NAMCHE BAZAAR IN WINTER
It so happened that we had a spare New Year week, UAE as a departure point and an impromptu idea to spend 2-3 days on a taster trek in Himalayas.
Main goal was to see Everest and of course to experience life in Sherpa settlements.
For adventurers that trek to Everest Base Camp or Gokyo lakes, Namche Bazaar is just a first milestone on a long route. For dummies like us, who also decided to challenge tough winter conditions in Himalayas, Namche Bazaar became a full-fledged destination. And we are pretty happy of what came out of it! 🙂
We went to Namche Bazaar area in winter to avoid tourist crowds and enjoy cloudless skies, but reality exceeded expectations. We had the majestic Himalayan scenery to our own. In perfect sunny weather and sharp winter air, tallest world summits stood saturated against clear blue skies. Even the famous haze that is usually wrapping Everest was often gone.
You have to be ready to wake up to the hoarfrost on your blanket and watch out for ice that covers steep trekking paths, but in the end it is all worth it.
FLIGHT TO LUKLA
Fastest and most common way of getting to Namche Bazaar is flying to notorious Lukla (known as world’s most dangerous airport), and trekking up from there. Flights start operating from around 6 am. Chances of flying out towards Lukla melt with every 30 minutes due to the accumulating delays and unpredictable weather in the mountains. There is no guarantee that you get to Lukla from the first attempt. Flights can easily be cancelled and re-scheduled.
The good news for us was that, mid December to February in Nepal have the best mountain flight conditions. Weather often stays clear through the whole day = better changes to get to Lukla at once. Another little reason to visit Namche Bazaar in winter.
We had a 9 am flight, which is quite late and risky if you ask locals. Unfortunately, that was the only departure time available online. In Nepal it is better to book flights in the airport directly. You get more options. Tickets can be still on sale literally 40 minutes before departure. But we arrived to Kathmandu from Sharjah only the night before and buying tickets online was our best bet possible.
We booked our flight on Summit Air website. They are currently the only company that flies to Lukla from Kathmandu and has online payment option that works.
We were relatively lucky. After couple of hours waiting in Kathmandu domestic terminal, and other half an hour waiting in transportation bus in the middle of an airfield, we finally boarded the plane. The closer we were getting to the mountains the bumpier it went. And that’s in perfect weather! A little bit scary, but we survived
Not sure about other airlines, but Summit Air pulls down curtains that separate cabin and the cockpit during the flight, so you cannot really see the most exciting part – tiny airport popping out of nowhere in the middle of a mountain range, and of course the landing itself 🙁
LUKLA TO NAMCHE BY HELICOPTER
We tried to arrange the flights to, or from Namche Bazaar beforehand, but being winter time and off season it was in vain. Nepalese heli companies available on the web either shot sky high prices or asked to contact them one day in advance for seats on a shared basis.
So we landed in Lukla without any plan, determined to start our way up immediately and solve the rest of problemts on the way. Going up and down the same route within just a few days did not seem to be of any benefit. Taking helicopter one way would be a great leverage to stick to the schedule, take one’s time and enjoy the trip without a need to hurry.
Straight in the airport we learned that Lukla helipad is actually busy even in winter and locals are more than happy to place you on the next flight to Namche within an hour. Well, as long as you are happy to pay 350 usd pp. Looking back, we could easily negotiate it down to 300 or even less, but smart thoughts arrive too late as you know.
Soon enough we were soaring up into the sky in a tiny helicopter that felt more like a fragile toy against imposing mountain summits. What usually takes 1.5-2 days of trekking took us 5 minutes flying. 140 usd per minute – probably one of the most expensive flights one ever had! We jumped out in Namche helipad that is weirdly nested on the edge of the cliff, and our toy helicopter continued it’s way higher and higher into the mountains
STAYING AND EATING IN NAMCHE BAZAAR IN WINTER
My preliminary research on best places to stay in Namche appeared to be utterly useless since all of them were closed in winter. There were hardly couple of accommodations running. We were lucky to find a room with en suit, hot water and sockets. 25 $ per nights seemed an okay price. There was no sense in continuing search.
Oh, did you know that Sperpa houses do not have insulation, let alone heating (apart from heavily smoking metal stoves in dining rooms)? Windows here are single glazed and with enormous gaps, easily allowing frosty air into the room. Night temperature during our trip was ranging from -15 to -10 C outside, and as you can imagine not much warmer inside! Sleeping in Himalayas in winter should be a definition of the phrase “to get out of one’s comfort zone” 😀
But back to our adventure at last!
We planned to finally meet Mr. Everest in person in the afternoon (well, from the distance of 20 km, still…) Having dropped our backpacks we rushed to the restaurant to have quick lunch before heading off. That is how we made our #first Himalayan newbie mistake. There is no such thing as “quick lunch” there.
We were served our drinks after some 15-20 minutes of waiting and food arrived other 20 minutes later. And that is taking to account that there were only 5 customers around. How do you guys manage to eat there in high season? We’ve heard one can pre-order food to be served at a specific time, but are they even punctual with that?
TREK TO EVEREST VIEW HOTEL
It was almost 3 pm when we finally left the lodge. Sun sets early in the mountains, so we were short of time but faithful that we still can make it. After all, the guy in the lodge said that it is half an hour walking to Everest View hotel, and Google Maps suggest it is 40 minutes. Even if to double that time, discounting for our average fitness levels and body’s need to adjust to the lack of oxygen – we still should be fine, right? Ehh, not quite. ##second Himalayan newbie mistake.
One hour later, gasping for air and stopping every five minutes, we were still half way through. Steep ascend started almost from the doorstep of our lodge in the centre of Namche and continued through the first half of the way. Route gained 400 meters in elevation within 800 meters of distance. Meanwhile our muscles were still nostalgic for all the oxygen they had in Kathmandu this morning…
Second half of the way was beautifully plain. But unfortunately pink shadows already started touching mountain tops, so it was time to stop, take a few photos and absorb this amazing sunset, leaving Everest View hotel few hundred meters ahead… Having passed the Syangboche Panorama resort you already get the view of the iconic mountain range – Taboche, Everest, another 8 thousander – Lhotse – and Ama Dablam. Seeing those giants in the rays of a setting sun is definitely one of the moments to live for…
We had trouble spotting Everest for the first time actually. Prospective is a funny thing, world’s tallest mountain does not look that tall at all from the Syangboche path. Different viewpoints along the path allow for a different angles, but overall – that is as good as you can get if you do not go further up to the mountains.
SAGARMATHA VISITOR CENTRE AND THE LOWER ROUTE
Next morning we checked the memorial to Tenzing Norgay (the Sherpa who summited Everest along with Edmund Hillary) and took a leisurely walk towards the Chhorten stupa. The latter is the beginning of the route that most trekkers will take heading to Tengboche Monastery. Both places allowed us to take another glance at the top of the planet. There is never too much of Everest views when you are in Himalayas only for a couple of days!
Namche surroundings in winter is a great place just to hang around without a purpose and explore. Explore nature, people, life as it is, in absence of other tourists. Yaks that we met were all very polite, sidestepping into the snow and giving way to the humans. Danphes – Nepalese national birds – turned to be proper fliers and took us by surprise fulminantly passing above our heads and landing hundreds meters and a few cliffs away. Hawks were floating high in blue skies at every turn of the serpentine and tiny helicopters, like hard working bees, were carrying cargo back and forth over the mountain tops.
Then, there was a challenging but exciting way back down to Lukla. 1.5 day trekking full of breathtaking sceneries, famous hanging bridges and unexpected acquaintances. But that seems like a different story on it’s own, which we will hopefully share soon…