Kathmandu – the name always sounded exotic to me, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. I’ve been here two days now, and I’ve seen incredible things.
I flew into Kathmandu with the sun setting over the Himalayas (Alaya – “home/abode of” Hima – “snow”). When you realize that we’re still at cruising altitude, and you’re looking sideways at the mountains, you feel truly small, and I have to admit, somewhat nervous about climbing them. The airport was utter chaos. Until I got into the taxi that Adventure Consultants arranged to have me picked up. Driving through Kathmandu at night – well I couldn’t understand why the hell the driver is taking me through all the unlit backroads. But I soon learned – it all looks like that! It was also the last time I saw a decent Toyota minibus as a taxi. The taxis here are tiny Suzuki motorcars. (think small old Fiat Uno). The drivers make the guys on the N2 look like old Swiss-German ladies. They navigate through twisting, narrow roads, dodging the hundreds of motorcycles, the free-ranging cows, dogs, sadhus, monks etc, with constant hooting. There are no stop signs at any intersection. They simply use whatever piece of road is open and honk they way through.
We had our first team meeting, and dinner, last night. It’s an all-commonwealth team composed of Aussies, Kiwis, Poms and me. We also met our climbing sirdar (head sherpa), and cook. Pasang introduced himself as “grew up in the Khumbu, been working as a guide since 2000, and been up a couple of mountains”. In Western English: he’s been up Everest 11 times in the last 10 years, going all the way to the summit on 9 of those. And that’s just Everest, not including all the others he guides on! I’m sure I haven’t even been up Lion’s Head more than 10 times. So we’re in good hands.
And of incredible things – yes, I’ve seen a young sadhu (Hindu holy man), who can pick up a watermelon-sized rock, with a string tied to his penis. I’ve seen a family dispose of recently-deceased grandma, by setting her alight on a funeral pire at the Hindu holy site of Pashupatinath next to the river Bagmati. (that one really makes you realize the temporary nature of human life). I went to one of the holiest Buddhist stupas (shrine) outside of Tibet, and walked around it three times for good luck, as is customary. And then there’s the Maoists. Maoist rebels blocked all road access to Kathmandu valley on Tuesday when I arrived. Flying in, it didn’t affect us. Today I saw them going past in busses – sitting on the roofs, waving red flags – on their way to block off the government compound. But it’s nothing unusual. Maoists have been active for 10 years now, and they’re sort-of part of the government now.
With all our gear-checks, briefings, and a bit of sightseeing complete, we head off at first light tomorrow to the airport, to take a small plane to the village of Lukla. Lukla’s runway is famously short, dropping off a sheer cliff on the one end. Once there, and with all our baggage sorted, we start a relatively short three-hour walk to our first overnight stop up the Khumbu valley.
So from this point onwards, updates will be shorter, being done via satellite link. Our spirits are high, and we’re all keen to start what we hope will be a successful expedition.