In High Places 4

If I’m perfectly honest, reaching Everest Base Camp on 21 November 2007 was a bit of an anticlimax.

It’s not that I didn’t appreciate the spectacular scenery around me – even at 5300m where we were, the snow covered mountains around soared more than 3km higher and the sky was a cloudless deep blue. It’s certainly not that it was an easy stroll – I read in my journal that at the time I found the trek across the rough, pathless Khumbu glacier harder than all but the last 10 minutes of climbing Kala Patthar. (That was a consequence of exhaustion and cold when I got back to Gorak Shep influencing my writing). I think it was a combination of having reached my motivational goal yesterday, at the top of Kala Patthar, not being able to see Everest from base camp and the realisation that from this point on, we were heading home.

Whatever it was, thinking about it later made me realise that while it’s good to set goals, and even better to set challenging ones, it’s no good just picking a thing like ‘getting to the top’. While it’s a clear, obvious target it can also be limiting. My initial interest in the trek was trigger by the magical phrase ‘Everest Base Camp’. It has an exciting, almost romantic sound to it. Thoughts of Mallory and Irving setting out on the final push (they actually went from the Northern side of Everest, as Nepal was closed to outsiders at the time). Images of the Commonwealth expedition of 1952, with Hilary and Tensing (their base camp was actually at Gorak Shep, where we stayed). When our trek leader said ‘here we are, Everest Base camp’ we were at a small pile of rocks on which some prayer flags had been tied. My journal says that I realised that if we were actually at base camp, we were at the southern extremity of it. That hid the understanding that actually, as our group were so slow, we had only just got to the vicinity of base camp when the leader called time, so that we would be able to get back to the lodge before the sun went down and it got cold. Having returned in 2011 when base camp was packed with expeditions waiting to climb the surrounding mountains, it was clear we had been short of the usual camp site.

Had my goal been base camp, I would have returned home ultimately disappointed. Given the country, the people and the stunning landscape through which we trekked, that would have been a crime. As it was, my driver for the trip was the scenery above base camp and the opportunity to photograph the mountains. I felt this was a more worthy goal but it was still narrow. Had we not reached Kala Patthar (which was a danger, see my previous post) I would still have returned home disappointed. When I went back in 2011, my motivation was to come back with a record in words and pictures of a trek in a new country, still adjusting to the 20th Century (let alone the 21st). I didn’t actually get to the top of Kala Patthar that time, due to an altitude induced headache and while I would very much have liked to, it didn’t ruin the trek.

Having a ‘get to the top’ goal can lead to all sorts of problems, as experienced mountaineers will tell you. Good climbers know when to turn back and they will value the journey as much as the triumph of the summit.

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In High Places 2

I arrived in Kathmandu in the evening of the 11th November 2007. The journey had been long and uncomfortable and I was glad to be out of the plane. As we checked through the customs desk, a jingle advertising the Rum Doodle restaurant played over and over again. And as it took a long time to get our visas issued, the jingle became a torture.  But eventually we were through.

I emerged, with my kitbag, into the chaos of the arrivals hall where hundreds of locals tried to take my baggage from me. Their aim was to get me to use one of their taxis, for which they’d get a commission. Our hotel had sent a bus with several of our trekking group that had arrived before us and they swiftly grabbed our luggage and stowed it safely aboard. Nevertheless, I was accosted by several of the teenage baggage boys trying to get me to give them dollars. Not a good start. Just before I climbed onto the bus, I looked up at the sun setting behind some hills and wondered what I’d let myself in for.

The journey to the hotel was mostly in the dark. I was tired and a bit dazed after around 17 hours of traveling and the comfort of the bus seat was most welcome. Shortly after we left the airport, we entered the built up area of Kathmandu and it was lit up with what looked like thousands of candles. Diwali – the festival of light – was being celebrated and our local guide told us that this was the third day of the festival. It was beautiful, and a magical welcome to the this new world I was entering. Every window had at least one tiny light shining and in the near total darkness it felt like we were being driven through a forest of candles. Only the occasional silhouette of a building or the odd wall lit up by vehicle lights spoiled the effect. Being in that jet lagged state made everything a little surreal.

The bus stopped and we all trooped out. It turned out that we had another 10 minute walk to get to the hotel, which was situated down a narrow street in which the bus wouldn’t fit. The bags went ahead, transported by hotel porters, and we made our way along behind them. Even in the evening, the traffic on these narrow streets was busy and for the whole walk we were assaulted by horns and revving engines as we braved the non-existent pavements. I’m glad it was dark so I couldn’t see exactly how close we were to the traffic.

At the Kathmandu Guest House, we were assigned rooms, and in a blur of activity we unpacked and all met in the restaurant for an evening meal of Dhal Bhat. I don’t remember much of that evening as the jet lag was no longer lagging. But at some point in the early hours I was woken by a number of pigeons all of who wanted to get into my room.

The following day was best described as a pleasant assault on the senses. We had a whole day to explore the city and in the morning we went on a tour of the main religious sites. The place that stands out in my memory was the Pashupatinath temple, a Hindu religious complex of great importance. The Great Hindu god Shiva takes many forms and as Lord Pashupati, he is worshipped here. As non-Hindus we were not allowed in the main temple but as we crossed the sacred Bagmati river we saw a number of cremations taking place on the opposite bank.

The river is sacred because it flows into the Ganges, and the ashes of the dead are scattered in the river so that they may also joint the Ganges. I watched, fascinated, as boys waded and swam in the filthy water to pick through the remains for any valuables. The smell was of sweet incense, as it was in so many parts of the city despite the piles of refuse, mud and water in drain free streets.

Thamel is the busy tourist hotel area of Kathmandu and it’s narrow streets and colourful shop displays were exciting and frantic and brash. I walked back from Durbar square to the hotel, all the while fearing the seemingly inevitable collision with a motorbike or rickshaw. But they are much better than I gave them credit for and they know how to deal with an inexperienced westerner like me. A range of horns and bells warned me if i strayed into the flow of traffic and I soon learnt to walk confidently and make no unpredictable moves into the street.

I managed to avoid the street salesman with a tiny violin and bow for sale with a sharp ‘no thanks’ and avoidance of eye contact, which made him try his luck with the next person. I chatted with a local who just wanted to practice his English. To my shame I assumed he was distracting me so his mates could pick my pockets. Of course that wasn’t the case – too long living in London taught me the wrong assumptions. All through the trip I found the sincerity and friendliness of the locals was so evident that it was almost too good to be true. Cynical western ways were suspended for a couple of weeks.

Power lines and telephone cables were strung haphazardly from telegraph poles and the sides of buildings as if someone had draped them in advance of their being tidied up. The fire risk was unimaginable as most business had cloth or wood signs advertising their wares. And the buildings were so close together that a fire in one would be disastrous for all. The signs themselves were amusing, with almost all of them in English but with bizarre spelling or grammar.

My first day immersed in a new culture was an amazing experience but I think it took a couple of days to realise how different everything was, by which time I was experiencing even more differences on the trail to Everest Base Camp.

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