From Kathmandu my mother and I board a plane that holds about 15 people headed for the village of Lukla, the starting point for all treks in the Solokhumbu (Mount Everest) region of Nepal. We get good seats on the left side of the plane and perfect views of Everest as we fly seemingly into the side of a mountain, touching down on the tiny Lukla airstrip.
In Lukla our guide Moti Bhattarai, whom we’ve hired by word-of-mouth and Lonely Planet recommendations, hires a porter (commonly referred to as "sherpa") named Arki. He hoists a giant bundle containing our weighty duffel bag and other trekking supplies up with a rope and strap that he wears across his forehead, his head bearing much of the weight of our heavy bag hanging off his back. Within minutes he’s far ahead of us. Moti hangs back to make sure we’re doing okay on the first leg of this 10-day trek to Thyangboche where the view of Everest are exquisite and the 13,000-foot altitude is just enough for the uninitiated.
Today we’re headed to Phakding (pronounced pock-ding).
Everest viewed from the flight to Lukla By Steve Evans from Citizen of the World - Himalayas: Mt. Everest, CC BY 2.0
Leaving Lukla, loogies and all
We leave Lukla via rocky trails along the mountain's edge, while down below to the left we pass farms and spiraling, intersecting, criss-crossing fences made of stone. Towering above the mountains are even greater mountains, snow-capped Himalayan peaks. On the trail, we pass porters like our own, carrying monstrous baskets, filled with everything from fuel to food to camping supplies, for trekkers and shops and villagers. The higher up in elevation you get, the more expensive the luxury items: beer, sodas, candy bars. They’ve all been brought by foot over miles and days of trails. Many of the porters are young boys, teenagers and early-20s, barely straining it seems under the weight of their loads.
“Namaste," the standard greeting in Nepal, works for any time of day so we offer it up every time we pass others on the trail. Then we learn we shouldn't say it to the porters as they need to save their breath, but feel obligated to answer back if we greet them. Sounds effects on the trails include lots of hacking and hocking, from Kathmandu to here. Everyone eats a lot of dust and there are no qualms about rolling up big loud loogies and spitting them out right in front of you. The "poor man's hankie" is another common sight: holding the bridge of the nose and blowing it all out onto the street.
Sherpa carrying load in Nepal By Rüdiger Wenzel - Archiv Dr. Rüdiger Wenzel, Parchim, CC BY-SA 3.0 de,
Yakkety-yak don't talk back
Every once in awhile we hear the hollow clang of the yak bells, signaling that a herd of the long-haired cow cousins are approaching, either oncoming or from the rear. Soon enough they appear, laden down with supplies, rounding the bend, guided along by the switch of the herder. We hug the hillside to make way for them as we’ve heard they can be ornery. We learn later that what we’re seeing in the lower elevations are crossbreeds between yaks and cows; yaks can only survive and thrive at the higher elevations. There are different terms for all the different types of yaks and crossbreeds, and for your further trivial information, female yaks, which you don't see on the trails but are milked to make cheese and butter, are called “naks.”
Yak trains on the trails of Nepal By Krish Dulal - Own work, CC BY 3.0,
Prayer flags, prayer stones and right shoulder to Buddha
Now and then we pass mani stones, sometimes massive rocks, sometimes just piles of carved stones with Sanskrit prayer inscriptions: Om mani padme hung, the well-known Buddhist mantra that translates as "a compassion-jewel in wisdom-lotus, amen." You're always supposed to pass the stones on the left (your right shoulder to the "Buddha"), so Moti leads us off on a little trail to the left that loops back up to the main trail. Lots of blue, red, yellow, white and green prayer flags waving on poles all along the hillsides and strung as banners over rooftops. We take lots of short breaks and a longer one for lunch. Amazingly, my mother’s ankles hold out, despite walking for hours on loose rocks, but around 2:30 p.m. she’s running low. Instead of pushing it to Phakding, Moti has us stop for the evening in Ghat, a village just before Phakding.
Mani stones you must pass on the left with your right shoulder to the stones By DARIO SEVERI - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
Lodging and lentil soup
We're staying in a wooden lodge, called teahouses in Nepal, in the middle of a tiny village, surrounded by mountains. Sitting around the little black woodstove in the early evening, eating dinner of dahl bat—rice with vegetables and lentil soup you pour over the rice. Funnily enough, it looks just like the curry vegetable dish the Australians at the next table have ordered. They joke that the menus always say what the teahouses would like to serve you, but it's not usually what they have or can prepare. The porters eat “mash,” which looks like a large pile of yak turds piled on the plate. It’s some kind of dark millet bread they dip in vegetable soup.
It gets dark and cold early in the Himalaya as the sun goes down behind the towering peaks and there is no electricity in most villages. Before hunkering down into our sleeping bags for the night, we each make a trip to the charpi (outhouse), a squat toilet with porcelain basin that’s surprisingly good compared to the wooden ones where you can see evidence of all who came before you through the hole between your feet. In the middle of the night, the soft, tinkling sound of bells lends mystery to the quiet stillness.
Teahouses in view on approaching the village of Ghat By John Pavelka - Flickr: Village of Ghat, CC BY 2.0,