When I was talking about going trekking in Nepal, everyone kept giving me tips for the ‘tea houses’. I was confused. I’m a huge fan of tea, so my experiences of tea houses had thus far been in Sydney, of fancy little places like the White Rabbit Gallery’s tea house or the QVB tea room – opulent, delicate and highly ostentatious. Maybe, I thought, the tea houses in Nepal would be rustic little log cabins with stone fireplaces and rugs everywhere and tea steeped in wrought metal pots over the open flames.
While they weren’t quite as romantic as the images my imagination had conjured up, that wasn’t too far from the reality of what the Nepalese tea houses were like. Well, in some ways. They’re bucolic structures made of stone and split logs, and any rugs you come across have been thinned down by the constant foot traffic that they have to endure. There aren’t stone fireplaces, but there are hardy back boilers that, when turned on (only on the coldest days, because it’s a bit of a luxury) emit the kind of warmth and comfort you’d associate with a tender embrace, and that we’d huddle around like a muster of penguins, just soaking it in.
The tea houses were family run – in fact, they’re usually family homes that have been extended to make space for guests. There’s one big room, which is where you spend all your time eating and hanging out. That’s the room with the boiler. There’d be a kitchen attached to that room (not for guests, only for the family), and a toilet or two down the corridor. The rest of it was the guest rooms, tiny and spartan, with nothing in them but two simple beds and mattresses, although if you requested they’d also give you blankets.
Nobody hung out in their rooms. They were too cold. You’d come into the tea house at the end of each day’s trek, collect your bags from your porters, take them to your room, baby wipe yourself down, have a good spray of deodorant, then change into whatever you were going to sleep in. You had to do this as soon as you got in, while you were still warm from the walking, because it’s just far too cold to take your clothes off otherwise.
Then you’d set up your bed with your sleeping bag and blankets, so that it was all good to go for when you came back later – there wasn’t always electricity, so you needed to take advantage of the last vestiges of natural light. After that you’d go back to the main room, and generally wouldn’t come back to your bedroom until it was time to sleep.
We’d always order food as soon as we’d gotten settled in. They haven’t got microwaves here, and everything’s cooked over an open flame, so they collect orders a few hours before dinner time from everyone in the tea house, then get to cooking and serving it up altogether later on.
Sometimes we’d go out for walks around the villages in between settling in and dinner, but they were usually just short walks. It was horrendously cold, you’d been walking all day, and apart from a few bigger places like Namche and Tengboche, there was nothing to see – just a few teahouses, some fields of potatoes and onions, and a couple of grazing yaks. And you could see all those things from inside the tea house – they always had stunning views of the surroundings.
What we did do a lot of was play cards. This is the best tip I can give anyone who’s going to go trekking in Nepal – make sure you know lots of card games (and can explain the rules to others). We didn’t know many, so we just played hours and hours and hours of Shithead and Presidents and Assholes. James tried bringing 500 into the mix, but apart from the two of us, everyone thought it was too complicated – and you can’t play 500 with just two players.
Man, we really got into those card games. There was emotional investment there, and a whole spectrum of anger and despair and joy that you’d experience as a result of winning/losing. I played more card games on that trek than I think I have in the whole rest of my life.
We later graduated onto reading books and writing as well. Em was really good, she’d write every single day about every single thing that had happened, and she’d ask all of us for any details she might have missed. At this point I was reading book 4 of The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan, and The Year I Met You by Cecelia Ahern, which someone else had swapped me for book 3 of The Wheel of Time, and which I later passed onto Ashok to read when I was done.
It was wonderfully chilled; nobody really brings electronics with them because they’re heavy, the cold kills the batteries, and since electricity is scarce, you have to pay whenever you want to charge anything (and it takes ages to charge), so nobody does. Wifi is also incredibly slow and patchy, and again paid for by the hour – and eats up battery life – so you can’t use that either. There’s nothing that you can do except read, write, play cards, and chat – and occasionally do some stretching, meditation or a bit of light yoga.
In the mornings we’d wake up (using our phones and each other as alarms), change into our hiking clothes while still in our sleeping bags (too cold otherwise), pack everything away for the porters to start carrying, then eat the breakfast we’d ordered the night before. Brushing our teeth was always a bit of a challenge – there often wasn’t a sink (see below about the toilet/bathroom situation) so you’d go outside to brush, in a field of yaks, overlooking the mountains, and exposed to the elements. It was freezing but so beautiful that it was almost surreal.
Some days I’d try washing my face, which was an easy way to wake up – the water would freeze over at night, and I’d splash the few drops that had melted onto my face, gasp in shock, and promptly bury my face in my towel to get feeling back into it again. I shrieked a lot while doing this but the yaks seemed completely unaffected by the noise.
Then you’d pay your bills – for the food – and leave. I started off leaving huge tips, which got smaller as we went along and the prices for some things doubled and tripled. I never found out how much we were actually paying for the tea houses, since that was covered in our tour, but I know that they give you really cheap prices for accommodation under the condition that you have all your meals there. Staying at the tea houses was definitely a unique experience, and I’m so glad that we got to do that rather than having to pitch and sleep in tents the way trekkers used to have to do in the past.
Food and Drink
I thought trekking through remote villages in the Himalayas would be a great way to experience traditional Nepalese food. I was wrong.
It’s not that they don’t have anything Nepalese – you can find dal bhat tarkari, the Nepalese national dish (lentil soup, rice, and curried vegetables) absolutely everywhere, and when you order it, it usually comes in a platter with some achar (pickle) or papadums on the side. All the tea houses do this thing where, if you order dal bhat tarkari, you can eat as many servings as you like without having to pay any more.
Anyway, this would have been an amazing option if not for the fact that I can’t eat lentils because of my Crohns. They also had momos, which are these lovely little dumplings – again, made of wheat, and not something I could eat. However they did usually have a generic ‘veg curry’ or ‘meat curry’ option which was gluten free – and it tasted great! The only downside was that we usually didn’t have enough time for curry at lunch – they said it would take too long.
So what were the other menu options? There was pizza absolutely everywhere, and usually a few different pizza options. I found it strange that there was only ever one type of curry, despite that being traditionally Nepalese, but that there were always numerous different types of pizzas. There were also lots of pastas, and they smelled so good. Then there were naans and rotis and other types of flatbread, noodle dishes, sandwiches, omelettes, potatoes, pancakes, and muesli.
I always had omelettes for breakfasts as that was the only gluten free thing on the breakfast menu. Most of the time I’d go for the more expensive, deluxe option ‘omelettes with veggies’, since my diet was severely lacking in fibre, but when a place advertised ‘veggies’, what they usually meant was onions and potatoes with maybe one tiny little piece of tomato thrown in.
I’d have something potato based for lunch. The options there were usually either hash browns, or potatoes with cheese and veggies. Again, ‘veggies’ here was mostly onions, and the potatoes tended not to have any salt or butter on them, so that the bites where you had lots of cheese on your fork were delicious, but the rest was kind of dry and bland.
I’d always have curry for dinner. It was really frustrating because everyone else could try different things, and they’d always remark on how surprisingly good the pasta or noodles or pizza were. Eating the exact same thing day after day is not fun! I did very occasionally get to indulge in a sherpa stew, although I had to ask for them to make it gluten free, and sometimes they’d agree, putting rice in mine instead of flour to thicken it, while other times they’d refuse.
The other thing that most people don’t expect when trekking to Everest Base Camp is all the desserts on offer along the way. Deep fried Mars bars were a frequent find, although by ‘deep fried’ they meant wrapped in pastry and fried, not battered. There was also custard and cake and rice pudding.
They weren’t by any means great desserts. In fact, they were the kind of desserts I’d expect someone who really couldn’t cook and who had very basic, minimal ingredients and equipment to put together, but given where we were, that did kind of make sense, and after you’ve spent a long day trekking through really difficult terrain, you sometimes just want something sweet to end the day with, even if it’s a bit sub-par.
The annoying thing was that almost every place had the same options on their menus, but there was such a huge variation in what you’d get! One place would make amazing hash browns that were crisp and crunchy on the outside while being fluffy and soft inside, and the whole thing would be covered in melting nak’s cheese dripping tantalizingly down it’s sides, while another place would give you a plate of sloppy potato-ey mush whose only similarity to a hash brown was that they were both made of potatoes.
Em had been really smart, and had bought along lots of packs of food and snacks – including some vacuum sealed ration packs of fruit, which she very kindly shared with me. Here’s another really good piece of advice if you’re doing the EBC trek – bring lots of food with you. Canned/vacuum packed fruit and veggies are a winner, as are canned salmon or tuna.
Some people will tell you that there are shops along the way where you can buy more supplies. I got told this, and I was silly enough to listen. The shops you pass along the trek have a very small selection of items, less than are in my kitchen pantry at any time – remember, after all, that everything you see has to have been carried there by porters. You can usually buy some trekking gear – sunglasses, gloves, trekking poles – but in terms of food you’re much more limited.
Mars and Snickers bars are ubiquitous, as are Pringles – if that’s what you want, you can find them EVERYWHERE while trekking. You might see a pack of Lays, although they’re more rare. Sometimes you can get canned ‘fruit drink’, and on very very rare occassions, you may find canned fruit – but you’ll be paying around 600rs for it – That’s like $8.20 for a small tin of canned fruit! Really not worth it but I bought them sometimes anyway, because getting fibre into my diet was a real concern.
You’d assume that all that trekking would make you really thirsty, but what surprised me constantly was how little water I’d consume – I had to keep reminding myself to drink more. I’m not sure why. It was really useful having both a bottle and a bladder – which I didn’t but others in my group did – because you always had to purify your water, so if you had only a bladder (as I did), you couldn’t drink for half an hour each time you topped up, as you waited for the purifier to work.
Incidentally, on cold nights you would have to sleep with your water inside your sleeping bag to prevent it from freezing. You also had to sleep with all your electronics, every night (and keep them in your inside pockets during the day) because the cold killed the batteries. Essentially what I’m trying to warn you of here, if you decide to do the trek, is that your sleeping bag is going to be very crowded.
Given how cold it was, the other thing I wish I’d done was bought a few different varieties of tea with me. You still get charged for hot water, but this way you can have whatever tea you want. If you’re just drinking black tea, the prices started at 40rs/cup at the start of the trek, and near Everest went up to about 120rs/cup. You drink a lot of tea because it’s so cold and the team helps not only warm you up, but also settle your stomach.
If you’re not just drinking black tea, the other varieties were a lot more expensive. And the worst thing was that ‘black tea’ was a bit unpredictable – sometimes you’d get plain black tea, sometimes you’d get black tea with ginger and cardamom and saturated with sugar. The language barrier meant that sometimes even if you specifically checked that you’d be getting plain black tea, you’d still often end up with the other version, and there would be nothing you could do about it.
Milk was also more expensive, and if you wanted milk in your tea they never just put a few drops in – you either had completely black tea, or you had milk tea, which was tea steeped in milk instead of water, and again absolutely saturated with sugar. Or you could get Sherpa tea, with yak butter in it.
If I could do the trek again – I mean, I could do the trek again, but what I mean is, if I could have changed how I’d done it that first time – I would have bought a couple of green tea, earl grey, English breakfast, Russian caravan, and Rooibos teabags, and my own milk powder. And a thermos flask.
One very cool thing we did get to try was Sea buckthorn Tea. This was AMAZING. It’s a Himalayan variant of the common sea buckthorn, and supposed to have all these health benefits. I don’t know about the health benefits, but I do know that it was DELICIOUS. It was also great hearing about how cultivating sea buckthorn was providing Sherpa families deep in the Himalayas with a sustainable living.
Nobody really told me much about the toilets along the trek, which I resent a little bit because I think this was the most important point that needed addressing, and I kind of feel like my friends let me down because nobody gave me any advice relating to this.
On the first night, we had a toilet in our rooms, but the sinks were outside. I remember thinking that this was a little inconvenient, especially when I had to wake up in the middle of the night to pee and then had to brave the freezing cold winds outside to wash my hands. Little did I realise what luxury I actually had. Just having a sink, anywhere, was to become something I considered the height of privilege!
Everywhere else had shared toilets. Sometimes you had just two toilets shared amongst all the inhabitants of the entire tea house (and keep in mind that vomiting, diarrhoea and constipation were all frequent occurrences), and sometimes they were outdoors toilets. They were never flushing toilets, of course, you had to ‘manually’ flush them yourself.
The water for flushing was not super clean either, and sometimes people used the buckets of water intended for flushing as bins, because there just weren’t bins in any toilets along the way. Pity any girls on their periods, there’s absolutely nowhere to change or dispose of sanitary items along the trek. I had prepared for this by taking the pill and skipping all the sugar ones so that I just didn’t menstruate the entire time I was in Nepal. Which was a very good decision – I’ll never take sanitary bins in bathrooms for granted again.
The other thing was that there was rarely any running water. There also often weren’t any sinks. You would go to the toilet, you’d flush with the water in there, then you’d come out and maybe pour some water from your bottle onto your hands, or use some snow or baby wipes – but most importantly you’d squeeze out a healthy dose of hand sanitizer, and rub that all over your fingers and palms. We went through a LOT of hand sanitiser.
You also needed to bring all of your own toilet paper. If you run out, it’s really expensive to buy on the way, and given how light it is, it’s much better to bring too much toilet paper than too little.
You kind of needed to think about your bowel movements and plan for them. Along the way there aren’t many toilets. When you’d go past little villages, they’d sometimes have outdoor composting toilets, where they’ve literally constructed a tiny box-room on stilts with a hole in the floor, so that when you go, everybody can see what’s coming out of the hole. There’s no way to flush or cover up what you’ve been excreting, so everyone knows what everyone else has been up to.
It’s a bit of a sensory overload at times, but at least it’s really cold, and not really hot – that would smell so much worse! Having said that, you get over the shame and awkwardness of it all very quickly. We’d have long conversations about how our bowels were going, and would often check up on each other ‘have you been able to poo yet?’ ‘Was it too runny this time?’
The worst toilets were at Gorakshep, where they were just filling over. There were two toilets – one was a squat toilet, and one was a commode. The commode was full of water almost up to the brim – brown, thick, sludgy water that was incredibly foreboding in both depth and texture. I did not want to take care of my business over there, being absolutely mortified at the prospect of the inevitable splash back that would occur if I did anything more than pee in a very gentle trickle.
The squat toilet, on the other hand, was usually filling over. I’m not too easily grossed out, but having to go squat over a little mountain of faeces when I was feeling really nauseous was just a bit too much for me to handle. Someone had to come in regularly and clear it up – either shovelling it out or just pouring enough water on it with enough force that it would push it down the pipe. I don’t know who had that job, or how they took care of it, but I am so glad that was not me.
More to Come
If this is sounding less than appealing right now, fear not! There’s more! There was all the wonder and joy of jumping out of a second story window at Gorakshep, having a snowball fight and cartwheeling in the snow en route to Dingboche, watching a helicopter land close by in Namche, and getting dizzy on red wine in Tengboche. But there’s just so much to write about everything I saw and experienced on this trek that I’m afraid most of the good bits will have to come in yet another blog post!
Stay tuned for:
Trekking to Everest Base Camp Part 2.3: The Villages