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South(east) Asia Nepal

Himalayas / Hiking Alone, Astray & Everestless

when you set out to see Everest, but Everest doesn’t care

   It was the earliest morning when I stepped out onto the street. Kathmandu was pitch black and asleep and so was the cab driver I spotted a little down the road, sunken so deep into his driver’s seat that he was almost swallowed by it. He looked peaceful and deserving of something much more harmonious than the cruel wake up knock I was about to administer. Like he knew no other awakening, his body jumped up in the seat before his mind fully arrived at the scene, and he was good to go. I never would have made the bus without his heroic service.

The bus ride was a bus ride like any other bus ride in what I call “real countries:” rock-bumpy, nausea-windy and an eternity long despite speeding that makes your heart race. The journey was so strenuous on my soft bones and gut and soul that hiking the Himalayas up and down afterwards would be salvation.

When I fell out of the bus in Jiri by lunch time, I lunched. I didn’t see any other backpacks around and over the course of the next week I would only see a (six finger) handful: two German doctors, a very old man with a very long beard, a Swiss who would only ever slow down but never pause, a Honduran-Canadian power woman, and a sporty American. Plus that group of German “all-inclusive hikers,” but they didn’t carry their own weight, literally.

"The journey was so strenuous on my soft bones and gut and soul that hiking the Himalayas up and down afterwards would be salvation."

That’s why I had come here and not gone there, there being all of Nepal’s popular hiking territories in the Langtang, Anapurna and Everest regions – I sought solitude and remote tranquility, and the Jiri to Lukla route has been almost completely abandoned by tourism, ever since the construction of an airport in Lukla allowed hikers to cut out this one week leg when rushing through the Everest Base Camp trek. Shortening the trek from four to three weeks is a luxury that Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary didn’t have when they set first feet on the mighty Mount. I guess it’s as ironic as it is unsurprising that Hillary himself started the construction of the airport which has made a dubious name for itself as the world’s most dangerous.

For better or worse, the airport helped tourism along the trek between Lukla and Everest Base Camp to skyrocket, while the guesthouses along the Jiri to Lukla route remain empty and Sherpa guides and porters are seldom needed. The six people I encountered were the peak season count (pun on peak, or not) and only one of them (the long-bearded old man) had a porter and guide. I felt bad about not hiring someone to carry my stuff, but I would have felt worse about hiring someone to carry my stuff. Perhaps that was selfish thinking.

In a way, by the way, I also did some short-cutting: I had chosen a route that should allow me to see Everest, the peak of peaks, without having to walk all too far towards it. So that’s where I started that afternoon, walking out of Jiri into the thick mist that swathed the hills on the way to Shivalaya.

There are a couple of things I remember distinctively from that first leg: the path narrowing into a very skinny passage that barely separated the steep hillside from a deep abyss, which made me think about the little kids and old people that walk it every day without hesitation; two brothers, I assume, playing badminton in a meadow; two men standing on a little wooden platform amid trees, sawing timber with an enormous two-man crosscut saw.

My arrival to the tiny village of Shivalaya around nightfall was accompanied by the nostalgic feeling of stepping into a past century, straw filling the cracks between the cobblestones, and guesthouses beaming golden warmth into the dark, like signaling a place to stay to a character from a historic novel. Over dinner, my friendly host told me about the existential struggles of local guesthouse owners, who give out rooms for less than a dollar per night, or even for free when tourists use their nasty bargaining power – they propose to eat at the guesthouse and only pay for the meals or move their business elsewhere.