By RJ West
“Dear boy, to a bodhisattva, there’s no difference between a human & a flea. We’re just at different points on the wheel: one life a stockbroker, the next, a cockroach. The only difference between you & a flea on the Great Dragon’s back is that a flea doesn’t ask so many questions.” -Tim Ward, The Great Dragon’s Fleas.
Om mani padme hum, jewel in the hart of the lotus. This Tibetan mantra is carved on mani stones, rock faces, written on prayer flags, & prayer wheels. Seek truth in illusion. A day to fly to Singapore, overnight in the Singapore airport, back on the plane, arrive in the kingdom’s capital, Kathmandu, bright and early but can I sleep? No! “Must stay on Nepali time,” I’m told. “Lets go exploring.” Grumble #%^&**! Grumble, okay. Down muddy streets, around every corner a temple, a shrine; door and window trims on the simplest of buildings are elaborate carvings. SQUISH! A finger squashes berries on my forehead. Blinking stupidly I stare down at a small, brown, bald, robe clad man—I’ve been tekaed! Marked upon the 3rd eye, touched by a holy man. I bow & join my friends looking back at the diminutive monk who looks lost as I walk away. “Nicely done,” my guide says. “A thank you, a little bow, he probably wanted money for that.”
Lukla airport, 10 000 ft. up the side of the worlds tallest mountain. The plane is small; the town is on the edge of a cliff, the landing strip runs up hill to help slow the plane before it careens into the rock face behind the town.
“Inch worm, inch worm, measuring the marigolds…” This became my mantra as I put one foot in front of the other. Sick as dog, not knowing which end my insides were going to squirt out, I trudged up & down, up & down over the winding trail, passed gorges & over suspension bridges, 1 000 ft. I walked. Each time I stopped to rest I thought that’s it I’m not going any further, I’m going to die right here. (Fantastic view! Couldn't ask for a better spot to expire!) You have no idea what you are capable of until you have to. Namche—THE town to be in when you’re in the middle of no where; electricity from 17:00-22:00, and a grand bazaar every Sat., people from miles around come to this. Somebody got the right drugs to me & 2 days later I was right as rain. My group continued on with out me; their destination lay far up the mountain, mine was only a few hours distance.
Thyangboche Buddhist monastery. The main gompa, or temple, had burned down the year before when a generator caught fire, the area no longer had electricity. The monks were busy rebuilding, every stone quarried and dragged, lumber cut & milled by hand; foreigners would come and lend their skills to the project. Thyangboche was a way station, people were either going up or coming down, they only stayed the night before moving on. I was one of very few semi-permanent residents. I spent most of my time on a razor back ridge behind my teahouse; playing taiji, meditating, chasing mountain goats, and looking down on soaring eagles. At 3 o’clock clouds would rise from the gorge & we would be inside them; the temperature would drop and fat flies buzzing around inside the teahouse would drop dormant to the windowsill, only to come to when the sun rose next morning.
One sunny day we were onset by reporters. In 1953 Sir Edmund Hillary & Tenzing Norgay became the 1st men to reach the summit of Mt. Everest. In 1961 Hillary established the Himalayan Trust, a medical and educational charity, for the Sherpa peoples, they have built hospitals, airfields and numerous schools. Hillary was going to be visiting the temple the next day; these were the advanced troops. National Geographic sent a reporter with his Sherpa guide; beer was bought & served to them by a red clad, ski jacketed monk with wrap around sunglasses and bristly hair. Now it’s probably quiet normal but I must admit I never expected to see a monk play bartender. (Carbonated beverages at altitude—the first quarter foams out of the bottle. You can get anything all the way up to base camp, but because it all has to be carried on someone’s back, the higher you are the more it costs.) A local Sherpa reporter spent the night at my teahouse. He had been on several expeditions with Hillary & traveled outside the country. He was also deaf, he had lost his hearing after college so he could speak and read lips to some degree. We stayed up half the night “talking”, scribbling on every scrap of paper we could find, the cardboard box for firewood—shredded & used as note paper, passing our 1 pen back & forth, our conversation lay scattered about the room.
A helicopter arrived with the 70 year old Hillary, his wife, and Gurkha bodyguards. A big man, he was greeted with the decorum of a king. The mostly finished temple was decorated, trumpets blew, guests were invited in to sit at a table with the abbot, a reincarnated Rimpoche (enlightened Lama). With my dad’s 35-mm camera slug around my neck I blended with the press and followed the ceremony inside. There wasn’t much to see, the temple being empty, didn’t understand a word spoken, but I was served a pastry!
At night the clouds cleared and the universe lay splayed out in all its omnipotence! There are no lights, no smog at 13 000 ft., surrounding you are peeks higher than yours, and beyond them mountains higher still. I dreamt of being looked down on as if from a bird in flight, nothing more than a grain of sand on a rocky beach. Om mani padme hum!
When I returned home friends asked if I had any mystical insights. Knowing they were half-joking I gave them half an answer. When walking up the great mountain it is inevitable that eventually you will step in yak shit. You realize you don’t have to go to the mountain to find what you’re looking for, however you have to go to the mountain to find that out. As for the rest of the answer…well that’s mine—find your own mountain!
What to Expect: Expect Nothing & You’ll Never be Disappointed.
“If you’re a flea, bite. If you’re you, ask questions.”
–Tim Ward, The Great Dragon’s Fleas.
To prepare for the journey walking up & down stairs strengthens the calf muscles. There is no up the mountain and back down the mountain, you will be constantly trekking Up & Down. Pack light, what you bring is what YOU carry; you’ll probably need half of what you think you do. You can trek all the way up or you can fly in to Lukla airport, 10 000 feet up the side of Everest. There are other mountains to hike, but Everest is where I went. Base camp starts around 17 000 ft. after that you need to know how to climb. The air is very thin at that altitude, friends who hiked up that far said their heads pounded until they got back down to 15 000 ft., they’d take two steps and have to stop to breath. Altitude Sickness is like the bends in reverse and can strike any one at any time. A Sherpa can walk up the mountain a 100 times and on the 101 time he can get Altitude Sickness. You must get back down the mountain immediately, it will kill you! Yaks can be cantankerous; there are two sides to the trail, one goes straight up, the other goes down. When yak trains pass by, stand with your back to the mountain holding your hands out to grab the horns in case the yak decides to throw you off the trail.
Nepalese are very polite and will tell you what they think you want to hear. If asking for directions don’t point the way you think it is and ask because they will tell you that’s the way whether it is or not because they don’t like to say no. Never step over the out stretched legs of a Nepalese, nor will they step over yours, kindly move them out of the way. Always walk to the right of mani stones or walls, always walk clock wise around Buddhist prayer wheels. Most of Nepal is Hindu, don’t hurt the cows, there is a heavy fine! You can enter any Buddhist temple, however Hindu temples are only for Hindus.
DRUGS ARE ILLEGAL!!! People will come up to you on the street & offer you black hash, smoking up is acceptable in the Hindu temples, many of the sadus are stoned—Don’t do it! You do not want to be in a third world prison at best, or facing execution at worst!
Western women have premarital sex; so ladies be prepared to be hit on by Nepalese men who think you are “easy”. Cleanliness does not exist. Germs are not understood, be careful about asking for “boiled” water, they can’t understand our obsession with boiling water. Tea, on the other hand, is always boiled, so if you ask for “tea water” you’ve got a better chance of killing the microbes. Tea generally comes in glasses not mugs, so with no handle the hot glass is carried by the rim, DON’T drink where their unwashed fingers were! Travel to Nepal, you WILL get sick, accept it. Nepal is extremely poor, beggars will besiege you, you will see disease in the grotesque, be prepared for this. You are stepping back in time; it reminded me of Jesus walking with the lepers. Most roads in Kathmandu are dirt, when it rains, mud. On the trail do not expect to bath for several days, and then it will be lukewarm water out of a bucket. There may or may not be an “out house”, if there is one you may prefer to squat in the bush (it’s cleaner, then burn your toilet paper, kick dirt over it, please don’t set the place on fire.) Lastly, and most importantly, have fun, you’re on vacation!
What to Carry: An Open Mind.
“Oh mammie pat my bum!”
-Tim Ward, The Great Dragon’s Fleas.
Hiking boots: ankle support, good sole, waterproof. If they’re suede you don’t get kids running after you yelling “Shine! Shoe shine!”
***WEAR THEM TO BREAK THEM IN LONG BEFORE YOU GO!!!
Wear your boots on the plane, if your luggage is lost you will at least have your boots!
Rain poncho: lightweight, folds up, pull over- covers you & your pack, hood for your head.
Nylon pants: optional
Down filled jacket: depending what time of year & how high up you’re going as to how cold it will get. Winter hat & gloves. Long underwear. (You may not need any of these.)
MODESTY IN THE 3rd WORLD!
LONG SKIRTS: native women wear ankle length skirts, yours should be just above the ankle. You can still hike in them easily & it’s easier to “relieve” yourself along the trail.
Shorts: should be down to the knee.
Socks: LOOK AFTER YOUR FEET! The only way in is to walk; the only way out is to walk. Keep your feet dry.
Cheap running shoes: something else to wear other than your boots that you don’t mind if they get mucked up, lost or stolen.
Hat: wide brim against sun/rain.
Sun glasses: UV protective.
Towel, small. Face cloth. Bandana
Dress in layers, it is the best way to keep warm & if hot you can peel a layer or 2 off. T-shirts, turtle neck (great if you have just the “neck”), denim shirt, hooded sweatshirt at night the hood keeps your head warm, windbreaker
FIRST AID KIT ***Carry this on the plane with you***
Moleskin: for blisters.
IMMODIUM: diarrhea will plague you always. Check with your doctor for other remedies to go with Imodium.
Flagel: for Giardia, sulfur burps & farts, unpleasant but common.
Germicidal soap: regular soap just doesn’t cut it in the land were cleanliness is impossible.
Sunscreen: high UV protection, 35-45. The higher the altitude the harsher the ultra violet rays.
Lip balm: chapped lips.
Bandages: various sizes/shapes, gauze pads. Tenser bandage. Thermal blanket.
Iodine: good for disinfecting cuts & for water purification; put a few drops in a liter of water, shake well, let stand 20 min. or so.
Water purification tablets: put them in your water bottle shake, let stand. Tastes a bit funny but you can add flavour crystals, grape, whatever.
Foot powder: look after your feet, keep them dry.
Aspirin/Tylenol, antihistamines, throat lozenges, feminine products…
MEDICATION YOU USUALLY TAKE: allergies, asthma, prescriptions…
Safety pins: various sizes.
Tape, scissors, tweezers.
Condoms: if not for you for somebody else, it may save their life!
Shots: hepatitis, typhoid, tetanus, a travel clinic will tell you what you need. You should also have an immunization booklet (in Canada its yellow) that holds a record of all your shots and when they were given.
Malaria pills: depends where in Nepal you go as to whether you’ll need them, the clinic should tell you.
Extra pair of glasses: (if you wear glasses), ocular screwdriver. DO NOT bring contact lenses, they are impossible to keep clean!
Duffel bag: to carry all your cloths & sleeping bag. (Porters will carry it for you, you won’t see it for the rest of the day.)
Daypack: small pack you carry with you. Rain poncho, 1st aid kit, camera, water bottle, snacks… *Duffel & daypack should be durable. Carry valuables & breakables with you as your duffel could be rifled through, dropped, gored by yaks…
Sleeping bags: water proof, down filled; depends what time of year & how high up you go as to how cold it gets, check your R-factor.
Water bottle: 1 liter. Fill with boiling water at night, cool by morning.
Flash light: small mag-lite will do. Extra batteries & bulb.
Stomach wrapper: zipped wrap goes around your waist under your shirt for carrying your passport, travelers cheques, documents… You can also get the kind that hangs around your neck.
Walking stick: you can buy these all over Kathmandu.
TOILET PAPER: bring it with you from home- the sacred scroll, kept on your person at all times.
Lighter: to burn the toilet paper when you’re done—Keep Nepal beautiful.
Compass, camera/film, snacks, binoculars (optional), Swiss Army knife or multi-tool.
Books: to pass the time; there are a lot of bookstores in Kathmandu.
Note book/pens: to write your travel journal. Pens disappear.
Plastic garbage bags: for laundry, keeping things dry…
Sewing kit: for clothes or your pack, so big & small needles.
Travel insurance. Travel Visas. Money, travelers cheques. Trekking permit.