Last Day in Kathmandu

IMG_2807IMG_2809IMG_2801IMG_2783October 30th

I have been spending my last couple of days with my hosts – Nima and Suku Sherpa here in Boudha, Kathmandu. Their son Kelshan has also been helping our team with logistics and their daughter is now here through December. She has been living in Dallas and just finished her Masters there. Her boyfriend opened a Tibetan restaurant in Toronto a couple of years ago – she will be joining him there after her stay at home. They will be getting married this year.

It is part of the Nepali culture to treat your guests as family – guests get served first and are totally prioritized in every way during their stay. I cannot say enough about my time here.

Suku’s family has a long history here in Boudha – her grandfather was once the head Llama here in the center of Buddhism in Kathmandu. The land where the famous nearby Stupa was built was owned by her family. Both Suku and Nima have influencial family ties. Most of the Lodges where we have stayed during our trekking time here are owned by relatives. One of Nima’s cousins is an owner in the up and coming Sherpa brand of outdoor clothing which is based in Seattle – the products are produced here in Nepal. Elias and Bridget have developed close ties with the family. Nima, Suku and their daughter visited them in Ashford when they were last in the US.

I have learned a few things about the culture here during my stay with them. Suku’s mother had 8 daughters (including Suku) with Suku’s father but because she had not had a son, he took a second wife and had another family with her including a son. It is a custom in this culture because of the importance of having a son to carry on the family name. Suku’s mother lives nearby and is now 80 – her father lives with his second wife and just turned 81. The two families remain very close and get together for holidays and events.

Sons have priority in the family, especially the eldest. Daughters often, by custom, will return home after schooling to help with household chores, until they are married. Their careers are secondary. This is changing in the upper and middle classes but not so in the general classes of society. Nima’s daughter has been enlightening me – she is very bright and engaging.

I have been spending time walking around the Stupa. Nima walks around it (always in a clockwise direction) each morning, as part of his meditation and intoning a mantra. Many others are there at that early time of day before the shops open and tourists arrive. Suku gets up everyday around 530 and goes on a 90 minute walk as part of her health regiment. She also serves her family a very healthy diet much in the way that organic foods and free range sources of protein have become important in our culture. Nima has diabetes and problems with high blood pressure which does run in his family.

Lonnie, Bridget, and Elias along with climbing Sherpa Furba should now be heading towards Ama Dablam for their very difficult climb of this very technical and difficult mountain. I haven’t heard from them in the last couple of days. Pascale is heading to Island Peak to summit this mountain in the Khumbu with her guide, Dendi. She is heading next to Thailand for an adventure there with climbing and kite-flying ( the type where you are attached and flying yourself).

I have included a few photos from the Stupa. It was damaged in the earthquake and lost its top which is being restored. It will take another couple of years. Also one of the typical electric lines here in Kathmandu and one of a singing bowl shop. The singing bowls are a tool for healing and have different tone for affecting different chakras in the body.

Lukla and the Quiet Life

IMG_2753IMG_2752IMG_2751October 29

I’ve spent the last two days here in Lukla and will do so again tomorrow. I’m scheduled to fly out to Kathmandu on the 31st. It didn’t take long to take in the town, fill in all the blanks and find myself looking inward for adventure. I started on the latest Louise Penny novel, The Nature of the Beast, which I had loaded onto the computer from iBooks before I left home. Louise now lives in Quebec (I believe) but had once resided in Thunder Bay where my friends, Nikki Burns and Bob Symons had become acquainted with her. Since that time she has had a whole series of best selling novels based around her main character Inspector Gamache and a small Canadian village just north of Vermont called Three Pines. The problem of having your book on the computer here is that there are almost never any electric plug-ins in your room or even in the main rooms in the Lodges where you can keep plugged in. Of course, the computer battery life doesn’t get you all that far into the meat of the novel. It’s been raining since yesterday afternoon, cancelling flights and just cold enough to make hiking in the wet pretty uncomfortable.

Fortunately I have been entertained by four fellow travelers who are waiting for the same thing I am – a flight out. Two of them are retired British Special Forces personnel, another a professional photographer and the other a young woman who has been teaching English in a Gompa (monastery) just off the route up to Everest Base Camp. The photographer and the younger former soldier both live in Saudi Arabia – whatever they are doing there has not been explained to me, the other retired soldier has now made his home on the South Island of New Zealand and spends quite a bit of the year traveling. The younger ex-soldier loves his beer, has a very outgoing personality and now has the distinction of coming down from just below Everest Base Camp on the back of a horse (maybe mule?) He had come down with a bad respiratory infection and just couldn’t do the trek – their guide had suggested finding such an animal to get him down and $150 later here he is. The horse trip provided much of the humor early on in the conversations and then we found no lack of other topics to keep things lively. They were all scheduled for flights today and now had to retrieve their bags for tonight and hope that we will awaken to clearer skies.

Before the bad weather had set in, I had taken a couple of trips to what I believe is referred to as a Gonda above town. The prayer flags identified the small building as having religious significance and I walked around it a few times before I could see the golden Buddha behind the glass facing down onto Lukla. The glass front of the building was on the steep side and it was difficult to see the Buddha statue until I resorted to my tip-toes and even then the glare made it difficult to get a great view. He was obviously not there for with the intention of being a model for my iPhone camera. I did get some photos looking through the tangle of prayer flags and one of the glass distorted view of this golden icon. This Gonda is out of the way and doesn’t appear to be frequently visited.

I also just met a good friend of Elias – a fellow guide from Washington state whose guiding trip to Cho Oyu was cancelled when the Chinese pulled all the climbing permits for some political reason. His name is Mike and he guides mountains in many corners of the world. There are a lot of people stacked up in this little town tonight due to the weather and lack of flights.

I just got emails from both Lonnie and Pascale. Elias, Bridget, Lon, Pascale and Furba have gotten back to Namche Bazaar and will spend some time eating and sleeping after the climb of Kyajo Ri. It’s snowing there now.

My sleep may be late coming tonight with a group of Japanese dancing downstairs to what must be Japanese pop music!

Travel to Lower Altitudes

IMG_2736IMG_2747IMG_2740October26 & 27

I left Namche on the morning of the 26th with a porter that my host at the Thawa Lodge found for me. She termed him as an emergency porter and asked me if I would pay him a little more as he needed money to repair his home. What we are talking about here is $20 US rather than the customary amount of $15 per day. Not a hard decision for me. I learned that he was 55 years old and well known in the area. He would meet me at the Thawa at 830 am ready for the two day trek.

It was hard to leave my friends at the Thawa – they were very good to me and we had nice chats every evening.
When I left she presented me with a long red silk scarf with Tibetan symbols and prayers. It was much like the one the llama had blessed me with only much more colorful and of a higher quality. I got hugs from her and her sister and off I went with my new friend, Chel Dim the porter. He had a ready smile and many people to greet, but like all of us at a certain age, the trek was certainly harder for him now than in his earlier life. I was in no hurry and appreciative of his help so we moved along at a comfortable pace and rested often.

Stopping at the same lodge in Phakding as on the trek up- the Mountain Resort, I found there was only two other guests, an attractive Italian woman perhaps In her mid-thirties and her young Sherpa guide. Their porter was staying elsewhere. Chel Dim is from Phakding so he stayed at his home.

At dinner we had a nice time talking about traveling, her home on Lake Como and the young Sherpa’s just south of Lukla. She is an architect working in Switzerland and had traveled through many of the same places in Argentina that I had. The Sherpa teased her about all the stopping for photographs on the trek from Lukla. A pleasant evening. She is on her way up towards Everest basecamp .

There was no internet working in Phakding but in these lower altitudes I slept well and long. The next day’s trek to Lukla was more uphill but we got there early – around 11am, and after seeing Passang and settling into the Sherpa Lodge. I got on the internet.

I had just received the great news from Pascale’s satellite spot which includes the ability to send messages that Lonnie, Elias, Bridget and Furba had just summitted Kyajo Ri at 6184m! Next they will be attempting Ama Dablam but for now it’s time to celebrate this mountain. Check One World Endeavors for more details as they come in.

I’m dining with people I met along the trail yesterday and hoping not to insult my host as we are going to another restaurant where they serve red wine. They serve Chang at my Lodge. Sent from my iPhone

I’ve included a photo of the women sifting cracked corn to get the smallest pieces to mix with rice and make Chang – a type of homemade alcoholic drink served here at the Sherpa Lodge. Also one of mani stones along the trail from Phakding and one of the runway here. We are looking downhill – on the other side of the fence where I am standing it says in big letters “STOP HERE”. That is reassuring. It is a steep cliff mountainside where you see the runway end (or begin) depending on which way you are traveling).

Base Camp for Kyoja Ri

IMG_2694IMG_2676IMG_2683IMG_2672October 23

Today we started up to establish base camp for the climb of Kyoja Ri which took us on a route that was new to me. We climbed past the Gomba above town that I had visited early, then headed on the main trail towards Thamel. We didn’t get started until 9 for various reasons and it was a difficult steep push until it dropped to cross the river then up again sharply on the other side. Elias, Lonnie, Bridget and Furba were the climbers on this 6126 meter peak, I was planning on spending one night at base camp then heading back down and Pascale was to go as high as the advanced base camp. Dendi and the porters were turning around once they reached base camp to head back down.

As we approached a remote Gompa, the Towuda Gompa, it had become obvious to Elias and Furba that we could not reach base camp with the porters having any time to retreat back down to shelter before evening. Dendi and the porters had no sleeping bags, tents, etc for staying up high. So we pulled into the Gompa and Furba negotiated shelter and meals for us all there. For me this was a lucky break – getting to spend time at a real remote monastery and spend time with the llamas residing there. They had a six room little motel like unit below the monastery where most of us were housed and also some quarters above the colorful main building. We were to receive dinner and breakfast plus lodging for 3000 NRupees apiece ($30 US). But first things first, it was tea time at the Gompa! We all gathered in a dining room similar to those of the teahouses which was adjacent to the kitchen and enjoyed the sun filtering in as well as one of the llamas who spoke English flawlessly. As an added bonus a young Swedish woman sat down with us. She was spending 2 weeks at this remote site meditating for 7 hours each day in a cave just behind the group of buildings. Her name is Sarah and she is a Human Resource manager in her home country. Very interesting to talk with, she gave us a tour of the cave and explained some of the rituals she followed in her meditation.

The view from the Gompa yard was spectacular. I wandered the grounds then rested before dinner. We were served the traditional Dal Bhat with as many servings as you wanted. After we had had our fill, Bridget organized a game of charades with the Llama as the master of ceremonies. What a hoot! The porters, plus Dendi and Furba against us westerners. The sherpas had never heard of this game before but soon there was laughter in every corner of the room. Only Bale, one of our porters was too shy to act out his word – he ran into the other room and we were all just about rolling on the floor just watching him. A great ending to a wonderful day.

The next morning we arose early (breakfast at 7) and after omelletes and tsampa , we headed out. Just a short way up the trail we headed off on a noticeably less used path to climb up and over a couple of mountainsides to a plateau on our way to Kyajo. In Minnesota we would call this a deer trail except that here in the Khumbu everything goes sharply up and sharply down. We took a round about way to try to cut down the vertical but the porters went straight up. We soon found their path and agreed though it was very steep it was easier that fighting your way through the many wild yak trails. Finally reaching the top of this obstacle, we looked at the next mountain face just ahead. I had been keeping up fine but towards the upper part of this first climb I started to stumble and had a hard time keeping my balance. We took a rest at the top and I hoped that I would feel better after the break but found myself feeling very spacey and still unsteady. I knew I had to go down. After a conversation with Lonnie, he shared it with the whole group. Plans were being revised but I insisted that I could make my way down so Furba took me back around the corner and pointed out the landmarks to follow. It had been an emotional moment for me – when I was just a little younger I would have just written it off as a bad day. Now I think first of my age and see it as another thing that I may have to give up. I don’t do that gracefully.

I slowly made my way down the porters footprints until I reached the Gompa where I had my water bottle filled.  Furba had insisted I spend the night in Thamel but I decided to make my way down to the river and see how I felt.  Then I made my way with a moderate pace back to the Thawa Lodge in Namche.

Photos of climbing team on steps outside Gompa – meditation cave, inside of meditation cave and view outside Gompa

Hillary School

IMG_2662IMG_2664IMG_2657IMG_2652IMG_2654October 22

On another bright blue morning here in Namche Bazaar, I decided to take a hike up to Khumjung and Khunde to take a closer look at the two villages directly above. I had learned to time my arrival for breakfast at about 8:15 when the sun would reach the little outside terrace at the Thawa Lodge where we have been staying. The sun has a wonderful effect at these altitudes – especially after the cold nights. The lodges here are not heated so who wants to have their brekkie with their long johns and coat still on. A cheese omelette and bowl of porridge under my belt plus some steaming hot ginger tea and off I trekked. The others had all opted to stay and rest plus catch up on their correspondence.

The trail is narrow and almost directly uphill. They must not have invented switchbacks when these trails had been forged. You must just take your time as it’s a long way up. Once cresting the hill, you go left around the Stupa and start down the stone steps towards Khumjung. It is a Buddhist tradition of respect to always go around these symbols in a clockwise fashion. A walk through a small welcoming covered bridge-like structure complete with prayer wheels brings you to the longest mani stone lined path in all of Nepal. A mani stone is usually a large flat rock (but can be very large and not flat at all) on which is carved a Buddhist prayer. These carved symbols cover the whole side of the stone. Here there is a large base of rock, covered and topped by very old algae covered mani stones which line the whole avenue running alongside the Hillary school.

The school itself is home to quite a few buildings built in the same stone and timber manner as buildings in the entire countryside of Nepal. Children are playing a game similar to volleyball except that their feet can also be used to get
the ball over the net. There is nothing ostentatious about the facilities here but rather the emphasis on functionality. At the end of the mani stone lined walkway you come to another white topped stupa, this one showing some earthquake caused cracking and crumbling.

I stopped to sit and talk with a Nepali man just beyond the Stupa and learned from him the extent of the earthquake damage here. Many buildings reduced to rubble and others damaged, he proudly told me that almost all had been repaired or rebuilt now, including his home. I watched workers still busy shaping rock, cutting re-rod, wheeling sand and installing timbers on a teahouse next door to the lodge in which I was enjoying lunch. All this work done without the aid of machinery other than shovels, chisels, sledgehammers, wheelbarrows and the like.

After a pleasant visit in the sun here in Khumjung, I decided to forgo the additional walk to Khunde. My iPhone, which now doubles as my camera, has a very low battery.

Down the mountainside I go again.

Come to Nepal

IMG_1702The last two earthquakes in Nepal have been devastating. Some villages reduced to rubble. People dead or badly injured. Often these occurrences in smaller poor countries get at best a headline or two and then disappear from the consciousness of most of the rest of the world. However, Nepal is home to the tallest mountains in the world. Lives were lost on Everest directly because of the quakes. That will get the media attention across the globe. Relief agencies and individual groups all poured money and attention to help in the plight of the Nepalese. Governments followed suit. Where it all went nobody is completely sure. A lot of it was simply pledged and never truly manifested. Other items arrived in great quantity without any idea of how to distribute it – many of these goods were available in Nepal at much cheaper prices along with Nepalese connections to get these items where they were needed. Other items were simply just not needed. Through all this other agencies were shining – medical relief organizations were experienced and fit into the structure already developed here to help efficiently. Others came to simply work – throw their backs and hands into the effort. Nepal operates through connections – much more so than merit. Relatives and friends work in a web of connectiveness. Our host in Kathmandu operates very well this way. He knows who to go to and how to get things done. You are either in or out. Our climbing Sherpa, our porters, the tea houses we stay at, our place in line at the Lukla airport, it is all through Nima’s connections. Lack of connections means that things just don’t happen – certainly not efficiently.

All this said, much has been done to help the Nepalese people. They are a very resilient people, extremely strong and very resourceful. Their rugged lifestyle leaves them to sink or swim and they learn to swim. Our host here in Namche took her family into the countryside last May for a whole month for fear that an earthquake might hit Namche with the taller close buildings and kill or injure many. They stayed in a tent and survived on food they carried from their stores at the hotel. When I talked of this with her husband he still started to tear up. A very emotional time for them. Our host at the Tea house in Dole told me of rebuilding her home – she and her family and connected family had done so just in the time since this spring. Even with many things that they needed having to come by yak or porters.Others I talked with had enough savings to rebuild. Some just downsized. One must also understand that the basic materials are still at hand in the rubble of the quake. Stone. Buildings are made of stone and timbers which were mostly salvageable. It appears to usin our group that 90 percent of the countryside we have been traveling in has been rebuilt – mostly by the local people. All the Tea Houses are open to business and have all the items they’ve always had. The trekking trails are virtually untouched – you can go anywhere. Nepal thrives on its tourism. That is the engine which drives this economy. The porters, the Sherpa guides, the guest houses, the retailers, the airport personnel – I could go on and on. Tourism is what feeds their families and pays their bills. Those that own their own places and businesses have an edge in surviving this big downswing in visitors. Those people and businesses who pay rent are worried. This has been a really disappointing tourist season. There are two main seasons here – spring and fall – the monsoons happen in mid-summer. Fall is here and spring was taken up by the earthquake – now summer by the slow tourism.

Why is it slow now? Nepal is largely rebuilt and ready for everybody to come – even in one of the hardest hit areas – the Khumbu region. The hardest hit area in all of Nepal was the Langtang valley and some of that area is still closed. That is the exception here. The same saturation of media attention designed to help the country after the quake has now hurt the Nepalese by impressing on people all over the world that Nepal is a mass of rubble. That was never true. The earthquake was hit and miss – having a major effect on some places yet not even touching most of its neighbors. Media by own business necessities needs to be as dramatic as possible to sell and capture readers/listeners. There are only a few NY Times/BBC news examples out there. The media attention that was part of the process of lifting Nepal back on its feet has now inadvertantly helped keep her on her knees.
To be fair, the fuel tanker embargo imposed by India hasn’t helped either – but that is not a large problem in the eyes of tourists around the globe.

How can you best help Nepal?



IMG_2587IMG_2560IMG_2551IMG_2561October 18

Today I took a walk up to the Gompa (Buddhist monastery) which is located on the upper part on the mountainside village of Namche Bazaar. The colorful exterior and architecture make it unmistakable – once I got past some of the taller buildings of the inner village where I have been living it was easier to find the path. Prayer flags and prayer wheels surround the Gompa. The exterior did show its age but still impressive. At first I thought it was empty but as I stood in the main entry a quiet form approached with a friendly “Namaste”. This is the general greeting of peace to you which is used for a greeting by everyone. Not dressed in the formal robes I expected, he nonetheless commanded respect with his gentle confidence. I started to remove my shoes and he chuckled and indicated to follow him. Into an inner sanctuary we went and I followed suit when he removed his sandals. The place was dominated by a Buddhist shrine surrounded in turn by photos of the present Dahlai Llama. He indicated that this shrine was devoted to the 2nd Buddha although I am not real confidant that I understood him very well. He said that there were 17 Buddhas in all (translation?). The Dahlai Llama surrounding shrine had photos from all phases of his life including the present. There was a row of small lit candles in front and a very large brass unit directly behind them. He took the top of this candle holder off to show me a candle at least a foot or more in diameter which he indicated burned continuously for more than a month (again, translation?). I will add photos after I have time to get through them. The prayer wheels outside were also very impressive – solid brass, copper or painted brightly, they invited the passerby to swing them and improve their luck through prayer.

I sat down for a conversation with this Llama. He asked me questions about where I was from, whether I was traveling up or down the mountain, and most importantly to him – had I ever met the Dahlai Llama. Like every Buddhist I ask here, they are all sad that it is too dangerous for the Dahlai to come home to Nepal. He resides in India and travels abroad – quite often to the US. But never to Nepal.

When he understood that I had been a climber (modestly) and that my friends here with me were climbers, he reached for a silk scarf which he tied around my neck and blessed me. Tapping me on the shoulders twice, he solemnly intoned some Nepalese or Sherpa phrases. I was a little shocked but very pleased that this devout man would treat this American sinner in such a respectful way. Like a brother.

I asked him about his past and his time here at the Gompa. He was originally from Thamel (not too far from here) and had spent six years studying there. He had two more years here then was not sure where his future would lead him. But he was a Buddhist monk for life. A very kind man. He brought me to another man, a staff person in charge of a Buddhist museum on the upper floor. It was self-guided and cost 100 NRs (one US dollar). There had been no one else there during my stay.