Kathmandu

On March 14th we fly from Delhi to Kathmandu. The flight starts an hour late because of bad weather in Kathmandu.

An hour and a half later the airplane is flying over the mountains surrounding Kathmandu valley, home to two and a half million people. There are houses on mountain sides and even on mountain tops. From the airplane they look like trailer homes perhaps because their roofs are made of tin sheets, a material easier to carry up the mountain trails, the only access to the houses.

Soon the airplane is approaching Kathmandu. Paved roads with light traffic begin to appear. Clusters of buildings, mostly three or four storied, come into view. Even from the airplane the city appears dusty.

The plane lands in Tribhuvan International Airport, Kathmandu. While we wait for the airplane door to open, workers wearing yellow, reflective safety vests approach the airplane. A security officer, wearing a black jacket and a red tie, is already stationed near the airplane. Unbidden, the workers go to the officer. With a distant look in his eyes, the officer goes through the motions of a pat down. Then the workers go to their duty stations.

The airplane door opens. Ancient, dusty, buses in faded brick-red color are waiting for us on the tarmac.  We board a bus, which becomes full with not even standing room. The bus is driven off with the doors wide open.

The sign “Welcome to the Land of Buddha”greets us at the terminal entrance. Gautama Buddha was born as Siddhartha Gautama in the sixth century BCE in Lumbini, a place not far from here (186 miles or 300 km to the south-west).

The airport reminds me of old Indian airports, from more than fifteen years ago. There are signs of modernity like the touch screen computers available for filling out visa-on-arrival forms. The immigration staff is friendly and fast. Rahul and I obtain our visas, pick up our baggage, and leave the terminal without delay. We carry our baggage on a cart, and porters do not bother us as I had read somewhere.

We step outside the terminal. Across the street, behind a railing, cab drivers and guides are waiting with name boards in their hands. We cross the street and check for our names. Our trek operator, Madhav Pandey, had emailed me that someone will be waiting for us at the airport with name boards, reconfirming this even last week. We don’t find anyone waiting to receive us. This is unlike the Madhav Pandey that I came to know through my email correspondence with him. He had always been prompt in replying to emails, even on weekends.

The promptness was part of the reason I had selected his company from a list of thirty-four I had created from the Internet and the Lonely Planet guide Trekking in the Nepal Himalaya. I had shortlisted four companies from that list and written to them five months ago. My emails included this question: “I am 61 and in good health. I have been practicing 10-mile non-stop walks on a trail, wearing trekking shoes and backpack, about once a week, for the last one year. But do not have any trekking experience. Do you think I can do the trek?” I didn’t expect that anyone could give me a definitive answer, but wanted to spare them any surprise. No one directly answered that question, except Madhav, who replied: “No problem, i can give you guaranteed that you could success your trip without any problem.” I had sensed that perhaps he was less established and was eager for the business. Nevertheless, I was encouraged by his optimism. Also, I took note that he always answered every one of my questions, in detail, which I liked. I found that Madhav’s company had good comments and ratings on Tripadvisor. I liked the way his website described the office cleaner: “Brings the sunshine to the office”. So I decided to book our trek with him.

We wait at the arrivals area. Tourists find their hosts. They are garlanded, sometimes hugged, and escorted to waiting cars. Soon we are the only tourists left at the arrivals area. A couple of drivers or guides are still waiting with the name boards, no longer held upright. Taxi drivers inquire:

Sir, Taxi?… Hotel?
No, thanks. We are waiting for our host.

I look around for a public telephone to call Madhav. But none can be found. I wonder whether my cell phone from India will work here in Nepal. I dial one of Madhav’s numbers and get a message in Nepali. Perhaps I didn’t dial the number correctly or the phone is busy. Nonetheless, I am happy that the cell phone is working. I try a second number with no success. I dial a third number, which appears to be a cell phone number. The phone rings on the other end and is answered. Relieved, I ask:

Mr. Madhav Pandey?
Yes.
I am Madhava Syamlal. My son and I are waiting at Kathmandu airport.
Yes?
You were supposed to pick us up. We have booked a trekking trip with you.
Sir, may I know your name.

I repeat my name. There is brief silence and a moment of recognition.

Sir, you are calling from Delhi, right?
No, I am at Kathmandu airport.
Oh, my god…I am sorry. I was expecting you in the evening. I will be there soon.

He keeps the phone down.

A police officer comes to us and asks us to leave the arrivals area. A wiry man in denim trousers and a shabby, light jacket approaches us and points out a place where we could wait. We move over there. The man is restless and watchful. He hangs around us. After some time he introduces himself as Bans. He offers his cell phone to us, telling us to make a call at no cost. I tell him that I have already contacted my host. Perhaps he is well-meaning. But I am wary of him, not knowing his motive and his role at the airport: taxi driver, hotel agent?  A half hour passes. Madhav calls back and tells me that he is on his way.

Another half hour passes. A man jumps out of a moving car (it seems), comes running toward me, shakes my hand and hugs me without an introduction. I immediately recognize him as Madhav. He looks younger than the photo posted on his company website. He is genuinely sorry for the misunderstanding. It’s his first mistake in thirteen years, he tells me.

He pushes the luggage cart toward the taxi and opens the trunk. The trunk looks like mud. The driver opens the door for us. The deflated seat cushions look like mud. Looks like Madhav hired the taxi in a hurry.

On the way to the hotel, I can read the billboards and names of official buildings by the roadside because they are written either in English or Devanagari or both. This makes the city less disorienting for me, unlike a place like Beijing. On the road, there are many Maruti’s, cars made in India. The city vaguely reminds me of Benares, which is about 300 miles to the south, in India, where I had gone to school many years ago. However, Katmandu is cleaner, and there are no beggars, cows or cycle rickshaws on the streets. Perhaps the similarities are in the dust, building styles or the profusion of electric wires hanging from the poles by the sides of the roads. Unlike Benares many people are wearing dust masks.

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Street scene in Kathmandu

Twenty minutes later we reach Hotel Royal singi. We check in and go to our room to freshen up. Madhav waits for us in the lobby. We join him soon and sit down to talk.

Madhav started out as a trekking porter. Then he became a trekking guide. He started the trekking business thirteen years ago. He and his family live in Kathmandu. He has a seven-year old daughter, whom he had named Sophie. But she got her name changed to Ayra when she became older.

Soon our guide Angngima Sherpa joins us, young, smiling, with a hint of rosy cheeks, attesting his robust health. He has been with Madhav’s company from the beginning.

Madhav invites us to lunch. We head out of the hotel and walk, Madhav and Ngima in the front, Rahul and I behind. We go west on Teendhara Marg and north on the broad Durbar Marg lined with posh shops and cafes. We head west on Narayanhiti Path. I do not understand the meaning of this , unlike most other street names. I wonder what “hiti” means, but know that Narayan is one of the Hindu trinity and Path (not the english word path) means boulevard. Later I learn that “hiti” means “waterspout.”  The street name comes from the fact that there is a waterspout close to a Narayan temple located here, near what used to be the Nepal palace. The palace is now a museum. On the other side of Narayanhiti Path is the heavily guarded American Embassy.

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Walking through Thamel

We cross busy streets using a technique, also popular in India. When you find a slight opening in the heavy traffic, take your chance and cross the road. The traffic will ever so slightly slow down or alter course to let you through. For extra protection you may hold your up turned palm toward the traffic as if to block it.  But hurry, or the screaming traffic will engulf you, leaving you standing with traffic both in front and back.

We go further west on Tridevi Sadak and reach Thamel, the busy shopping district, catering to tourists. Soon we reach Yangling Tibetan restaurant, a well-known but unpretentious restaurant. I order Chilli chicken momos and coke. The momos, Tibetan steamed dumplings, are spicy and delicious.

I ask Madhav whether the earthquake last year affected the Trekking business. He tells me that two disasters hit Nepal last year. One was the earth quake in April 2015. The other was India’s blockade of fuel supply to Nepal, in September 2015.

I had read about the blockade, but did not appreciate its severe impact on tourism, which apparently decreased by 40% (Wikipedia), a big loss for a country whose primary source of revenue is tourism. Nepal imports all of its petroleum supplies from India, brought in by roughly 300 trucks a day. The blockade reduced that to less than ten trucks a day.  The government of Nepal accused India of an undeclared blockade. India denied responsibility, stating that the trucks could not enter Nepal because of an agitation in the India-Nepal border region by the local Madhesis.

After lunch we go to the store Outdoor Clothing & Gears. We rent sleeping bags rated -10 oC at the rate of $1 per bag per day. No deposit is required perhaps because of Madhav is with us. We also buy fleece liners for the sleeping bags.

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Ngima, Rahul and Madhav in a trekking gear store

We come back to the hotel and discuss the plans for tomorrow with Madhav and Ngima. The flight is at 6:15 am; we should leave the hotel at 5:00 am. Madhav and Ngima take leave.

We go to our room and pack our duffel bags for the trek, keeping the rest of our stuff in a bag that will be left at the hotel. We plan to go out for dinner in the evening. But as we get ready to leave the hotel a severe thunderstorm rages outside. We opt for the restaurant at the hotel.

We are excited about the trek that will start tomorrow.

Kathmandu Elevation = 4,593′ (1,400 m)

Fitbit statistics

No of steps Miles walked Calories burned Floors climbed
12,613 5.69 3,485 60
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Flying to Delhi

The trip does not start well. At Pittsburgh airport the agent tells me that my checked baggage is four pounds over weight. She wants me to transfer the excess weight  into my carry on bag. While lifting or rearranging the bags in a hurry , I injure my left wrist. Now the left hand cannot bear any weight. I have trouble lifting the carry on bag into the overhead bin of the aircraft.

A little over an hour after take off, the city lights of Chicago appear below, like a million shiny gold bars arranged in a pattern, starting at the dark edge of Lake Michigan, stretching into the distant western horizon. The sun is about to set.  As the airplane banks to land at O’Hare airport, I catch a glimpse of the western sky, deep red in color. Just as the airplane wheels touch the runway, the color disappears and the sky turns dark.

Taking down the carry on bag from the overhead bin is easier than I had worried. But the left hand is slightly swollen, and the pain has worsened. With only the right hand I am unable to raise the carry on bag on to my back. When I try to carry the bag on my right side, it keeps banging into my right knee. I am afraid that I might injure my right knee. I stand helpless near the long escalator leading to the baggage claim area. The Friday evening O’Hare crowd rushes past me. I am angry at everyone … basically for my carelessness. After about ten minutes of fuming, it occurs to me that I can raise the bag on to a seat with one hand and then on to the seat back. Then I can turn around, sit down on the seat and get the bag on to my back. That works.

I get the rental car very quickly. But the drive to the city is slow. The highway I-90 is clogged. There is the normal rush hour traffic plus the additional traffic of supporters and protesters of a Trump rally at the University of Illinois, Chicago campus. I reach Rahul’s place after an extra half hour of driving.

The next day afternoon Rahul and I arrive at the airport to catch the flight from Chicago to Delhi. We are a little later than the customary 3 hours before the flight. The check in and security lines are long. The agent incorrectly prints two  Chicago-Delhi boarding passes for Rahul, and we have to go back and get one printed for me. We reach the gate just as the last passengers are boarding the air craft. But I am pleased to find much leg room in the Air India flight.

The aircraft heads straight north over Lake Michigan into Canada. Then it flies over Greenland, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan into India. On the map this route looks needlessly curved and, hence, longer than a straight route. But that is an illusion caused by the map not accounting for Earth’s curvature.

I watch the English movie Big Short about the financial collapse of 2008. It depicts the criminal extremes of capitalism: preying on the hopes and dreams of millions of ordinary people, enticing them with sub prime mortgage, packaging worthless mortgages into credit default swaps (CDS), selling the CDS to unsuspecting investors, and ultimately causing millions of ordinary people to lose their homes and jobs. The character Ben Rickert played by actor Brad Pitt chides his protegés as they begin to celebrate their potential gains from the collapse: “You just bet against the American economy. If we’re right it means people lose homes, jobs, retirement savings, pensions. These aren’t just numbers. For every point unemployment goes up, 40 thousand people die. Did you know that?”

I recall receiving repeated calls from my mortgage lender Countrywide, months before the collapse, enticing me to reduce my monthly mortgage payment (by extending the loan period). On the third call I asked the caller what advantage was he offering me by making me pay more finance charges. The caller laughed, and kept the phone down. A few months later Countrywide went belly up.

I watch another movie. This time a Malayalam movie called Left, Right, Left (actual name, not a translation), which in contrast to Big Short is fictional and has corrupt communism as its theme. A central character is a powerful, corrupt leader, who does not hesitate to get people murdered for standing in his way. The character makes a brief, but effective, appearance in the movie. He is confronted by a fellow ideologue, “Che Guera” Roy, who asks about a bribe that the leader took for awarding a government project to a certain company. The leader explains, in a North Malabar Malayalam accent, that the money was used for helping his party and the poor people who support the party. But Roy points out that the leader must have personally used some of the bribe money. How else did he finance his son’s education in London? The leader narrates his story in a chilling tone. His grandfather was a bonded laborer of a feudal land owner, working perpetually for subsistence, getting whipped even for small mistakes. His father barely escaped the servitude, holding on to the flag pole erected by the party. Now, it is his turn to receive reparations for their suffering. He will not let anyone stand in his way, not even Roy.

Once on a night train from my hometown Tiruvalla to Kannur, I shared a compartment with a political leader, whose was implicated in a similar bribery scheme. My berth was right outside the leader’s coupe in the train. Two men approached me and introduced themselves as the leader’s body guards. They asked whether I would mind moving to another berth so that they can sit right outside the coupe and guard the leader. I recall that they were extremely polite.

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View from the airplane window of snow covered peaks of the Himalayan range near Kabul

 

Now the plane is flying 35,000 ft over Afghanistan, close to Kabul. I catch a glimpse of the western part of Himalaya through the airplane window. The snow-covered peaks are a gleaming white. They appear peaceful and sacred. Surely, this landscape could not have stirred up violence in the hearts of men, I think. The plane heads further south-east, and soon the landscape changes. The whiteness of snow peaked mountains gives way to brown rocky mountains, dry, dreary, desolate. Perhaps this could drive men to senseless violence, to destroy the Buddhas of Bamiyan with machine guns, I think.

We arrive at Delhi Indira Gandhi International Airport on time, Sunday afternoon. We check into the conveniently located airport hotel connected to the transit lounge and spend the night comfortably.

Everest Base Camp Gear

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Item Quantity Description
Passport 1
Passport Photos 4
Spending money $500 = $300 (spending) + $200 (tips), assuming that the trekking fees cover the meals and stay at Tea Lodges.
Backpack 1 A light-weight, water-proof daypack (25 L) for carrying essentials – like snacks, medicine, suncream, camera, passport, hat etc. Ideal daypacks have compression straps to reduce stress on your back and a (1-2 L) hydration pack to carry water.
Expedition duffel bag 1 This will be carried by the porter. Ideal bags (75-90 L) are made of waterproof laminate material, have strong and sturdy zippers that can be locked and are easy to access and pack with cold hands. The packed bag should weigh less than 15 kg.
Travel bag 1 This is for storing travel cloths and personal items at the hotel in Kathmandu.
Nylon Stuff sacks 3 These are useful for organizing clothes, medicines, electronic accessories etc. in the duffel bag.
Water bottle 1 For carrying drinking water during the trek or at night (1 L). The bottle may be kept inside the sleeping bag at night to keep the water warm.
Sleeping Bag 1 The tea lodges are not heated, and the nights are very cold. A -20 oC rated sleeping bag is recommended. However, I rented a -10 oC sleeping bag from Kathmandu and bought a sleeping bag liner.  They kept me warm at night with two comforters put on top.
Sun hat 1 I used a light weight hat with a visor during the trek. When it became too cold or windy, I could open a flap inside the hat to cover my ears.
Wool hat 1 I used the wool hat in the dining room and at night while sleeping.
Sun glasses 2 I used good quality prescription sun glasses with polarized lenses. 100%UV and 100%IR with a minimum of 80% light reduction lenses are recommended. I also carried an old pair as a back up.
Head lamp 1 This is essential for going to the rest room at night. I used an LED lamp with bright and low light settings, operated by three AAA batteries. The batteries lasted the whole trek.
Liner Gloves 1 I used a pair of light weight wool gloves during most of the days.
Gloves 1 I used a pair of heavy-duty gloves only during the last couple of days of ascent.
Trekking  boots 1 This is an extremely important gear. The boots must have a sturdy mid-sole, be water proof, and fit well over light and heavy sock combinations. To break in the boots, I wore the pair for several months. I carried the boots with me in my carry on bag during the international flight.
Trekking socks 3 I used heavy-duty wool socks. I also carried toe socks, which, however, I stopped using after the first day of trekking.
Slip-on shoes 1 I used a pair of light weight, slip-on shoes for walking in the tea house lodges. I did not carry my running shoes during the trek, to reduce weight.
Socks 3 I used these socks with the slip-on shoe.
Under shirts 3 During the trek I wore short-sleeved under shirts made of moisture wicking material that sit tightly on the skin.
Upper body base layer 3 I used Marino wool long-sleeved sweaters as the base layer. I kept two of them for the trek and one of them for evenings and night.
Upper body second layer 2 The second layer, or insulation layer, sits over the base layer. I used synthetic jackets that are windproof, lightweight and compressible. I used one jacket throughout the trek and the other one for evenings.
Upper body third layer 1 I used a medium weight, down-filled jacket with a hood. The hood was very useful near the base camp, especially when cold wind was blowing.
Short sleeved shirts 2 I did not need them during the trek.
Rain jacket 1 I did not use it during the trek. When the wind was blowing hard near the base camp, the guide wanted me to wear the rain jacket outside my down jacket. But I had not carried it in my day pack that day.
Briefs 4 I used cotton briefs.
Lower body base layer 2 I used synthetic thermal underwear. It was needed only for a few days while we were close to the base camp.
Light weight pants 2 I used pants made of material that is wind and UV resistant. I wore one pair for trekking and used the other as a spare and for evenings.
Light shorts 2 For use at night.
Trekking poles 1 I did not realize the importance of this item before the trek. They are both a knee saver and life saver. They reduce the effort on the knees as you go downhill and help you get a boost from your arm muscles as you go uphill. They also help stabilize you as you negotiate treacherous trails.
Camera 1 I used a GoPro and iPhone.
Snack bars 1 You crave for citrus tasting, salty, and sweet foods at higher altitudes. I took some fruit and nut bars and a mixture of nuts (peanuts, almonds, pistachios, pecans and hazelnuts.)
Water purification tablets 1 I used Potable Aqua brand iodine tablets. I treated the drinking water provided by tea lodges with iodine and used PA+Plus tablet to neutralize the iodine taste. I also bought bottled water when there was no time to treat the water. I also took a LifeStraw with me, which was not used, however.
Body cream 1 I used a baby lotion.
Sunscreen and chapstick 1 I used sunscreen and chapstick rated SPF 30 or higher.
Towel 2 I used light weight towels and hand kerchiefs.
Hand sanitizer 1 I used this frequently to clean hands, especially before meals.
Toilet paper 3 I used one dry roll of toilet paper and two packs of wet wipes.
Wet and dry wipes 4 Taking a shower is only rarely possible during the trek. I used the wet and dry wipes to clean my body.
Electro tabs 4 Provides electrolyte replacement. I occasionally took these tablets.
Advil 25 This was useful on a few occasions.
Neosprin 1 This was useful for treating a blister.
Diamox 250 mg 1 I took half a tablet twice a day for a couple of days when I was close to the base camp.
Imodium 1 This came in handy on occasions.
Moleskin 4 Used the precut blister dressings on one occasion.
Bandage tape and roll 1
Ciprofloxacin 1
Claritin 1
Advil allergy and congestion relief 1
Afrin 1
Visine 1
Stemetil 1
scissors, safety pins, nail clipper 1