty good here. Breakfast serve daily, room service, CNN, unlimited shopping, hot shower, all good.

I took another yoga class today and felt like a million bucks. At the end, the young woman next to me surprisingly said, "You're a natural!"

Oct. 16, 2016

By now, I've been in Kathmandu several days - a full week tomorrow. And tomorrow is when my flight back home is appearing on the horizon - so long as I have the date and time right! Panic, anxiety...what if I miss it??!! Have I missed it already? A sudden stressful flood of responsibilities and duties washes over me. Things have been very relaxing - zero stress - in my world the last few days. How do I maintain that when I get home??!! I've got all day tomorrow to savor my last moments in my special place. I hope I can return to Nepal in April...for two weeks. Three is too long to have my husband in charge of the palace back home. It seems he has done a great job and may consider it a nice vacation to be without me for a while!

Speaking of palaces, today I made it to the one here. I remember the days of the king, back in the 1980s when he was worshiped as a god. When he woke up, the city would wake up. When he ate, the city would eat. Bells rang across the land to tell the masses what the king was doing and all would follow. A true leader - like a game of 'Simon Says'.

King's Palace in Kathmandu

Today, entering the palace, now a museum, you immediately feel a throwback to Nepal of the 1960s or so. There are animal carpets, bear and tiger skins of wildlife hunted by royal family members long ago! An alligator skin is draped along one hallway wall. All are with taxidermy heads attached, their eyes looking at the visitors gawking at their lives of the past, giving me and everyone the creeps! Two stuffed tigers stand ferociously on hid legs, flanking the grand staircase at the end of the large central hall. A bear skin with head, mouth open, showing vicious teeth, is the rug in the open space here where leaders and dignitaries once came to visit the divine King of Nepal in his Himalayan Kingdom called Nepal. There are guest bedrooms for them, where visitors could stayed when they came, including their own dining room next to a room for: "resting before and after meals."

Maybe the oddest thing, or things, I saw were small side tables next to plastic covered antique chairs. It appeared these little tables were made from the actual leg - foot, including large toenails, of an ill-fated elephant! I had to gasp. OMG. It was easy to miss. I don't remember those on my last visit over seven years back. Goodness. And a weird small framed picture on the wall, a gift from a dignitary from China long ago. Upon closer look - the black and white image in very fine detail was made with black human hair. Each fine line was a strand of someone's hair, somehow glued down in place on the sheet! Considering that, it was an incredible work of art. But who would have thought of doing such a thing?

Strangely, the king's bedroom is modest, small, tiny, compared to the rest of the house. That room sort of shrinks him from god-like to actual human. So hard to imagine a royal family living there - especially now with tourists following arrows through room after room. At one point a group of Americans were bunched up together talking (loudly) about something, and I noticed a villager woman, maybe her first trip to Kathmandu(?), was watching them intently, standing near without first-world manners - neck craned, saying to herself - so this is what they look like, this is how they are - clean, like plastic, loud, overly happy... Everyone else was looking at the dated furnishings of an old, unimaginable time....and this woman found something way more interesting there in the palace - Western tourists, with their pearly white teeth, broad smiles, sparkling eyes, different hats, vests with zipper-pockets, reading glasses on strings. What a sight!

The palace basement reminded me of Graceland, where casual entertaining was likely once the norm, if not including lots of drugs and alcohol. In the back gardens, the ponds might be mini mosquito palaces, murky thick scum with algae. The buildings where the royal massacre took place in 2000, have been destroyed - rather mysteriously. Maybe to hide evidence of who really did it? We will never know. Here bullets were fired which killed the then king and queen, the crown prince and several other members and relatives of the divine Royal Family. The days of the king are no longer. Nepal's government is on its own - without the powers that be from above. And things aren't much better off this way, either.

Every morning I wake up wanting to buy more things. My allotted 100 pounds of suitcase and duffle bag are busting at the zipper seams. Today, I want to buy the breakfast music overheard in the hotel dining room this morning while sipping mango juice. The guys serving don't seem to have any of the names of the artists. The one I especially like is a very relaxing jazz piano with bass which would fit well in the room for resting before or after meals in my palace.

Tourists on their devices

And now at this coffee shop, I want to buy a bag of Nepali coffee beans! Really no room for that. I'll put that on my list for the next trip. Looking around at these plush chairs separated by coffee tables - everyone, I mean everyone is on some kind of device! Three women from the Netherlands(?) came and asked if they could sit with me as the place is packed. They each ordered fancy coffee drinks and un-Nepali style cakes and pies. Then they got out their phones, hooked up to the internet with the free wifi password, "Americano", and got busy - checking e-mail, FaceBook maybe? They were not the only ones. I was on my iPad typing away as if not noticing anyone around me. Although secretly I turned off the sound and took a photo - of what my device saw! I think I captured the scene for the most part. Travelers with brownies, cheesecakes, muffins, chocolate drinks, whipped cream, hot beverages, bendy straws - plus an equally fantastic array of electronics, iPads, laptops, phones, computers, hand-held games - it was a magic combination!

Just heard - Elana made it to 18,000 feet! She's on her way down and back to Kathmandu now. Bravo!

The trip was a success! Heading to the airport soon. See you on the other side.

Calm and Relaxed,

Heather O'Neal

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