Lukla to Namche Bazaar

Our first three days trekking the Everest region

Lalit, Rachel and Jake just above Namche Bazzar — Mt Everest in the background (left). Not a bad way to start.

From navigating the domestic terminal at Kathmandu airport, to landing on one of the world’s shortest (and highest) runways in Lukla, to the punishing climb leading to our first view of Mt. Everest, the first three days of trekking in the Khumbu region of Nepal were fascinating, hard, and, just a tiny sliver of what’s to come.

First, thank god we have a guide. Lalit picked us up at our hotel and because of him, we didn’t have to make any sense of the labyrinthine check-in process at the domestic terminal of Kathmandu airport. Here’s how it appeared to work to us. First, you go through security outside, essentially in the parking lot. Then, you walk into the terminal but instead of joining other passengers lining up to check-in, you cut in front of all of them, go behind the check-in counter, and walk down a dark, narrow hallway into another terminal. Once in this second, hidden terminal, you dump your bags in the middle of the room and leave them unattended while you get a coffee. If you have a guide, he or she will disappear for a little while and magically reappear with tickets and some sort of visa or identification papers that have a passport size photo of you on it that you definitely never gave anyone but instantly recognize as one of your Facebook photos. Then you sit and wait. And wait. And wait. Meanwhile, all around you, other people are getting some sort of secret signal to get up and queue for another security checkpoint and disappearing behind a set of curtains. Finally, your guide tells you it’s go time. You line up for security thinking, “This is it! We’re getting on the plane now!” You pass through the curtain and into… yet another waiting room. You’ve had a few coffees by now, so you visit the toilet and pee in a hole in the ground and then you wait again. And wait some more. Your 8:00 flight will continue to be listed on the monitors as On Time as it turns to 8:20, then 8:30, then 8:50. Finally, a little after 9am, they call your flight. You proceed to the gate, get on a minibus, drive to the tiny Tara Air 14-seat prop plane, try to catch a glimpse of the pilot before you board (does he look professional? Alert? Drunk?), get a caramel from the flight attendant (yes, there’s a flight attendant), and then, fingers crossed and eyes squeezed tight (if you’re Rachel), camera out (if you’re Jake), you take off.

So again, thank god we had a guide.

The 20-minute flight was harrowing, but it did afford some incredible views of Kathmandu Valley, the foothills, and then, seemingly appearing out of nowhere, some Big Bad Mountains. On the approach to Lukla, you don’t so much as descend onto the runway as drop. It happens incredibly fast. We were scanning constantly for the runway and didn’t see it, and then — BAM! — we were on the ground. Alive. Everyone applauded.

The Lukla runway is sloped so planes can slow down when landing and get up to speed before takeoff.

As our stomachs dropped back into their normal locations, Lalit steered us toward a teahouse for a cuppa. We hadn’t seen our bags since we dropped them in the middle of the airport, but, no bother! We guess our porter has appeared from somewhere and grabbed them?

First night stay in Phading next to river draining the glaciers above

The teahouses are plentiful, cozy, and virtually identical to one another. A wood paneled room with large picture windows, lined with long, padded benches, wooden tables, and high backed chairs. There’s a central stove, photos of the proprietors and their families, some prayer flags and other Buddhist miscellany, and lots of smelly trekkers. Teahouses offer hot meals and a place to sleep. Like the teahouses themselves, the menus are all identical. Here’s what you can eat in the Himalaya:

  • Dal baht
  • Fried rice or fried noodles
  • Potatoes — pan fried, as chips, and one time, mashed
  • #2 or #3, but in soup
  • Spaghetti with tomato sauce (our advice is to pass on the cheese — it’s yak cheese and it’s very sour!)
  • “Pizza” (We haven’t tried this yet so can’t report on its authenticity)
  • More dal baht

As the name implies, there’s also tea, served many ways, but most commonly black or with honey or milk.

A beautiful teahouse in Namche Bazzar — well earned after hiking from 8.5k feet to 11.5k — en route to 18.5k feet many days later.

After our tea break, it was time to get trekking! The Khumbu region eases you in on Day 1. It’s a three hour, mostly downhill walk in warm weather. “This is nothing!” you think. “I got this!” Wait until Day 2. Because Day 2 will Kick. Your. Ass.

But before we get to that, we’ll tell you about the accommodation. So far, it’s been far nicer than we were expecting, though everyone keeps telling us this will change. Quality of lodging must be inversely proportionate to elevation. The first night though, we had a private room in a pretty lodge overlooking the river on the edge of a village called Phakding. Unfortunately, we thought we had to use the (really gross) common outhouse. All the porters kind of laughed at us when we came out; we didn’t know why until we realized our room HAD ITS OWN VERY CLEAN, VERY PRIVATE BATHROOM that we somehow didn’t see at first inside our 150 sq. ft. room.

The twin beds come with thin mattresses, a top sheet, and a blanket, so it’s important to BYOB (Bring Your Own (sleeping) Bag). [Ed Note: Thank you Ana R for loaning your zero-degree bag!]. In Namche Bazaar (nights two and three), the rooms were even nicer, with electricity, outlets for charging, hot showers (!), and electric blankets (!!!). Plus million dollar views. Teahouse rooms are cheap ($2 to share a bathroom; $15 for “en suite”), but the food is not (everyone eats at the lodge where they’re staying; they charge a steep fee if you don’t). The food at the Namche lodge was standard but we got carrot cake for desert, which was very exciting.

A standard teahouse guest room — quality dependent on level of insulation.

And very well deserved because, as mentioned previously, getting there was really hard. The day started innocently enough, with a lovely trail meandering alongside the milky blue river that drains out of the Khumbu glacier, pleasant conversation, and a peek at mountain village life as we passed through several small towns. Then came a series of suspension bridges that took you back and forth across the river. Several hundred feet above the river. Rachel wasn’t too sure about these bridges until we saw a parade of supply-laden mules and dzopkyos (a yak-cow mix) parade across. Then she figured, OK, it can hold me. We crossed just fine, but a word to the wise: don’t look down.

The suspension bridges always offer jaw dropping views of the gorges below. Left: after the lower bridge pulled out a newer, higher bridge was installed — see the Yaks towards the right side of the bridge. Right: the bridges are full of trekkers, porters, yaks and local people.

After the last bridge, shit gets real. You spend several hours climbing a punishing (Lonely Planet calls it “torturous”) series of switch backs, where the meat of the day’s 3,000+ foot elevation gain comes to play. Your entire body screams out for oxygen, every small step a hard-won battle. You move so slowly you start to think you’ll still be climbing this damn thing in the dark. You wonder why on earth you volunteered to do this and just when you think you really cannot take one more step, Mt. Everest comes into view. And it is awesome, in the truest sense of the word.

Our first view of Everest on the way to Namche — still 7.5k feet lower than our first pass and 19k feet lower than the Everest summit photographed.

A few photos, and a few tears (“I don’t think I can do this, it’s only day two and it’s so hard!” “You’re doing great!”), later you get up and keep walking about an hour more uphill until you reach Namche Bazaar. At 11,300 feet, this is your home for the next 36 hours.

The town of Namche Bazaar. Historically a place of trade between the Tibetans and Nepalese. 100s of Yaks would make their way through an always snowy 19k foot pass into Nepal to trade. China has since shut down the border and now Namche serves both the local Khumbu communities and trekkers alike.

More on Namche and #traillife in another post. For now —

Namaste,

Rachel & Jake

(Editor note — due to lack of connectivity up high we’re about two weeks delayed in publishing — more to come now that we’re nearing the end of our trek!)

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