Arriving in Kathmandu
October 21, 2018
After spending the night with my friend, John, last night, I departed LAX at 1230 local time on 19 October 2018. That first flight lasted over 14 hours gate to gate. By far my longest flight, and it was absolute misery in spite of my aisle seat. I can't even imagine how horrible the flight would've been if I'd been seated in the middle. This is only my third trip abroad, and it's my first where the language and cultural barriers are real concerns.
I was so anxious as I made my way from the international terminal in Shanghai to the domestic terminal for the second leg of my trip. I hadn't realized that I'd be passing through Customs in China, and I wondered whether I'd needed to get a visa, which I hadn't done. Fortunately I was issued a 24-hour travel visa exemption. All part of standard operating procedure, so I got pretty lucky there. Once I made my way through domestic security, I found my gate and some seat banks without arm rests. I tried to sleep for a few hours to take the sting out of the jet lag that I knew awaited me in Kathmandu, but unfortunatley my travel anxiety was on high alert. My phone hadn't adjusted to local time, so I set a timer rather than an alarm just in case it adjusted automatically while I was napping. It did. Technology is so cool until it doesn't work exactly right immediately, which isn't often, but those little mis-steps can create some pretty stressful situations. If I hadn't planned for that unlikely possibility, I very likely would've missed my flight. My sleep was disturbed but certainly better than nothing since I hadn't slept at all on the long flight from LAX.
I was seated in a middle seat on the second leg, which was substantially shorter, but I got lucky again when someone switched an aisle seat with me because they wanted to be next to their friend. Another break on my 30+ hour venture. I arrived in Kunming a few hours later and had to exit through security and claim my bag to re-check it before continuing on to Kathmandu. With a thirteen hour layover, I was grateful to find a rest area downstairs for overnight travelers. I caught a little sleep on the cold, hard floor, but it wasn't great. Excited that I booked a hostel for my first few nights in Kathmandu. Easy decision when it costs under $5 USD per night.
I found traveling in China to be stressful, especially when I arrived in Kunming. It's a smaller international airport than Shanghai. I found that most signs no longer included the English translation and that many of the airport employees did not speak any English, and the few who did couldn't speak well. I think it's also more stressful because it's all so new to me. And there are bits of culture that have come up in the airports that I find annoying - everyone is pushy and it's been common for folks to push past or straight up cut me in line. Feels targeted because I'm very clearly a foreigner. When I try to be polite, they don't understand. When I stare them down and shake my head, they seem to understand and give me more respect. Not sure what that's all about. Feels like taking advantage because I don't speak the language or understand the culture, but I also acknowledge that it may not be personal at all. That the stares I'm getting may not be the locals sizing me up to take advantage, but rather innocent curiosity because I'm very clearly a westerner and I probably look lost and confused, which I am. I know that's my American privilege coming out. I'm not complaining or even arguing that it should be easier for me to travel in Asia. I'm simply acknowledging the challenges without judgment. In fact, I'm grateful for the perspective.
I also found that I was feeling lonely on this solo venture. I've felt lonely on a number of my more recent solo trips, but it's a different feeling when there is a specific person with whom I want to share my trip. Mallory is the great love of my life, and I'm so looking forward to doing life with her - the fun, the difficult, the mundane, the inspiring, all of it. We have many travels to look forward to the next few years and a family to look forward to after that. Excited to be at her side for as many minutes as possible from now until forever. I started making videos for her today in the Kunming airport. I felt less lonely as I talked into the camera lens, like I was somehow closer to her. There will be many days where I won't have service, so these videos will be my only link to her. I'm going to make one each day from now until I land back at LAX in a month.
I felt overwhelmed as I walked to my hostel from the airport. It was only about 6 kilometers, which was fine except that the visa process took almost three hours. I ended up walking out of the airport right at dusk and with just my hiking pack, I prefered to walk all the way to the hostel rather than take a taxi. I didn't have any rupees, and I wanted to get oriented to the area anyways. The walk was mostly fine, but there were a few sketchy sections. Nothing that made me fear for my safety; it was just so quiet and desolate. Very little street lighting, hardly anyone out and about. It felt eerie, like a ghost town. I had entered the address into Google Maps before leaving the airport, but there were no street signs to follow and without service, I couldn't update the route if I got off track. I was surprised and grateful to find my hostel. Shoulda just taken the taxi, but I'm cheap and hate paying for transportation when it's a quick walk. (For me, "quick" is anything under a few hours, haha.) As I lay in bed tonight, I'm definitely feeling overwhelmed with anxiety about all of the unknowns ahead. I'm excited too, I think.
October 22, 2018
I spent the day running errands and was amazed that it only took a few hours to get reasonably comfortable in this totally unfamiliar culture and circumstance. Everything is very fast here. Cars and motorbikes zip and swerve and honk all over town, often narrowly missing pedestrians and each other. You have to be decisive to cross a street or even make progress in a line. Seems to be standard fair in this part of the world. Locals hassle me frequently because I'm so obviously a foreigner. They were trying to lure me into shops and onto rickshaws. I was solicited for everything from trekking gear to local goods to produce to taxis to hashish. Anytime I made eye contact, and sometimes when I didn't, I became a target. It seems appropriate to simply mumble no or to wave folks off with a head shake. I'm still working out the details, but I think I'm getting it.
I made a few purchases today, most notably an extra down layer and a series of meds. I picked up Diamox to manage altitude illness if it becomes an issue, a few different antibiotics just in case, and about a hundred tabs of water purification. All of that for around $10 USD on Chhetrapati. Gear and goods seem so cheap here compared to the states, probably because they're mostly knock-offs or previous iterations. Bartering is a major aspect of the culture here, and I wasn't very good at it today but will have many opportunities to get more comfortable with it before I leave. Christmas is coming up, and I've seen some really cool local goods.
Went ahead and booked a jeep ride to the Himalaya foothills for tomorrow morning. They'll pick me up right at my hostel and get me higher into the mountains than the cheaper bus ride. If I make good time on the Three Passes, then I'll probably walk all the way out to Jiri and take a bus back to Kathmandu at the end. I think it would be cool to experience it, although I'm told it'll be quite the uncomfortable ride that could last upwards of 12 hours. The jeep ride tomorrow should be faster, more like nine, even though it goes further. Been a lot of sitting recently, so I'm exciting to start finally walking the day after tomorrow!
Shuttle: Thamel to Phaplu
October 23, 2018
Today was much longer than I'd been led to believe. It took 12.5 hours to get from Thamel to Phaplu, including all of the running around to pick up other riders. I set an alarm for 0400 but was wide awake at 0300 due to some impressive snoring from one of my hostel roommates. Met my escort downstairs at 0430, and we made our way to a street corner where I was scooped up by a Jeep at 0500. We spent the next hour and half zipping through narrow backroads throughout Kathmandu to pick up eight more people. We finally started out around 0630. I settled in as comfortably as I could - which really wasn't at all - given that the jeep was packed full and there was almost no leg room. I knew then that it would be a long ride.
I took a double dose of Dramamine to start my day and still felt like I was getting car sick just whipping around the city streets this morning. It's so chaotic here, everything happening so fast. Beeping and zigging and zagging and swerving. Many of the streets and buildings are broken from the 2015 earthquake. Given the devastation and the limited national resources, it's no surprise that recovery has been slow. Once we finally got out of the city, the first bit of the ride was predominantly on pavement, then the next third turned to predominantly dirt, and the final leg was again pavement. The whole ride was steep, rough, and bumpy - potholes and washboard everywhere. The road was always narrow, barely big enough for two cars to pass and sometimes not even that wide. Made a stop about every three hours, thank God. The Jeep was small and full of passengers. Not even enough space for me to put my knees straight in front of me, nevermind stretch out. I had about half as much room as an economy flight, no exaggeration. My knees are still sore from the brutality of the Long Trail, and today's ride didn't help.
I was surprised by how hot it was as we steeply ascended the valley toward Solari. I expected it to be much colder throughout Nepal, actually. I also thought it was odd that I didn't see a single other Westerner the whole drive up to Solari despite the many, many buses and jeeps making the trip. And I was getting a lot of stares from locals, both at stops and from passing vehicles. It felt like they were surprised to see me. I wonder if most visitors just make the flight into Lukla. Guess I thought more Everest trekkers would've been walking the approach, though I can understand the allure to just flying into the high country.
I was wondering early this morning whether I would've been better off just spending the few hundred dollars to fly into Lukla, but I started feeling better once we got out of the city. That Dramamine really helped, I think. And I enjoyed the more local experience. At first I got the impression that my driver was a total wild card, but as the day wore on I saw that wipping around this way and that is really just standard fare around here.
I finally arrived in Phaplu a little after 1730, totally exhausted. What was supposed to take nine hours actually took eleven, not including the extra hour and a half I spent in the jeep as we picked up other riders. It was another long travel day. I'm so psyched to finally be starting my trek tomorrow! Fortunately a local guy accosted me as soon as I got out of the jeep. He ushered me into his establishment, the New Shristha Lodge. For less than 1,000 rupees I got a room, internet, charging, and dinner. Considering I paid half that for a single bunk in a cramped hostel, I'd say I'm doing ok up here. Betting that things will get a bit more expensive as I get into the trek. As I understand it, there is a coalition in the remote parts of Saggarmatha that establish minimum rates. Anyways I'll appreciate the bargains while they last!
I met a handful of locals tonight at dinner. They're trekking to Everest Basecamp and assured me that I'm not crazy to try and get to Kharikola tomorrow and Lukla the day after, though the guidebook suggests taking four days for the approach to Lukla. They're English was pretty good, so I had a blast swapping stories and hearing about their other treks in Nepal. Seems pretty uncommon for locals to trek the Himalaya unless they're working as guides or porters.
October 24, 2018
Trekking Day: 1 of 22
Start: Phaplu (Elev: 7,920')
End: Kharikola (Elev: 6,680')
Distance: 17 miles
Accommodation: Peaceful Lodge
When I woke up this morning, I could see some of the distant snow-covered Himalayan peaks, my first glimpse of what's to come. The first part of the walk was on a dirt road. I almost missed the turn onto the approach trail but a local farmer called out to me from his field to point it out. The road still would've gotten me where I was going, it just would've taken quite a long time. The trail climbed and climbed up to a high ridge before dropping way down into a valley. Everything is steep here. The terrain seems to go straight up and straight down. The trail is a mix between rock check staircases, rocked paths, and dirt/mud. Hard on the knees, but that's pretty much what I signed up for. I stopped for cheese momo in the small village of Nunthala. Momo is a local dish that's basically just a dumpling that can be filled with pretty much anything. One of the biggest advantages to this trek is that I don't need to carry food during the day. There are plenty of villages where I can stop for snacks, meals, water, and even bathroom breaks.
After Nunthala, the trail drops for about another kilometer all the way to the river, then climbs relentlessly for about five k's to reach Kharikola. It was slow going, and I think that's most, if not all, of tomorrow. Not looking forward to the return trip to Phaplu, because it's going to reverse today's elevation profile, which means way more up. All part of the fun, though!
In Kharikola I found a room for 100 rupees, and that again included WiFi and charging. It seems that the lodges up here are all just rooms with two single bunks, and you pay for the room. Hopefully I can find someone to split the cost with, otherwise I'll be paying full fare for the duration of my trip. Not the end of the world, though, since it's all pretty cheap anyways. I get the impression that providing rooms is just a way to get travelers to eat at the lodges. I'm told that there is an extra charge if you don't eat where you stay, sometimes as much as 1,000 rupees rather than 300-500. The food is more expensive than the lodging, which is an interesting switch from the states where we pay so much more just to have a bed to sleep in.
I'm the only person in the whole lodge tonight, and I didn't see any other travelers around the village, so I wonder whether I'm the only one. Apparently I'm toward the end of the trekking season, so maybe it's not so surprising. And again, I think most trekkers fly into Lukla rather than walk. My host tonight also told me that it's the tail end of the hiking season, and that it's going to be very cold for me up there. I wonder how it's going to go for Rob and Elizabeth who won't even land in Kathmandu for another three weeks.
Fourth day in Nepal, and I got my first bout of traveller's diarrhea despite carefully treating all water. It was shortly after lunch and came on like a hurricane, so I had to dig a cat hole. It has persisted the rest of the day despite three Imodium tabs. Had to super-clench for 8 k's - most of them uphill - because I was certain that a simple fart would spell tragedy. Too much info? Yeah, I know. Sorry. Just keeping it real. Guess we'll see how tomorrow goes. Might be using those antibiotics sooner than planned. I'm also just generally feeling sick and groggy, like I may be getting a cold. I can see that the sanitation standards aren't the same here as they are back home. And I'll be at the cooks' mercy, since I didn't bring my own food, and I wouldn't be willing to pay the surcharge for not eating at the lodges even if I had. Ah well, crossing my fingers for good weather, good health, and good company!
October 25, 2018
Trekking Day: 2 of 22
Start: Kharikola (Elev: 6,680')
End: Phakding (Elev: 8,565')
Distance: 16 miles
Accommodation: Himalayan Teahouse
It's my birthday, and how fortunate I am to be spending it in the Himalaya, though I can think of someone I wish I was sharing it with. Actually, someone I'd rather be sharing it with regardless of where or what that looked like. I love traveling and experiencing new things, but I wonder whether this nomadic life is as much a part of me as it once was. Still working that part out in my head, trying to figure out whether I've changed. Actually, I know I've changed. We all do. I just need to understand how.
It was another clear morning, not so much as a cloud in the sky as I set out toward Phakding. Of course, the clouds engulfed the high peaks within a few short hours, and by the afternoon it was raining intermittently as I continued to work my way up the folded valleys. I began to see many more Westerners as the approach trail merged with the Lukla-Namche Trail. I very quickly felt grateful for the quieter approach experience, and I'm already looking forward to the quieter walk out.
There were loads of mule trains coming and going, presumably from Namche. Too many to wait each time one was coming, and certainly too slow to just follow one going, so I found myself constantly negotiating a way through, sometimes on narrow paths but more often with plenty of room to slide by. And it didn't take long to learn that a quick flick of a trekking pole could direct them in order to make passing easier. Saw one early on that very obviously had a compound fracture on one of its front legs, which is both sad and not surprising given the steep, uneven terrain. I'm imagining that such an occurrence isn't terribly uncommon, but it was still hard to see an animal suffering.
Phakding was the biggest village I've seen so far. Couple of bars, loads of both locals and trekkers, and a number of little shops. Accommodation ranged from quite fancy to quite quaint. While the cost of lodging didn't really go up, it no longer included charging or WiFi, so the cost of what I'd been getting the past few nights is closer to 500-600 rupees rather than 200-300. Eh, I just skipped the WiFi and charging. I can wait at least five days between charges. WiFi is a little tougher to resist, but I'll probably get WiFi on the days that I charge. I think the locals know how much us Westerners love our internet, so I imagine they exploit that, not that I blame them. Near as I can tell, tourism is the main industry (porters, snack bars, teahouses), at least in this region of Nepal. Off the main trekking route, I would guess farming is king. It's pretty rural up here but for the influx of trekkers every year.
Tonight is the first since I've been here that I haven't been able to reach out to Mallory. I hate it. She feels so far away. I'm trying to embrace this experience, and I can't help but imagine how much more special this experience would be if she were here. I don't agree that "happiness only real when shared", but I do agree that it's better.
It's only 1930, and I'm already laying down in bed. I've been getting a lot of sleep the last few nights, and these two days are projected to be my longest. I'll be slowing down as I make my way higher in elevation. Tomorrow I arrive in Namche Bazaar, which is only at 11,285 feet. I've been over 14,000 feet dozens of times back in Colorado, so I don't think I need to zero there in order to acclimate, but I might anyways. Better safe than sorry, maybe. We'll see how I feel about it when I get there. I think it's the last "big" village on the trek, so I may want to chill there and enjoy the amenities before pressing on. Of course if I get there early enough, I may be able to get my fill tomorrow. I've got plenty of time and lots of optional side trips scheduled, so I really don't need to stress about any kind of timeline.