Monday, October 24, 2011

Guide to the Everest Base Camp Trek: Part Three

For previous installments of this Everest Base Camp trekking guide, see: Part One and Part Two.

Day 4

Actual Itinerary: Namche Bazaar to Tengboche
Suggested Itinerary: Namche Bazaar to Debuche

Our day's destination, Tengboche, was firmly in our minds when we awoke on Day 4, but other details were fuzzier. Wanting to save space and weight in our packs, we photocopied and brought all of the relevant pages of our guidebook rather than lugging the tome through the mountains. All of the relevant pages, that is,  except for the two discussing Tengboche and the route thereto. Just how this oversight occurred is still a bit sensitive -- it's best you stop asking questions now.

No matter. The trail from Namche to Tengboche is quite clear. Thankfully, so were our views as we departed Namche just after 7 that morning.

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Friendly trekkers filled us in on all we needed to know about the day ahead. The route includes a steep descent before a heartbreaking ascent into Tengboche, where there are very few guesthouses to accommodate everyone hoping to stay. With that in mind, we attacked the trail with laser focus, determined to get beds in Tengboche that night.

The trail undulates mildly for a bit over an hour between Namche and Sanasa. From Sanasa there is a steep descent to the river crossing at Phunki Thenga (also known as "Funky Town" by me and probably no one else). Steep, rocky descents can be more challenging than you might think -- I have encountered downhill stretches that tested the limits of my knees and sanity. This descent was actually quite manageable, but it can be hell if you are nursing a sore knee. I know this because I watched Claudine grit her teeth through an admirable brave face as she struggled toward the river. What had begun on Day 2 as a minor inconvenience had blossomed into a threat: Claudine's knee was in serious pain when going downhill. The laws of physics hung like a black cloud over the remainder of our trek: what goes up must come down.

There is not much to the "town" of Phunki Thenga, but it is a popular and wise place to stop and prepare for the long, arduous climb ahead. As you reach Phunki Thenga from Namche, there is a lone tea house just before the river crossing; the larger venues with more idyllic seating are across the bridge. Have a cup of coffee, hydrate, and perhaps get a quick prayer in. What you are about to encounter will not be pretty.

I take that back. The scenery on the climb to Tengboche is quite lovely. It's just that you may have a hard time enjoying it with your burning quads and wheezing lungs. It took us about 90 minutes of steep, relentless  climbing in the blazing sun to reach Tengboche, but be warned that it may take longer. We passed some people on the trail who did not look good and have heard it takes many people over two hours to complete the climb. Some souls take more than three. Others presumably perish en route.

By 11:15 we were in Tengboche and had no trouble snagging a room at Himalayan Hotel (300 NPR), which looked like the nicest guesthouse in town (which -- trust me -- is not saying much). Over lunch it was time to take an honest account of Claudine's knee and the trek ahead. Because downhills were the only issue and we would not be encountering many in the coming days, we decided that Claudine would be fine to continue but should probably carry as little weight as possible to save her knee additional stress. For the record, she had no prior injuries, and there was no event that seemed to have caused the pain; we suspected overuse and hoped that lightening her load would help. The friendly trekkers were right -- Tengboche is a very small town, and due to its size we were unable to find a porter we could hire on the spot. Guesthouse owners informed us that we would have no trouble hiring someone in the much larger towns of Pangboche or Dingboche, places on our itinerary the next day.

One can cover the town of Tengboche in about five minutes, but fortunately the surrounding mountain views could captivate for hours.

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Tengboche has a rather large monastery and many trekkers enter to observe evening prayer, or puja.

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Being quite familiar with monasteries and puja in Kathmandu, we opted to avoid the flocks. After a long, hard day on the trail, we had more important things on our mind.

We were surprised to find that the only bakery in town was stocked with some of the better baked goods not only on the trail but in the entire country of Nepal (admittedly, a country not known for great breads and desserts). Paris it is not, but it is a pleasant place to while away some of your time in tiny Tengboche. The baked bounty and Lavazza coffee are a bit overpriced, but upon considering that they (and the oven) had to be carried up that treacherous hill en route to your stomach, their price takes on new meaning.

Day 5 

Itinerary: Tengboche to Dingboche

Lonely Planet suggests an acclimatization day in Tengboche, but we do not. Most trekkers agreed with us and moved on after just one night in Tengboche. If you are not feeling any ill effects of the altitude, you can probably skip the acclimatization day in Tengboche with a clear conscience.

Upon leaving town there is a steep but short descent to the town of Debuche. Despite its slightly lower elevation and less stunning views, nearby and "undiscovered" Debuche seems like a nice alternative to Tengboche. Given that Tengboche is so crowded, there may not be a choice.

After crossing the river, be watchful for this view of Ama Dablam, which is somewhat iconic:

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Further along the route, after Pangboche, the trail splits, and trekkers must choose between staying in either Pheriche or Dingboche. Not to worry: from these towns the trail rejoins and continues north toward Everest. Pheriche has a Himilayan Rescue Association outpost if you need medical attention. Dingboche is at a higher altitude but is evidently better sheltered from whipping winds and gets more sunlight in the evenings. From what we saw, Dingboche is a bigger town with more accommodations. Neither town is necessarily better than the other, so where you choose to stay does not matter too much. You can always decide to stay in the opposite town on your way back down. The point where the trail splits between these towns is not marked and not exactly clear. Confusion may lead to one town or another by accident, and if you find yourself in that position, you would be in good company.

We chose to stay in Dingboche. After shopping a handful of guesthouses, we settled on Peaceful Lodge at the entrance of town.

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This proved to be one of our best decisions on the trail. Peaceful Lodge treated us to excellent food, friendly staff, a clean western bathroom, and new(ish), bright rooms and dining hall. Again, this is not Versailles, but for the trail it was a gem. You will spend two nights in either Dingboche or Pheriche to acclimatize, so landing at a nice guesthouse is key.  Choose wisely.

Continue reading: Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, and Tips of the Trail.

See also: Everest Base Camp Trek vs. Annapurna Circuit Trek.

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