Written by and photography by Martin Edström
The lush, humid cityscape of Kathmandu stands in stark contrast to the wide-open, airy stretches of the Himalayas. Follow us as we explore the city and its sights, then continue on an ecological journey to the base camp at Mount Everest.
Landing in Kathmandu is like diving headfirst into a painting of Asia; and there’s no warning, as you’re suddenly immersed in the bustle. Even if you have been through other countries in South-East Asia, you’re bound to find yourself thrown off-balance by the colours, scents, and the swarming alleys winding through the heart of this chaotic capital.
Taking a taxi, head for the Thamel area – known to everyone as the tourists’ quarter of town. Don’t discard it because of its dependence on tourism though; this is actually where you find some of the best food experiences, such as the cosy Gaia Restaurant and the ever busy Rum Doodle (whose walls are covered in scribbled notes from climbers and hikers). Several hotels are available at arm’s length from the shopping streets, such as the Tibet Guesthouse and the Thamel Eco Resort. For a more luxurious alternative, stay at the historical Yak & Yeti Hotel – where mountain climbers such as Sir Edmund Hillary were once accommodated. Complete with its own walled garden, it’s as hidden and quiet as getaways get in downtown Kathmandu.
For the traveller who’s about to go trekking in the Himalayas, Kathmandu is actually a good place to stock up on hiking gear. You should bring good, sturdy hiking boots (that your feet are accustomed to) from home, but items such as soft-shell and down jackets, gloves, hats, and trekking poles can just as easily be acquired here on the spot from the numerous shops selling mountain gear.
After a few days, preparation, we fly from Kathmandu Airport to Lukla, famous for its ingenious (some would call it thrilling) landing strip. Getting out of the small, propellered aeroplane it is clear that you’ve arrived in the Himalayas, as all around you are mountain ridges and the occasional snow-capped peak. This is the starting point for most treks in the Sagarmatha area, and we get a night’s rest at the North Face Lodge to acclimatise. Already at an altitude of 2,860m above sea level, it takes some getting used to.
Getting up early the next day, we head for the hills, walking on cobbled roads that soon turn into sandy trails. In the summer, these paths are rain-soaked and more difficult to traverse, but as we’re here in the peak hiking season of April/May, the paths are dry and skies are clear.
As the trek begins, the positive ecological change in the area is notable by something that is absent – the region’s litter. The heavy load of trekkers and tourists (some 30,000 a year) bring with them a host of items that never make the journey back home, and Sagarmatha National Park has accumulated more waste than it deserves over the years. Proper recycling has so far been almost impossible, but a joint local and internationally driven initiative, called Saving Mount Everest, has been installing waste bins and establishing new ways to recycle since 2011.
After crossing bridges spanning mind-boggling lengths of otherwise insurmountable ravines, we arrive at the small town of Namche Bazaar (3,440m), the veritable hub of Sagarmatha National Park. This town is another pit stop for stocking up on warmer clothes, as the days ahead will get colder. An extra pair of gloves can save the day, and glacier sunglasses (i.e. glasses with really dark lenses) are a must before continuing to higher altitudes. From now on, try to eat as much local food as possible, like the simple but filling meals of dal bhat (rice and vegetables). This way, you can enjoy your meals knowing that no unnecessary plastic or tins are wasted.
Moving on and upwards, the next destination is the monastery village of Tengboche (also commonly spelled Thyangboche), where we stay in an unnamed lovely lodge close to the monastery. As the altitude rises, lodge rooms and facilities grow more basic seemingly in inverse proportion to the breathtaking views. The remoteness brings a certain romance to the long days of simply hiking, eating, and enjoying the scenery. As the clouds clear in Tengboche you will be treated to a clear view of the Everest massif and the whole valley leading up to it. Such a sight reminds you to tread carefully; there is no greater goal that a trekker can have than to preserve this landscape for coming generations.
The coming days give much of the same, descending into the greenery of the valley floor, walking next to a river of melted glacier water, and then rising again on the hillside to reach Pherice, Lobuche, and finally the small establishment of Gorak Shep. Lodges and their restaurants are readily available, but must be booked ahead in the busy season. From here it’s but a stone’s throw to Mount Everest base camp, but with the altitude creeping up over 5,000 metres the trail is tough going.
After several challenging days, you will descend into the tent-and-tarpaulin settlement that is the base camp. Climbers are everywhere, preparing their expeditions to summits in the area – ice-axes at the ready and weather forecasts their everyday entertainment. Accommodation is available here too, if you book a tent in advance, but most trekkers simply enjoy the day and then head back down.
Resting in base camp, you can see the Khumbu Icefall, through which all summiteers must pass, a wondrous sight during the day – but even more so at night. In the dark, as you gaze up at the mountain, you can see the headlamps of the climbers painstakingly making their way up the highest mountain in the world. And once you’ve seen it, it leaves you with a tingling desire to follow in their footsteps.
For first-time trekkers, or those nervous about taking on what may seem a daunting challenge, the two-day trek to Namche Bazaar (en route to Mount Everest base camp) serves as a fantastic introduction to the area. Hire a porter/guide, who can take up to 15kg. Spend a few days relaxing on one of many rooftop cafés before pressing on, or enjoying a day’s trek back down. Do remember that trekking is just that – there’s no climbing involved even to get to base camp. Broadly, if you can walk 15km in about three hours, you can make it to base camp.
If you do not want to trek the whole way to Everest base camp, there are plenty of other treks to choose from, from three to 28 days in duration. One of the most remarkable features of the trek is the view of the tremendous ice ridge between Cho Oyu and Gyachung (at 2,922m).
By the numbers
8.1 tons of litter were removed from Mount Everest in 2011 – the largest clean-up to date.
650 waste bins will be installed through 2012 in Sagarmatha National Park. Be sure to use them when you go.
5,400 metres above sea level – Mount Everest base camp.
Cleaning of Mount Everest 2011
In 2011 a team of expert Sherpa climbers, led by Wongchu Sherpa, removed more than eight tons of waste from the higher regions of Mount Everest.
This meant climbing almost to the summit of 8,900m and removing everything from discarded oxygen cylinders and lost gloves, to knives and forks and food wrappers that climbers had left behind; a hazardous but historical venture that will hopefully keep Mount Everest clean for a very long time.