The Yak Dung Diaries: 11-day trek to Gokyo Lakes-Everest Region-Nepal

 





The Yak Dung Diaries: 11-day trek to Gokyo Lakes-Everest Region-Nepal








  With trepidation, on May 1st, 2022, after two years of restrictive Covid life, I got up the nerve to get my 67-year-old self on a plane and flew halfway around the world from New York to Kathmandu. 
The close quarters during the first leg of the journey from Newark to Istanbul made me uncomfortable. To make matters worse, some troglodyte federal judge had ruled that mask mandates in federal transportation facilities were unconstitutional and struck down their legality. What this unfortunate decision did was to make airports a lot more dangerous particularly for elderly people like myself or others with health issues that affect their immune systems. 
Turkish Airlines claimed they required all passengers to wear masks once inside the plane. On my flight there were 75 to 100 members of a well-known religious sect who were either unmasked or laissez-faire about covering the entire mouth and nose. Throughout the pandemic members of this religious sect were particularly averse to getting vaccinated. This created a situation where they were large numbers of unmasked and possibly unvaccinated people inside the enclosed space of an airplane fuselage with no concerns for themselves in so far as God protected them. 
I wasn’t quite as confident that God was going to protect me or the other passengers on the plane. The flight attendants did make a few announcements concerning the “requirement to wear masks” but these were casually shrugged off. I had grave concerns. I hoped that my time in Nepal was not ruined by exposure to Covid. Luckily there was open space in the back of the plane, and I was able to move away from the maskless guy next to me who kept sneezing. 

Istanbul airport is easily one of the most interesting transportation hubs in the world. This city was always known as the crossroads of the world and a quick look around the airport will inform you that it still is. There are people in all manner of cultural garb from Asia, India, Africa, and the Middle East. The shopping is amazing. There are a couple of bazaars that sell traditional Turkish goods. But there are also plenty of upscale, expensive, duty-free shops that can sell you anything from perfume to jewelry to high priced designer clothes. The shops were crowded with affluent world travelers from every corner of the globe. The merchants were more than happy to take several different currencies.

From Istanbul I continued on a flight filled with, thankfully, masked people going to Kathmandu. It was a sportier, outdoorsy looking crowd dressed in the usual over-priced, nature nut brands. There were just as many trekkers from the West as Nepalis on their way home. When we got within an hour of landing in Kathmandu you could see, to the left of the plane, broad views of the snowcapped, Himalayan peaks clearly above the clouds, jutting into the sky with dignity and grandeur. 
 


At the dingy arrival area, you must obtain (buy for $50) an entry visa. This involves numbers of people, mostly trekkers, lined up in front of ancient, dysfunctional computer terminals that never fail to confuse most of the people who try to use them. My guide Sandip would later advise me that the private contractor that was awarded the job of creating the online service bought the cheapest possible hardware and installed poorly coded software so that he could skim the maximum amount of money off the top. But to get your visa you’ve got to figure the damn things out. The process is the most difficult for people who read neither Nepali nor English. Those are your two possibilities. Some of the questions on the application are not easily understood by people who aren’t comfortable with either language. This makes for ridiculously long lines. The result was a group of people who had bonded through the trauma of this experience forming another long line to enjoy the pleasure of forking over $50 to the cashier and then waited in another intolerably long line for a customs officer to stick on a visa seal and stamp the passport just for good measure.

Sandip was waiting patiently at the other side of the customs wall. Once we had wedged my massive North Face expedition bag inside a tiny taxi and maneuvered our way through the streets, it all came back to me. The heaviness of the air, the stifling heat, the driver who charges you an extra couple of bucks just to turn the air-conditioning on. The absolute overcrowded, lawless, desperation of trying to ambulate a motor vehicle through such an impossible place. On every Street no matter how wide or impossibly narrow there are motorcycles, like swarms of insects, buzzing aggressively into every crevice of empty space. Killer hornets that seem dangerously oblivious to the health and well-being of anyone unfortunate enough to be a pedestrian. And yet in this chaotic, out of control atmosphere nobody seems to get hurt. I’ve never seen anybody get hit by a vehicle and I’ve never even seen the road blocked by a fender bender. I don’t understand it, but it seems to work in a way that could never happen in New York. The driver takes me to the Yak and Yeti Hotel where am I am inordinately fussed over by the eager hotel staff who all put their hands together as if praying and offer a warm Namaste. Even the military looking guard at the entrance salutes and does a funny thing with his heels. I’ll give them my name so as to check in and instead of waiting interminably at the desk they motion me to a comfortable chair and bring me a glass of cool lemonade while assuring me that they will take care of all the particulars, and I should just relax. I do. After three or four leisure-filled minutes the desk clerk comes over with keys and signals to the bellhop to carry my baggage up to the room. The bellhop advises me that he will meet me upstairs in so far as he must take the service elevator. My room is spacious and fantastically air-conditioned. It looks out on a verdant, well-clipped lawn where there is a colorful Hindu wedding going on. 

I collapse into the bed. For two hours I disappear into a heavy, dream-filled sleep. After flying halfway around the world there’s a level of fatigue that is above and beyond anything else (short of running the Moab trail marathon) in everyday life. I wake up with the start, not fully identifying the location at first and then, for an hour or so afterward, life is only visible through a misty lens. Brain fog. 
I take a walk through city of Kathmandu which is like a jackhammer to the senses; as if a loud  brass band was constantly marching past. 
I remember some of the streets from previous visits. Memories of shopping for jewelry, eating momos and wandering around with rowdy groups of trekkers looking for a place to party. Generally, within the period of an hour or so, I’ll be approached once or twice by a young man. “Hello Sir. How are you? Where are you from?” I’ll try to let them down gently. They seem so disappointed when they can’t provide me any service or direct me to someone whose goods I need to buy. In a good-natured way I tell them that I have met many young men such as themselves and I wish them the best of luck. Sometimes they keep following me insisting that they can show me something that is truly extraordinary and not to be missed. If they’re too persistent then I must take a brutally honest approach and tell them “No English” or “I don’t want to talk anymore.” Often, they walk away seemly heartbroken, as if I’d personally rejected them. 

There is an endless repetition of small shops with store fronts no wider than 10 feet. Inside each one is an inventory of items that seems impossibly plentiful. I entered just such a store and asked if they had superglue. I didn’t think they could possibly fit another thing in that small space and yet they did in fact have a little tube of superglue that I was able to purchase for about a dollar. 
Even when they’re trying to rip you off Nepal is still dirt cheap. Before and after treks people often stay in the kind of luxurious hotels that would cost at least $800 a night in New York City. Here most 5-star accommodations cost about $100 a night which would put them in the same price range as a Motel 6 somewhere in the Midwest. After the first night at the Yak and Yeti I move on to a hotel called aLoft. The view out my window makes me feel as if I’m aloft: floating on a cloud above the noise, pollution, and chaos of the city, gazing out into the peaceful Mountains beyond. Inside my room it’s quiet and I rest well. 
 
Upstairs there’s a gym and a swimming pool with warm water. There’s two restaurants and a rooftop bar. The clientele are wealthy people from around the world. Europe and the US for sure but also India, and other parts of Asia. 


They rate of Covid in Nepal is ridiculously low. My guide Sandip told me that there’s only seven new cases in the entire country every day. This seems unlikely given the severity of the worldwide pandemic, but it may well be that outside of the city there aren’t accurate records kept. Many villages in the mountains and in the countryside have scant medical facilities and I wouldn’t be surprised if testing was limited. 

Tomorrow morning, I will take my third flight to Lukla Airport, one of the most dangerous in the world. It has a runway that seems about the length of a bowling alley with a little hill at the end just to mess with your mind. We get the usual a three-hour delay due to fog. This is not too bad considering that flights to Lukla are sometimes delayed for days at a time due to weather conditions. I’d rather not land there at all but if you want to trek in the Everest region, and you don’t want to take forever getting there then that’s the way it’s got to be.
The plane that you take from Lukla it’s a small, propeller-driven one that holds about 20 passengers. Sandip and I were joined by about 15 other people. There was a large group of Brazilians who were all smiles and selfies, giddy with excitement. I was already feeling anxiety about the imagined perils ahead. We took off into the clouds that were thick although sporadic. I started losing my shit when the turbulence started. It wasn’t the worst turbulence I’d ever experienced but enough to give me bad vibes. The tiny plane makes me feel like I’m riding through the air on a pencil. 
The flight only takes about 45 minutes. The big thrill comes at the end. You wonder, will it be us? Will we be the ones who the runway is not long enough for as we catapult off the end of the ramp and into the trees? When this doesn’t occur, we all applaud gratefully. I felt relieved to have, once again, completed one of the most dangerous parts of the trip. 
In Lukla Sandip gets a call from his mother who always worries when he flies into this hellish little place. He and I will meet up with Milan our porter. I have a guide to show me the way around and deal with all the restaurant and lodging concerns as well as keep me from taking a wrong turn, which is easy enough, and the porter who will schlep about 12 kg of my stuff up and down long flights of crumbling stone stairs. These guys are dedicated, diligent and work for next to nothing. 


 
From Lukla we hike, along the Dudh Kosinski river, of about four hours to the tiny town Phakding, which is actually at a slightly lower elevation than Lukla. The hike goes up and down and up and down a series of stone steps that have been crudely put into place.  They look as old as the mountains themselves. I suspect these steps have been put here by an orthopedist hoping to capitalize on a few knee injuries and a couple of broken bones. Phakding is almost always a first stop for trekkers on their way to Everest base camp or many other destinations in the Everest region.

The real respiratory test comes on the second day. From my previous experience (Everest base camp 2018) it’s actually the hardest day. The hike up to Namche Bazaar is grueling with a couple of miles a stone steps that go relentlessly up and up and make for a lung busting ascent of 2000 feet at a time when you are least acclimatized. I proceed bistari bistari (a Nepali term for slow as fuck). The young and excitable Brazilians passed me many times. I would, in turn pass them, when they had to take breaks huffing and puffing along the side of the trail. Then they would swiftly pass me. I would slowly pass them again and again as they were resting their overworked lungs. I learned the Brazilian word Despacito for slow and steady. During a break I tried to teach Sandip how to sing this song Bésame Mucho. We passed the resting Brazilians once again and I told them about the song I had been teaching Sandip. We all broke out in a version of Bésame Mucho that was filled with passion and joy. The joy was short-lived because there was another half a mile of steep steps before we reached Namche Bazaar and even when we got to this ancient Sherpa/Tibetan trading post turned eco tourist hot spot, there was a considerable number of additional stone steps to simply get to the Snow Inn, our teahouse for the night. 
 

Your standard teahouse in Nepal has neither heat nor hot water. Occasionally there will be a community hot shower that you can pay Rs.500 ($4) for a turn at your luck. Because of frequent use, the solar heated water might be hot, or it might be not.
The standard menu consists of Dal bhat (lentils and rice with soup and anything else knocking around the kitchen), noodles, spaghetti, pizza, eggs, toast, omelettes, muesli, and various teas including yak butter tea (add alcohol and you’ve got Chang).
I am not the guy that drinks yak butter tea. But there are people who love it. Just as there are people in England who love Marmite. Just up the hill from Namche we spent an acclimatization day at a swanky place called the Everest View Inn. I can’t recommend it. My room was magnificent. It was heated, it had a hot shower, a western toilet and even an electric blanket. These are extreme luxuries for trekkers.
The thing that pissed me off was that they deviated from the standard practice of having some kind of housing contingency for guides and porters as almost all accommodations in the Everest region do. They provided a room for Sandip but the porter Milan to had hike about 20 minutes down into town to fend for himself. In the morning after an overpriced, bummy-assed omelet I gave the manager an earful of my complaints. He was deeply unconcerned. 

On up the steps, and I mean endless steps, to Dole. This is a typical one yak town that you stay at on your way someplace else. In this case we were on our way eventually to Gokyo. To get to Dole we had to ascend and descend and then re-ascend, descend, and then reascend gradually gaining about 1000 meters of hard-earned elevation. It was exhausting amount of work to get about 8 km. 
I took an exquisite nap. I played the fiddle next to the wood stove for about a dozen people who applauded loudly, and I expressed my appreciation by blowing them kisses as if we were at the opera. I also gave Sandip his daily lesson. I am teaching him this song “I love Paris” in order for him to serenade his French fiancé. The older staff at these tea houses are a hoot. The old ladies like to flirt, and the old man like to call me grandpa. When they call me grandpa I called them baby girl and then we slap each other's backs laughing. Nepalis have an adorable sense of humor. 

These are physically demanding hard-driving hikes at high altitude. They strain is considerable but at the end of the day the rewards are immense. I make many friends, at least temporary friends, along the way. People from all over the world from Russia, Brazil, India, Israel, all of Europe, and the US. The prevalence of English as a common language is likely the result of UK/US colonialism and imperialism. It has become the most convenient international language between say a Swede and a Chilean for example. The teahouse dining rooms are a friendly place to hang out in the evening. There is potbelly stove cranked up with wood or yak dung (depending on altitude) burning. Yak dung smells surprisingly sweet when its burning. Nearly everyone is younger than me. They say I’m an inspiration. I brush this off. Most people my age would rather not try this crazy shit. When I was in my twenties, I imagined people in their late 60’s as poor souls that you need to help across the street. It is hard for a person in their late 60s to breathe the air above 12,000 feet. The higher I go the slower I go. 
Uphill progress grinds down to a ridiculously slow pace. If you saw me on the street walking as slowly as I do going up steep hill at 15,000 feet you’d think I had some kind of problem. However, at this altitude it’s a common sight. It’s important to find the right rhythm; not so fast that you have to stop every minute or so to suck down some air. Walk at a pace that is steady enough that you can still speak comfortably. This makes for a more enjoyable day and helps to ward off altitude sickness.


 
The moment it came into view I officially declared Gokyo Lake as the most beautiful place in the world. Sandip and I scaled the steep and slippery switchbacks of Gokyo Ri (a 17000 foot peak with a drop dead view of the high Himalaya and the azure lakes below. It was crystal clear, and the beautiful, snowy Himalaya were on full display. It’s death-defying and trepidacious hiking down the slippery sand and scree on the narrow switchbacks - especially toward the bottom. You navigate with Zen concentration and care. I’m sure there are young, agile mountaineers who skip gracefully down these hellish zigzags The way I used to dart in and out of traffic in Boston on my motorcycle when I was in my early 20s. In my late 60s I feel the weight of mortality upon me, and I take my time bistari, bistari.

Sandip had a long violin lesson when we got back to the teahouse. I worked him hard, made him memorize the notes and then went over bowing techniques with him. He is a perfectionist and won’t allow himself any defects that would blemish his performance. He’s making good progress for seven days he’s beginning to play all the notes in the right sequence. Getting a good sound consistently from the bow is much harder. He’s done remarkably well in in a short time and I’m super proud of him as a student. The teahouse we’re staying at also has a guitar in the dining room that the owner was given as a gift and still hasn’t quite learned how to play it. Sandip knew his way around a few chords. He never told me anything about his playing guitar. He also played me some of his favorite American pop tunes.
It was time to turn around and go down. We walked from Gokyo to Dole in 5 1/2 hours (twice as fast as the ascent). On the way up it took 5 1/2 hours to get from Dole to Machherma and 5 1/2 hours to get from Machherma to Gokyo.


 Sandip and I passed the time with conversations about the world, life, philosophy and politics. It was in fact the day for local elections in Nepal. A lot of businesses were closed and people who lived in the countryside had to travel a considerable distance to reach a location where they could vote.  They recognized the importance of their responsibility in the democratic process and many of them took the day off. We talked about the political issues in Nepal in terms of corruption and income inequality. I told him that we had more money in the US but the same basic inequality, and political corruption. 
He was surprised to hear that guns were such a big problem in the US. In Nepal you not allowed to own a gun. Sandip was shocked to know that in the US just about anybody can buy a gun and they are regular incidences where someone goes into a school and shoots innocent children mostly because they have untreated mental health problems. Or an individual becomes so enraged at coworkers that they seek vengeance and start shooting up their workplace. Sandip was absolutely floored by this. He couldn’t imagine a world where such things happened. In terms of the usual government corruption and the channeling of funds into the hands of people that don’t deserve it, all countries are quite similar. In terms of government inefficiency caused by private contractors skimming off most of the money from a job and provide a minimal service - say a website that keeps breaking down. 
Stone steps characterize the trails in Nepal. They’re ancient crumbling, unreliable, wet, slippery, covered with yak shit, and it doesn’t seem all that much easier to go down than it is to go up. In a few places it’s flat and the trail is smooth and easy to walk on. I’d say that covers about 10% of the way. You just have to take your time. I say this as a 67-year-old man who lives at about 200 feet above sea level. There’s plenty of young people, particularly local ones, who can run up and down the rocks and steps with such aplomb that they seem to be floating an inch above the ground. 

On our way through some of the little villages there were celebrations because election day had been the day before and the socialist CLM party had made gains. The CLM were getting popular with rural communities. The Maoists, who used to kidnap trekkers in the 1980s, had taken over the national government about 15 years prior but they turned out to be unabashedly corrupt. With economic inequality being what it is, the Nepali people are tired of getting short changed and feeling a groundswell of excitement about the CLM. A big crowd of them were marching on a street just a little bit behind us. You could hear them chanting “hip hip hooray! hip hip hooray!” They were deep into the Gorkha beer and full of raucous animation. A 1/2 a mile farther down the trail we passed at least 20 Nepali soldiers with Kalashnikovs headed up towards the action. Evidently, they needed extra firepower to keep two dozen drunken yak headers under control.

We continued around the yak dung and down the rocky trail to Namche Bazaar. Sandip had arranged for a fancy hotel owned by a friend of his. It was oddly named Camp de Base. But it had all the accoutrements of a real hotel. It cost $50 a night, had heated blankets, a hot shower, and a nice clean western toilet with actual toilet paper. In most accommodations along the trail toilet paper is not provided in the bathrooms, and you must buy your own. It is plentiful at every little store along the way. There is always an eager merchant who will gladly provide you with a roll for $2. My trouble was that I kept leaving the toilet paper in the bathroom at every tea house along the way and had to buy several rolls.
Sandip and I went out for a burger and beer at a sports bar where we watched a cricket match on TV. He tried, to no avail, to explain the rules. Milan, our porter, ended up getting a side job making a quick run (and I mean literally run) down to Lukla where a forgetful trekker needed some stuff they left behind. It would take us the next two days to walk down to Lukla from Namche, but Milan would run there and back in plenty of time for a good night’s sleep.
All my clothes smell like old gym sock by the time we got back to Namche. I bought a cheap new pair of hiking pants. The ones I had been wearing for 9 days were caked with mud and the smell was impossible to endure in an enclosed space. Namche is now a large sophisticated ecotourist destination. It was once in the important trading center for Nepalese, Tibetans, and Indians. It held this status for centuries and centuries. It really wasn't until the late 1990s that it started to offer trendy shops, restaurants, and accommodations.
Once more over the slippery rocks, lubricated with mud and yak shit, to the little riverside town of Phakding where we stayed in a quiet teahouse. There might have been two other guests, but I don’t remember anything about them. I’d been told by various guides and teahouse staff that business was still about 50% below pre Covid times. 
Sandip was almost ready to record his lush rendition of “I Love Paris”. Just a few more refinements and we would be ready to make a video of the final product and send it to his fiancé in France. We spent an hour after dinner tweaking the details for the final videotaping in Lukla.


 
There is a grand ornate gateway at the entrance to Lukla from the north. When we arrived at the gateway there was a large group of people cheering heartily as each individual in their group crossed the threshold and completed their long trek. As one of their members was just behind me, I took the opportunity to soak up a bit of the applause for myself.
The streets of Lukla were enveloped in a thick fog reminiscent of the final scene in the movie Casablanca. This was not good news. With low visibility, it's impossible for the planes to land safely on the aircraft carrier like runway. People can be stuck in Lukla four days at a time waiting for the weather to lift so that they can fly back to Kathmandu. I couldn't help but worry. Thankfully I had planned for this to happen and tacked on a few days to the end of the trip. 

The Lukla hotel owners were friends of Sandip’s and possessed the appropriate amount of tolerance for us to do the last video recording of “I love Paris” in their public dining area. Considering he only had 10 days, Sandip did and extraordinary job and nailed the recording as best he could. I was proud of his progress. I assured him that no matter what, his girlfriend Valerie would be touched by the utter sweetness of the gesture. From the window of the hotel bar, we could clearly see the outlines of the mountains surrounding the town in the twilight sky; a good omen for the possibility flying out in the morning.

There had been no flights from Lukla for the past four days and, as you might imagine, there was a feeling of desperation amongst the stranded passengers at the airport in the morning. Luckily our tickets have been confirmed a long time before and our seats on the flight were etched in stone. We took off at 7:00 in the morning and by 8:00 o'clock we were in Kathmandu. I was allowed to check in early at aLoft my hotel of choice in the city. 

We made it! It was a journey that had many possible problems built into it. And yet we were lucky enough that nothing went seriously wrong. We could have been stuck waiting for a flight in Kathmandu at the outset, but we weren't. We could have had terrible weather and been soaked with rain, never seeing single mountain. But the clouds miraculously lifted at the crucial moments. This was particularly so when we reached Gokyo Lake which was, in terms of scenery, the money shot of the whole trip. We made it safely to and from the most dangerous airport in the world after trekking through some of the most dangerous mountains in the world and we celebrated by going out for some drinks and dinner at a restaurant called Gaia where I had dined several occasions during previous trips to Nepal. The place had good food and drinks with an open tiki bar kind of atmosphere. Sandip bought me a hat called a Kalo Dhaka Topi with swords crossed in the front. It’s a symbol of nobility. Sandip told me that he considered me to be a man of honor and nobility and I deserved to wear the hat.
 

As a precaution, I’d left a few days open at the end of the trip. Since the weather held up a Lukla, I was able to book a couple nights at an upscale resort called Mystic Mountain. It was 6000 ft. up and twenty miles northeast of Kathmandu making it significantly cooler and less polluted. To get there you had to ascend a steep road that became more and more Nepali as it went along. At the bottom of it was paved and suburban. But the pavement disappeared, the road got curvier with more potholes and ruts. There was chickens and old ladies in colorful traditional dress on their way to the little stores, and little kids waiting in uniforms for the school bus to arrive. Along the route there were lesser resorts some of them small and quite humble. My driver had assured me that he had been to Mystic Mountain many times. This turned out to be fake news. After we've missed a second turn, he admitted he'd only been there one other time. Thankfully we got some directions from a few local farmers and toward the end there were some helpful signs that directed us to this very modern, spacious, well lighted place on a breezy hilltop.
In their literature they described sweeping views of the Himalaya in all its glory. Unfortunately, these views were only available and when the skies were not filled with dust, clouds and haze. I was able to make out some very faint outlines of the big mountains. I wasn't really expecting much and besides I have been fortunate enough to see many grand Himalayan views in the past.
The place was mostly populated by large, loud, Indian families. It didn’t matter to me, I was there to rest, create, and contemplate. I never have this much time to visit with my interior self. So much of what we do in life distracts us from our own inner dialogue. I have gone through periods of life where I studiously avoided being alone in quiet place and ran away from anything that resembled self-examination. For the next two days I was more than happy to stare solitude in the face.
On the first day, I walked into the lunchroom to find about 50 Nepali High School students who were all dressed in the same navy-blue golf shirt and must have been part of a school trip. They fell quiet and stared at me. I gave them a bashful wave and they broke out into peals of laughter, recognizing of their own gaping curiosity and the awkwardness that ensued. The food was good, the other guests were quite friendly. My room had a beautiful terrace where I could stare out at the landscape and dream.
On the last day, I had to rush into town and take a rapid PCR COVID test. To be allowed onto the plane to New York I would have to present a negative PCR done within the last 24 hours. The hotel provided a service whereby a guy from the lab could come by and swab my nose, he would then rush the sample back to the hospital lab and deliver a hard copy of the test results in a time span of four to six hours. The prospect of having a positive result and, as a result, having to isolate in Kathmandu for another five to seven days would have been tedious and depressing. Luckily the test came up negative and I was good to go.











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