Stooping to board the 16 seated Sitar Air Jet bound for Lukla and the Himalayas, my thoughts bloat with fantasised fables and imagined trails. The mind is a leech when it comes to expectation.
For the past few months whilst working in a ‘quintessential’ English Pub, mechanically serving pint after pint to already inebriated customers, my mind has been premeditating my Nepali adventures; weaving threads of information as thin as gossamer into a lucid tapestry of tall trekking tales. So as I seat myself, instantaneously reaching for my belt -Lukla having been quoted ‘The most dangerous airport in the world’- I tell myself to curb all calculations so as to live presently. Moment by moment.
An air stewardess bends down with a silver tray offering ‘mango chews’ and cotton wool. She is wearing full make-up, a pencil skirt and heeled, patent court shoes. Her composed demeanour and soft, scarlet smile juxtaposed with the dozen or so sleepy trekkers’ shrivelling in their seats makes for a sublimely surreal scenario. One that wasn’t written! (Well, at least in my mind.)
As the jet wheels from beneath us spiral into the morning haze, I turn to my window and like a child press my cheek against the sticky plexiglass. And there I remain for the next half an hour; fixated, sucking on my mango chew, watching the heavenly Himalayas roll past as in a cartoon flipbook. Until the equally illusive Lukla 200m uphill runway appears in view and with it an unremitting replay of unnerving ‘Lukla Landing’ Youtube clips’¦
We survive! After a warming brew of Tibetan Butter Tea, we’re headed for Phakding with our walking poles and the Sacred Himalaya flag swinging in bold motion. We pass O mani stones, napping porters and yaks with heavy loads and seesaw gaits; pause at the dubious wooden sheds boasting ‘2-6pm Happy Hour’ and loiter for bemoaning dogs eyeing Gary’s canvas bag brimming with biscuits. At Phakding we lunch for Dal Bhat (one of many to come). Reaching Monjo I’m shown to my room, a 6x6ft MDF box, adjacent to the lodge’s only toilet. I shrug it off: clearly the pure air has drugged me with nonchalance. But later, cocooned in my sleeping bag, my mind is orchestrated by a symphony of lumbering rats, grunting floorboards and sluggish slashes followed by a flush. Not a moment of shuteye. Ke gar ne!
A hearty breakfast of Tibetan Bread (so hearty my Swiss army knife finally finds its calling), omelette, honey and masala tea sees me striding forth to Namche Bazar, always following two steps behind Babu our assistant guide who saintly renders to my automatism of ‘And how do you say’¦. in Nepali?’. Reaching ‘Namche Bowl’, we meander through tunnelled streets of North Face fleeces, Fair Aisle wool beanies, yak bells and mountain literature. Suddenly we are back in Thamel, only 2040m higher. So we retreat to our lodge for a game of ‘Backpacker: The Ultimate Travel Game’.
After an acclimatisation day ‘strolling’ to the Everest View Hotel and Khumjung to pay witness to the Yeti scalp and Sir Edmund Hilary School, we set off for Tengboche. Feeling quite invincible, Mark and I venture ahead of the group, scrambling up the rocky terrain like mountain goats. Only to be called down soon after and told off for losing ourselves on the Old Yak Trail. So our leader, Binay, taking authority sets the pace naming us ‘Team Bistare’ and we snake somnolently to our goal. On arrival our eyes meet Her Majesty Chomolungma and neighbouring Lhotse and Nupste. Seemingly floating on a carpet of celestial cloud they peer omnisciently down at the German Bakery. Even at 3820m there is cake!
The following morning, shielding our faces with buffs, sunglasses and factor 50 Sun cream, we set off for Dingboche, stalking our way through winding woodland, crossing bridges cloaked in prayer flags and circling Stupas, old and new. The ascent is quite demanding and proves gruelling to those few members already suffering from altitude sickness. We arrive at our lodge, sloth like. Swimming through that ‘snooze’ period when your first morning alarm has sounded and with groggy thoughts and groggy vision slowly, slowly images come into focus and actualise. Indeed, it’s sometimes quite overwhelming to comprehend the sheer beauty and scale of the landscape that you tend to estrange it, labelling it with ‘not of this world’.
On our second acclimatisation day, headed for Chhukung at 4730m, the effect is dreamy, otherworldly. As if promenading in a parallel universe; a plane of existence where time stops ticking and magical phenomena breed. Where the land and sky merge, shaping an ethereal mass of ivory blaze. The feeling is vertical!
Until later that evening, when I’m lying FLAT in bed tossing lethargically as my stomach swells with cramps. The following morning I’m significantly weakened, but try to stomach a few spoonfuls of porridge to see me to Lobuche. The few spoonfuls see me 20 minutes along before I disgorge of them and continue to wander like a drunk to Thokla, 4620m. There I’m shrouded in several blankets as a cold sweat and shivers swathe my bones. Babu spoon-feeds me garlic soup, which my senses radically reject as I run for the doors to retch and writhe for an audience of over 50 people, all taking their lunch in the sunshine. An American medic soon comes to my aid, and pointing to my heart rate and oxygen saturation levels strongly advises me to descend unless I’m prepared to ‘fork outa twenty thousand dollar Helicopter ride outa there’. So after another grand performance, I try to walk, only to fall. Babu, 5ft tall and small boned in stature, heaves me onto his back and begins to jog down the hill. At that moment I give way to total exhaustion and remain slumped over his back, my eyes and mind half-closed to the world. At some point we meet two men walking in the opposite direction who, on seeing us, turn back on themselves to relieve Babu from his load. Taking it in turns, they haul me from one another’s back dragging their feet for over three hours until we reach Periche’s Tokyo Medical University Clinic and I’m seated before Adam who hands me two pink pills and a mug of orange juice.
That evening delirium finds me as my body oscillates between high and low temperatures and I exhaust the lodge’s supply of blankets. I awake the next morning to Babu performing Puja for me as he knocks his Mala against my forehead, mumbles mantras from his Sadhana and tosses herbs and plants out of the window. Fortunately I’m a practising Buddhist, and rather than taking alarm at his mystical incantations, I smile as he greets me with ‘Good morning Bahini’. He asks me to slowly rise from my slumber and begin our descent to Lukla. I look at him with pathetic eyes, swollen with tears of failure and resentment, and answer him reluctantly, ‘OK’.
Taking me by the hand he leads me along the twisting trail, pausing every five minutes to let me rest and sip flat coca cola. Hand in hand, we hum ‘Om Mani Padme Hung’. He teaches me Nepali and sings to me ‘Sometimes laughing, sometimes crying, sometimes raining, sometimes singing’.