In the land of the sherpas – the plight of Lukla

Gokyo

12th May, 2016

As we moved out of Dole, the next morning, trees started to reappear. They increased in numbers and we could once again see the blooming Rhododendron flowers, though lesser in numbers than what we saw on our way to Tengboche from Namche. That told us, we were re-entering the reaches of the forests near Namche. The Khumjung village (the place that has a monastery with supposedly a “Yeti scalp”) is not far from Dole. Forest cover increased and it gave a refreshing feeling of homecoming of sorts with the increasing Oxygen levels.

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En-route Namche from Dole

We kept moving through the forests in the outskirts of Dole till we reached a junction. There were some tea stalls. Our cellphones started capturing their signals again and we spoke to our respective homes after a gap of eight days! We were very excited to tell our tales and to their relief, they came to know we were safe and sound! Raju pointed towards a steep hike that would take us to a top, our place for lunch. That would probably be the last hike of the day and the good part was, after lunch, the trail went down the slopes. We continued our hike till we reached a lodge and spread our legs and arms on the chairs out in the sunshine as we waited for our lunch to be served.

After lunch, it was an easy stroll down the slopes. The terrain looked familiar to the regions we crossed on our way to Tengboche. We reached a junction where one trail moved up towards the Khumjung village. We headed down the other trail to reach another junction. This was familiar to us. We crossed this on our way up to Everest Base Camp. Now we reached the same place coming down the other trail from Gokyo. Our trail now merged with the main path that led to Namche. The sky was overcast and it started to drizzle. The minor ups and downs, corners and bends, were all familiar to us. After taking a turn, we could see the helipad of Namche on a distant slope. We found ourselves at the Hil-Ten lodge once again and made ourselves comfortable in its dining space. This was almost like homecoming. The hotel staff asked us about our journey and we shared our experiences. It had the same buzz as we found on our way up.

13th May, 2016

It was time to bid goodbye to the Hil-Ten lodge and the main Sherpa town of Namche Bazaar. We spent sometime taking snaps with the lodge owner while he shared some of his mountaineering experiences. Apart from Everest, he has been to the Annapurna and other regions of Nepal. However, he realized that the risks involved far outweighed the gains. Hence, he setup this lodge and now runs it successfully. We left the outskirts of Namche on our way down. The day was going to be long for us. We had to reach Lukla, the same day. The trail that took us 2 days to hike, had to be covered in a day. It was going to be tiring. We entered the woods and walked down its slopes. It was a steep walk down which put pressure on our legs. It was in these woods, we came across the huge fat person on our way up. He was being assisted from both sides by his guides. Not sure how far he was able to get beyond Namche. Then came the double-decker bridge at the confluence of Dudhkosi and Imja Khola rivers. It was here where the Japanese trekker suddenly skid across the edges and was promptly saved by his guide. We walked along the banks of Dudhkosi to reach Jorsalle and hiked up to reach the gate of Sagarmatha National park.

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Dudhkosi

As we exited the gate, it felt we were bidding goodbye to the Everest region. Then came the cultivated fields of the Sherpa villages. It all looked so familiar and we reminisced the memories and incidents from the days when we went through these regions on our way up. As if, a movie was being played out in reverse from its last to the opening scenes. We stopped at Phakding for lunch. This is where we inquired about the status of Lukla flights for the last few days. Answers were mixed but at least they were operating with some being canceled, but that was the norm. All of us had a hidden tension about the flights for the next day. Everyone hoped to leave this place early in the morning before clouds start playing spoilsport in the later half.

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Fields – SoluKhumbu

It started raining and we had to put on our raincoats. Though the track was level, our legs were tired. We dragged on and finally, reached the outskirts of Lukla. As we meandered through the clumsy lanes of Lukla towards our lodge, I came across a pub that was named “MalloryIrvine” pub! Even after eighty years of their disappearance, they continue to be remembered by the people of this region despite of the fact that they never took this route to reach the mountain which made them famous. The evening was spent at the lodge, dining with the porters and guide. It was our last days with the porters. It was time for some celebrations by treating them with food and beer and giving tips for their help in making this trek successful. We subsided to our beds with the hopes of hopping on an early morning flight, the next day.

14th May, 2016

In spite of the tiredness, all of us woke up early. We could hear the ear-splitting roar of the morning Lukla flights which gave us hope. At least they were operating. Our flight was slated at 10 AM. Flights in Lukla operates in batches of four. For every batch, four flights take off from Kathmandu one after another. After reaching Lukla, the same head back to Kathmandu. Similar patterns repeat for subsequent batches till they are allowed to operate (by the weather?). After breakfast, we left our lodge for the airstrip, which was just a few steps away. We stood in a queue and checked in our baggage in the make-shift check in counters. Well, at least they were checking in the luggage, so the flight must be on. After security checking, we went to the departure area eagerly waiting for our flight. Boarding was on and passengers were getting into the aircraft. We followed them in a queue, which is when guide Raju told us that this wasn’t our flight. Our turn was to come next, i.e. in the next batch. Which implied that these aircrafts will fly to Kathmandu to off-board the passengers and come back again to Lukla with passengers from there, which is when we’d get chance to board. It appeared just to be a matter of a couple of hours as it takes just about 25 minutes to fly to Kathmandu.

We eagerly awaited the flights from Kathmandu. The expected time came and went away, but there were no signs of an aircraft. We heard sounds of rotors, but they turned out to be from helicopters that were landing on a helipad near the airstrip. In the hours that followed, anxiousness and agony started building up. We met people who were stranded at Lukla for four-five days, some even more than a week, without any chance of getting on a flight. Everyday they’d come hoping for a seat, only to get frustrated and return to their lodges. There was a group from Indonesia who had to cancel and re-book their connecting international flights from Kathmandu just because of this delay. They were at the end of their wits and appeared helpless. Time and most importantly, money, was depleting thick and fast. People come to this remote land with limited money and there’s a limit beyond which that cushion ceases to exist. Every extra day spent implies extra cost for lodging and food. While flights were not to be seen, but there were no dirth of helicopters. Every now and then, one or two helicopters appeared on the horizon, landed on the helipad only to fly back again. Most of these flights were bound for Kathmandu, some to the higher reaches of Namche, Gorakshep and other places for rescue operations. Cancelled flights at Lukla means a significant section of those passengers shift to helicopters as an emergency measure. But every ride costs at least $2500. It has to be a group of at least five people to make that cost reasonable. Finally, the Indonesians gave in as they couldn’t afford to miss their flight from Kathmandu and opted for helicopter rides. In the meantime, it was declared that rest of the flights have been cancelled for the day. We went back to reclaim our baggage and headed back to the lodge with frustrated, dreary steps.

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Lukla airstrip – awaiting that non-existent flight

The freshness and the sense of achievement that was prevalent in the previous evening, gave its way to anxiousness. Our return train tickets were booked from Raxaul on 17th May. Which meant, we had to reach Kathmandu no later than 16th. That evening, we huddled to discuss the situation. If we were to reach Kathmandu by flight, tomorrow was our last chance. But the system of allocating seats for delayed passengers gave us little chance. If flights were to resume the next day, the passengers slated for regular flights for the day would get first chance to board and the ones from delayed flights will be allocated in rear batches. That implied, the passengers from delayed flights could only be allocated in the third slot of the flights, possibly even later, depending on the queue that gets augmented everyday with each cancelled flight. Moreover, people from AASEAN nations were offered flights at discounted rates, but it also meant that the first two batches were reserved for Europeans, Americans and other non- AASEAN citizens. So, it’s close to impossible to get a flight in successive days, once you miss your normal slated flight. That’s when the helicopter companies kick in. The rush of passengers then shift to helicopter and they charge them at their will. Limits cease to exist for hikes to the fares. Someones’ necessity turns into lucrative cash business for others. Charges get paid in hard cash currencies, but the rates are in US dollars. Local guys start playing foreign exchanges deciding exchange rates on the spot.

The lodge owner gave us a suggestion to cancel our return flight tickets and book for a helicopter ride to Phaplu, a nearby airstrip and from there, embark on a road journey to Kathmandu. That seemed logical, looking at the grim situation of flight queue. But for that, we’d have to pay $200 each with some extra money to the lodge owner for extending this offer. We agreed and went to sleep with tense minds.

15th May, 2016

Next day we inquired about the helicopter ride for Phaplu and were told that we would get our chance after a few rescue rides by the copters to the higher reaches of the region. No flights landed at Lukla that morning and it was cloudy all around. Our decision for the Phaplu ride appeared to be judicious. The lodge owner asked us to go to the lounge at the airstrip to wait for further information but nothing came our way. He crossed us multiple times, but couldn’t offer any encouraging news. Standing at the lounge proved fruitless, so we moved to the helipad. All of us stood there waiting for that seemingly illusive Phaplu ride. Every now and then, helicopters landed on the helipad, they were fueled from drums from a nearby storage, only to fly back again to Kathmandu. Given the flight cancellations, copter rides were in high demands. Rides to Kathmandu can fetch much more, so the copter companies weren’t interested in Phaplu rides. I and Niladri kept standing there, showing our faces to the copter pilots and the coordinator who was managing the rides and collecting fares. We even requested him multiple times, but he paid no heed to our cause. We were at the end of our wits. Clouds cleared and the sun came out in the afternoon. Snow peaks peeped out beyond the nearby hills, but we had no mood to muse over such scenery, given the ground reality. Meters were running down for us, resources were at the end, but no solution in sight. The entire day went waste and once again we returned to the lodge. We contacted Tej Gurung, the organizer of this trek, but he couldn’t be of any help either. Once out of Kathmandu, things get beyond his reaches and he can just be a spectator to the events that unfold. Up here, in this village, its the locals who hold the sway. That night, everyone was tensed. To get out of that mental state, we tried playing cards, but I couldn’t concentrate. We decided not to extend any further stay at Lukla, even if it meant walking down to Phaplu, which would take another two days to reach.

16th May, 2016

Next morning, another local guy turned up at the lodge and claimed that he could arrange for that ever illusive Phaplu ride, but in exchange of another $200. We had no option as declining that offer would imply extra two days of walking (and more importantly, missing the train from Raxaul) which would have thrown up the entire schedule into a toss. We went to the helipad and saw a helicopter standing. But we were not the only consumers. There was a bigger group of at least fifteen people. They too, approached the coordinator with their request and it was up to him to oblige. Here, he gave his weight behind us mentioning to the other group that we were waiting for two whole days at the helipad waiting for a ride (finally, laying siege by me and Niladri paid off). Once we boarded the cockpit, there was no other person in this world who was more free than us! It was the first helicopter ride for me. It took to the sky and sailed over the hills covered with dense forests in the lower reaches. Bright sunshine bathed the mountains and the forests. Chances were ripe for Lukla flights to resume that day, but given the waiting queue, we had no guarantee of a place in any of them. After about 15 minutes, we landed at Phaplu.

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Phaplu

The lodge owner at Lukla arranged for a jeep. We immediately boarded it and started off for Kathmandu. As the jeep meandered through the snaky roads that embraced the hills, the only feeling that reigned in our hearts was freedom! It was unfortunate, after being awarded with such breathtaking views in the higher reaches, the only feeling that remained, at least for that moment was freedom from the Lukla maze. The jeep took us to Kathmandu, where Tej Gurung greeted us with certificates of accomplishment. We headed to the bus stand and the night bus took us to the border town Birganj, the next morning. There we crossed over the Indian border to reach Raxaul railway station to board our train for Kolkata. During our trek, we crossed Dugh la, Cho la and hiked to Kala pathhar, but it was not them. The toughest pass to cross in this region posing most of the troubles, was Lukla! The so-called modern facilities and humans gave us most of the pain, not the distant villages in the higher reaches under the constant watch of Chomolungma, the Goddess mother of earth! We bowed to her and bade goodbye.

Gokyo

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