"You don't need this" said Amanda as she shoved my college data structures book into my chest. As I just stood there watching, she ripped open my suitcase and started rolling my shorts and squeezing every last bit of medication into any corner that could still breathe. I made a bet with her that she couldn't make more room for stuff. I was, of course, wrong.
I looked at the textbook in my hands. The last time I looked for a job, I reread this entire book and came out all right. Might as well get started on the plane right? I had known for awhile now that I wanted to leave my job but the side of me that kept nagging, "stop being such a millennial" forced me to stay for at least 2 years. Well, I hit my 2 year mark in February. So what was next?
Most people have a lifelong dream of going to Nepal and trekking to Everest Base Camp. It's one of those bucket list items akin to running a marathon, a unique physical and mental challenge. From talking to a bunch of other people, I always heard "changed my life" tossed around. No doubt that it would be eye-opening but I don't really believe in setting grand expectations, and I certainly roll my eyes when it comes to finding oneself.
No. It was more impulsive than that. To be honest, last Thanksgiving, I watched the movie Everest with my family and became semi-obsessed mountaineering and adventure movies. Of course, I wasn't ever going to do something that extreme, but I was fascinated how people would go through such harsh conditions, punishing their bodies for the sole purpose of exploration. I read several of Jon Krakaurer's books became curious at how people romanticized nature and the wilderness. It wasn't before long that I was looking up trips to different parts of the world. I know what you're thinking. Watch a movie. Read a few books. Think you can do something. So naive. So...millennial.
Well, being a city kid, I never really gave trekking that much thought. Wasn't gonna to climb Everest. Wasn't going to ditch my family and travel into Alaska. But I wanted a new adventure. Something different than vacations I did in the past. Something intriguing. And I have to say, signing up for this trip, I needed to be slightly impulsive. Slightly naive. Otherwise I would have never done it.
When I told my friends, their first reaction was, "do you know what happens at the end of that movie [Everest]?" I had to go into the long winded explanation that I was only going to base camp and that was perfectly safe. Ok maybe not perfectly. But still, it was trekking vs mountaineering. I just thought to myself - Step one, walk. There is no step 2. See what how I handle altitude and pray to the mountain gods I don't get diarrhea. That's about it. And maybe, just maybe, I'll get a couple nice pictures while I'm at it.
Obviously, for the extreme traveler, this is child's play. I was going to join a trekking group with a guide and porter and was only going to be in Nepal for a little more than two weeks. But, I liked the idea of getting in shape and training for something. I stepped on a scale, grabbed a handful of stomach fat, and looked at my growing dad-bod. Stepping off, I immediately opened a google doc, created a 3 month plan to leave my job, researched trekking logistics, went out for a run, or two, or twenty, created a workout plan, put on a weighed vest, hit the stairmaster for hours, lifted, talked with a couple experienced trekkers, went to the docs, got five shots, gave my 2-weeks notice, and booked the trip to base camp.
That led me to here. A jobless, 20-something packing for my first trekking adventure, hiking over 144km round trip to base camp over 12 days. All-in-all, I'm going to be gone for a month - 2 weeks in Nepal and 2 weeks in Taiwan, returning right before my 27th birthday. I think I'll be alright. If not, I've got insurance.
By the way, I did end up stuffing the textbook in my bag without Amanda looking. I needed a refresher on Dijkstra's anyways.
Day 1: Arriving in Kathmandu (4,593 ft)
32 hours later, 3 flights and 15,000 miles, I landed in Kathmandu. If you're used to huge international terminals with travelers crowding around an airport gate, you'll be in a bit of a shock. People were sitting around the floor of the arrival terminal with no shops open and pretty lax security. After applying for a visa and guiding a Chinese tour group through customs, I looked around for my pickup. I booked with a group called AMETREKS online and after searching a bit, spotted a guy wearing a red sweater in 70 degree weather outside holding up a sign that read "Eric Hsiao".
His name was Shusil, and I eventually learned that he was our guide for the entire trip. We packed up my stuff headed to the hotel in Thamel. Definitely a bit of a culture shock during the ride. There wasn't a single traffic light on the roads. I'd never seen traffic so ba. It was basically a free-for-all with round-abouts with cars going in every direction. The traffic lanes were more like guidelines and the motorbikes whizzed around cars, kicking up dust at the pedestrians walking with the cars. Couldn't imagine driving in this. Walking around Thamel, it definitely was pretty touristy. Lots of westerners walking around and buying souvenirs. Chinese tourists eating street food with reckless abandon. There were no sidewalks. Cars shared a dirt road with them weaving between clots of tourists. They passed within inches.
After a quick shower at the hotel, I met up with Binu, the tour coordinator, and she ran me through the logistics of the trek. Turned out that I'd be joining a family of 3 Australians that were coming in later that night. Just casually crashing a family reunion.
I'd be on my own until the following day. More time to relax and switch my time around which I was perfectly happy with. Shusil recommended that I try out a Korean restaurant since we'd be getting Nepalese food tomorrow night. Being extra cautious that I didn't end my trip before it even began, I poured even the bottle water into my filtered water bottle and neglected the traditional side dishes. The restaurant was pretty small, almost like a mom and pop shop but with surprisingly good pork* bimbimbap. I was pretty self-conscious about eating alone, especially because I couldn't comfortably sit at their tables. I kept squirming around, trying my best to sit indian-style until I lost circulation to my feet. I also didn't have service so it wasn't really like I could stare at my phone.
After lunch I checked my watch it was 3pm. 1am in the US. Goodnight.
Day 2: Exploring Kathmandu
I woke up early and jumped on a quick video chat with Amanda. After a quick breakfast at the hotel, I went down and met our tour guide at the hotel entrance. Unfortunately, being terrible with names, I forget what her name was but for the sake of the post, let’s call her Cece.
Shusil was going to meet us for our dinner at night but Cece was going to show us around for the day. Our plan was to visit a couple of templates during the day Swayambhunath (Monkey temple), Dumbar Square, Bodhnath Stupa, and Pashupatinath Temple.
In the van, I met up with the 3 auzzies: Eddie (the dad), Oliver (the cousin), and Cyrus, a 14 year old hight school kid. Immediately I heard their accent and almost cracked a smile. Was going to have a hard time not picking up an accent during this trip. Honestly, it took me awhile to learn their names. Almost the course of the entire day. I had to wait for them to call out to each other before I got it right. Kept on mixing up Oliver and Cy. We probably drove about an hour to go 3 miles.
Gave us some time to get acquainted. I learned that Eddie was a pretty avid triathlete and had been training for this trip, although never really done any hiking like this. They were also doing a pretty extended trip, going to Nepal for the EBC trek and then heading to Dubai afterwards for skydiving and possibly some bungee jumping. They seemed pretty outdoorsy to me, but like myself, didn’t really have too much backpacking experience. Made me feel a little bit better about signing up.
Oliver seemed pretty outdoorsy. In my mind, when I talked to Binu, I had pictured him as a 40 something but he was really in his early 20’s. Actually I didn’t really know if he was that much older than Cy when I first met him. Then again, people probably think I’m pretty young too the first time they meet me. He worked as an electrician in Sydney. Did a couple extended camping trips and was getting more and more into snowboarding.
Cy was pretty quiet (same as me when I was 14) so didn’t learn too much about him that first day except the fact that his full name was Cyrus (was trying to figure that one out the entire day). He seemed to get shit on the most since he was the youngest. Makes sense.
Anyways, we toured the first location, a temple overlooking the city. I got to experience prayer wheels for the first time. You’re supposed to turn them clockwise to purify your soul. The locals called this template the monkey temple (and yes, there were a bunch of monkeys).
Here we learned that the prayer flags had 5 colors in a specific order: orange, white, red, green, and yellow. They represent the five elements which I completely got wrong:
- Blue - Sky / Space
- White - Air/Wind
- Red - Fire
- Green - Water
- Yellow - Earth
Bet you thought blue would be water and green would be earth right? Written on each flag are mantras which are said to purify the air that passes through the flags. That’s why the flags are kept in places high up in the mountains, where it’s commonly windy to spread good will.
We also saw and heard this mantra everywhere “Om mani padme hum”. It was on the prayer wheels, carved on stonescalled mani rocks, and recited in the music playing around the template. The meaning is as follows:
- Om - common prayer syllable
- Mani - “jewel”
- Paddle - “lotus flower”
- Hum - represents the spirit of enlightenment
After continuing on, we ended up at Dunbar square which I saw the first noticeable damage from the earthquake in 2015. A lot of the temples were destroyed and a lot of it was still being rebuilt. Even still, we saw a live goddess which was really cool called the Kumari. She’s a pre-pubescent girl that’s selected to live in the 2nd floor of a small castle with helpers. Since the 17th century, she’s been traditionally worshipped by Hindu and Buddhists alike in Nepal. Once she gets her first period, it’s believe that the the goddess Taleju vacates her body. Cece said that the hardest part of being selected is to go back to a regular life after being worshipped as a goddess but it’s a huge honor especially for religious family to be selected and after their term, they receive regular payments for their family. Still, for many years, its gotta be difficult to be confined to the small house and only be allowed to come out once a year during the X festival.
After Dunbar, we headed to one of the holiest sites in Nepal, Bodhnath Stupa. At the top of the tour is more than 40kg of pure gold. Crazy. It’s also rumored to contain one of the bones of Kassapa Buddha. It’s one of the largest stupas in the world.
Afterwards we decided to skip Pashupatinath Temple (which had a live cremation) since it was getting late and we needed to get ready for the trek. So we said goodbye to Cece and headed back in Thamel to do some last minute shopping for gear.
I tried to organize things for the hike into plastic ziplock bags by day - Reach-the-Beach style. Stinky clothes I’d keep confined and clean clothes I’d keep separate with a couple drier sheets to shield the smell. Chargers I’d keep in a ziplock bag. Camera equipment I can strip down. I wanted to make sure my backpack would be light enough, just a rain jacket, waters, and maybe a couple of snacks each day. In my google doc, I listed out what I needed and whether or not I'd packed it.
- Hiking poles…check
- Deodorant…fuck it
I'm so organized.
Day 3: First Day of Trekking.
Flight from Kathmandu to Lukla (2,860m). Hike to Phaking.
"Earlier the better. It’s not everyday you get to fly into the world’s most dangerous airport. Shusil told us that later flights tend to get cancelled because the clouds set in. At least in the mornings, the pilots could still see that runway. I was pretty excited to get to Lukla's airport, a short 500m runway in the middle of the mountains. I’d read a bunch of stories about extreme turbulence during the flight. The kind of stuff that tosses you around like ragged doll in a Pringle can flying in the mountains. I half hoped for it to be honest. The other half was praying I just got there in once piece." - journal excerpt
It was still dark outside as we pulled up at Tribunavian Airport. I could still make out the line of backpackers waiting to get into the building. Our flight was at 6am but we quickly realized that that time didn’t really matter. By 6, we were still waiting in line, inching our way to the front of security. Shusil pushed us through quickly and within 15 minutes of getting through, we were on our twin-prop plane and ready to go.
I was curious how I’d feel in Lukla at 9000ft. Prior to this trip, the highest I’ve ever been was Katadin (5,600 ft). Landing there, I’d already be almost twice as high as I’ve ever been. Maybe I’d get a splitting headache where I’d instantly regret ever booking the trip? Who knows. Only one way to find out.
As we started to get closer to Lukla and the plane started weaving through the mountains, we hit some rough turbulence which tossed the plane, shifting from left to right abruptly. Finally, as the runway and the houses came into view, I leaned up from my seat to take a quick peak at the runway. At the end of a surprisingly short runway, there’s a back wall. There really isn’t room for error. If the pilot miscalculates, the plane goes into the mountain. Luckily, they’ve done this before.
We pulled into the airport and jumped out. As we left the plane, there was another line of trekkers waiting to get on. Moments after we landed, the plane took off again. I looked around and took in my first breath of the Himalayas.
After breakfast in Lukla and picking up a couple water purifying tablets, we set off to hike to Phaking (pronouced "Pad-king", not "Fak-ing". Today was easy. We were going mostly downhill to sleep low. Shusil told us that tomorrow would be our real test (going up 900m to Namche Bazaar).
We got to Phaking in the early afternoon and ate lunch at the teahouse. Since there was a lot of downtime, we went for a quick walk around and met a couple Europeans who were also out exploring. Once we got back to the teahouse, I taught the aussies Monopoly Deal. They ended up getting pretty into it and we played until dark. I’m pretty sure I passed out at the table at one point. 7pm is a reasonable bedtime right?
Day 4: Entering Sagarmatha National Park
Hike from Phaking to Namche Bazaar
Kind of cool to think that each new day during the trek, I set a personal record for highest altitude reached. I’ve already pretty much doubled the highest place I’ve visited in the states. Before the trip, there really isn’t anything I could do to train for the altitude. I just have to go and see what happens. The Aussies mentioned that they did some sessions at a gym where they simulate high altitude. So you can run on treadmills and stuff and they lower the oxygen levels in the room. I’d just thrown on a backpack and spent some time at Equinox climbing stairs. But equinox is luxurious. You can shower with Kiehls and wipe down with lemon scented towels in. Here's different.
While back in Kathmandu, I’d taken some time to load up my shuffle but I haven’t really found use for it and to be honest I didn’t really intend to plug in my headphones anytime soon. There’s something so peaceful about just listening to the natural sounds and even hearing the music playing from the porter’s phones as they pass by. Maybe as we get higher up I’ll need more motivation but for now I'm perfectly happy.
From Phadking, we were heading to Namche, a popular trekking village for those headed to EBC, 8 hours away, passing through Sagarathma National Park where Shusil was going to grab trekking permits for us. (Everest National Park).
As we passed a wall of dirt and rock, Shusil told us that during the earthquake in 2015, the villages were hit especially hard. One person had died at that exact spot from a rockslide during it. Many villages had been completely devastated. While it was happening Shusil told us that trekkers were trying to rush out of Lukla but the airport was too busy transporting the injured and the dead out of the mountains. Over the last 2 years, they had rebuilt a lot but there was still a lot of work to be done.
We walked all afternoon. It was pretty easy going. Couple uphills but nothing too bad. Yesterday was pretty cloudy but this morning was beautiful. We passed through Sagarmatha National Park and walked along the stream of glacier water. Shusil told us that the hard part would come after lunch.
Shusil kept on saying it was “just a little bit up” but always with a slight, devilish smirk. I started to feel it as we climbed higher and higher after lunch. Every time I started breathing harder, I’d take a quick break, drink some water, and then continue going up but it would start with a slight lightheadedness. My heart rate got faster as my breath got a little shorter but I wasn't too concerned about it. I tried to keep in tune with my body and take rests when I needed it.
Also needed to be sure of my footing. The trail was mostly rocks with some unstable portions where the rocks shifted under your feet. Didn’t want to twist an ankle. I was also kind of surprised at how steep the trail was. In the US, they’d probably build fences along the way since there were parts that looked like it completely dropped off.
As we passed the villages, we crossed multiple suspension bridges, the largest of which was the Hillary bridge. Oliver was on the bridge taking pictures when the train of donkeys started to cross, pushing him off to the side of the bridge.
Halfway up, we stopped at a rest where we were supposed to get our first view of Everest. But it was pretty cloudy that day so I really couldn’t see anything. Two more hours of hiking mostly uphill brought us to Namche Bazaar, the trekking hub for Everest.
I’d seen it in videos online but in person, it was a lot smaller than I expected. Cows and trekkers alike packed the main street where they were selling cheap trekking gear, souvenirs, and other woolen goods. Awaiting us in the teahouse was a hot shower. I already felt disgusting. I’d been sweating profusely and was starting to grow some stray cheek hairs. Whatever. Not like I was trying to impress anyone up here. There wasn’t any temperature control. You either got cold or scorching hot. It also didn’t have any pressure and basically leaked drop by drop from the head. I cupped my hands together to throw water and soap onto my body. Still it felt amazing. Probably stood in there for 30 minutes or so. After it was over I quickly shaved, changed into clean clothes, and headed to the teahouse. Me and the auzzies headed up the village to checkout some stuff. There were coffeeshops, bars, and best of all, bakeries that we wanted to try out. Plus, hiking up the village would help us acclimatize better.
Being in the lower half, we needed to go up a set of stairs to get from our hotel to the center. It wasn’t too long, probably equivalent to 2-3 flights but all of us were breathing pretty heavy by the time we got up to the top. Surprisingly how the altitude was starting to make a difference. I guess we area already at 12,000ft, the height of some of the ski mountains in Colorado. I kept on thinking what my friend Arthur told me about the altitude though. When he was up there, it was a throbbing headache and you just feel completely out of breath. I wasn’t there yet and actually still felt pretty good.
We grabbed dinner at the teahouse. I got dal baht, a never-ending Nepali dish with lentils, vegetable curry, and rice. I loved it and got a bit more. Knock on wood, my stomach was holding up. Everything still seemed to be in check. Then again, it was only day 2.
Day 5: Tea and Yoga
Acclimatizing day in Namche
"Ok, what the hell is up with these dogs. Whenever we see them, they’re so calm on the side of the roads. During the nights they’re rabid. Nocturnal beasts about to attack whatever comes their way. Can't really stand the howling during the middle of the night. The walls are so thin that you can hear everything. It takes me awhile to fall back asleep each time I wakeup."
Most people think acclimatizing days you just get used to the altitude. Well you do - by hiking higher and then going back down to the same point to sleep. We went up to 3,880m to Everest View Hotel. A pretty short hike, maybe 2-3 hours up and an hour back down.
On the way back to Namche, we passed a mother and daughter who were carrying things up. The daughter looked about 10-13 but was carrying a pretty large basket of stuff up. She puts us all to shame. We talked to them a bit. Signing and speaking slowly. After giving them some water we went on our way.
On the way down, we met a woman who has done EBC several times. She was just in Namche visiting friends and has been staying in Nepal volunteering. Being a veteran, she just told us to drink a ridiculous amount of water (around 5L a day if we could) and to go slowly. There's a Nepali saying “Bastari bastari” which means “Slowly. Slowly”. Probably one of my favorite phrases along with "Jam jam" ("Let's go").
After we got back down, it was only 1pm so we grabbed lunch, played a couple games of monopoly, and went up to buy some stuff. I ended up getting water purifying tablets .The ones I got from Lukla needed 4 hours to purify the water and the chlorine was so strong that the taste lingered for hours afterwards. I also got a pair of down booties to keep my feet warm at night while the Auzzies purchased necklaces and took a look at some of the Everest Base Camp T-shirts. We'd get those on the way down. I've always been a bit superstitious about that. Never liked to get the gear before I finished something. Need to get to base camp before we get T-shirts.