For me, it’s helpful to recall how much optimism there was at the end of February. Writing now from the confinement of quarantine, I often find myself wondering why I ever thought going to Nepal was a good idea. But then I remember back to just two months ago, to what already feels like a different lifetime. While all of my work taking school groups into the outdoors had been cancelled for March, my boss was confident that programming would be running by mid-April. My friend in Malaysia was equally certain that his wedding celebration would still take place. So rather than wait around in limbo, Gary and I bought last-minute round trip tickets for Nepal. We planned to escape into the mountains for the month of March to hike the Three Passes Trek, assuming that when we emerged from the wilderness, life would continue as usual.
A temperature scan on arrival was the only difference in normal airport protocol. As we taxied into the chaos of the capital, honking horns, ringing bells, crowing roosters, barking dogs and revving engines created a constant roar of sound. Colorful prayer flags and lines of laundry extended across the rooftops of crumbling buildings, criss-crossing narrow alleyways. Motorbikes driven by women in beautiful saris wove between cars and around rickshaws, as two cows stood placidly in the middle of a busy intersection. A bus screeched around them with a honk, “Buddha was born in Nepal” printed across its bumper.
I was equal parts fascinated and overwhelmed by the time we checked into our $7 a night guesthouse. The next two days were spent fighting sensory-overload while renting cold weather gear and exploring the touristy Thamel neighborhood. At 4am we hoisted our fully loaded backpacks on top of a Jeep and set off for Salleri. Two hours later we were still in Kathmandu, swirling through an endless maze of narrow streets to cram in more and more people, creating our very own clown car. Watching the sky turned rosy through the smog as we finally left the city, now with one hip jammed into the door handle and Gary squeezed against my other side, I knew we were in for a long ride.
A man in the row behind me spent the bulk of the next eight hours vomiting. The guy next to him seemed unbothered, but was completely incapable of silence, singing to himself when he wasn’t yelling into his phone. Meanwhile, the driver put on what I can only describe as “Disney techno” at full volume. The bass rattled the walls as he chewed beetlenut, spitting loudly in between tailgating other cars, swerving around them on single lane mountain roads. I tried to take my cues from Anup, a high school teacher in the front seat, who seemed unfazed as he calmly sipped his juice box dry, before throwing it out the window. Eleven long hours later we finally reached Salleri, where I’ve never been so close to kissing the ground.
The next morning I was eager to stretch my legs, setting off early in the crisp air. Most of the day was spent following a wide, well-trafficked road that meandered slowly uphill, past countless little villages. I was surprised by the amount of development and congestion, especially by the trash lining the roadsides. In Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer said it better than I ever could: “It was a magnificent country, as topographically imposing as any landscape on earth, but it wasn’t wilderness, and hadn’t been for hundreds of years.”
Although the snowy peaks in the distance still looked tremendously far away, I went to bed the first night feeling confident after our twelve mile day. Over breakfast the next morning, a burly Austrian on his way back from Base Camp remarked conspiratorially, “I hate rivers.” I was confused, but by the end of the day, I understood. The entire rest of the journey to Namche Bazaar followed a path that would lose elevation, cross a river, then gain it all back, over and over again. All of my sitting on safari and lazing around at sea level caught up to me, and my entire body was painfully sore. Gary normally dances uphill while I inch along out of breath, but now he suffered right alongside me, the slowest I’ve ever seen him hike.
I tried to remember how the first Western explorers had to cross 400 miles of the Tibetan plateau on foot just to reach the base of Everest, but it didn’t help as I slogged uphill during what felt like the longest 400 meters of my life, counting every step. As we suffered up the rocky, uneven paths, Sherpas easily cruised past us carrying packs twice the size of ours, superhumans in flip flops. Every local we met was friendly, but you get the sense that behind their smiles they’re stifling a scream. I imagine you can only hear so many tourists incorrectly identifying Everest, or mispronouncing “namaste” (hello) and “dhanyabad” (thank you), before you reach a breaking point.
The narrow trail we were now on frequently crossed back and forth over a larger road in the process of being built by the Chinese government. Sounds of ongoing construction felt out of place in such pastoral setting, but the views more than made up for the noise. Rice terraces as green as any in Bali, blooming rhododendron trees and sweeping valley vistas proved an excellent distraction from my pain. To my delight, each day a village dog would accompany us and lead the way, seemingly just for the joy of walking.
A bulldozer parked against a sheer cliff face marked the end of construction. While I enjoyed a break from the sounds of motors and drills, we were now on a tortuous, muddy path, vying for space with caravans of heavily-loaded donkeys. Shepherds moved them along with cracks of their whips or shouts that sounded like violent sneezes, and passing them without getting knocked down an embankment required some tricky maneuvering. Anytime I stopped to catch my breath, I would soon hear the jingling from the strands of bells around the donkeys’ necks, chasing me up the mountain. As an extra insult, the smell of ammonia from their urine stung my eyes, and avoiding their poop scattered across the path was exhausting.
Despite its reputation as the most dangerous airport in the world, most tourists still opt to fly into Lukla. As soon as we passed the airport, the trails grew crowded with other trekkers suffering from the abrupt change in altitude. The donkeys now coupled with crowds of people was not my idea of a good time in nature. Over lunch, a guide told us that current tourism was only about 5% of the normal amount usually found in March. While terrible for local business, it made me feel extra grateful to be able to see the country at a quieter time.
Gradually the scenery changed, with swirling mist obscuring the increasingly steep mountains. After one final push uphill, we arrived in Namche Bazaar, the unofficial capital of the Himalayas. Situated in a bowl-shaped valley carved into a hillside, the town’s many bars, restaurants, gear shops and bakeries contrasted strangely with the 20,000 foot peaks surrounding it. We dropped our packs at a guesthouse and immediately walked to the closest bakery to enjoy some well-deserved treats. After connecting to WiFi for the first time in a week, we learned that coronavirus had exploded around the world, including in Gary’s hometown. Still, after checking in with family back home and reading the news, it seemed as though we would be fine to continue.
By early afternoon the clouds had moved in, and it started snowing in earnest. The only option for a hot shower was a little hut in the guesthouse backyard, and my desperation to feel clean outweighed my hatred of the cold. Back in the room I realized that the lack of building insulation meant that it actually felt warmer outside. Shivering, I climbed into my sleeping bag, watching the little cloud of my own breath until I fell asleep. Two hours later I woke with a start, with snow now swirling gently across my bed through a crack in the windowpane.
The next day the weather gods were kinder. After sleeping in, we woke to blue skies and clear views. Our only goal for the day was to help our bodies acclimatize with a short hike. Even with the 11,300 feet of elevation, hiking without a loaded pack felt like the height of luxury. We climbed for an hour up a ridge just outside of town, where we saw our first view of Everest and Aba Dablam. My eyes immediately welled-up with tears, and I still don’t have the words to describe how happy and grateful I felt. Right then I knew that even if I had to turn around tomorrow, I would be completely satisfied. Later, after the country had been locked down and I was being evacuated by the U.S. Embassy, I would remember this exact moment.