Waiting for Take Off: The Twin Otter in this Picture is Identical to the Plane I was On.
This trek started with a flight out of Tribhuvan airport in Kathmandu. Not the international terminal, but the domestic one, just a little ways to the north. I arrived early, just around 6AM with a flight time of 7:30. The scene was one of a mob clambering at a tiny set of booths, and since "the line" does not seem to have been invented in Asia yet it was chaotic and a bit of a mess. The early flights got out, but the later flights were put on standby as clouds seem to have moved in to Lukla that morning, something that is not all that uncommon. I figured I'd stay a while to see if things cleared up, but went as far as to call Kim and let her know that I would most likely be around for another day. At 9:30 good news of clear weather came in from Lukla and passengers eagerly filled the planes.
View During The Flight
The flight to Lukla takes about 45 minutes or so, and our flight was in a twin otter. We flew high enough to clear the middle hills outside of Kathmandu, but low enough to be below the cloud cover that morning, and this put us not too high above some of the passes that we flew over. This gives some great views of the hills and mountains as you fly over the region, and this time of year you get to spot some really spectacular waterfalls. Landing at Lukla is a bit scary as the plane banks into the mountain and then lands on the sloping runway, coming to a stop just as you reach the top of the slope. To be fair, our pilots that day did a wonderful job and I had a very smooth flight.
Buddhist Monuments Line the Trail
Once off the plane I grabbed my bag which weighed in at 8.5 KG full with 4 liters of water, not too shabby for a two week hike. The delay in take off time meant that I didn't get out of the airport until about 10:30 in the morning, and I wasn't sure how long it would take to get to Namche Bazaar, the spot I was planning to spend my first night. Plenty of want to be guides and porters hawked their services at the gate outside the airport, but I just tried to separate myself from the crowds and made for the trail. One man asked me where I was headed, and when I said I was going to try for Namche, he replied by shaking his head and pointing to the sky, "Too late to get to Namche."
I Soon Pass Other Trekkers Heading North From Lukla
Still I'm a goal orientated person, and I'm not a slow hiker, so I kept a consistent pace determined to make Namche by evening. Within an hour or so of leaving Lukla I started passing the package groups that had gotten out on the early flights. I've read that during the busiest seasons you can wait up to 20 minutes to cross some of these suspension bridges due to the number of tourists on them. I passed by a group that was wide eyed on such a bridge snapping pictures of where the stream below joined the Dudh Koshi just beyond. It seemed there was a good chance the rumors were true.
Waterfall Near Toktok
The trail through this portion of the trek is cluttered with stones that have Buddhist carvings, well positioned chortens, and small stupas set here and there. Waterfalls cascade down from the high Himalaya above and you are still low enough that everything is quite green. While some of the villages seem to exist for reasons other than tourism, most of the structures you pass in this area are well stocked with cold drinks, pringles, candy bars and other commodities that trekkers may be craving. Most also advertise their willingness to serve tea, lunch dinner or rooms for a nights stay. You also pass a number of gompas, most set off the main trail a bit, but there are often signs posted to point the way for those who want to visit.
For those that come trekking and do not get their park entrance permit ahead of time, the office to get it in is at the village of Monjo. Somehow I completely missed it though, maybe because I was just concentrating on getting to Namche. Not far after that village is Jorsale where an army post checks your paperwork, and since I missed the post at Monjo I was without a permit. The army post however was convinced that the only place I could get a permit was in Kathmandu, and since I didn't see the post on my way through Monjo I thought maybe they removed it (it's there, I saw it on my way out). Anyway, they let me pass but the price of not getting the permit meant explaining this to every post I would pass a much bigger hassle than just forking over the thousand rupees.
View from the Bridge Crossing Over to the Ridge Below Namche Bazaar
After this point it was across the last suspension bridge and up the final rise to Namche Bazaar, a climb I remember as being particularly brutal as I had done it at the end of a ten hour trekking day last time. The climb is one of the more sustained on the trek going from Lukla to base camp, being surpassed only by the climb up to Tengboche. After making it up the climb I arrived in what must be the wealthiest town in Nepal, Namche Bazaar around 3:30. If Thamel was to be done right, it would look like Namche; paving stones, no trash, no traffic, good looking shops and friendly vendors. It was amazing to me how much Namche had changed since my last visit just over eight years ago. It continues to grow too, as the sound of people chipping away at building stones is a constant reminder.
Streets of Namche
Upon arrival I found accommodation on the west side of town at the friendly and well equipped Yak Hotel. As most trekking groups take two days to get to Namche from Lukla and no flights had gone out the day before, the town was relatively empty aside from some that were on their return or those who had walked in from Jiri. I spent my afternoon munching on baked goods from one of the nearby bakeries and reading my Kindle. I also spent a little time mapping out my route from this point forward, looking over the maps and reading some details of the trails ahead. The next day would be an acclimatization day in order to adjust to the rising elevation, and I would use it to explore the other Sherpa towns and villages around Namche.
Walking Through the Hills North of Namche
Unfortunately the weather was quite cloudy on my rest day so the sprawling views of Ama Dablam and as far as Everest from the hill near the National Park headquarters was non-existent. As I strolled through the hills though the clouds cleared here and there offering up some nice scenery around me. I watched school kids make their way to the school that Sir Edmund Hillary founded and walked past the famous Everest View Hotel. Upon returning to Namche following lunch I started to see a trickle of trekkers arriving from points south, and got to talk to a few of the people who I had shared a flight or time in the airport with the day before. I also bumped into an Israeli guy who had walked in from Jiri named Elie, and he was thinking about calling it quits and heading back to Lukla as the weather and solitude were starting to get to him. I told him to at least try to make it to Temboche where there was the potential for fantastic views and also a very interesting monastery.
Morning Views of Ama Dablam
The next morning I looked out my window to see clear skies and jumped out of bed got dressed and headed up top the viewing point above the town. Many of the mountains around Namche were quite clear, but the one I wanted to see most in Ama Dablam was wreathed with a thin layer of clouds. As the sun came up though it burned off the last clouds around Ama Dablam and I got the view I had been waiting for. On return to the town I ran into Elie again and he asked if I'd mind if he joined me, and I told him I'd be happy to have the company. So we set out toward the town of Dole which is just a few hours beyond the turn off toward the Gokyo lakes. The views all morning were spectacular, and Elie especially was thrilled to finally see the mountains he had been hiking under all this time.
Yak Poo Dries in a Field; Later to be Used to Keep Trekkers Warm
As we moved toward noon the clouds moved back in and we arrived at the small village of Dole and got a room at the quaint Juniper Guest House. Now that we were in the National park and the elevation was starting to creep up, fires are stoked not by wood but dried yak poo. Yup, yak shit in place of wood. Of course the fires are not open, it's like a coal stove and surprisingly it doesn't smell or burn out too quickly, it actually works quite well. Still it strikes one a bit funny that you can say, "Hey my friend, can you throw some more shit on the fire?" and mean it in all seriousness. On that note I'll bring this post to a close. In part two I'll discuss the trail leading up to the Gokyo lakes and discuss at length the problems with crossing the Ngozumpa Glacier.