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Essay

Himalayan Stories: Evenings with Nuru at Pheriche

By P Ravi Shankar

The Magnificent Himals… Photo courtesy: 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.   

Memorials to climbers… Photo Courtesy Ravi Shankar

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!   

 

Fun in the snow… Photo courtesy: Ravi Shankar

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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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Musings

The Great Freeze

P. Ravi Shankar shuttles through winters from Everest to New York to Kerala to Aruba in the Caribbean

My friend and colleague was turning blue. The cold wind hit me with the force of a sledgehammer. We both had on all the warm clothes we could bring. I had on me a woollen blazer, a full sleeve sweater, my shirt, a half sleeve sweater, and underneath it a thermal. The freezing wind cut through these layers like the proverbial knife through butter. I was beginning to lose sensation on my nose and extremities. We were in freezing weather for less than a minute crossing the road to where the car was parked. We were inadequately dressed for a February morning in New York city. A nor’easter had hit a day before and the temperature was below minus 24 degrees Celsius. The news channels mentioned it was the coldest day in over two decades. Luckily for us, the car was heated, and the seats could also be warmed. We slowly thawed after the flash freeze.  

We had flown from sunny Aruba (Dutch Caribbean) the previous day. Miami had perfect weather, but New York was freezing. Manhattan is full of skyscrapers. There is no direct rail line from the airport to Manhattan. New York has a decent public transport infrastructure but no airport metro. The city’s infrastructure does need some serious investment on upgrade and maintenance. The hotel room was warm and toasty. Outside, it was snowing. I saw the homeless on the freezing sidewalks trying to shelter from the bitter cold. Poverty amid opulent wealth.

I have mostly lived in warm places where your major concern is staying cool in the humid heat. In Kerala, in the south of India, a mundu or a lungi wrapped around the waist was the common male attire. The mercury in most areas never goes below 20 degrees Celsius. In New York during winter, the major concern was staying warm. Suddenly, common English expressions began to make sense. Warm welcome, warm greetings make sense when you are coming in from a freezing weather. When you are all hot and sweaty, the warmth seems unwelcome. Also, the European style of dressing was designed to minimise heat loss. Socks, hats, gloves, coats, tie, scarf. The buildings all had double doors to keep out the cold and keep in the warmth. Central heating kept the inside warm.

Keeping warm is expensive. I did some rough calculation and worked out that I would have to spend USD 1500 on winter clothing and over USD 250 monthly on heating bills. The tempo and rhythm of life changes in the northern latitudes with the change of seasons. Winters mean short days and time spent mostly indoors. The wily COVID virus is capitalising fully on this human behaviour. Summers translate to warm temperatures and long days. With global climate change, the highs in summer and the lows in winter are becoming extreme.  

On another occasion I was strolling by the shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago enjoying the early morning view. There were gardens and walking paths by the shoreline. Suddenly a cold wind blew across the lake from Canada. Despite all the winter clothing I donned, I was frozen. In cold weather, it is important to have a waterproof and wind proof outer shell. These are expensive however, and as occasional visitors to cold climates, we were unwilling to invest in such clothing. Upstate New York is even colder than New York city, and Rochester is said to be among the snowiest cities in America.

New York city is relatively well-prepared for snowy weather with double doors, central heating, winter clothing and snow ploughs. So is Chicago. Some of the southern cities in the US also experience snowy weather due to climate change and are not prepared for occasional winter storms. The plains of northern India experience cold weather from December to March. A thick layer of smog blankets the plains. Trains and planes are delayed, and driving could become hazardous. Air pollution rises and the air becomes dangerous to breathe. The sun succeeds in clearing the fog only after ten in the morning. Kathmandu in Nepal also experience fog and increased pollution during winter. Pokhara is a Nepalese city without fog in winters. I have often wondered why. With beautiful views of the Annapurna range, winter mornings in Pokhara are occasions to be savoured. In these places there is no central heating. Quilts are widely used. I enjoy the quilt which slowly warms you up using your own body heat.

In the mountains of Nepal, external heating devices are common. In the Everest region, there is the yak dung burning cast iron stove in dining rooms. In the Annapurna region north of Pokhara, wood burning stoves are common. In Thak Khola, charcoal burning stoves under the table are used. The bedrooms, however, are unheated and freezing. I had stayed in Lobuche in the Everest region, at around 4900 m for over a month for a research project and the nights were freezing. The water bottle used to freeze. If you wanted something to not freeze, you kept it beside you on the bed inside the quilt.

Watching snow fall is relaxing. The snowflakes glide down and blanket the trees and the ground in white. The cold reduces a bit. Rain is more noisy and violent and often accompanied by thunder and lightning. Walking on snow is difficult. Soon the snow melts during the day and refreezes again at night and turns into ice. Ice is extremely slippery and dangerous to walk on. Snow is a rare treat for persons from tropical climates. However, living in snow covered regions is challenging.

Near the equator the climate is constant throughout the year. The rains cool down the atmosphere, but the hours of sunlight do not vary much. Life is not influenced by the seasons. The further north or south you go from the equator, seasons begin to colour your life. Summer brings long days, sometimes extreme heat and more time spent outdoors. Winter brings longer nights, snow, and more time indoors. In both New York and Chicago, in winter, the trees were totally bare, bereft of leaves. I could not believe they were still alive. With the coming of spring the green twigs would sprout again and the cycle of life resumes. The writing of poets and authors from temperate countries about the dreariness of winter and the warmth of spring and summer began to make sense to me — a person from and living in the tropics.      

      

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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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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL