Ulaan Batar, Kathmandu, and Everest Base Camp
Hello from Kathmandu, Nepal! It’s been a while since last writing and I’ve been busy: riding horses around the Mongolian steppe, hanging out in Beijing, and climbing around the Himalayas! After 8 days on the trans-Mongolian railway, I had a 2 day stop in Mongolia. I spent my first day in the capital, Ulaan Batar. There wasn’t much to see, owing to decades of communist rule, stagnation, and cultural destruction. It reminded me most of central European states: a skyline of short, old, drab apartment and office buildings broken by modern glass and steel skyscrapers under construction.
I was happy to leave the city for the steppes and nomadic people Mongolia is known for. A highlight was visiting with a nomad family in their yurt. The family moves four times a year with the season, packing up their house and horses and moving to areas with better grazing and weather. The whole family lived a one room yurt that functioned as their kitchen, living room, and bedroom. They’d normally fit all five family members in the yurt, but two were off at school.
Lunch was meat stuffed dumplings, and copious amounts of the local tea: a little black tea, lots of milk, and lots of salt, all drunk piping hot from a bowl. After lunch we went for a horse ride around the area, which reminded me of Iceland: beautiful despite (because?) it’s so harsh and barren, with drab uninhabited land stretching for miles in every direction.
We visited a few other landmarks and temples. But, like the capital, these were recently rebuilt for tourists after being destroyed by the communists. After the short stop it was onto Beijing to finish the trans-Mongolian route. After the long trans-Russian leg, time flew in the 30 hours to Beijing.
One interesting point: Because Russia and Mongolia use different rail gauges, we spent a few hours on the train while they disconnected it carriage by carriage, lifted each one up, and swapped out the wheels.
Overall, the Chinese train was much nicer than the Russian one. Only complaint is about the uncomfortable pillows, probably because they were filled with wood chips! My Beijing stopover was supposed to be brief, but extend to a week after my North Korea leg was canceled due to ebola concerns. I spent the week visiting a few tourist spots, seeing old friends (hi Jean and Alex!), and mostly just reading in coffee shops.
After a late night flight and an eventful night layover in Kunming spent evading the security guards to sleep in the airport, I made it to Kathmandu, Nepal! Kathmandu is a wild city. I stayed with a family via Airbnb just outside, and would walk into the city to sightsee. Central Kathmandu is a maze of tiny streets tangled by prayer flags, choked by motorbike traffic, and dotted with ancient squares and stupas.
One of the more interesting stops was Pashupatinath, the traditional Hindu cremation site. Everything is arranged along a river. The higher your caste, the farther upriver you’re cremated. Amidst these ancient temples, the family, local onlookers, and tourists all gather to watch the cremations, with as many as ten happening at once. It’s somehow not as weird as it sounds, and tourists and locals were generally mutually respectful.
Like most public areas with Kathmnandu, the temple was overrun with animals, mostly monkeys, cows, and chickens. The monkeys often travel in huge groups, with the young ones clinging to older ones, while they march imperiously through whatever part of the temple that pleases them.
Another cool part of Pashupatinath were the sadhus, or holy men. The dress mostly for show with the tourists, whom they solicit for pictures and donations, but it definitely adds color to the scene!
At the heart of the city is Thamel, the tourist area known as the globetrobber ghetto. If possible its streets are even narrower and more choked with traffic, its sky even more cut by criss crossing electrical wires and prayer flags. There seem to be only a few types of shops here: hostels, cafes, book stores, and trekking gear shops.
The day finally came to head to Everest Base Camp. It began with a (scheduled) 6.30 am flight into Lukla, a tiny airport in the Himalayas and the world’s most dangerous. Mountain weather frequently delays flights, and we spent several hours of false starts, being rushed onto the plane only to return due to weather.
There was a healthy amount of gallows humor aboard the 18 person plane when we took off (“Good news is that it’s a new plane, bad news is that it’s a new pilot”, or “You know, the Nepalese clouds… they have rocks in them”). The pilots fly completely by sight and so we spent 30 minutes bouncing through some of the worst turbulence I’ve ever experienced before the pilots dove into a break in the clouds and landed safely (to no small amount of applause and prayers).
At the airport I met my awesome guide, Pemba, and we were off. Each day we trekked for 4–8 hours, never ascending more than a 1,000 or so feet per day to avoid altitude sickness. At night we’d stay in local guest houses. The days were pleasant temperature wise, but the nights were literally freezing. During the day you’d need only a t-shirt, while at night you’d wear three layers and zip yourself into a -25 rated sleeping bag.
Everything gets more expensive as you move deeper into the mountains, since it must be carried in by porter or yak. These yak trains were a frequent sight on the trail. They’re generally docile, but you need to keep on the mountain side of them, or they’ll push you off the edge!
Altitude sickness is a big concern in the area. Since I have a history of being affected, I made sure to ascend slowly, take diamox, and eat half a clove of raw garlic each day (local method) to avoid it. Others were not so lucky, and five or six people we met eventually had to be evacuated by helicopter because of it.
We passed some incredible scenery along the way, including prayer flag strewn bridges hundreds of feet above surging glacial rivers, crumbling stupas perched on winding trails, and incredible sunsets and full moon nights.
After nine days we made it to Everest Base Camp and Kala Pattar, a peak with incredible views of the Khumbu glacier and a number of mountains including Everest. It was low season so we had the summit to ourselves. What a view!
The return to Lukla was quick and uneventful. Descending from altitude felt great, and it was nice to enjoy a warm shower and wifi in the lower camps.
The flight out of Lukla was as similar to the arrival: big delays broken by a mad rush to board once the weather broke. The stress of the flight in was broken by a large group of Australians, cracking nervous jokes. The flight out couldn’t have been more different: it was filled mostly with locals who, in addition to frantically praying and throwing rice around the cabin to bring good luck, would occasionally cry or throw up as the plane was thrown around by the wind. What a way to end! I’ve been hanging around Kathmandu this week, and am catching a flight to Bhutan tomorrow. Then in one week I’ll meet up with Rachel again to explore Thailand, Indonesia, and Japan for Christmas + New Years before heading home!