Just after we settled in swiss style chalet in a guesthouse in Paya the French couple with their guide Mohan were inquiring for rooms there. After long and ardous day they did not explain why they were catching us and did not stay in Bupsa. However I found in the guesthouse reasonably priced tins of beer and Japanese couple which was making their 7th journey in Solo Khumbu and the 5th trek to Gokyo Ri mountain. Japanese usually don't speak English but this time a woman,Yasuko, could exchange with few pleasantries. It's amazing how consistent they were with annual choice for short vacation, coming here year after year.
I was intrigued by this place and forest, it seemed to me strange that this side valley is so hazy even after monsoon is over. However next morning the sun was shining (for a short time I suspect), its rays were penetrating weird branches dispelling yesterday's gloom. I and Kebi made for the north starting very early. After Paya the path is rather good, skirting the ridge on the same level then abruptly descending into the Dudh Kosi valley. Before descent we had seen several planes landing in Lukla airport one after another. I wondered whether trekking season has started. However, as I found later, 15-seats planes were filled by locals and on the way up to Namche there was no tourist in sight (just one elderly Tibetan couple).
On outskirts of the first village in the valley, Surke, we bumped into spacious caves and stone huts where locals apparently keep their live stock. I speculated that inhabitants of Khumbu once lived in such quarters. At the present they moved slightly up the valley into rectangular two storeys solidly built stone houses. On roof corners locals hang string of bells filling the crispy air with magic sounds. Otherwise all the way from Lukla up to checkpost in Jorsale is hardly memorable. The wide paved road is flanked by endless string of hotels, guesthouses, shops and homes like second Thamel so I felt lucky I did not fly to Khumbu as I planned at first. The way is crossing Dudh Kosi river on suspension bridges in several places and the only difficulty is 3 or 4-hours climb after Jorsale to Namche Bazar which we reserved for the next day.
Namche Bazaar, the administrative centre of Solo Khumbu region, deserves few words if only for its spectaculat location in the crater on the steep slope of Khumbi Yul La mountain, at altitude 3500 m. Unfortunately rampant commercialization turned it into a sort of ghost town especially out of season when many locals lock their establishments and fly to Kathmandu or even further into India, for Buddhist peregrinations. The main drawback of life (besides cold and altitude) here is Himalayan prices, many things cost more than in most expensive places. Accomodation is still cheap up to 10 dollars per day, but food, drinks, cloths, and especially communication are not, like luxuriously slow internet which cost 13 dollars per hour. One has to wait for upto 5 minutes to update any page. Little wonder that skyrocketing prices in Khumbu simply squeezed out a part of local population with no connexion to lucrative tourist trade. Even those who are paid are suffering like my guide Kebi. He hoped to stay in guesthouse run by Kebi-owner's sister but she was away, her guesthouse closed. In the hotel Camp de Base which I preferred he was taking meals never looking at menu card and on departure the bill was a kind of shock to him.
I knew that in Namche I can see Everest but after reaching the town I understood it was not the end of the journey. In the afternoon we walked around it upto Japanese hotel in Syangboche. There are spectacular views in every direction, the town is located in the backdrop of snow covered peaks like Thamserku (6608 m) on one side and Kongde (6186 m) on another. On alpine meadows and helicopter pads above Namche we saw real yaks with long fur belonging to the government farm nearby. Not real yaks are dzos, a mix of yaks with cows, they are used extensively down the road. Japanese hotel with fantastic morning view of Everest was empty. The economic crisis and slump in tourist business did not have much effect on its price tags yet, rooms are offered at 170 dollars, anyone? As it was late we could not see the mountain clearly, the view was obscured by clouds. On heights like that of Everest every afternoon there is fierce storm, atrocious winds lift clouds of snow in the air. It's extremely dangerous for mountaineers to be caught in such blizzard, delaying ascent may lead to tragedies like the one in 1996 which was vividly described by Jon Krakauer in "Into thin air" and in several rival accounts of Anatoli Bukreev ("The Climb") and Kenneth Kamler ("Doctor on Everest").
Most trekkers who wants to see Everest make their way to Kala Patthar (5550 m), shallow hill near Everest Base Camp. Because of high altitude, it's just around 200 m above the camp. I chose another destination, Gokyo Ri mountain (5360 m) at the end of Dudh Kosi valley. The way is not at all difficult at first. Early in the morning after enjoying celestial views of Everest range and heavenly beautiful Ama Dablam (6856 m) with sharp peak in the sky and symmetrical shoulders we reached the hill Mong Selawa with a couple of Sherpa canteens. Then the path rapidly descends into Nikunda forest and slowly leading up the left side of the valley, first on alpine meadows with occasional grazing yaks and then into the wildereness of high altitude desert.
On the way we were overtaken by rushing locals, a couple of laughing women with boar teeth, young horseman and middle aged man whipping up a flock of heavily loaded yaks. Just before Dole we encountered a couple of foreigners relaxing amidst rocks, they were singing and eating something. Kebi as usual attentive to any foreigner engaged them in conversation, I had a chance to talk with them later in Dole's guesthouse where we had a lunch. It was American couple from San Francisco, Alex and Sophie. I read in Cleo Odzer's book that San Francisco is wonderful place to live so unlike boring Washington DC. Alex is very sporting character, he was once rock climbing instructor and he was just thriving in Himalayan landscape. Sophie is much more placid person, it's not unusual for psychologist in school. She used to patiently wait when Alex goes on reconnaissance ventures, most likely practicing rock climbing. They just married and were planning the trip long before as honeymoon but were forced to advance the date. They are supporters of Tibet cause, last year they were participating in Olympic torch relay protests. That's why they ruled out trekking in Chinese-occupied Tibet, despite one leg of the long air journey from US had touched Lhasa.
In the evening in Luza's guesthouse which incidentally belonged to the same local family which overtook us in the morning we continued our traveling chat. The family just returned from sojourn in Kathmandu and solar batteries for electricity were not yet recharged. However trekkers are bound to warm and inviting dining hall and long conversations if only it is usually the only room with heating stove in Himalayan guesthouses. Nobody desires to spend an extra hour either outside or in frozen guest rooms with flimsy walls and thin windows which do not protect from the chilly air.
In Luza though I ventured out in the evening. The owners' son was cleaning his steed when the horse raised alarm over passing fox. Machhermo where the alleged yeti attack took place was just few kilometers to the north and I enquired about it of course, locals denied any such knowledge. The environment with barren rocky walls of the valley obviously back this, even fox is easily spotted.
Another thing which was of interest to us was disappearance somewhere around of one British trekker in the middle of December. There is information on the net about the case particularly on Thorn Tree forum of Lonely Planet's site. This Briton was planning to cross Cho La pass on the way to Kala Patthar, but it's quite challenging task, especially in winter when yakherders leave nearby settlements and the path over the icefall requires crampons and ice axe. Most likely it was an accident but his body was still undiscovered in February in spite of extensive search conducted in January by relatives who left in the neighbourhood including Namche many leaflets containing details about missing trekker.
As staunch supporters of Free Tibet cause Alex and Sophie asked me about my perspective on situation in Tibet either from Dharamsala where I am located or Mongolian regions of Russia where I am from. I said that China's relations with outside world and especially with her neighbours were never easy, however they have more ambivalent nature than outsiders may suspect. China is ancient civilization offering immense opportunities and challenges.
On the one hand Tibet was never Arcadian high altitude utopy of Shangri La which captured imagination of many in the increasingly homogenized and industrialized West. People there as here in high Nepal are more concerned with more mundane questions like survival. Because they live in such inhospitable places in Inner Asia where temperatures and climates are so extreme (I came from the place where winter lasts for 9 months and average temp is -50 Celcius), they do not have time or money for chasing fantasies like mountaineering for example which in the West was romanticized as the pursuit of real macho men, who can survive against all odds and reveal their best human qualities. However, the environment does not reveal the best qualities in men according to locals. They all need to survive yet they are what they are, some of them greedy, others generous, cruel, even barbaric, or kind and calm.
Whatever Tibet was before Chinese invasion it does not justify cruel enough policies by Communist regime. Chinese seem to forget that one of the basic laws in Asian societies is actions invite counterreactions. Endless sessions of patriotic reeducation with hurling abuses towards Dalai lama or reactionary exile cliques will not secure Tibet for China in case of internal crisis. We need to remember that Soviet Union was mighty state with nuclear weapons yet it disintegrated not only because of breakdown of its economy but also due to highly controversial policy of Russification. People were not allowed or barely tolerated to speak in their native tongue and they did not like it. It's not that Russians or Chinese only have been pursuing such policies. Further in Gokyo in guesthouse "Gokyo Namaste" I met a Canadian couple, Martin and his wife from Montreal. I asked them many questions about the plight of Canadian Indians, they admitted that only few years ago the government started to invest in their education and healthcare. Unfortunately they succumbed to consistent policy of Anglicization and could not preserve much of their culture including mother tongue. They are prone to heavy drinking and unemployment, do not have much political or economic power and in the result are ruthlessly exploited. In my homeland it's quite different.
The talk about indigenous people in Asia and America came after animated discussion over mountaineering in the dining hall, where few other tourists like one girl from Washington DC also took part. The girl disagreed over my definition of mountaineering as the unfair sport and particularly was enraged over episode with Sandy Pittman, American socialite and heiress of media empire, who climbed Everest in 1996 in typical Western way. [Above mentioned books on Everest have all descriptions about it]. Why mountain climbing is unfair? I think even excluding the thought of it as pretty useless timepass we have to admit that money power plays too much important part in it. It was not the question how many cooks Sandy employed or why she asked Sherpas to carry her heavy satellite phone on the summit of Everest when she herself was literally transported to the top by Sherpas as a piece of luggage in half-conscious state and similarly descended in unconscious state.
More important is use of bottled oxygen for climbing. It was very difficult to breathe even in Gokyo, I was exhausted gaping for air on the way by strong oxygen-free wind blowing down from Cho Oyu (8188 m) looming in the front. I pitied I did not buy balaclava in Namche and was using instead my palm covering mouth. No doubt, that above 7000 m it's even more difficult to survive, that's why we are so fascinated by tragedies like Mallory's. It's true that Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay climbed with extra-oxygen but since then South Col near the top of Everest became one peculiar dumping ground of several thousands empty oxygen bottles. So I agree with Jon Krakauer saying that "the simplest way to reduce future carnage would be to ban bottled oxygen except for emergency. A few reckless souls might perish trying to reach the summit without gas, but the great bulk of marginally competent climbers would be forced to turn back by their own physical limitations before they ascended high enough to get into serious trouble".
Martin seems to agree with me though he was the first mountaineer I met in my life. He and his wife were planning to climb a peak somewhere nearby, that's why they paid the fees to Nepali government and secured the service of government-approved guide. (I think the peak was around 6000 or 7000 m because their paid only 5000 US dollars. On comparison, every Everest climber pays 25000 US dollars, and slightly cheaper around 10000 dollars is Makalu). His wife was more wary and advocated the use of oxygen on condition that bottles will be returned with climbers. Not everyone is so physically exceptional like Reinhold Messner and Anatoli Boukreev and few others who climbed Everest without oxygen.
After miserable cold night I was up at 6 AM ready for the last push up to Gokyo Ri (5360 m). The steady climb was rather dull affair enlivened only by cairns of stones known as labtse. Locals have been adding small stones to the cairns to please the local nyen (spirit) of the mountain. Curious custom indeed, very common in Himalaya, and speaks volumes about animist pre-Buddhist beliefs. After vigorous 2-hour climb finally I am on the summit. It feels like on the roof of the world. Wonderful views of majestic mountains. Everest itself looming large at the top of the ridge to the east, Cho Oyu is shining like an ice cream in the north. All around is seen like on palm, ragged mountain chains, glacier rivers, morains, frozen lakes, the source of Dudh Kosi river. It's the highest point ever in my life, my previous record of 5328 m at Tanglang La pass on the road from Manali to Leh is improved by some 30 m.Unlike Indian pass this is really mountain, it's difficult to breathe, ferocious winds make even photography difficult. I am hiding between the huge boulders, decorated by colorful Buddhist flags and waiting for respite to click few more pictures. After 40 minutes or so it's over, it's time to go back.
On the way back we meet local guide and struggling Washington girl on supporting skiing sticks. She is screaming to us "Is there no other way? It's crazy, people, no one can climb this way". In the hotel Alex and Sophie are very excited by my impressions, they want to climb too, only later. At first they thought as there was no view of Everest around it makes no sense to exhaust themselves before ardous and long journey to Kala Patthar over Cho La pass. Now they want to reduce the weight of their rucksacks, they have a lot of conserved food in bright packages, even dry meat. I advised to give it to Kebi, it would be useful for him for the way back home especially after extra expenses in Namche. They presented me with a copy of New Yorker, curious magazine and wrote their e-mail on the cover. Somewhere I lost it.
We were planning to stay for a night in Dole in the Himalayan guesthouse where I first met Alex and Sophie. However it was closed and we had to continue right into the dark evening, laboring the long last climb to Mong Salawa where in one shoddy guesthouse we spent a night. I remember warning from Sophie "Never ever try to walk in the night, even with headlight". Abysses of few thousand meters are all around, but sometimes there is no choice. Pleasant surprise as the Japanese couple was having dhal-bhat in the dining hall. They are plodding their way to Gokyo. I feel lucky as strong winds now blowing from down the valley raising clouds of dust. Winds were so ferocious that night that I was afraid they could tear the guesthouse apart. Next morning is very still, the air is crystal. The last look at Everest with a couple of German tourists in outskirts of Namche. Then the long day of walk to the airport in Lukla, passers by are very few including a pair of rushing Scots, a brother and a sister. In the end we all (and a couple of Germans) settled in the same hotel whose manager can provide air tickets. We discuss our trips, the Scots have peculiar problem of unfairly blocked credit card issued by Royal Bank of Scotland. Kebi embraced me in farewell, then I scrambled for the last cash for a ticket (the trip proved to be more expensive), and discovered a note of 500 rupees (8 dollars), the Scots and Germans are laughing and urging me to spend it for a bottle of beer, it's just enough for a tin but I keep it for a taxi in Kathmandu to the nearest ATM.
Kathmandu greeted me with bad news, the embassy refused my application for visa on the ground it already issued such visa once. Two times are not allowed. My sybil mother predicted it. Always listened to your mothers! The manager of Khangsar guesthouse, Raj, a friend of Yuri, tries to help me. In fact all travel agents in Thamel have mobile numbers of these Indian officials calling them directly and arranging visas for special price, 200 euros instead of 30 dollars. But I refused such help. Though there was the one, Anjuna, who was glad in my failure. "We don't like Indians, we never trust them, they are corrupt and dishonest". She wished me well and hoped I can stay in Nepal instead of India. But with acute electricity problems it was not viable alternative, I needed to use my laptop after all. So I decided to fly to the third country. Bangladesh? Raj was against it, he said the embassies in all neighbouring countries are very bad. Then Thailand, maybe? I quickly arranged ticket through Raj, he was so glad that he was sniffing new dollar banknotes I brought. He is nice guy, working hard. At the cheapest guesthouse possible in Thamel (I ruled out return to expensive Pilgrims guesthouse where I stayed before because of lack of hot water and electricity, turning TV into black box) he is providing foreign trekkers with empty rooms and hot water and earning some profit on ticketing and other travel arrangements.
So last morning in Kathmandu I embarked on Boeing heading to Bangkok and had a last look at the ragged Himalaya. The trip was not successful visa-wise but I was thinking about different matters. I remembered what I said to the Scots in Lukla "Mountains are draining travellers of their resources, both physical and material, but they give us something instead".
If you want to read more about the journey, visit Fabulous Thailand.