Kath-man-du!

Coming to Kathmandu from Delhi was definitely the perfect training. We both commented on how starting in India would definitely be challenging, but would likely make most other places we visited seem straight forward and relaxed. So far, that has definitely held true.

While definitely similar to India in many ways, we’ve found Kathmandu to have many of the charms with less of the hassle (including honking), or perhaps we’ve just become a little more hardened by this point.

In typical tourist fashion, we decided to stay in the Thamel neighbourhood, which is 100% geared towards tourists, and is a Mecca for backpackers, hippies, and anyone looking to gear up before heading out trekking. We stayed towards the fringes of the neighbourhood to help avoid some of the more overly touristy activity as well as the higher prices. We took 1 week to gear up before flying to Lukla to start our 3 weeks of trekking in the Khumbu region, home to Mount Everest.

We knew we needed down sleeping bags and jackets, as well as gloves, a map, and an assortment of smaller items. Thamel is loaded with shops offering multitudes of knock-off products at varying prices, as well as a few name brand store of the larger outdoor companies. Step one was to do a bit of internet research to try and weed through the endless gear stores to find the ones with better quality knock-offs, more reasonable prices, or a combination of both. After sifting through hundreds of reviews, we created a short list, and spent an afternoon field-testing our research. We visited about 15 different shops, assessing the quality of the gear, trying to determine what their price ranges were (everything is negotiable – and the first price they offer is usually about 60% above where you’ll end up), and trying to determine which places have the most items that match our needs so we can bundle multiple things together to help bring the overall price down.

Once we completed that process, we’d narrowed things down to a couple of shops, and decided to swing by the name brand stores, just to check them out. While most were priced pretty similar to things back home, we did find that way up on the 3rd floor of the Marmot store, tucked back in the corner, was a 50% off section, that just so happened to have a bright red down jacket that fit Janan perfectly, at only ~$50 CDN. I knew that my happiness on the next leg of our trip was largely going to be dependent upon Janan’s level of warmth, so getting a name brand, guaranteed quality item, at what was essentially the same price we were finding for knock-offs was a guaranteed winner in my books. Luckily she felt the same!

The next day we returned to one of the shops with the better quality knock-offs, bundled together 2 down sleeping bags, with a down jacket for myself, and some trekking poles, and after a little negotiation came to a price that everyone was happy with. A few more stops for smaller items and we were good to go!

Now all we had to do was sort out our flight to Lukla. A visit to a local NGO that supports porters in the mountain regions had informed us that the Kathmandu airport was closed every night from 10pm to 8am for much needed runway maintenance. As most of the flights to Lukla left early in the morning to try and get ahead of any weather building in the mountains, this added an additional level of complication. Most people were taking overnight taxis to smaller airports further afield to try and get around this issue and up into the mountains first thing each morning.

We decided to inquire at our hotel about options. The owner was only too happy to help and began making a multitude of phone calls to explore our options. We could take a helicopter there for only $900 (as much as I’ve always wanted to fly in a helicopter, this was just far to expensive – although almost guaranteed to go regardless of weather). He offered the usual overnight taxi to smaller airports the next day. Finally, he also mentioned that he, “had a friend who was a pilot” and would inquire about flights out of Kathmandu. His friend could get us on a flight out of Kathmandu at 9:30. The price and the simplicity of this option made it the most ideal. We opted to put our trust, reluctantly, in his friend, and decided to book for 2 days out.

Although repeatedly verbally assured that we were good to go, we hadn’t received a confirmation number, or any written record supporting our booking whatsoever for that matter, which naturally was adding to my uncertainty. Finally, the nigh before the flight, we were handed what looked like a twice photocopied slip of paper showing both of our names and some flight details for a 9:00am departure the next morning, and were told to be downstairs for 6:30am, which seemed a bit early, but we knew traffic could be bad here, so we didn’t really question it.

The next morning we came down at 6:30 on the dot and headed for the airport. Arriving into the domestic departures hall was rather interesting. There was a small kiosk for our airline with a Lukla sign on it, so naturally we approached. We were quickly told that this was not in fact the check in counter for Lukla and were quickly instructed to climb over the bagge scale and head down a hallway behind the counter and what appear to be a ‘secured’ area of the airport. This lead by a second area with additional check-in counters which we made our way over to. Here we found another kiosk and were apparently in the correct location now. Our bag were weighed and given ‘security cleared’ tags, and we were handed generic boarding passes with a flight number written on them in permanent marker. We then proceeded towards some security guards and what appear to be a waiting area. After making it through the security check, we found masses of people waiting by 2 departure gates. No screens indicating what flights were leaving from which gate at which time, or really any indication whatsoever of what one was to do. We grabbed a quick bite to eat as we hadn’t had breakfast, and began trying to figure out what exactly our course of action would be.

After a little while of waiting, we heard someone announce the flight number that was written on our boarding passes. We figured we had better get up to the front to avoid missing our flight, were promptly sent through the departure gate and into a sea of buses. With some additional direction from a random Nepalese guy, we determined that we were suppossed to be on Bus #8, and so we made our way onto the bus, quickly joined by a few other groups. The bus soon departed for the plane, passing by a military installation and a number of helicopters. At this point in time it was about 07:45am, considerably earlier than the 09:00am departure time that was listed on the paper ‘ticket’ that we were given at the hotel. The bus pulled up to our plane, an 18 seater propeller plane and the pilot boarded asking for ‘Steven John’ – I threw my hand up and he indicated for me to get off the bus.

As it turns out, the hotel manager did indeed have a friend who was a pilot, and he would indeed be our pilot for this short journey. He asked me all kinds of questions about where we were from and what we were doing here in Nepal. I asked him questions about his plane, his experiences flying here in Nepal, and the airport that we were flying into in Lukla, which we kept hearing referred to as the world’s most dangerous. After a few minutes of banter back and forth, he indicated that I should board the plane, and made sure that I had the seat immediately behind the cockpit.

He left the curtain behind him open so I could see the cockpit and out through the windshield for the duration of the flight. This was hands down the most interesting flight I have ever been on, being able to follow along with the whole process. Once we were airborne and making our way to Lukla, the mountains quickly came into sight, and he made sure to point out Everest to me. It was a helluva view! Then I began to see the landing strip in Lukla come into sight and I could see why people kept referring to it as the world’s most dangerous. The airflield is located on a cliff, with a drop-off at the end of the strip when planes depart, and a few buildings and then the mountainside at the other end of the runway when the planes land.

As the plane came in to land the pilot quickly threw the props into reverese to slow the plane, and we arrived safely into Lukla.

So began our trek into the Khumbu regions and the heights of the Himalayas…

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