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.  


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