Nepal, the land of the mountains

A personal account by Maria Stan

Nepal is a small country in Southeast Asia, known mainly for the high summits and deep valleys of the Himalaya mountains. Yet there is more to discover: culture, religion and people, but they are all different from what we have known and seen so far. Here’s our story about a couple of adventurous weeks spent in this wonderful land of high peaks, yaks, prayer flags and unique customs.

We arrive in Kathmandu by plane and take a van to the hotel, which is located in Thamel, the touristic district. There is a lot of traffic on the crowded streets of the capital of Nepal. Driving, as well as crossing the street as a pedestrian, is a big challenge here. There’s not much time for visiting today, though; we are tired and we have to pack our bags for the next morning, when our hiking tour begins.

We leave Kathmandu in a van at 3 am in the morning and are passing through roads twisting into large valleys. After 4 hours we finally get to Ramechhap, a dusty village with a tiny airport. This is where we take off in the smallest aircraft I’ve been inside so far – there’s space for 20 people inside, aside from the pilots. During the 40 minutes flight we get the first views of the huge snowy mountains around us. At 2860 meters our plane touches down on the very short and steep ramp of the Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla, which has the reputation of being the most dangerous airport in the world. Our hiking adventure begins now!

We stay up on the mountain for two full weeks, hiking between 2500 and 5600 meters, moving from one village to another in the Khumbu region. Despite the threatening look of the steep and spiky ridges, the valleys always feel peaceful and welcoming, thanks to some local customs. The locals hang prayer flags over high cliffs and suspended bridges such that their mantras will be blown by the wind, spreading goodwill, compassion and peace. They also carve mantras into stones – so-called “mani” stones – or paint them on prayer wheels. There are also many stupa along the way – these are places for meditation containing the relics of Buddhist monks – as well as some Buddhist monasteries and temples, the largest one located in Tengboche. Although over 80% of Nepal’s population is Hindu, most of the mountaineering areas are dominated by Buddhism; the two different religions share the mountains of Nepal in peace.

We visit the Sagarmatha National Park Museum in Namche Baazar and the Edmund Hillary School in Khumjung, walk next to donkey and yak caravans on tight hiking trails, attend a Buddhist ceremony in Tengboche and even eat delicious cake in several locations above 4000m. The higher we reach, the more wonders we see, the more peaks unfold in front of our eyes… and the thinner the air gets. We start feeling the lack of oxygen as we approach 4500m. This usually manifests itself as headaches and shortage of breath, sometimes even nausea. Though, the impressive views of the tall inaccessible peaks motivate us to keep going. The peaks Ama Dablam (6812m), Nuptse (7861m), Lhotse (8516m), Mount Everest (8848m), Makalu (8485m) and uncountable others extend before us one after another as we get higher.

On the 8th day of our trek, we reach Everest Base Camp (5364m), the starting point for all expeditions on the Southern Face of Mt. Everest since its first ascent in 1953 by Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary. We spend this night at the highest accommodation point in the region, Gorak Shep (5165m). The next morning we wake up at 3:30 am and ascend the 400m between Gorak Shep and the peak Kala Patthar (5643m). The sun rises from behind Mt. Everest just as we reach the top and we admire this miracle of nature from the highest altitude of our expedition.

On the following days we cross the Cho La Pass – which is the most technically demanding part of the expedition, as we use crampons in order to cross a glacier and a pass at over 5400 meters – and we climb on Goyko Ri (5357m) to catch another sunrise. After a couple of days spent above 4000 meters we already feel more acclimatized at these altitudes and cease to get headaches or feel out of breath anymore. Now it’s time to start our descent, another four days-worth of hiking.

After two weeks spent in the heart of the mountains, returning to the crowded and noisy Kathmandu feels a bit overwhelming. Still, even here, there is a lot to discover. We visit Buddhist and Hindu temples, like the Monkey Temple (Swayambhunath), Bouddha Stupa and Durbar Square, watch local customs and eat traditional food. As the day ends, we go out around the hotel on the tiny streets flooded with tourists, in order to get some last souvenirs.

The next day we start our long way back home, and we carry with us not only suitcases with souvenirs (mainly rocks and tea), but also great impressions of the Himalaya.