Thankfully, it was worth every mongrel step.
The view atop of Gokyo Ri, 5360m above sea level, was simply spectacular. Sunny skies allowed us to take in four of the world’s big guns – colossal mountains over 8000 meters – including Everest, which was tantalizingly veiled by the thinnest of ring clouds at the summit.
It made the previous week’s beautiful slog worthwhile, including that morning’s 5.30am start with a wind-chill factor of -16C. Then, once the sun hit after a few hours, I experienced the unique conundrum of trying to apply frozen sunscreen.
Imposing, snow-covered peaks shared the spotlight with Ngozumpa, the longest glacier in Nepal, and turquoise splendor of Dudh Pokhari (or Gokyo Lake #3), part of the highest permanent lake system in the world. This, surely, was one of the most magical places on the planet.
Having only a fortnight to explore Nepal, we’d decided on a Himalayan snapshot – an 11-day trek to Gokyo and a day in Kathmandu either side, giving us just enough time to acclimatize whilst taking in the world’s highest peak.
Our Gokyo Lakes trek with Mosaic Adventure Tours began with what is surely one of the most exhilarating commercial flights in the world, into Lukla’s Tenzing-Hillary Airport. A vision of the twin-propeller planes snaking between mountains and thudding down on the barely sufficient runway is YouTube under searches for “world’s scariest airport”.
From there, trekkers start walking into a world of stone steps, suspension bridges, yaks, prayer wheels, and waterfalls. It’s an uncompromising physical challenge peppered by grand distractions, while the smiles and simple lives of the Buddhist or Hindu villagers provide a cultural backdrop to the celebrated landscape.
At times, though, you have to remind yourself to drink in the surrounds, as the debilitating effects of altitude take its toll above 4000m. It led to the gentle advice of our guide, “Bistari, Bistari” (slowly, slowly), proving to be a wise mantra.
This hangover-like infliction, along with cold and basic lodging, stoves powered by dried yak crap, and a threat of storms or snow, adds to the enchantment or disincentive of Nepalese trekking, pending your gumption for the unglamorous.
Be sure to choose your trek according to physical condition – we met one party in which only two reached base camp out of seven who booked this Everest Base Camp Trek. And allow at least a day’s buffer in Kathmandu to finish, given flights to and from Lukla can often be canceled due to bad weather.
Snaking white-water rivers, the village of Namche with its striking statue of iconic mountaineer Tenzing Norgay, and the serene stone prayer fields of Gokyo provided visual feasts.
While a chance game of soccer with local kids and the neat happenstance of regularly bumping into fellow trekkers from across the globe following similar routes added social texture.
Kathmandu provides a more frenetic soundtrack, with its curious mix of calamity and calm, as locals swerve among the mayhem and flow to the beat of its ramshackle but endearing offerings.
Shopping for Nepalese specialties (cashmere and woolen garments, yak bells, bronze “singing” bowls and Gurkha knives) and sampling local cuisine (curries, soups and the national dish of dal bhat, which our guide promised to deliver “24-hour power”) is a must.
Then there’s the plethora of temples and stupors, or the chance to witness the more sobering but enthralling Hindu cremation ceremonies.
Nepal is not for everyone, but there are a host of reasons why it’s a popular “bucket list” country. I’m glad it was on mine.
Written by: Jeremy Wilshire, published by Madhav Prasad.