I had my breath taken away for two reasons, at this altitude it’s harder to breath and the view of the Himalayas that stretched out left me gasping in awe.
Often in our travel conversations we get asked if we had ever been to Himalayas after our fellow travelers learn that we are from India. We can now finally answer that with an affirmative yes after having recently tackled one of the toughest hikes in the Everest region, the three high passes. The Khumbu high passes route to the Everest base camp is a challenging high altitude circuit that goes over three mountain passes over 5000mts height and through some of the spectacular but less traveled terrains in the Sagarmatha national park.
On a warm spring morning we whizzed past the immigration at Kathmandu international airport in one of those rare events where having an Indian passport during travel worked to our benefit. Nepal is one of the very few countries where Indians don’t need a visa to travel as part of the SAARC agreement. There are also discounts on hiking, climbing permits for SAARC nationals. We were promptly received by Nirmal who would be our guide for the rest of the trip arranged by Imperial Treks. This was going to be our longest trek so far and we never hiked up higher than 3100 mts. After much thought we decided to embark on this experience with suitable guidance and chose a local Nepali company. We were joined that evening by Chaitanya, a great friend of ours from Seattle. Over a dinner of sabzi roti (Curry and flat bread) in Thamel we were handed the permits and briefed about our planned route for the next days.
The first glimpses of mighty Himalayas from Namche Bazar
We took a short flight next morning to Lukla from where most of the treks begin. We met our porters who were from the nearby village down the valley. The trail starts right outside the airport. After passing by the stone alleys of Lukla and the markets buzzing with foreigners while kids played unperturbed on the streets, w entered the emerald forest where the rhododendrons were in full blossom. The destination for the day, Phakding was an easy downhill walk that we reached comfortably after stopping by at a tea house for lunch. There are tea houses located throughout most of the trekking routes and they double up as basic accommodations for the night. We reached Phakding late afternoon and took a walk around the village before receding to the common dining area. Dinner was the familiar dalbhat we had for lunch. Dalbhat (also read as mountain power) is cooked lentils, a mix of vegetables and a side of rice with unlimited refills.
Yaks that ferry loads to the remote villages in Khumbu valley
A sign board just at the entrance of Sagarmatha national park
The clear Dudh Koshi and the village of Phakding on its banks.
We headed to the trekking town of Namche Bazar, like most other towns in this area it is accessible only by foot or helicopters. Everything needed for sustaining life here is either carried by porters, flown in or often carried by the donkeys, horses and yaks. We passed by four iron bridges whose sturdiness I highly doubted although fully loaded yaks marched up and down them all the time. We later reached the highest among those bridges, the Hillary suspension bridge. This new bridge was built much higher to replace an old bridge, this cut down slightly on the hiking time to Namche. After a log entry at the checkpoint just before Namche we headed over to a tea house, our pit stop for the next two nights. We had access to hot water showers which would soon turn to be a luxury as we progressed on our trek. So we made the most of it with a languid shower and then satiated our hunger with copious amount of dal bhat again.
The Hillary suspension metal bridge, super wobbly and windy most of the times.
The amphitheater village of Namche Bazaar
For the next day, an acclimatization hike up to the Everest View hotel was in order and so was a good rest. We woke up late and it was incredibly hot when we started off mid morning. It was a difficult quest to clamber up the stone staircases that brought us on top of the ridge over town of Namche Bazar. We passed by an almost abandoned looking airport that happens to now serve as a transport means for supplies into Namche Bazar. The town gets part of its name `Bazaar` since it’s literally possible to get everything needed by the other villages in the Everest region from here including hiking gear, food supplies, all kinds of materialistic comforts. The trail was mostly flat after the tiny airport and we soon reached the highest placed hotel, the hotel Everest view at a height of 13000 ft. There sure was a view of Everest peeking out of a ridge of snow covered mountains. We had an elaborate tea break before heading back down to the town.
Buddhist Gompas and prayer flags are a common sight in the Khumbu valley.
Acclimitaztion walks around Namche Bazaar, so we are all set to tackle a high pass
At Namche we stopped by at a small local eatery following recommendations from Nirmal. It was run by a lady from the nearby town of Khumjung. She was extremely friendly and allowed us to try our hands at rolling momos. We had the kitchen to ourselves and Chaitanya made some of the best Aloo parathas (flat bread with stuffed spicy potatoes). These went well with the dip the Sherpa lady whipped up. We stuffed our faces until we could eat no more and headed to our tea house for a quiet afternoon of playing cards and sipping more tea.
A Sherpa kid smiling away
The chaos and complexities of a kitchen 😉
An early start after a breakfast of toast and porridge we diverted from the usual Everest base camp route and headed towards Thame. This side of the Bhote kosh valley doesn’t get many visitors. Hiking through this valley meant taking the same historical trade route that existed for decades between Tibet and Nepal. Traders would cross the icy Nangpa La pass carrying goods on their yaks to sell them in Namche Bazar. We were greeted by cheerful Sherpas at Thamo, midway towards Thame. A religious ceremony was under way and the village was bathed in a celebratory mood. We got to try the traditional Te momo. They were nothing like the regular momos which are usually stuffed inside, instead these were flour dumplings served with a bowl of curried vegetables. And unlike the regular ones, gorging on two of them had me full.
Leaving the regular EBC route behind and hiking towards Thame, Lungde villages
The rose shaped Te momos, yum!
We were hurried up to quickly finish our lunch as the sky was turning overcast. Just as we left the village, a thin drizzle set off on us. We fastened our pace but couldn’t help taking frequent stops to admire the views as we passed by a narrow section of the valley. An iron bridge had to be crossed over this gorge just as the prayer flags fluttered in cohesion with the mild winds. The mild showers now turned into soft flakes. It was April and we were on the fourth day in our trip, I never half expected to see snow this time of the year. We finally arrived at Thame, covered in a thin blanket of white. Thame village is known for its most famous local, Tenzing Norgay (the first Sherpa to climb Everest). The village sure knows how to make legends. Apart from Tenzing Noragy, we found out from our host that Thame is also the home town of a super Sherpa, Apa Sherpa. Apa has made it to the top of Everest 21 times so far, which is the most summits by any person in history.
Sunset at Thame just after a snow shower passed by
The next morning the sun came in bright and sunny, we rubbed sleep off our eyes and set off hiking after a breakfast of Tibetan bread(Gurung) and honey. I can highly recommend this slightly sweetened fried dough, morning breakfasts will never be the same. We jingled up our way in the Bhote Koshi valley leaving behind boot prints on the white sprinkled trail. We followed the gurgling Bhote Koshi river and the entire way we didn’t come across a single other group of trekkers. We lunched at Marlung(4200mts) in a tea house whose walls were bedecked with glories of the Sherpa owner who climbed Everest 10 times. I have begun to think that most Sherpas are just super humans scaling such great heights. On the other hand, Praveen had the first of headaches. He almost went to sleep on one of the lunch tables while we waited for food to be prepared. A content meal of Dalbhat probably gave him all the mountain power needed to continue on to our final stop for the day, Lungde/Langden(4490mts). The landscape had now turned arid and brown but there was a late afternoon snow shower rolling in to cover it in white. At Lungde we stopped for the night before hiking our first pass Renjo La pass.
A dreamy Spring morning scene from our tea house in Thame
Leaving behind Thame and walking towards Lungde
Lungde is the farthest Sherpa settlement before the Tibet border and the village doesn’t see many hikers wandering this side of the valley. The morning we started to cross the Renjo La pass to make our way towards the Gokyo valley and further to Everest Base camp, we were the only ones in the hut headed that way. Anyone seeking a solitary mountain retreat should go to the Bhote koshi valley, it’s a world apart from the usual Everest base camp route. But for us a demanding objective lay ahead, crossing the 5320mts Renjo La pass. For me, who never stepped on a mountain higher than 3100mts before this trip, it only meant one thing havoc!
to be continued….