Trekking to Everest Base Camp Part 2.3: The Villages

Things I did expect when I decided to do the EBC trek: snow, rice, my water freezing over night

Things I didn’t expect when I decided to do the EBC trek: Irish pubs, Reggae Bars, bakeries, raksi

So here’s the thing with doing Everest Base Camp – it’s probably not at all like what you’d expect. I should know – when I was freaking out about having the right gear and clothes (I was in Bulgaria when I decided I should start getting prepped) I did some seriously in depth research into what the trek was going to be like.

I spent ages Googling it in the mornings when I was too cold to get out of bed, I drilled every traveller I met who’d been to Nepal, I made little notes in my book about where you could get free internet (Lukla – see further) and about places to visit (the monastery at Tengboche – also noted below), and yet – and yet – I was completely unprepared. Because do you know what nobody – not one single person, or website – told me? That there is an Irish pub on the way to Everest!!!

So, in the interest of spreading the truth and knowledge and all those other lofty goals, I thought I’d write a little bit more about some of the villages we passed on the way, and the things we saw/did/ate there.

Of course, a lot of these villages have been around for centuries, and have a much richer culture and history than what I’ll cover here. But I’ll write more about all of that in my next blog post!

Phakding

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Phakding was where we spent our first night on the trek. It was a night of many new experiences. Here’s some key things I learned that you too may find useful if you ever do the EBC trek:

  • You only ever get given one key per room, even if there are two of you sharing. This key does not unlock a door either – it unlocks a padlock. The door does not stay closed except when padlocked shut.
  • If ‘boiled potatoes’ are on a Nepalese menu, they literally mean boiled potatoes. Just boiled potatoes. No salt, no pepper, no butter, no cheese, no nothing. There’s also a high chance that they will be both cold and unpeeled.
  • The walls are thin enough that you can hear a fart from the next room. We also had individual toilets in our rooms (but no faucets) so you can also hear everyone else going about their business. Yes, I do mean that kind of business.
  • Other things that you can also hear through the very thin walls are the two English guys a few rooms down discussing whether they should shave their balls and whether they would like to get a blowjob from a female friend of both of theirs named Natalie. We ran into those boys the next afternoon, recognized them from their voices, and asked them whether they’d taken the razor to their privates or not. They were not expecting this question.
  • Reggae bars exist in every corner of the world. Or at least – one exists in Phakding, and it has a pool table in the middle of the room, momos on the menu, and shisha available from the bar. It also happens to be an ideal place to meet monks and has it’s own Facebook page.
  • There are a lot of bakeries here – but be careful because sometimes you’d walk in and there’d just be swarms of flies everywhere. The locals don’t mind – they’re semi-immune to a lot of the bacteria carried by the flies (something I got told later when I was in hospital) – but it gets a lot of the unsuspecting travellers, who then have to spend the next day running from toilet to toilet.

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Namche Bazaar

Namche, I’d read on Wikipedia before going there, was the most expensive place in Nepal. I guess in terms of cities that could be true, but the trek just gets more expensive the further you go in, so Namche doesn’t seem too bad compared to the villages you pass later on.

The cool thing about Namche is that you can get everything there! Well not everything, but everything you need for the trek. There’s some proper stores, like the Sherpa Gear House, where you can buy really high quality, fully legit gear for a lot more money than I’d carried with me on the trek, or there are a lot of little stalls and less formal stores where you can pick up cheaper knock off ones that aren’t so compact but still really warm.

Some of us had frozen the first night – it’s insanely cold at night and they don’t always give you blankets or even have enough blankets for everyone – so when we got to Namche, we all bought thermal blankets and duvet socks. This was an amazing investment because there’s nothing worse than shivering a night away – especially with cold feet – and there’s nothing quite so lovely as having wonderfully toasty toes.

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Duvet socks, incidentally, are these strange things that I’d never heard of or seen previously until just before the trek in Kathmandu, when a guy named Rasmus (from Denmark) was wearing some. They look ugly and ridiculous and you kind of question the sanity of anyone wearing them until you start trekking and realise what a godsend they are. If you’re prone to cold feet, you NEED to get a pair of these.

Namche also had a blues bar and an Irish pub. Of course. Where in the world can you go and escape Irish pubs? The blues bar also had movies playing some evenings, and was the only place along the trek that you could get fresh  (really, really expensive) fruit juice. It also has free internet, but they only give you the password if you buy something. As opposed to every single other place along the trek, however, once you get that password, you are sweet – you can use the net for as long as you like.

This is a great tip because everywhere else along the way you get charged per half an hour. I, sadly, did not discover this until the way back, when we stopped by and I got a drink and managed to use the internet for all of two minutes (long enough for Facebook messages to feed to my phone but not for me to reply – I didn’t say it was good internet) but you, dear readers, are now forewarned and could take advantage of this for longer were you to end up in Namche, if you so desired.

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Namche’s not huge; you can walk from one end to the other and visit pretty much every single place there in about an hour and a half. My favourite was a gorgeous little art gallery that didn’t mind that Em and I were too poor to buy anything and let us go upstairs to where one of the artists was painting elaborately detailed canvases to watch him at work. Also of note was an itsy bitsy library ‘Khumbu International Library‘ – which, if you carry any books with you and finish reading them, you should totally donate said books to!

There’s also a place where you can get an expensive massage (think Aussie prices), and a lot of bakeries and cafes which looked great but which you can’t really eat at unless you’re planning on having more than three meals a day – all the teahouses we slept at stipulated that we had to eat there too, or pay substantially more.

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Close to Namche is the Sherpa Cultural Museum, which is pretty cool. It’s small, which I think is important for museums – I never have the attention spans for big ones – and they had this great film about Hillary playing. A little bit away from that was a helicopter landing pad, ambitiously called Syangboche Airport. We watched a helicopter land, our guide only telling us at the last moment to duck so that I ended up with a HUGE cloud of dust and debris getting into my eyes and mouth and nose and ears. Pro-tip: keep well away from landing helicopters.

The last important thing you need to know about Namche is that it’s the last place they say you should eat meat (porters carry meat up the mountain on their backs, unrefrigerated), the last place most people shower (you have to pay to shower, but Namche’s got decent bathrooms), and if you’re using it as a base for an acclimatisation day, this is where you want to wash your socks and underwear and hang them out of your window to dry.

Phortse Gaon

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At Phortse Gaon we stayed with a Sherpa named Pasang (really common name in the Himalayas) who’d summited Everest something like 14 times.

That was actually really sad, hearing about the dangers and uncertainty of that. The climb is dangerous, and at the start you have to purchase all the equipment yourself – and of course, most Sherpa families do not have enough money to buy high quality equipment, so they patch things together and try to make do. And you get no money if you don’t summit, regardless of whether that was beyond your control or not. It’s dangerous, and the ones who get the glory are the foreigners who pay to summit, not the Sherpas guiding them and helping carry their gear.

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I read a lot more about this when I got back to Kathmandu and I found some great articles about this – two in the National Geographic, and another in The Guardian.  My favourite was the second Nat Geo one:

The sad fact is that over the years Sherpas and Nepali mountain workers have died so routinely—40 percent of allEverest deaths over the last century—that it’s easy for Western tourists and guiding agencies, Nepali officials, and even some Sherpas themselves to gloss over the loss of any one particular life. Sincere condolences are offered. Inadequate insurance payments are made. Chortens are built, plaques affixed, pictures posted on blogs. And then all parties turn back to the mighty Everest cash machine and the booming business of catering to thousands of foreigners paying small fortunes to stand on the top of the world.

I think that’s important to keep in mind. I’m not trying to make a judgement – I don’t know whether it’s right or wrong, but I think educating yourself about the dangers they face and trying to help out with that at least is important.

Gorakshep

Gorakshep was the worst. All the other villages you stay at are actual settlements that existed long before climbing Everest became a possibility, but Gorakshep exists solely to house travellers on their way to Base Camp. The lodges sit on the edge of a frozen lakebed covered with sand, and they’re the most basic, dirty, and unhomely lodges you’ll see along the whole trek.

The worst part of it is the toilets. The lodge we stayed at had only two – one was a commode, which was full to the brim of murky, smelly liquids. There was no way I was going to risk using that – splashback was guaranteed, and I did not want any of what was in there coming into contact with my skin or clothes. The other toilet was a squatting toilet that, because the water kept freezing over, would end up with a literal mound of human waste protruding from it and at times spreading onto the floor around it. I’m not a princess, but using that toilet was one of the most harrowing experiences of my entire existence.

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To make things worse, I started getting altitude sickness symptoms on the way from Gorakshep to Base Camp, and they didn’t disappear when I got back to Gorakshep either. On the day we got to Base Camp, we all got back to Gorakshep in the evening, had dinner, and retired to bed absolutely exhausted and, for most of us, fairly sick too. The next morning we had the option of climbing to Kala Patar, which we got told was the most painful part of the entire trek that we’d have to wake up super early for so that we could watch the sunrise from the top.

There was no way I was going. I hate giving up or sitting things out, but there’s a point where your head is absolutely killing, your stomach is bloated, you’re gassy and nauseous and you just want to sleep. Which would have been fine, except that remember that point I made earlier on about the rooms only closing with a padlock? Em woke up early to go on the trek and locked me into our room. Which wouldn’t have been the worst thing in the world except for the fact that I desperately needed to pee.

A lot of stupid ideas go through your head when you’re desperate. Could I maybe pee out the window? Too cold, too windy, too impossible to aim and avoid it getting all over me. And I didn’t have a bottle or pads or anything else that was capable of holding or absorbing liquids either! As my bladder threatened to give way, it looked like there was only one option left…. I was going to have to jump out the window or pee my pants.

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We were on the second story. I’m really comfortable jumping out of second story windows usually. It’s not that far to jump, and as long as you’re not an idiot, you won’t hurt yourself too badly. It’s a little different though when the area outside your window is just ice. Ice is not soft or yielding. Ice is slippery. Very slippery. I was not keen on jumping two stories onto shiny, slippery ice.

I looked outside with trepidation and then had another go banging on my door and the walls and calling out for help. There were people who walked past my door, I know – I could hear the footsteps – but nobody stopped or offered assistance. That was it. I gave up, went over to the window, lowered myself so I was hanging off the ledge, and jumped.

Thank goodness I did some cheerleading at uni – I was never very good at it, but at least it taught me to fall safely!

Tengboche

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Tengboche was amazing for a number of reasons:

  1. It is home to a monastery that was originally built in 1923 but that has frequently been destroyed and rebuilt since. My favourite part of the monastery were the dragons guarding it, each with anatomically correct genitalia. Well, anatomically correct is a stretch – check out the photo below though and you’ll see for yourself what I mean.
  2. The monastery also has monks who do daily chanting sessions, which are enchanting and a little mesmerising. I couldn’t last very long there however because they make you go in bare foot. I get respect and all, but I’m not a fan of frostbite, and eventually I couldn’t ignore the cold burn in my toes and had to leave early, mid-chanting.
  3. It’s the first place after Namche where you get good food. It’s the best food all trek in fact! We ordered off menu, and asked for the ‘chicken sizzler’ at Ashok’s suggestion. Best. Decision. Ever. Out came this hot plate with either rice or chips, veggies, and a smoking pile of chicken buried under gravy. After you’ve been living on a diet of mainly rice and potatoes, this is pretty much the equivalent of eating at a Michelin star restaurant. I hadn’t had actual veggies in so long!! Oh dietary fibre, how I missed you!
  4. There was also a bakery with real coffee. This is rare – instant coffee is the norm in the Himalayas, and they seem to think it’s better than real coffee. The bakery had a wide variety of cakes and biscuits too, and no flies – but in case you get too excited, be warned that most of the baked goods in the Himalayas taste like stale microwave cake. They do have very limited ingredients after all.
  5. Wine, glorious wine: we all had a cheeky bevvie at Tengboche to celebrate having made it to Base Camp. What was strange was that even though we all only had one, it really got to our heads – that’s what altitude does to you! It made for a ridiculously funny and entertaining evening at any rate.

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Monjo

Monjo was where we tried raksi.

Is there anywhere you can go in the world that doesn’t have it’s own version of really strong, hard to get down, locally made liquor? I guess Australia doesn’t really.

Dawa and Pemba and Ashok chortled watching us try to choke down the spirits. I found this beautiful description of what raksi is like online:

The finest alcohol is homemade stuff. Raksi is potent, exhilarating, and smooth as velvet; it’s often mistranslated as “wine,” but it’s really grain alcohol. To test for good raksi, toss a small amount on a fire and see if it burns (braver or more drunken connoisseurs will dip their finger into their glass and set it aflame). Different grains produce different flavors: rice raksi is rich and smooth, kodo or millet is stronger and more fiery. Women of a household pride themselves on their liquor, and will put the most effort and time into making raksi for a big celebration like a wedding. At feasts and celebrations it’s poured from the graceful spouted anti into tiny clay cups, an art which tests the grace and skill of the pourer.
– Global Gourmet – Nepal: Liquor

This is a very romantic and misleading description that fails to let you know that drinking raksi feels like what you’d imagine drinking acid and fire would feel like. It burns.

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You know what else happened at Monjo? I got the runs. I got the runs in the middle of the night, and they kept going all the way till the morning. I got the runs at the lodge where there was only one indoor toilet for us all to share, with a very weak flush that couldn’t handle what I was churning out. I got the runs and got my toilet reverie interrupted by poor Andrew who needed to use the bathroom in the middle of the night, waited for me to finish the my current outpoor, quickly ducked in to the befouled bathroom, and quickly ducked out to let me take it back over.Talk about embarrassing.

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I popped pill after pill with no effect until eventually in the morning Ashok gave me some more pills that he had, forced me to eat rice, and finally slowed down my bowels.

I didn’t love my time at Monjo.

Lukla

However, after all of that, I had the most amazing time at Lukla. After a day of eating more or less just rice, and running to the bathroom at every chance I got, we got to Lukla, and I got to eat chicken chilli at the Starbucks. No affiliation with the actual Starbucks chain of course, but who’s going to prosecute out here?

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There was free internet at the Starbucks (which I didn’t use because my phone was dead, but the others did and spread the news about what was happening in the rest of the world), we could charge our phones at our lodges, and best of all, we had a banging party.

Every time you finish a trek you generally have a big dinner at Lukla and give your porters their tips and thanks and buy them a meal and lots of drinks and it’s pretty nice. We went one step further, comandeered the sound system, and started skanking to drum & bass! I’m proud to say that Em, James and I totally got the dance floor started (and danced the most). We even got the other people there joining in – most enthusiastically of all, so did all the Nepalis, who drank like they’d never get to drink again.

The highlight of the night was probably when James literally stole a cake from this foursome who had evidently come there to have a quiet, intimate dinner. We eventually apologised and returned it, but only after eating some of it ourselves.

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The next morning was, as you can imagine, painful. After being up so late, we had to wake up super early the next morning, and rush to the airport at literally the crack of dawn, without any food, and then had to wait there for hours before our flight got called. It was a struggle, but that seemed an apt way to end the trip given how many other challenges we’d had to conquer.

What an experience, what a night, and what an amazing feeling to finally be done and get back to clean clothes, regular showers, and real food.

Read More about:

What and How to Pack for Everest Base Camp
Trekking to Everest Base Camp Part 1: Meeting the Group and Flying to Lukla

Trekking to Everest Base Camp Part 2.1: Trekking
Trekking to Everest Base Camp Part 2.2: Teahouses, toilets, food and drink
Trekking to Everest Base Camp Part 2.3: The Villages

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