We awoke late in the morning to more brilliant tropical sunshine. A few lazy hours flitted past, carried away gently by the warm ocean breeze, before time accelerated to its customary frenetic pace. Packs loaded, we walked down to the dock where we embarked on a less eventful return journey: ferry ride (minus the puking), overnight bus transport (minus the cockroach infestation), a quick transfer at sunrise, and we found ourselves inside Bangkok’s modern, glassy airport. It was remarkably devoid of people. We stood alone on the moving walkway, which, like the hands of time, carried us steadily and inevitably forward into another chapter of our trip.
Four and a half hours later, our flight descended into Kathmandu, Nepal. A thick layer of clouds obscured the squat brick houses and dusty dirt roads below until moments before landing. The towering Himalayan peaks that surrounded us were shrouded mysteriously in the same grey veil, but we felt the heavy weight of their presence nonetheless. It was the Himalayas, the tallest and most extreme mountain range in the world, that had drawn us here.
As our backpacks appeared on the rickety baggage claim, they were immediately converged on by Nepalis. Unbidden, they began loading them onto their backs while beckoning for us to follow. Rather than waiting to discover the ulterior motives for their kindness, I intervened, handing Mandy her pack before forcibly removing mine from a local’s shoulders. We then brusquely pushed our way outside through the overly “helpful” crowd.
We climbed into the beat-up 1980s Toyota sedan of our trekking company, the engine thrumming loudly as we lurched out into the street. The drive into town featured rough dirt roads overflowing with traffic and distinctly lacking both signs and stoplights. Traffic ebbed and flowed haphazardly, a cacophony of vehicles stuttering and honking past innumerable vendors and the occasional massive bull, a sacred animal to Nepali Buddhists and not to be disturbed–even when resting in the middle of the road. The air was hazy and brown from the dusty streets and perpetual construction of a city unable to keep up with Nepal’s rapid urbanization.
We settled into a guesthouse in the bustling Thamel district of Kathmandu. Mandy took a quick nap before we ventured out into a warren of alleys where we competed with people, oxen, motorcycles and cars for space. Shops selling trinkets, colorful clothing, and, most notably, trekking gear lined the streets. The prominent display of elite alpine brands (Mammut, Black Diamond, Arcteryx, among others), belied their knock-off status. However, that was of no concern to us–a few extra layers for warmth at high elevation was all that we required. We haggled over prices before parting with just under $50 for a small “Black Diamond” daypack and two sets of “North Face” gloves, neck warmers, and hats.
Later in the afternoon we briefly met our Sherpa guide, Dende. He brought us to a shop where we rented sleeping bags before he left to make final arrangements in Pokhara. We would catch up with him there tomorrow to begin the hike to Annapurna Base Camp.
We were both exhilarated and nervous for the challenges that lay ahead. The ten-day, high-altitude trek to Annapurna Base Camp is extremely physically and mentally taxing, even for those who arrive in peak physical fitness. Given our traveling, our preparation had been minimal. As we made our way back to the guesthouse, I noticed with some concern that we were breathing heavily already while simply traversing the city streets. We had already gained 4600 feet of elevation compared to sea-level Koh Tao and our lungs were lamenting the change. My growing trepidation was fueled further as the back of Mandy’s right knee remained painfully swollen. The injury had occurred sometime in the last few days, although we weren’t sure how or when. We stopped at a pharmacy and bought their entire stock of ibuprofen, before continuing on to meet up with Shankar, the head of the trekking company, at a rooftop bar for dinner.
Our spirits rose as we feasted on dal bhat, a Nepali staple of savory lentils (dhal) and steamed rice (bhat) while enjoying Shankar’s gregarious personality. He told stories of growing up in rural Nepal and trekking tales from his days in the mountains. When I asked why he’d given up guiding, Shankar laughed and pointed at his round belly. He now ran one of the few, maybe the only, entirely locally owned and operated trekking company in Kathmandu.
Dinner stretched late into the night. Finally, when Shankar attempted to order us our fourth 22oz Gorkha, a tasty local beer, I was compelled to remind him that we’d be waking up at 4:30am the next day to set out on our trek. We exchanged hugs and he wished us luck before Mandy and I made our way back to the guesthouse through the sleeping city. Our shadows flickered ahead of us, Mandy’s shadow limped slightly and they both appeared slightly out of breath. Tomorrow, the true test would begin.