This trek was supposed to be long and challenging and so far it really was. For the past sixteen days we crossed from one valley to another, went through high mountain passes and stood at the foot of the highest mountain of all - Mount Everest. At the end we also climbed Island Peak (6189 m / 20305 ft) to get a taste of the true Himalayan mountaineering. Now only the final part was left: complete the Everest circuit and descend back to Namche and then further down back to Lukla and Kathmandu.
The classic Everest trail
The first time I saw pictures of the Nepal Himalaya was in a book about an expedition to Mount Everest. I was ten years old then but the images of Ama Dablam's perfect shape, Tengboche's colorful monastery and porters carrying their enormous loads stuck in my mind more than Everest itself. Such images can be seen in almost any book or trip report from the area and for a good reason - they give this place its unique character and define it in the eyes of a traveller.
At 3985 m / 13074 ft Pangboche is right at the tree line. As soon as we left the village the bushes on both sides of the trail grew bigger and bigger and fir trees replaced the scant vegetation of the high Himalaya. A few stupas on the way perfectly mirrored the shape of Ama Dablam that towered over the valley from the east. After crossing a bridge over the Imja Khola (river) we entered a tunnel of rhododendrons and the scenery completely changed. The constant flow of porters, yaks, dzopkyos and noisy tourists reaches its peak in this section of the trail. After a pleasant “flat” half an hour the trail reached Deboche and started climbing towards the most famous Buddhist place in the whole region – the Tengnboche (Tyangboche) monastery.
Tengboche is definitely not the oldest monastery in the area but is the biggest and most important one for the Sherpa people. We stopped there for a tour of the temple but because it was in the middle of the day I couldn’t film a ceremony as I had initially hoped. The monks of Tengboche may have renounced the little pleasures of the ordinary life but they certainly gained something by coming here. They actually get to see some of the most legendary mountains in Nepal every single day from their doorstep! Looking north is the jagged outline of the Nuptse-Lhotse massif with Mount Everest peering behind them. Ama Dablam stands out to the north-east wrapped in a bubble of perfection. And finally to the east are Kangtega and Thamserku looking so close you can almost touch them.
From Tengboche starts a long descend down the dust-covered trail to the tiny village of Phungi Thanga near which Imja Khola flows into the bigger Dudh Kosi River. Most of the altitude lost however we had to gain after lunch when we climbed the long switchbacks to Tashinga – another Sherpa village. From there to Namche is a nice flat walk on a trail that at some sections is wider and better maintained than many real roads in Nepal ;-)
Things to try in Namche
Namche Bazaar does have a bazaar (market) and that occupies two streets high on the eastern slopes of the village. They call it the “Saturday Market” but it really starts on Friday when caravans of porters and yaks loaded with everything from apples and oranges to cheese and rice and kitchenware flock there and the goods are laid directly on the street. The market caters mostly to the local people but tourists visit too - especially those finishing their trek and starved for some fresh fruit.
A special treat you can try anywhere in Khumbu is the so-called “nak cheese”. Nak is the Tibetan word for a female yak, so make sure you use the proper term when asking for it, otherwise you will probably get funny looks if you ask for “yak cheese” as most foreigners do.
Khukri is a local Nepali brand of rum made from sugar cane. Although not recommended in large quantities at high altitude it is one of the nice little things you can try on your way down. Locals drink it mixed with honey and hot water but I wouldn’t recommend that – honey helps it get to you pretty quickly! Too quickly in fact ;-(
Bakeries! Namche has several of those and they certainly make for a pleasant stay in the village. Nothing beats a cappuccino with a strudel and a view of Thamserku on a crisp sunny morning! That is so addictive I did it twice in the two days spend in Namche on the way back.
Down to Phakding (further down the classic Everest trail)
I always thought of Namche as of some kind of a divider - in my mind everything above it was "the real mountain" and everything below it was just a prelude to the real thing. This is far from the truth of course but it is true that the scenery changes dramatically as soon as you come down the switchbacks of the trail below Namche and reach the confluence of Dudh Kosi and Bhote Kosi rivers. Below 3000 m / 10000 ft it is much warmer and greener. The potato fields of the higher Khumbu give way to a variety of warmer-climate cultures. I even saw a few apple trees!
On the way up I was eager to get faster past this lower part of the mountains but going down after reaching all goals of the trek I could relax and really enjoy this beautiful place. I also had more time to focus on the people passing by. I had already gotten used to the sight of porters carrying anything from wooden posts to propane canisters but in this busy section of the trail you can see literally anything moving on a porter's back!
Lukla and back to Kathmandu
Time to say goodbye! On the twentieth day of our stay in the mountains we left Phakding and started our last hike of the trekking. The hike itself was quick and we made it in time for lunch in our lodge in Lukla. We had the entire afternoon to explore the village which we had passed with high speed on the way up. Being the main gateway to the Everest trail Lukla offers everything that Namche does and even more but lacks the alpine charm and cosiness of Namche. It is a transit stop, a trade outpost and most importantly - an airport.
The famous airport of Lukla is really something. Only small 20-seater planes fly to it due to the little space available to maneuver and the length of the strip (it is only 450 m / 1500 ft long)! When the weather is good sometimes tens of flights land and take off during a single day. In windy and cloudy conditions the airport is not reachable and sometimes hundreds of tourists get stranded either here or in Kathmandu. In fact just before I arrived in Nepal there was a whole week of bad weather during which not a single flight left Kathmandu for Lukla! I guess I should count myself lucky ;-)
So that was it! We spent the night at the lodge, bid our farewells to our good sherpas and porters, boarded the next departing plane and half an hour later we were inhaling again the mix of dust and exhaust gasoline fumes that the citizens of Kathmandu call air ;-)
Coming back to Kathmandu felt like coming home. Although I had spent only three days there before the trek the city somehow got under my skin. The warm welcoming atmosphere of Thamel, the easy-going friendly people and the easiness of getting around are all suspects but the jury is still out on the question of what makes Kathmandu such a great place to visit!
Fast forward a couple more days and a few more historical sights and all that was left was the long journey back home and a head buzzing with memories of a great trip and plans for even more interesting travels in the future.
Good bye Nepal, see you next time!