This is part 2 of a series. Part 1: Into The Himalaya
Day 3: Bupsa to Surke
A long night of sleeping like a log left me feeling slightly rejuvenated, so it was with fresh eyes that I spied snowy white peaks piercing the perfectly blue sky in Bupsa. As the sunlight crept slowly down the mountainside a single helicopter appeared like a fly in the distance, providing scale to the view and leaving me in awe of the distance that remained to be covered.
The walking began much the same as the day before: mud and rocks and donkeys. Out of Bupsa Stefje and I wound upwards, hugging the curves of the hills and taking in excellent views of the imposing mountains to our right. However, the panoramas were soon overtaken by the unbridled chaos of donkey traffic. Hordes of the beasts were moving in both directions on the trail, ruining the prospect for peace by pooping at every opportunity, rudely cutting us off whenever necessary, and warning us of their presence far in advance with incessant jingling bells.
Worse than the animals were their herders. The men at the back of the packs smoked cigarettes, beat the animals with incredible ferocity, and urged them on with low guttural screams which echoed over the hillsides. The trail thinned as we moved along and the gentle sloping of the past few days evolved into steep cliffs, meaning that one false step or unruly donkey brought immense risks. For more than an hour, we tried to keep a huge pack behind us, but their constant movement made us feel like we were being chased and left me in a foul mood.
The redeeming factor was that whenever we took a few breaths to pause, views in all directions abounded. Although a ring of clouds had quickly come to rest over the highest peaks, a small pocket revealed inspiring sights.
In the distance, a small stone house and strings of prayer flags marked what I hoped would be the day’s highest point, but my optimism was shattered upon realizing it was a false summit. Now the morning sun came down strong and our backs soaked with sweat as we heaved uphill again, accompanied as always by strands of prayer flags whipping in the wind.
Finally the descent began, and this time it wasn’t long before we shook the donkey packs by stopping for lunch in Paiya. As soon as the last jingling bills faded from earshot, I found myself enjoying the natural beauty once more. Steep wooded hillsides rose directly up from behind the town, which spanned a river that cut straight through the valley.
Towering evergreens loomed in the mist, complemented by stark trees that were barren except for bright white flowers.
Over a hearty lunch of lentils and rice, we were constantly entertained by the owner, cook and matriarch of the Beehive guesthouse. She looked over us with a motherly compassion, making sure we were well fed and hydrated before the afternoon walk. In contrast to the hectic morning, the rest of the day was splendidly peaceful. Barely a soul was in sight as we departed in a light drizzle and began a gentle uphill climb.
A pair of rivers roared far below, reduced to silver strands of ribbon from our exceptional vantage point. Birds swooped low overhead and chirped incessantly from the treetops. For a while, all was well in the world. At the day’s last pass we wished the valley behind us farewell, turning our backs and now heading in the direction of the larger towns of the main trail to Mount Everest.
Helicopters and planes began buzzing low overhead, signaling our proximity to Lukla, which is where most trekkers fly in and begin their journey. Most disconcertingly, we now had to descend 1800 vertical feet in just over 2 miles. The path was immensely treacherous, with stairs that had been carved out of the steep hillside smothered in more mud and poop than we would care to know.
It was truly a miracle that we didn't end up sliding down the entire hillside. By the time Surke came into sight, all four of our knees were burning and exhaustion was complete.
Day 4: Surke to Monjo
When I awoke before dawn in Surke, I did my best to observe the last few hours of quiet village life, knowing that the trail would soon change drastically. Low clouds obscured the mountains, fog rested on the hillsides, and a deep chill enveloped the town, which was lodged in a valley between two steep cliffs. Our hosts were especially friendly, haggling with us over the price of a snickers and tending the fire with immense detail as they prepared our morning porridge. Although men generally own the houses, the work revolved around women; they cook and clean and twice our bill has been tabulated by a daughter younger than 15.
Soon enough they wished us well and we were off, slogging with tired legs and willing our bodies to keep moving forward. First it was a 400 meter (1300 feet) steep uphill climb, then as the trail even out it turned from a hike into more of a pilgrimage. Through each village, long blocks of inscribed stones split the trail in two, adorned at either end by prayer wheels which promised to erase our sins.
Monasteries accompanied viewpoints carved into inaccessible cliffsides, bright white stupas shone in contrast to the pure blue skies, and every massive boulder was carved and painted with prayers.
The villages here were still quaint, but an hour later we passed the Lukla airport and the difference was huge. Suddenly the path was wider, guesthouses felt more like mountain resorts, and more trekkers and porters were instantly visible. The porters especially were abundant, driving their legs recklessly down steep hillsides with more than their own weight strapped to their backs.
We were now at the same elevation as our final destination for the day so the trail evened out somewhat; gentles inclines and declines felt reasonable after the steep passes and river crossing of the first 3 days. We were especially grateful for a series of bridges which meant traversing gorges didn’t require going steeply down and then back up, as water was predominant along the trail.
Despite the higher elevations, agriculture flourished. Fields of lettuce, garlic and cabbage were clearly prospering in well-maintained gardens. We found a beautiful lunch spot in Phakding to sample some of this local fare, but the prevalence of tour groups that halt in this popular hamlet ensured it was the most expensive meal of the trip so far.
Coming out of lunch, I spotted something that made both of our jaws drop in amazement: cinnamon buns! German bakeries and Italian coffeeshops now proliferated along this well-trafficked stretch of trail. Our fellow hikers were different now as well. Whereas below Lukla it was mostly fit and independent trekkers in groups of 2 or 3, large groups with various levels of fitness moved in great packs along the trail. The entire day we had been walking parallel to a roaring river, but outside of Phakding we were graced with the most gorgeous views of this body of water. It was so green and so strong and so pure that it fed numerous communities and ensured the banks were completely dominated by flora.
As the afternoon hike wound up and down the mountainside, fantastic trees began to dominate our surroundings. The scent of pine was heavy in the air, pine needles cushioned every step and everywhere we looked the ancient giants rose up out of impossible steep hillsides. The thick waves of green and brown were well-complimented by cherry blossoms, whose bright white flowers added a diversity of color to the landscape.
Finally it was one last climb to Monjo, which overlooked the river, the trees and the mountains. We had now progressed much deeper into the range; long gone were the gentle rolling hillsides. They were replaced by cliffs so steep that only moss could thrive. The afternoon sun warmed our bodies and souls upon arrival, but soon a cold wind came blustering in and we holed up inside, cheering mightily when the fireplace was finally lit using pine cones as kindling.
Day 5: Monjo to Namche Bazaar
Blue skies had me immensely eager to start out of Monjo and we were soon rewarded with spectacular views of snowy mountains. Behind us a trio of sibling peaks shared a ridge that glinted in the morning sunlight, but in front of us was a solitary figure framed perfectly by the valley as its cone shone in the clear sky.
We had 600 meters (2,000 feet) of ascension to reach our next destination, so I was perturbed to find that we were almost immediately subjected to a steep downhill section. Yet the trail was complimented again by the calming presence of pine trees and the steady flow of the river. In addition, some extra walking from the day before meant we avoided walking alongside noisy tour groups. In the thick forest and the thinning mountain air, the solitude was entrancing.
While the sun slowly trickled down the opposite mountainside, we stayed warm by constantly moving until reaching the highest bridge yet. As I was admiring the view, the first rays of piercing sunlight suddenly came streaming across my face.
We looked up, left, right and all around before settling on down: this was the most dizzying and enchanting view.
After the bridge it was only up, up, up and up. The unrelenting climb at our highest altitude yet was an immense challenge, but I kept taking deep, crisp gulps of pine-scented air to refuel. For me, one of the best aspects of the higher elevation was that the multitude of brash donkeys were replaced with docile yaks. These horned, shaggy animals peacefully trotted along the path, not causing nearly as much disturbance.
45 minutes into the unrelenting slope, my shoulders started to sag and my back ached with pain. By setting down my pack for the first time, I finally took my eyes off the distant peaks further afield to take in everything around me on a microscopic level. A lush carpet of pine needles engulfed the forest floor right off the trail, tree roots interwove natural steps for the weary hiker, and tiny purple flowers popped up all around me.
I took big, greedy gulps of water and then continued onward with my eyes fixed firmly to my feet after being fooled four times already by the anticipation of false summits. Fortunately on the fifth day of hiking the fifth time was the charm and the outskirts of Namche Bazaar, the Khumbu Region’s largest town, slowly materialized.
Having basically sprinted up the mountain, we arrived at a weird time: the prior day’s clientele had already departed and the next wave was still on the trail behind us. The streets were lined with shopping stalls and restaurants, but everything was empty and the eery stillness of anticipation hung in the air.
Even though it was only 10:30AM, we were badly in need of a full day of rest and recuperation, so we spent our time drinking real coffee, eating Western food, and doing our best to stay warm.
Day 6: Namche Bazaar
Our full day in Namche Bazaar was supposed to feel like a rest day, but by 7:15AM we were huffing and puffing our way up a steep staircase that led out of town to begin an acclimatization walk. As we worked our way up, the sunlight worked its way down the suddenly visible mountains which were completely obscured the day before. It torched the Western summits with bright hues of yellow while rendering the Eastern ones almost invisible behind blinding streaks of radiant light.
The previous night’s rain that pattered on our windows was snow at this slightly higher elevation, at first appearing as a light dusting on the dirt, then fully immersing the trail and causing tree branches to heave under the weight. Within just 30 minutes of starting, our physical effort was rewarded with surreal views of jagged peaks adorned with a fresh coating of snow.
Here evergreen trees flourished; their pungent smells mixed perfectly with the sparkling white dusting to make the whole environment feel like our own personal winter wonderland. With no trail visible we followed some footsteps up across a ridge and around a monastery to glimpse our first view of Mount Everest. The world’s highest summit was the only one slightly obscured; a parabolic cloud hung over the very top but otherwise the glacier-riddled peaks offered an unparalleled contrast to the bright blue sky.
To the right of Everest lay the bewitching snow cone of Ama Dablam, which seemed to poke straight from the valley floor into the ethers of the stratosphere.
Our heavily anticipated 360 degree panorama of mountains was interrupted only behind us by the gentle green hillsides which we had just traversed on foot. As I peered backwards a helicopter flew by below us. It appeared as just a tiny speck of a dragonfly compared to the range, leaving me utterly amazed at how much altitude we had already gained.
Eventually those footsteps in the snow led us to Hotel Everest View, where some of the day’s many helicopters were landing. Most of the visitors at this property arrive via plane to Lukla and then charter flights to this exclusive location, ensuring little energy is wasted on walking. As with any real estate offering, the allure is location, location, location. The breakfast terrace offered a full frontal view of the entire Everest range, which we savored until clouds rolled quickly in to obscure each of the highest peaks.
It was only 8:30AM but the best views of the day were officially behind us, so we strolled leisurely down to the town of Khumjing.
Sandwiched between snow-covered terraces and a low layer of clouds, the area looked inhospitable but we spied plenty of life. Kids used makeshift skis on the hillsides, yaks munched on detritus, and a woman used a barrel, buckets, washing tins and pots to expertly collect melting snow that dribbled from her roof. We made our way back alongside a long set of mani stones, prayer wheels and pagodas which marked the town’s main entrance.
The morning sun turned snowy trails into free-flowing rivers of mud, causing both of us to slip and slide back into town for lunch. Having accomplished the extent of our planned acclimatization by getting to a new high point of 3800 meters (12,500 feet), we hastily returned to the hostel to ease weary feet and provide plenty of rest before continuing the journey the next day.