Friday, March 16
That "blessed sleep" I mentioned in the previous post? Well, I wasn't blessed last night. Packing and repacking, and the, for me, inevitable nervousness and performance anxiety must have caused a wakeful night. I ended up sleeping for max two hours. Fortunately, one of the skills I've acquired in med school, residency, and early baby years is the skill of riding the sleepless tide. There were so many nights where I had a half an hour before rounds or the next case, where I'd head to a "call room", brush my teeth, wash my face, take out contacts, and just lie down. And it helped. So, last night, lying in bed, breathing deeply, thinking about oh-so-many things, I still managed to rest and feel calmness- just without the mental rest. Pretty much sucked.
We awoke, or rather, arose, at 4 AM because we had to meet downstairs at 4:45 AM. I think Lucy was the only one on board for the early call- she joins John and friends at the 5:45 AM Seal Team training in Richmond- while I lounge in, electing the sanity of the 9:30 am team. The purpose of the early call was torture- might as well begin now. Actually, the goal was to be the first ones at the airport door when it opened- think Black Friday at WalMart- and to maintain place in line when all the not-so-genteel shoving began. We had a lot of bags to move, but with our second-place start (perhaps camping out would have given us the first berth?), lots of strong arms and backs, we moved that luggage through the requisite xray machines. As we passed through security, the "stroke-downs" were a little more friendly than usual, even though by a woman. We watched as the bags were weighed for this tiny airplane, and hoped that most of our bags made it on the same flight.
We boarded the plane...a tiny craft seating 18-20, complete with stewardess. The aisle was about 18" wide, and I wondered if she'd really offer any airborne hospitality walking up and down that micro-aisle. We'd heard a lot about this flight to Lukla- it's regarded (?promoted) as the worst flight in the world. Great. Several of us were quite nervous, but we took off smoothly, and soon we were watching ranges of rather large hunks of rock outside our window. It was impressive and inspiring and just so beautiful. At one point, we passed right by a mountain, and it soared so high above the plane. As this is generally a very bumpy flight, I tried to ignore all the whitish and semi-opaque streaks which dripped down the inside of my window-and thought that a spritz or two of Windex wouldn't be a bad item to add to the pre-flight check list. I truly didn't want to know the source of those streaks. Not to mention they messed with my photographs. The flight was surprisingly smooth, except for one small Tower of Terror drop. Then the plane banked into Lukla...and we saw the cliff wall. The plane is a STOL plane (Short Take-off and Landing)- which is a good thing because we needed that short landing. The runway at Lukla is ultra- short, and ramps upward until it dead-ends (?) at the cliff wall. Don't know who engineered the whole thing, but flying into an airport with a huge cliff at the end of a short runway required some chutzpah. The pilots dropped us quickly down, a bit Kamikaze style, for an thankfully efficient landing. We were down. And yes, the flight attendant did navigate the aisle with cotton balls to deaden the noise, and mints. I still think Windex was in order.
While we waited for subsequent flights to bring the remainder of our bags, we ate our breakfast boxes from the Yak and Yeti in Kathmandu, wandered around Lukla purchasing some yak milk soap and other souvenirs. (Perhaps an airbag?) Laura contemplated purchasing blue v. green earrings, and Renee, true to her witty self, decided that "This is not a trek, it's a Fashion Expedition!" Too funny. Lucy took an errant turn, and wandered around Lukla looking for home...but finally made it back to us. We ate delicious apple strudel, a Lukla tradition, at the German bakery, and met the porters for our trek. We had all somehow believed that there were yaks on the trail, and there are, but only for loads going all the way to Everest Base Camp. The rest of the bags are carried by porters. Not sure why there's an increased weight limit here. Alas, it seems my career as a Yak-ess is over before it has begun. There seemed to be a bit of discussion over the heavy bags, but Linden assured me that a load is a load, and we are helping the local economy!
Mid-morning we geared up and started walking. More than once we noticed the great void-the absence of the noise of Kathmandu. In its place were yak bells on the cow/yak hybrids called dzopkyo as they barreled by us, the laughter and playfulness of the children we saw, and the chatter of our team. We passed small villages and numerous dzopkyo trains- which I've dubbed the "Khumbu trains." Upon seeing some of these beasts of burdens, we marveled at the strap which ran under their tails- a strap which Lucy refers to as the "thong from hell". And that is, indeed, what it looks like. All along the footpaths that link the villages are chortens (Sherpa)/Stupa(Tibetan/Buddhist)- small white temples in similar structure, though more rustic, to the temples we saw in Kathmandu, chotra -prayer poles flying white prayer flags, and mani stones- huge carved rocks, and prayer wheels. All are covered in "Om Mani Padmi Hum," and we passed them in the traditional fashion- clockwise. Along the way, we stopped for lunch at a tea house where we were entertained as Renee modeled some of the many forms of wearing a Buff. She wrapped, unwrapped, shook her hair, and re-wrapped. She finished up with the Jackie O version.-she was quite impressive! A highlight of the trail today were the swinging bridges over the Dudh Kosi and it's tributaries. Walking across these bridges was incredible, for the views up and down valley from the middle were gorgeous. And they did swing. I realized that the technique for walking across them, for me, was like riding a "ski bounce" at the end of the turn. Loose knees and a wider stance. We just made sure to let the Khumbu trains have the right of way. It was a remarkable day. Everywhere were huge mountains, yet they were among the least in the Himalayas. We had begun the trek at about 9200ft in Lukla, and we descended ~500 ft along the trails to the Dudh Kosi River and Phakding for the night.
Our tea house- "Joe's"- sits on the banks of the "Milk River", and the milky blue color of the water underscores it's name.Our room opened had a view onto the river, and all rooms had an ensuite bath. We were fortunate to grab showers in our unheated rooms before meeting for dinner. And then, bed. This time, in sleeping bags. Not a bad way to spend a day.
(Photos to follow...)