The Kathmandu Guest House has a manicured courtyard where tan coated waiters serve you Tuborg Beer in thirty two ounce bottles. It’s an international arena where tan Greeks flagrantly inhale cigarettes and blond Norwegians scribble furious notes into hardbound travel journals. I often wish that I’d been born into the era of the great modern explorers – the Tilmans, Shiptons, Hillarys and Thesingers – into a time when a man could, in all seriousness, wear knee high riding boots. Sitting at a small teak table on the lawn of the Kathmandu Guest House inhaling the tropical scents and feeling the sun on my face I dreamed myself into a sepia-toned world where I could be sure that each of my fellow guests had packed both a tuxedo and a high caliber rifle. You could easily pass a month here watching the scene through the bottom of a glass, but you shouldn’t, because this isn’t Kathmandu.
Travel is about empathy. I’m not referring to sympathy, sympathy is cheap while empathy comes at full price. Empathy comes from a day in the other man’s shoes, and this is the purpose of worthy travel. Worthy travel should wrench you out of your tightly controlled world and thrust you into the world of the unknown, the world of experience. Ignorant, narrow-minded opinions spring from those who haven’t strayed far from home, and Kathmandu is pretty damn far from home.
Outside of the guarded gate and whitewashed walls of the Kathmandu Guest House trishaw drivers peddle crudely welded three-wheeled taxis over red brick streets lined with children holding out softball-sized elephants that they claim to be carved from yak bone – nice if it were true.
We had met several of our Nepali crew at the airport; we met the remainder at the warehouse office of our trekking agent Tashi Sherpa. In addition to our three sherpas our entourage included a cook, three kitchen boys and a sirdar – a kind of foreman - all of whom were hired and outfitted by Tashi. An experienced Himalayan climber and an influential government official, Tashi cost us a grand sum, but it was a price that, in the end, was well worth paying.
“My boys will take care of you,” Tashi said in perfect English during our first meeting. The boys he was referring to were the three climbing sherpas he had hired to assist our expedition: Kusang Sherpa, Ki Kami Sherpa and Dhanjeet (AKA Khan Cha) Tamung. To many people sherpa is a generic term meaning a professional high altitude mountaineer, which is not entirely accurate. Sherpa is an ethnicity, not a job distinction, but because most Nepali climbers are Sherpa the term sherpa (with a small s) has become synonymous with professional high-altitude mountaineer. In point of fact, however, not all Sherpas are professional mountaineers and not all professional Himalayan mountaineers are Sherpa. For example, Kusang and Ki Kami are Sherpa while Khan Cha is Tamung, but all three are climbing sherpas. Nepal has a very interesting system where your surname denotes your ethnicity.