TokTok: 2544m/8700 ft.
Namche Bazaar: 3446m/11270 Ft.
7km, 4.5 miles, 6.5 hours hike time
Terrain: Gently rolling trail until after lunch, then a steep climb up a long hill using stairs and switchbacks for 2-2.5 hours.
As we struck out from Lukla that first day we quickly encountered something Ryan had mentioned during the pre-briefing: Mani stones. All throughout the Himalaya are symbols of the Buddhist faith that is an important part of their life. Chortons are one example; they are usually larger, constructed structures that look like religious structure and often contain prayer wheels. Mani stones are rustic shrines; large rocks painted or carved with prayer symbols, or piles of rock slates on which the symbols are cut and painted.
Prayer wheels are supposed to be spun clockwise, the direction of the earth’s revolution, according to Buddhist tradition and mani stones are approached the same way and passed on the left side. Ryan had warned us that other trekkers and locals will call you out if you break the custom, which is sometimes tempting when the easier path is a downhill slope to the right.
This was our first mani wall. You can’t see in this shot but there is a path around both sides of the wall. People approaching from the opposite direction would pass the wall on the path that is to my right. We went left.
We spent our first night in a little stopover spot called TokTok, and we rookies learned the routine at the teahouses. As soon as we arrived we picked out a room, which was no more than two twin beds and floor space. Before we cleaned up or changed we went back downstairs to have tea or coffee and put in our dinner order off of a standard but plentiful menu. Our guides had advised us to stick with a good mix of carbs and, as we could get it, safe protein like eggs and peanut butter, although at this altitude chicken was probably still safe.
After ordering we went upstairs to change and unpack, and set up our sleeping pads and bags. The beds have thin, twin-size mattresses so the pads provide an extra layer of comfort and warmth.
After about 30 minutes of clean-up time dinner was ready, though the teahouse owners were more than happy to hold our plate until we were ready to eat. Before leaving dinner we ordered breakfast so it would be ready when packed up and came down in the morning.
We were each carrying small daypacks weighing about 10 pounds with extra layers, snacks, and water. Our large overnight duffles with our sleeping bags and gear were being carried by porters who picked them up every morning, carried them to our next stop at their own pace and delivered them to our room once we’d arrived. Portering is a common job for men, and even some women, in Nepal and during the trekking season many people come to the mountains from central Nepal to find work doing it. It’s backbreaking, but it can pay well if they can sign on with good expeditions.
There are no roads in this region so everything that comes into these villages from lumber to food is carried. This porter looks like he’s carrying some kind of electronic equipment, which could have been used for a celebration, or during climbing season might be part of an expedition’s communications tent.
For a long time portering was completely freelance and there were no rules or regulations. Porters sometimes died trying to work too hard while sick or tired so they could keep earning money. In recent years, laws have been written and some oversight organizations have cropped up on behalf of porters, meant to protect their rights. Officially, porters can only carry up to 40kg, about 80 pounds; a seemingly ridiculous amount to us but which I watched many of their strong, wiry bodies tote up that trail at a good clip. Though I felt lazy for letting the porters carry my pack both Jagat and Kat reminded me that this was good work for them.
Along the way we crossed the first of several high suspension bridges lined with prayer flags. These don’t bother me but I know the heights can be hard for some people. Near the end of our day several of our team had gone ahead to cross a bridge. A local man guiding a yak on a rope walked past the rest of us. When the yak got to the bridge it started to trot, pulling the man along at the end of the rope and causing the bridge to sway. We yelled for our teammates but the wind was too loud so there was nothing to do but watch as this yak stormed down on our friends. At the last second someone looked back and saw it coming, yelled, and everyone on the bridge hugged the side so the yak could pass. Yaks will not be stopped! It was scary, but funny later when we remembered the small man trying to hold on to his crazy yak.
Himalayan hiking 101
The trail from TokTok to Namche contained our first big uphill section – about 2 hours of steep climb. Ryan taught us a helpful uphill skill: lock your knee during each step to momentarily transfer stress from the muscle to the stronger skeletal structure and push a forceful breath out for every couple of breaths in. When under stress our breathing becomes shallow, preventing carbon dioxide from being forced out of our lungs. A power breath – a quick “wuuuush” of air pushed from the lungs through the lips – clears the lungs and allows the oxygen back in that our muscles so badly need.
So simple, and so helpful.
Kat also schooled us to walk slower than we thought we needed. Put one foot ahead of another, step by step, at a pace that doesn’t require you to stop, no matter how slow that is. As a professional climber, she said that is how every climb is done – slow and steady, step by step. This was one of my fears – being too slow to keep up and holding up the whole group. We had some very strong hikers who pushed on and of course, I felt inferior. But watching Kat and a few others stroll along at the back I realized that this wasn’t about keeping up. Let people go their pace. Our group was probably stretched out along a 1/4 mile of trail now, with guides at both ends. This trip was about reaching our goals: helping Kumari and trekking to base camp, it wasn’t a race.
Still, being competitive, I was delighted to find I felt strong enough to stay somewhat toward the front. Kat’s mom Vicki gave me a hard time since I’d told her that I’d be at the back. She’s 65, hikes a ton and is in great shape, but she takes it very slow. I told her my reasoning was that I should push as far forward as I could so that if my energy crapped out then I’d have room to fall back. I don’t think she believed me.
This day’s hike was only about 5 hours but 2 hours were uphill, giving us a steep elevation gain. Unfortunately, the Nepali guides had a habit of vague-stating everything; “One more hour, maybe two more hours,” which made it feel interminable, but eventually Tricia, TFK’s Operations Director who has done this trek several times, told me we were just around the bend. I fairly sprinted, which in reality was just a wobbly walk, until I noticed buildings peeking out through the trees and saw, through my tunnel vision, this small puffball. Just a puppy, hardly willing to stand still for a photo.
I’m some category beyond an animal lover, kind of an animal fanatic, and when visiting developing nations I have to make an effort to pull back from my first-world view that pets are spoiled little buddies. But I do miss their joy, and more than once have found myself talking to a street animal I know is worm-ridden and diseased, longing to scratch behind its ears. This little guy seemed to belong to a family and was happily greeting trekkers as we arrived into town.
What a sight Namche Bazaar is! It’s the largest settlement in the Khumbu valley and the center of trade, medicine, and supplies for many expeditions going to the high peaks. It’s the first stop of acclimatization; a day spent resting and doing a short hike up the local hills and back. Acclimatizing requires taking a short hike higher, then sleeping lower to let your body adjust.
Our schedule was for two nights and one glorious full day of rest in Namche Bazaar. It’s an interesting little town and full of mountain character.
The rates at our hotel. $25 well spent.
Good info to know? Maybe not. Two Swedish medical students were in Namche recruiting trekkers to participate in their study on altitude sickness. They had you fill out a questionaire and tested your oxygenation rate with a portable pulse ox reader. Trekkers took a sheet to fill out each night with location, altitude and any symptoms, and were supposed to scan and email it back to them.
There were always these cow/yak hybrids wandering around and I asked Ryan why. He said if they wander too far someone will bring them back, or tell the owner. They’re valuable, so people know what belongs to who.