Dispatch from the Razor's Edge, the Blog of Michael Stephen Fuchs

Day 17: The Last Trekking Day

Namche Bazaar (3440m) → Lukla (2860m)

Plus Days N+1 Through N+4: World's Most Dangerous Airport Madness, Back to Kathmandu (1400m), Kicking it in Kath, Aaaabs…, Olgapuri Children's Village, & Trek Wrap-Up

Our last night in Namche actually involved a few memorable activities – not least going out on the town for pizza, rather than eating in the lodge as on every previous night of our lives. I suppose it didn't hurt that Namche actually had places to go. Also:

Me: “Man, look at these prices – we can't afford not to eat here!”

Come to notice it, I was almost certainly channeling Mark. That would have been his line if he'd been there.

This was followed by: SHOPPING MADNESS!!! I mentioned we picked up a couple of things on the trail. But Namche Bazaar, as its name might indicate, was the true shopping Mecca. I wanted to do all my Christmas shopping here (48 hours after I'd bought half the bazaar, my sister Danielle declared a giftless Christmas…), rather than Kathmandu, where everything would be much less handmade, non-touristy, and authentic, and Darby has legions of people in her life, and they had just some amazingly nice stuff, and it we went at it with a fervor. I particularly remember being in one amazing shop where the proprietress had made half the goods herself, and battling with Darby over the most wonderful selection of hand-made yak-wool scarves. Because scarves. Everyone likes hand-made yak-wool Himalayan scarves. Particularly when they're that gorgeous.

Me: “God, it all went by so fast – like a car crash, or a firefight. Just – boom, all the money's gone, and we've got these huge bags of stuff.”

We then retired to The Sherpa Barrista, where I got a milkless cafe mocha which was actually awesome. So awesome, I wanted a second, but was all out of rupees, having dumped my whole load shopping. In the end, the nice man behind the counter accepted a £5 note. Darby and I scoped out the big map of trekking routes on the wall, thinking – We did most of that. We sat talking, trying to get our heads around the trip – as well as the matters of fathers, and mortality… Perhaps endings are always ruminative. At least for me.

And then we retired to our (now ridiculously clean, pretty, warm, and spacious seeming) room – albeit now half-filled with bags of gifts – to sleep and dream of the very last trekking day…

Overnight a whole cycle of dreams sorting the issue of firearms use by police. Also two runs to toilet, plus stomach doing backflips, thought I was going to throw up – and mentally pricing helo flights → Lukla/KTM.

In retrospect, I think I was suffering not just a little last Khumbu tummy trouble, but also anxiety about getting down from the Himalayas. As I mentioned earlier, there are only two ways up or down: on foot, or by ($20,000) helo evac. There are almost no notes from the last day, just as there are no photos, but I do remember anxiety: I was pretty weary, I was worried about getting hurt going over what was still very rough terrain – and, while going down is quicker than going up, we were still doing in one day what we had spent two days covering in the opposite direction. But before all that we had a new problem, waking and regarding the gigantic piles of gifts.

Me: “How the hell are we going to get all this out of the Khumbu? Let's buy a yak. Then we can set it free in Lukla.”

Again, and as I've done on these trips before, I decided to bury the camera deep in my pack – and set myself free for the final day.

Great decision. No problems, downhill, last day ever walking in Himalayas. Just enjoying it.

Memorably, we stopped again at what had previously, on the way up, been decreed the best lunch spot ever. Here are a couple of photos to jog our memory.

Tea break back at that lunch spot! How crazy to be here.
Me: “Remember when it was the loveliest setting we'd ever seen? How happy-making to be back.”

Finally reaching Lukla, we checked into a lodge basically adjacent to the airport. I remember racing around town trying to find a way to get cash, so I could spectacularly overtip Aakash, Shyan, and Lakhdan. There's sort of a customary tip amount, I think 5% of the trip cost for guides, and 2.5% for porters. But, as I mentioned, we were wildly underpaying for this trek – I'm convinced Pradip and Mountain Monarch booked us on a two-person private trek at these rates mainly to provide continued employment for these three guys in the wake of the post-earthquake trekker drought. Anyway, all three of them had been beyond amazing – plus the difference in value to me of N dollars living in London versus to them living in Nepal was just stratospheric, so I could basically increase the value of a wad of cash 50-fold just by passing it over in an envelope. And, hell, it probably made me happier to do so than it made them.

That night, we had a bit of a celebratory bender, venturing out to the fake Irish pub in town, and sucking down a lot of something other, I forget. In the morning, of course, the fog had the world's most dangerous airport socked in. The great danger is that sometimes this can go on for days, leaving great backlogged gaggles of trekkers stranded and hanging out in Lukla. (And missing flights home from Kathmandu if they weren't sensible enough to book them for two or three days after they planned to get down.)

In our case, it proved invaluable who we knew: after hanging around cooling our heels… suddenly the call went out, inbound flights started buzzing and bouncing in, disgorging fresh trekkers – and racing to turn around, fill up, and take off again to clear the tiny tarmac and single runway. And, seconds later, we were all scrambling to grab our luggage and race through the airport – bypassing security, long queues everywhere, jumping piles of luggage… and out onto ‘the tarmac’ where we were hustled onto one of the first flights going back out. Turned out Mountain Monarch maintains a nice relationship with the owner of the lodge we were in… who is also some kind of high muckety-muck with the airport. Basically, we jumped the entire queue, and just like that were rolling down that short, slanted, crazy-ass runway, shuddering into the air… and heading back down. For good.

Days N+1 Through N+4

I had booked my flight back home for three days later than Darby, for a variety of reasons: • I could, not having to be back for work; • we'd done the trek in support of the Nepal Youth Foundation (details here), and they had kindly offered to give me a tour of their recently opened village for orphans, which I was hoping to squeeze in; and • hey, when the hell was I going to be in Kathmandu again? Darby and I did have a day left together, and after settling back into our same hotel, had a pootle around town – Darby had arrived too late to tour the city at all on the front end, and this was her chance. She also took us to a place to check out the famous momos (a type of dumpling native to Nepal and Tibet). We had big plates of momos which I washed down with a giant cheeky afternoon Everest beer both of us sitting at the bar in a funky and sun-splashed room. And but soon it was time for Darby to go, and to say adieu.

And but which meant I had a few days on my own in Kathmandu to kill. Every morning I took my life in my hands by braving the life-is-cheap streets of Thamel, making the ten-minute walk to the one coffee shop in town that had soya milk. Luckily, it was a very winning little upstairs cafe with sofas and salads and a tiny little bookshop, really just a bookshelf. On not quite a whim, I picked up Daniel Goleman's Focus, which turned out to have a great deal to teach me, and which was also very consonant with the Dalai Lama book I'd picked at the airport on the way up, and had read throughout the trek. (These lessons fructified in this series of dispatches on the great secret of attentional control. In a nutshell: Everything in life has myriad upsides and downsides; you get to choose which aspects to regard; and that decision will utterly control your happiness and success. “Life is what you pay attention to.”) I sat and read my book and drank my soya mochas and breathed and people-watched and waited for my flight.

Every night I went back to the same building where there was a tiny little burrito vendor and bought two gigantic (and excellent) burritos for like a dollar apiece along with a Diet Coke and I sat at the one little tiny table outside and ate them and occasionally chatted to passers by. I tried to find the wonderful Thanka Buddhist painting school I'd toured on the front end, but failed (despite having dropped a pin in Google Maps. Kathmandu!) Finally broke down and went to another one, buying one piece for me, and one for my sister Danielle, who I thought would dig it.

Speaking of giant burritos, I had the surreal experience of getting back down, pulling my shirt up in the mirror, and finding my body fat was gone. I mean, just Men's Health magazine cover model territory. Climbing peaks and passes all day, and freezing your ever-loving ass off all night, it appears, will do that to you. I'm probably going to hell for publishing this photo (which if anything, understates the level of abdominal definition); but, what the hell, I'm never going to look like that again.

Finally, on my last full day in town, I grabbed a cab to the outskirts of the city where I was picked up by the wonderful Som Paneru. Turned out he did his doctorate at the University of East Anglia – in International Child Welfare. Can you imagine that? Devoting his life to improving the lives of the world's most underprivileged children, he basically makes the rest of us look like schlubs. Anyway, the Olgapuri Children's Village – home to 75 boys & girls, as young as two-and-a-half, all of whom are orphans or from homes/parents unable to care for them, and some of whom are disabled – was basically his brainchild and baby.

Som on the left Olga herself – not the day I was there, but I was too chicken and/or respectful to corral a bunch of the children for photographs

They have housing, dining, play & study areas, a library, a basketball court, dogs & puppies, and a large sustainable vegetable garden that provides much of their food. They'd only moved in that September – the culmination of 2.5 years of work & dreams – but here they will have a safe & happy home all the way through high school. The kids, & staff, were all just totally lovely, and it was such a privilege to get to visit. As I mentioned, our trek was in support of them. You can still kick in a couple of bob if you liked these dispatches.

And then… and then it was really all over. Cab to the airport, confusion at KTM, quick hop to Gandhi Int'l, confusion there, then BA Club World all the way home to LHR.

With regard to wrapping up the trek, what it meant, what it was like… well, I honestly don't know that I can do any better than the slide show of images in the banner above. I chose them pretty whimsically, going for (if anything) more of an Outtakes Reel than a Greatest Hits. So, if you want some sense of what this thing was like, I suggest you just jump right back to the top of the page and, sit back, and watch it all scroll by. Which is exactly what I intend to do now.

Tomorrow, Days N+X: The Rest of My Life…

close photo of Michael Stephen Fuchs

Fuchs is the author of the novels The Manuscript and Pandora's Sisters, both published worldwide by Macmillan in hardback, paperback and all e-book formats (and in translation); the D-Boys series of high-tech, high-concept, spec-ops military adventure novels – D-Boys, Counter-Assault, and Close Quarters Battle (coming in 2016); and is co-author, with Glynn James, of the bestselling Arisen series of special-operations military ZA novels. The second nicest thing anyone has ever said about his work was: "Fuchs seems to operate on the narrative principle of 'when in doubt put in a firefight'." (Kirkus Reviews, more here.)

Fuchs was born in New York; schooled in Virginia (UVa); and later emigrated to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he lived through the dot-com boom. Subsequently he decamped for an extended period of tramping before finally rocking up in London, where he now makes his home. He does a lot of travel blogging, most recently of some very  long  walks around the British Isles. He's been writing and developing for the web since 1994 and shows no particularly hopeful signs of stopping.

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ARISEN : Operators, Volume I - The Fall of the Third Temple by Michael Stephen Fuchs
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