We stop the car in an alley beneath a canopy of twisted power cables. Up ahead is the festival of Buṅga Dyaḥ Jātrā.
A 60-foot tower blocks the street, a chariot on four wheels as tall as a man, made of hand-cut timber and pine needles. It’s leaning drunkenly to one side, and I can see a figure perched on top, throwing cotton tokens to the pilgrims while the road around them burns. Small kids run between my legs, stamp on flaming offerings and poke the ash with sticks to shake loose blackened rupees that smoke when they hit the ground, while high above us they’re cutting electrical wires to let the chariot pass, plunging whole suburbs into darkness. Cymbals and madal drums pound out a deafening rhythm, a celebration of the monsoon rains. Ben, our filmmaker and photographer, mouths something at me but I miss it.
He leans in and screams. “This is the most amazing thing I have ever seen!”
It’s Day One in Kathmandu. We left our hotel 10 minutes ago.
Our guide Shiba gestures with an open hand, taking in the street of smoke and noise and flame:
"Welcome to Nepal."
I travelled to Nepal expecting one country, but what I got was several.
There’s the classic Nepal, the Himalayan world people imagine, the one that draws over 800,000 trekkers and adventurers each year and looks great on postcards – then there’s everywhere else. On the high slopes of Sagarmatha, in the Everest region, temperatures can drop to 50 degrees below and waterfalls freeze solid; in Kathmandu valley, they grow bananas. There are 61 different ethnic groups in the country, and as many dialects, customs and histories; footsore ancestors who walked overland from Tibet or China 600 years ago and others who moved up from the muggy Indian lowlands. Hindu temples and Buddhist stupas greet the dawn side by side, and locals can read a person’s caste, family and future in the shape of an eye, the line of a cheekbone, the colour of a hat.
This is the same country rocked by an earthquake in April. The one whose brick dust and rubble ran 24/7 on CNN while Red Cross tents housed the homeless and choppers ferried injured climbers down from Basecamp. The quake levelled houses, destroyed temples and sent tremors through the land.
But the story, Nepal's story, didn't end there.
INTO THE HIGH PLACES
Five days later I’m in the hills above Namche Bazaar, staring at the summit of Mt Everest.
We’re about 3,400m above sea level here (practically terrestrial by local standards) and although winter is still a way off, my breath catches in the cold, thin air.
Namche is the gateway to the Sagamartha region. Thousands of travellers pass through the town each year; its blue and green roofs represent the biggest and most lucrative settlement in the area. If Everest is the roof of the world, Namche is its guest house and gear shop. We’re sitting on a bench above the town, looking out over the peaks.
“It’s quiet,” says Pemba, our mountain guide. “Last year at this time we had maybe 2000 people in Namche.”
“How many now?” Ben asks, adjusting a lens.
Pemba shrugs. “Maybe 300? Maybe less? I think people must still be afraid of the earthquake.”
It’s true too. The laneways this morning contained more cows than people, rangy looking creatures plodding along on some mysterious bovine mission. Occasionally you’d glimpse a Tibetan monk, red robe flapping over a dusty pair of Nike or Adidas, but Namche's bars and trekking shops were empty. The only sound was the familiar warble of an old Jack Johnson track coming from the bakery.
I like Pemba. He’s Tamang, an indigenous group from the valleys below Lukla, and his family are farmers: maize, potatoes, cabbages. He speaks five languages (a fact that makes me feel woefully ignorant and woefully Western in equal measure) and has finished Top 10 in the Everest Marathon. Each year he walks from his village through the mountains to Namche and leads trekkers up to Basecamp. He reckons he’s done the route about 3000 times. In the off-season he walks back, pockets full of savings, and helps out on the farm. It’s this money that keeps the family going during the lean months, or when the crops fail. The steady trickle of tourism dollars finds its way out of the mountains, just like the rivers, carrying its wealth toward the sea.
“This is normal,” Pemba says. “Everyone has a family back home. They are proud of me."
Pemba’s story is pretty typical. Family and religion are the weft and the warp of Nepal's social fabric, the two threads that bind it all together. Tradition, piety, respect – old school virtues that have taken root, deep in the country’s soul. While western cultures spend their holidays and weekends outdoors with friends, here they're time for home, for family. And those ties cross borders, which is why most clans have at least one relative working in Dubai or Abu Dhabi, building skyscrapers for millionaires to keep their parents and siblings afloat back in Nepal. The pay’s poor and the work is hard, but it’s better than the USD $2.50 a labourer might earn each day in Kathmandu.
For those left behind, tourism is a lifeline, an artery. Trekkers come to the mountains and buy gear, hire guides, eat food, and that money ripples out, affecting people beyond its immediate reach. But now things are changing. You can feel it in the air. There's a desperate but unspoken fear that maybe, after the quake, the trekkers will simply not come back.
“What happens then?” I ask Pemba.
He spreads his hands. Shakes his head. Says nothing.
WALKING IN THE WILDERNESS
The first day of proper trekking. Our group sets off from Namche just after dawn, with Ben, Pemba and me bringing up the rear.
Our destination is the little town of Lukla, two days away on foot. Pemba has taken on the role of Official Photographical Assistant with gusto and insists on carrying all our spare camera gear. Every now and then he stops and takes a few surreptitious snaps, then sidles up to me and asks my opinion.
Unlike the previous day with its fog banks and swirling mists, the valleys are blue and clear. It's the sort of weather that inspires yodelling, although I manage to restrain myself. The clouds have burned off in the morning sun and I can make out every snow-capped peak, every pencil-thin waterfall and granite ridgeline. Tiny black specks circle overhead, riding thermals.
“Crows,” Pemba says, pointing.
Close to Namche the landscape is one part cultivated, three parts wilderness, and what I thought were stepped rice paddies turn out to be juniper fields. Locals grow them for incense Pemba tells me, and for gin, although how much gin one small mountain community can drink is anyone’s guess. We pass through a few smaller settlements along the track. People are out early, washing clothes in the icy streams, bashing them with rocks, or laying bedsheets on bushes to dry in the sun.
Soon we meet the Himalayan equivalent of traffic: yak trains. In the mountains there are two basic ways to move things from Point A to Point B. One is carry them yourself, the other is to use a yak (or the cow/yak mongrel known as Dzo). They’re shaggy-haired beasts with the strength of giants, each slung with sacks of potatoes, slabs of beer, bags of clothes, rice or a thousand other things.
He motions for us to move towards the slope, away from the sheer drop, and Ben and I scramble up the bank to let the yaks pass. They’re followed by a 10-year-old shepherd holding a switch. He flicks the creatures’ ankles when they stall, whistling code through his front teeth. "Zum zum! Hurry hurry!" You learn quick to hug the slope at the first sound of brassy, jangling bells.
“Are they friendly?” I ask.
“Oh yes,” Pemba says, “except sometimes no. Falling side, suicide. Please remember.”
Yaks aren’t the only traffic on the high trails, and we pass dozens of porters along the way. At first we stopped dead, mouths open, to watch them pass: 5-foot men carrying immense loads on their back, the weight held in a sling across their forehead, crushing their vertebrae with every small, patient step, one hand gripping a heavy walking stick (I actually saw a few texting as they walked). They trudge these paths every day, carrying doors, water tanks, food, trekking gear and anything else the mountains need. One is wearing a shirt that says, ‘Four out of every five days I call in sick.’
“How do they do it?” I ask Pemba.
“They have very tough knees,” he says. “They can carry up to 120kg on their back. They are paid 65 rupees per kilogram, so they want to take as much as they can. I was a porter for a few months.”
“How much can you carry?”
He grins. “Only 80kgs, but then I am lazy. I did not want to be a porter.”
We stop for lunch at a little teahouse in the mountains. Some tables have been set up in the sun and we slump down among the butterflies, their wings a flickering two-tone of orange and white. At meal times your guides transform into waiters, and Pemba wanders off with the others – Ram, Ratna and Sanjay – to get our food: hot curried momos, chow fun with egg and vegetables, a cloudy broth known as Sherpa Stew and plenty of Gorkha beers. Good solid trekking fuel. Caught between India and China, Nepali cuisine borrows the best elements from both, fusing them into a dumpling-curry hybrid that makes you wonder why no-one thought of it before.
Pemba and I chat about the mountains while Ben goes off to shoot a time-lapse of the incoming clouds, and he explains that even the little things you see here have a story. The ‘Milky Rivers’, cloudy with the ground up bones of the Himalayas, flowing down to Holy Ganges. The way prayer flags flutter like questing fingers, and the breeze that snatches their inscriptions and carries them on the wind. The 33 types of rhododendron and 550 species of bird. The snow leopards, musk deer, marmots and Tibetan wolves. Granite boulders as big as a house, etched all over with Buddhist mantras and sacred graffiti. A village through the pass where Tenzing Norgay was born. The fallen pine trees whose kindling the locals can harvest for just 15 days each year. A giant orange beehive stuck to a cliff. The rain fields.
“The mountains are always changing,” he says. “The ice comes and goes. The flowers bloom and die. Come back next year and you’ll see. Totally different.”
THE END. A BEGINNING
After two days of hard trekking, we reach the little town of Lukla: a multicoloured jumble of teahouses, shops and hotels, with an 80-metre airstrip that ends in a very final, very ominous, drop.
We say our goodbyes to the guides and porters. Apparently the walk that took us two full days of hard toil and blisters can be done by them in just under a day. Probably with a couch on their back. We even saw school kids on the trails outside Lukla, strolling along as if trekking an hour to class through the Himalayas was the most normal thing in the world (I made an effort to wheeze less as they passed). Ben and I take a moment to say goodbye to Pemba, and Ben grabs his portrait on camera before we race for the plane.
We hurry through security and hop onboard just as an official in blue overalls closes the door. Our plane taxis off, faces the runway, then the props blur and the engines roar. We hurtle down the slope. The edge is rapidly approaching, a sheer 400ft drop to the valley below, but with a few yards to spare the pilot eases off and we climb up, up towards the peaks. The group cheers. I let go of my armrest.
After a while I glance out the window, back towards the mountains, and think about Pemba. My trip is over, but his job's just beginning. A new season is about to kick off. New people to meet, things to learn. April's quake now just a memory. The world turns, like the prayer wheels, spinning clockwise around the sun.
Before we left I asked him: “What now? What’s next for you?”
“I will rest here for a couple of days, then return to Namche to wait for the trekkers,” he said. Then he stopped and looked thoughtful. “Do you think they will come, James?”
“Definitely,” I said. Because what else is there to say. “They will definitely come back.”
The writer travelled on Intrepid's Everest Base Camp Trek, a 15-day journey through the Himalayas. The trip includes airport transfers in Nepal, return flights from Kathmandu to Lukla, guesthouse and teahouse accommodation, some meals, porters on trekking days, and an expert local leader. Intrepid Travel have been leaders in small group travel since 1989, and now run adventures in over 100 countries around the world.
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