On the Trail to Everest

Solu Khumbu, Nepal
June 25th, 2000

There is a trail that leads from Jiri, near Kathmandu all the way to the Everest Base Camp. It is justifiably famous among the trekking and mountaineering communities and thronged by them come high season. But in the middle of the monsoon season, there were hardly any other tourists on this trail. Instead, I had the company of the villagers for whom this is the road that links their villages. Lodges and inns remained closed and I simply stayed with them in their homes, ate with them in their kitchens. From the dense foliage covered slopes near the beginning to the thin air near the high peaks at the base camp, these are the sights, sounds, smells and feel of this mountain region called Solu Khumbu. Snippets from my journal taken at random from the pages of a month-long trek.

Fields and orchards decorate the slopes in the lower elevations. Small houses are perched here and there, their roofs made of roughly rectangular slabs of slate. I hear the sound of a cowbell wafting across in the breeze.

The tinkle of the spoon as we stir our cups of heavily sugared tea in a teahouse. And the low murmur of chatter as everyone take a break before walking on again. Someone brings in a few strawberries and urges us to eat them. I bit into one and have juice dribbling down my chin, much to the amusement of a precocious six year old.

Often the trail leads between fields and under trees. It is hot and humid which makes carrying a full pack difficult. But there is something worse. It is peak leech season. They drop from branches above and somehow manage to wriggle inside my boots, no matter how carefully I tuck the trousers in and tighten my gaiters. Once in, they gorge themselves and now are too fat to get out. The result? Squashed leeches and bloody socks to show for it. I have begun to play a game called “How many carcasses will I find today?” The highest so far in one boot alone was four.

There are bridges that span rushing, roaring frothing rivers. Some of them made of planks, once tightly woven but loose and occasionally missing now. The locals blithely walk across, singing a ditty while I gingerly step, holding onto the thin cable that passes for a handrail, trying not to look down several hundred meters to the angry white froth.

There are porters bent under their wicker baskets. They laugh at my pack – to them who routinely carry 60 kg or more, it is nothing! We sit by the trail, and they share the tea they are cooking. I share a few biscuits I have.

There is a new mantra on this trail. Instead of asking for money, now the village children chime “pen, pen, pen”.

There are odd looking plants and wildly beautiful flowers edging the trail and occasional mountain slope. Long columns of sheep are herded up the trail, urged along with a combination of yells and short jabs of a stick. Stupas loom over the trail, their sides moss covered and sporting ribbons of prayer flags from their tops. The yellow roof of a monastery glints in the three seconds of sunshine.

Spanning a small stream is the village mill, its grinding wheel powered by the water. Next to it is another smaller waterwheel-turned device. But this is no mill. It is a prayer wheel and the bell on it dings every time it turns.
The tree cover lessens as I climb higher and higher and so do the fields. The houses are made of stone rather than wood now and the sound of chisel and hammer on stone rings through the air. Everyone it seems, wants to have a lodge. Come trekking season, they can earn good money, they tell me.

A bit further up, only barley grows. Anything else is brought up from below, on somebody’s back. The plastic chairs and tables, the heavy glass bottles of Cocacola and Fanta, the rice and beans and sacks of potatoes, fabric and tableware, tools and clothes, books and pens….just about everything is hauled up here on a porter’s back. Too expensive to haul back down, the empty bottles now form a decorative border of someone’s flower garden. Empty paint tubs double as hanging basket for potted plants. Other wrappings and packages are tossed down the hillside, blown by the wind in an ever-shifting garbage dump.

I am above treeline. It is only rocks now and there is a bite to the wind even in the sun. I don’t quite know what it is but, there is something about being above treeline suits me. I have that giddy sense of happiness that goes with it. There are those that tell me it simply the lack of oxygen. Who knows why? No matter the cause, I wear a broad grin more often than not. Oh, I am happy!

There are huge looming peaks all around me. I know there are, just behind the clouds. Once in a while to tantalize me the clouds part and I am awestruck. But before I can whip out the camera, they do their magicians’ trick and disappear again. But there are pictures in my head that remain.
I have been seeing more and more yaks now. Grazing on the valleys, or carrying loads up and down the trail. Huge shaggy beasts, they seem gentle. The swing of their bushy tails makes me think of a swaying hula skirt.

There are rock cairns along the way, some as trail markers, some as offerings left near a stupa. There are mani walls as well. Some are a heap of carved stones but some as long as a hundred meters. Each stone carved painstakingly. The most common carvings are “Om” or “Om Mani Padme Hum” but there are other mantras and invocations as well. I walk by to its left and add my own small stone to the pile.

Near the saddle just before the last climb to the base camp are a rows upon rows of rock cairns. These are no markers though. They are memorials of all those who passed this way but did not return. Some are large, elaborate with names and dates carved on the rock while others are small. As the mist sweeps down, they stand like eerie sentinels along the way.

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