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    It’s a Sherpa’s Life

    December 22nd, 2007 by mary

    The narrow trails through the Himalayas are made of rocks and dirt, often covered in rain or snow depending on the elevation. There are no motorized transportation, except for the plane to Lukla and the emergency helicopter for the medical evacutees. That means the only way to get supplies throughout the network of villages is on the back of a yak or sherpa. Sherpas out number yaks about 50 to 1. Most people that show up here are on package tours that they arranged ahead of time back where it was warm. An incredibly few number of people attempt the trek without. We were weak and we knew it so when we arrived at Lukla we immediately found a sherpa. Nima, a 5’2″ small framed Nepalese, hauled our overstuffed XL duffel bag (about 50lbs) through the mountains while we only carried small day packs. He was always ahead of us, waiting for our slow bums to catch up. Nima came from a long family line of sherpas and started when he was 12 years old. He says that’s why he’s so short. He was deft and creative at tying bags with knots. His english was decent and doubled as our guide. Sherpas here make on average $8 a day here and during the high tourist months of Oct. and Nov. will traverse these trails 5 times. That made it kind of hard to complain too much about our single trip. During the off seasons the snow pours down on the Himalayas unrelentingly, and without a break so all the shops and guesthouses in the snow zone lock up and head lower. When I asked him what happens if you stay he replied, ”You die.” The money they make in the 4 months of tourisms pays for life the rest of the year and it was getting increasingly harder to find independent travelers looking for local sherpas. Nima was literally the back bone of our trip and an ideal companion for these rugged mountains. I was sad that there was no way to recommend him to others as he had no email and no phone.

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    The Nitty Gritty

    December 19th, 2007 by mary

    Not showering for 2 weeks wasn’t as bad as I had thought. Sure there were showers available but they were outdoor and the stream fed water would’ve snapped my hair off. The occasional wet wipe was good enough. For the entire 14 days we were constantly freezing so we never took off our base layer except to quickly change once at the half way point. Well, some of us did. I think the socks probably took the hardest hit. You know it’s been a rough hike when you can see the smell wafting off your feet. Really.

    It wasn’t until we were back in the warmth of Kathmandu that we showered and for the first week our skin slowly sloughed off several layers. It was like we were shedding two weeks worth of skin and dirt all at once.

    We stumbled upon just a couple nice bathrooms. Indoor, porcelain and with a door!

    Here’s one of the most beautiful outhouses in the world, but you really did not want to get stuck going out to it in the middle of the night. Although somebody “smart” propped their tent right next to it.

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    Wallowing in Dung

    December 19th, 2007 by mary

    Yak dung is brown, but it’s gold. It’s lovingly hand shaped into convenient patties for drying.Their uses are universal; from making walls, to indoor carpeting, to beds, and most importantly stove fuel. Ah, the smell of yak dung meant warmth.Of course we tried desperately not to notice that the same hands handling the patties then went directly into the kitchen to take care of our dinner. That was one of those taboo subjects.

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    Yak Sizzler that really sizzles

    December 19th, 2007 by mary

    If only we could’ve eaten that well the entire 2 week trek. But the culinary offerings of Namche Bazaar is far and away the exception in this the largest and lowest town on the beaten path. Our Himalayan vacation was largely powered by egg and toast in the morning, instant Rara noodles for lunch, and the local lentil soup called dahl bat for dinner. All this was washed down by hot tea, hot lemon, or boiled water. Every guesthouse had the same bland items. After the first few days we started eating as a chore. Though we’d be starving after a six hour hike uphill we’d pick at our food just enough to stave off hunger yet another night. At the base of Mt. Everest we were treated to a left over bag of chili mix from a previous expedition. Of course the local Nepalese cooks hadn’t the faintest idea of what to do with it so I squandered my way into a kitchen, not that I knew how to make RV food but atleast I could read the instructions. We had brought a weighty bag of snacks to offset our limited diet. The snickers bars, skittles, sour lemon drops and sausages were all highlights in our daily regiment.We semi-unfortunagtely learned that skittles, lemon drops and happy cola combined under heat and pressure mutate into a single gelatenous brick of pure sugar. Of course, that didn’t stop us from gnawing on the brick as Mary demonstrates here.
    Oh sure, along the road up snacks like crackers, canned fruit, and chocolate could be found but at $5 per snickers we were glad we bought our own. Even with this gold mine of snacks our daily intake of calories were well under the amount spent traversing the mountains. Over the 14 days we lost at least 10lbs each, with Steve being the most drastic with his 20lb loss. We were all swimming under layers of wool and goretex. So even with our gorgings on Yak sizzler and gorgeous chocolate cake during our two stops at Namche Bazaar our 2 week circuit that took us above Everest Base Camp was an awesome weight loss program. The bonus was walking away with legs of steel.

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    Dhanyabaad Mr. Roboto

    December 19th, 2007 by mary

    Cold weather causes tremendous shrinkage in the life of a battery leaving it with only 10% of its normal usage. We confirmed this during our trip to the Harbin Ice Festival 2yrs ago. Thus the livelihoods of our combined 3 cameras were at risk. ‘Isn’t there electricity in the Himalayas?’ you ask. The answer is sort of. The ‘fancier’ guesthouses have a single 15watt bulb in the common eating room that they light from 6-9pm. Outlets? Never saw one. But some entrepreneurial spirits have brought a handful of solar panels to supply tourists with their precious juice. So anyone wanting a charge could pay $5/hr. Just hope your battery recharges quickly. Even then people were only getting half charges due to questionable wiring. But that’s why we bring someone along with too much time and no sensible fear of electrical fire hazard. When John first walked off the airport bus way back in Beijing my first question to him was ‘What’s that on your back?” He looked like a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle living in the Matrix. But that’s how solar panels on your back are going to change your image. Oh sure there were the common enough glares by locals and tourists alike. They spat out questions like ‘What is that?’, ‘Does it work?’, and ‘Is that what I think it is?’. And yes, it worked like a charm. Even came with a built in flashlight. We put in a request that next time he jerry rig a heater, or air conditioner as befits the environ.

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    The Regiment

    December 19th, 2007 by mary

    Up at 6am, not rested but awake. It’s 15F, inside the room. There’s a painful dryness deep in your throat, maybe as far as your lung. Your breath crystalizes in front of you. You brush with whatever water didn’t freeze in the bottle. Force down toast, again. If you thought it was cold indoor, outside there’s a considerable windchill factor. Then you hit the road one uphill step at a time. Your fingers and toes are the first to freeze, the kind that hurt your bones. Every morning the first 300ft always seem to be the hardest. Breathing is like sucking dry ice through a straw with a leak in it. It’s easiest to stare a few steps ahead, but you can’t forget to look up and around at the scenery. That’s what you’re there for after all. Surely this torment must be for some reason. You scan ahead of you to see where the sherpa is leading, and somehow it’s almost always up. Sometimes the worst is down because that just means there’s even more up ahead. Now and then there is no worn path so you just have to make your own through the boulder fields hopping from one to the next. The icy spots are the worst. Squeezing past the Yaks takes a bit of finesse and when they’re behind you it feels like special olympics version of running of the bulls. Yak’s horns are just as sharp and long, and they really don’t care where they point them. Lunch is an opportunity to warm up with hot lemon or tea. But you don’t want to stop too long because the icy winds pick up after noon and the there’s a lot more mountain to climb before you can settle for the night. And your muscles tighten up in this cold if you stop moving. To make matters worst it’s the high season so you have to get to the next village early enough to get a bed. The afternoon hike is much like the morning. The chill from being in the sun’s shadows is replaced by the bony chilling gusts that penetrates through your fleece. Usually the face gets hit the hardest. Your nose is red and raw from wiping, your ears act as conduits for a perpetual brain freeze, and your eyeballs feel like ice cubes rolling around in your head. Finally you see your destination. At about 4pm you reach the guesthouse and change out of your hiking shoes and socks to give them a chance to dry. Now’s the time a shower so grab a wet wipe and you’re done in a minute. Grab your book and head into the common room. There‘s a single stove in the middle of the room and that only gets lit from 6-9pm, same as the sole light bulb. Dinner is usually served around 6pm so you’re in bed by 8pm. You’re exhausted so even though the elevation won’t let you sleep it’s still good just to lay down. Hopefully there’s extra blankets because your 15F sleeping bag doesn’t cut it even with 3 layers of clothes on. Hours later sleep finally arrives and you wake up the next morning to do it all over again. And though it’s grueling, physically torturous, and each day is a journey into the unknown the experience is magnificient and you wouldn’t trade it for all the comforts of home.

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    Airport insecurity

    December 19th, 2007 by mary

    To get from the warm, comfortable lower lands of Kathmandu to the epic ranges of the Himalayas we would need to take a 40min roller coaster of a double prop plane ride. Surviving the aerial acrobatics would prove to be the easy part, after all there was nothing we could do about that. The tough part is actually getting on the plane. October is supposed to be the good predictable weather season so planes can take off and land from the parking lot sized tarmac in Lukla, the base of trekking. Trouble was the weather the week before was unseasonably cloudy so no one was flying. When we got to the airport just after 5am the place was a zoo. Locals and tourists were all huddled along the walls, counters, and floors; any available space to lean, sit or lay on. But then this was Nepal so maybe that’s what it looks like on any day. One by one the flights were being delayed, then cancelled. Other travellers were sharing their grief as this was their 3rd day waiting at the airport for the chance of getting a flight. Finally at 4pm they cancelled our flight so we headed back to the hotel. Imagine the stupidest ticketing system that is the antithesis of sensibility and efficiency and that’s what we battled to get tickets for another flight. With a week of back up securing a seat was like digging for gold. Luckily we found one two days later. Less fortunate individuals didn’t even have the flexibility in their limited trip dates to make another try. Well, our 2nd day there was even more ridiculous. We camped out on an unused luggage rack as the hoards of people and their excess baggage cramped the small, stuffy building. No information was being given about whether or not any tickets were going to be usable that day so everyone was in a state of mutual exasperation. It was the Wild West of airports. There were no such thing as lines, rules, or security. Somehow I found myself with the task of pestering the head honcho of the airline we were supposed to fly with. Oh sure he tried to wave me off the first few times with waiting times grabbed out of thin air but then I stuck with him like a bad haircut until he gave me something concrete. By noon there was confirmation from Lukla airport that the clouds were clearing so their airport would open up. That made my resolve to annoy him until he got us on a flight grow. At one point the stress was so much for the guy standing next to me that he went into a grand mal seisure and had to be taken away. When push came to shove I squeezed myself to the front of the line and climbed over the counter to make sure our names were written on the passenger manifest. What was at risk was the entire 2 week trek to Everest itself. It was such a relief make it up to the mountain and not have to resort to Plan B because we didn’t have one. We honestly had settled ourselves on having to give up Everest and didn’t think we’d make it. Having conquered that trial we had a bounce in our step, but it wouldn’t last long. There was still the flight back to consider.

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