Why the heck would I write something about iron stoves? Well, come with me to a freezing-cold lodge in Nepal, perhaps 4500 or 5000m above sea level, and you will quickly come to realise that without these big round stoves, life for trekkers would be almost unbearable. Even porters are known to crowd eagerly around them, once the tourists have been watered and fed and bundled off into their 4-season sleeping bags.
There are only two warm places in a high-altitude lodge: the kitchen and the room with the stove. The kitchen has the great disadvantage that it's normally brutally smoky. Sometimes, in very basic lodges or off the beaten track, we have to stay in the kitchen for dinner as there is no separate room; then it's a hard tussle between the warmth of the fire, pulling us in, and the acrid stink of the smoke, pushing us away. (Often, the smoke wins: cold is easier to bear than stinging, watering eyes.)
But in bigger lodges, there's always a strong iron stove in the room. It easily weighs 100kg or more and it's carried in from the nearest roadhead by two porters: one does the main frame, the other the doors and trays and so on. It is installed in the middle of the room with a long and not always stable stovepipe (often much longer than strictly necessary to keep more warmth in the room). There always clings a succession of solid strings to and around the stovepipe (which is not adding to the overall stability of the whole setup). These are used to dry moist or wet clothes.
Every morning and every evening, the stove is filled with big patties of dried yak dung, perhaps a dozen at a time. These patties vary a lot in colour between a light grey and dark green. They don't smell at all and are actually quite easy to handle. Some lodges have a few wooden racks in the courtyard where the patties are dried; others simply throw them against an outer wall (south-facing, of course).
A well-filled and well-tended stove gets so hot that touching the surface, even for a second or two, will cause burns. On the other hand, the top is a great place to heat or to keep stuff warm: we have Sigg drinking bottles, made of aluminium, and once filled with water, they survive the heat very nicely and deliver water that's not teeth-splitting cold.
It's possible to heat other things as well: once we sat in a lodge in Lobuche, about 4900m above sea level, with perhaps -20C outside. The lodge was full to bursting and we sat around the stove, sharing a thick blanket with a Chinese trekker. He was a pretty old and wizened guy and his porter told him that food would be late. (It often is if the lodge is full.) So our friend decided to have a nibble beforehand and put a small tin with sardines in tomato sauce on top of the stove, to warm it a bit. Well, with all the chatting trekkers the mood in the lodge was very bubbly, jokes and tall tales were being told and so he (and we) completely forgot about that tin.
Suddenly, there was a huge bang, then stunned silence… and no fish on the stove. The tin had simply exploded and the room suddenly smelled quite fishy. However, there were almost no recognisable bits of fish on us or the blankets. A few very tiny bits of sardine where found clinging to the upper half of the walls and the ceiling: the power of the explosion had been such that the sardines and sauce had been distributed smoothly all over the place. The metal tin itself was not to be found; to this day we ask ourselves where it had gone.
Well, the face of our Chinese friend was funny to watch: it slowly changed from alarm to wonder, then to disappointment and finally to an expression of great mirth. And we, even a decade later, still have to smile when we think of the Great Lobuche Fish Explosion.
Yes, these iron stoves are very important.
$updated from: Background.htxt Thu 22 Nov 2012 14:35:20 trvl2 (By Vero and Thomas Lauer)$