(There will be no postings for two weeks; holidaying in Melbourne ... KC)
As a child, I was fascinated by the story of Journey to the West, a classic Chinese novel that fictionalized the account of the pilgrimage to India by the Buddhist monk, Xuanzang, during the Tang Dynasty to bring back the sutras (Buddhist religious texts). Alongside, he had his disciples namely Sun Wukong (Monkey God), Zhu Bajie (Pigsy), Sha Wujing (Sandy), and a dragon prince (White Horse) to accompany him through the tough journey.
The popularity of Journey to the West stems from the fact that it is an adventure story filled with interesting encounters with the demons and devils who believed they could attain immortality by consuming Xuanzang’s flesh, and how the disciples fought back to shield their master from being hurt in his journey towards enlightenment.
Click here for complete photos of Everest Base Camp trip (4 to 20 October 2009; nine postings) by yours truly (KC).
Day 1 - KLIA to Kathmandu (1345m) by flight
13 of us assembled at KLIA at 6am to catch the flight to Kathmandu via transit at Bangkok. After almost 7 hours flight, we arrived at Kathmandu airport and were greeted by the local tour guide Cheban and his assistant Ram.
We were later transferred to Hotel Marsyandi Mandala, near the busy street of Thamel, with 3 of us (Alexis, Sharon and I) sharing a room. Took some time to settle down and got ready for dinner at the nearby Mandap Restaurant & Bar.
I had some ringgits converted to Nepalese rupees for last-minute shopping at Thamel. I bought myself a rain coat and a walking stick, after hearing that the weather was rather wet in the past few days. A disposable poncho might not be good enough to do the job, and the last thing I wanted was to get sick during trekking.We retired early to catch up with a good rest before the start of our long haul trek (12 days) to EBC and Kala Patthar.
An early morning start took us to the Kathmandu airport to take a flight to Lukla, which is the starting point for most of the trekking trails in Nepal. Security check at the airport was surprisingly tight, with our bodies and backpacks thoroughly searched. With her newly-cut short hair, Alexis was mistaken as a guy for body search.
Weather didn’t look good and our flight to Lukla was delayed from 7.55am to 10.10am. Finally after a long wait, we got our turn to board the air plane. The plane was manned by a pilot and a co-pilot, and a stewardess who handed us some cotton wool that served as ear plugs, something that we used in the old days to shield our ears from the blasting sound of thunderstorms.
Looking down from the plane, I could see vast expanse of lush green valley dotted with boxes (houses) and white ribbons of gushing streams. At the far horizon, someone pointed to a distant snow capped mountain range amidst fluffy clouds and shouted excitedly, “Mount Everest!” Then everyone was looking out to catch a glimpse of it.
After about 20 minutes of scenic flight towards Lukla, the plane suddenly made a u-turn and was heading back to Kathmandu instead. Due to bad weather, landing at Lukla airport was not possible as visibility was obscured by the blanket of clouds.
We were back to Kathmandu airport at 11am and waited aimlessly for the next available flight, if ever there was one. The departure hall was filled with restless trekkers, with some lying on the floor to catch a nap. We met a fellow Malaysian trekker Radzi who planned to trek to EBC alone while his group of friends would stop at Namche Bazaar.
The long wait dragged us till 3.30pm before we called it a day and rechecked into another hotel in Kathmandu, praying hard that tomorrow would be a fine day for us to land at Lukla.
Today we were still trying our luck to fly to Lukla. This time we left the hotel early at 7.30am and rushed to the airport check-in counter by 8.30am where we were immediately ushered to board the plane. The plane took off shortly at 8.50am. It was a seamless flow and before we could resume our normal breath, the plane was already in the midst of landing at Lukla airport at 9.25am.
We gathered at the teahouse for some refreshment. I was then introduced to the porters and was asked to pick one of them as my personal porter, whom I had earlier set the criteria to be “tall, dark and handsome” (Cheban was rather panic when he read my email request). Looking at the 7 of them, I wasn’t given much of a choice. So I settled for Niraj, a 20 year old Nepalese boy who is an undergraduate in a local university. He was currently on 2-month holiday and would be back to university in November. Journey from his home to university would normally take 5 days. No luxury of taking any form of transportation other than walking. Yes, walk and walk and walk. That’s the way of life in the boundary of Sagarmatha National Park. Working as a porter would earn him some money to cover his expenses away from home.
We started trekking at 10.30am from Lukla, passing through the main street of where the happenings are. There is a Starbuck on my left, Illy on my right, coupled with a sauna centre and numerous internet cafes in between. After 30-minute walk, we reached the welcoming arch to the Sagarmatha National Park, the beginning of the great journey that we were about to embark. As aptly put by Laotse, the great philosopher of ancient China, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
Lunch break at Thado Koshi Gaon (2580m) at 1pm. Weather was cool amidst drizzle. We continued our journey at 2.45pm after lunch, trekking through the lush green forest lined with pine trees and rhododendron. Crossing numerous suspension bridges over the gushing stream and reached Phakding in an hour’s time. We checked into the Snowland Lodge for an overnight stay.
It was a rainy night, with the rain pattering gently outside, and the heavy bombing (farting) by some of the fellow trekkers inside. I failed to sleep, despite counting yaks and rocks (mind you, there are countless rocks along EBC trail). My buddy was already snoring away. How envious I was and wishing I was the lucky one who snored instead.
Starting the great trekking journey at Lukla ... Pei Ling, Jayne Aw, Alexis, Fiona and Siti
Day 4 - Phakding (2610m) to Namche Bazaar (3440m) 6 hours trekking
Tea break at Jorsale at 10.20am for 30 minutes. The journey thereafter was a steep uphill trekking for about 3 hours along a trail crowded with trekkers, yak trains and Sherpas before we reached Namche Bazaar, the commercial hub of Sherpa society with many restaurants, lodges, internet cafés and bakery.
We checked into Moonlight Lodge where I spent another sleepless night, largely due to the effect of high altitude.
Day 5 - Namche Bazaar (3440m) to Tengboche (3860m) 4.5 hours trekking
We started with a 2-hour steep ascent to Khumjung (3780m) after breakfast at 7.30am. Meeting groups of children trekking towards Khumjung to attend school that starts at 9.30am. Upon reaching the village, we visited Khumjung Comba Tibetan monastery that houses the Yeti Skull. We continued trekking along Dudh Kosi River after tea at 11am, with a downhill descent for another hour before stopping at Phunki Tenga (3250m) for lunch.
Day 7 - Acclimatisation at Dingboche (4410m) 6.5 hours trekking
Heading to Chhukhung ... Wong, Yee Choi, Jayne and Alexis
Day 8 - Dingboche (4410m) to Lobuche (4910m) 6 hours trekking
Day 9 - Loboche (4910m) to Gorak Shep (5140m) to EBC (5364m) 8 hours trekking
We departed an hour earlier than usual at 6.30am. After 1.5 hours of trekking through rocky terrain, it was an uphill and downhill walk for another 1.5 hours to Gorak Shep, which is the last station before the ascent to EBC.
We stopped for an early lunch at Gorak Shep at 9.30am, and continued with the journey to EBC at 10.15am. I deliberately slowed down my pace and constantly reminding myself not to rush for it since I had my personal porter to accompany me. Besides drinking lots and lots of water, walking slowly is another good means to avoid AMS by giving the body more time to adjust to the high altitude. Guided by these 2 strategies, I had a humble confidence that I would be able to make it to EBC.
In such high altitude trekking, there is no room for ego and arrogance. So I zipped my Mr. Ego and Ms. Arrogance into my backpack and handed this burden to my personal porter. Unhurried and unburdened, I strode out leisurely towards EBC, spellbound by the scenic sights of Himalayas that were frozen in time by my camera, while my personal porter kept a constant look at me to check how I was doing.
Stepping over countless rocks, passing by Khumbu Glacier (most of the ice had melted under the clear blue sky), I finally reached EBC at 1pm. Wow, couldn’t believe I was actually standing on top of the base camp of the world’s highest peak! Still trying to ascertain if this was indeed base camp coz there wasn’t any camping tent in sight. It was only later I found out that in each year, only few months were suitable for camping en route to Everest Summit.
Yee Choi handed 2 dried apricots to each of us, and that was the nicest and sweetest apricot I had ever tasted. After taking some photos, we left EBC at 1.30pm and returned to Gorak Shep (Snowland Highest Inn) by 3.30pm for an overnight stay.
Having adapting well to the high altitude at EBC, I was back to my normal pace for Kala Patthar climb. We started at an ungodly hour of 5.30am from Gorak Shep in order to catch a glimpse of sunrise at the world’s highest peak.
The enormity of the mountain range had a cathartic effect of cleansing and healing. By looking at the gargantuan mountains, one’s heart truly opened up. I stayed for about 45 minutes at the top of Kala Patthar before making my way back to Gorak Shep in an hour’s descent. Late breakfast was served at 9.45am at the Snowland Highest Inn. Thereafter, we continued our journey towards Pheriche, stopping half way at Lobuche for lunch.
Day 11 - Pheriche (4240m) to Phortse (3810m) 5 hours trekking
Day 12 - Phortse (3810m) to Namche Bazaar (3440m) 5 hours trekking
Day 13 - Namche Bazaar (3440m) to Phakding (2610m) 8 hours trekking
It was an extremely slow walk today as one of the trekkers was not feeling well. Yee Choi, Fat Wong, Pei Ling and I stayed back to render the necessary assistance. However, as the condition did not improve, we needed someone to carry this trekker.
Four of us were definitely out of the question, let alone any strength after the exhaustive treks to EBC and Kala Patthar. The one and only person left was my personal porter Takur. By the way, Niraj had since been replaced by Takur as my personal porter coz Takur was not feeling well during the trekking to Tengboche. As a personal porter, he carried a lesser load.
Takur looks older than his 40 years, probably due to the weathered face and his skinny frame. He was a far cry from my earlier specs of “tall, dark and handsome”. We were wondering if he could do the job, but what choice did we have?
However, good Takur was like a heaven sent Sandy (Sha Wujing) to help the monk (Xuanzang) who had now manifested in the form of a weak person. He cautiously carried “Xuanzang” on his back, stopping after some steps to take a break. Not an easy feat considering a 50+kgs load versus the normal duffel bag of no more than 20kgs. And the beauty was, like Sandy, he was quiet and never complained. He just carried out his task dutifully and faithfully for his master.
Fat Wong, for his insatiable appetites for food (he acknowledged that he was the only guy who put on weight while the rest lost weight), he could possibly assume the role of Pigsy (Zhu Bajie).
That almost completed the characters of “Journey to the West”, save for white dragon who, as in the novel, had transformed into a white horse that Xuanzang rode on. Our other trekker friend Joseph Yong a.k.a. White Dragon, who befitted this role, had actually flown to Nepal 5 days ahead of us. An EBC reject, he secretly signed up for EBC trekking by himself. Amazingly, he managed to reach EBC but had to skip Kala Patthar due to snow storm. We bumped into him while trekking from Tengboche to Dingboche. What a surprise and kudos to him for making it to EBC.
After 5 hours of grueling walk, we reached Jorsale at 12.45pm for lunch and stopped by for almost 3 hours for a good rest before we resumed our journey to Phakding at 3.30pm.
Halfway through, 3 more porters came to our aid and took turn to assist “Xuanzang”. That however, did not prevent us from trekking into the dark, for by 5.30pm the sun had already set beyond the horizon and the sky was turning pitch dark. We needed torch light and headlight to show us the trail. That was probably our first experience of night trekking in Nepal.
Day 14 - Phakding (2610m) to Lukla (2840m) 3.5 hours trekking
We left Phakding at 9am and trekked leisurely to enjoy the fresh air and the scenery for the last day. Holding on to our cameras, we captured more photos as we need not worry about the battery reserves. Finally and finally, we reached Lukla at 12.30pm and that marked the completion of our EBC trekking. Couldn’t wait any longer, I paid 250 rupees to the lodge owner and dashed towards the bathroom for a nice hot shower. Phew! 12 days without bath was indeed a new record for me (the last time was 8 days in Sikkim). Thereafter we hanged around at the internet café to catch up with emails, and savored some of the cakes at the nearby bakery.
Day 15 - Lukla to Kathmandu by flight
After bidding farewell to the porters, we left Lukla by plane to Kathmandu. Cheban arranged for local sight-seeing around Kathmandu, followed by an evening shopping at Thamel after dinner.
Day 16 – Leisure day in Kathmandu
We had another leisure day to spend in Kathmandu. Some of the trekkers went for white water rafting while the rest stayed back to do some shopping. PK, Fiona and I took a rickshaw ride to the nearby market looking for some spices. It was crowded with locals as there was a procession in the vicinity of the market.
In the evening, we were invited for a farewell dinner hosted by Cheban.
Day 17 – Last day in Kathmandu to KLIA by flight
Ending of “Journey to the West”
As in the novel, Xuanzang and Monkey God attained Buddhahood at the end of the journey, while Sandy became an arhat, and White Dragon was made a naga. And Pigsy……..well he was promoted to an altar cleanser, i.e. eater of excess offerings at altars.
Did I finally get a “tall, dark and handsome” personal porter? Yes…… for in Takur, lies a beautiful soul.
And thanks to the countless rocks at EBC, I have since shifted my passion for counting money (yes, an accountant by profession) to counting rocks ...
Years of dreaming
Months of training
Days of walking
Hours of suffering
Minutes of panting
Seconds of hoping
Moment of triumph
P/S: I would like to record my thanks to all EBC team members for making this journey a memorable one; special thanks to KC Leong for leading the team; and personal thanks to Alexis for folding my sleeping bag on daily basis while I was recuperating from a fractured wrist. Cheers!