Any trip requires some necessities and surprisingly my journey to Everest took just two days to prepare - trekker's passport in tourist office, fleece trousers from Anjuna's store, rented sleeping bag from Kathmandu Trekking Store in Thamel allegedly enduring "-20" temperature, extra memory stick for camera (which refused to work actually), Strepsils pills for throat, headtorch, Khumbu map etc.
The view of Everest (in the middle) from outskirts of Namche Bazaar
It took some effort to locate bus to Jiri in chaotic Ratna Park bus station. While I was waiting for bus one scene attracted my attention - a goat was waiting to be butchered and was looking in horror at her comrade already without head and legs. It's easy to become vegetarian after all.
Bus to Jiri first drove on Arniko highway to Tibet then took turn-off before Barabise. It was uneventful journey but predictably (from my experience in Indian Himalaya) took longer than 10 hrs promised in guidebook, only after 14 hrs when it was late night I reached Jiri. An old man got on the bus and after scanning few remaining passengers suddenly took my luggage assuring me it was Jiri. The complete darkness around was undisturbed by few dim lights and I accepted offer to stay a night in spartan Cherdung Lodge, run by friendly Sherpa family of Kebi Sherpa and his sister. Kebi promised to provide me with a guide, a certain Sonam, but in the morning he did not turn up so I settled with the same man who had taken me out from the bus yesterday and who had the same name. Kebi-guide is very poor man, he was orphaned and after eventful life, including a stint as a forest guard near Manali in India he had returned to Nepal to work as helper in this guesthouse. Of course Kebi-owner advertised me him as a guide in the best terms but at the moment it seemed I had no choice.
We started only at around 9 AM, after I had stocked with few remaining needs like toothpaste and chocolates to bribe children on the way. The first half of the day was spent climbing to Chitre pass and down to pretty Shivalaya on the riverside. Kebi said that many locals are Maoists, during insurgency they were taking toll from passing trekkers. Such practice almost ruined trekking economy, but since their government was in place in Kathmandu, toll disappeared. In small hamlets on the way I hear local boys practicing their English skills: "May I go to the toilet?" mocking Kebi's request. In the meantime all my muscles have pained (taking revenge on time spent before computer) and I just wondered what the future holds for me. Trying to be fast as possible Kebi-guide led me up to Deurali pass where three guesthouses provide shelter for travellers. At 2710 m it was very cold but no snow. In fact I was told this winter was very warm by Himalayan standards. The Lama GH where we stopped is run by affluent and quite numerous Sherpa family. While women took care of the kitchen men were sitting in the reception room around an iron stove with chimney. I joined in conversation and was thoroughly interrogated by owner about everything, India, Russia, Europe, and first of all about opportunities for higher education in different countries and second about atrociously expensive airfares. His son and son's pals were eagerly listening too.
Second day started with steep descent to Bhandar, then trail climbed to slopes almost devoid of vegetation, which reminded me Ladakh, then gradually descended to Kinja at the end of narrow valley. There were not many people on the way, Kebi claimed that in October this trail is looking more like busy citystreet. As the narrow trail was skirting steep slopes I was a bit relieved by this news. On the way we were overtaken by speedy locals rushing to their homes but could see no tourists in sight. However we overtook many Rai porters in slippers who were carrying heavy bulks of goods including kerosin to upper regions of Solo Khumbu. They'll earn little money, maybe 50-60 dollars from the trip. In this region of Himalaya there are no roads, so everything is transported on the backs of porters. To color their journey many porters carry small transistors broadcasting Nepali news and music.
The first tourists we met were in a guesthouse in Sete where we climbed after lunch of dhal-bhat in Kinja and registering at checkpost. It was newly married French couple of medical student and nurse from French Alps somewhere in Provence. They were traveling with guide-cum-porter Mohan from Kathmandu and apparently bought package tour. I tried to talk them up, but unsuccessfully, they did not hear about economic crisis and credit crunch (it was February 2009), did not read "One Year in Provence" (maybe because it was about struggle of one American couple with nasty locals) and otherwise were aloof preferring to speak in French. Mohan was more friendly, I learned that he was once in Lhasa and Chinese call all Nepalis Sherpas. He was excellent guide, taking care of his customers, relieving them of luggage and answering whatever questions they have had. As my guide did not carry anything except 1-kg sleeping bag I was a bit envious. Kebi said that Sherpas are not porters, only guides. Portering is for strong Rai men from the plains.
Next day we were climbing to Lamjura pass (3530 m), bleak, cold, partly covered by snow, place with a couple of expensive canteens. The last look at our way, photography does not give justice to the sheer scale of the mountains and precipitous slopes and dangerous abysses. We reached pass with fluttering Buddhist flags and entered different country. Fir and rhododendron forest gives way to alpine meadows embraced by gentle forested hills. It seems to me almost like my father's farm in Siberian taiga, only horses are missing from the picture. Buddhist stupas and stone chortens with inscribed mantra "Om Mani Padme Hum" appear on the way turning Kebi into devout Buddhist, now he patiently circamumbulates every shrine, collecting merit for more auspicious rebirth.
Gentle sandy path lead our way to Junbesi which is located in spectacular valley with looming snows of Numbur (6959 m) above. Junbesi is Sherpa populated village, Tibetans occupy upper slopes. It might be Shangri La after all.
"Conway could see the outline of a long valley, with rounded sad-looking low hills on either side jet-black against the deep electric blue of the night-sky. But it was to the head of the valley that his eyes were led irresistibly, for there, soaring into the gap, and magnificent in the full shimmer of moonlight, appeared what he took to be the loveliest mountain on earth. It was an almost perfect cone of snow, simple in outline as if a child had drawn it, and impossible to classify as to height, size or nearness. It was so radiant, so serenely poised, that he wondered for a moment if it were real at all." - James Hilton, "Lost Horizon"
We visited first Tibetan gompa (monastery) on the left side of the valley, it was recently built in order to tap into tourist traffic. There are few young novice monks inside sent here from the main gompa Thupten Choling up in the valley. Junbesi itself is pretty village full of new shining guesthouses which have some invisible drawbacks. Kebi choses the one with spacious rooms but with not working communal lavatory and no water. Pipes are frozen and pretty looking Sherpa woman, the hotel keeper, cannot do anything. She reminds me women-concierges who met Charles Allen's [author of "The search of Shangri-La" and other books] requests "with looks of incomprehension or amazement" in his Tibetan journeys.
In the morning we continued our path. In Salung we are taking breakfast and enjoying the first view of Everest. It is smoking pyramid in the distant left. Other mountains in sight like Tamserku (6608 m), Mera (6476 m) or Kusum Kanguru (6367 m) look higher but they all belong to different mountain ranges. There is a German couple with guide, adopted Nepali boy and several porters who carry their heavy luggage. They traveled quite extensively in Himalayas, both in India and Tibet. As typical Germans they travel not only with portable luxuries but thoroughly, visiting every nook and shrine on the way. They came here last year but could see nothing, the monsoon was unexpectedly long. This time they feel lucky in clear skies.
We negotiated yet another pass in Thaksindu and descended to Nunthala where we spent the night. So many days without shower and I began to wonder how Sherpas manage to tolerate uncleanliness. Kebi claims that they do well without washing at all, I am in doubts. Sherpa women and children may be seen in the early morning washing their long hair in icy streams but I am not satisfied to try the same. In Nunthala Kebi finds hotel with shower but promised hot water did not materialize. The more we climb the more prices go up. "You took hot shower". "No, water was cold". "OK, then it's half-price". I took dim view of such rapacious practices. Kebi grumbles that Khumbu Sherpas are spoilt by tourism and does not seem tired of lauding his "cheap" Jiri. "But in your guesthouses prices were also not cheap" I wonder. He argues, "dhal-bhat is only 80 rupees there, here it's 250". "But water was 100 rupees per bottle and the food was expensive". Then he claimed it was Kebi-owner who was mixing something. Most tourists as me resigned to Himalayan price tags, with cheap accommodation, expensive food still more dear drinks, after all it's very difficult terrain and altitude, yet charges for bowl of warm water to wash hands before meal was the way too much in my opinion.
After Nunthala the trail descends to cross Dudh Kosi river and climbs to Kharikola, a lovely village with gompa and stupa in spectacular location with the view of Khumbu valley and endless terraces with grown potatos. We are having tea in Kharikola and proceed to Bupsa, with intention to have lunch there. Unfortunately in Bupsa we cannot locate hotel keepers of few guesthouses and we are forced to climb further up to Khari La pass. Zigzagging dusty trail is very difficult (in fact it was more than 1000 m climb in few hours) and only sumptuous dhal-bhat course in lonely guesthouse on the top of the pass saved us. It seems for a moment that we are close to civilization as my mobile erupts to life with calls from home. I have difficulties trying to explain where I am. Cloudy skies obscured the views, a flock of crows was flying around cawing forebodingly. The nearest village on the map is Paya at the end of gloomy valley. The slippery path there leads through fabulous forest with weirdly disfigured trees. It's getting darker. On the way I can see not only familiar moss with juniper bushes but also recently relocated stones, on some there are claws marks. Silence around, Kebi brushed aside my questing looks.
I was thinking about yeti. When I asked Kebi-owner about them he smiled and told me about incident in Machhermo on the way to Gokyo. I also read about it in my guidebook, where it was written that in 1998 yeti allegedly attacked yaks and a woman near Dole. Reinhold Messner, famous Austrian mountaineer, had investigated the mystery for years [you can check his account "My quest for the yeti"], in the end he concluded that it was chemo, a kind of Himalayan bear, who caused such uproar. Whatever the yeti or migyu may be in reality one Tibetan Gyaltsen told Reinhold that "chemos bring bad luck". I saw black Himalayan bear only once, in Darjeeling zoo. Oh, I remember that day very well, after Padmaja Naidu zoo and visits to my friends homes I was entertained in Nightingale park with illuminated statues of Hindu gods and Tamang dancers in the middle and in the evening friends threw dinner party in Darjeeling Gymkhana club where fateful call from home had reached me, informing about accidental death of my father. It was downpouring evening in Darjeeling like in bottomless bin, here it was foggy end of the long day...
continued in Part III