26 October 2017 – Afternoon
I was on my way to Everest Base Camp (EBC) but I was walking downhill. What the? Yep, the entire first day of walking is a gradual descent from 2,860m to 2,625m which makes for a very easy day of walking but a terrible day for the mind. When you walk down while climbing a mountain, it always means there is a big uphill climb ahead.
But down we went, over the uneven stone path and pass many, many teahouses, all of similar style but painted in an assortment of bright colours. Many sold drinks and snacks as well as other items like sim cards, tissues, beanies and buffs. Behind the teahouses were terraces set into the hillside where vegetables were grown. It was all very quaint and charming, and local children with dirty faces sat by the pathway and watched without interest in the trekkers marching past their homes.
There was little talk between Michael and myself on this first day of hiking, we were going to have plenty of time to get to know each other. Our tour director had already explained that as there were only two of us in the group, and accommodation bookings were usually twin share, would we mind sharing a room. Being adults and, recognising that very little time would actually be spent in our room, we agreed that sharing was OK. It was peak season and accommodation could be difficult to find if it wasn’t already booked. Therefore, I wasn’t worried that we weren’t spending our hike exchanging banalities.
It was also on this first day that we learnt about mountain etiquette. Donkeys and yaks have right of way over people on the path and when we were approached by a train of said animals, we were to step to the side or off the path entirely, if possible, to let them pass. The trick was to make sure you stepped to the wall side of the mountain as donkeys and yaks had been known to push pedestrians off the path and down the sometimes steep mountainside.
Seeing these laden pack animals was novel at first; their loads were bulky and included all manner of items from gas cylinders to cartons of beer to bags of rice and flour. The lead animal at a minimum wore a bell to warn trekkers they were coming and these jingled pleasantly as they picked their way along the uneven rock. Really, the stability these animals display on such terrain is impressive.
But, donkeys and yaks also smell. Their dung is everywhere along the path and an absent-minded trekker easily ends up with poo on their boots. The handlers of these freight trains are Nepali, usually carrying a switch or stick to hurry a slow animal forward or redirect their course. They are covered in the dust kicked up by their charges, a buff over their nose and mouth protects them from the worst of it.
And while donkeys and yaks generally move faster than a person over the rocky terrain, the sheer number of animals in a train, compiled with the number of trains themselves, mean the going can be extraordinarily slow at times. If the path is narrow, which it almost always is, it is safer for a person to remain where they are on the side of path than to try and walk around them. This sometimes meant stopping for up to 10 and 15 minutes at a time as train after train either approached from behind or loped towards you heading in the other direction. The hold ups were even worse at long suspension bridges where you didn’t want to be end up with a train of yaks heading your way.
After three hours of walking, we arrived in Phakding. We stopped at a teahouse only one hundred metres or so into the village proper and Chuda told us that we would be spending the night. It was a chance for us to acclimatise to the altitude, albeit only 2,625m, it was still higher than Kathmandu and much higher than where I lived in Australia at sea level. I had already felt the effects of altitude while in Kathmandu, finding myself short of breath after climbing only a few flights of stairs in my hotel.
It was a beautiful day and we chose to sit outside in the sun to enjoy our first teahouse lunch. We perused the laminated menu which bore a surprisingly large selection of Nepali and western style food. We would soon discover that every teahouse had an almost identical menu which made the selection, after 12 days, seem limited. We had been warned by our tour director not to eat meat while on the trek so we were both determined to eat vegetarian for the next two weeks. The reasons for this are two-fold: there is limited refrigeration and almost all meat has to be carried up the mountain on the back of an animal. I saw plenty of carcasses to realise I did not want meat. The second reason is that it’s more difficult for the body to process and metabolise meat at altitude. However, I met many people on the trail who did eat meat with no ill effects. Go with your gut on this one.
After some vegetarian momo, Michael and I set off to explore Phakding which was a small village compared to Lukla or where we were heading the next day, Namche Bazaar. We wandered through the village along our path for tomorrow until we reached the first suspension bridge of our trek, the type you see in all the movies about Everest. Faded and fraying prayer flags hung from its flimsy mesh wire sides and beneath it the Dudh Kosi River roared. It would be the first of a dozen or more crossings of this river. Sometimes we would cross it several times a day, walking along on side for a few hours before the path would switch to the other.
We mucked around with our respective cameras, using the bridge as a focal point as I taught Michael how to avoid taking bad tourist pics. I can’t tell you how many times I look at people’s travel snaps and shake my head. For some reason, many people seem to believe that the closer you stand to the object or building of interest, the better the photo. What it usually means is that you end up with a great photo of the Colosseum, for example, and an ant standing in front of it. Oh wait, it’s not an ant, it’s you. You’re just so tiny in the pic that no one can make you out.
What you should do, as the person in the photo, is stand closer to the person taking the photo. It may only be waist up or shoulders up, but at least people can recognise it’s you and still see the Colosseum in the background. It’s not rocket science, but I have literally shown dozens and dozens of people this while travelling.
I took a photo of Michael after letting him position himself in front of the bridge, and then I asked him to walk closer to me and took another. He was amazed at the difference in the photos and I ticked off my good deed for the day. Over the coming days I taught him more basic photography tricks such as the rule of thirds. Again, not rocket science, but he’s at least got photos his friends and family will be interested in looking at now. And yep, my photos aren’t amazing, but I’m usually just lazy. My ex and I used to fight constantly while travelling about the time he spent trying to get the perfect shot. I was happy enough to take a quick snap and move on.
But I digress. After our exploration we found a pub (yep they have pubs on the way to EBC, all the way up) and played a game of pool. Yep, not just pubs, but pool tables. Everywhere. I pity the poor Sherpas that have to lug those things up the mountain. They’re not plastic tables either. They’re all wood with a slate base.
Once the sun went down, it got cold very quickly. It was only the first night and I was rugged up in my trackies and jumper … how was I going to fare higher up the mountain? The teahouses have no insulation, have walls made of ply and only the central dining room is heated. The rooms were cold and spartan. Two single wooden bed frames with a thin mattress on each, a flimsy curtain across the window. The light spluttered but seemed to work even if it only threw a dull yellow light. The door had a latch and padlock. We had been given a single key when we checked in but as there were two of us, and we were independent travellers, I exchange the padlock for a combination lock I had brought with me so neither of us had to worry about hanging on to a key. It was a trick I used throughout the trek.
With nothing to do after dinner, and an early start in the morning, we were in bed by 8pm. The next day, we were warned was a big day, some eight hours of walking and it would be tough. Very tough.