Destination Issue 87 Jul, 2010
Text and Photo By Rabi Thapa

At Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport awhile back, when I saw all those tourists headed to Kathmandu, I wondered why so many of them were ready-pressed and dressed like they were sprinting up the mountains the moment they stepped out into the fresh air, instead of taking a cab to Thamel and its cheap wonders.

It’s places like Gokyo, that’s why. The nine-day Gokyo trek along the Dudh Kosi valley near Mt Everest is hardly as isolated as my 1997 Lonely Planet guidebook led me to imagine, but the wilderness is still out there, as magnificent as anything you could dream about.

Day 1. Kathmandu to Lukla to Phakding
After a slow start in Kathmandu’s domestic air terminal, heaving with three days worth of tourists, we considered ourselves lucky to be off just two hours behind schedule. We squidged ourselves onto the wrong side of the plane (for mountain views, that is), but there ain’t much that can beat the thrill of spearing through the hills to the Lukla airstrip rushing up to meet you at an angle designed to slow you down before you hit the town, quite literally.

We enlisted a porter for my sister, but I’m an incorrigible DIY guy when trekking, and opted to carry my own. Then, and off we went, up and down the sunny mountainside along a broad, busy trail prettied up with painted mani walls and prayer-carved stones. The rippled grey symmetry of Kongdé Peak (6086m, 19,967ft) rising to the left of the suitably chalky Dudh Kosi river promised much, and down by the Saino Lodge & Restaurant at Thado Khola we caught our first sight of a classic Himalayan peak in its perennial coat of blinding white—Kusum Khangkaru (6370m, 19,806ft). It seemed an awful long way off and up.

After leaving Lukla, it was a short, easy day to Phakding, which suited us just fine. Forty-five minutes by plane, three hours on foot, and we were a world away from the bluster of Kathmandu. We were in the Khumbu.

Day 2. Phakding to Namché Bazaar
Trekking in Nepal is tough love, no question. Thousands must have been fooled into thinking the famed Everest Base Camp trek a doddle after their first day. Hiking up from Jorsalé to Namché Bazaar the next day puts most in their place.

I was more surprised by the sheer numbers populating the trail. Were we really out of the Capital, I wondered, as we strode past files of octogenarian Japanese tourists and weaved our way around mini yak caravans. Views of Thamserku’s (6618m, 21,713ft) serrated, ragged glory and the blue-grey confluence of the Dudh Kosi with the Bhoté Kosi notwithstanding, I couldn’t help but wish I was further along the road to Gokyo.

I was somewhat mollified at the packed entrance post to Sagarmatha National Park, where I exercised the local privilege of jumping the queue, not needing (as a local) to be in one at all. But after a long, hot slog soothed only by a brief, thrilling first sight of Everest peeking out from behind some pines, Namché Bazaar seemed to offer little in the way of ambience in its spread of multi-storeyed blue-green-red roof hotels and Thamelesque tourist tat, replete with the Om Mani Padme Om soundtrack.

Although this famous Sherpa village at 3440m (10,958ft) has moved with the times, as any trading post must do, it continues to court ambition, desire and fulfilment. We wandered through the weekend market, where the pained, sweaty visages we’d passed on the trail were to be seen smiling behind wares lugged over from Jiri, a week’s walk. Further along the China market sprawled in technicoloured heaps, unspooled from yak backs. Coffee and pastries at the original Hermann Helmer’s Bäckerei und Conditorei, stacked with rows and rows of loaves, did wonders for us. There’s no denying the drama of Namché’s surrounds either, confirmed by a short uphill stroll to the army post with its marvelous views of the peaks of Ama Dablam, Lhotse, Nuptse, Everest and Pumori. And the excellent yak cheese and tongba (millet beer) at the friendly Namaste View Lodge will make sure the chill doesn’t get to your bones.

Day 3. Namché Bazaar to Dholé
Having dispatched my sister back to Lukla (as she had planned), I was now on my own. There’s nothing so liberating as an extended solo ramble through the mountains when you can start and stop as you like, which means something on a frozen Khumbu morning!

That said, the first evening on my lonesome offered ample opportunity for somewhat unwholesome reflections. I was alone in a crowd. Post-prandial high-altitude flatulence aside, as a Nepali trekker I was the odd one out. But I had nothing to complain about. Soon after a fresh, sunshiney start from Namché the route split off to Gokyo. I headed left up to Mong, scattering raucous blood pheasants before me, relishing the first clear views of the jewel that is Ama Dablam and the approaching Everest panorama. Then a dusty scramble down to Phortsé Thanga and a bowl of noodles before a dogged climb up through forests to Dholé at 4110m (13,484ft), facing the emergent massifs of Thamserku and the saddle mountain Kantega (6783m, 22,254ft), golden in the dying light. I’d made excellent ground.

Day 4. Dholé to Macchermo
A slow community was forming this second day out from Namché, moving en masse to our destination, meeting and greeting on the trail before dispersing over the few lodges that awaited us. There was none of the jostling anonymity we’d kicked off from Lukla with. I took it easy, hanging back with a friendly Spanish group to admire the giant whose slipstream we were entering. Rooted to the sienna scrub, we traced the grey serpent of the glacier down in the valley leading to the white massif framed by the deepest blue, Cho Oyu (8201m, 26,906ft).

Setting our bags down in a busy, sunny lodge in Macchermo at 4470m (14,665ft), we pushed up to a ridge to acclimatise and stood enthralled at the view. Old hoary Everest popped out of our panorama, resplendent in its pyramidal, defiantly unsnowed glory.

Day 5. Macchermo to Gokyo and Gokyo Ri
Stunned euphoria is how I would describe my state as I sat alone–blissfully alone–amongst the three-score loudly babbling trekkers scarfing down their dinner in the Gokyo Resort. Cut off from their expectations of the morrow, I floated in my own weary bubble of satisfaction.

Words can’t quite convey the spirit of the Gokyo Ri panorama from Cho Oyu to Thamserku as it moved through shades of gold, pink and violet above the long grey smear of the Ngozompa glacier running parallel to a chain of perfect turquoise lakes. But neither can photos. Much of what made the view is lost in translation. It was in the long, tough trudge to the top. It was in the anxiety of seeing mists cottoning up the valley and wondering if the view would be gone by the time I inched from 4700m to 5355m (17,569ft). It didn’t happen. It all lay before me as I clambered happily onto the rocks strewn with prayer flags to join the half-dozen intrepids already there. It was the sublimation of all that had gone before.

Gokyo may well be in the path of a future glacial lake burst of disastrous proportions. For the time being, however, it is thriving, and I was lucky to get a room. I thank the Gokyo Resort’s unassuming owner Surendra Sharma for that, as well as the best food since I left home: an experimental Thai special fried rice with cashews and coconut bits for dinner, and tasty, substantial hash browns and eggs for breakfast.

Day 6. Gokyo to Thoré
After a listless morning lit up only by the crackles and crunches of the glacier as it poured down its millennial tread from Cho Oyu, the trip felt as if it were winding down. I wasn’t tired, but I’d had my fix. I wondered at the numbers of enthusiastic trekkers who, liberated from their backpacks, figured they’d squeeze in two five-and-a-half-thousand-metre climbs in a fortnight (Everest Base Camp and Gokyo) rather than one in twice the time.

My trek felt done, if only in a physical sense. Now I had the Mani Rimdu festival at  Tengboche monastery to look ahead to. A little cultural extravaganza after all this nature. Wrapped up in my bag in my cold room, I blew plumes through the circle of light cast by my torch.

Day 7. Thoré to Phortsé
I halted at a twist, the trail just above Phortsé, walked onto an outcrop and plonked myself down. Just for the view and all there was in it. Of the terrible, murderously sharp ridges of Thamserku. Of the deep clefts running down to the rivers. Of the mountain’s flanks cloaked in ice, snow, bare rock, scrub and, finally, forest. The meager settlements perched where these ridges eased out, their square gombas (monastery or temple) offering some solace in the midst of such giant wildness.

It was so overwhelming when one paused to really look, how could I have room for the mundane thoughts of the everyday, let alone the abstractions of the future? I just sat there and looked.

Then back down for a hot shower at the big, red-roofed, well-organised Peacefull Lodge in Phortsé. After a week of sticky sleep and smelly socks, I cannot say just how cleansed and liberated I felt.

Day 8. Phortse via Tengboche to Namché Bazaar
After a foolish detour from Phortsé that had me backtracking from Pangboché (and rewarded with gorgeous full frontals of Ama Dablam), I got to Tengboché past midday. I pushed into the jam-packed monastery courtyard, where the masked dances of Mani Rimdu unfolded one by one. As the venerables presided with chants, drums, cymbals and longhorns, skeletons and demons took their turn to dip and twirl across the flagstones.

A plate of sour curd and an assortment of free snacks later, a fearsome octet emerged to solemn blares. Bhairab-like demons, wide-eyed ghouls with huge, carved grins and blind-eyed horrors arrayed in fantastic robes and armed with voodoo dolls, a half-skull, spears and knives, were about their business when whooomphh! A sigh of horror sprang up from the very stones and we turned to see a lanky white-haired tourist splayed out on the ground, the women and children shrinking away as if he were an abomination. He’d fallen 10 feet from the balcony into the courtyard. While he lay fainting the demons danced and I watched horrified, a chill in me. The dancers turned to look; they were human after all. Eventually, the unfortunate sat up with a cup of tea, and nervous laughter broke out. All was well. I left soon after for Namché.

Day 9 & 10, Namché Bazaar to Lukla to Kathmandu
And back again. Nothing special to note except that I was in a hurry and had no time for the slow-moving yaks and trekkers going both ways on the trail. It was a long, sweaty day back down to Lukla. Last night in the Himalayas, cheered the banners inviting returnees to parties. All I wanted was to get back home.

The next morning was as smooth as silk. On a signal the chosen scampered down to the tarmac where they were pushed onto the plane (“Quickly please”, urged the stewardess). I’d barely got my belt tightened before we were on-air, and (those of us on the right side this time) admiring the view we’d just spent the last fortnight trekking through. An hour later we skimmed down through the blanket of fog that was the Kathmandu valley. The dirty ramshackle familiarity of my hometown grinned crookedly up at me.

At ground level, I could make out a near-translucent Langtang Himal above and behind the hazy northern contours of the Valley. A world away, once again. The Himalaya may as well have remained a mirage for me, had I not known the dust of the trails that thread around its fresh valleys of ice and snow, and the cold, and much, much more.

Rabi Thapa is a freelance writer and editor. He runs The Last Word, an editorial company based in Kathmandu, and NepaliKukur, a local guide to Nepal. For more sniffs about the country, log onto http://nepalikukur.wordpress.com. Rabi can be contacted at rabithapa@gmail.com.