We’d been in Lukla two days more than we desired. Everyone in the lodge was crouched around a tiny log stove, bored shitless, freezing cold, trying to be hopeful and stay warm. When we first arrived back in Lukla on 26th January we were feeling rather pleased with ourselves. We had completed the EBC hike a day earlier than planned (13 days) factoring in the extra day in Namche Bazar at the beginning due to sickness, and again as a rest day at the end. Our sense of achievement was soon clouded by the thick mist and snow clouds that suffocated Lukla Airport. We were going nowhere just yet. There was nothing to do in Lukla either, at least not at this time of year. Allan, myself and Ali (a guy we’d met at Gorak Shep who was in the same predicament as us) had walked up and down the same Main Street hoping to find something enticing but we were unsuccessful. We had been waiting around so long that Rhys had caught up with us after his detour to Gokyo Ri and the Lakes. He joined our crew of people waiting to leave this place, in The Nest Lodge opposite the airport. Everyday the waiting list got bigger and bigger as people came down the mountain. We were growing more impatient by the day and concerned that the airlines would be able to deal with the backlog. Would we ever make it off this hill?
We had decided we couldn’t stand it any longer, we could not stay in Lukla another day longer. If the plane didn’t arrive today we would begin to walk to Salleri, a long tough two day hike south. Ali had no choice but to leave, he had a flight back to Birmingham in 2 days and the weather was forecast to deteriorate. At Salleri there was access to the road and a daily bus destined for Kathmandu. The whole lodge had been praying to every god and goddess under the sun (especially Green Tara who was located nearby on a hill) wishing for clear weather. After breakfast I went outside to see if there had been any improvement overnight and… It was a bit clearer! Not super clear but better than the previous day. At 6.30am we checked again and it was clearing, ever so slightly, but enough. The pilots only required 5km of visibility and they were ok to fly. This was hopeful.
Allan, Ali and Me decided to be optimistic and head over and wait in Lukla airport. Some of the other people at the lodge were talking about chartering a helicopter to Kathmandu, as they were able to take off in this weather. The costs quoted were between $1500 and $3500 for the whole helicopter (6 people for a 1 hour flight ). This was really and option for us though. The day was looking like it would clear up at some point, when, we could not tell but there were certainly a lot more staff here than three days ago and things looked like they were operating.
Hurray! At 7:30am we excitedly checked in our luggage. The news from Kathmandu was that flights were preparing for boarding. They were waiting on the mist clearing a little before take off. When a flight leaves Kathmandu the control tower in Lukla sounds a siren to alert passengers that a flight is coming. You have no idea how relieved and on a high we were. This was the closest we’d gotten to escaping our Groundhog Day experience of Lukla during winter. The three of us fantasised about a hot shower, a massage, a meal that wasn’t Daal Bhat, a clean set of clothes, a warm comfortable bed, being able to plug things in without being charged by the hour, free wi-fi and other things we would normally take for granted in everyday life. It was safe to say we were yearning for escape.
We waited and waited and waited. No planes landed. The excited energy that had once filled the frosty featureless departure lounge had long faded into worried murmurings and concerned faces. So much talk of helicopters. A huge group had came down the mountain yesterday, we were told they would take priority over those who had been waiting as their flight was booked for today. Money talks eh! These guys were all quite posh (British) and the company (who I won’t name) charge a lot of money for their ‘Everest Base Camp’ packaged hikes. They all had porters and a guide who accompanied them to the airport. Thankfully their guide had a contact in Kathmandu so we listened into him when he’d be briefing the group about progress.
It was now 11am and we were still waiting to find out whether a flight was coming for us or not. Kathmandu airport was now clear for take off so technically a flight should have left. Except now Lukla was too cloudy for landing. Lukla airport was closed again and the doubt cloud hungover out heads. Myself, Allan, Rhys, Ali, Piya (a Thai girl who had been staying in our lodge and had a connecting flight today) and Owen (a distinctive looking American guy who had also been staying in our lodge) were all feeling ignored by the airlines and doubtful a plane would arrive today. When all of a sudden a Nepalese guy came into the lounge and said a few things in Nepali to a monk who was sitting down. Then the guide told his group that Goma Air had cancelled their flight out of Kathmandu. Anyone local who was flying with Goma didn’t waste any time, they just left straight away. This was not good news! If Goma had cancelled then how long would it be before Tara and Sita cancelled? Unfortunately for Owen, his flight was Goma. It’s funny because when he came into our guesthouse he looked really familiar. When we found out he was a park ranger at the Grand Canyon we were certain we had seen him when visiting the canyon two years ago. Weird eh!
Anyway, we had left it too late in the day now to start walking to Salleri, we wouldn’t make it there today. Everybody in the airport was checking their insurance policies to see if they would be covered for a helicopter flight back to Kathmandu. We began to gather people who were interested in a helicopter flight, discussing prices and gearing ourselves up to approach the guy. Walking was no longer an option. The big group we discussing their options, all huddled together plotting. They’d not even been waiting a full day yet haha! Then, from air traffic control tower….the siren sounded. The whole departure lounge cheered! I’ve never felt such a dramatic change in atmosphere as I did at this moment. Everyone was so concerned and down. The minute that siren went off, wow, everyone was thrilled. Smiles spread across their faces, sighs of relief filled the air. Our group were all cheering and hugging each other. At least one aeroplane had left Kathmandu for Lukla and should arrive at about 12:30pm. This was brilliant news, but we didn’t know which airlines had left? Or how many planes had left?
It had been an emotional roller coaster for the past 6 hours of waiting in Lukla airport. We’d all bonded over the past few days being stuck in the lodge together, but this was another level. When Tara Air flight 1 landed we didn’t make it onto this flight because the big group had reserved all the seats. Tara Air flight 2 landed on the tiny misty runway. We were so elated to be leaving any thoughts about the safety of these flights were immediately cast away.
The ramshackle doors were opened by the Tara Air representative and we flashed our boarding passes whilst pushing our way to the plane. It wasn’t very organised, people were walking in no particular order. Allan walked ahead of me right to the front, standing next to a Korean couple who had been at the front when we were inside. The Korean guy wasn’t happy he’d skipped the queue and he said in an angry fashion “keep in rine!”. Allan thought he said “keep in right!”. The Indian guy behind us also thought he said “keep in right!” and was trying to defuse the situation and make sense of the statement to Allan. Meanwhile, the Korean guy continued to repeat “keep in rine, keep in rine!”. Allan didn’t listen to either statement and stood right next to the Korean guy and his wife. This agitated him even more. Eventually the Korean guy pushed Allan out of the way and people in the line began to “woooah!” At the site of this manhandling. Well, you can imagine the kerfuffle, it was quite embarrassing. Two grown men arguing over who was at the front of the line. It was like something from my last primary school! Everyone was keen to leave Lukla but there was no need for such fuss. Allan was telling the Korean guy that he was going to report him for assault in Kathmandu and he knew where he was staying, and all kinds of other threatening statements. The Korean guy stayed at the front of the line, but he was shaking in his boots a little bit. The irony of it is, when the plane began to let us board, the Korean guy and his wife didn’t even sit at the front haha. We sat in front of them in the front two seats, and the Korean guy attempted to make amends twice during the flight, by offering his hand and stuttering “ssss…sorry!”. I felt quite sorry for him at this point, and if it would have been me, I’d have accepted the apology but it wasn’t me, it was Allan. He didn’t accept! Haha.
We had been looking forward to seeing Harry the manager at Silverhome Guesthouse. Such a hospitable manager, at this point we really wanted someone to fuss over us and when we turned up on the door step we were warmly welcomed with a massive smile and an exaggerated “Namasteeeee”. We chatted for a while about our ordeal in Lukla and the joys of escaping Groundhog Day there. Harry sympathised and replied “aw, well you must be very tired and wanting to rest after such complications, I will show you to your room”. As tired as we were we didn’t want to waste anymore valuable time sleeping. There were sights to see and other trips to organise. There is no rest for the traveller on a timescale.
After a little rest we went off in the direction of Kathmandu, Durbar Square. We were quickly tested of our patience and ability to dodge uncourteous traffic in the narrow medieval streets. A variety of honkings surrounded us, which added to the hectic charm of the city. I think I liked it more than Allan at this moment in time. You really had to watch where you were walking and be aware all of the time in case a rickshaw sneaked up behind you. There was always a jam with different types of vehicles, stuck and wanting to pass through the crooked streets. The air was gritty and filled with fumes we’d not become accustom to being in the fresh Himalayan region for the majority of our stay in Nepal.
We bought our passes for Durbar Square and briefly wandered around, but Allan wasn’t too keen on taking any pictures because it was beginning to get a little bit dark. I couldn’t believe how much damage there had been to some of the major buildings in the square. They were propped up with long metal poles, looking very unsteady. It was a real shame. I recalled visiting the square back in 2007 and it was a bustling area with people selling fruit and vegetables in all of the flat open areas. Now it was like a market in China. All kinds of crappy clothes, plastic shoes and poorly made accessories. Hardly any local fresh produce in sight, and the square now allowed vehicles to pass through also. It was purely a pedestrianised area back in 2007.
We decided to return tomorrow after our big day of sightseeing. It had been a long 16 days of eating dhal baat, momos and spring rolls everyday and it costing a fortune too (by Nepalese standards). Tonight we dined at Fire and Ice Pizzaria for the second time in our trip. After telling everyone about the gorgeous pizzas here, during one of our food fantasy sessions, huddled around the stove in Lukla, we had an underlying urge to eat here again. It was better than the first time too, even the beer tasted good.
We had wasted three days being stuck in Lukla, which meant we had very little time to see the rest of Nepal. It wasn’t quite how we’d planned our last week in Nepal, rushing around ticking off sights however, it is what it is, and we had to make the most of this time.
Yesterday we had organised for a driver to collect us at 10:30am and take us on a little tour around Kathmandu valley, visiting places a little further afield such as Bodhnath (Boudha) stupa, Pashupatnath and then the ancient city of Bhaktapur. I’d visited all of these places before in 2007 so it would be interesting to see how I connected with them upon my return.
When our driver arrived we briefly said “Namaste” and then hopped into his minivan. Our first stop was Asia’s largest stupa Bodhnath. Built shortly after 600AD when the Tibetan King Songsten Gampo converted to Buddhism. If you had read my Tibetan posts you might recall that Songsten Gampo had two princesses, one Chinese and one Nepali, keeping relations with both countries (and Tibet) peaceful. Legend says that Gampo built the stupa as penance for killing his father. Stupas are generally built to house relics, and this particular stupa supposedly has a piece of bone from the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Guatama. Now, in the guide book it said that the Stupa had a “lucky escape” in the 2015 earthquake, so I was quite shocked to see the massive gold spire missing. It was quite damaged! More than I’d imagined, still it was heartwarming to see the Nepalese workers busy repairing sections and re-plastering the main wall too. It was a credit to the people of Nepal, they just picked up the pieces and put them back together. No complaining, just getting on with it!
Anyways, a guy pointed us to the ticket booth where we paid 250 rupees each to walk around the stupa and see the neighbouring monasteries. We were swept around the monument clockwise with the steady flow of chanting pilgrims. The guy who had showed us where the ticket booth was located was following us though, what does he want? I hope he doesn’t think we want him to be our guide. Every person wanted to be our guide in Kathmandu, and it was a little frustrating being asked all the time. He was still following us. I walked all the way around the stupa (Allan stayed at the front to take photos), by the time I returned he was still there standing behind Allan. Then it dawned on me….that he was our driver. Both of us had been in a little world of our own this morning when he picked us up, that we couldn’t place his face. We’d not looked at him properly. Scary! I suddenly recognised his maroon UPVC bomber jacket though, hence triggering my memory. Phew!
Next stop Pashupatnath, Nepal’s most important Hindu temple. Built in 1696 on the banks of the holy Bagmati River. Surrounded by lively markets selling all kinds of handicrafts from beads to statues of Hindu deities and replicas of Mt. Meru (thought to be the centre of the universe). In other areas of Nepal Hindus would worship Shiva in his wrathful form of Bhairab, but here he is worshipped as Pashupati, The Lord of The beasts. The main temple is exclusive to Hindus only, and is out of bounds to foreigners. Part of Hindu tradition is to cremate their dead, and this happened daily along the banks of the Bagmati river. As we walked along the paved riverside we saw families preparing the funeral ghats* for cremations that day. Laying wood into piles and some building wooden structures around their deceased loved ones. There were groups of sobbing adults gathered on tatty benches, confiding in each other as the flames consume the bodies of their kin. It was quite a somber sight. As we approached the main temple front and funeral ghats on the opposite of the river, there were two families mourning. A group of women wailing with remorse, crouching over a petite body of a girl wrapped in cloth. They put flowers on her and one middle-aged woman held her cold lifeless hand. She cried the loudest and most passionately. On the right side of this group a congregation of men quietly carried the corpse of a kinsmen down to the holy water. Here they began to undress him, first washing his feet, then his arms and then his face! This was the first time I’d ever seen a dead body. I shall never forget the gaping mouth and anguished face of the dead man I saw that day.
* a stone pier/platform where funeral cremations are performed
It was quite a surreal experience watching the funeral of strangers. We were on the opposite side of the river to those corpses previously mentioned. They must have been important people as this part of the river was reserved for aristocracy. Other people like us were sat on the opposite bank from the funeral party, watching the sorrow as though it was some grotesque form of entertainment. I felt a deep sadness and even shed a few tears for those grieving. After a little while it felt strange to watch and we went to explore the other areas of Pashupatnath.
The temples were bustling with people and overdressed sadhu’s* loitering for tourist photographs. We gave into the pressure in return for some interesting snaps. The grounds of Pashupatnath are very close to the airport, so the perimeter is marked by an unsightly neglected metal chain fence. Thankfully this is only partially visible as it does kill the spirituality in such a holy place. The main areas were in an ancient condition but some areas had been very badly damaged by the earthquake and were held up with scaffolding. Random goats roamed the grounds and there was noise all around, quite a contrast to the clean quiet silence of Christian churches. I preferred this type of holiness, chaotic, individual, man an beast walking beside each other respectfully in the temple. Such is life.
* holy men with painted faces and dreadlocks
We meandered through the pathways heading back to meet our driver. The last stop today would be the medieval city of Bhaktapur. In the Kathmandu valley there are three medieval city-states: Patan, Kathmandu Durbar Square/Thamel and Bhaktapur. Bhaktapur is often described as the best preserved of these three city-states, but there was some damage in the 2015 earthquake. Now, the guide books said it suffered badly in the earthquake but I disagree. I was in Bhaktapur in 2007 and yes, there was a few temples that had been destroyed and some residential housing that is too unsafe to repair, but it is by no means as bad a Durbar Square. I found that some of the destruction only added to its charm, and there’s the added benefit of most of Bhaktapur being pedestrianised and inaccessible to motor vehicles, something which I find annoying in Kathmandu’s Durbar Square. It was still pretty badly damaged but not as bad as I’d expected.
One of the things I love about Bhaktapur is it’s a prime example of Newari wooden craftsmanship. All of the dark sal wood crafted in Nepal is ornately detailed, and in Bhaktapur it’s the small details like Windows and door panels that draw your attention. In the main square near the peacock window there is a small temple with carved tantric figurines carved into the wooden panelling, it’s just gorgeous! I did stop for a good few minutes gawping at the positions, but scurried off quickly when I realised a group of Nepalese people were laughing at me.
It was time to head back to Thamel, the sun was setting, the air was warm and the sky was a hazy peach. Our driver was waiting to return us back to Hotel Silver Home. Tonight we were going to have a good bye meal with Rhys and Kurosh at Thamel house. We’d told them about the many courses and they were up for meeting us there, even if the dancers are a little bored looking. Both guys were heading home the following day, so it was unlikely we’d see them again, at least on this trip. The end of a chapter.