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The Gokyo Trek – Leg I

Sunday, December 21st, 2008

At Indira Gandhi International Airport a while back, I wondered how it was almost all the tourists headed to Kathmandu were ready-pressed and dressed like they’re heading to the mountains the moment they step out the air instead of a cab to Thamel and its cheap wonders?

It’s places like Gokyo, that’s how, coupled with the attenuated hold on the Occidental mind of Kathmandu as some kinda Shangri-La, ha, ha. Increasingly popular with those intrepids who fancy crossing over from Renjo Pass to the west or Cho-La pass to the east, the nine-day Gokyo trek along the Dudh Koshi Valley (see map) may not be as isolated as my 1997 Lonely Planet led me to imagine but the wilderness is still out there, as magnificent as anything you could dream of.

Lonely Planet, 1997

Lonely Planet, 1997

Tired of people demanding if you’ve climbed Everest when the closest you’ve been to the roof of the world is through the seat of your pants? Book your flight to Lukla now.

Day 1 – Kathmandu to Lukla to Phakding

Reconfirm your flight to Lukla. Or face the consequences at Tribhuvan International Airport with your fellow travellers, most of whom will at least have a guide to do the talking for them. Walking into a terminal heaving with three days worth of tourists champing at the bit, we considered ourselves lucky to be off just two hours behind time. We squidged ourselves onto the wrong side of the plane but there ain’t much that can beat the thrill of spearing through the hills to the Lukla airstrip rushing up to meet you at an angle designed to slow you down before you hit the town, quite literally.

C Thapa, 2008

C Thapa, 2008

We enlisted a porter for the days my sister was planning – I’m an incorrigible DIY guy when it comes to trekking – and off we went, up and down the sunny mountainside along a broad, busy trail prettied up with painted mani walls and rocks. The rippled grey symmetry of Kongde (6086m) rising to the left on the other side of the suitably chalky Dudh Koshi promised much, and down by the Saino Lodge & Restaurant at Thaado Khola where we had the first of many quite passable dalbhat-sabji-achaar combos, we caught our first sight of a classic Himalayan peak – classic, that is, in its perennial coat of blinding white. Kusum Khangkaru (6370m) is considered by some the most difficult of the trekking peaks, and at this point (2580m) it seemed a long way off.

C Thapa, 2008

C Thapa, 2008

But it was a short, easy day to Phakding, which suited us just fine. Forty-five minutes by plane, three hours by foot, we were a world away from the bluster of Kathmandu. We were in the Khumbu, on our way to Everest…sort of, and certainly if you fell for the triumphal blares of music pouring out the telly where a mountaineering DVD regaled the weary, dulled punters. 

Day 2 – Phakding to Naamche Bazaar

Trekking in Nepal is tough love, no question. Thousands must have been fooled into thinking the famed Everest Base Camp trek a doddle after their first day. Hiking up from Jorsale to Naamche Bazaar the day after puts most in their place.

I was more surprised by the sheer volume of people populating the trail. Were we really out of the capital? We strode past files of octogenarian Japanese tourists and weaved around mini yak caravans. True, the weather had blanked out flights for two days. Views of Thamserku’s (6618m) serrated, ragged glory and the blue-grey confluence of the Dudh Koshi with the Bhote Koshi notwithstanding, I couldn’t help but wish I was further along the road to Gokyo.

I was somewhat mollified at the entrance post to Sagarmatha National Park, where I exercised the local privilege of jumping the queue, not needing to be in one at all. But after a long, hot slog soothed only by a brief, thrilling first sight of Everest peeking out from behind some pines, Naamche Bazaar seemed to offer little more than relief, with not much at the end of the day by way of ambience in its spread of multi-storeyed blue-green-red roofed hotels, Thamelesque high street tourist tat and om mani chants.

But though this Sherpa village at 3440m has moved with the times, as any trading post must do, it continues to court ambition, desire and fulfilment. We wandered through the weekend market, where the pained, sweaty visages we’d passed on the trail were to be seen smiling behind wares lugged over from Jiri, a week’s walk. Further along the China market sprawled in technicoloured heaps, unspooled from yak backs. Coffee and pastries at the original Hermann Helmer’s Bäckerei und Conditorei, stacked with rows and rows of loaves of bread, did wonders for us. There’s no denying the drama of Naamche’s surrounds either, confirmed by a short uphill stroll to the army post that lays out Ama Dablam (6814m), Lhotse (8516m), Nuptse (7864m), Everest (8850m) and Pumori (7165m).

naamche bazaar

And cheese-lovers weep no more! If the general lack of your favoured nibble and the blandness of Kathmandu Yak and Kanchan had you groping for comparisons with Comte, try some of the local variety of firm, holey, mature Yak cheese. While you’re at it, ask for a dram of the local millet chhyaang or better still, settle in for an evening of fermented millet beer. The leisurely charms of tongba will keep you warm and woozy a few mugs down the line. Many thanks to Palden and Dolma, who run one of Naamche’s oldest and most respectable hotels, the Namaste Lodge.

Day 3 & 4 – Naamche Bazaar to Thami trek (acclimatisation)

The Naamche to Thami trek is a couple of clicks more than the three-hour jaunt advertised in the Lonely Planet, and the Thami you sleep in is really just a collection of lodges rather than the ‘more traditional Sherpa village’ it’s touted as. The walk is well worth it however, unless you really fancy a night out on the cobbles of Naamche while you’re acclimatising. It begins with a pleasant stroll through cool oak and rhododendron forests west from Naamche and continues to the end of the Bhote Koshi valley.


We ambled along the trail, passing our first ‘real’ yaks (and first ‘real’ Tibetan men with turquoise in their ears) coming down the old trade route from Tibet, which passes through Thami. Lunch took forever at the Maya Lodge in Thamo, giving us ample opportunity to admire the dining ceiling plastered with t-shirts from past Everest Marathons. Our porter, Nir Kumar Rai, revealed he’d been sixth in the men’s event this year. He’d run the 42-kilometre loop from Base Camp to Naamche in less than 5 hours; while most trekkers hobble the same in three to four days. I was limping along myself; the leather boots I’d treated myself to were holding up admirably well, except being brand new, they felt like logs of wood with my feet tender worms within them. I wouldn’t be running no marathons.

As the sun was cut off mid-conversation by the looming black mountains we crossed the furious rush of the Bhotekoshi sculpting russet rock into smooth convolutions. Our porter stopped, pointed and lo! there stood a magnificent Himalayan tahr twenty metres down the hill, its coat flowing in the wind.


The sighting of Khumbu natives apparently unafraid of humans (ergo unhunted) cheered me enough to ignore the nondescript approach to Thami, where we quickly settled in to the neat, cosy Everest Summiteers Lodge, owned by Appa ‘many times’ Sherpa. Just how many times Appa’s got to the top becomes clear as you survey out of enforced boredom the certificates ringing the warm dining room. I’ll stick with 17, insomuch as I couldn’t locate one that congratulated him for the 18th time. There are certainly some interesting ways to make a name.

Give the man his due, but Appa might want to hike back from Amrika to straighten out the lodge operating in his name. The Everest Summiteers Lodge breaks outrageously with the unspoken tradition of not charging porters for room and board. This has as much to do with rising prices as the gradual compulsion on the part of hoteliers and trekking agencies to grant porters rights, from setting daily rates of pay to allowing them into the common areas. If they are to be treated as humans, the logic goes, they (read: their clients) must pay their share, and never mind if they brought the hotel business. Nir Kumar’s bill amounted to almost ten dollars…more than what each of us was paying.

Grumbling about the commercialisation of trekking, stomachs rumbling with the most awful momos we’d ever chewed through (two plates instead of one, courtesy of an error in the kitchen), we trudged twenty minutes up to the freshly renovated 500-year-old Thami Gomba, which sits pretty amongst stone dwellings more resembling a village. A cheery, wide-eyed monk showed us an upper chamber, waving away our attempts at de-shoeing and winking towards the donation box, leaving me wondering just what the pungent milky liquid sloshing around in his bottle was…

…but perhaps I was in an overtly cynical frame of mind. Really, there was not much to complain about in the clear sunshine of this mountain morning. After all it was this very hardheadedness that had got Khumbu where it was. The neatly uniformed, multi-ethnic group of students we encountered on the way back stood in stark contrast to the onerupeeonepenonechocolate child beggars of the Annapurna region. The Khumbu Bijuli Company set up by Austrian NGO EcoHimal illuminates the region even as Kathmandu hunkers down to 63 hours a week of loadshedding this winter. Naamche is booming. The Sherpas have done well by themselves, and who are we to begrudge them the fruits of their labours?


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