EBC Day 04 – Lukla to Phakding
I had been looking forward to the flight to Lukla for quite a while as all the things that I had both read and had heard from others travelers made the journey not only sound dangerous but also immensely fun. As such, I awoke that day bright and early and very eager to go. I had paid USD282 (NPR29000) for the return flight from Kathmandhu to Lukla with TARA Air and had decided on the return date of the 27th of November which gave me two contingency days to get to Lukla in case anything happened during the hike that might cause me to fall behind schedule, as well as another two days to get to Kathmandhu for my flight home in case there were delays with the flight from Lukla. Delays were apparently (and quite alarmingly) commonplace as the Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla would shut down its operations whenever the weather was inclement.
The guide for Sophie's group, Binod, had told me earlier that when we were to arrive at the Tribhuvan International airport (Nepali : त्रिभुवन अन्तरराष्ट्रिय बिमानस्थल) , we were to expect hoards of porters swarming in to try and 'help' us with our bags and that they would be requesting tips right after. Despite being able to and even preferring to carry my own bag, I had decided to let it just be and to chip in with the tips that they had decided upon which came up to a ridiculous NPR200 per person.The Domestic wing of the Tribhuvan International airport was a relatively small hall with booths occupying its circumference that was rendered claustrophobic by the sheer amount of people that were packed into such a tight space - just pure, raw chaos. This however was overshadowed by the cacophony of those raising their voices above the din of the hall, trying to restore some resemblance of order.At one point the airport officials had decided that my bag was to follow on the next flight as the flight that I was on had reached the weight limit. I had conflicting thoughts when this was made known to me as I was glad that they were abiding to the safety standards but on the other hand, the success of the hike depended on the contents of my backpack. Binod however came to the rescue and managed to sort something out with the airport authorities to ensure that the backpack remained with me.
Shortly after that we entered the departure hall and actually boarded the plane, before being told to our dismay that the airport in Lukla had been shut down due to strong winds. Since the flight was postponed, our only option at that point was to head back to the airport for lunch, which cost NPR670 for dhal bhat and a drink.
The trick to getting the first pick of the seats on the plane is to make sure that you are the last to board the feeder bus. That way you will ensure that you are the first out of the bus door and the first to board the plane. I would normally do this anyway but on this occasion it really worked to my advantage. The plane was a de Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otter which seats 19 passengers, 6 rows of 3 with the single seats on the port side, the doubles on the starboard and the remaining one at the back for the air hostess. The plane is considered a STOL (Short Takeoff and Landing) utility aircraft which makes it perfect for the short runway of the Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla (elevation : 2860m).
The flight itself was ridiculously tame compared to what I had expected. Websites, articles and blogs had lead me to believe that the half-an-hour flight would have been plagued with horrid turbulence and buffeting winds but it was completely to the contrary. Turbulence was of course present for an aircraft of that size with only 300 km/h as the cruising speed, but I think the loud drone from the two Pratt & Whitney turboprop engines would have struck aviophobics (or those who lead somewhat tamer lives) as intimidating. All this paled in comparison to the gorgeous views which had the ability to take anyone's mind off the fact that they were flying, and as I was to find out later, they were to set a precedence for what was to come.The plane spent most of the flight at a relatively high altitude although towards the later part, decreased its altitude to get through some mountain passes that had sheer ridges on either side, in order to begin its approach to the runway. The runway was clearly seen from the cockpit and the fact that it slopes upwards at a 12 degree incline made it even more obvious. The landing itself was remarkably brief and (fortunately) uneventful. So much for what has been labeled as the 'world's most dangerous flight'.
Location of Lukla
The Town of Lukla
After claiming our bags that we had checked in and leaving the Tenzing-Hillary Airport (Nepali : तेन्जिङ-हिलारी बिमानस्थल) , we walked through the village of Lukla that was basically a bunch of teahouses, cafes and eateries, small shops selling a wide variety of items to cater to the needs of all the hikers that passed through the area, as well as a few pubs here and there, that lined the main road. I had to purchase another snow cap here for NPR400 as I had somehow managed to misplace mine.
The many teahouses that we were to encounter as we trekked through the region were to become very familiar to us as these teahouses were to provide us the food and hot drinks, as well as the rooms that were to shelter us from the elements at night. Teahouse trekking is a type of trekking that gives trekkers the option of travelling light since the loads that each trekker has to carry does not include large amounts of food and ingredients, nor any camping gear. Nevertheless, the weight of my backpack reached 16kg which was most likely attributable to the laptop and all the electronics that I had brought along with me. That along with all my camera gear meant that I would be trekking with close to 20kg for the weeks that were to come.
The area, known as Khumbu, is home to the famous Sherpas but the region is probably better known for the wide variety of famous treks that can be found here. The village of Lukla is the starting point for many of these, including the Everest Base Camp (EBC) trek, the trek to the village of Gokyo that is famous for its lakes, as well as the trek to the three high altitude mountain passes (Kongma La, Cho La, and Renjo La) that I was planning to do. Lukla is also the starting point for treks to some of the summits such as Island Peak and Mera Peak that are more technical that need both specialized gear and skills.
Most of the Sherpa villagers in the region used to make regular trips over the Nangpa La Pass for trade before China closed the border in 1959 after suppressing a Tibetan uprising. Since then the Sherpa community has had to embrace travel and tourism as there is not much else that can sustain them in a region this remote.
The first day of trekking was a remarkably easy one as most of the trek was downhill with a descent of 369m and an ascent of only 200m. The next village, Phakding (elevation : 2610m), is only about 7 kilometres away and the trek there takes only two hours and a half. The fact that the trek was not physically demanding allowed me to immerse myself in the gorgeous scenery that was so pervasive. Amongst the bushes of rhododendrons (Rhododendron spp.) and the fields of buckwheat (Eriogonum grande), dzos ('dzomos' for the female counterpart), which are a hybrid of yak (Bos grunniens) and domestic cattle (Bos taurus), would pass by with huge loads secured to their backs. It was still a few days before I was to encounter my first yak as they are typically found at higher altitudes.
One thing that I feel that I have to mention about both dzos and yaks is that when you hear their bells clanking as they approach, you had best move out of their way and away from the edge of the cliff as they tend to just keep on moving forward. I actually heard some stories about trekkers getting pushed off the mountain by yaks but have not been able to verify their authenticity. Just a word of warning.
I also encountered a large number of mani stones along the way, and passed them on the left (going around them in a clockwise direction) as Tibetan Buddhists apparently believe that the Universe 'spins' in that direction. The mani stones are so named because of the six syllable mantra of Avalokiteshvara engraved on them. This very common mantra (when transliterated is 'Om mani padme hum' - the first four, 'Om ma ni pad' are represented by the last four Sanskrit symbols on the lower left of the rock in the image above) has a meaning that is quite complex and not very easy to define. To make things (much) easier for myself, I am going to resort to quoting the words of the 14th Dalai Lama, who had this to say about them :
It is very good to recite the mantra Om mani padme hum, but while you are doing it, you should be thinking on its meaning, for the meaning of the six syllables is great and vast... The first, Om [...] symbolizes the practitioner's impure body, speech, and mind; it also symbolizes the pure exalted body, speech, and mind of a Buddha[...]The path is indicated by the next four syllables. Mani, meaning jewel, symbolizes the factors of method: (the) altruistic intention to become enlightened, compassion, and love.[...]The two syllables, padme, meaning lotus, symbolize wisdom[...]Purity must be achieved by an indivisible unity of method and wisdom, symbolized by the final syllable hum, which indicates indivisibility[...]Thus the six syllables, om mani padme hum, mean that in dependence on the practice of a path which is an indivisible union of method and wisdom, you can transform your impure body, speech, and mind into the pure exalted body, speech, and mind of a Buddha[...]
The teahouse that we ended up staying in Phakding (elevation : 2610m) was called 'Beer Garden' (strangely enough seemingly devoid of beer) which had very basic rooms of just two beds with a blanket and a pillow on each and a shared toilet with no shower. I was not aware at that point that the rooms were to get a lot more basic the higher up in the mountains I travelled. I ate Dhal Bhat Tarkari (Rice and dhal curry with vegetables) for dinner which ended up costing me NPR740 whereas the room only cost a measly NPR200 for the night. I was to find later on that this seemingly counter-intuitive pricing structure was normal with rooms being dirt cheap and meals being quite pricy. The catch was that in order to secure the low rates for the rooms, one (only) has to eat there as well.
Since temperatures that night were apparently around -13 degrees Celsius, after dinner the group kept warm by clutching mugs of hot beverages whilst chatting and sitting around the dung-burning heater in the common room, before reluctantly retiring to our frigid beds for the night.