Day 18: Namche Bazaar to Phakding
With two days left to cover a distance that most hikers complete in one, we left Namche Bazaar at a leisurely pace on Tuesday morning. Quickly the path began a steep descent towards the banks of the river, which had now accumulated glacial melt from two valleys and was flowing thick and vigorously.
In comparison to how we had covered the ascent of the same path - trudging in pain and sweat - I was now firmly able to properly appreciate the surroundings on the way down.
Tall pine trees were the main focus of the day, clinging to sheer vertical rock faces with tenacious grips and towering over our heads. They were present both lining the steep trail beside us and sticking straight up like birthday candles protruding from the opposite bank of the river, leaving us feeling enveloped by the welcoming embrace of the forest.
While birds chirped continuously overhead, the river reached a crescendo with each bridge strung high above the frothy water, providing excellent vantage points far back into the valleys we had just tackled step by step.
From up above, I peered down into the deep turquoise waters which shone and sparkled in the slanted light of early morning. Rocks in the middle of the surface were so smooth that the water seemed to glide over them, a reminder of the epic natural history this ceaseless body of water has formed.
After one bridge we took a wrong turn, ending up on a parallel path that wound ceaselessly up and down instead of following the growing crowds that skirted along the riverbank. Even though the going was tough here, I savored every last minute of solitude in the sights and sounds of the forest and villages, knowing that soon large crowds would emerge.
A steep uphill which would have been laborious two weeks ago felt like nothing more than a molehill at this paltry elevation, depositing us back in the town of Monjo 14 days after our initial departure. The next hour on the trail was disheartening, as two types of big groups crossed our path.
The first was guided tours. Stefje and I estimated almost 400 people staggered by us in quick succession, with the vast majority in large packs which clogged up the entire trail. At times I glanced up to see a sight which felt like looking down a New York city block, with all the heads bobbing and more than a few opting to plug headphones in.
The second type of group was the return of donkeys. Whereas I tolerated and sometimes admired the presence of yaks at high altitude, I was dreading coming back to the elevation which these smelly, brutish animals dominated.
Gradually the last of the day’s traffic jam passed us by and we were once again alone amidst nature. In these more fertile pastures where crops grow abundantly and real villages thrive, one of the most notable differences was the reappearance of children. There are no schools on the high passes route, meaning we sorely missed the presence of small children with red cheeks and snotty noses who always gave us a hearty smile or a friendly wave. Luckily, they soon came back in full force.
By noon we arrived in the town of Phakding, perched above the river and surrounded by a thick enclave of trees. Because the town normally serves as the first port of call for tour groups flying in to Lukla we had thoroughly avoided it the first time around, but we were pleased to find that its popularity ensures that locals must pass through as well.
We found a restaurant purely inhabited by porters and sat down to long stares, but were eventually treated to quite the show. While a local shaman read the palm lines of a porter to deduce his future and provide him with a blessing, the head chef and matriarch rolled out a fresh line of dumpling dough while expertly swaying to calm her newborn child that was strapped to a basket on her back.
With a full serving of the cheapest lunch yet happily percolating in our bellies and the day’s walking program complete, we found a corner room overlooking the forest and quickly dozed off into an afternoon nap.
Day 19: Phakding to Lukla
Our final day of trekking was accompanied by the worst weather; even the rising sun did little to burn off the thick layer of clouds that hung around the mountains encompassing Phakding. With just three hours left on the trail, we took advantage of the extra time to visit a monastery which is perched in the foothills high above the river settlements.
Quickly we were out of earshot of the other tourists which make this the most heavily trafficked stretch of the entire region. Instead, we were surrounded by fertile soil, abundant trees, and continuous birdsong which serenaded our early morning walk. By taking a fortuitous wrong turn we found ourselves in a quaint village; verdant green stalks of wheat and garlic swayed listlessly in the still air.
Soon enough some locals pointed us in the right direction and we steadily ascended to the monastery, soaking in better views of the expansive valley while savoring our last morning of intensely crisp mountain air.
Our arrival was marked by the machinations of two little buddhist practitioners. While one climbed a rocky ledge and propelled himself through a window, the other turned everything into a projectile: a toy car, a pair of gloves, and even a backpack.
The front face of the monastery featured a plethora of colors and intricate patterns, each one painted with painstaking detail. We admired everything on both a micro and macro level, then found an 11 year old busboy to let us into the inner temple.
We thought the exterior decorations were already quite impressive, so we were completely bowled over by what awaited us inside. Shelves were stacked floor to ceiling with prayer books, while bass drums, microphones, and prayer bells were all on hand to enhance the daily meditation sessions.
The central focus was a wide mantle full of colorful statues of deities, each one featuring a dizzying amount of detail.
Necklaces of skulls, roaring flames, and leopard skin attire all caught my eye, while our tour guide responded to every single question about the deeper meaning of the paintings with a non-committal “yes” and a sheepish smile.
Every single inch of the room was an artistic endeavor. Dragon heads protruded from the walls, each prayer bell had delicate carvings, and even the windows were obsessively detailed. We did our best to soak in both the sights and the atmosphere of the sacred room, then wished our guide farewell with a hearty namaste.
Once outside, the religious experience continued. Clouds still dominated most of the sky, but rays of sun speared through in parts to illuminate the mountains with light that was surely from a divine source.
We lingered much longer than was necessary from this gorgeous vista, subconsciously acknowledging that this was perhaps the last enchantingly beautiful viewpoint of the trip.
With clear heads and open hearts, we strapped our heavy bags back on and let our feet lead us through the final leg of the journey. At lower elevations, hills that would have made us struggle in the beginning were now nothing more than tiny obstacles. My body had become a single entity with the 13 KG (28 pound) bag and my legs moved on autopilot as my eyes endeavored to enjoy every last minute.
Unfortunately, the glow eventually faded and even though I was mentally already at the finish line my physical presence couldn’t quite keep up. The last hour dissolved into difficulty; my legs seemed to move like molasses as we tackled the uphill climb into Lukla and my body began to beg for nourishment. Stefje trailed right behind, a look of utter determination painted across her face.
Despite the physical hardships, nothing could detract from the immense joy that seized us upon crossing the proverbial finish line. From the punishing slopes of the first few days to the interminable climbs of the initial ascent to the incredible strength required to cross the high passes, we successfully made it through what we unanimously agreed would be the longest through-hike of our lives.
Along the way we had endured brutal self-inflicted punishment, pulled each other up through the most difficult stretches, and experienced the raw powers of the high Himalaya on a visceral level. The trail had taken us far away from the daily comforts of civilization and forced us to experience the beauty of mountain ranges far removed from the filters we unknowingly imply to distract us from the purity of life.
For the time being, we were more than happy to dip our toes back into the comfortable life: first up was a hearty meal, followed by celebratory drinks and our first trip to a bar in almost a month!
An hour-long flight from the heights of Lukla to the Nepali capital was a harrowing affair consisting of a lurching plane and an absurdly short runway that serves the world’s most dangerous airport.
Upon landing in Kathmandu, we felt lucky to be alive and instantly inulged in a life of luxury. After a full day of self-pampering, overeating, drinking and sleeping, Stefje and I set off for our next destination. Pokhara was a worthy place to recover after 3 tough weeks of hiking, but it took 8 hours by bus to get there. Along the way we traced the path of a murky river, losing elevation and feeling like we entered a borderline tropical ecosystem.
Long gone were snowy peaks and glaciers; they were happily replaced by fruit trees, sweltering heat, and thick undergrowth as the water flowed lower into the valley of Nepal’s fertile agriculture hub.
Four our first evening in Pokhara, we traced the outlines of Phewa Tal, a lake which serves as the focal point for travelers. As the sun set and the beautiful waters glistened, we enjoyed the delectable combination of cold beer and fried samosas, delighted to rediscover cheap street food after weeks of overpaying in the mountains.
A long stretch of bars and restaurants occupied the entire lakeside real estate sector, each one offering happy hour specials with the backdrop of the placid lake.
The next morning was perhaps the most enjoyable in Nepal. For the first time in too long, no alarm or sense of urgency occupied our morning. We took the opportunity for a leisurely breakfast on a rooftop overlooking the lake.
Encompassed by verdant green hills and dotted with the colors of paragliders, we sipped on real coffee and devoured a huge breakfast while enjoying every inch of the spectacular view.
In the background loomed the impressive peak of Machapuchare, known as "Fish Tail Mountain" and one of the world's few unclimbed peaks due to its spiritual reverance.
In need of some physical activity to work off the extensive meal, we set off for the hike to the World Peace Pagoda. We could glimpse the structure perched on a hilltop outside of town, but after such a long trekking trip we assumed it would be an easy jaunt. Oh how wrong we were!
The route started off easily enough, taking us through the outskirts of Pokhara where very few tourists cross, turning us into objects of intense curiosity. Children greeted us with a smile and a plea for candy while mothers did the wash in the roaring waters of the street’s gutters. Amidst larger houses and apartment buildings, fields of corn flourished and oxen grazed.
Just as we were beginning to tire under the intense heat, the route led us up an arduously steep incline. As the houses faded away and we gained elevation, we were enchanted by shimmering views of the expansive city sprawl.
Up here everything was encompassed by a deep stillness. With no shade and no breeze, we had no choice but to continue trudging up the series of switchbacks which led us further away from the comforts of the city.
Suddenly aware of how much longer was left when she spotted the destination in the distance, Stefje threatened to revolt.
“I thought we were done with trekking,” she sputtered out in exasperated breaths, fuming with sweat and the midday heat. Although I couldn’t help but agree with her, I did my best to cajole us up the remaining stretch, knowing that we had gone too far to make turning back practical.
Eventually we reached the top, meaning we could sit in the shade and recover while taking in the scene. From here we had an excellent view of the entire lake, which was surrounded by a rim of green hills on every side except the Pokhara lakefront.
Soon enough we could even muster up the energy to explore the pagoda itself, an impressively radiant white structure decorated by four engravings of the Buddha in various peace-oriented poses.
On the way down we were immensely discouraged to find a shortcut which would have halved our effort on the way up, but it enabled us to rapidly descend back into town. Sufficiently exhausted, our appetites returned in full force and we happily tucked into an all you can eat Nepali thali consisting of spicy curries, dal bhat, and heaps of steaming rice.
On Sunday morning my adventurous eating habits finally caught up with me. Done in by a rogue samosa or a plate of 50 cent dumplings, I was waylaid in bed the entire day while rainy weather reigned outside. Thankful that the sickness didn’t coincide with a more important segment of the journey, I was more than happy to spend a few days mentally and physically recovering before we began the next leg of our journey in China!