32 Top of Borneo

A few months ago, my sister sent me a random quote that read ‘if you don’t do stupid things while you’re young, you’ll have nothing to smile about when you’re old’. At that point of time, I was really thinking about my upcoming birthday (yes, my mind worked in advance!). One particular place came to my mind. I picked up the phone and dialed the number. I did not place a high hope in the availability of spaces, but asked the reservationist ‘do you still have space available on June 16, for two persons?’ I was really just trying my luck, so when she replied ‘yes, we have the last two spots on June 16’, I could not stop myself from letting out a jolly laugh. The question then became ‘do I want to do it?’ The quote that my sister shared drove me to say HELL YEAH!!! So, Mount Kinabalu, here we came :-D. Was it a stupid thing to do? Certainly not! It was actually one of the best trips I had said yes to.

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The rays of sunrise are blessing me with their much appreciated warmth; in the background is South Peak (3933 meters), which is often featured in postcards of Mount Kinabalu.

I had previously climbed the mountain back in 2008 and 2015. However, as John Steinbeck beautifully pointed out in his novel ‘Travels with Charley: In Search of America’, a journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. My third journey to the top of Borneo was just as refreshing and meaningful.

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The start point at Timpohon Gate (1866 meters). Good luck ladies!

Each trip was propelled by a different motivation, done with a different travel companion, had tested me with a different set of physical and mental challenges, and endowed me with a distinct rewarding experience.

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The Summit Trail- a lot of stairs!

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After the second last rest point called the Layang-layang hut, the trail is called the orange trail for the obvious reason of…as shown in the photo 😀

lush rainforest

According to the UNESCO, Mount Kinabalu has a very wide range of habitats, from rich tropical lowland and hill rainforest to tropical mountain forest, sub-alpine forest and scrub on the higher elevations.

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I love this view! I am reminded of the open space dotted with acacia trees in Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania.

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An example of ignorant visitor behavior. Doesn’t she understand the warning clearly stated on the signboard? PS: I am just the actor. DO NOT ATTEMPT THIS UNLESS YOU ARE PROFESSIONAL lol!

The most recent trip to this highest mountain between the Himalayas and New Guinea had an added zing to it as it was made after the rare, devastating 6.0-magnitude earthquake that jolted the mountain a year ago. A part of me looked forward to trying the new trail constructed in the affected areas, and to seeing firsthand the damage caused to this beloved iconic landmark of my own state.

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The alternative route of Mesilou Trail has been closed since the rare 6.0-magnitude earthquake that jolted Mount Kinabalu on 05 June 2015.

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The damage on one side of Mount Kinabalu. From a distance, the area looks as if it was blanketed by snow. It is a heart-breaking sight to see the huge damage caused to this emblematic landmark of Sabah, Borneo.

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Another wrecked section of Mount Kinabalu, very close to the summit check point at KM8.

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More damage- a large chuck of the structure fell off.

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As described by Yahoo News, the earthquake had loosed rocks as big as cars.

Trails

Top: where the old trail once was; what is left now is just the rubble from the earthquake. Bottom: part of the new trail- stairs!

Laban rata

Finally, we make it to Laban rata (3270 meters), the main mountain hut. There are a few other smaller huts. We start out at 9.46AM, and get here around 3.30PM. Good timing!

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Sunset from Laban Rata (3270 meters).

I have had the fortune to climb a few mountains in different countries. I guess there is much truth in the expression ‘home is where the heart is’.While the journeys to those mountains had rewarded me with some of the best moments in life, there was one thing that ONLY Mount Kinabalu could give me: the beautiful, serene feeling of ‘Ahhhh I’m home’ when I was on top of it, enjoying the surrounding picturesque views illuminated by the rays of the rising sun, and being reminded again that life was beautiful :-)!

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Darkness pierced by headlamps of climbers as we make our final ascent to the summit as early as 2.30 AM. The sky is dotted with twinkle twinkle little stars. So, take some moments to engage in astrotourism, the new form of tourism that involves stargazing in dark places :-).

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We are almost there! 2 minutes to the top, after a tough battle with the wind, which makes it much colder than what it really is.

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Yay!!! We made it to Low’s Peak, the highest peak of Mount Kinabalu at 4095.2 meters. And I just turned 32, on Top of Borneo!!! :-D. With my sister, Shuzy, and our guide, Alfred. To many Kadazandusun people, Mount Kinabalu is part of their heritage. The name itself, Kinabalu, is believed to derive from two Kadazandusun words namely Aki (ancestors) and Nabalu (mountain). To them, the mountain is sacred, a final resting point for the souls of their departed ancestors.

 

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OK, it is time to go down. Low’s Peak is getting crowded.

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The sun is slowly pushing itself over the clouds. It is such a beautiful, serene moment to be as close to the nature as possible; seen from an area just below Low’s Peak.

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The rays of the rising sun are illuminating Mount Kinabalu and the surrounding areas; seen from an area just below Low’s Peak.

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The sun is shining on the top section of St. John’s Peak, the second highest peak at 4092 meters. It is just 3 meters shorter than Low’s Peak (the highest). Also in the background is South Peak.

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The shadow of Low’s Peak is formed between St. John’s Peak and a particular feature whose name I can’t recall. What a sight! A local legend has it that a long, long time ago, there was a Kadazandusun woman who married a Chinese prince who had come in search of that often-talked-about pearl on top of Mount Kinabalu. One day, he had to return to China upon his father’s request, but made a promise to her that he would return. Every day, she went to the top of Mount Kinabalu awaiting his return. Days turned into years. She became very ill and finally passed away. The mountain spirits had their mercy on her, and thus turned her into a stone overlooking the South China Sea, symbolizing the ability of the woman to continue to wait for the return of her beloved husband. That stone, is believed to be St. John’s Peak :-). Sad but beautiful legend!

 

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St. John’s Peak and its reflection on the wishing pool. The pool has a beautiful local legend attached to it… a long time ago, there was once lived a giant king named Gayo Nakan which translates into ‘big eater’. He resided at the base of the mountain. His people were drained of energy in an effort to satisfy his enormous appetite and, thus, were hard pressed to feed him. Hearing their complaints, the king told them to bury him alive at the top of the mountain. Bringing all their tools, his people labored to no avail, until the king uttered magic words and sank into the rock up to his shoulders. He then told his people that, as a result of their limited patience, drought and famine would afflict them, though he promised to help them in times of war. Apprehensive and remorseful, the king’s people performed their first sacrificial offerings at the wishing pool below the summit, believed to be the king’s grave.

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South Peak and a stone marker.

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The iconic Donkey’s Ear Peak; sadly, part of it was destroyed by last year’s earthquake.

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A remarkable view of the distant mountain ranges as seen from KM8.

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A stunning view of the towns surrounding Mount Kinabalu- Kundasang, Mesilou and Ranau, as seen from an area after the summit check point.

Rope climbing

Rope climbing is the only way to get through certain parts of the trail from the summit check point to the top.

Guides

Some of the guides posing for a photo. They are Kadazandusun locals from the surrounding towns. The guy in green shirt: he is a climber from Seoul, who insists on his photo taken haha!

Porters 1

I always have my respect for porters. They work hard for a small pay. Without them, mountain tourism can falter. My research has showed me that porters, regardless of their locations, tend to face one big issue in their employment: their welfare is often overlooked.

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I am lucky to have a brief conversation with these young porters. The steel frames they are carrying weight 13KG each. They are paid MYR13 for each KG they carry. I make an attempt to lift the load placed between the porters which weights about 36KG. Can’t even move it.

Now Nepal has Faces

I just finished watching the third episode of Michael Palin’s Around the World in 80 Days travel documentary (thanks to my friend, Jason, for sharing it 🙂 ). It was called ‘Ancient Mariners’. The enjoyment I derived from it was extraordinary. Watching a travel documentary, by and large, creates a nice fantasy in me to see the place as well. But that particular episode taught me, or rather emphasized, a concept that I have already known: the human factor involved in virtually every trip we undertake. It is just as important as appreciating the physical significance of a place. The local people whom we bump into on the way and have brief, if not deep, conversations with; the local people who serve us with warmth and sincerity; the fellow travelers whom we meet en route; and of course, if you are not traveling solo, your very own travel companion. I took great pleasure in the small, simple conversations that Michael had with the crew on his dhow journey from Jeddah to Bombay. The episode simply brought back sweet memories shared with the people I was fortunate enough to encounter on my journey to the Everest Base Camp in Nepal.

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The nice lady from whom I bought my yak bell in Namche. The first thing she did when we walked in was to give us a Nepalese blessing :-). Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

There were small villages dotting the trekking route. They were good places to meet down-to-earth Khumbu villagers who seemed happy and content with what life had to offer them. The sight of little kids with rosy red cheeks took my heart away.

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I hate to be a visitor who takes photos of local people as if they were living attractions, but I couldn’t resist these adorable kids 😀

In Namche, school kids in their uniforms were running uphill ahead of us to get to school. Some looked quite hesitant as they ran past us. I had a chance to talk to some. It was amazing that they had a quite good mastery of English. While that linguistic ability of theirs allowed us to understand each other, I certainly hoped they would never neglect the language of their roots. I asked one what her favorite subject was and she said English; I asked another what he would be learning that day and he answered mathematics. Ah I wish I could learn more about their simple lives. Those conversations were one of the best ‘human’ souvenirs I brought home, and still cherish.

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The girl who said her favorite subject was English. Location: Namche. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

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Some school boys I met in Namche. The one in the middle was the one who told me they would be learning mathematics that day. I asked for their names so I could find them on FB and send this photo. But I lost that piece of paper on which I had the information. Good luck boys!

I have been in certain places where I felt hesitant to greet in the local language (mainly due to fear of causing an offense). In the Khumbu region, I did not pause to greet the local villagers with ‘Namaste’ as I knew they would always respond in kind. They did, and they did it with big smiles on their battered but beautiful faces! Pineapple is the symbol of hospitality. I would say the villagers in the Khumbu region had the sweetest pineapples 🙂 Having some glimpses into their livelihoods, I learned silently that life was not all that easy for them. But for me, they were the richest people in non-material sense, and I was very lucky to be shown that richness.

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Namaste! I imagined these friendly girls were having their nice mid-morning chat in a vegetable farm.

Then there were our beloved guides and porters. Without them, I honestly think the trip would have been quite impossible for me. I have this predisposition to think that service providers may be just wearing a mask when they ‘serve’ us; that there is only one thing in their minds: a fat tip from walking-dollar-sign tourists. This tendency has, to some extent, created a wall between them and me. The amazing thing about our guides and porters was that they did not make me feel that way. Well, I am sure they expected some tips at the end of their service. However, I could feel so much genuine care, warmth, and great hospitality from them. When we fell sick, they were our (traditional) doctors; when we were tired, they provided entertainment (music on the phone; cards; jokes; small talks); when we were discouraged, they became the driver that pushed us forward; when physical exhaustion took its toll on us, they extended a great helping help (like carrying our backpacks); when we got injured and could not walk, they would carry us on their backs!!! When we had questions, they became our walking encyclopedia. They just played a great variety of roles. I was one of the slow ones in the group, but I knew I was not the last because Passon, our guide-in-the-making, always walked right behind us, making sure no one was left behind. Sometimes he walked side-by-side in an understanding silence.

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Our guides and porters (first row, from left to right): Nhamka Sherpa, Ngawang Sherpa, Nuri Sherpa, Mingma Sherpa (assistant guide) and Yogesh Rai; (second row, left to right, excluding the guy wearing a cap): Passon Dawa Sherpa (guide in the making) and Pemba Tamang (main guide). Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

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Yes, they would carry you if you got hurt and could not walk! I still remember our main guide, Pemba Tamang, said to us ‘it is my job to make sure you all get to the Everest Base Camp. If you can’t walk, we will carry you’. They take their job seriously! Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

With the vast knowledge they had of the Khumbu region, they were some of the greatest teachers I have ever had. They enhanced the educational or learning aspect of my experience, thus making the trip significantly more meaningful. Some of the information extended beyond what was typically covered in guidebooks. It made a whole lot difference when I made the effort to get to know our guides and porters by learning about their lives, families, interests and dreams. There was really no need to talk about BIG things. Knowing them as more than my service providers, they became more of a ‘person’ to me, if not friends. Just like what Michael Palin did, I jotted down the full names of all of our guides and porters (with Jason’s help). Years from now, I would want to look back and see their faces in my mind, with names.

The last night before flying back to Kathmandu was memorable when we shared meals with all of our guides and porters. I was sharing a table with the porters. They did not speak much English but that was totally fine. A few words were exchanged, but the greatest asset traded was sincere smile and mutual respect. Then there was the emotional parting in the following morning. Usually I do not feel stirred when saying goodbye to my service providers. But that morning, at Lukla airport, I could not help but get a little teary-eyed when we hugged each other and said our goodbyes. Well, I guess I have come to regard them as more than just service providers.

My fellow trekkers also added to the wonder of my EBC journey. We started the trek as complete strangers, and ended it as friends. I still remember on the very first day, during a briefing, we were all sitting at different corners of the Pilgrim Hotel’s rather-small lobby. I caught a glimpse of each of them and silently wondered about where they were from, what they did for a living, their trekking experiences, and so on. Days passed, and that stranger-feeling gradually faded away. They were probably the people who could understand me the most should I need to relive the EBC memories, as we had shared the same goal, the same dream, the same passion….and pain (to varying degrees).

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Fellow trekkers in my group. From left to right: Pemba Tamang (main guide carrying yellow backpack); Jason Newholm (Canada), Carolyn (USA), Rakeb (USA), Ashley (USA), Jason (USA), Sam (Ireland), Rishi (India), Sanaah (India) and her brother Ali (India). In front of Hillary Suspension Bridge. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

 

If I were to assess my own personality, I would say I am inclined toward the quiet, introvert type, who needs time and space on her own. If someone like me could enjoy meeting people and having conversations during the EBC trek, that certainly would have meant something. The human-related experiences I gained are definitely no-nonsense, and have probably helped me discover myself more. They were the icing on the cake :-).

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Our assistant guide, Mingma Sherpa. He was a very caring person. I just loved his pose in this photo. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

Prior to the trip, Nepal was a faceless nation for me. Now, it is not, as it has the faces of some of the Khumbu villagers I met, of my guides and porters, and of my fellow trekkers.

 

 

 

Khumbu Experience: Trek of a Lifetime

‘If a picture paints a thousand words, then why can’t I paint you?’- Bread in their song ‘If’.

That is precisely how I feel about the once-in-a-lifetime trek to the Everest Base Camp (EBC) that I embarked on recently. A thousand pictures, or an amount of writing equivalent to a 588-page book, can’t completely illustrate the wonderful experiences that the journey had endowed me with. How can I put it into words? Where do I start? When I checked my mailbox today, I saw the postcards I sent to myself from Kathmandu and Namche Bazaar (one of the points where we spent some nights during the trek). A smile crept on my face as beautiful memories from the trip wormed their way into my mind…

It all began when I came across in a local newspaper a black-and-white picture of a long suspension bridge erected high up in the mountains and across deep chasms, with the caption describing a trek in the Himalayan region of Nepal. It instantly piqued my curiosity. My interest was so intense that I spent the next few days making the necessary arrangements. Four months passed, and I was in the Khumbu region (homeland of the Sherpa), face-to-face with the adventure I had signed myself up for.

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A suspension bridge with colorful prayer flags providing access to Tengboche (3870 meters). Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

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Prayer flags in 5 colors: red (fire), blue (sky), white (cloud), yellow (earth) and green (forest). They are usually placed along bridges, at mountain ridges, stupas, and so forth. Local people and trekkers write good wishes on them. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

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One of our guides, Passon Dawa Sherpa. Donkeys carrying goods crossing the bridge.

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A group photo before the Hillary suspension bridge, which provides access to the climb to Namche Bazaar (3440 meters). Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

I wish I could wholly depict the beauty of the trek’s physical environment in words. A shortfall on my part could do a grave disservice to the grandeur of the Khumbu region (also known as the Everest region). A wild river with its raging currents snaked through the area.

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Breathtaking view of the Khumbu valley.

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The river is not always visible to trekkers, but the sound of its raging currents tells us that it is there all along. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

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Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

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Trekking along the wild river that runs through the region. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

The vegetation consisted of a diverse range of lowland and highland species; I was very lucky to have witnessed the bloom of the national flower of Nepal, the Rhododendron, when I was there.

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Rhododendron, the national flower of Nepal.

The little towns/villages with their colorful buildings dotted the trekking route.

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Namche Bazaar, one of the main villages on the trail to EBC, where I send one postcard to myself :-). Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

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The kind of congestion we encounter in Namche Bazaar, ‘donkey jam’! Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

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Namche Bazaar, where I buy my yak bell from a very nice lady :-). Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

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Dingboche (4400 meters).

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Gorakshep (5180 meters), the last overnight point before EBC (5364 meters).

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Yak Yak Yak 😀

Snow-capped peaks loomed large in the distance, some of which are the world’s tallest. At higher points of the trek, I constantly feasted my eyes on the splendor of Ama Dablam.

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Ama Dablam, one of the most stunning mountains in the world, with its pyramid shape. Seen from Dingboche (4400 meters).

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Ama Dablam, stupa and prayer flags; seen during the acclimatization trek in Dingboche (4400 meters).

Mount Everest was quite ‘stingy’ in making an appearance to people who had traveled near and far for its summit and base camp. I had my very first glimpse of a section of it in Tengboche, and it was truly a sight to behold! Again, a small part of it fed our hungry eyes on our way to and back from the Everest Base Camp.

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Clouds obstructing the visibility of Mount Everest; view from the Everest View Hotel (3880 meters). Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

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First sight of Mount Everest from Tengboche (3870 meters); that little section on top of that huge chunk of snow-covered mountain. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

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Second glimpse of Mount Everest, on the way to/back from EBC. That little pyramid-shaped section at the center top…very soon it is covered by cloud again. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

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Avalanche! I consider myself to be very lucky to have witnessed this natural event on the way to EBC. As an onlooker, it is an absolutely beautiful phenomenon! A perfect example of what I call Dangerous Beauty. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

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Trekking to EBC from Gorakshep. Photo Courtesy of Jason Newholm.

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EBC and Khumbu Glacier in the distance. Photo Courtesy of Jason Newholm.

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EBC and Khumbu Glacier. Photo Courtesy of Jason Newholm.

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A helicopter hovering above EBC and Khumbu Glacier. A scene I have only previously seen in Everest-based movies! It is surreal! Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

I set my eyes on Mount Everest for the third and last time when I attempted the trek toward Kala Pattar at dawn. I was told that was the point where one could be rewarded with a view of 65% of the world’s highest mountain. I was determined to go as far as I could. The weather was not hospitable for the sunrise trek. It was snowing and brutally cold; the wind was howling, and I was physically sick. We were supposed to be able to see Mount Everest, but the clouds obstructed the visibility. The trek became something more than I could handle. I had to give up after 20% of the trek. A part of me was disappointed with myself for falling sick (of all the days, why today?! Of course, it was beyond my control!). Another part of me felt incomplete because the ‘mission’ was not accomplished. I slowly made my way down to the teahouse, with a guide who had walked with me for most parts of the trek. At one point, he said to me ‘look, the clouds have cleared’. My eyes followed the direction of his finger, and there, looming large in the distance, was a pyramid-shaped section of Mount Everest, with some rays of sun illuminating it.  I felt the hands of clock had stopped ticking right there and then. It was just me, my guide and that small section of the world’s highest mountain. Despite my sickness, I let myself stare at it for I-don’t-know-how-long.  It was not my first sight of it, but the moment was beyond-words beautiful and meaningful for me. It was so deep that my eyes went teary. A way to see it was that the Mother Nature showed mercy on me…

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Trekking toward Kala Pattar (5545 meters) at 5am, for a sunrise view of Mount Everest. The weather is not hospitable. We take the chances. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

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Trekking to Kala Pattar. The weather gradually improves as morning is approaching. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

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Trekking to Kala Pattar. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

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Third glimpse of Mount Everest. Again, it is not showing a big part of itself. Just a small chunk. But it is good enough. Very good, indeed! This moment is one of the most beautiful moments of my life! Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

I imagined the great mountains and mighty river must have witnessed thousands of trekkers trudging through the rugged terrain of the region over the years. I described them as my most faithful travel companions. When I could not see them, I knew in my heart that they were there. The mountains were just behind the clouds, and the sound of the river’s raging currents told me it was there all along. Without a doubt, the region is a place of serenity, peace and beauty.

John Steinbeck said in his novel ‘Travels with Charley: In Search of America’ that a journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. I have previously done a number of treks. But as perfectly described by the author, the EBC trek has its own personality, atmosphere, and the experiences it has given me are novel and intimate.

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Khumbu region, a place of serenity, peace and beauty. It fills my travel journal with novel and deep experiences. Trekking in the region is like wandering in some very beautiful painting! The journey, my form of pilgrimage. Photo courtesy of Jason Newholm.

The cultural landscape of the region and the people with whom I encountered all added to the depth of my EBC journey. Their contribution is so great that they inspire me to write a separate (my next) article.

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Namaste! Mingma Sherpa, one of our guides 🙂