“Be at the airport an hour before departure.” said the agent who sold us the tickets from Katmandu to Lukla. That would mean we should be there at 5:30am, and of course, we were about 20 minutes late. We strolled up to the domestic terminal shack to be greeted by a crowd. It has not opened yet.
Fifteen minutes before departure the guards opened the door to the domestic terminal building and the crowd poured in. The departures hall looked like an old post office, or a dry goods market. Wooden counters and ancient scales circled the room. We found our airline, gave them our handwritten ticket, and in returns got a “boarding pass.” It was a piece of glossy paper, shaped like a boarding pass, with the words “AMS” stamped on it. No name, no seat number, it was a very informal affair.
Going through security the guard points to my passport holder around my neck. I ask if I should run it through the X-ray machine. He shakes his head and asks “You have knife?” I reply that I do not, and he motions me through.
The plane was a twin otter. Each of the twelve passengers had a window seat. We were seated in the back, next to the air hostess, and had a good meter and a half of legroom.
The flight was uneventful and scenic. First we flew over the haphazardly strewn buildings of Katmandu. Next, we soared over low rolling hills adorned with farming terraces. Eventually, the hills grew into mountains and our little airplane was flying through valleys. We caught glimpses of the snow covered giants on the horizon. After forty or so minutes, the world famous runway of Lukla airport came into view directly ahead of us. It was like flying into a mountain. The runway starts abruptly at the end of a hill, and slopes up at about ten degrees. The plane landed and stopped quickly, aided by the upward slope.
We claimed our bagged and walked into the village. Immediately, Sherpas crowded around offering their guiding and hauling services. We picked a man with a kind young face and a decent command of English and headed to a teahouse for breakfast and negotiations. Soon, we were off on the path with Karma Sherpa, our new guide, porter and companion for the next few weeks.
The trek started off gently and we hiked along a well maintained trail. The first day we actually went downhill from 2800 meters in Lukla to about 2600 in Phakding. It was still a bit tiring because the trail had a profile of the Nepali flag and the air was noticeably thinner even at this meager altitude. We took it slowly and dreaded what hiking must be like in a few days at higher elevations.
We’ve spent the night at one of the ubiquitous lodges which dot the trail and can be found in every little village. The water ran at a trickle, the room was cozy, and the food basic but tasty. This would be the pace over the next two weeks. Basic washing, eating dahl bhat–a lentil soup with rice, potatoes and noodles, and cuddling up nice and warm in blankets and down sleeping bags in our basic rooms. Life is good.
The second day involved some tougher hiking. At the end of the day, we had to climb to the town of Namche Bazaar which lies at 3400 meters. The hike was long and difficult, and when we arrived our legs were grateful for the rest.
We’ve spent two days here. This was our acclimatization day. It is much less likely to get altitude sickness if one takes thing slowly and takes time to acclimatize to the heights. We heeded the warnings and rested as we knew what altitude sickness was, and were very eager to avoid it.
Namche Bazaar is the center of Sherpa culture. Before the tourists came in hordes, it was a central stop on the India-Tibet trade route. The town is scenically built in a bowl on a side of a hill, overlooking a deep valley. Every Saturday morning there is an outdoor market here. We were lucky enough that it was Saturday when we were there and we stocked up on cheap cookies and cheese. We enjoyed the views and the rest day greatly while our bodies got used to the thin air and the altitude.