It's pretty easy to get to Nepal from Singapore. Silk Air, which is part of Singapore Airlines, has a direct flight to Kathmandu that is a little over four hours. Just a puddle jumper compared to some of the flights that we have to take. I was on the wrong side of the plane as we descended into the Kathmandu Valley so I couldn't see the Himalaya. But even the foothills are steep, green mountains several thousand feet higher than the city. So it was as exciting as I remembered the last time that I had landed in Kathmandu.
The airport dampens that enthusiasm a bit. I remembered it from my last visit as well - as an old, dumpy brick building. It looked like nothing had changed since my last visit either. But thanks to having my visa in hand I was through quickly, got my bags, and headed out to brave all of the porters who wanted to help me with my luggage. There were a number of people there to meet tourists but I did not see the "Welcome Mr. Steve" sign I was looking for. Oh, oh. While fighting off all the porters trying to help me with my stuff I looked around carefully and saw one guy way across the street holding a sign that was partially blocked and that I could not read. Well, as Sherlock Holmes said, when you eliminate the impossible the unlikely must be true. So I was hoping that was my guy. I headed across the street which was a risky move. Moving towards people was almost as bad as making eye contact. But I didn't let anyone grab my bags. I had no nepali money yet and I did not want a scene when I couldn't tip someone. And the hidden sign did turn out to have my name on it. Whew!
We jumped in a car and were off. First we went to Hiunchuli Treks, the company that organized my trek. There I met the owner, Mr. Tenzing Sherpa. He turned out to be quite an interesting fellow. About my age, he had been born in Namche Bazaar, the main village in the Khumbu region (near Everest) that is home to the famous Sherpa people. He had been fortunate to get a good education, which he said was unusual for his generation. In fact he has lived in the US, and still travels quite extensively. He works closely with travel agencies in Singapore and Malaysia and says that he visits Singapore probably once a year. His english was excellent, in fact I thought he spounded more like a native speaker (with an American accent at that) than someone who learned english as a second language. He had worked his way up through the trekking business and is now pretty successful. He has two sons who work in the business with him. Both of them went to school in the US and spoke excellent english as well (one of them had picked me up at the airport). And Tenzing had that easy going, easy to talk to personality where five minutes after you met him you were talking like old pals. Definitely an asset for him in his buisiness. He gave me a good overview of the route of the trek. We also talked about equipment and the routine for the trek. Then he gave me a ride to my hotel.
I stayed at the Kathmandu Guest House. It is exactly in the center of Thamel, the tourist district of Kathmandu. Neither the best nor the worst hotel, it was a good compromise. It was clean and reasonably priced with a good location. But it certainly wasn't deluxe by any stretch of the imagination. But it was adequate. I'll talk more about Kathmandu in a later post. For now I will say that I spent a few hours walking around Thamel scouting things out. I would have two full days in Kathmandu after the trek. Then I ate a pizza for dinner at the hotel. I made sure my bags were packed. I had my main duffle bag which I was taking on the trek. And I had a gym bag that had some extra clothes for when I came back to Kathmandu. I left that bag at the hotel and got a luggage tag so I could pick it up when I returned (which wasn't as simple as I thought it would be). And that night I got to enjoy a private bathroom and shower for the last time for the next two weeks.
The next morning I came down to the lobby and was surprised to see the final presidential debate on television. Even here I couldn't get away from the election! A lot of people were gathered in the lobby watching it too. There was incredible interest from people from all around the world. I didn't watch but went right to breakfast and then met Tenzing at 9 am. He took me to the airport for my flight to Pokhara.
Pokhara is a city in central Nepal about 120 miles from Kathmandu. It is a significant tourist destination as it is the departure point for treks into the Dhaulagiri, Manaslu and Annapurna ranges. Now I had to figure out how to get on my flight to Pokhara. The domestic terminal in Kathmandu consists of one large room. There is a single television monitor that lists all the local flights for the day. These are all twin turboprops that take people to various small cities or mountain airstrips so there are a lot of flights. And there was only one gate that you went through to get on a bus that actually took you to your aircraft. Every ten minutes or so someone would come through the door and yell something that was totally unintelligible. I suspect it was a flight number and destination. Then people would go through the door and get on the bus. Since I couldn't understand what they said I would turn to a group of Americans (I spotted them by the Obama buttons they were wearing) and ask if they knew what flight they had just called. They could never understand them either. So my solution was to just line up for every flight and present my ticket. I got turned away about five or six times but then they finally let me through. Once I got on the bus I compared tickets with a few people and they were all were booked on the same flight that I was. So I figured that I was going to the right place.
Since the flight had open seating Tenzing had given me the friendly hint that I should sit on the right side of the airplane to have a good view of the Himalaya as we flew to Pokhara. Unfortunately, every single traveler had been given the same hint by someone. As soon as the doors of the bus opened there was a nasty stampede for the airplane. Although I had been all set for an impressive scenic flight, I decided to preserve my dignity, and possibly my health, by staying back from the pushing and shoving to be first on the plane. I figured that I had two weeks to see the mountains up close and personal. The good news was that the airplane looked modern and well maintained. I wasn't sure what to expect from Yeti Airlines.
The flight was a short half hour and then we were descending into the Pokhara Valley. As the plane descends it is a little strange because you can't see an airport ahead. Then when you're at about 200-300 feet the pilot makes a SHARP 180 degree turn and sets down on the end of the runway. Not an airport that you would want to fly into in bad weather. But we had a bright sunny day and landed without incident.
Even while the plane was taxiing there was a spectacular view of the Annapurna Range beyond the city. We walked into the terminal which was the smallest airport building I have ever been in - and I have been to some pretty remote places. It was about the size of a two car garage. There was a counter about eight feet long - that was the baggage claim. They backed up a cart with the bags and set the luggage down on the counter. With twenty plus people all trying to get their luggage at the same time it was like a repeat of the stampede for the plane in Kathmandu. But finally I got my bag and got out of the building.
Here there were only a few people waiting. I was to meet my guide, Mr. Sambhu Tamang. Tenzing had given me a large Hiunchuli Treks duffle bag to put my duffle in. That was how Sambhu was going to spot me and he found me right away. He grabbed the duffle, threw it in a car and we were off. We had a short drive through Pokhara and then were heading directly for the mountains. It took us about an hour and a half to reach the town of Nayapul. And that was where, about noon, we started the trek.