Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Guide to Everest Base Camp Trek: Part Seven

For previous installments of this Everest Base Camp trekking guide, see: Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart FourPart Five, and Part Six.

The out-and-back nature of the Everest Base Camp trek means that for much of the trail after reaching EBC and the peak of Kala Pattar, you are retracing your steps. This path may seem redundant, but it is actually more enjoyable than I imagined it would be. Returning to Lukla in the opposite direction allows a chance to see the trail from a different perspective. Each turn brings something new; mountains reveal themselves from their hiding spots below the horizon as though summoned by some hidden magician. Abracadabra:

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That other views are encore performances does not make them any less spectacular.

A bit of trek redux allows for keener observation of details missed the first time around, perhaps while hypnotized by the mountains' majesty. Throughout the trek, it was impossible to overlook the yak dung on the trail given that I spent my days stepping around (and sometimes in), but I could not believe I neglected to notice this pile the first time I passed it.

With few trees around, dried yak dung doubles as fuel, particularly in the cold winter months. Something tells me that this family will not go cold this winter.

Day 11

Itinerary: Namche Bazaar to Lukla

One thing we noticed as we neared the end of our trip was the increasing numbers of other trekkers just starting their journey. We began our trek on October 3rd, and other than some crowded nights in Lobuche and Gorak Shep where a shrinking supply of lodges serve the convergence of trekkers on their ways up and down, we were surprised by how sparsely populated our our time on the trail was. Trekking during the most popular month of the year, we of course saw plenty of others, but there were many stretches during the day when we felt we were the only people for miles.

This was not true in the final days of our descent. There were not just more trekkers coming in the opposite direction, but there were more trekking groups. Sometimes this meant small packs of six or seven people. Other times this entailed a mule train of almost thirty.

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These groups have an equal right to the trail, but we could not help but get annoyed by them, especially after being accustomed to frequently having the trail to ourselves. Groups can be slow and entitled on the path, for starters. The crowds and especially the large groups lend a "touristy" vibe to the trek, and we felt fortunate that we mostly beat the mid-October rush and that our trek included stretches of solitude that made our experience so special. Sharing a guest lodge with a group is also no picnic. They reserve large chunks of the dining hall and keep to themselves, often closing themselves off to meeting other trekkers (one of the highlights of the trail for us). Guides coddle the members and members seem a bit like children, taking direction on where to stay, when to eat, when to wake up, when to break, etc. Some group members were clueless as to their next day's itinerary: "Wherever the guide tells me to go." Some may see having every detail of the trek handled for them as an advantage, and groups may be a great decision for some (especially those who would otherwise trek alone). I guess our independent streak means we are just not big group travelers.

The groups were most prevalent on our final hike from Namche to Lukla. Combined with the increased yak trains and local porters, the trail felt annoyingly crowded at times on our final day. Increasing our annoyance was the behavior of some fellow trekkers (Huge jerk, do not use your trekking pole to poke a porter carrying over 100 pounds of cargo on his head, even if he is "in your way."). I suppose it did not help that this stretch of trail includes a good amount of tiring up-and-down climbing. By the end of it, we were just ready to get to Lukla and be on our way home.

And Lukla certainly made us earn it. Spoiler alert: this journey ends with a sustained climb up to town. After a taxing final day and uphill push, it was a satisfying end to reach the gate to Lukla (and flat trail).

Small Lukla feels almost like a real city compared to the micro towns of the trek. There are lots of places to grab a celebratory beer. Craving Starbucks? They have it in Lukla. Not a genuine, sanctioned Starbucks, mind you (a surprising number of people are fooled by this), but a nice coffee shop which does an admirable job.

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We stayed at Dreamland Lodge, which was completely satisfactory and average other than the friendly and helpful proprietor who helpful us coordinate our flight out of Lukla.

Day 12

Itinerary: flight from Lukla to Kathmandu

Make sure to enlist the help of your guide or guesthouse owner in confirming your flight out the next morning.  We had open, unbooked return tickets, and we wisely booked/confirmed our return flight as soon as we knew the day we wished to fly out, enlisting the help of our guide and his cell phone before we reached Lukla. As with flying from Kathmandu to Lukla, it is important to book the earliest flight possible. Guesthouse owners have an insider's knowledge on the chaotic workings of flights out of Lukla and should be more than willing to help you coordinate with the airline. Insist that your guesthouse owner not only confirm your flight but accompany you to the airport to smooth your departure from the city.

Flights in and out of Lukla are frequently delayed or cancelled due to weather. This can make for a scene at the airport. There may be crowds waiting to check their bags for their flights, yet no attendants working any of the airline check in counters. If you have no insider help, this can be a confusing and frustrating situation. Allow me to shed some light. If you have done your job, your guide or guesthouse owner has confirmed you on a flight with your airline in the morning. The airline will let your fixer know when you should show up for your flight. Lukla airport is small, so airlines only check in passengers about two flights ahead of time. For example, passengers on Flights 1 and 2 get checked in, go through security, and wait at the gate. Once Flight 1 departs, agents will return to check in passengers on Flight 3 only. If flights are delayed for any reason, they will not return to the check-in desk until a flight has departed and the next is ready to be checked in. Confusion occurs because many passengers have no idea what flight they are booked on and how the system works (granted, the system is not transparent, so it is hard to blame them). We saw people booked on flight 10 who had no idea why they kept lining up at the check-in counter, rudely pushing their way to the front, and getting denied.  Others who worked with knowledgeable guesthouse owners arrived minutes before their flight, watched their fixer check in for them, and calmly walked to the boarding area. No lines, no pushing, no rude remarks and ignorant complaints (I'm looking at you, bearded, arrogant Canadian). Those cheaters cutting in front of you are actually booked on an earlier flight. And making a racially derogatory comment about them is not going to get you out of Lukla any sooner.

Our flight out of Lukla was delayed by about three hours, but compared to other horror stories (all flights cancelled for two days straight!) we were content with getting a flight at all.

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Our chariot awaits.

Unlike most trekkers, arrival in Kathmandu was the end of our travels. I felt comparatively lucky that I was home when we landed and did not have to spend another night in an unfamiliar hotel. I am sure some of them felt comparatively lucky that international flights would soon be whisking them back and that they did not have to call the dusty streets of Kathmandu home.

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We maneuvered the crowds (and dogs), grabbed our bags, and haggled with a taxi driver over the fare. We lurched onto an entirely different trail of horn-choked auto traffic, and with that our trek had come to an end.

Continue reading: Tips of the Trail.

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

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