Friday, May 11, 2012

Escape from Kathmandu!


            “Excited” doesn’t begin to describe how I felt as my three friends and I squeezed into the taxi geared up with our new backpacks and trekking tackle.  We headed to the airport to catch our 10:30 a.m. flight from Kathmandu to Lukla.  The flight was one of many I’d taken recently, but this one signified the beginning of my Himalayan adventure and my trek to Mt. Everest. 
Runway at Lukla (from Pauline-G's at travelpod)
In my research for the trip I’d read that the hour-long flight to Lukla was an adventure in itself.  If you sit on the left side of the plane there’s incredible views of several of the tallest mountain peaks in the world.  But the flight wasn’t supposed to be just sunshine over pretty, snowcaps and bubbly clouds.  Lukla is known as one of the most dangerous airports in the world.  The runway, used for both takeoffs and landings, at Lukla’s little airport is no more than a few hundred yards long and is nestled in the side of a mountain.  So, when taking off from Lukla, if the departing plane doesn’t gain enough speed to acquire lift, the plane will drive right off the edge of the cliff and plunge 2,000 feet down into the rocky valley below.  Equally as perilous is landing at Lukla; if the pilot doesn’t calculate everything just right, there’s a good chance of missing the runway and crashing into the mountainside.   I was pretty sure that I wanted to piss my pants.  I just didn’t know if it was because I was scared or because I was excited. 
the whip.
After a short wait at the KTM airport, boarding for our flight was announced.  The four of us got on a bus that took about 15 co-passengers and us across the tarmac and delivered us to the Pilatus PC-6 Turbo Porter aircraft that would soon be our winged whip to Lukla.  Ignoring the airport personnel’s request to proceed in an orderly fashion, people scrambled to get off the bus and on to the small plane.  Apparently, I wasn’t the only one that read that the money-seats are on the left side. 

I ended up on the plane’s starboard, but I did get a window.  It didn’t matter.  I was stoked and raring to go.  The looks of enthusiasm plastered across the other passengers’ faces as they impatiently anticipated take off was enough to know that I wasn’t alone.   Even with less than 20 people on board the airline was kind enough to provide a solo female flight attendant that walked the aisle offering everyone a piece of hard candy and cotton balls to block the noise of the thunderous engine.
"See ya, Kathmandu!" ... or so I thought.
"Is booze free on this flight?"
I watched the two pilots in the open cockpit ahead of me press buttons, pull levers, and finally give a gentle push on the throttle.  Shortly after, we left the ground and watched Kathmandu shrink until it was a miniature model of itself.  Buildings looked like Legos, cars looked like ants, and people were invisible.  30 minutes into the flight, I was still staring out the window as we gained more and more distance from the hustle and bustle of Kathmandu and entered the mountain country of Nepal. 
That’s when our lone flight attendant unbuckled herself from her seat in the rear of the plane and shuffled forward to the cockpit where apparently the captain had something for her to broadcast.  “Were we about to land?” I wondered.  Unfortunately, all of my excitement and enthusiasm quickly changed to frustration and disappointment as I had apparently reached the anti-climax of Tara Air flight 069.  The flight attendant made a convincingly regretful (yet obviously rehearsed) announcement that due to the weather at Lukla we would be unable to land and would have to turn back.


            After landing back at KTM everyone was told to wait in the terminal so that, if the weather cleared, another flight could take us to Lukla.  On the previous flight there was a Sherpa that had been hired as a trekking guide.  I sat just behind him in the airport as we anticipated good news.  While waiting, I overheard him tell his trekking client that this type of thing happens all the time and the chances of anyone getting to Lukla today were slim to none.  “Sometimes,” he explained, “three or four days pass without a single flight making it to Lukla”.  Great. A couple hours passed and just when I was about to give up hope, a voice came over the airport loudspeaker— our flight was given the green light.
Apparently Indian women are more prone to throwing up.
            Once again we were put on a bus, taken to the plane, and fought for the coveted portside.  This time not only did I get a seat on the left but I was the last person to board the plane, so I was stuck without a window in the very back of the plane next to the solitary flight attendant.  Maybe she’d see my aggravation and give me an extra hard candy.  I didn’t care at this point I just wanted to get in the air.  I took three pieces of the plastic like chocolate and for a second time we powered forward into the grey-blue sky. 
            The day’s events had worn me out.  I didn’t have the energy to be excited anymore.  I actually fell asleep for a bit.  When I awoke I could see into the cockpit up front.  Between the pilots’ gestures and the radar screen, it appeared that we were exactly on top of Lukla.  “FINALLY!  We made it!” I thought.  Then my favorite little flight attendant unbuckled her seatbelt and walked to the front.


            Even though Lukla was just below, a sudden change of conditions made it impossible for a safe landing and we were yet again forced to retreat back to Kathmandu.  With no more flights leaving, a Tara Air representative told us that we would have to return tomorrow and that we would be put on standby.  It was no one’s fault and, especially with an airport like Lukla, it was better not to risk it.  I knew that.  I felt like a little kid that asks for something for Christmas, waits and waits, and on the big day he doesn’t get what he asked for.  I was angry and disappointed.
            The next day, we arrived back at the airport before 8 a.m. and started what was beginning to feel like a routine.  We asked questions and were given the same runaround answers over and over again.  After several restless hours in the terminal, the representative that we'd been politely pestering all morning said that he was able to get all four of us on a flight and that we had to board immediately.  YES.  I wanted to yell out, “FINAAAALLY!” but I didn’t want to jinx another flight.
            Just as I was about to step through the departure gate and onto the tarmac, Mr. Representative Dude ran up in a discreet manner.  NO.  I waited for him to tell me and my friends that something else had gone wrong.  However, I was surprised to hear what came out of his mouth next.
1000 Nepalese Rupees = $11.70 USD
            Apparently, this guy "knew a guy" that was a helicopter pilot and heading to Lukla in a few minutes.  His helicopter was usually chartered for $2,500 USD, but since it wasn’t booked yet and the pilot was flying some supplies to Lukla anyway, Mr. Representative Dude offered us the four passenger seats.  “Maybe I help you… you help me?  Hmm?” he whispered, implying some sort of bribe.  Then he told us he’d be back in a few minutes and slithered away. 
            I wanted to laugh.  Sometimes I forget how much I love the sketchiness of Asia.  The four of huddled and discussed.  A chartered helicopter would make for a heck of ride and quite the entrance.  But there was no way we could come up with anywhere near the usual $2500 cost.  After a quick discussion, we came up with what we thought was a good price for us.   Mr. Rep Dude suddenly appeared out of nowhere and, looking nervously over his shoulder like he was in the middle of a drug deal, stuck out his hand.  In turn, the four us handed him 1,000 Nepalese Rupees each (that’s only about $46 US).  Without even looking at it, he shoved the money in his pocket and led us out to the tarmac where I pickup truck was waiting.  Thus, my first shady run in with corruption in Nepal was concluded and an airport truck drove us to our private helicopter. 
            We had just bargained down from $2,500 to less than $50 without even trying-- how nice could this thing really be?  Half-expecting a giant piece of shit with a propeller on top, I was pleasantly surprised to see a shiny red and black helicopter sitting on top of a giant letter H.  Our luck had finally changed.  A new surge of excitement and happiness rushed through my veins.  Now I felt like the little kid at Christmas whose dad hides that one special present, acting like he didn’t get it, and then gives it to the boy as a surprise at the end.
            We took some pictures and boarded the helicopter making several “GET IN THE CHOPPA’!” jokes and other Schwarzenegger/helicopter references.  From that point on, the trip from Kathmandu to Lukla couldn’t have been better.  The sky was clear and the views were great.  We didn’t get the mountaintops promised with the airplane, but the low flying helicopter was able to maneuver quickly over wall-like ridges and through valleys giving us an up close look at the hillside scenery.

             A little over an hour later we landed safely on a helipad at Lukla’s Tenzing-Hillary Airport.  As soon as we stepped on to solid ground the helicopter was unloaded and almost immediately took off again for it's return to Kathmandu.  Adrenaline still pumping, I put on my pack and stopped for a second to look around.  Massive mountains surrounded me on all sides.  I was officially in the Himalayas and at the starting point for the trek I’d come here for all along.  Even with all the ups and downs, the start of my adventure had proven to be nothing short of exciting.
 I couldn’t wait to see what would happen over the next two weeks trekking through the mountains, fighting frigid temperatures, and battling the ever-thinning oxygen at high altitudes.  And with that, my team of four took the first steps of many on our journey to 18,000 ft. and our ultimate goal of reaching Everest base camp.
Check out this quick video I put together of my ride in the chopper!  (give it a second to load)...

Sunday, May 6, 2012


 Surat Thani, Thailand to Kathmandu, Nepal: Ten hours on a second-class bus to Bangkok.  Two nights in the big, bad city.  Five-hour flight from Bangkok to India.  19-hour layover in the New Delhi airport.  One last 2-hour flight in to Nepal.

It was a taxing and tedious journey but after 96 hours of travel we had reached our destination and the real adventure could finally begin.  I stepped out on to the metal stairway connecting the exit door of the plane to the airport tarmac.  The cool Kathmandu air was a refreshing change from the damp, sweltering heat of summer in Thailand.   I eagerly made my way through the airport, collected a visa stamp from customs and some Nepalese rupees from the currency exchange counter, and started to search for a taxi. 
I should’ve known that I wouldn’t have to look very hard.   My three friends and I were immediately swallowed by a crowd of competing cabbies.  Cab drivers in Asia never cease to amaze me (especially at airports), but this was by far the most aggressive group I’ve ever come across.  Usually I have to haggle for a bit to get a good deal on the fare, but I didn’t even have to open my mouth this time because the driver’s kept elbowing each other out of the way and undercutting one another.  For some reason they thought by changing the currency they were offering a more appealing price.  

“Where are you going?  Thamel district?  800 rupees!  Ok?”
“Where you fly from?  Thailand?  300 baht!  Ok?”
“Oh, you’re American?  8 dollars!  Ok?”

For fear that a fistfight might break out in competition for our business, we decided to choose the driver with most teeth, push through the disappointed others, and pile into the compact, corroded, car he used as our transport.  As an evil spring poking through my seat stabbed me in the back with every jerk and turn of the cab, I stared out the window at another new city. 
Kathmandu canal filled with trash.
The typical chaos of an undeveloped country filled the streets around us.  Honking horns and barking dogs.  The smell of burning.  Street-food vendors setting up for the evening rush.  Rivers of trash, literally.  Swarms of people making their way through the grind of another day.  Every new place I visit, it’s always different but it’s always the same and it’s always exciting.
We arrived in Thamel, untangled ourselves from our luggage, and happily stepped out of the tiny taxi.  Thamel is the area of Kathmandu popular for tourists and backpackers and is full of guesthouses, hotels, restaurants, bars, and shops.  The four of us made our way through the congested streets taking in the new environment surrounding us. 
One of the first things I noticed was the heavy Indian influence in everything: the architecture, the attire, the accents, and the people in general.   I’ve been able to travel pretty extensively over the past year and a half: Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia, Cambodia.  Though all of these countries are unique, they are all distinctly south east Asian.  It was exciting and refreshing to be in an entirely new place, completely different from anywhere I’ve ever been before. 
Tired and eager to put down our backpacks, Peak Mountain Guesthouse, a minimal but cheap accommodation option, turned out to be where we would stay for the night.  We dropped our bags in the rooms, sampled the local cuisine, and Mike and I enjoyed our first bottle of Everest beer.  After that, we walked up and down the streets scouting stores for the trekking gear we’d need to purchase for the upcoming two-week climb to Everest base camp, the reason we’d come to Nepal in the first place.  But the shopping could wait until tomorrow. 
Brittany and Leanne retired to the rooms while Mike and I grabbed some more beers and found our way to the rooftop of our hotel.  The sun had just retreated behind the mountains in the distance and the darkness of our first night in Nepal began to creep in.  The guesthouse sat on top of a hill and was tall, giving us a widespread view of the city below.  We appreciated the fact that we’d made it to Kathmandu as we drank our beer, watched the people in the streets below, and looked out at the silhouettes of the neighboring buildings.  Windows lit up one by one across the cityscape as people illuminated their homes and businesses for the evening.  A light rain began and for seconds at a time lightning would fill the sky as if someone turned on a giant black light over the city, then quickly turned it back off.  We sat there, beer in hand, as Kathmandu was momentarily frozen in electric purple.  It was better than TV, but with the frigid air of the Nepali night biting at us, we decided to call it a night.

Over the next two days, we all woke early to hit the trekking shops and run errands to prepare for the upcoming trek.  If you need anything hiking or trekking related, Kathmandu has it.  Most things are knockoffs, but of excellent quality and available at only a fraction of the price that it would be back home.  After looking around and negotiating with several shop owners to get good deals, I’d purchased everything I would need for the next two weeks in the Himalayas.  Check it…

(If the sound cuts out at the end, I'm just say that I bought everything for UNDER $120 USD, TOTAL!)

We booked our flights from Kathmandu to Lukla ($275 USD roundtrip), where we’d be starting the trek.  Then, with Leanne as our trusted guide and navigator, we gave ourselves an unintentional (but interesting) walking tour of the city outside of Thamel while we tried to find our way to the Tourism Authority to acquire our TIMS cards (mandatory registration permits required for trekking in Nepal- $20 USD).
After two nights in Peak Mountain we decided to try some place new.  The staff had been friendly but the place was dirty, the water barely ran and was cold, and just next door there was a late night spot where clinking bottles and howling drunks made it difficult to fall asleep. 
Traveler's Home Guesthouse- Kathmandu, Nepal
Luckily, from her prior travels, Brittany knew of a friend of a friend- a Spanish guy our age named Toni- that had recently opened a guesthouse nearby.  We checked in to Traveler’s Home Guesthouse on our third day it Kathmandu.  I’ve stayed in hostels and guesthouse all over Asia and Traveler’s Home is by far one of the best.  The staff is friendly and the rooms are new and clean.  There’s a hot shower, garden with tables and hammocks, rooftop porch, a bar, and a kitchen where “Mama” (Toni’s mother) cooks delicious Spanish and Italian food alongside local Nepali and Indian dishes.  Best of all it was less than $5 USD/ night.  If you’re in Kathmandu, stay here.  [OK, that’s my plug…] 

With time to kill, we spent our last afternoon walking the streets of the city, dodging rouge rickshaws, denying beggars, and making our way to historic Durbar Square.  This was a great opportunity to see the real Kathmandu outside of touristy Thamel.  I wasn’t too happy about paying the 750 rupees (about $9 USD) for admission, but it turned out to be worth it.  Durbar Square was bustling when we arrived.  The age-old architecture was an interesting marriage of Oriental and Indian influence like so many other aspects of the culture in Nepal.

Me, rallying with the crowd... "Power to the People!"
Noticing a mass of people and dozens of heavily armed policemen, we made our way over to a huge crowd where thousands of locals were attentively listening to a speech.  It turned out to be the country’s Prime Minister that was speaking and he was addressing the recent changes in their newly found democratic government (Nepal has struggled with a corrupt and derelict political system for centuries).  This was an historical speech and we just happened upon it… pretty cool experience.  We made one more quick stop to see the “Virgin Princess” (or something like that) stick her head out a window for a few seconds (this, for some reason, is a big draw each evening), then went back to Traveler’s Home.

Back at the room, I was excited as I crammed my new gear in my new pack and prepared for the epic adventure that I would set out upon early the next morning.  There’s only one way to spend your last night before being thrown into the mountains for two weeks and that’s eating good food and drinking tall beers… maybe too many tall beers.  And with that I stumbled to bed a few hours later to grab some much needed and deserved sleep.  Although I thought I knew what was in store for the upcoming weeks, I had no idea.

Durbar Square