The airline booking clerk had a smile on his face when I asked for a window seat. "I think we'll be able to do that sir" he said. It was only when I got on the plane and realized we were only 2 of 15 people on a 320 seat aircraft that I realized a window seat wasn't a major problem. Shit, if you wanted the whole first class to yourself it wouldn't be a problem. Every now and again you get a little inkling that something isn't quite right. I was having one of those now as I had my own personal steward serves me my cognac, and an extra meal because they'd put too many on the plane.
Katmandu airport had definitely changed. No more cows and dogs on the runway. They'd fixed the holes in the fence and installed an extra 1500 people with machine guns just to make sure. No worrying about your wallet trying to push through the 500 kids trying to sell you taxis and hotel rooms. Now itís just a cordon of pleasant looking Nepali soldiers armed to the
We'd arrived at the beginning of a 5 day " bund" (or strike as we say in English) called by the Maoists to shut down the country. Even the taxis weren't running. The Nepalese so endeared with capitalism had shut up shop in fear and covered their number plates with "Tourist Bus" because we were the only people not on the Maoist endangered list. Ahh, what the fuck we're here now we may as well see if we can search out a coffee. Find a door that's a quarter open and behind it someone wants to do business. Life's not great but you can get the essentials; beer, coffee, tiger balm, boy, girl and a large block of hash for under 20 dollars for the lot!
We wanted to walk up to Everest but because of the Bund all the buses had stopped so being rich capitalist gringos like we are, we had to fly to Lukla on a 75 year old DC3 which somehow had managed to avoid the mountains in the clouds in its long and hard life. Ahh what the fuck, the pilots look like they know what they're doing even if they do carry worry beads with them. The landing's pretty interesting as the runway's on a 45 degree angle, the pilots approach it so you look like you're flying into a cliff, then pull up just as you're kissing your arse goodbye to make a beautiful touchdown - see I told you they knew what they were doing. Remind me to throw away this pair of underpants!!
Katmanduís at 2200 metres, Lukla's 2800, first day is Namche Bazzaar at 3500 metres - there's not a lot of air up here - about 80% of sea level. Little do we know that when we get to Kala Pattar (above Everest Base Camp) it will be below 50%. What the fuck, the walk is nice up a river valley with lots of beautiful snow capped mountains and waterfalls thousands of meters above us. Pity it decides to piss rain, so we have to stop for the standard 1 dollar a night tea-house room and Dal Bhat. No problems with accommodation as hardly anybody else has been stupid enough to come here with a civil war happening, so we have our choice of 15 guest houses with 30 beds in each.
Next morning we take off again to Namche and bump into our first Maoists. Four under-nourished 15 year olds with sticks and a† 17 yo leader. They tell us we cant go any further until the Bund is over - "5 days in this hole, you gotta be joking". "We have land-mined the track" they say. "Land-mines, where are you guys going to get a land-mine from" we say. "You can't even afford a decent stick, the only dangerous thing on the track are yak turds and hell, I've stepped in a cupla them and they aint that bad". After a bit of negotiation , ass-kissing and sympathy with the cause including saying "we will never tell anyone about this" they agree to let us walk so long as we obtain a Maoist trekking permit. "Where do we get one of those from?" They looked puzzled. Eventually we pull out a pen and a book jacket and a walking permit is inscribed on the jacket.
Namche is a modern town for Nepal, it almost has hot water, internet, telephones and toilets that work; almost!! The Maoists have blown up the phone exchange so you can make a phone call to your next door neighbor but not the next town, likewise with the internet - unless you want to spend 10 US dollars a minute on the satellite phone- about a monthly wage for your average Nepali. The toilets and hot water never worked anyhow.
Here we pick up our guide, Ratna who is 22, has never been to Katmandu and thinks he's on a great thing only carting around 3 packs (20 kilos) instead of the standard 65, and getting paid the extravagant amount of 10 bucks a day to do it. WE donít need a guide but what the fuck, it's nice to give the locals some work anyway.
Kala Pattar (Everest) is 60 k's a way via Tengboche, Pheriche, Labouche and Gorak Shep - the problem is you need to stop to acclimatize, otherwise you get headaches, freak out then die - not pleasant. So we tend to walk for 4 hours, then spend the rest of the days lazing around, drinking milk tea and playing cards (Mick even learnt to read a whole book!!) I read my two books in the first two days and had to play lots of cards - patience. What the fuck, you get into it after a while; it's not a stressful lifestyle.
The further up you go, the harder it gets to sleep, the more vivid and weird the dreams become when you do get to sleep, and the harder it is to breathe while you are awake. Eventually we drag ourselves to Gorak Shep which is only 3 hours and 500 meters higher than our last stop. The next day we head out to climb Kala Pattar, barely 500 metres higher. We'd been walking up a glacier for the last 2 days but because of the mountains surrounding Everest we hadn't seen it for almost a week. What the fuck, 500 meters, it cant be that hard, it's only 4 hours of lung-busting pain and suffering step, breath, breath some more, try another step, try the breathe thing again. You can see the people ahead, they're not that far up, but it takes you an age to get there, eventually we reach the top to be greeted by inspiring, fantastic views DOWN on the Everest Base Camp, the glacier we walked up and the majestic splendor of Everest itself, surrounded by peaks almost as high. We spend an hour at the top. then the peak starts to cloud in and we decide that it could be a good time to go as the weather looks like it is changing, the trip down is rapid. no altitude sickness on the way down, more air, things get cheaper but the weather closes in.
WE walk all day and cover 3 days walking on the way up but end up like icicles as the wind has picked up. A good time to get out, back to Namche and the bake house Ė good coffee, good cakes. Unfortunately beer is still relatively expensive - about 5 bucks US a can as it has to spend a week on someone's back being walked up here.
Lukla; what happened to the last 2 and a half weeks? While we were waiting for the plane we meet an Italian in the bar of our 1 dollar a night hotel who has been climbing Everest with his son. Only 50,000 USD a pop, he'd got as high as camp 3, 1000 meters above us but had come down because of high blood pressure. He was staying in the 200 dollar a night hotel but had come into town in search of night life as no-one else was staying there - he found us and the locals to drink beer with. He even got his own personal escort back to his room by the local military commander as the town was officially under curfew after 7pm. We meet him at the airport the next day where we talk about satellite phones and if he buys a Lear Jet do we think they'll let him fly it in to Lukla for his attempt next year?? - we gather this guy has a few bucks behind him as he heads off to California to chill out on the beaches for a week, before going back to Italy to make some more money and his wife who said she would kill him if the mountain didn't.
The DC3 turns up, hasn't this thing crashed yet?? What the fuck, we fly back through the clouds watching the pilots clutch their worry beads and smile every time they see the ground.
Katmandu is a changed town. The Bund is over and everyone is open for business, there's even some gringos around to sell the standard tiger balm, taxi, authentic 5000 year old things and the nice smelling flutes to, starting price 50 bucks but 3 for a handful of rupees as you walk off into the distance - who knows what they're really worth?? We get spastic, hijack a rickshaw and feed all the street kids for 5 dollars on our way to blowing 100 at the casino.
"There are no seats left on the flight to Bangkok" sir, the attendant smiles at us. Everyone is trying to leave town and the planes are full. "You will have to wait for your booking in 5 days time" Ahh, what the fuck, I slide him 20 bucks across the counter. "I may have found a space for you sir; tomorrow was when you wanted to travel?"