If you could choose a location for a Himalaya base camp, would you prefer a monastery or a distillery? This was most decidedly not Scotland, but we got our distillery all the same….
In a recent Macfilos post we visited the Rongbuk Monastery, the base camp location for the 1924 British Everest expedition, situated to the north of the peak. However, for the trekking adventures of a group of nine westerners on the eastern side of Everest just three months ago, we unexpectedly found our base camp to be at a distillery.
Last village on the way in
But before we get to our base camp it’s worthwhile to mention the last village heading in to the Everest region. It is the small town of Pheruche. It is where the road from the north forks; one way takes you to the Rhongbuk Valley and monastery, while the other heads due south towards our destination, the Kharta Valley, about an hour further on.
Pheruche has changed in recent years. Previously it was the trekkers’ and climbers’ provisioning depot but, with the better roads and construction work heading further in, it has become a short stopover as people continue in on the improving roads. We stopped there for lunch both on the way in towards Kharta and again, ten days later, as we came out and took the other road back in to the Rhongbuk Valley and the North-West Face of Everest.
For our nine-day trek we were to be based at Yuba (3650m), previously at the end of the road towards the eastern side of the Everest. It’s a location that was visited by the British Expeditionary Group of 1921, when they were exploring routes in towards the North Face. They noted that the area had the advantage of being forested, and therefore provided a ready source of firewood. And the wild rhododendrons indicated a slightly milder climate than the higher Rongbuk Monastery region a few miles away.
It is this area which is now a trekking region on the Tibetan side of the mountain. We were fortunate to be there. Very few trekkers get permits to be allowed into the region, minuscule numbers compared to the popular trekking routes in Nepal on the other side of the mountain.
Tibet is rapidly changing. The road now extends well down into the Kharta Valley, further towards the mountain and the adjacent Kharta glacier. It will soon become a main road for tourism, still gravel at this stage, but well engineered and being built deep into the valley. That didn’t matter to us, as we were planning to trek into a wild region off to one side, towards the three-mile high Kangshung face of Everest. But first, it was a matter of getting set up at base camp.
The sign at the gate of the compound surprised as we arrived. It was a new sign for the changed business within the walls. The old sign had come down and was lying inside the gate.
Our main game at base camp
For us trekkers and our staff, base camp was the place where we had to repack our bags, deciding on the lightweight kit items that could be carried efficiently by us and our yaks. All other travel clothes and bags were to be put into storage until our return after nine days. We got to know our tents, were introduced to the yaks and the yak-men who would transport our gear, and became aware that our cook was going to be a great meals provider over the next week or so.
Main business at base camp
We spent two days at our base camp. One day to ready ourselves for the trekking adventure to follow, and one day upon return. Our location was at one end of the compound. At the other end, the few rooms previously used for travellers accommodation had been converted into the distillery business, now the main game at the location. The Kharta Valley is a highland region where barley is a staple crop for the villagers. Some of that barley is fermented and then distilled to produce commercial barley spirit. There’s no evidence of charcoal or oak enhancements in the production of the whiskey, just distil it and collect the magic liquid.
A few of us crazy foreigners with cameras were able to visit the commercial operation to see it in operation. It was organised by Tashi, our very kind and knowledgeable Chinese Tibetan guide who also acted as translator for us. What we saw was a basic but effective operation. There were a few village ladies working inside using very simple but effective distillation devices, obviously expert in the process, the temperatures and condensation of the spirit. They even opened a drum of warm pure spirit and invited us to inhale. Wow, powerful stuff, warm rocket fuel!
The families who work at the community-owned business were kind and smiling, gently going about their work with a minimum of fuss. They didn’t mind western trekkers being at the far end of the facility. Other women were working inside, some taking care of infant children. Outside, a man was tending a large and ornate still.
A special photograph
While we were catching images inside the distillation room I noticed trek colleague Martin Plackett from London checking the back of his camera. He had just caught an image of two children, lit by the side window in the smoky room. It captured a special moment with the people in that small room.
My images were taken with a little Leica C Typ 112. A small 1/1.8 sensor hand held in a dimly lit room should not perform all that well, but I thought I’d see what the photo gods would provide. Even more challenging, I realised afterwards that I had been using it on a fixed 80 ISO setting, rather than letting auto ISO ramp up the speed. Silly me, how could that have happened? When did I accidentally change from auto ISO to fixed 80 ISO? Was it me, or was it someone else who had admiringly played with the camera just previously? Memo to self: only let your own klutzy fingers touch buttons on your camera.
I chose to shoot jpeg, so I was concerned that I might not be able to recover enough out of the seriously dark images that resulted. However, upon returning home, I was able to achieve maximum recovery using Windows 10. Except for Martin’s image of the children, the distillery shots that accompany this article were all recovered from dark nondescript shadows that I brought home. Not perfect by any means, but enough to provide some memories of a special place at the start and end of an adventure. Phew!
After the distillery visit I lay down in my tent as the regular 4pm storm of frozen sleet wheeled in. It was there that I realised that the Leica C had been labouring at 80 ISO. In the dark smoky room I had noticed that the screen was quite dim, but assumed that the in-camera processing would take care of it. Not thinking, me. Nothing to do but reset to auto ISO and shoot off one image of the inside roof of my tent – too darn cold to go outside in the storm.