Day 5: Tengboche monastery

It is mandatory to stay in Namche and Dingboche (or Pheriche) one extra day for acclimatization.  In addition, I had decided to stay an extra day in Deboche as recommended by the Lonely Planet Guide, hoping that the extra day would increase my odds of reaching the base camp.

It’s 8 am. Rahul and I both feel fine. I stagger a bit after getting out of bed, but otherwise feel fine. Rahul is feeling so well that he is proposing that we go to Dingboche today itself. Ngima reminds him that we had given our clothes for laundry, and the clothes can be dried only during the day in the sun.

We go to the dining hall for breakfast and sit near the warm stove. The group of nine trekkers and the single trekker, whom we saw in the dining hall last evening, are just leaving for the day’s trek. The other two trekkers, who were also in the dining hall last evening, are eating breakfast, and we start talking to them. They seem to be in their late thirties. One is from Quebec City, Canada; the other is from the Netherlands. We tell them that we are from the U.S. The Dutch guy says that he figured that out from our accent and because we didn’t shake our heads in a way that means “yes” in India, but “no” in the West. They are taking a base camp route different from ours and doing the trekking without the help of a guide. They met up on the way and will part ways after reaching the base camp. The Canadian will seek a partner to go on to another expedition in Nepal.  The Dutch guy will leave Nepal and go to New Delhi. He will apply for a visa to Iran and a transit visa through Pakistan. He will visit Benares while his visa applications are being processed. However, he doesn’t like to travel much in India because the food is too spicy to suit him. Rahul recommends that he take a trip to Kerala, sometime in December or January. He came to Kathmandu from Malaysia on a motorbike, which is now parked in Kathmandu. He will go to India on his bike. Soon after he gets the visas he will leave India for Iran, riding the bike through the safer, coastal route in Pakistan. He will spend a few months in Iran. He spends most of his time traveling, occasionally going back to the Netherlands to work and make enough money to pay for his travels.

After breakfast, we walk toward Tengboche monastery (gompa in Tibetan, vihara in Sanskrit and Pali). On the way we stop at a porter lodge and pick up Pramod. The porter lodges offer cheap accommodation for the porters.

It is a short climb up to Tengboche. But the altitude has its effect and the trail throws up additional challenges.There is snow on the ground. The trail at places is frozen hard. At places it is oily black, muddy and slippery. We pass through a forest of stunted, gnarly trees. Their thin trunks shoot upward from the ground in a haphazard way, making them appear to be frantically searching for something: warmth, water, nourishment from the few green leaves left on their canopy. Their roots sticking out of the ground adds to our challenge.

The Tengboche monastery is located in a beautiful setting, surrounded by majestic mountains. Today the sky is mostly clear, and we can see Mount Everest with its banner cloud. Mount Lohtse is covered by clouds, however.

OutsideTengbocheMonastry
Outside Tengboche Monastery with a view of Mt. Everest

We enter the monastery through an ornate gate and a steep flight of steps. The steps lead us to a courtyard. A noticeboard in the courtyard lists do’s and don’ts, such as “Not to kiss lips.” Another flight of steps leads us to the inner sanctum. We remove our boots and leave them outside the door with our backpacks and trekking poles. Ngima has asked Pramod to stay outside, perhaps to keep an eye on our belongings, although no one other than a few trekkers are in the monastery.

The inner sanctum is dimly lit, and its walls are decorated by numerous Thanka paintings, depicting the lives and teachings of Buddhas through pictorial stories and allegories. One painting shows a prince with his sword drawn out, standing near a tree. Perhaps it is depicting a story I had read as a child. The young Prince Siddhartha participates in an athletic competition to demonstrate his strength and prowess in using weapons. He has done exceptionally well in all the events so far. In the next event he must cut down a tree with his sword. Prince Siddhartha swiftly swings his sword at a tree. But the tree doesn’t fall. The audience gasps. Has the prince failed this test? Then a gentle breeze blows, and the tree falls over revealing a cleanly cut trunk. The audience is relieved. The swing was so swift and the cut, so clean that the tree could not topple over, until the breeze gave it a gentle push.

Another painting catches my attention. One frame shows three men hitting a tortoise with sticks. They are hitting on its shell. The men appear frustrated that they cannot break open the shell. In the second frame, the tortoise is lying upside down. Now, the men are successful in slaughtering it. Blood is flowing out of the cuts they have made on the tortoise’s body. I think I understand the meaning of this allegory: with a change in perspective even the hardest problem might reveal a soft underbelly susceptible to a new line of attack. I wonder why this gore is displayed at the place of worship of a religion known for its adherence to nonviolence.

We meet a tall, young lama who is wearing robes deep red ochre in color. He asks Ngima in Sherpa language where we come from. Ngima tells him that we are originally from India, but are now American citizens. Then the lama wants to know our names. Rahul tells him that he is the namesake of Buddha’s son. Ngima translates the lama’s reply: “No, your name is like Rahul Dravid’s” (famous batsman and former captain of Indian cricket team). And the lama laughs. We bid him goodbye and leave the monastery.

TengbocheMonastry
Entrance to Tengboche Monastery

Ngima tells us that he would like to summit Mount Everest and work with climbing expeditions. The money is good, although the work is dangerous. His family has forbidden him from climbing. They tell him that money is not everything in life.

We return to the lodge and have the usual Dal Bhat for lunch. The hot sauce given with the lunch is very spicy. I share my dry, garlic chutney with Ngima and the hotel owners, who are also eating Dal Bhat with us.

After lunch we go to visit Deboche monastery, a ten minute walk from the lodge. Ten or so Budhist nuns, some from Tibet, live and meditate here. Buildings in the monastery were destroyed in the earth quake last year, especially the prayer hall. A new one is being built with help from charitable organizations. The new construction will take another four years to complete. Ngima walks around the buildings and finds a nun (lama or ani). She is slight and appears famished. She looks at us kindly, a look with the slightest hint of her suffering. She shows us the temporary place of worship. Things are stored in piles all over the place. I look around for a donation box. She senses my intent and gently lifts the clothes covering the box.

We come back to the hotel and go to the dining room. Ngima shows us the pictures of his family. He has a younger brother, who is working in South Korea, and a younger sister, who is studying for an undergraduate degree in business. The younger brother has a one-year old son. They all live together with Ngima’s parents in Kathmandu.

Rahul and I start playing a game of chess in the dining room. The clouds start settling into Deboche.

Two German women in their late twenties come in and ask for rooms. They are on their way back from the basecamp.

A group of seven South Koreans come in with their guides. Large boxes containing their climbing paraphernalia are kept in the front yard of the lodge. They are returning after climbing Island Peak or Imja Tse (20,305′; 6,189 m). I find one person from the group posting a banner on a notice board outside the dining room. The professionally printed banner appears to be listing the group’s accomplishments. It is written in Korean, and I can read only 5,545 m and 6,189 m, which I guess as the elevations of Kalapathar and Island Peak. I try to pick up a conversation with the South Korean by asking him what is written on the poster. He simply says “Island Peak” in a heavy accent and quickly walks away from me. It is clear that he does not speak a word of English…Or perhaps I smell bad.

The South Korean group is having dinner. They seem to have their own menu items, and special tea is being poured from thermos flasks. There are two women and five men in the group, all of them middle-aged or older. One person looks like he could be at least seventy.

A group of American high school seniors, their two teachers (men), and two guides come in. Later I learn that they are from two high schools in Portland, Oregon. They are on their way to the base camp. There are five girls and seven boys. They ask for rooms. Rooms in the lodges normally accommodate only two persons. Fortunately, this lodge has rooms that can accommodate three persons. That is ideal for this group with an odd number of girls and boys.

The teachers hold an impromptu class in the dining hall. They sit around a couple of tables. One teacher advises the students to observe and learn about the foreign customs and culture, and not be an “ugly American.” He then asks them to take turns describing their best moment and their worst moment so far on the trek. The students are articulate and rattle off their experiences. When his turn comes up, the teacher says that his best moment was when the plane landed safely in Lukla airport, to his great relief. During the plane ride what was going through his mind was a YouTube video he had seen about an accident at Lukla airport (perhaps the 1998 accident). Some of the students are preparing to take a shower. The other teacher tells them to be mindful of the fact that resources such as water and the energy to heat it are scarce around here. I admire the teachers’ courage to go on such a trip, chaperoning a bunch of teenagers.

Ngima gets us water from kitchen, which is safe to drink and is free. Bottled water is costing more and more as we go up in altitude, which is not surprising considering that the bottles need to be hauled uphill. I treat the water just to be safe. I add two Potable Aqua tablets to 1 liter of water and mix it well. The water takes on the light brown hue of iodine. I wait for 30 minutes and add two tablets of P.A.Plus, to remove the color and taste of iodine. The treated water tastes good.

Ngima promises that tomorrow will be an easier day of trekking. We are glad to hear that.

We go to bed at 8 pm. Around 1 am I wake up. Then I cannot go back to sleep. I seem to be getting a panic attack. I doze off and get up with an uncomfortable feeling, as if I am choking. I find that I cannot think of anything comforting. Fear grips me. I think of chanting something in mind, to alleviate the fear and discomfort. To ward off fear, some children in Kerala are taught to recite the ten names of Arjun, the great warrior from Mahabharata, “Arjunan, Phalgunan, Jishnu, Kiriti, Shwetavahanan, Vibhatsu, Vijayan, Parthan, Savyasachi, Dhananjayan enna pathu namangalum bhaktiyayi japikalo nithyam bhayankal akannu povum nishchayam“(Arjunan … if these ten names are recited daily all the fears will disappear, certainly). But I didn’t learn that mantra as a child and cannot remember beyond “Arjunan, Phalgunan”. Reciting the refrain “deewangi, deewangi, deewangi hai” that I had heard yesterday seems to help. I had read that sitting up will give relief. After struggling for two hours, I put my pillow upright against the wall and sit up leaning on it, pulling the comforter all around me so that I don’t freeze. That helps. My mind finally calms down, and I sleep sitting down. Later, I wake up with a neck pain. I check whether I can slowly slide down without becoming uncomfortable. I am able to do so and lie down flat. I catch a couple more hours of sleep.

The discomfort and the dangers are so real on this trek that I feel that I cannot recommend it to my friends or relatives. After going on a Disney cruise or a trip to Paris people could easily recommend them to their friends. This trip, I am reluctant to recommend. If people decide on their own to go on this trek, I would gladly share all the information I have.

Fitbit statistics

No of steps Miles walked Calories burned Floors climbed
8,713 3.93 2,263 53
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