Sunday, November 6, 2011

We Fly from Bhutan and Flee from Kathmandu

Mt. Everest
We left pristine Bhutan on a sunny, clear day and flew west following the range of Himalayan mountains. For about 15 minutes, we stared in awe out the windows of the plane at the majestic Mt. Everest and its sister peaks, the highest in the world, as the pilot listed off their names. So many passengers on the left side of the plane rushed out of their seats to my side to see Everest that I thought the plane was going to tip over.

The odd thing about Mt. Everest is that because the other big ones were all snow covered and it wasn’t completely, Everest looked shorter. Another passenger noted that Mt. Everest doesn’t have as much snow cover as in the past and suggested it might be because of climate change.

One of Everest's Sisters
At any rate, we were about to experience the effects of climate change ourselves as we started our descent into Kathmandu, capital of Nepal, our next destination. We had just left pristine, unpolluted, undeveloped Bhutan and were about to descend into a polluted, chaotic hell.

But we had been forewarned. So, our plan was to land at Kathmandu, switch to the domestic air terminal and immediately catch a flight to Pokhara, a smaller town closer to the Annapurna range of mountains, and do some trekking. Everyone we had spoken to about Nepal had advised us to get out of Kathmandu as soon as possible. Their advice was spot on.

Shortly after landing, we were swept up in a nightmare of Nepalese bureaucracy. Lining up at airports for customs and immigration is something we are quite used to, given the 50 plus flights we take in a travel year. We have even had bad experiences in other countries with surprise visa applications and fees. But we have never seen anything like the chaotic, surreal, disaster that calls itself the Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu. It looked like a modern, relatively new building on the outside, but it was chaos inside. The Manila airport has been voted the worst in the world, but I would rank this one right up there.

Usually when you enter a country by plane, you fill out a form that the flight attendants hand you and that’s that. Sometimes, you have to pay a visa fee in cash. We’ve been caught before without enough cash, so now we bring enough US funds to handle surprise visa fees.

But Nepal turned out to be different. “Customs” was several lines for “Visa” applications. Two lines were for Nepalese citizens, one line was for “Diplomatic and Special Visas”, one short line was for those already holding a visa, and two long lines were for those applying for a visa. These two lines reached the back wall of the terminal as two flights had just arrived and disgorged hundreds of passengers, all of whom needed to apply for a surprise entry visa.

No signs, announcements or officials gave any advice on where to go or what to do. For some reason, Canadians cannot apply online for a Nepal visa. Added to that is the fact that some visas have time limits and can expire before we actually plan to visit a country on our seven-month journey. So we did not have an entry visa.

Forms were scattered about on a central stand, which luckily happened to be where we were in the long line or we would have missed them. A woman was going around with a stapler, which we thought was curious until we looked more closely at the form and noticed that the form required a passport photo to be attached for the visa. That’s when we saw people lining up at a “Photo” booth at the back of the hall. Again, experience has taught us to carry extra passport photos and we fortunately had one with us.

A regular traveler and tour leader we had met in Bhutan, happened to be in front of us in the line. He and his whole group from England had to re-apply for visas after their trekking in Bhutan. We explained to him that we had a flight to catch from the domestic terminal in two hours and were afraid we might miss it. He said the line up would take at least two hours and suggested that we pretend we were Americans and just butt in at the front and tell them we had to catch a flight.

That’s not our normal style, so instead I grabbed the lady with the stapler and told her our dilemma. In broken English, she said “Passport, money!” The fee was $25 for 15 days, $40 for 30 days, and $100 for 100 days. Since we were already getting a bad feeling about Nepal, we quickly changed our forms from 20 days to 15 and handed her our US money and passports. I was half afraid that she was going to take the money and disappear, but she signaled for us to follow her and led us to the “Diplomatic” line, which had only five people in it as opposed to the hundreds at the regular line.

She then left us and we stood there, fearing that, once we reached the “diplomatic” bureaucrat at the counter, we would simply be sent back to the end of the regular line to start all over again. Even with only five people in front of us, it still took almost an hour to get through. The official eyed our paperwork and passports, said the word “Diplomat” to another official, kept staring at our paperwork and yelling something in Nepalese to other officials, who just ignored him. We just kept repeating that we had a flight to catch in two hours and showed him our e-ticket.

Finally he indicated to follow him to the counter at the front of the regular line and went from one agent to another while we stood there like idiots under the scornful glare of all the people we had just jumped in front of.

Eventually, another agent came over took our papers and carried them to another counter where someone put them in a pile. Someone else took them to a third agent who shuffled them, pulled out our passports, looked at our faces, stamped our passports and handed them back without saying a word. After an hour we were ready to dash off, while others in the line had been waiting for three hours we later learned.

This was all quite a shock to us. Tourism is huge in Nepal. Someone said Nepal has three religions, Hinduism, Buddhism and “Tourism.” It is a big part of their economy. For a quick comparison, we learned that Bhutan has about 40,000 tourists per year and possibly 900 trekking groups per year. Nepal has ten times that number of tourists and 900 trekking groups per day. But that all seems lost on the bureaucrats who run the airport.

The walk to the domestic terminal was about 10 minutes away along a sidewalk and then up a small dirt hill, where we had to abandon our cart and pull up our wheeled luggage. We found the domestic terminal in even worse shape than the international one. It was crowded, dark and had almost no legible signage.

Our first clue of a problem should have been the large number of people sitting and lying on the floor amidst piles of suitcases. But we were in a hurry to catch our flight so we just stepped over them.

Checking in was a breeze and I was confident that we had time to spare. We went through security, where I got a thorough and all too friendly pat down, and entered another chaotic scene. In one common boarding room, were hundreds of people waiting for several different flights.

Above the din, a boarding agent occasionally shouted out boarding calls in Nepalese, which we couldn’t understand. But at some point just before we were to board, someone said all flights to Pokhara were cancelled. That was why all the people were sitting on the floor at the check-in counter. All flights had been cancelled for two days.

Rather than wait for a later flight, I grabbed our bags from behind the check-in counter (security, what’s that?) and we immediately hired a cab to take us to a hotel downtown. But now we were stuck in a dirty, polluted city that we hadn’t wanted to visit in the first place. Our lungs that we had purified in Bhutan’s pristine mountain air were going to suffer.

Downtown Kathmandu
If we thought the airport was chaotic, it was nothing compared to the insane, hair-raising ride through Kathmandu’s crowded, pollution choked streets. It took almost two hours to travel barely six kilometres, with buses spewing out dense clouds of diesel exhaust, small beat-up cars turning two lanes into four, and motorcycles buzzing around on all sides of our taxi like angry hornets threatening to spear our car.

It was even worse than in Hanoi with its thousands of bikes because here there weren’t just motorcycles but also big trucks and buses. It was so crowded and congested that I was amazed that we didn’t hit a bus, car or truck. But at one point a bicycle actually hit us.

Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind
Carolann had wisely asked someone at the tourist counter in the terminal to write down the name of our hotel and its address in Nepalese so that the driver would know where to go. It was a good idea, but two things went wrong. The driver couldn’t find the hotel – not surprising in a city of over one million with a population density of 19,500 per km². Compare that to Toronto with its population density of 3,972 per km².

After driving around in circles for over an hour, I hopped out of the cab and ran in to a small Internet shop, quickly looked up the address for the hotel, had the attendant call them and handed the phone to the cab driver. It all took about 5 minutes and we learned that the airport tourism official had given us the address for the “Valley Inn” and we were looking for the “Sacred Valley Inn.” It seems like a small difference, but it took us another hour to navigate through the clogged narrow streets, choking with pollution to find our hotel, which, unfortunately had no rooms left because of all the cancelled flights.

But the Sacred Valley Inn was the hotel that had made all of our flight bookings from Kathmandu to Pokhara and had booked us in at their sister hotel in that town. So we knew we could get help there. And, in fact, they went out of their way to find us a nearby hotel for the night and re-book our flight for the next day.

The next morning, however, the unusual weather conditions that had shut down flights across the country and caused such chaos at the airport continued. Rather than risk the death-defying ride back out to the airport and the ensuing hassles at the crowded terminal with no guarantee that the flights would even resume, we opted to hire a car and driver from the hotel. The ride would take five hours and we calculated that the trip by plane, if it even happened, would take about four if we included the taxi ride, wait time at the airport, flight and ride to hotel at the other end.

Wild Flowers on Road to Pokhara
So off we go again on another adventure through the insane traffic of Kathmandu and out onto an even more hair-raising ride down a jammed highway through the wilds of Nepal playing chicken with trucks, buses and kamikaze motorcyclists. But, believe me, that is far better than staying in Kathmandu for another night.

Wow, isn’t travel fun!


bigginsfish said...

Dear Dan,

So much for my romantic, colourful, exotic delusions of Kathmandu....With a name like that one expects something quite different. Thanks for your reality check.

Love your stories, miss you.


David and Maya Trost said...

My question after reading the last two posts from Dan and Carolann is, "Do you travel for enjoyment?"

Nevertheless it is heartening to see that as a seasoned team you were able to overcome spectacular challenges.

David and Maya Trost said...

Congratulations on your hasty escape from Kathmandu.