A red-faced woman came breathlessly around the corner and was obviously stunned at the sight of me. “How did you get up here? In heels?” Fair enough, we were at nearly 4,000 metres above sea level in the Himalayas after all. Whereas she had taken the energetic and admirable way of hiking and climbing for twelve days to reach the monastery of Tengboche in the foothills of Mount Everest, I had taken the lazy – and time-saving, city-dweller – way and had arrived by helicopter. In heels.
Tengboche is on the Everest Base Camp trekking route, and first hit Western news when Sir Edmund Hillary chose the village as a setting off point for his climb in 1953. The Sherpa village (although village may be on overstatement) consists mainly of the towering monastery, a couple of lodges giving shelter to intrepid explorers, and a handful of shacks that are inhabited by locals and their yaks.
I looked down over the valley we had just come from. It seemed that I was indeed at the top of the world, with giant vultures sailing the skies beneath and looking down the steep trail – the one the poor women had just climbed UP – made me positively dizzy. But turning around, that’s when it really hit me: the white Toblerone triangle way, way above me, shining in the sun, and the same distance from the sea again as the height I was standing at: Mount Everest, the mountain to end all mountains. A sight seen so many times on TV, on postcards all over Kathmandu and in travel magazines around the world, you’d think you’d be a little blasé about actually seeing it; it is only a mountain, after all.
But, no, it is more than a mountain. Locally named Chomolangma, meaning ‘Mother of the Universe’, or Sagarmatha, ‘Mother Goddess of the Sky’, I think they got the right idea. This is indeed the top of the world; it does not get much higher or more impressive. The sight is helped by Everest not just showing off her own glory, but having some rather impressive friends sitting by her side: Nuptse, Lhotse, Ama Dablam, Kangtega and Thamserku, all over 7,000 or 8,000 metres high. For someone who had previously thought Mont Blanc to be quite a sight, it was a breathtaking experience (or was that just the altitude?)
I was taken from my awed reverie by noisy tinkling coming ever closer. Looking down a little, there was a herd of yaks heading my way and it did not look as if they were going to walk around this gawping tourist. Shaggy, smelly, very fluffy, with long horns and large bells around their necks, the yaks looked like they’d be more at home in a comic book, and you could see where the idea of the Yeti came from. There was definitely a cuteness factor, although that would’ve been heightened by giving the creatures a good wash.
A tea with yak milk was served (with fat globules swimming on the top – seems it wasn’t skimmed yak milk), and it was time to go to the main attraction of this hot spot in the mountains: Tengboche Monastery.
Legend has it that some 350 years ago, Buddhist Lama Sangwa Dorje was meditating in Tengboche – as you do, 4,000 metres up – when his foot slipped and left an imprint in the rock. He took that as a sign that this would be an ideal place to establish a monastery, and the imprint of the foot can still be seen today (with a little imagination). Sangwa Dorje’s fifth incarnation, Ngawang Tenzin Norbu, founded Tangboche Monastery. In 1916 it was finally built, only to be partly destroyed in 1934 by an earthquake, and again in 1989, when an electric heater caused a fire and cracked that famous foot-print rock. Now rebuilt and housing some 60 monks, the monastery is famous for its annual Mani Rimdu dance festival, which draws tourists from around the world.
However interesting the monastery and breathtaking the view either up or down, it is the people who make the place. Local yak herds are constantly guiding their charges across terrain that would make any normal cow faint with fear. What seem like very old women carry enormous baskets filled with fire wood or grass on their backs, steadily moving around the steep surroundings as if it was a walk to the pool. And, dozens of trekkers, either on their way down or up, or who were left behind by their groups because of the curse of altitude sickness.
We had been warned that flying to 4,000 metres with no time to acclimatize might result in us feeling the effects, and my husband did indeed: a crushing headache, faintness, nausea and a complete lack of energy to look around the magnificent surroundings. But it was not really the fault of travelling by air: a couple of acclimatized climbers were forced to stay at the lodges even though they had been taking their time trekking up to these heights. Most people’s end goal was Everest Base Camp and no further, but we had just missed an expedition who was going to go for it, all the way.
For such an out-of-the-way destination, it was surprisingly busy, and bonds were quickly formed because of the place itself. It is not every day you get to sip tea under the auspicious presence of Mount Everest. Leaving in a cloud of dust, scattering a couple of spooked yaks, we vowed to come back someday, maybe even climb up, as my husband suggested daringly, obviously feeling a little better. The jury is still out on that suggestion, but coming back? Definitely.
Article by Ulrike Lemmin-Woolfrey