Solukhumbu Trekking

It is a hot, humid week in Kathmandu. I returned to the capital city late Friday evening 1.5 weeks ago after an eight-day trekking excursion in the Solukhumbu District. This is a region where hills turn into mountains in the South, and the mountains turn into the Earth’s most impressive natural towers in the North along the Tibetan border. The region is well known as home to Sagarmatha (aka Mount Everest), the tallest mountain in the world, reaching 8848 meters or 29,029 feet. Our destination was the small Sherpa village of Junbesi, supposedly a 7 hour drive from Kathmandu followed by a two day walk from the nearest road head.

Our group of 11, including 6 Nepalis, 1 Finn, 1 Swiss, 1 Chinese, a driver and me departed Kathmandu early morning on April 8th in a very full jeep. We had hopes of reaching the small town of Deurali by sunset. However, after 9 hours driving up to the city of Giri, we hit dirt road. By this time it was already dusk, and soon we were moving at a snails pace driving on the bumpy dirt road over streams, sand and rocks. We did not have a map and the driver was not familiar with the area. The road was just constructed within the last few months (a lot of development money is going into road construction in Nepal; the work is made difficult, dangerous and expensive by the mountainous terrain). After 4 more long, uncomfortable, stressful hours on dirt road we decided to settle down for the evening and found a small town of Ganjar, which had a 2-room guest house at which we were able to stay.

After the long, dusty car ride we prepared the standard Nepali meal, Dal Baht (literally “Lentils Rice,” eaten twice daily for lunch and dinner by most Nepalis). Though it sounds simple, Dal Baht can be quite tasty. The rice and lentil sauce are usually served with an array of sides including several types of curry vegetables, steamed spinach, tomato pickle relish, papad (like a hard shell taco) and sometimes meat if specially requested (buffalo, goat, chicken or fish depending on location – in Buddhist villages it is not permitted to slaughter any animal, though the residents can buy the meat from outside). The sides served vary depending on local food availability and tradition.

In the morning, we prepared to depart on foot for the 2.5 hour hike up, up, up to Deurali followed by a 4 hour hike down, down, down to the town of Kinza. Kinza was a small village along a rough river and had many nice, old guesthouses. Once in Kinza we took a cold dip in the river and spent the evening playing cards. The next day we had a long and challenging hike from Kinza at 1800 meters (5900 feet) up to the Lamjura Pass at 3500 meters (11,480 feet) and then back down to Junbesi at 2700 meters (8850 feet). Above 3000 meters (9850 feet) you really start to feel the effects of the altitude. As the air becomes thinner, breathing becomes heavier, patience fades, and the pace of walking slows. But, the beautiful views and clean and quiet environment made it worth the challenge. After 9.5 hours on the trail, we finally made it to Junbesi, the hometown of Mingma Sherpa, my supervisor at UN-HABITAT, and our main destination for the trek. Junbesi is a small Sherpa village of 40 households located on the old trekking route between Kathmandu and Everest. Because mountaineers and trekkers interested in reaching Everest’s base camp or summit used to take the route, there are many tea houses and guest houses along the way, though they are mostly empty these days since tourists now fly to Lukla, an airport 2 days trekking closer to Everest.

We spent the next 3 days in and around Junbesi relaxing and taking day hikes to nearby sights. One day we visited a local Tibetan monastery, home to 500 devoted monks and nuns, most from Tibet. We were able to view the monks and nuns during prayer and were given a blessing by one of the top monks. Not only that, but we met with the monastery’s Tibetan doctor who explained to us the ins and outs of their traditional medicine. It was very interesting to learn about.

After too many relaxing days in Junbesi, I, Giuli and Hemendra (2 of the trekking group) decided to take a side trip to the nearest mountain peak to finish off the trek with a challenge. On the afternoon of the 12th we made a short 3-hour trek to a neighboring village, Loding, where my supervisor’s aunt and uncle live in order to have a proximate starting point for reaching the peak the next day. Loding is another Sherpa village located on a river in the valley of “hills” but was very different than Junbesi in that it was not on a main trekking route, so had no guest houses. After a nice evening in the old and quiet village, we set off at 5am for what we knew would be a long and challenging day, though how hard we could not have predicted. The goal was Pikey Peak, a 4050 meter (13,285 foot) mountain with unobstructed views of the Himalayan Range, including Everest and the surroundings. We had to hike 5 hours pretty much straight up from 2200 meters (8470 feet) to the peak. There was a tea house after the first 2 hours of walking, but for the following 3 hours to the peak and 4 hours back down, there were no places to break for food or drink. We made it to the peak around 11am, after an exhausting and slow climb to the snow covered top. We spent more than 30 minutes enjoying the unbelievable views and beginning to feel the effects of the altitude. We then turned down towards the valley, on a different route than which we came, hoping to find a more direct route back to Loding. However, we found ourselves stuck on the ridge above Loding with no trail in sight. Eventually, we made our way back, tired and exhausted. Once in the village around 3:30pm, we found our family’s home, they prepared us a well-earned meal, and we rested for 30 minutes. Then we were off on another 2 hour hike down to the town of Phaplu, where we had a flight scheduled back to Kathmandu the following morning!

Once in Phaplu, we quickly learned of an issue that would keep us there for an extra day and a half. The airline through which we had purchased plane tickets weeks before, had not flown into Phaplu for a scheduled flight for 4 days! We were hopeful our flight would be different for the next day. As we pondered what to do if the flights still did not come, the local children’s group treated us with a cultural performance. Mingma’s cousin helped run the group, so he put together the show within an hours notice of our interest. About 10 well-trained children’s dance groups performed Nepali and Western style dances. Then came the Nepali dance party and folk singing, to which we were all invited to participate. Of course, after the 12+ hour hiking day, we were pretty exhausted, but we still managed to make it on the dance floor for a while.

The next day came, and the flight did not. We hung out in Phaplu at our top-notch hotel, which Mingma’s godfather owned, so we were able to stay at no cost. We spent the day reading books from the hotel library and went for a short walk to the nearby district capital for lunch. By night, we were getting ready for some action, and hoped our flight would make it the next day. However, once again, the flight would not come. As we thought we could be stuck in Phaplu for many more days if we waited, we found an alternate, albeit longer route back to the capital. After an 18 minute rough plane ride on a single engine, 7-seater plane to a neighboring district capital, we took two consecutive 3-4 hour extremely bumpy bus rides back to Kathmandu. Damn, it felt good to be back in the big city, though we would miss the beautiful mountain views and cool temperatures!

All in all, the trip was very enjoyable. I look forward to returning to Solukhumbu for more treks in the future.