Id arrived in KTM in a fashion I’d become accustomed to when travelling in Nepal. Five hours late, long after sunset, with my face clogged with black like the night itself had etched into my cheeks.
Again I’d been in a police station for a number of hours, but this time it had been worse. Much worse. I’d covered half the distance when a girl, middle teens, blindly runs out from behind a bus. I’d been going slow enough to swerve away but after a dummy step and a hesitation she screamed and continued to run regardless. Directly -> into the side of my bike. Kamikazi style.
During the initial frenzy in the village I’d bought a cold bottle to compress a mild bump on her brow from where she fell down and tried to ignore the spiralling pantomime wailing from some of the villagers. I was promptly escorted to a nearby hospital to oversee the girls first aid (ibuprofen cream…) then the local police station to fester.
Finally, when all parties were present, we got down to the business of compensation. I’d been left to contemplate long enough to establish it wasn’t my fault – in no world can you stop someone sprinting into the side of your vehicle – but somehow I got the impression that didn’t matter here, and I made the point but didn’t argue it. I also wanted the girl to be alright, even though I suspected the 120USD deemed fit compensation wouldn’t go anywhere near the private hospital for a CT scan, private cars and two days food allowance they were asking it for.
But I was tired, stressed, emotionally drained and bled dry of any peaceful contentedness I’d carefully fostered during my stay in Pokhara. I signed a handwritten paper agreement, marked it with my thumb and bid farewell to the, albeit accessories to extortion, nice and friendly police guys and all 120USD of my emergency cash.
By the time I reached Kathmandu I was barely awake, propped up only by a sense of begrudging injustice and a dwindling will to survive the long, dark ride. Fate decided to throw me a bone and find the hostel easily, only to stare grimly at the gollum in the mirror and collapse into a sleep that could’ve kept me forever.
I wasn’t having a great time and needed a break to think, evaluate – and busy, dusty and noisy Kathmandu was not the place for it. Seriously, it’s the only capital city in the world where you need a degree of off-road proficiency to go with your death-wish. I had to get away and fast.
The Sparkling Turtle Backpackers hostel is partnered with Green Valley Nepal Trekking. It’s also far enough away from the raucous, prayer-flagged, pedestrian hub of Thamel to relish avoiding the journey in. With a bike it was 20 minutes of weaving through thick crowds and busy intersections – it’s also the only journey in my life where someone has ridden into the back of me, then complained it was because I was going too fast…
I explained my situation to a stringy and likeable Nepali called “K.P”, not lightly on the melodrama. He pulled some strings and, if I would trek with Green Valley, would be picked up at 3:45 the morning after next for my flight to Lukla. It was a lot of money, the most I’d spent in one go, even without the gear I’d also have to buy.
The earliest online flight was in four days following a spate of flights cancelled due to weather. I shook the man’s hand.
Tim, an extremely Zen English guy staying at Sparkling Turtle, invited me to help move building supplies at a nearby orphanage. I had a spare day and building up Karma points couldn’t go amiss right now. I agreed and we rode for an hour along more of the same dusty, rocky trails that pass for Nepali roads to reach the orphanage.
The kids were cool, much like kids anywhere, mischievous and over excited – but after some quick lunch and throwing the smaller children around it was straight to work. For some unknown reason I’d just assumed wheelbarrows, so couldn’t stifle the laugh when the deep woven baskets and head-straps were bought out of storage. I adjusted my own strap, a folded piece of polyethylene sack, inexpertly and frequently, trying to get the weight distributed somewhere between a cracked neck and bruised coccyx. They weren’t shy with the bricks I was meant to help move. I thought it was because they saw a big foreigner at first, but soon enough I realised that girls as young as thirteen were carrying more, all without complaint. I swallowed my pride and continued until my right knee, blown out 8 months ago while kicking my big LC4 over on my parents driveway, started buckling and pinching pain into my thigh. I was demoted to stack organiser as Tim and the children stormed back and forth with their head baskets, I was humbled but not too proud to stop – I’d just fronted a chunk of money for my guided trek.
After a quick trip to the monkey temple and a day spent haggling down outdoor gear (pretending to be married for special ‘honeymoon discount’) and buying a knee brace for good luck, I was finally prepared to go to Everest Base Camp.
It had not been a long held dream of mine. In fact, it was probably a pretty rash decision – and twelve days of walking seemed like a joke to my motorcycling alter ego. But the stories from my youth, the adventures captured in those books, were reignited with a night time viewing of Everest in the Pokhara movie garden, and I couldn’t shake them off.
I was psyched for the challenge of altitude. At 5364m base camp is the same height at Khardung La pass, only this time I’d be on foot rather than perched pillion and I’d need my lungs and my legs to carry me higher, in a world that choked the oxygen from an Enfield bike. I was psyched for the challenge.
Just as KP promised, the taxi arrived abysmally early to pick me up the next morning and I fumbled my bags into the boot under the white light of my head torch. We made one more stop, picking up an American lady called Hope, before being dropped off at the airport – standing in the security scuttle of neon colored north face westerners. I helped Hope move her bright orange duffel bag to a separate queue for the ladies and sidestepped into the front of the gents, banking on 4:30am being too early for anyone to care.
Kathmandu international airport was about as sophisticated as it’s road networks, and small enough to feel cluttered despite the dwindling dreary few first flight travellers. After a short wait we were transferred to our tiny twin-prop, handed cotton wool for our ears, and throttling of the ground to a great mixture of excitement and exhaust funds leaking into the back of the cabin.
For the most dangerous airport in the world, the anxiety of landing is pretty short lived, probably because the airstrip is so desperately short and on a 10 degree incline, heading directly into the mountains. We had boarded in t-shirts, but looked out the window to a screaming menagerie of down jackets, bustling at a tiny kiosk, readying to catch the first flight down. Hope and I were swept away in the bustle of bag collecting until two small Nepali guys dissolved from the crowd and sheparded us to a nearby hotel for breakfast, walls cladded in stained wood like an Alpine lodge.
I wondered when everyone else in the group would join us, I thought it would have been easier to all have been on the same flight.
“Its just you and me bud.” Hope replied when I aired my question. I’d left the heft of my camera in the hostel, assuming someone more committed in the group would have a more professional set up. It transpired Hope had only bought an iPod to take photos with. It was too entertaining to be disheartening – I was to be trip photographer, using my new phone. Another challenge to relish on the way up.
Tshering, aka ‘Chilling’, introduced himself as our guide and introduced Hope to her Porter. The heavy orange bag would be hauled, head strap style, up the entire route. I was a little jealous of her five kilo sack. My thirteen kilogram 65l sack was as light as I could make it (and yeah, still lighter than a bag of bricks I guess…) but was a little unwieldy. That said, I wouldn’t know what to bring with me that I couldn’t just pack myself – it seemed like a waste to have a porter just carrying your camera up…
I took my first footsteps out into the cool grey quiet of a mountain morning; gentle hammer taps in the distance and hushed conversations being hurried along in doorways. The gentle taps coming from trekking poles on rock paving.
I couldn’t have known I’d come down from the mountains a different person, emerge differently from an amphitheatre of room to think. All I knew was it was good to be away from Nepali roads and smile up at the forested valleys which would cradle our ascent up to Namche Bazaar over the coming days.