On March 14th we fly from Delhi to Kathmandu. The flight starts an hour late because of bad weather in Kathmandu.
An hour and a half later the airplane is flying over the mountains surrounding Kathmandu valley, home to two and a half million people. There are houses on mountain sides and even on mountain tops. From the airplane they look like trailer homes perhaps because their roofs are made of tin sheets, a material easier to carry up the mountain trails, the only access to the houses.
Soon the airplane is approaching Kathmandu. Paved roads with light traffic begin to appear. Clusters of buildings, mostly three or four storied, come into view. Even from the airplane the city appears dusty.
The plane lands in Tribhuvan International Airport, Kathmandu. While we wait for the airplane door to open, workers wearing yellow, reflective safety vests approach the airplane. A security officer, wearing a black jacket and a red tie, is already stationed near the airplane. Unbidden, the workers go to the officer. With a distant look in his eyes, the officer goes through the motions of a pat down. Then the workers go to their duty stations.
The airplane door opens. Ancient, dusty, buses in faded brick-red color are waiting for us on the tarmac. We board a bus, which becomes full with not even standing room. The bus is driven off with the doors wide open.
The sign “Welcome to the Land of Buddha”greets us at the terminal entrance. Gautama Buddha was born as Siddhartha Gautama in the sixth century BCE in Lumbini, a place not far from here (186 miles or 300 km to the south-west).
The airport reminds me of old Indian airports, from more than fifteen years ago. There are signs of modernity like the touch screen computers available for filling out visa-on-arrival forms. The immigration staff is friendly and fast. Rahul and I obtain our visas, pick up our baggage, and leave the terminal without delay. We carry our baggage on a cart, and porters do not bother us as I had read somewhere.
We step outside the terminal. Across the street, behind a railing, cab drivers and guides are waiting with name boards in their hands. We cross the street and check for our names. Our trek operator, Madhav Pandey, had emailed me that someone will be waiting for us at the airport with name boards, reconfirming this even last week. We don’t find anyone waiting to receive us. This is unlike the Madhav Pandey that I came to know through my email correspondence with him. He had always been prompt in replying to emails, even on weekends.
The promptness was part of the reason I had selected his company from a list of thirty-four I had created from the Internet and the Lonely Planet guide Trekking in the Nepal Himalaya. I had shortlisted four companies from that list and written to them five months ago. My emails included this question: “I am 61 and in good health. I have been practicing 10-mile non-stop walks on a trail, wearing trekking shoes and backpack, about once a week, for the last one year. But do not have any trekking experience. Do you think I can do the trek?” I didn’t expect that anyone could give me a definitive answer, but wanted to spare them any surprise. No one directly answered that question, except Madhav, who replied: “No problem, i can give you guaranteed that you could success your trip without any problem.” I had sensed that perhaps he was less established and was eager for the business. Nevertheless, I was encouraged by his optimism. Also, I took note that he always answered every one of my questions, in detail, which I liked. I found that Madhav’s company had good comments and ratings on Tripadvisor. I liked the way his website described the office cleaner: “Brings the sunshine to the office”. So I decided to book our trek with him.
We wait at the arrivals area. Tourists find their hosts. They are garlanded, sometimes hugged, and escorted to waiting cars. Soon we are the only tourists left at the arrivals area. A couple of drivers or guides are still waiting with the name boards, no longer held upright. Taxi drivers inquire:
Sir, Taxi?… Hotel?
No, thanks. We are waiting for our host.
I look around for a public telephone to call Madhav. But none can be found. I wonder whether my cell phone from India will work here in Nepal. I dial one of Madhav’s numbers and get a message in Nepali. Perhaps I didn’t dial the number correctly or the phone is busy. Nonetheless, I am happy that the cell phone is working. I try a second number with no success. I dial a third number, which appears to be a cell phone number. The phone rings on the other end and is answered. Relieved, I ask:
Mr. Madhav Pandey?
I am Madhava Syamlal. My son and I are waiting at Kathmandu airport.
You were supposed to pick us up. We have booked a trekking trip with you.
Sir, may I know your name.
I repeat my name. There is brief silence and a moment of recognition.
Sir, you are calling from Delhi, right?
No, I am at Kathmandu airport.
Oh, my god…I am sorry. I was expecting you in the evening. I will be there soon.
He keeps the phone down.
A police officer comes to us and asks us to leave the arrivals area. A wiry man in denim trousers and a shabby, light jacket approaches us and points out a place where we could wait. We move over there. The man is restless and watchful. He hangs around us. After some time he introduces himself as Bans. He offers his cell phone to us, telling us to make a call at no cost. I tell him that I have already contacted my host. Perhaps he is well-meaning. But I am wary of him, not knowing his motive and his role at the airport: taxi driver, hotel agent? A half hour passes. Madhav calls back and tells me that he is on his way.
Another half hour passes. A man jumps out of a moving car (it seems), comes running toward me, shakes my hand and hugs me without an introduction. I immediately recognize him as Madhav. He looks younger than the photo posted on his company website. He is genuinely sorry for the misunderstanding. It’s his first mistake in thirteen years, he tells me.
He pushes the luggage cart toward the taxi and opens the trunk. The trunk looks like mud. The driver opens the door for us. The deflated seat cushions look like mud. Looks like Madhav hired the taxi in a hurry.
On the way to the hotel, I can read the billboards and names of official buildings by the roadside because they are written either in English or Devanagari or both. This makes the city less disorienting for me, unlike a place like Beijing. On the road, there are many Maruti’s, cars made in India. The city vaguely reminds me of Benares, which is about 300 miles to the south, in India, where I had gone to school many years ago. However, Katmandu is cleaner, and there are no beggars, cows or cycle rickshaws on the streets. Perhaps the similarities are in the dust, building styles or the profusion of electric wires hanging from the poles by the sides of the roads. Unlike Benares many people are wearing dust masks.
Twenty minutes later we reach Hotel Royal singi. We check in and go to our room to freshen up. Madhav waits for us in the lobby. We join him soon and sit down to talk.
Madhav started out as a trekking porter. Then he became a trekking guide. He started the trekking business thirteen years ago. He and his family live in Kathmandu. He has a seven-year old daughter, whom he had named Sophie. But she got her name changed to Ayra when she became older.
Soon our guide Angngima Sherpa joins us, young, smiling, with a hint of rosy cheeks, attesting his robust health. He has been with Madhav’s company from the beginning.
Madhav invites us to lunch. We head out of the hotel and walk, Madhav and Ngima in the front, Rahul and I behind. We go west on Teendhara Marg and north on the broad Durbar Marg lined with posh shops and cafes. We head west on Narayanhiti Path. I do not understand the meaning of this , unlike most other street names. I wonder what “hiti” means, but know that Narayan is one of the Hindu trinity and Path (not the english word path) means boulevard. Later I learn that “hiti” means “waterspout.” The street name comes from the fact that there is a waterspout close to a Narayan temple located here, near what used to be the Nepal palace. The palace is now a museum. On the other side of Narayanhiti Path is the heavily guarded American Embassy.
We cross busy streets using a technique, also popular in India. When you find a slight opening in the heavy traffic, take your chance and cross the road. The traffic will ever so slightly slow down or alter course to let you through. For extra protection you may hold your up turned palm toward the traffic as if to block it. But hurry, or the screaming traffic will engulf you, leaving you standing with traffic both in front and back.
We go further west on Tridevi Sadak and reach Thamel, the busy shopping district, catering to tourists. Soon we reach Yangling Tibetan restaurant, a well-known but unpretentious restaurant. I order Chilli chicken momos and coke. The momos, Tibetan steamed dumplings, are spicy and delicious.
I ask Madhav whether the earthquake last year affected the Trekking business. He tells me that two disasters hit Nepal last year. One was the earth quake in April 2015. The other was India’s blockade of fuel supply to Nepal, in September 2015.
I had read about the blockade, but did not appreciate its severe impact on tourism, which apparently decreased by 40% (Wikipedia), a big loss for a country whose primary source of revenue is tourism. Nepal imports all of its petroleum supplies from India, brought in by roughly 300 trucks a day. The blockade reduced that to less than ten trucks a day. The government of Nepal accused India of an undeclared blockade. India denied responsibility, stating that the trucks could not enter Nepal because of an agitation in the India-Nepal border region by the local Madhesis.
After lunch we go to the store Outdoor Clothing & Gears. We rent sleeping bags rated -10 oC at the rate of $1 per bag per day. No deposit is required perhaps because of Madhav is with us. We also buy fleece liners for the sleeping bags.
We come back to the hotel and discuss the plans for tomorrow with Madhav and Ngima. The flight is at 6:15 am; we should leave the hotel at 5:00 am. Madhav and Ngima take leave.
We go to our room and pack our duffel bags for the trek, keeping the rest of our stuff in a bag that will be left at the hotel. We plan to go out for dinner in the evening. But as we get ready to leave the hotel a severe thunderstorm rages outside. We opt for the restaurant at the hotel.
We are excited about the trek that will start tomorrow.
Kathmandu Elevation = 4,593′ (1,400 m)
|No of steps||Miles walked||Calories burned||Floors climbed|