After 3 days in Kathmandu we set out for the mountains. Our group was small - just seven people from all over the world. Together with our guide we boarded what appeared to be the first flight for the day to Lukla (2860 m / 9383 ft) - the starting point for most treks around the Everest area. The flight is very short but scenic - especially early in the morning. The most interesting part of course is the final approach and the landing. The valley is relatively narrow and the planes have little room to maneuver.
We met our two sherpas and four porters at the airport and after a short break we were on the trail. The main junction on the Everest trail is Namche Bazaar (3440 m / 11286 ft) and the distance to it is usually covered in two days. Our first walk was short and easy, the trail is wide and flat with heavy porter and dzopkyo traffic in its lower parts. Dzopkyos are a cross breed between yak and domestic cow which is better suited for lower altitudes than yaks who prefer colder climate. The trail goes through many Sherpa villages and at this altitude is very green.
We arrived at Phakding just on time for lunch and in the afternoon we took a short hike to the nearby Pema Choling Gompa. Gompa is the Tibetan word for a Buddhist monastery. Although Nepal is a predominantly Hindu country the moment you land in the mountains you find yourself in a culture completely dominated by the Tibetan Buddhism. The Sherpa and Tamang people migrated from Tibet about 500 years ago and settled in the high and middle hills of the Southern Himalaya. Today the entire Solukhumbu District of Nepal (mainly the valleys close to Everest) is inhabited by Sherpas. It is important to know the difference between Sherpa (with capital S) and sherpa (with lowercase S): Sherpa is an ethnicity and sherpa is a profession. Our two sherpas (assistant guides) for example were of the Tamang tribe and our four porters were Sherpas ;-)
Hungry to capture moments of the local people's lives and culture I was pleasantly surprised when we arrived at the gompa as the the only people around were a bunch of playful kids training to become monks. They ushered us into the temple and started playing with the our cameras while letting us take pictures.
On the next day we had a long walk ahead of us. After Phakding the trail goes gently uphill for a few hours while passing villages and small settlements spread on both sides of the roaring Dudh Kosi river. As we were passing the usual suspects on the trail: trekkers, porters and dzopkyos I gradually became aware that there were also many kids going to school in the morning in their red and blue uniforms. It was with a mild shock that I realized that some of these kids were as young as four and were walking completely alone or in the a company of some slightly older kids.
Shortly after Phakding we saw a big mountain for the first time. It was Thamserku (6,623 m / 21,729 ft) towering above the valley to the east. We stopped for lunch at Jorsale and in the early afternoon we reached the confluence of Dudh Kosi (Milky River) and Bhote Kosi (Tibetan River). After crossing a suspension bridge covered with colorful prayer flags the real climb began up on the left bank of the Dudh Kosi River. That was the first real fitness test for the group but we handled it well.
We arrived at Namche Bazaar in late afternoon and settled in an nice lodge situated in the eastern part of the village. The plan was to spend two days here to allow our bodies to adapt to the altitude - a process also called acclimatization. Namche is the unofficial capital of the Sherpas with its central location in the Khumbu area and also because the entire tourist traffic to Everest goes through it. Major development has taken place in the recent decades in support of the ever growing trekking industry. The place has a reliable power supply (even better than that of Kathmandu!), banks, a post office and many little niceties that tourist appreciate like hot showers, laundry service, bakeries, souvenir shops and even a massage studio.
On our second day in Namche we rose very early and before breakfast climbed the short trail that leads east to the top of the village. There is a flat area there with some army barracks and the Sherpa Museum but for a photo enthusiast like me that was the perfect spot to photograph some of the biggest mountains in the world for the first time. Starting early is important as clouds usually creep in later in the morning and views aren't always very clear then. The afternoon we spent exploring the narrow cobbled streets of the village, went up to the gompa and did some last minute shopping before the "wilder" part of the trekking started on the next day.
Pictures from this part of the trek can be found in the Everest Base Camp Trail album.