Thursday, 14 May 2009

Day 2 – Kathmandu and Lukla. Trek Day 1


Well last night I couldn’t sleep. Perhaps it was the fact we’d arrived in the evening, perhaps it was due to the fact that there was so much going on in my head or perhaps it was the thoughts about this aeroplane ride from KTM to Lukla. Last October 18 people, the entire passenger and crew list of the flight, died in a crash. I am sitting outside on the veranda of the villa. Poor Waters having to share with me. I think I snore. Loudly. I don’t know how loudly but I know I do snore. Now I’m sitting outside having my final cigarette until I see Kathmandu again. Yes, I’m going to keep my packet of fags here, even though, really, they only cost about £2 a packet and I can afford to smoke them, I don’t really want to smoke while on the mountain. That’ll be my deal.

It's a full moon here in Kathmandu. The dogs on the hillside are just barking and barking, like they're fending off thieves. Hundreds of dogs in the darkness, scaring evil.

Landing in KTM yesterday evening was easy enough, I don’t really remember the flight being turbulent or whatever in fact, I slept through most of the journey from Doha. I know that at the start of the flight, once we’d reached altitude, there was this scuttling sound in the air vents like there was a sudden influx of rats in the system and that the plane as suddenly going to crash and there was a flash of panic through everyone. Ok, maybe just me and Hillsy, teacher and white-knuckle flyer. I appear cucumber-like next to him. No, I don’t mean turgid. I mean cool. That noise, it turns out, was just the vent system working. Probably clearing the rats out of it.

We woke up early to pack the two buses that were taking the two separate teams and (split) Trektators to KTM Domestic Airport, next to the International. I’m not an early morning man really, more a late night man.

Kathmandu Domestic Airport is next to the international airport. It kinda does remind me of what KL Railway station was like (before they did it up in the 90’s but with domesticated animals. Ok, I’m embellishing, there were no domesticated animals. I was expecting sheep or goats or something from ‘Romancing The Stone’). We shuffled through the metal detectors and put our luggage on the scales. Yes, ALL our luggage on giant scales until the man at the desk told us to stop and that we were heavy enough. Yep, total weight limit per plane. Why weigh items one by one when you have to add it all together on a calculator at the end? Just put them all on at the same time. Simples. This was the first time I’d met Russell De Beer. I didn't know who he was at first but we exchange a certain look. I didn’t recognise him as he looked different from the facebook photos. I think he’d given himself a grade 2 haircut or something. From the bus to the airstrip I see a selection of aeroplanes that get progressively smaller until we see our airline. Yeti Airlines. Doesn’t inspire much confidence.

Sitting in a compact tube with seats in rows of two and one, I note that we were all putting on brave faces, some of us knowing that in October last year all 18 passengers and crew died in a crash on the same route. I didn’t mention it to anyone in case they didn't know and wouldn't appreciate the knowledge. What was a little worrying was that you could see to the front of the plane into the cockpit (the door remained open throughout the flight, in fact) where you could see the pilot and the co-pilot reading off a check-list and scratching their respective heads.

I have never felt more in God’s hands than in that moment before take-off. I remembered to take out that prayer that Dad made me write down and repeat it several times under my breath, careful not to let the others see me praying in case they thought I had half a keg of Samsonite strapped to my middle, fingering the red button marked ‘detonate’. I miss you Dad. It’s only been a day since we got here.

Did I mention we had a stewardess? She was lovely. And perhaps a little pointless other than to look at. Ok, so she did hand out cotton wool and a boiled sweet. No gintonics, no warmed semi-tasty sandwich rolls.

Take-offs usually send me straight to sleep. I could see that one of our guides, a Sherpa called Nir (Or what I assumed to be a Sherpa, he might actually be a Lama) was asleep in minutes after take-off. Lucky bastard. From my seat, looking out of the window, I could see the ornate carpet of Kathmandu fall far below us turning into fields and lakes and quarries and striated hillsides.

A few minutes later and we were just above the clouds and looking out the window, not wanting to miss anything, to the left of the aeroplane I could see mountains, far, far in the distance. Snow covered peaks. Which one was Everest? I'm not sure but I wanted to see them. They were beautiful.
Which one is Everest?

Lukla is a hillside town with a ridiculously short airstrip stuck between two higher hills. It seems to have one major street with a view of a mountain rising at one end of it, and various trekking equipment shops on either side selling colourful woolly hats which I might buy on the way back. And I'm not sure that the Starbucks is quite the real thing but hey, it gave us a laugh while waiting.
They didn't do Caramel Lattes.
Prayer Wheel Gate
After a bit of a hold-up with the equipment arriving by plane and a speech by Kirt and Nir Lama (yes, he must be a Lama) we started Day 1 of our trek. As the website said, we start by descending. I don’t know what the track was going to be like but the first few hundred metres outside the town gate is roughly hewn paving.

We learnt that the prayer wheels (as described by Eddie Murphy in The Golden Child )would give us strength and courage for what we are looking for. We also were told to walk to the left hand side of mani stones as custom. The first time Brooksie told us this we saw her go off in a goose-chase of a direction so we followed her and joined the rest further down the track. Apparently, that’s what you have to do. I ask no questions, she read the guide before we left London.

Dave Christie and I as ‘the elder’ of the group found ourselves falling to the rear or ‘finding our pace’ which, speaking strictly for me, meant really slow steps up.

Oh yes, the surprise at Lukla was while I was writing my journal for this blog in the courtyard of the first teahouse where we ate a breakfast of pancakes and coffee, I heard a loud holler of my name. I look up and it’s Grizzly Adams. Who the hell? Of course, it’s Dane Cunningham, looking distinctly hairier than when I last saw him in London, going to Australia, about a year ago. He’d been in western Nepal doing the Annapurna circuit and looking well-travelled. A welcome sight.

By the early evening we reach the first teahouse on the trek in Phakding. It’s blue and white exterior and unpainted wooden interiors remind me of my grandma's. It’s bizarre that many things start to remind me of my childhood in Malaysia. It’s getting more and more intense. Little did I know that the next day the Malaysian upbringing would be a keystone to my Everest experience.

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