Everest Revisited

Is Nepal safe for hikers? Stephen Goodwin believes it is. In fact, tourism appears to be thriving in the shadow of the world's greatest mountain
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The Independent Travel

A double room for $20. I could hardly believe it. Lhakpa Doma, affable proprietress of the Panorama Lodge, was offering us a "normal" room at the usual price of 150 Nepali rupees (about £2) or this deluxe room for 20 bucks - payment in US dollars.

Change indeed. This was the first time I had heard of the existence of a room in Namche Bazar that cost more than a latte in central London. The bait though was the luxury of it: a real double bed, a veranda, an en suite toilet and our own shower. The shower was the clincher. We had just hiked up a 500m dusty stairway, jostling with laden dzopkios (a lower altitude cousin of the yak), porters and other trekkers, and the altitude of 3,500m was fuzzing our heads.

So hang the expense. We'd take the deluxe room. I'd been through Namche several times before on climbing trips when $20 would accommodate me for a week, but I guess Lhakpa knew that with my wife Lucie accompanying me, I was a soft touch for an extra bit of comfort and privacy.

It was Lucie's first visit to the Khumbu, that part of Nepal that is the Sherpa homeland and gateway to the south side of Mount Everest and its Himalayan neighbours. I wanted her to see for herself the villages, monasteries and incomparable mountain landscape I had raved about - and so she did over the course of 17 days' trekking.

The Everest trail might be thought a bit passé these days; it was after all one of the earliest routes of the trekking industry and mountaineers have been doing their stuff in the Khumbu for more than half a century. Has it been spoilt? And what about Nepal itself? How safe is it in the wake of the popular uprising last April to strip King Gyanendra of his powers and restore democracy?

It has always been my contention that Kathmandu, Nepal's teeming capital, feels far safer than an English provincial town on a Saturday night - and that has not changed. The Foreign Office dropped its travel advice against visits to Nepal following the restoration of democracy, but sensibly continues to warn visitors to steer clear of street demonstrations. Nepalis are impatient to see the fruits of their uprising.

The Maoists, whose bloody insurgency eventually forced the showdown with the palace, are now involved in the political process and their guns officially silent. The party's leaders have expressed their enthusiasm for tourism as a "vital tool" in economic development, a statement that may or may not encompass the "taxes" occasionally demanded of trekking parties in rural areas, though the practice has not been common on the Everest trail. The Maoists have gained little support in the relatively prosperous Sherpa country.

As to the attraction of the Khumbu as a trekking destination, it is hard to see that diminishing as long as the ice-crusted horn of Ama Dablam looms over the Tengboche monastery and Everest stands cloud-plumed on the not-so-distant skyline. True, there is new construction and a blossoming of satellite dishes, but against such monumental permanence these are peripherals.

When the explorer Bill Tilman hiked up that same "stairway" from the foaming junction of the Bhote Kosi and Nangpo Tsangpo rivers in 1950 and entered Namche, he said he shared in imagination a little of the satisfaction of Burton penetrating the "forbidden city" of Mecca. Nepal, then still wrapped in a medieval time-warp, had only recently allowed its doors ajar to foreigners. That year, just five Westerners - Tilman and his friends - entered the Khumbu, venturing as far as the glacier that carves from Everest.

Eight years ago, when I first passed through Namche, the tally was 20,000 trekkers and climbers, their kit carried by 35,000 porters and 6,000 yaks. Those were the boom years and numbers fell as strife elsewhere in the country increased. Yet even last spring, with the capital in a state of revolution, the trails of the Khumbu were far from deserted and for the coming autumn season, UK-based trekking outfits are reporting a strong revival of interest.

Satellite phones and the internet may have ended the Khumbu's virtual isolation, but in a physical sense it remains a place apart. The way to Namche Bazar is still on foot - albeit only a couple of days from the mountainside airstrip at Lukla compared with a two-week walk from the Kathmandu valley for the 1950s' Everesters. And beyond Namche it is Shanks's pony again - another five days to Everest Base Camp or four up the adjoining valley to the lodges by Gokyo lake.

Every now and again the thought strikes, with a kind of wonder, that you haven't heard a vehicle engine for days and life has slowed to the natural pace of your footfall on the trail. Actually, the enervating effect of altitude and intense sunshine make it hard for most of us to go any faster. Though trekking is undoubtedly an active holiday, in the Khumbu it becomes a kind of slow-motion activity.

Groups usually stop over in Namche for a couple of nights to accustom heads and lungs to the oxygen-thin air, whiling away the day browsing trinket stalls, having coffee and cake in Hermann Helmer's German bakery or one of its imitators, and checking their emails. Surprisingly few visit the small Buddhist gompa (temple) high on the western rim of the town. Its newly restored interior of mandalas and friezes of gods and demons is wonderfully vibrant. The work has been paid for by Sherpa families, notably our hosts at the Panorama Lodge, who have prospered from the trekking business.

If the main trail bustles, the gompas and side valleys offer quiet. Following a stream towards its glacier source above the "village" of Dole, I found myself amid a covey of blood pheasants, the green and red of the males lending a further warmth to the evening light. A few days later, stepping aside only 50m from the Everest "highway", we met an elderly Sherpa patiently chipping the ubiquitous mantra "Om Mani Padme Hum" into slabs of stone again and again. The groups of trekkers passing by seemed barely to exist for him. His new prayer stone already looked old, as timeless as the mountains above the surrounding rhododendron woods, all part of the Khumbu's enduring allure.

Stephen and Lucie Goodwin travelled independently but organised a guide and porter through Community Action Treks (CAT), an ethical, UK-based agency that ensures porters are paid well and are properly equipped. CAT specialises in trekking holidays to Nepal, profits funding a charity that provides schooling and health care in hill villages. For details call 01228 564488 or see catreks.com. Return flights from London to Kathmandu via Qatar start at £570 with Qatar Airways (0870-770 4215)

Stephen Goodwin is editor of the 'Alpine Journal'

SHERPAS, NUNS AND SHADES OF SIR EDMUND

1. Lukla

ALTITUDE: 2,840m.

Lukla is the gateway to the Khumbu region reached with a white-knuckle landing on an asphalt mountainside runway, which was originally a dust airstrip stamped out by Sir Edmund Hillary. Visit the "office" of the Porters' Progress charity and learn about the men and boys carrying your bags.

2. Namche Bazar

ALTITUDE: 3,440m.

The Sherpa capital and bustling centre of Khumbu trekking with coffee shops and internet cafés, Tibetan traders and a Saturday morning market. Visit Sagamatha National Park centre and renovated town gompa. View the purported yeti scalp on display in the Khumjung Monastery.

3. Khari Nunnery

ALTITUDE: 3,500m.

This is home to 35 nuns who fled Tibet. Above the village of Thamo halfway along the trade route between Namche and Tibet - the latter is several days over the snowy Nangpa La pass. Tibetan yak drivers will try to sell you beads and semi-precious stones - a real case of buyer beware!

4. Thame

ALTITUDE: 3,800m.

This traditional Sherpa farming community was the boyhood home of Tenzing Norgay. It features a scattering of old houses and trekker lodges set among fields of potatoes and barley. Its monastery is built into the hillside above, looking out towards the ice ramparts of Teng Kangpoche lying at 6,500m.

5. Renjo La

ALTITUDE: 5,417m.

High pass linking the Gokyo valley with the Nangpa La pass route to the west - wild country but it has become more popular for a bigger circuit of the Khumbu region.

6. Gokyo

ALTITUDE: 4,790m.

Not long ago this was just a summer yak pasture by a turquoise lake. Now it's a trekker hotspot with a rash of lodges and the world's highest second-hand bookshop. Walk up Gokyo Ri (5,360m) to watch the setting sun colour the peaks of Everest and Lhotse.

7. Machhermo

ALTITUDE: 4,470m.

An expanding trekkers' stopover with comfortable lodges on the spectacular route up the Gokyo valley. Visit the nearby porter shelter and health post and make a donation. This is a real life-saver recently built by UK charity Community Action Nepal and the International Porter Protection Group.

8. Everest Base Camp

ALTITUDE: 5,400m.

A campsite sitting on a rubble-covered glacier beneath the awesome Khumbu icefall. During April and May it is a tented home to hundreds of Everest wannabees and their support teams. At other times it's deserted and silent, save for the occasional roar of an avalanche.

9. Gorak Shep & Kalar Patthar

ALTITUDE: 5,550m.

This is a cold place. Gorak Shep is the last stop for trekkers' lodges before the Khumbu glacier hike. Kala Patthar is the hill beyond and the classic photographer's stop for that Everest view. Kala Patthar is technically no harder than climbing Snowdon in Wales, but with only a fraction of the oxygen.

10. Tengboche Monastery

ALTITUDE: 3,860m.

This is the premier Buddhist monastery of the region and the heart of Sherpa culture. The monastery was rebuilt after a devastating fire in 1989. It may now have satellite phones and the internet, yet is still in the words of John Hunt of Everest fame, "a grandstand beyond comparison", for the world's finest mountain scenery.

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