By P Ravi Shankar
The windows were getting misty. Outside it was freezing cold and rainy. However, the cast iron heater kept the dining room hot and toasty. We were enrolling trekkers/hikers for a study on high altitude. The Himalayan Rescue Association (an organisation catering to the health needs of trekkers, mountaineers, and the local population) conducts various studies in high altitude locations in Nepal. These studies are usually conducted during the peak trekking and mountaineering seasons in spring and autumn. The participants (trekkers) were enrolled either at Pheriche or at Dingboche, in the Everest region of Nepal. We had just finished dinner and were discussing the how the studies were going. We were happy. The room was warm, our stomachs full and the company interesting. The owner of the lodge, Nuru Sherpa often joined us. Other trekkers were seated at neighbouring tables and could join in. The atmosphere was relaxed and friendly. Our study leader had brought dried apple cider sachets from California, that could be reconstituted with warm water. The apple cider was delicious.
Pheriche had been originally a yak pasture situated at a height of 4300 m in the Everest/Khumbu region of Nepal. There are several place names ending with ‘boche’ in this region. ‘Boche’ means a flat land seen from a hilltop. In this mountainous region a plateau like area is a rarity. As tourism developed in the Khumbu, several lodges were constructed. Pheriche however, is mostly overcast and windy. Most trekkers prefer to stay in Dingboche, 150 m higher on the other side of the hill. The place is higher but gets more sunshine and is warmer.
The research team had split with two of our colleagues staying at Lobuche uphill at 4900 m. We had flown to the Tenzing-Hillary airport at Lukla and then hiked uphill acclimatizing along the way. There is a 700 m ascent between Pheriche/Dingboche and Lobuche and different studies have been done on this stretch of the trail. The Himalayan Rescue Association runs an aid post at Pheriche to provide medical treatment to trekkers, guides, porters, and locals. The post was established in 1973 and has seen extensive upgrades. It has been equipped with oxygen concentrators and has the ability to manage most cases of altitude sickness. The doctors volunteering at the clinic have been giving talks on staying healthy at high altitude every afternoon. We attended these talks, which even helped to recruit trekkers for our study. Later, we would hike uphill to Dingboche and visit the trekkers staying at different lodges. Even in 2007, Dingboche had more than twenty-five lodges spread out along the trail.
We were staying at the Himalayan Hotel in Pheriche. The hotel was run by Nuru Sherpa from Kunde who had studied interior design in Karnataka, India. The rooms were cozy but cold. In the tea houses (lodges), only the dining room is heated during the evening and sometimes during the morning hours. The lodge had squat toilets and Nuru used to mix some kerosene in the toilet water to prevent it from freezing. I saw a recent photo and the lodge has been expanded and now has private rooms with attached western-style toilets. There has been a lot written about toilets at trekking lodges. Some are luxurious, western-style flush toilets while others are just a hole in the ground. Most do not have a sewage system and the environmental consequences may be high. Lobuche had a terrible reputation for its toilets and was widely known as the armpit of Nepal. Things have improved significantly since then.
Most lodges have a greenhouse where you could sit, and lounge comfortably protected from the wind during the day. We used to take full advantage of the greenhouse. As the temperature inside was significantly higher, we could sit in our T-shirts. This was a great luxury in this cold and windy locale. Pheriche is often used as an acclimatisation stop by trekkers before heading higher. The hotel had a good collection of books and we used to spend hours in the greenhouse reading and chatting. People came and went but we stayed on. Staying put in a place in constant flux was a strange experience. Days coalesced into weeks and weeks into a month.
Pheriche had suffered damage during the earthquake of 2015 and rebuilding was mostly by local efforts. Today there are internet and phone services and websites allowing you to book lodges in advance. In the 2000s, you had to book the rooms physically. The lodge owners sometimes used satellite phones to access the internet, but it was expensive. During the peak trekking season in the fall, the lodges could get incredibly crowded. The global pandemic has negatively impacted tourism, and the economic consequences have been bad. Lodge owners often take loans at high-interest rates to renovate and expand their facilities and if the number of tourists drop, they can easily go into debt.
The landscape was barren with a few shrubs struggling to grow in the high altitudes. There are spectacular mountain views from around Pheriche. These are among the tallest mountains in the world at over 7000 m. Pheriche and Dingboche are over 4000 m. The village of Pheriche is on the banks of the Tsola river. The wind roars across the valley and clouds, rain and snow follow. Tibetan Buddhism is dominant and mani walls inscribed with Lamaist prayers and cairns of towers of rocks are scattered all around. Prayer flags send the Buddhist law riding on the wind. On a sunny and warm day, the land is at peace and a hike through this landscape is enchanting. However, at these altitudes, the weather can change rapidly. As you climb towards Dughla and Lobuche, there are spectacular mountain views. There is a memorial to those who have died on Everest as you climb out of Dughla. There are a variety of memorials to climbers in this region. There is one on the grounds of the Pheriche hospital/aid post.
Sherpas are the inhabitants of the Khumbu and have earned an enviable reputation as mountain guides. Sherpas originally migrated to Nepal from Tibet several centuries ago. Namche Bazar is the unofficial capital of Sherpa country. Potatoes play an important role in Sherpa cuisine. The introduction of the potato from the South American Andes made settled life possible in many mountain regions globally. Potatoes are used in several ways. Rikikur (potato pancake) is a breakfast staple. There is a small restaurant by a waterfall serving potato pancakes called rikikur on the hike to Namche Bazar. You wait and enjoy the scenery as your pancake is freshly prepared. A spicy chili sauce is a usual accompaniment. There is a type of red round chili grown in the Himalayas called dalle khursani or jyanmaara (life-taker) khursani. The chili is extremely spicy and can literally take your life away, hence the name.
The Khumbu region at an average height of over 3500 m is one of the most spectacular on the planet. Getting there may not be easy, and you need to plan your journey properly. Acclimatization is important. Compared to other treks in Nepal this is more expensive and has a risk of altitude sickness. However, the spectacular views of the highest mountains on earth cannot be matched elsewhere. Things have certainly changed with the advent of cell phones and the internet. Roads have also made steady inroads in the surrounding regions. In the good old days, there were no roads in Nepal outside the Kathmandu valley and the early Everest expeditions used to start their walk from the outskirts of the valley. It used to take well over a month to reach the Khumbu region.
Hopefully, the pandemic will stay controlled. This will allow us to hike this autumn in the Khumbu region and enjoy Sherpa culture, religion, fresh air, cold winds, and the spectacular mountains!
N.B: We miss our friend Dr Ashutosh Bodhe who accompanied us on several treks. He passed away in 2021. His raw energy and passion for life will be missed!
Dr. P Ravi Shankar is a faculty member at the IMU Centre for Education (ICE), International Medical University, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He enjoys traveling and is a creative writer and photographer.
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