Friday, 14 November 2014

Kanchenjunga Trek - Our Team and Other Memorable People

This was my fourth time to Nepal. Andrew’s fifth. Plus a couple trips to other Himalayan countries. We thought we knew what to expect regarding guides and porters. But Himal, Raj, Pasang and Kumar from Visit Himalaya Treks far exceeded our expectations!
Our Team - me, Raj, Kumar, Andrew, Pasang
Andrew initially contacted Visit Himalaya based on a recommendation from the blog of an Australian couple that had used this company several times. He also contacted several other companies but Himal, the owner of Visit Himalaya, was the one who responded promptly and readily agreed to provide a mostly lodge-based trek with minimal support (as opposed to camping style with a large entourage of support staff).

Himal met us at the Kathmandu airport and his distinctive blue sign stood out from all the white ones. Over the few days we were in Kathmandu we met with Himal a couple more times to finalize the trek and, since we were immediately heading to India afterwards, he took us out for a “farewell” supper to a very unique Nepali restaurant with music and dancing demonstrations from various regions of Nepal.

We also met our guide, Raj, who accompanied us on the flight and drive to Fikkal where we met up with porters Pasang and Kumar who had taken the bus there with the gear.

Raj is a very charismatic and personable 25-year-old. He started trekking work as a porter, becoming an assistant guide to Himal and then moving up to guide. As a porter he had higher aspirations and always took the opportunity to talk to clients to improve his English. In addition to guiding and working in the office for Himal, he is taking various classes that interest him (e.g. computer-related such as web design, first aid, media reporting for trekking guides).
If anything, Raj was a little too good at looking after us. Constantly reminding us to be careful in slippery areas, going first across streams and helping us across, etc. But we managed to subtly let him know some of our experience, jokingly reminded him to be careful, helped him across streams and basically teased him mercilessly, all of which he took in good stride and laughed with us about.

We were very happy that our porters, Pasang and Kumar, were well outfitted. Good hiking shoes, quality clothing, sunglasses and other necessities. Unfortunately this has not always been the case for porters on our previous trips, nor was it the case for many of the other porters we encountered on the trek. Himal seems to have a well-run business though and rather than paying his guides and porters per trip, he pays them a monthly salary so that he can keep staff that he knows and can rely on.

It was sometimes difficult to tell how much English Pasang and Kumar understood. They often laughed at the right times during conversations but if asked more than the basics, or off the topic of food or trekking, they looked to Raj to translate.

They both live in Kathmandu most of the time. Pasang is a Sherpa from the Solu Khumbu region and spends the non-trekking season farming there with his family, his wife and two children. Kumar also has two children, is a carpenter in the non-trekking season and also spent a few years working in Malaysia. It is obvious that both are good Dads as they always played with the children at the homes and lodges we stayed at and were natural and comfortable with them.
This little girl got lots of attention! I teased Pasang and Kumar that I was going to check their bags when we left to make sure they hadn't taken the baby with them.
While Raj and Kumar were constantly on their cell phones or fidgeting with something, Pasang was content to sit quietly. Card games were an afternoon past time when they could find a fourth to join them.

With Raj, Pasang and Kumar at the helm, we definitely felt we had preferential treatment at many of the places we stayed at. All three of them often provided an extra set of hands in the kitchens, preparing vegetables, making chapattis and at times taking over the cooking altogether! We always got a warm spot around the fire and never went long without being asked if we wanted a cup of tea.
Raj stirring the oatmeal; Kumar putting the tea on.
Kumar frying up potatoes; Pasang babysitting.

The camaraderie amongst the three of them and their care of us was exceptional. We highly recommend Visit Himalaya!

There were a lot of other memorable people who we met along the way:
  • The two boys carrying schoolbooks that we passed by on the trail in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. We asked Raj where they were going. To the village we passed an hour back!
  • The kids at every village.  But especially the one who was about 4 years old and continuously carrying his younger sibling (about 1 year) over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes, over terrain that was quite challenging for a 4 year old.
I couldn't convince this little girl to smile for a photo but yet she giggled in delight
every time I turned the camera to show her the picture of herself.
  • The young mother, in traditional Tibetan dress, who seemed to do nothing but cook from sun up to sun down. Her husband was away working overseas and she ran the busy lodge with her in-laws. The 8-month-old baby only got her attention when it was time for breastfeeding but Grandma was happy, attentive and enthralled with the little one.
  • On the other end of the spectrum, the young mother dressed in jeans and low cut t-shirt who was so quick with a genuine smile. She and her husband and baby lived by themselves in a remote location but she struck me as being very happy.
  • The boy, about 12 years old, who so quickly and readily helped his mom run their remote lodge. He carried a big jug of water from a source about ½ hr away, washed dishes, poured tea, and hauled in large bags of potatoes when the yak herders arrived with a delivery. No complaints. Just part of doing business.
  • The beautiful long black hair of the women. Most wore their hair in a bun or under a scarf but on occasion we saw them brushing their hair.
  • The boy who taught me to play carrom.
Playing carrom. At this point we're about even but I lost by three discs.
  • The very thin old man being carried in basket and the group of men taking turns carrying him several days to a hospital. He had a very bad headache and we contributed some ibuprofen (with instructions via Raj).
  • The girl porters sitting around the cook fire and staring at us while we ate. Meanwhile the boy sitting beside them was obliviously picking his nose – while we were eating.
  • The older woman washing white sheets. White sheets! Seriously. How on earth she kept those sheets white in conditions surrounded by yak dung, I have no idea!
  • The old Nepali man drinking tongba (millet-based alcohol) from sun up til sun down and the older Japanese trekkers who were trying to keep up with him.
  • The people of all ages who looked over our shoulders as we downloaded photos onto our computers or read books on our Kindles. Especially the kids who picked out all the English words they knew. 
Checking out the photos

The vast majority of other trekkers were from France. Australia and Germany also made up a fair number of people. Surprisingly, we met no other North Americans.

But the most memorable group (whose nationality I won’t mention) was the six photographers. They had camera gear worth thousands and thousands of dollars but they were trekking on the cheap. Trying to sleep several people in a lodge room, cooking some of their own meals but yet taking over decks/seating areas of lodges, getting up at all hours of the night to start trekking and taking photos, seriously overloading their porters and pushing them long hours. We were happy to finally get out of sync with them!

All in all, it was a great experience with fascinating people! Again, huge thanks to Himal, Raj, Pasang and Kumar! 

See my other Kanchenjunga Trek posts. 

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