We awoke early, eager to get on our way.
Well - I awoke early because the man in the room next door to us, separated by only the thinnest of walls, decided to have a full volume conversation with his room mate at 0445am. But regardless we were up for breakfast at 0730am.
We pulled back the curtains to reveal stunning views of the surrounding snow capped mountains which had been hidden from view by the dense cloud the day before. We squealed like school kids and hurried over to bolt down our breakfast (muesli with hot milk for me, porridge for Zev, and milk tea for both of us), then rushed back to pack our gear and hit the road.
We knew we had a slightly disappointing day ahead of us altitude-wise. We had 13km to hike, but sadly we started by going down into a valley, and then back up the other side, so by the end of the day, we were only to have gained 15m in altitude!
Undeterred, at 0815am, we hit the track.
Lukla to Phakding
We headed out the North end of Lukla, following the main trail we'd walked the evening before to pay our local tax. Just before we passed through Pasang Lhamo Memorial Gate, named for the first Nepali woman to summit Everest, we stopped at the Police checkpoint to register our plans.
As we headed off, there were some cute street dogs playing, nipping at each other's faces and having a great time. We stopped for a pat, waved goodbye to Lukla, and passed through the gate.
Shortly outside Lukla, we passed a chorten (similar to a stupa) that served as a memorial to the victims of a 2008 Yeti Airlines crash in Lukla. Due to poor weather and visibility, the pilot came in to land too low and too far left, and crashed into the side of the mountain. 16 passengers on board died, along with 2 crew. The only person to survive the crash was the captain, who was pulled from the wreckage and flown back to Kathmandu for emergency treatment.
From here, the trail wound down into the valley. The terrain was pretty good - the track was well formed, and paved with large stones, but that, combined with the recent rain, made for some slippery, ankle wrenching descending. We also knew - every step we took downhill was a step that we were going to have to climb back up before the day was over...
About every 10-15 minutes, we'd pass through another small town with a coffee shop or tea house, selling everything from hot drinks to coke, and often, even packs or hiking shoes. There is nothing that you can't get along this trail - for the right price!
As we made our way along the path, we passed the first of many MANY animal trains to come. In this instance, it was a long train of donkeys (or mules - I don't know how to tell the difference). While they were mostly unladen, as they seemed to be coming back from delivering their loads, they were still saddled up, and we were a little sad to see the bald patches and scars where the straps and harnesses had cut into their skin. They were still exceptionally cute though, and didn't seem to mind when I gave them a pat.
In addition to the animals, we also passed plenty of human porters too. As we'd seen while climbing Mt Kinabalu in Malaysia, these men (and sometimes women, but mostly men) carry enormous loads from village to village, usually in baskets worn with a strap around their forehead.
Between the animals and the porters, it really got us thinking about the ethics of trekking in this region, but I think we'll save that discussion for another post...
About an hour out of Lukla, it became clear that my pack was going to be an issue. I've already discussed the type of pack that I've brought with me, and while I love it for travelling (although I did bust a zipper recently - thank goodness for lifetime warranties!), it's definitely not built for multi day trekking.
In order to comply with airline carry on baggage size restrictions, my bag is quite short and deep. Because it's pretty small, so normally light, and since I'm not usually carrying it for really long periods of time, I've never notice this as much of a problem. As soon as we started hiking, especially with a heavy sleeping bag at the bottom of my pack, and 2L of water strapped to the outside, the weight of the pack was pulling back, putting me off balance while I walked, and cutting into my shoulders.
I stopped to repack and redistribute some weight, skulled some water (mainly so I wouldn't have to carry it any more), and put it back on. It felt a little better, but I was getting seriously worried that this was going to be a major issue. Two things made me feel a little better though.
1. The first day always sucks, your bag feels heavy and your body isn't used to carrying it yet. Hopefully once I settled in, I'd be fine.
2. You can buy anything here. Worst case scenario, when we got to Namche Bazar the following day, I could hire or buy a hiking pack, leave mine at the guesthouse, and pick it up on the way back.
But I was crossing my fingers for option 1!
As we turned North out of Cheplung, we caught our first sight of the Dudh Kosi river roaring along the bottom of the valley. This river originates from the high altitude areas of Mt Everest, and the colour of the river certainly gave us flashbacks to past trips to the South Island of New Zealand, seeing similar rivers with glacial runoff and snowmelt.
Soon enough, we encountered the first of many swing bridges on the hike. Despite some trepidation about the quality of these crossings in developing countries, the sheer volume of trekkers and climbers in the region meant that they were in tip top shape! The bridges were long and high, and prayer flags were strewn from every available surface. We often found ourselves stuck on one side, waiting for trains of donkeys or yaks to get across the bridge - as Jon Krakauer puts it, you don't want to be knocked off a swing bridge by a pushy bovine!
We passed through Ghat, which was heavily affected by the 2015 earthquake, but seems to be back in full swing now - lodges and tea houses clustered the path, inviting weary trekkers in. With our sights set on Phakding for lunch, and Monjo overnight, we carried on through the town.
On the outskirts of Ghat, we passed through a complex of mani walls (stones carved with Buddhist mantras made into a wall), huge stone boulders carved with mantras then painted in black and white, and prayer wheels (which you spin to absolve you of sin and provide you with good luck). They were incredibly striking, and we chose to rest a short while here to have a drink and a muesli bar to replenish our energy.
Setting off again, it wasn't long until we were climbing into Phakding. This seems to be the most common or popular place to stop for the first night on the trail, but since it was only just over two hours' walk from Lukla, we had decided to carry on to Monjo (two hours past Phakding) to spend the night, to make the next day shorter (we'd read that it was a hell of a climb from Monjo to Namche Bazar, our destination for the following day, so we thought we'd do ourselves a favour).
Instead, we called into Snowland Lodge in Phakding for 'lunch' at 1035 - it had taken us just under 2.5 hours to cover the 7.4km from Lukla to Phakding. I ordered chicken noodle soup and milk tea, and Zev had french fries and a hot lemon for 1000r ($10USD). We sat for just under an hour, enjoying having our packs off, before setting off to cover the remaining 5.2km to Monjo.
Phakding to Monjo
We continued on the trail North, following the Dudh Kosi Valley along about 100m above the west bank of the river. From here, the trail started to climb a little more than it had for the rest of the morning, up to the small villages of Toktok, Benkar, and Chumoa.
As we walked along, we couldn’t help noticing and remarking on all the beautiful dogs in the region. In contrast to those in urban areas, most of these dogs looked incredibly healthy - they were all pretty chunky, with long, shiny fur, and happy, waggy tails. We were giving lots of pats out, and they were being happily received. In Chumoa, we even found some cats - not a common sight in Nepal, nor in India, so we stopped for some kitty pats that were tolerated, if not enjoyed...
From Chumoa, we crossed one last river before what we thought at the time was a big climb into Monjo (over the next two days, we would come to look back on this climb with fondness, and laugh at our naivety). Zev was up the hill in no time, and when I dragged my sorry ass over the ridge about 5 minutes after him, he was sitting on a bench, chatting to come local school kids - we'd made it to Monjo at 1.30pm!
We carried on through town in search of accommodation. We'd heard good things about Mt Kailash Lodge, so we checked in there. We ended up in a room with a private bathroom, including a hot shower (which we didn't make use of because we hadn't brought towels) for 600r ($6USD) for the night.
After dropping our bags, making sure we stretched (we still had a looooong way to go!), and getting changed into our 'lodge' clothes (stuff we weren't hiking in, mostly merino so that it wouldn't start to smell too bad over the course of the hike, and would keep us warm), we headed out to the common area to read our books, play cards, and drink a nice thermos of milk tea.
Not long after we'd settled in to our tea drinking, the rain started, so we'd timed our arrival pretty well.
Eventually, it was dinner time. A largish trekking group had arrived to the lodge on their way back down from base camp, so they were enjoying a few beers (and rums) while we tucked into our veg curry and rice, sherpa stew (a vege stew in a tasty broth), and our apple pie desserts.
We turned in early again, already dreading the climb from hell that we knew was on the cards for the following day...
Lots of love,
S & Z
Time: 5 hours and 15 minutes, including 45 minute stop for lunch
Elevation gain: 15m
Monjo accommodation information:
Lodge: Mt Kailash Lodge
Room Price: 600r/night for private bathroom with hot shower (shared bathroom available for cheaper)
Total Bill: 3500r including room, dinner, breakfast, and an extra pot of tea