Spiritually thunderstruck.

How do! / 你好 (nĭ hăo) / Namaste / Welcome!

A kind of swishing sound, only just perceivable to my ear, was what I heard. It happened in such a microscopic space of time that I had no time to react. My instinct said the sound was to be alarmed at. My brain had the signal. The computations were in process. It didn’t add up fast enough. As soon as my central nervous system was signalling peril, it struck. It skimmed more than struck, gliding over my head and landing with a thump two metres to my left shoulder. My head had slowed its momentum and the rock landed with a dull thud. The snow around it had remained intact. It sank into a hole maybe a leg’s length deep. As I peered into the hole, one eye was facing up the slope, making sure this rock’s bigger relatives weren’t coming down to flatten me. The slope was still enough. I gave a little more time to viewing the rock in the hole.

It was slate in colour, crumbly around the edges, rough and worn underneath but jagged and unforgiving on the top. The size, well, it was close to that of a red house-brick. I reached down to touch it. It weighed as much as two bags of sugar, if not a little more. I thought to myself, if that had landed on me more directly, I’d be as good as gone. Game over? I assessed my injury. It was a bump and no bigger than two (or three) that I had experienced earlier in the trek from headbutting low roof rafters and doorframes. It’s a habit I have tried to avoid since being a kid, but as my Mum will agree, I am clumsy. It’s in the genetics somewhere.

With that new bump obtained between Bhratang, the beginnings of the huge western face of Pagunda Danda, I just carried on to Upper Pisang. Not much I could do but knuckle down and see how it panned out. Initially that day, I was fine and later that day, I was still okay. The next day, as we departed the lodge and started our walk onwards, I started to feel an ache spanning from the bump back to rear-right of my head. After an hour of trekking that ache became near agony. It was either the rapid onset of altitude sickness, or that injury was playing up. Livia, Srirang and I trekked through deep snow, and eventually Livia and I stretched ahead a little, but not much. As we reached the mani stones, just shy of a very snowed over river with two bridges, I took a moment to try to understand my pain.

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We had opted for the path up to Ghyaru and Humde, because the views would look back across the valley at the Annapurna Masiff. The great mani stones, stood on a ridge overlooking the raging river below, and the smaller tributary that was would have to cross. Many slabs, rocks and smaller carved models carried one simple message, ‘Om mani padme hum. The beautiful artistic Sanskrit writing curved and glimmered in the various levels of light: ॐ मणि द्मे हूँ. Om/Aum/ ॐ [white] is a sacred syllable. Mani/ मणि [green] is a jewel (or bead). Pad/प [sky blue] plus me/द्मे [red] is the lotus flower – a flower sacred to Buddhism. Hoon/hum/ हूँ [dark blue] is the spirit of enlightenment. It can also be found in Chinese as 唵嘛呢叭咪吽 and Thai as โอมฺ มณิ ปทฺเม หูมฺ, amongst many languages and cultures.

Right here, on the pathway, the stone plates featured the six syllabled mantra as a form of Tibetan prayer. Some had clearly been painted, but most were natural earthly colours. Decades and possibly centuries of devotion made up this wall, like many other walls throughout Nepal and other countries. I’ve seen many mounds and cairns in similar fashions. Each one, I believe, offers prayer to the locality and beyond. The time and effort for each creation could be seen. No corners had been cut. Devotion had been placed on each faithful stone. This wall was around about two metres high and sagged just a little. It was long as coach and as wide as a wardrobe. You always walk around a Mani wall, the same way the Earth rotates. Buddhism has rules. Against the backdrop of the Himalayas, spiritualism and nature hugged each other. Lichens and mosses covered what surface they could, and birds occasionally perched on the walls, looking down at the snow, trying to find the little food available. At this moment, I assessed the bridges. Livia and I decided the lower bridge route would be the safest option. We set out.

After crossing the lower bridge, we scrambled upwards a few and awaited Srirang. He chose the upper bridge and we met once again. I walked up one gentle wide path and Srirang and Livia chose a steeper more direct route. They met me as I was sat down. My head was pounding inside – and I felt a little sick. There was dizziness. I ate some biscuits and drank plenty of water. Srirang and Livia were concerned. They suggested a rest and we discussed the injury or whether it could be altitude sickness. We were about 3500m up and we had never rushed the journey so far. Ghyaru (3730m) lay just a few metres upwards. After an hour, I decided I had to descend. Livia and Srirang disagreed but we all agreed, “if I feel better tomorrow, I’d head back up.” With that I scuttled back to Upper Pisang, and enjoyed the views of the frozen lake below on the plains, and the ever-angry flows of the Marshyangdi River. I was welcomed back into the same lodge. Even to this day I cannot recall the name of the lodge. It had a Sherpa-Tibetan family and they were ever so nice. I said about my discomfort and they said that I did the right thing.

After an evening of talking with trekkers on their way from Manang, and a few individuals heading upwards, I slipped off to bed. The dal baht power didn’t seem to be shifting my headache and numerous litres of water made me get up during the night several times. Peeing into a frozen toilet with no water to flush it, isn’t a nice experience, at 4am in the freezing cold. Still, it beat watching celebrities on mind-numbing television shows. I’d also spent hours on Wi-Fi trying to talk with customer services at Trip.com – for the second night running, to see if I could move a flight to Hong Kong, because of the growing seriousness of the COVID-19 outbreak in China. Many airlines were cancelling flights and by this time Nepal had apparently closed its borders to China and reportedly banned Chinese tourists. In my anxious mind, it made sense to be proactive and try to remain in Nepal. The border crossings between China and Hong Kong were rapidly becoming fewer too. Why fly to absolute uncertainty?

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I awoke a little refreshed but still with a headache. I made the choice to descend further. I set out just before 11am and walked back. I wasn’t sad. I wasn’t relieved. I just had a pain in the head that wouldn’t go away. The walk back was tough as the walk up. The deep snow and occasional blustery winds made it a slog of a day. As I rounded the cliffs and the path led through to The Farmhouse at Bhratang, I spotted a jeep. The driver helped me get to Chame. At Chame, I met a doctor who looked at my head, tested my reactions and concluded concussion. He said no need for emergency treatment and suggested I head back to Pokhara or rest for several days in a warmer village downhill. I was in luck, the jeep driver took me as far as Besi Sahar! Back to the beginning. Here I was dropped at the hotel Manaslu and booked onto the first coach to Pokhara that morning. It felt sad but I had a mix of emotions in my head, anxiety and a head injury.

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The U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office advised against all travel to China but didn’t state a clear reason why. The outbreak seemed to be mostly confined to Hubei and a few other areas. The U.K. wasn’t even screening passengers on arrival from any Chinese city. Was it really that serious?! Could I return to China or not? Would I have to head to the U.K.? Could I stay in Nepal by extending my visa? I had a tight budget and worry had been with me for days. Worry and concussion are not ideal bedfellows.

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The cumbersome coach clumped along, bouncing and bumping, throwing passengers here and there, and visited countless villages on the route back to Pokhara. At one stop a toothless elderly man sat on a step. He had no shoes on and his clothing looked unkempt. His face crinkled from years of exposure to the sun. He looked at me. He smiled. He gestured with his fingers the shape of a smile, over his face. That’s what it is all about. Experiences, moments and smiles. I smiled back, greeted and waved goodbye as the cumbrous coach continued headlong. I could take much from this journey and experience.

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Looking back at the day where the rock had hit my head, I’d been clicking away like crazy on my camera before that. After that, I’d rarely taken many photos. It clearly marked a change in my behaviour and my general health. The physical and mental challenge had just been knocked out of me. Yet, I experienced many great moments, even on the jeep journey back down. It isn’t every day a herd of goats gets in your way! From then on Nepal would still give me more great moments, but the trek had finished.

So, what next?

To be determined.

你好/ Ní hǎo / Nín hǎo / Hello / How do / S’mae / Namaste,

https://sunyatsens.com/

I opted not to take headphones with me, or earphones for the trek around Nepal. The soundtrack would be life and nature. However, if I was to take one song on that journey, then I’d struggle. Today, I watched the video of Ting Bu Dong by Sun Yat Sens. The track opens with producer Ryan Chambers on the didgeridoo. Throughout the track he continues flitting between this instrument, an acoustic guitar and backing vocals. Sometimes he manages two of the three. Talented bugger! Some of us can’t even play the spoons. The vocals kick in from Chris Bradshaw, who puts a J between his names. It could mean juggernaut or John, as in Lennon, I don’t know. Rob Laughlin on base, alongside Eric Charette on drums and a session guitarist in Brandane Mullane form the band’s entirety. The reason that I namedrop these guys, because somehow, somewhere and someday these boys could reach high. They’ve evolved since I first watched them at Magic Island Music Festival back in December 2016. They’ve gone from a group capable of pub gigs, to a professional looking, well-marketed and confident outfit. They’re more A-Team than A-list still. That’s a good place to be. With videography by the talented Ryan and drone footage, alongside their graphic design they can do anything they want.

The dreamy didgeridoo-opening has a touch of This Garden by The Levellers, and I’m feeling a touch of Dido in there. It has the played down nature of early Oasis-acoustic tracks without the overpowering aggression of a cocksure Gallagher on board. I’m expecting, “Today is gonna be the day…” but instead the song smashes in some Chinese. Why not? The reggae-indie rap is dreamy. The chorus is clear and takes me back to Nepal on that last walk. Songs that unlock memories and emotion are powerful things. The video showcases life in China, a wandering figure and gives your imagination an opportunity to test itself. Sun Yat Sens and their previous song WeChat was more Feeder and jolliness in style. My students feature somewhere in there around the minute mark. I hope that we all see and hear more of this band soon.

#15 – PYRAMID – GORAK SHEP 1300 – EVEREST BASE CAMP – GORAK SHEP 1800 ~ 12km

 

8th February 2019

We set out from Pyramid (5050m / 16,568ft) to Gorakshep (5100m) and then onwards to EBC (5360m). On Earth’s lands there isn’t much surface area above us at this point. The upper points above 7,000ft (2133m) is only about 7% of the total of Earth’s surface. 29.2% of Earth has land above sea level or uncovered by lakes and rovers. Our oblate spheroid of a planet has bumpy bits. The Himalayas (China/Nepal/India)) with the Karakoram range (China and Pakistan) are the only places to see peaks over 8000m. Only Bhutan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan (a country I know nothing about) can be added to those countries for mountains over 7000m. Going to other countries and looking for big mountains is near pointless. Aconcagua (6962m) in the Andes (Argentina) is as close as you will get. Anyway I now found myself above 5164m for a night’s sleep. The highest that I have ever snoozed.

If Lobuche is bleak, then Gorakshep could have meant shithole in English. The smooth mountain top of Kalapatthar hovers over the lakebed that sits by Gorakshep. We arrived, ditched our things at the Buddha Lodge, ate a late lunch and then started the Everest Base Camp trek. The final leg towards a hidden shadow beneath Everest. The lodges are mostly supply drops and shelters. There is discarded waste in piles, banners and tents ripped to shreds scattered here and there. Armageddon refused to stop in Gorakshep on account of it being totally dilapidated and uninhabitable.

The worst night’s sleep ever followed. Firstly, the windows were rattling amd pccasionally flying open. Cracks in some panes threatened to explode. The roof was rattling. Each room had a temperature lower than -25°C. Snow slipped through the edges of the window frames. The lodge shook with each gust. Worse still – we were running out of yak shit. The main lounge room was starting to cool. As I lay my head down headaches came and went. Even if I wanted to descend downwards, this was not the weather to open any doors.

In the lodge a group of three from the U.K. with their The Baton flag slept, alongside Rhys, Al and Spanish Albert. Everyone seemed to endure a restless night of anti-sleep. Hope of making ot through a night without the roof blowing off was broken up by regular piss breaks to the toilet at the end of the cold corridor. The frozen stinking cesspit in the ceramic western toilet was perhaps the warmest thing for several kilometres.

The great thing about having a sleeping bag comfortable to -25°C is that when it finally teeters over that temperature limit, you’re still a little warm. An extra blanket on top helped. The noise of the howling winds did not. Gritty frozen grains pounded the windows outside. It seemed that the outside desperately wanted to be inside. Sporadically the dirt of the outside world slapped the windows like bullets being fired from a gun.


9th February 2019

Morning arrived. Breakfast was devoured. We set out.

Kala Patthar is 5,545 metres (18,192 ft). It might as well be higher. It is no mean feat to get to the top and capture a panoramic view of the Khumbu glacier like all the postcard shops have obtained. A panoramic sweep of clouds in all directions and zero visibility doesn’t sell the same. To quote trekker Rhys from Cardiff, “Well it is the mountains and that means clouds.” It is what it is. Simple. Black rock, as Kala Patthar means in Hindi, might well just translate as bleak rock. I read somewhere that the ‘The world’s highest webcam, Mount Everest webcam, was located here’ on Kala Patthar. In those clouds, you could lose anything – including life! No prayer flags were visible yet needed. No mountain climbing permit was required – making this the highest point to scramble without license to do so.

The Khumbu glacier is supposed, by scientists, to have formed in the last Great Ice Age. That was around 500,000 years ago. On reaching Lobuche (4910m), my legs were feeling equally as old. The Khumbu region stretches from Namche Bazar out to Thame in the west and Gokyo. Gorak Shep, and Chukung mark the northern and western areas.  The Khumbu subregion is a third of the region known as the closely named Khambu. The lowest point is 3,300m high around Lukla. Visibility was so low, that my feet were barely in sight. The gamble and decision to stay an extra day was not appealing. With heavy snow forecast, we headed down – our target, “as far as we can go.” Well, after struggling over the open boulder and rocks fields lining the banks of glacial death below, we dropped into a valley leading towards the Pyramid. We’d later show some pretty bad windburn on our skin – and thankfully we escaped anything more serious.

Having sought cover just before lunchtime, we had cut a path through deep snowdrifts and found shelter. We were the only ones at the Pyramid International Laboratory/Observatory. We hadn’t intended to stay again but we had no choice. After an hour a Chinese man and his porter/guide joined us. They said they were close to death out there. It was believable and no embroidery on their part. Barely two hours later and the blizzard vanished. The whiteout faded to a grey unsettling day. We chilled out in the warm lounge watching cricket, volleyball and eating too much. It passed the time before bedtime. Outside did not appeal to us.

#16 GORAK SHEP – PYRAMID ~ 10km

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10th February 2019

The walk continued as in the spirits of each day before. It was always about just going forwards, and not rushing. Some loose targets and aims were handy but they were never set in concrete. The journey was to be lived. The destination was just for inspiration. Some target Everest Base Camp for status, spirituality or homage. Some push themselves as far as they can go. Some want to do their best. There had never been a race to get anywhere and likewise we weren’t descending fast for the sake of it.

Within an hour, I did not think that I could walk any more. My head was pounding at the rear and I was walking so slow, that deep down I was beginning to worry. Fatigue had turned to exhausation and my mental condition was slipping to the negative. Ten minutes after passing Ishwor, Srirang and Livia on their way up, I had to stop. Here the cough that had been niggling me for nearly two weeks began to rasp at my throat. I tried to catch my breath. A moment later, I was staring at my breakfast on the floor. My nose stang. I smelled terrible. My mouth tasted like a yak’s arse. After a few moments of composure, I explained to Maria we must head down fast – but steadily and for her to keep an eye on me. Barely an hour later and I felt great – reinvigorated and fully oxygenated. Resurrection in a Buddhist land is possible afterall.

We soon appeared at the tombs and monuments, standing tall under a sunlit sky. The spiritual air of the location fell away as we descended the pathway to Thukla. Here we continued over the glacial rover’s stepping stones, banked left and followed a pebble-stoned pathway into the valley around Pheriche (4371m).

I was told by many not to stay at Pheriche when doing this trekking route. It sits deep in the shadows of the mountains around it and on a cloudy day, little light makes it to the village. This day it was basked in splendid sunshine. The Tsola River flowed beneath it. The Himalayan Rescue Association (HRA) are based here but we dodn’t stop by. We spent an hour hiding from yaks, by squating by a frozen stream as they passed by and then doubled back. Eventually we joined a British couple, their guide and porter to pass by. The top end of Pheriche village seemed to have a melting-yet-dangerously-frozen-river-road down the middle. That had to be negotiated slowly. Empty buckwheat and potato fields lined the pathways. Following the top end of the village a few kilometres before the lower village appeared. The neighbours there must be quite fit.

Arriving at Deboche (3820m) today we had dropped about 1230m. That’s 1.23km (4053 feet – about 7/10 of a mile). Burj Khalifa is the tallest building at 828m (2717’) tall. It had taken just a few hours. The walk up had been broken down.

#17 0900 PYRAMID – 1600 DEBOCHE; #18 0930 DEBOCHE – NAMCHE BAZAR 1700: ~ 40km
#19 NAMCHE BAZAR – LUKLA ~ 21km
#20 LUKLA: ~ 4km

More to follow.

 

再见/ Zài jiàn / Bài bài / Ta’ra / Goodbye / Hwyl Fawr / Dhanyabaad / Alavidā