Junbesi.

One kilometre up. Another one down. Toughest climb and hardest descent of my life. Sweat, tears and muscles burning like volcanic lava. At stages the fumes of my depleted energy switched my head into autopilot. I walked aimlessly and without thought. Vacant. Empty. Even desperation and hunger departed my mind. My soul carried me. Hope hadn’t slipped away completely. Bruised worn feet made it through the darkest evening to night. A bed and a meal waited for the day’s end. A great sleep followed. Two different years, two tough challenging experiences. Twice. Twice, the walk carried on.

Yesterday was such a day. A tiring cycle ride to play football. A testing first half-hour. A stretched thirty minutes followed. A near empty final third. And then. And then the ride back. A thirty minutes cycle ride doubled in time. Ten grueling ten kilometres. Sweat. Pain. Tears. Two cups of yogurt and a litre of water. Knackered. Back against the wall. The cycle bad become the rupture machine. A test of stamina and mind over matter. The Junbesi of Dongguan in high humidity and subtropical heat. I crawled into bed following a shower. The kind of shower that involved slumping and letting the warmer than usual water just hit from above. Careless shower. Even sleeping in bed I fed mosquitoes and didn’t care. Exhausted.

Tough moments are there to be overcome.

Kathmandu – a gateway to…

I landed at Kathmandu’s airport expecting a lift as arranged with my pre-booked hotel. It never came. I tried calling the Parawar Hotel via the phone number provided on the Booking.com website.  o joy. Swarmed by taxi-drivers expecting an easy fare, I eventually fell under the waves of the sharks and opted to get a taxi myself. 700NPR to the centre of Thamel, Kathmandu later and we could not find the address or Parawar Hotel. After 20 minutes of walking around aimlessly I stumbled on Horizon Hotel, as recommended by John and Will. I immediately bumped into them, like an awkward unintended stalker. I checked in. The staff of Horizon Hotel were supremely friendly, helpful and bowed to my every need without question. They went out of ther way. The showers were lovely and warm. The rooms cosy and a balcony felt most luxorious. The garden was green and warming. I enjoyed a bowl of cornflakes outside and many cups of tea. A large bag of laundry was done for 210NPR. I had a lift to the airport arranged and used the hotel’s computers to print my flight tickets. If I return to Nepal, I will book this place in advance.

That evening we went for food at the Kathmandu Steak House Restaurant. It was good, the cocktails aren’t perfect but the Everest beer wasn’t bad. I recommend the steak selections, there are many to choose from.   Later that evening I grabbed some water on the way back. During the night I was sat on the toilet, almost every five minutes for hours on end. Time and time again. I drank more water, discarding the bottle purchased the night before. It looked like a re-sealed bottle with bits in the water. I hadn’t noticed. Tuesday the 24th of January was written off. Two small pieces of banana cake and a litre of pure orange juice made up my evening’s dinner.

The afternoon and morning of the 25th involved wandering on a private tour of inner-city Kathmandu, shown by Surnesh, paying only in food and provisions for his young family. It was most friendly and cooperative. I ate a Mexican breakfast at Northfield Cafe and even at dinner struggled to tackle the aubergine dish, as Will ate is Burger blend and John a delightful looking Thai curry at Frens.

Frens has an outside location that is quaint, warm and the staff are friendly. The food is good. The starters, mains of aubergine went down well. The Gurkha beer wasn’t bad.

My second breakfast in the city was at Northfield Cafe because quite-frankly the food was good. On entering Northfield Cafe, I was tended to, given a good seat and told to relax. I was guided to a seat beneath a patio window, I was told it was warm. It was. The sun shone above but not in my eyes. I was presented the menu and shocked to see such variety, many Mexican style breakfasts and simpler choices sat there. I ordered. In fact, I returned for two more breakfasts and one evening meal with live music from a band called Samundra, playing the wonderful Sarangi (think Erhu meets violin).

I visited three temples: Swayambhunath, Pashupatinath Temple (Lord Shiva), and Boudhanath.

I visited Swayambhunath, having strolled from Thamel on foot. After exiting the dusty streets beneath, the climb between giant Buddha statues was wonderful. A step for every day of the year led past the 200NPR entrance fee booth. I paid as a Rhesus macaque pair dashed over my feet, keen to get up the top few steps before me, no doubt. At the top of the steps, I turned left, through the stalls of shiny and plasticy things for sale. From this I met a man, who I figured worked in a store, but expected nothing and he shown me each point one by one. I explained I did not want nor did I need a guide. I had read much on the temple in advance. That said, he was blooming informative, very much like the Vajra thunderbolt scepter, he stood out. His crooked few teeth and big bold eyes, friendly and inviting. He explained how the valley was once a huge lake and Swayambhunath self-created into a central lotus. He was impressed by my knowledge and thanked me for not just calling it the “monkey temple.” I did comment how wonderful it was to see monkeys and man co-existing. He introduced me to a pair of friendly monkeys, from the 1500 that occupy the area. He said these particular two monkeys were young and kept coming to him to look at him. I said, with no disrespect, that they liely saw comfort in his facial shape. He had a monkey-shaped face. I said I think this is a kind and caring blessing by nature. He laughed. I don’t think he took offence. We carried on our tour, the tour I hadn’t booked.

Some of the temple looked rough, following lightning strikes in 2011 and the April 2015 earthquake. As I toured renovation work was under way at almost every quarter. The stories of a collapsed monastery on that site, were sad to hear and the rubble still visible.

Used by both Hindus and Buddhists, this site is truly wonderful. The domed peaked stupa is cubical in places, has Buddha’s eyes looking in four directions. Torans, shaped perhaps pentagonal, carry massive statues and engravings. Thirteen tiers stand behind these and a Gajur above that. The details on all are mind-blowing. Pure enlightenment in Buddhist symbolism and deep detail. All around the main stupa there are temples, such as the Ajima Temple, and more prayer wheels than I thought was possible to construct. For me this was a proud feature in the Kathmandu Valley World Heritage site. I’m not religious but I could feel the special and sacred connection of man with belief here. It didn’t carry any pressure, just like my impromptu tour guide. I visited his stall after my tour, on my own accord. I invested in two artworks as gifts for friends.

Dr. Strange was filmed in many locations all over Kathmandu such as these three temples. I was lucky enough to see a fan dressing up as the title figure of the movie, Graphic Novels, showing even Marvel movies etc can inspire the odd person to travel and see sights from flicks. This will be most beneficial to Nepal where tourism, especially ecotourism, can booster a country in need of the world’s support. Geek Pride!

I hated the tourist experience of Pashupatinath Temple. As much as I respect the religious aspect, 1000NPR for that experience (or should I say inexperience?) was steeper than the Himalayas. I saw little. Non-Hindus are not permitted in most parts. In fact even western-Hindus are not permitted in many parts. Without clear signage, expect to walk beyond the boundaries and get shouted at. It is embarrassing and shameful. If you open your doors to guests, be clear. I was massively curious and ultimately disappointed. I’m not religious and this was the equivalent of opening a Christmas present, only to lose the ability of eyes, hands and ears to know what the gift was. Also, for the whole of the paid experience, I was tailed by several beggars. I did not enjoy it.

For lunch that day, I opted for Fire and Ice Pizzeria. It was worth a try for lunch. Good portions, amazing homemade crisps and a good side salad with my panini. The gnocchi was also very good, but lacked flavour even though I opted for butter and herbs.

Having read good reviews about Blueberry Kitchen & Coffee Shop, I decided to treat John & Will from Australia. They were flying out that day and had been most hospitable and welcoming throughout my month’s trek in Nepal. We enjoyed the breakfasts, I opted for Eggs Benedict with a great Hollandaise Sauce. It was probably the best breakfast I have eaten in Asia, including Hong Kong and many good western restaurants. Full on two great cappucinos and the main breakfast, I bid farewell and promised to write a fine review on TripAdvisor.

If walking in Thamel, firstly, try to use landmarks based on say fish for sale, signs that are unique, names that stand out. Secondly, enjoy it, push away buskers and hawkers politely. You must be mindful of pickpockets and scams but relax as much as possible. The streets weave here and there and seem to lack roadsigns or names. There are shops, cafes, bars tour operators galore. Actually, almost every alleyway masks the odd tucked away temple, with doors far shorter than the people – ghosts cannot bend, so cannot enter.

With a rucksack, now almost empty, I went gift-shopping, opting for several pieces at a shop called Beni, a recycling cooperative that handcrafts items. Beni Ghale and her team collect rubbish from the streets, old rice bags, and bike inner tubes to create something fashionable. Mostly functional too. The money goes to providing work for women in need and raising environmental awareness. They even many sanitary pads from natural materials.

Throughout my journey I had learnt much. Scenery, history, culture, and adventure had formed one delightfully exquisite and awe-inspiring view of Nepal. There were days, I witnessed the underprivileged of the country, the fragilities of a country emerging from political instability and rising from the ashes of two tremendously devastating earthquakes, but the experience remained eye-opening in many ways. My batteries of inspiration are charged to full.

Sagamartha: Realm of wonders

The next morning, I felt energised, I practically skipped back enjoying the wonderful views and stopping more frequent to take it all in. Wonderful. At Khayangjuma I stopped at Three Sisters Lodge for lunch and enjoyed talking with the owner. I bid my farewell and strolled on into the nearby Namche Bazaar. After a struggle finding lodgings, avoiding the Yak Hotel of my previous visit, I found the Kala Patthar Lodge. I checked in. No hot showers due to frozen pipes. I had only showered in Jiri, Sete and Bupsa Danda by that time. 15 days, 3 showers. They did however provide me with a bucket full of hot water. It was bliss. I felt clean again. That evening I talked with two Australian ladies hiking up the trail. I also invested in a new book. I ploughed through Jon Krakauer’s book, Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster, inside 24 hours. A very good read.

My hotel didn’t have a recharge point for my phone. I opted for a cappucino, cake and a pot of black tea. The afternoon disappeared pretty fast in Sherpa Barista Bakery. I enjoyed plush leather seats and my book. I was the only customer and the two staff present were very welcoming.

I ate at Cafe de 8848 once and enjoyed good teas alongside wifi access for free. They show the Sherpa movie daily at 3pm. Well worth a gander. Very revealing movie. Lovely views from the balcony bar.

I clambered from my lodge up the pathway to Everest Base Camp. This time I opted for a lefthand spur, towards Khumjung.

Rising over the ridge, the land flattened, a plateau of sorts, with the odd boulder. The cargo airport, Syangboche (3750m/12,303ft) stood to my left. A Russian helicopter, lacking beauty in design, unloaded wood and busy Rai porters dashed back and forwards. Two red-beaked choughs dug soil and fed in the foreground.

I passed along a field resembling a golf course green and approached the Japanese-owned Everest View Hotel (http://www.hoteleverestview.com/). Part James Bond baddy lair, and part paradise, this hotel is state of the art. In 2004, the Guinness Book of World Records listed it as the Highest Placed Hotel in the world. The blurb online says, “With a view of Mt. Everest from every room, visitors can immerse in this mesmerizing scene in luxury.” That is impressive. I had a milky tea and steak sandwich, taking in the view. It truly is an astonishing location with superior unmatchable panoramic views of the region.

The monastery in Khumjung (3780m) was undergoing a refurbishment. The supposed yeti skull inside was not on public showing. My inner skeptic grew. Over the valley floor from the monastery, the Khumjung school was built by Sir Edmund Hillary’s Himalayan Trust in 1961 stood closed. 350 students share the limited classroom space from pre-school to secondary school. Some have gone on to university and studies overseas. The stone-walled village sits at the base of Mount Khumbu Yül-Lha. This 5761m tall mountain has never been summitted. Said to be a god, it is a fiercesome looking sharp and dry looking gargantuan crag. Bamboo spikes stand festooned in prayer flags honouring the overlooking god.

I trekked on towards Khunde (3840m). Sign posts pointed me to the  Khunde Hospital (founded in 1966 by Sir Edmund Hillary) and the Sir Edmund Hillary view-point. From here I went rock-scrambling down the valley into Phurte before hiking back to Namche Bazaar. Red and blue Himalayan pheasants, vultures, eagles, Himalayan Tahrs and a possible leopard footprint added much nature to a wonderful walk.

I entered Namche Bazaar’s horseshoe-shaped bowl from the western ridge, having climbed from the north-eastern ridge. The masses of mani stones, prayer flags and fading light made for a very spiritually powerful twilight. The following day I read several books and relaxed all day. I chatted with a convalescence group of trekkers. Eight trekkers had fell ill on various stages between Namche Bazaar and Everest Base Camp. Their guide group had sent them back with one porter to spend a few nights at Namche Bazaar’s Kala Patthar Lodge. A Bulgarian, a Costa Rican, a Newzealander and an Australian went into a bar… it was a very international.

With my flight booked from Lukla to Kathmandu for the morning of 23rd, I opted to try and hike the full path to Lukla the morning of the 21st. I managed as far as Thadokoshi, and chose the Everest Summitter Lodge, ran by a Sherpa family. I felt sick on arrival but put it down to hunger, I had skipped lunch, trying to make Lukla in one day. Two days hike in one day was optimistic at best. It would have taken nine solid hours trekking. I was an hour shy as dusk set in. Bunking down was a good idea. I needed food. I ordered food. Spaghetti with cheese and tomato sounded simple. Before the food arrived, I went to the toilet, and vomited several times. Very odd, I just felt tired. Nothing else. I washed my face and returned to the dining lounge. I drank some black tea and tentavily probed the food. I ate a few pieces. I could eat no more. I went to bed at 7 o’clock, devoid of hunger. The middlest of family’s three boys had been in the lodge playing domino-rally with business cards. Entertained in a world where toys are marketed and sold with aggression, by something so simple. He looked happy. I felt guilty of the days when I begged my Mum for the lastest Lego sets or Ghostbusters figures. In talking to him, I learnt he was nine year’s old. In Nepal, children often lose school before they are teenagers. His younger brother slammed a glass window shut and opened it again. He repeated this until it became white noise. Their oldest brother was 15 year’s old. A porter, lifting anything from the airport to whereever it was required.

After a breakfast of porridge, I left Thadokoshi for Lukla. At Lukla, I lodged at Lukla Lodge. I had lunch in the lodge, Yak steak, then explored the village. I stopped at Starbucks Lukla. It was a rip-off branded coffeeshop with a delightful sunroom and a vast array of birdwatching books. I slumped into the leather sofa there and enjoyed a very good cappucino.

I walked around the Sagarmāthā National Park conservation office, eyes on a path marked Red Panda area. Glancing back at Lukla’s Tenzing-Hillary Airport below. The short and steep airstrip’s tarmac twinkled in the intense afternoon sunlight. It had held the title of Most Extreme Airport for around twenty years. The 11.7% gradient, and dimensions of 527m (1,729 ft) × 30m (98 ft) and drop into a valley below at the southern runway end. The northern end being a mountain wall.

Friendship Youth Club F.C.’s field had to be explored. I left a bunch of Shenzhen Blues bags, badges and stickers there, with my SZB t-shirt. I donated all but a few of my clothes, supplies and boots to a Sherpa trust charity, figuring the materials will be of more use to local people than me in the sub-tropics of Guangdong. Later in the afternoon, John and Will rolled in from their trek, having reached Kala Patthar and Everest Base Camp a few days after we last me. Fair play to them! Their flight was scheduled 30 minutes after mine.

Tara, in Nepali means green goddess, in Hindi it means star, in Catalan or Italian it means defect, in Gaelic it means queen and in Welsh it means goodbye. Flight TA144 sounded a tad omnious for me.

I boarded the Twin Otter on the side area of the runway. Two flights had already departed. Those planes, a Dornier Do 228 and a Let 410, had looked much more modern. My aircraft had a more rustic feel. I guess with 22 aircraft split between 5 domestic airlines, not counting Nepal Airlines, choices are few and far between. Tara airlines have a history of crashes, 4 in less than 6 years. Two of their eight fleet are no more, and sadly 45 people perished in two serious crashes.

Everest rest restaurant

Dropping down the valley to Deboche (3820m), passing a newly built lodge called Rivendell, drifting through low moss-cloaked trees, a plain to the left opened, beyond clumsily-stacked Mani stones. Inside a sign advised of a nunnery. It looked far poorer and less well-maintained than the monk’s residence at Tengboche Monastery. Perhaps this is a clear sign of inequality? The sign Parque del Retiro giving hints it was a home for those of later years?

After Milingga hamlet, I branched up the upper pathway into Upper Pangboche. I’d caught up with John and Will and they opted for the lower road into Lower Pangboche. My pathway swept amongst small Gompa after Gompa and Mani Stone walls, eventually reaching the village of Upper Pangboche (3985m). I passed around the walls of a square monastery, reported to hold a Yeti skull. I wasn’t allowed beyond the hall containing chanting and drumming, standing there admiring haunting sounds, “Oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ…” (唵嘛呢叭咪吽). The very same phrase being inscribed into Mani stones, prayer wheels, prayer flag streamers,

I passed Pangboche school as built by Sir Edmund Hillary’s Himalayan Trust in 1963. It stands at 4000m above sea level. Beyond this my path converged with the lower Pangboche pathway at Shomare village. I stopped for Sherpa stew and a sandwich, watching Will and John pass by on the lower pathway. Satisfied with my tomato sandwich, I trundled onwards. Next up, Worshyo, and into the broad and high-mountain surrounded Imja Valley. Rock falls and landslides marking almost barren terrain beneath the imposing beauty of Ama Dablam’s western and northern faces. Through huge empty plains and between mounds of loose rocks, over dirt trails and down a steep crevice, I crossed a bridge. Upwardly, the path became substantially drier and dustier. At the top of a valley-hugging path, the pathway cut inwards amongst debris of many mountains and their violent histories.

In the village of Dingboche, many lodges lined a stone-wall lane as wide as a car, yet without cars possible. Oh, and covered in thick ice. Exposed to the elements and at some stage flooded by flowing water, it marked a slippery pathway through a town. Thankfully the odd rock and patch of barren embankment stood out beneath the neatly placed stone walls (built after farmers simply removed obstacles to ploughing their fields). I walked through the village, noting most lodges as closed. After ten minutes, I heard my name; John and Will had opted for the Solukhumbu Lodge. I greeted them and met the owner, a Khambu Rai, a people from the Sikkim and Darjeeling Hills. He welcomed me and shown me to a plywood room. By now I was used to these sorts of basic rooms. The only luxury was a light switch. I rolled my sleeping bags out, prepared my torch and laid out clothes for the next day. It was only five o’clock in the evening, yet when night came in; light would be limited and the desire to get to sleep early, strong. Almost every night so far had ended in bed by 8 or 9 o’clock at night.

Sat eating pork curry, around a Yak-shit powered stove, with the Solukhumbu Lodge owner answering questions in a kind of politely curious interview of new acquaintances it felt cosy despite extreme cold lapping at the single-glazed windows. He told us how two men, porters, lugged and regularly lugs the slate base of snooker tables from Namche Bazaar (two days hike away). Each porter takes ten minute stints to lift the 150kg load before passing the load onwards. They rotate time and time again. 22km of carrying 150kg between two souls sounds as tortuous as climbing Everest’s peak itself! A sign had boasted “world’s highest billiard hall.” I hadn’t doubted that. They would earn 50NPR per kilogram for every item they lugged from Namche Bazaar to Dingboche. That was the standard rate.

The mule trains are only permitted as far as Namche Bazaar. Some yaks are okay here after, but not so many. Porters, human labour, make the bulk of anything. I ordered a Coca-Cola, priced 200NPR above the manufacturer’s recommended price. To pay five times as much, here, seemed justified. I’d seen people carrying crates of beers, boxes of Red Bull energy drinks, gallons of bottled water. If it was packaged or meat, it came from lower down the valley. Our pork curry’s meat came from a village south of Lukla, where the lodge owner’s family had moved from. They sought the busier tourist routes for their living, renting a lodge for the year and living off the income. His wife, two year’s younger than him, aged 27, sat on one side, breastfeeding their tiny chubby baby, massively-wrapped up in a down jacket and down trousers. The nearest school was Pangboche, 10km away, but they intended to raise their kid until old enough to be taught in Kathmandu, like most kids on the region. The Yak-shit oven crackled as the owner slid the lid open, dropping on dried yak turds. The lower oxygen levels make burning yak pooh quite difficult. It isn’t actually that flammable. Wood fires are not permitted, as they destroy forests – also at this altitude, trees are not present. Following a good natter, I retired to bed, with a 3L thermal flask of ginger tea.

I entered my room. It was freezing. Way below zero. Ice had formed on a sweat-lined ski hat I had left by my bed earlier. I dived into my sleeping bag, pulled up the zip high, placing an extra blanket in the room over my body. I wore my dust-mask and spare ski hat to sleep. Gloves on.

I have never had such a restless sleep. I needed to water the plants too often. I had an unquenchable thirst. Headaches squeezed my skull and seemed to strangle my thoughts. At 9 o’clock in the morning I took some paracetamol. I napped until noon. On entering the lounge dining area, warm sunlight beat through the window panes. John and Will had finished their breakfast and were playing backgammon. They were heading for an acclimatisation walk up to Chhukhung. I was not. My head, as much as I wanted to wander, was not right. My ears hurt, my nose and sinuses seemed clogged and unclearable. If I lay my head flat it felt much more painful.

Had I allowed my body time to adjust to reduced oxygen and changes in air pressure? I thought hiking from Jiri and two nights in Namche Bazaar was enough, having read numerous accounts and heard many pieces of advice. Above sea level, altitude sickness can occur at heights over about 2,500m (8,000 feet). The affects are mild usually. In the severe form, anything above 3,600m (about 12,000 feet) is possible. At 5000m, oxygen is at 50% of the level as found at sea level. I was warned that a loss of appetite and shortness of breath were warning signs. I had neither. I did have a feeling of unsteadiness and like I was going to vomit. But, it wasn’t so bad. I decided to rest. The dizziness of the morning swept away. I read a book and enjoyed the warm dining room, napping on the late afternoon to be awoken by the owner knocking on my door. It was almost seven o’clock when I awoke. I ordered spaghetti and tomato sauce.

The next day was not as bad. My head hurt a little and I would classify myself as having “reduced performance and coordination.” I packed my bag, brushing the thick curtain over the window, “Well, I’ll be damned!” I cursed out loud, to nobody. Two nights of sleep, with the window open. The outside extreme weather had been cuddling my breathing at night. Keeping me company, keeping me dehydrated.

With a slight freshness to my mind, I set off for Lobuche (4410m), determining I could make it. I would be okay. The cold harsh peak of Taboche loomed to my left. I thought, I could turn around if I did not feel better. Armed with excessive flatulation (I later learnt this to be a sign of altitude sickness), I soldiered on. And laboured. Really laboured. Sweating profusely in cold is not comfortable. Sweat freezes fast. I checked my hands for swelling. None. My feet were okay that morning, but now they felt unusually warm. Sudden fatigue, a wave of weakness, swept over my body at Dughla (Thukla). Standing at 4620 metres, my mind argued with itself. Go on? Turn around? The mountain pass suddenly felt a million miles away from life. A small hutted hamlet with little attraction. It was a place to pass through and not stay for more than a night’s sleep. I checked my pulse. It was rapid. Persistently rapid. My breathing had quickened and finding my resting level was proving difficult. In my lightheaded state, I heard the thud of a struggling helicopter coming from towards Gorak Shep. Another rescue helicopter. The fourth, I had seen that day. I was around ten kilometres from Kala Patthar and Everest Base Camp.

I decided to turn around. It was emotional. A really, really tough decision. I didn’t want my minor altitude sickness to become the reason for death by high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) or high altitude cerebral edema (HACE) or Monge’s disease. Kala Patthar would have to wait. My nausea was close to that of wishing to vomit. I hate the feeling of wanting to be sick, but being unable to trigger a splurge. I could feel paresthesia, pins and needles. My body needed more oxygen. Welcome to the world malaise. I about turned. Passing through Nauma, Pheriche, Jamdang, Somsobuk, and Orsho, the path along the Pheriche Pass went almost unnoticed. As I approached Lower Pangboche (3930m), I watched as a helicopter landed, collected a man clutching an oxygen-cylinder on a medical stretcher. Only now, did I feel I made the right choice. Turning around was probably the wisest move of my life. If I didn’t think of loved ones and friends, I probably would have pushed myself. Too far. Having dropped from 4620m to 3860m at Tengboche, I could feel myself relax. The headaches lifted. I lodged once again at the welcoming Tashi Delak lodge. The log stove burnt well, filling a small area with heat and allowing for comforting conversation with Rai and Sherpa porters gathered alongside me. A group of Taiwanese hikers had aimed to go to Everest Base Camp but fell ill at Pangboche. They sat reasonably quietly, immersed in their glowing mobile phone screens. After a large meal of a yak burger, cheese spring rolls and potato chips, I slipped into my sleeping bag. I slept like a baby. All altitude sickness had gone.

Edmund Hilary, “Being comfortable at being uncomfortable.”

The lodge in Jorsalle’s dining room was long and rectangular. Freshly polished wood and paintwork leapt out at the eyes. In the centre at the foot of the dining room, a Buddhist monk sat. He sat all dressed in a maroon robe, and hat. An extra scarf and gloves, all maroon added to his complete maroon outfit.

The bedroom was ample and surprisingly spacious with a quaint window frame offering views of the river beneath. A solitary light switch again being the only technological advancement on offer. I didn’t mind.

After a short climb, fuelled by apple porridge, to Larja Dobham (2830m), I crossed a huge sweeping suspension bridge festooned by Buddhist prayer flags. Up the valley, snow-capped peaks of Lhotse and Sagarmatha towered above bands of yellow on brown sedimentary cliff faces. Sagarmatha is the Nepali name for the once named Peak XV. Deodungha is one of many local names, like Qomolangma (Tibetan name). Most mean “holy mother mountain” or in Chinese, Zhūmùlǎngmǎ Fēng (珠穆朗玛峰). Sadly, some British folk, around 1857, decided to name the peak after a Welsh surveyor Sir George Everest, who actually objected to his name being used. It cannot be pronounced with ease by many native Hindi speakers of Nepal and nor could it be written. The name stuck. In fact, nobody pronounces Everest properly; it should be EEV-rist /ˈiːvrᵻst/ and not /ɛvᵊrᵻst/! This was the beauty of the English language evolution in action.

Clambering up a staircase of boulders, treading lightly so as not to disturb and possible wildlife, I spied many grazing Himalayan Tahr. These beastly-sized wild goats, of the order Artiodactyla, clambered beneath me foraging from the steep-banked grasslands on ledges not suitable for my weight. The males, much stockier, around 70kg and the females around half of that, moved with agility akin to a Kung Fu master. Following a period of calm relaxation observing the herd, I moved on, crossing the most dramatic of suspension bridges, draped in prayer flags and looking up valley on Mount Everest and her neighbouring peaks. Here two ladies touted me to invest in fruit. I paid 300NPR for a couple of near-frozen oranges and enjoyed the majestic views of Everest and the Khumbu region. As I waited, I once again met Will and John. We cantered up the steep and strenuous climb into Namche Bazaar.

I joined Will and John for a wander, dropping off my laundry at a nearby laundry-house. A miracle considering no flowing water in the Yak Hotel prevented showers and sink water. After lunch in Everest Bakery, sampling Yak steak and eating pizza, I wandered the basin of the U-shaped magnet town.

A late breakfast of apple strudel and my first cappuccino of the year in Namche Bakery were followed up mostly by rest and relaxation. No walking. I acclimatised with ease to the altitude but sought some time to read and enjoy the sunlight. Hiring a down jacket proven to be the most exercise I had that day. Cafe 8848 was a pleasant place to sit and write for a few hours.

The Yak Hotel, complete with a marauding Yak-cow hybrid outside, as if for display, was lovely and warm. No heating, just great insulation. Power points in the room allowed me to recharge my phone. The 500NPR Wi-Fi service and lack of showers (frozen) were luxuries I opted against. The first night, I ate in the dining lounge. Tough meat in the Sherpa stew ruined an okay dish, accompanied by a good potato rosti. I was told the room would be 100NPR per night, and found that 300NPR per night was charged for my two nights. The breakfast was basic and the staff, a mixture of good (one Sherpa man) and rude or disinterested (one Rai man). I came back to Namche Bazaar on the way back but opted not to stay at the Yak Hotel again.

Namche Bakery was recommended for good cakes. I sampled the apple strudel on three occasions. It could be argued that they make the best apple strudel outside of Europe. The cappuccinos are also very good. The sun-kissed windows look out onto an amazing picturesque view that could make your jaw drop.

On my first visit to the Everest Bakery, I had a sizzling yak steak and shared pizza with friends. A wonderful pot of black tea was supped. I returned to try it again, opting for a different pizza and a cake. Very good food indeed, with interesting walls coated in sports team memorabilia from Norway, the UK and beyond.

One night in Namche, I wanted to message some special friends and family. I was in a far-off place, they deserve assurance – and I craved a familiar vice. The hotel’s Wi-Fi was off.  I went towards other end of village to see if two open bars had Wi-Fi, but two stray dogs snapped at me. I thought that they wanted to play, but in dark, I can’t risk getting bitten. I retreated. Then I had to dart between free-roaming yaks in the narrow village pathways.  They scared the now snarling dogs away. I arrived back in hotel, safely out of the cold too (-15C outside).

 

My acclimatisation was going well. Signs of altitude sickness include a loss of appetite (I’m famished an hour after eating), and breathlessness (my recovery rate is actually impressive). I avoided overexertion (my planned routes are a day behind and I’m monitoring the distance and time trekking), drinking more than I usually would too, going higher each day, but sleeping lower. I was without facial or hand swellings, no headaches, which was odd because I nutted a door in the night going to the toilet, in Sete. I bled a bit.

Happy to be free of the Yak Hotel, whilst warm and comfortable, the food was terrible and the service equally poor. On amending my bill to something akin to proper and not the figures they quoted, I skipped on. Darting sluggishly between ice-covered staircases and sloping pathways, I reached the top of Namche Bazaar. An army helicopter thundered as it lifted off, coating all around in a thick matting of dust. I covered my eyes and throat to protect them from obliterating dust. Soon it passed. I was back on the trekking trail. Here were views of the 6,812m tall Amal Dabble, meaning “Mother’s necklace.” As beautiful mountains go, this is one of the most scenic peaks I have ever encountered. Pure artwork in nature.

Lhotse Shar, Taboche, Kang Talge, Selawa village, Phunke Tenga’s prayer water wheels, Tengboche Monastery and a panorama liked no other on arriving at Tengboche (3860m). . On the ascent upwards, I really needed to urinate. So, finding a quiet point, I darted behind a tall recycling bin, whipping out the necessary body part to eject the toxic yellow fluid I needed to expel. That surprised the young South Korean girl squatting behind there, doing the same. I almost hit her. I missed. The pressures made us wee in unison and avoid eye contact in embarrassment. I finished, glanced her way, said sorry and bid her a good day.

I clambered up the steep zig-zagging dusty footpath, opting for a rest at a tree that inspired a climb and held a natural seat-like branch. Here, I ran into John and Will again. We pushed on the final ascent to Tengboche, before sharing dinner and tales of this amazing trekking route. The largest Gompa in the Khumbu region stood bold amongst the village reflecting the beautiful moonlight of the night.

Tengboche Monastery has been rebuilt several times. Lightning strikes and multiple earthquakes haven’t managed to end its long history. At the top of a juniper-filled valley, it sits on a dusty plain with roaming yak-cow hybrids called… Possibly stray dogs sleep in the sunlight of the morning. The monastery looks almost mediaeval. It was actually built in 1923. I don’t know why they chose the jutting flank of land teetering over the Imja Khola River but they in essence selected one of the greatest Himalayan panoramic views in doing so. The Lhotse ridge, Ama Dablam, Everest and many more mountains star in a 360-degree view of brilliantly unique picturesqueness. Littered by wintering rhododendrons, bare of flower, and patches of ice it certainly had a feel of magic.

First steps from Jiri

On filling all seats and any aisle space, bus 5064 departed. Leaving behind Kathmandu shrouded in dust, a cold thick fog and a bustle akin to the busiest of busy Chinese cities, I relaxed, well, as much as the rock solid seat padding would allow. The nine hour journey allowed two toilet stops by the roadside, some amateur road-building as we tackled mudslide hit segments of road and a meal of Dal Bhat, a staple food of trekking in Nepal. Glimpses of snow-capped peaks, cloud filled valleys and village lifestyles passed by as Nepali Dohori (two-sided debate) and Aadhunik (modern) music styles blurted from a crackly speaker on the bus. My enquiries into the music, from a fellow passenger, of the Sherpa people, educated me that there are more than fifty different ethnicities in Nepal. He said I should expect to hear hundreds of types of different music. I welcomed this.

The bus slammed on the brakes, and slid forward in dirt. The driver, shouted in plain English, “Jiri, Hotel.” He gestured at me. I gathered my rucksack, stepped off the bus into ankle deep mud. The bus rolled away. I turned back. Hotel Everest, 1950m high, claimed the sign. Perched on stilts with magnificent valley views, I could not see Everest. Still, it was impressive. It was 100NPR for a night, with food and drink giving me a total of 1400NPR by the next morning. I ignored the ice cold shower, the next morning, fed on momo (a steamed dumpling), Tibetan bread and garlic soup. I repacked (my now 20kg backpack) and by 8.30am, I set out. The first real steps of my trek! My path through Ramate was steep, Chitre also, and by a place called Pass (maybe, they couldn’t think of a name) I was stood at 2334m. Ben Nevis, in the U.K., stands at 1,345m (4,411 ft.). It is the U.K.’s tallest mountain. I was now almost a kilometre higher. I enjoyed my first close-up views of the Himalayas, stood by a giant Ncell mobile phone mast. I marvelled how the beginning point of many Mount Everest climbs began at Jiri (fewer than 5% now walk from the once named Gateway to Mt. Everest). Now, you could get 3G reception and few people trekked from this quaint end-of-the-road village. I descended via Mali, crossing a rebuilt steel bridge into Shivalaya. Here I applied for entry into Gaurishankar Conservation Area and gazed longingly at signs advising Red Pandas lived in the area. Oh, to see one, in the wild would be amazing!

The wild glacial river of Khimti Khola pushed metres below the almost entirely rebuilt village of Shivalaya. Like much of Nepal, the earthquakes and aftershocks from April and May 2015 had affected huge swathes of the country, here this village shown evidence of missing homes, ruins, and cracks scattering a large area. The cost to community, lives and sociology appeared hidden in the local people’s eyes and actions as they soldiered on with a very positive outlook. I lodged at New Sherpa Guide. My first blister throbbed and shoulders ached. Satisfied with 14km on day one, I slid away into a calm dream. The cool air of the night soothed my aching shoulders.

Freshly ground coffee is a great morning smell. There was no such thing here today. Shivalaya’s next best thing was a Scottish-style porridge heaped with fresh banana slices and sharp Masala tea. The day would continue just as diversely. The trek went up, and up along a ridge and from sunshine into thick high cloud with snowflakes as big as dinner plates. At Deurali, 2705m, for ginger tea and a snack of momo, I met Australian father and son, John and Will. I would go on to meet them almost daily for my trek. Of the five hours of trekking, almost four hours was upwardly, the remainder down.

I arrived into Bhandar, 2190m, and bunked at Shona Lodge. A French man, Vincois, I met many times along the way and my two new Australian friends also lodged here. The owner had rebuilt the lodge, changing from stone to wood panels and timber. Throughout the journey I would learn few families favour stones or concrete above the first storey of buildings now. Traditional stone and wooden frames have been usurped by concrete foundations and wood thereafter. Corrugated tin rooftops have replaced slates and wood in many regions. 12km of walking that day, ended in a cold night’s sleep on a full belly of fuel-like Dal Bhat. I drifted off, giggling at the lady owner’s witty and pushy characteristics. She was certainly a livewire, and her daughter, a local teacher was the salt to her pepper, very kind and calm.

I tiptoed through the ruins of a hamlet located a little lower in the valley than Bhandar, through fields farmed with various leafed plants for eating and across a swamp onto more solid ground. The vast sweeping valley stretched with views of Pikey Peak to the south and south-east. To the immediate east, the pathway stretched firmly upwards. My research indicated several hours of trekking to Sete. It was all up. Passing a broken suspension bridge, I opted for the newly installed Gurkha-soldier built bridge, and crossed into a ghost-village of Kinja, 1630m. Empty shells of once life-filled buildings and carcasses of footpaths through now empty farmyards covered a headland between the two raging rivers of Likhu Khola and Kinja Khola. It felt both summery in temperature but empty in spirit. As I ascended, I ate in Chhmbu, another empty village. By 4 o’clock, my eight hour hike ended at Sete’s Sunrise Guest House. I treated myself to a warm shower (200NPR) and ate Dal Bhat with Will, Vincois and John. This followed the standard gazing at a sunset and observation of all around the valley. Oh, and a drunk Sherpa lady dancing the crests of a steep footpath having enjoyed an afternoon’s Raksi (rice wine), Tongba (millet brew) or Chhaang (fermented barley) alcoholic drinks. Her drunken laughter and songs could be heard long after she had walked many miles away.

Just before bed, Vincois, mentioned tomorrow’s walk is essentially 1000m up and 1000m down. That reminded me of the Band of Brothers line about Currahee Mountain (Georgia, U.S.A.), “3 Miles up, 3 Miles down.” I smiled wryly at the challenge. I departed Sete, 2575m, for Junbesi, 2700m. How hard could that be?

Into Kathmandu, I went

Passing through Terminal 3 International, Departure, Indiri Gandhi International Airport, in New Delhi I was a little hungry. I wanted substantial food and not fast food. I asked for lemonade – and not masala lemonade. I got the masala lemonade I said I did not want. The starter and mains were dry and quite bland with no real flavour befitting their over the top prices.

Kathmandu‘s Tribhuvan International Airport marked my entry and exit to the country of Nepal. Red bricked walls gave a homely feel as I whisked by rucksack from the conveyor belt. I had filed a visa request in less than ten minutes and exited into the icy cold air of baggage reclaim, with only an hour to spare before the clock hit 2017’s New Year’s Day. A pre-booked taxi-van, full-throttled through bustling streets as revellers greeted the Gregorian calendar year with optimistic open arms. Before long I had checked in, drank a celebratory ginger tea and gone to bed, shattered from the journey from Dongguan. Ten hours of flights and wheels hadn’t been so bad. Just not, what I was excited for.

I arrived at Kathmandu with 30 minutes to New Year’s Day kicking in. On departing the airport, tired and having pre-arranged a taxi lift by the Alobar 100 hostel, I was greeted by a mob of men, of them two men appeared to be connected to the hostel. One held my name. The other was a driver. It was a tad intimidating. I booked the taxi to avoid being over-charged and to make the passage to the hostel simple. It put me in a poor mood immediately. I was harangued into tipping, my leftover low-denomination Chinese Yuan. I had no U.S. dollars, despite pushy requests for them. Nor pounds, I live in China and not the U.K.

Check-in was simple. Advice was good. The pre-booked shared dorm for six was actually an 8-berth. No worries. After a good shower in the morning, I had a simple breakfast. I ate a few meals at the hostels. Prices for food and drink were okay. There were plenty of books to swap, and good Wi-Fi. A porter and guide service, tourist trek place is attached but was above my budget so I opted away from utilising that. That said, the lady advised me of where the main bus station to Jiri was and the TIMS office. Communal lounges and the bar were welcoming but a bit smoky. The outside balcony proved comfortable for reading. The bunk bed on the ground, bed and locker G2G (Good to go?) proved perfect for my large rucksack and lanky, heavy figure. I slept well.

The following day, I explored the city of Kathmandu and made my last minute trek purchases, some walking poles and a dust mask for the immensely dusty city.

I explored the Garden of Dreams out of curiosity. I had no idea what was beyond tall the perimeter red-brick wall. The Garden of Dreams is really well-maintained. Not a hint of dust. Combining multiple cultures and their interpretations of a stately home’s gardens, they combine well. You really do escape from the city beyond the walls. Chipmunks, butterflies and birds combine to give a feel of being closer to nature than on a road. If you like the neo-classical style and quintessential ambience of a garden, this is the only place to go in Kathmandu. I visited on a grey cloudy day and lost the feeling of that weather on stepping through the doorway. 200NPR well spent. I learnt only half of the original gardens built remain. That is a crying shame. The Austrian Development Aid, Eco Hima and the Nepal Ministry of Education have aided renovations but the gardens still need a little more, following earthquake damage.

That evening I visited Kathmandu Durbar Square at the Hanuman Dhoka Palace Complex. It is bizarrely one of three sites called Durbar Square. The earthquake on 25 April 2015 has ruined a fair portion of the site. Expect stilts, ruins and boundaries hiding the damage. However, refurbishments are under way and taking time. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is marvellous. I visited as the sunset and enjoyed the dusky appearance. The colourful

Kalbhairav at Hanumandhoka dharwar is bedazzling on the eyes. The Taleju Temple is ornate and spectacularly broad. The colours of Courtyard of Kumari Bahal are equally pleasing on the eyes.  Throughout the area there is a real wow factor.

I eventually booked a coach ticket to the beginning point of my trek, Jiri.

For 590 Nepalese Rupees (NPR), even though I paid 400 more for a taxi and arranged ticket via a tourist agency, I found myself at 5am on the 3rd of January, walking around hundreds of unlit buses looking for my bus, number 5064. I eventually met a kind soul who shown me to a cramped set of wheels with forty seats. Space was not optional. A roof area would be available for summer passengers, but the severe morning frost and fog made this uninviting. The driver positioned my lanky legs behind his seat and I was set for the journey.