30th April, 2016
It was a Saturday. I woke up early in the morning, got prepared and was ready to be picked up by Ranjan da, with whom I was to travel to Indira Gandhi International airport terminal 3 for our flight to Kathmandu. When we boarded the car, my mother uttered silent prayers. My wife, Anindita and daughter Srijita bade goodbye (I was to miss her birthday bash which was to be held on 2nd May). Ranjan da went ahead with his check in for his Royal Nepal Airlines flight, while I waited for Dhananjoy to arrive. I had a tension about the amount of cash I was carrying with me (majority of it was in denominations of Rs 100). We’ve read mixed opinions about the legitimate amount of cash that we could carry. Not many international ATM/Debit/Credit cards operate in Nepal (the customer care of all banks with whom I held accounts, said their cards would operate seamlessly everywhere except Nepal or Bhutan) – a strange complication in a country so close to our culture and philosophy, where we, as Indians, don’t even require tourist visas to travel. However, everything went well and we were finally on board the aircraft. Dhananjoy was a tad disappointed when he heard that we would be staying at lodges throughout the trail and there won’t be any opportunity to camp anywhere! Well, that’s what you have to forego in Nepal, especially on this trail, dubbed as the “trekking highway” by some, considering the earthly comforts one can get, otherwise absent at places that are much less remote elsewhere in The Himalayas.
Kathmandu! The word took me back to the days when I was in class V. I went to Kathmandu with my parents. All I remember from that trip was the sumptuous breakfast and meals at the Yak and Yeti hotel, the notorious monkeys and bulls at the Pashupatinath temple and the big eyes painted on the top of Swayambhunath temple about which people say that it has witnessed all ups and downs of the Kathmandu valley in front of its eyes. How is the city coming out of the devastation wrought on its face by nature? Amidst all those thoughts, our aircraft landed at the Tribhuvan International Airport which nestles amidst the surrounding hills. As I and Dhananjoy waited for our luggage, we conveyed the news of our arrival at our respective homes. We were to arrive in distinct groups, with Ranjan da to be the first one to land via Nepal Airlines, followed by two of us via Indigo and finally, Niladri and Siddhartha da to arrive in the evening (they started from Kolkata, a day earlier and reached Raxaul in the morning, from where they took a jeep for Kathmandu). We met a “garlanded” Ranjan da outside the airport (an expected custom for anyone who arrives as Tej Gurung’s trekking guest). This was a fact I knew prior, going by Facebook posts of all trekking teams that are guided by Tej’s organization. They would all be received with garlands and scarves, followed by a photograph with a “Nepal Alternative Treks and Expeditions” banner that read “I am in Nepal now” in bold. All that to make way to a Facebook post by Tej Gurung, in an effort to make the trekkers of the world (Tej’s potential clients) aware that Nepal was now safe enough to travel.
As soon as we exited the airport, we came across the Pashupatinath shrine that looked like a pagoda with a golden dome (as most of the temples in Nepal do). It brought mixed emotions ranging from childhood memories of the temple where I saw myself going to it with my parents with a puja carefully guarding it from being confiscated by surrounding barrage of monkeys. It also had a fairly large number of bulls, who were fed regularly with care by the temple priests who viewed them as direct incarnations of “Nandi”, one of the famous disciples of Lord Shiva (aka Lord Pashupatinath). Then came the dreadful thought of the funerals of the ill-fated king Virendra and his family who were killed in a mad shooting spree at the royal palace. The vehicle meandered through the maze of crowded streets and lanes of Thamel, the tourist district of Kathmandu and we finally arrived at hotel Tayoma (our accommodation for the night). The entire route didn’t throw up any signs of destruction from the earthquake, which was a surprise and I still couldn’t make out if I were to rejoice or we were travelling through an area somehow unaffected by it, but how could that be possible?
After keeping our luggage, we went out hunting for lunch at the surrounding restaurants. Steaming Thukpas at a Tibetan restaurant did the job for the day. We were a bit anxious about the fact that our hotel was changed at the last-minute and we had no way to convey that to Niladri and Siddhartha da who were supposed to reach by road in the evening and they did not have a working mobile SIM. Tej Gurung came to meet us along with the guide Raju Gurung, who would accompany us starting the next day. As Tej had other groups to handle on the same day, he started off with an introduction to the trek and its nuances. He re-iterated the itinerary detailing out the schedule for every day. I asked whether it was possible to visit Kalapathhar in the afternoon since it offers the most majestic sunset views of the Everest range but the guide rightly advised to take that decision when the time comes as it often turns cloudy in the afternoon with strong winds blowing the Kalapathhar top. In the midst of our discussion, Niladri and Sidhhartha da arrived at the hotel. It was a refreshing feeling to see them in a “technically foreign” land! There was a time when a single day didn’t go by without a chat with him and other friends from my native place, but now work has split us physically by miles and my occasional trips to home and these travels are the only options of reunion and every bit of it seems insufficient!
We made our balance payments to Tej while he shared the air tickets for Lukla, trekking permits and cards to enter Sagarmatha National Park, which would cover the majority of this route. All of these would reside with Raju, the guide. Tej had some advice for us. While we could order any food item (food & tea/beverage for the main three courses during each day were to be included in the cost of the trek), we should try to avoid wastage as much as possible. It made sense and it acquired more significance as we saw porters carrying back wrenching loads up the trail for our comfort. The cost too, multiplied with the gaining altitude.
The evening was spent in the market to get our down jackets and sleeping bags from an equipment store. It was warm (rather hot) in Kathmandu. Wasn’t it supposed to be a hill station? I saw a lot of residents going around with masks covering their face. I was taken aback by that sight, in a valley amidst The Himalayas! This is a sight we’re used to in places like Delhi. Thamel is crowded with shops of tour and trekking operators with their windows filled with photographs of major Himalayan peaks from different ranges. Majority of them were panoramic views of the Everest range along with the Khumbu glacier as viewed from Kalapathhar top. The next in reckoning were the ones from the Annapurna range from central Nepal. After the gears were sorted, we exchanged some of the Indian currency into Nepalese and got hold of a local Nepalese SIM card. Any gear needed during the trek was suggested to be bought from here, primarily because of cost. We thought we had sufficient till one pointed out “Sticks? Can we do without them”? We bought one for each member. These were not made of ordinary bamboo, but were a combination of wood and metal that could be folded to adjust the height. Some even had a compass. Our evening roam concluded with dining at an Indian restaurant with familiar kormas & pulaos.
I was constantly obsessed with the size of my backpack. Is it too big to carry on my back for 14 days? Do I need all that has been stuffed in it? A quick re-prioritization led to stripping out a few clothes. Others did the same and all of that were combined in a bag to be left at the hotel. Batteries and phones were getting charged as this was the last chance to do so without extra cost. Up there on the trail, cost for charging could go up to Rs 100-200 per hour (all currency should be assumed to be Nepalese unless stated otherwise).
As I settled in my bed, my thoughts were occupied with the next day’s flight to Lukla. There are ample records (texts, images and videos) on the internet about the inherent dangers and uncertainties of flights to Lukla. After sometime, I had to shove off the thoughts to have some sleep going.