It’s a great feeling to wake up in Phakding, walk into the lodge, get a hot cup of masala tea, and realize that the uncertainty associated with the Lukla flight is over. The next 8 days we’ll spend hiking up to Imja Lake. The reason it takes so long is we’ll be going from 2,860 m at Lukla to 5,000 m at Imja Lake. We’ll trek for two days and then take a day of rest to get acclimated, which means tomorrow will be a rest day in Namche. As for today, we began our first substantial climb.
The first stop on today’s trek was a tea break about an hour and a half in. One of the benefits of hiking along the Everest Base Camp trail is there are a constant supply of tea houses. We always stop at this one tea house that has a beautiful view of Thamserku on one side and a beautiful waterfall on the other. For the most part of today’s hike, the mountains were in the clouds, but we got to get a quick glimpse of Thamserku as the clouds briefly parted over tea. Views like this really bring to life the grandeur of the trail and definitely feed one’s excitement!
Next up was a brief stop at Jorsale for lunch before the first large uphill of the trek that brings us to Namche. It was fairly windy this afternoon, which made the top bridge that crosses the Imja Khola a bit interesting! The benefit of wind is that the prayer flags that line the bridges are out in full display. The 600 m climb to Namche is filled with switchbacks. Along the way you pass many porters because they are carrying huge loads of beer and other goods that typically weigh between 50 – 80 kg (yes, that’s right kg…). I was carrying 5 kg in my daypack and still going slow. Needless to say they are incredibly impressive. The donkeys and japkyos (a mix between a cow and a yak, which are suited for lower altitudes, 3000 m, that yaks cannot withstand) move a bit faster, so they provide plenty of opportunities to move out of their way and take a break. All in all, the uphill took 1.5 hrs and we arrived at 1:30 p.m. Namche is a beautiful community with wonderful people built into the side of the mountain. Our rest day tomorrow will provide a nice opportunity to stop by various shops and catch up with them. For now, it’s nice to give the legs a break and get a good night’s sleep.
Namche, or Namche Bazaar, serves as the location of our first acclimatization day. As the name indicates, Namche is full of shops and every Saturday morning there is a big market. Over the years, I’ve seen quite a number of changes in Namche as new cafes are constantly popping up, they now serve a craft beer called Sherpa (it’s a very light kolsch), and over the last 6 months they’ve built a new entrance into the village. The old entrance was at the center-most, lowest point in the village right next to a beautiful stupa that was lined by mani-wheels around its base. Unfortunately, the stupa received a good deal of damage from the earthquake, along with many of the buildings in the village, and supposedly the funds are not available to rebuild it yet. Nonetheless, Namche is a site to behold and during clear skies one has a wonderful view of Kongde Ri.
The saying goes “hike high, sleep low” for getting acclimated, so typically on past treks we’ve hiked up to Everest View Lodge. The hike is about an hour one-way and, as one may guess, has a beautiful view of Everest. My dad would likely call it a “blue blaze” as it’s a nice side-trail that helps one get acclimated. Unfortunately for us, today has been full of fog and clouds, so there’s not much to look at. Therefore, we ended up using our morning to visit the Sherpa Culture Museum and the Sagamartha National Park Museum. These two museums were a great treat stocked with a great deal of information of the culture, the land, and past expeditions. We spent ~2.5 hrs between the two museums, but there was plenty of content to stay much longer. One of the most fascinating displays/rooms was the documentary room, which was chalked full of articles and pictures of those who summited Everest and original newspaper articles documenting the expeditions back to the 50’s. Pretty cool stuff!
The afternoon was spent writing codes and doing research while I’m still connected to wifi. In the end, it was a quite productive day, but once again it’s barely 7:30 p.m. and I’m ready for a good night’s sleep. We haven’t seen the sun all day, but it has become completely dark. Hiker midnight as my dad would say. It’s been a good day, but looking forward to moving along tomorrow with hopefully some friendlier skies!
Fortunately for us after my last entry the weather began to change – the rain stopped and the clouds slowly broke up. I took the opportunity to take a little walk to scope out a few shops around the hotel and shortly thereafter I felt the ground suddenly shake! The 4.7 earthquake was over in a few seconds and all the shop owners ran into the street to make sure everything was alright. I guess small aftershocks are still quite common in the city. I returned to the hotel to a nice surprise – flights from Lukla ended up coming after all and some colleagues from Leeds were on the plane! They had just completed fieldwork on the Khumbu, where they’re doing some great work, so it was great to catch up over dinner.
I woke up this morning and immediately took a peak outside hoping for clear skies only to find anything but. It looked like it was going to rain and when we got to the airport that’s exactly what it did. On past trips, I haven’t had the best of luck flying out to Lukla (which is fine I’d rather be safe), but this had the feeling of waiting around until noon before returning to the hotel and trying again tomorrow. Hence, I was very surprised when we boarded the 20-person plane in the rain and took off shortly thereafter! The first 6 minutes, and yes I know it was 6 minutes because I was anxiously checking my watch, was a complete white-out. We were flying in the clouds and you couldn’t see a thing. Fortunately, shortly thereafter the clouds broke up and we safely landed in Lukla 20 minutes later. I guess it wouldn’t be a typical flight to Lukla if there wasn’t a little excitement! Lukla’s runway has a fairly significant grade such that incoming planes slow down faster and outbound planes pick up speed to take-off. The runway is quite short and carved into the side of the mountain. It’s an impressive sight, but with its reputation of one of the world’s most dangerous airport it’s always nice to plant two feet on the ground.
Shortly thereafter we began our trek to Phakding, which is only about 3 hours away and mostly downhill. After a nice big plate of fried rice, I took a few hours of rest and could barely keep my eyes open. Now I’m relaxing in the lodge hearing an eclectic mix of American music (from Shakira to Backstreet Boys to 50 Cent) coming from the kitchen as I eagerly await a nice hardy meal of dal baht. My dad always ends his AT journal entries with a short and sweet statement of how grateful or lucky he feels; in similar fashion, I couldn’t be more grateful for the safe flight out of Lukla and feel incredibly lucky to be working out here for the next month. Let the trek begin.
Word on the street is that no flights have come or gone from Lukla the last couple days due to poor weather, so the airport is likely piling up with people. This shouldn't be too surprising as the end of May marks the transition into the monsoon season, where clouds and precipitation are common, but I'm hopeful that we'll get our trek started tomorrow.
The lousy weather means we've taken our last day in Kathmandu to relax, chat with one another, and get a bit of work done. This morning Milan Shrestha, our colleague on this project from ASU, gave us a terrific overview of the social science work he's prepared to conduct in the field. Research in the mountains provides a remarkable backdrop, but it's very important to maintain an understanding of who this work is meant to assist. We try to meet with community members and organizations as frequently as possible while we're in the field and in Kathmandu, but I'm excited to see Milan taking things many steps further than we ever could! It's great to be working with him and his team. Fingers crossed for a change in weather and a smooth flight out to Lukla tomorrow!
After only getting 8 hours of sleep in a seated position over the last two days, it felt wonderful to rest horizontally. I woke up feeling refreshed and hopefully have already put the jet lag to rest. After breakfast, we had a brief meeting in the morning with Dhananjay to get a few supplies (e.g., replacing that missing battery from Barcelona!) and met with a few people from the Department of Hydrology and Meteorology to discuss integrating the data we plan to collect with some of there's. Working in the mountains can be difficult due to the remote location and sometimes harsh weather, so opportunities to collaborate are very beneficial. Fortunately, all our preparation for the trip seems to be paying off. Besides a few minor pieces of equipment, everything is ready to go, so we were able to take a bit of time to explore the city.
I find Kathmandu to be a large mixture of excitement and chaos blended with areas of beauty and serenity. One of the first things you learn is that the car horn seems to be their most common form of communication. You quickly get used to being honked at by every passing car - it's their way of saying "as long as you don't make any sudden movements in front of me, we'll both go right along on our way". We started our walk in Thamel (the first photo above), which is made up of narrow streets that are lined with shops for tourists. Here you can find a plethora of trekking gear, yak wool blankets, scarves, paintings, prayer flags, crafts, souvenirs, guide/adventure companies… pretty much anything you can think of, you can find in this market. It's important to keep your head up though because down little allies between these shops are various shrines and stupas that provide areas of respite from those friendly honking cars and a beautiful look into the culture of Nepal.
As you continue through Thamel, the tourist shops slowly shift into more local ones. Instead of souvenirs, you'll find brass and copper pots and pans, clothing, fabrics, fresh fruit, spices, and more common goods. We continued on to our final destination, Hanuman-dhoka Durbar Square. This square is filled with ancient temples and shrines that were built between the 12th and 18th centuries. Sadly, these historic buildings were among those that were heavily damaged by the earthquake last year. On the ground surrounding these pagodas were intricately carved pieces of wood that appeared to have fallen down. Other sites were simply a pile of rubble with a shocking image of the before and after. Many of the buildings that did survive were supported by wooden stilts or in the process of being reconstructed. I hope that reconstruction efforts go well because this area provides a beautiful glimpse into the history of Nepal and is certainly a sight to cherish.
Hard to believe that 5 days ago I was hooded and celebrating the completion of my PhD with family and friends and now I'm already on the other side of the world, settled into Hotel Tibet in Kathmandu, Nepal. I flew east this time from Austin - Atlanta - Barcelona - Doha - Kathmandu for a grand total of 36 hours including layovers. This was a new route for me as we typically fly west through Tokyo and Bangkok, but I'll be taking a couple weeks off after this trip to celebrate in Belgium and Spain, so it was most convenient to fly through Europe.
Unfortunately, the security at the Barcelona airport wasn't too thrilled by the quantity of lithium batteries I had in my carry-on luggage. It was only 16 CR2 batteries, 2 laptop batteries, 4 smaller batteries for the dGPS, and a 12V battery for the GPR and sonar system (for those of you who may be wondering what those acronyms mean - I'll detail them a bit when the time comes that we use them in the field). Anyways, this meant I had to leave the terminal, drop off the 12V battery, and go back through security. The good news was that I had plenty of time, so this was not an issue. I actually had so much time during my 10-hour layover that I went into Barcelona for lunch, so all in all I'd say Barcelona was a success. We'll be able to purchase a new battery in Kathmandu, so no harm done.
Being back in Nepal feels wonderful. I’ve already had lunch with Dhananjay, who runs the Himalayan Research Expedition, i.e., our trekking company that takes care of everything: transportation, lodging, meals, permits, carrying our equipment, and man power in the field. You name it and they’ll make it happen. They allow us to focus solely on our research and without their support we would accomplish very little, so a big thanks to them before our trek even begins! We’ll spend the next couple days here in Kathmandu, where we’ll have a few meetings, get all our gear in order, and work on kicking this jet lag. It’s going to be a great trip.