30 June 2013

Everest Base Camp Trek - Day 0: Kathmandu

I had spent months worrying so much about my Everest Base Camp (EBC) trek, that I was just quite anxious to get it over and done with and just live to tell the tale.  Not exactly the best way to enjoy 6 months' worth of savings, I told myself ruefully as I sat and watched our plane land and taxi towards the red orange brick structure of Kathmandu's Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA).

TIA is an exercise in patience--well, at least for the arrivals bit. The line at the visa and immigration area took forever, and it wasn't even peak season. One of the nicest things about Nepal though is that the government grants visas to everyone on arrival; because I was going on the EBC trek, I took the 30-day visa which costs only US $40.

I was greeted at the arrivals area by Madan, who, I was to find out later on, was going to be my guide for the entire 12-day trek. He greeted me by placing a garland of flowers around my neck, which was quite a surprise for me, as that kind of welcome is normally done to VIPs when they arrive in the Philippines. I had no idea that was how Nepalis welcomed their guests. I looked around, and sure enough, other tourists who had just arrived were wearing the same kind of flowers on their necks.

Kathmandu is a riot of colors, a total assault on the senses.  Dust and prayer flags everywhere, with motorcycles whizzing by and cars zipping past at an equally dangerous pace. The city reminded me of Cairo--frenetic road activity, local music blaring out from various sources, people in colorful garb, and earth-toned structures lining the streets.

I checked in at Hotel Shanker, this old palace that was converted into a 4-star hotel.  The place, in its own charming way, had a layout that seemed to have no rhyme or reason.  The way to my room was a bit roundabout; I had this sensation of wandering through palace corridors indeed. And my room had all the delightful amenities I was expecting.
my room at Shanker Hotel
my room at Shanker Hotel
I literally just dropped off my bags and immediately headed for the Himalayan Planet Adventures (HPA) office with Madan.  I was to meet, finally, Naba, my 'penpal' for the past 4 or so months, who was going to give me a final briefing on the trek before I headed off into the wilderness.

HPA's office is located in the backpacker district of Thamel, where all the action is.  Normally, briefings don't take so long, but I felt comfortable just sitting there chatting with Naba for an hour or two.

The three most awesome and important things I learned from Naba were:

1. No leeches on the EBC trail (with Madan affirming this piece of good news). And no frogs too. YES!

2. The weather had recently improved after several days of zero flights from Kathmandu to Lukla, and it seemed that the skies would be clear for tomorrow's flight. Could it be that I was a lucky girl, after all?

3. In the likely event that I would need to be flown out of Lukla via helicopter after my trek due to plane flight cancellations, I didn't need to shell out $500 in cold cash. HPA could handle the advance and the fee could be charged to my credit card later on. Seriously, it pays to have a trekking agency watching out for your welfare.

Of course, any helicopter medical rescue (in case I would contract moderate to severe altitude sickness) would be shouldered by my travel insurance company, World Nomads. Plane flight cancellations are a different matter altogether, and I was relieved to know that Naba and his team were going to take care of such things on my behalf.  Basically, all I had to do was haul my ass over to Lukla and climb up to Everest Base Camp.

After the briefing, Madan took me around Thamel because I said to him and Naba that I needed to shop for some gear last-minute and to withdraw some money from the ATM. I was told that there would be virtually no ATMs along the Everest trail, so I needed to have cash with me for any unexpected miscellaneous expenses that I may incur.

Thamel has a superabundance of trekking gear shops, crammed together side and side and bursting with all the trekking apparel, gear and accessories you can think of.  After all, this country is home to the Himalayas--so whatever mountain gear you need, you're sure to find it in Thamel, Kathmandu. I drove a hard bargain with the owner of the store where I bought trekking poles, a head lamp, extra fleece jacket, extra hiking socks, fleece gloves, and all that.  Not sure if it was all really a bargain, but I was just tired from the flight and the shopping.

Part of the 16-day itinerary of my trek (12 days for the trek proper and 4 days in Kathmandu) was a welcome dinner that first night.  I was actually exhausted and dying to pack my stuff, but I also didn't want to miss my first experience of Nepali cuisine.

Had dinner with Madan at Nepali Chulo, which is 10 minutes away from Shanker on foot.  The restaurant has that authentic Nepali vibe to it, with low tables, mats and pillows, and people sitting cross-legged on the floor while having their meals. Our dining area was on the second floor, and Madan gestured for me to go up the narrow flight of stairs leading to our table.  "Climb your best," he said with an impish grin. I was to remember his words all throughout my trek.

Naturally, we ordered the special Nepali dinner set which consists of 11 dishes, and as we waited for our food, I had the unexpected pleasure of meeting a fellow Filipino that evening.  Nepali Chulo's low dining tables were set up so close to one another in such a way that a person can practically tap his/her fellow diner on the shoulder.  My new Filipino friend Marlo was seated right next to me, and it was such a nice experience to converse with him, his Nepalese work colleagues, and with Madan that night.

Nepali Chulo's fixed dinner set consisted of popcorn (the strangest appetizer I've ever come across, as this is normally a snack you'd have at the cinema), steamed momos (Nepalese dumplings), curry, wild boar meat (!), some delicious cold yogurt for dessert, and the traditional dal bhat as the main fare. Dal bhat, the ultimate comfort food of the Nepalis, is basically rice (bhat) and cooked lentil soup (dal) supplemented by vegetables and sometimes with roti or papadum.
authentic Nepalese cuisine in Nepali Chulo, Kathmandu, Nepal
authentic Nepalese cuisine at Nepali Chulo
Because Nepali Chulo is usually the place you bring foreigners to for a taste of Nepalese cuisine, there were cultural dance presentations held throughout the night.  I was tired, but I enjoyed the food, ambiance and conversation that took place.

As I crawled into bed that night after an hour of packing and re-packing stuff I needed for the trek, I fell asleep in the middle of praying.  I don't think the Lord could blame me; the lure of a comfortable bed was too much, and I needed a lot of rest before tackling the first leg of the trek the next day.

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If you want the same Everest Base Camp trek experience I had, visit Himalayan Planet Adventures and go for the 16-day Everest Base Camp trek package.  

29 June 2013

Everest Base Camp Trek - How It All Started

Everest Base Camp Trek Himalayas
The Himalayas - photo by Gina Sales, 2013
Yes, I've made it to Everest Base Camp this year.  And yes, I'm pretty much unscathed, unscarred from the experience--and raring to do it a second time in 2014.

Just to make it clear from the very start, I'm no trekker. At least not the kind that joins local mountaineering groups and heads for the mountains every weekend.  I've done a few treks here in the Philippines, since I enjoy the outdoors (as long as I don't encounter any frogs, I'm fine) and I like to keep fit.  But that basically classifies me as a casual, one-off trekker, and not some person who ogles the stuff at R.O.X. and owns camping gear and whatnot.

So why the sudden and insane leap to do Everest Base Camp?  Even I have managed to surprise myself.

After my trip to Egypt last October 2012, I was scouring the Internet in January 2013 for ideas on my next--okay, I'll say it, even though it sounds so hokey--big adventure.  My window of opportunity this 2013 was only between end May to July (and to hold it in July was pushing it, due to my work commitments).  I thought about going back to Europe and I was, like, meh, never mind.  Western cities can wait even until I'm old with wobbly knees and a bad back. Machu Picchu (one of my biggest dream destinations) was at the top of my bucket list, but the whole trip and its corresponding expenses--plane ticket, the trek, accommodations, etc--was something I couldn't afford right now. The air fare alone was too rich for my blood.

Those on my 2013 travel destination short list were:
1. Machu Picchu, Peru
2. Petra, Jordan
3. the Ancient Silk Road within China
4. the TransMongolian Railway route from Russia to Mongolia to China
5. Myanmar

Italy-Austria-Czech Republic nabbed the desperate, I-don't-know-what-else-to-think-of 6th place.  I was getting frustrated during my online travel researches; I wasn't keen on doing Jordan yet because I just got back from Egypt. I wanted to do the Silk Road and the TransMongolian Railway journey in my late thirties, and Myanmar was said to be better in December.  And Europe was, well, oh I don't know, uninteresting at this point in time.

I had my heart set on doing the 4-day trek to Machu Picchu, and I was feeling depressed about the astronomical costs, but then suddenly, in a totally wild Eureka-like moment--Everest Base Camp popped into my head.  A few seconds of disbelief at the utter absurdity of my idea; a snort (I snorted at my own craziness) followed by a fit of nervous giggles; a heart-pounding, looming realization that, hello, Everest is in Nepal, and Nepal is in Asia, and that meant a more affordable trek--and then two minutes later, there I was, typing madly to see what good old Google could come up with in terms of 'Everest Base Camp trek' searches.

The Internet is teeming with information on local trekking organizations in Kathmandu who offer Everest Base Camp (EBC) trek packages.  I wasn't planning to wing it by flying to Kathmandu and just picking a guide and porter there on the spot, hell no.  I'd normally crave my share of adventure, but I like being organized about it.  Some people like to live a little more on the dangerous, unpredictable side and just plan travel arrangements as they go--but you see, travel costs money, and I subscribe to that school of thought that proclaims it is more cost-effective if I plan my travels well before flying out to my chosen destination.

I sent out several email inquiries to Nepalese trekking agencies on my not-so-short list regarding their trek package costs. When I went online the next day, I was, like, whoa, why is my inbox  flooded already and why are all these Nepalis asking to be friends with me on Facebook? Was I (my name, my identity) that searchable so much online? To their credit, these Nepalis were amazing in terms of speed of response to my inquiry, and I liked how they were so, um, proactive in searching for me on Facebook, haha.

But there was one particular trekking agency that stood out from the 20 or so that emailed back. It wasn't the cheapest nor the most expensive. The package was just right. What made me choose this agency was the quality of response and the thoughtfully prepared 9-page trek brief (saved and sent to me as 'Everest Base Camp - 16 days - for Gina') that was attached to the email.  Yes, I'm a sucker for good client service and packaging.

More importantly, it made sense for me to choose that agency because the trek dates were fortuitously scheduled in such a way that the date I was to reach Everest Base Camp was June 5, my birthday.

That was honestly the clincher.  I wanted to do something big (a.k.a. the Machu Picchu trek) on my 33rd birthday this year, and Everest came in as the sweet and much-anticipated answer to all this narcissistic searching for a birthday adventure.

Suddenly, Machu Picchu looked so corny compared to the mighty Everest.

So, from January to April 2013, I was corresponding frequently with Naba--owner and managing director of Himalayan Planet Adventures--who must have thought I was the most obsessive-compulsive traveler alive.  I had all these neurotic questions about the trail, what to expect, how to deal with altitude sickness, what the weather would be like (I was going to do the trek during the monsoon season, after all). And Naba answered them all, patiently and thoroughly.  He must have had years of experience already of dealing with weird questions from travelers like me.

At some point during all this interrogation and online research about other people's EBC experiences, I was horrified to find out that trekkers could get stuck in Lukla (the starting and finishing point of the EBC trek and a 35-minute plane ride away from Kathmandu) for days due to adverse weather conditions. DAYS. I felt I wasn't ready to commit myself to a world of what-ifs, it-depends and we'll-sees--all brought about by fickle mountain weather. When I travel, I'm always Little Miss Fixed Itinerary. And the weather had always cooperated with me. So far.

I must have realized that at some point though, I was embarrassing myself enough with all these never-ending questions to Naba, and I just had to gulp down my fears and finally say yes, I'll do the trek and I'll just pray to the highest heavens that I won't have to be flown out of Lukla via helicopter after a 5-day delay and that I won't die of altitude sickness, and sure, I'll be sending you my 20% deposit tomorrow, thank you very much.

As the date of my scheduled flight to Kathmandu drew near, I was getting more anxious. I told myself that this was NOT going to be a good trip. After all, who the heck worries this much over travel? I was losing sleep already over leeches, possible ankle sprains, the perpetual online debate over whether Diamox (altitude sickness medicine) should be taken right before or during the trek, and the crushing agony of being forced to go without a bath on the trail for 12 days. The Lukla Fear Factor (a.k.a. being stuck in that place for days and being forced to shell out US $500 for a helicopter ride) was enough to make me consider calling the whole darned trip off.

Some nasty inner voice was telling me I had it all wrong and that I had no business climbing up to 5,364 meters when the highest I've climbed in my life was 2,900 meters and all I've done was 2-3 months of conditioning through boxing and running before the Everest trek.  Hell, I've read stuff on the Lonely Planet forums that many first-timers to EBC do conditioning a year before their treks.

And the worst part was that I didn't even know anybody in my circle of family and friends who had done the Everest Base Camp trek before. Some of my friends were saying I was insane to push through with it even though I'm physically fit; the ones who know me more (sometimes they know me even better than I know myself) assured me that I was going to make it to Everest Base Camp because I had the capacity and endurance to do so. But I was still beside myself with terror and I kept telling those close to me that in all likelihood, I wouldn't be able to reach Base Camp, that I might be forced to go back down after all due to altitude sickness.

All these fears (and my stupid desire in wanting to reach Everest even if it may literally kill me) didn't make for a good start.  And it was way too late to back down now, I realized on the 28th of May, when my plane touched down on Kathmandu.

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If you want the same Everest Base Camp trek experience I had, visit Himalayan Planet Adventures and go for the 16-day Everest Base Camp trek package.