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Published: August 16th 2006
Day 1 and counting...
Jim, Manuel, Kerryann, Manuel's Nepali guide, and Karim (who I accidentally cut off, sorry)
We finally walked into Lukla in the late afternoon, exhausted and needing showers. It was foggy and the town was quiet. We found a guesthouse and decided to treat ourselves by getting rooms with an attached bathroom. Wow! A sink, shower, tiles AND a non-squat toilet that flushed! No going outside for bathing or using the toilet! What luxury!
Sita Air was closed, so we asked the hotel staff to call the airline for us. That was when we found out from the hotel staff and other guests that there had been no flights from Lukla to Kathmandu for the past 5 days. The mist was too thick for incoming planes to land safely. Several planes had taken off from Kathmandu, only to turn back because the weather conditions were too poor by the time they reached Lukla.
There were a couple hundred people stuck in Lukla and the desperation in the air was palpable. Several foreigners had been there for 5-6 days, and many had missed their international flights to Bangkok or other places. We met one Canadian guy who had been stranded there since the day after the Everest Marathon and a British girl was on the
These guys thought it was funny I wanted a photo, but I'd never seen 3 policemen sharing a chair.
verge of a nervous breakdown.
The stranded Nepalis were in even worse shape. Foreigners pay more for flights than Nepalis, so we are given first priority. Therefore, many Nepalis had been stuck in Lukla for 7-10 days. We saw a lot of familiar faces from our trek. Many were trekking guides or teahouse workers on their way to Kathmandu to visit family during the off-season. We saw the trekking guide from Leboche and Gorak Shep who loaned us the porter, a guy who worked at our guesthouse in Namche, and a guy who worked at the bar where the Everest Marathon after-party was held.
After waiting a few days, many Nepalis and a few foreigners (including Jim, who stayed in Lukla for only one night) decided to trek to Jiri instead of sticking it out in Lukla. This is a 3-4 day trek through rolling terrain and Maoist controlled territory, followed by an all-day bus ride to Kathmandu. Other trekkers informed us that the Maoists were asking for a 5,000 rupee (about $70) “donation,” which costs about the same as the Lukla-Kathmandu flight. You can’t bargain with the Maoists for a lower fee, and if you refuse to
Ironically, someone stole the table where you can buy insurance. I hope it was properly insured.
pay, they turn you back.
The Lonely Planet guide says that flight cancellations are common and that the writers have personally witnessed some bizarre things at the Lukla airport, such as people going completely hysterical, pulling knives on airline staff, getting into fistfights, trying to bribe everyone, etc. I can really see how people might go crazy in this situation. Imagine that you’ve been trekking in the mountains for weeks, all your clothes are filthy, you are desperate for fresh fruits, vegetables and other foods and comforts you’ve been deprived of for weeks, and you are running out of cash and stuck in a town with no ATM. Maybe this is why there are so many policemen and soldiers at the airport: to prevent desperate stranded passengers from stampeding the planes when they finally do arrive.
That evening, we had a nice dinner at the guesthouse and drank a few beers with Manuel and his Nepali guide. Manuel is a Chilean guy who now works in Montreal. His Nepali guide had the mad glint in his eye and a maniacal laugh. They had been stranded in Lukla for about 5 days and told us the drill on amusing
Soldiers drilling at Lukla airport
Notice how the runway behind the "Welcome to Lukla" sign goes downhill. The planes build speed going down the runway and then just sort off drop off.
yourself. They bought books at the one English bookstore in town, had a chocolate cake made at a bakery, wandered around the tiny town of Lukla, slept, drank a lot of beer, and that’s about it. There are not many good day hikes around Lukla, so most people just eat, drink, and sleep. We found a couple of good CDs, including Nirvana unplugged. We joked that it was a good thing that we found something we liked, because we might be listening to the same CDs for awhile.
After dinner, we went to the guesthouse bar to play pool and drink more beer. Many of the other stranded foreigners and Nepalis ended up there. The Red Hot Chili Peppers CD was a nice change from the Nepali music we’d heard constantly over the previous few weeks. We heard a lot of jokes about how they were happy to see new arrivals, since that meant they were no longer at the bottom of the list. Everyone expressed relief that even though new supplies were not coming in by plane, at least there was still a hefty stockpile of beer in town.
The next morning, the sky looked sort of
Sita Air plane at Lukla airport
This was the second plane that left on the first morning. We were unable to get on it before they closed the airport.
clear, so we tramped to the airport at 5:45am. It was a total mob scene. The airport was packed with desperate people begging guides, airline officials, or anyone else who would listen to let them on the next flight. The anxiety built as the sky started clouding over, but there was a lot of excitement when first a Yeti Airlines plane landed, followed shortly afterward by a Sita Air plane. These were the first flights from Kathmandu that had landed in days.
There were many foreigners who had been waiting longer than us, so we did not get on the plane, and neither did Manuel or his Nepali guide. Our guesthouse manager was still drunk from the night before and was of no assistance. First he said we would be on the second plane, then the third flight, and then I have no idea what he mumbled. This is where having a Nepali trekking guide would have been handy, as the local guides seemed to be quite adept at pulling strings to get their clients on the next plane.
We decided to move to another guesthouse closer to the airport. The guesthouse manager also worked for Sita Air,
Finally aboard the second Sita plane on day 2
The plane is a bit cramped, but the views of the mountains are spectacular.
and we figured that he could get us on a plane faster. While we were eating across the street from the airport, we saw the Yeti and Sita crews having lunch (dhal bhat, of course). Shortly after they went back to the airport, we saw a crowd of foreigners boarding the 2 planes, including the Canadian guy who had been stuck in Lukla for almost a week and the British girl who was about to snap.
With nothing better to do, I went to sleep. Later that afternoon, I was awakened by someone banging on my door and telling me to get up. A helicopter had landed and they were looking for additional passengers. None of us knew how much it would cost, but we figured we could bargain (especially since the guy who chartered it had prepaid and was desperate to get his money back), so we decided to give it a go. I threw my stuff into my pack and ran up the hill to the airport, slipping on the wet pavement and scraping up my knees. The police checked our stuff, but by then it was too late. The fog had already closed in and the
helicopter could not attemot take off until the next morning.
I went back to sleep before waking up at 5:45am again (this is what really wears you down and makes you insane like Jack Nicholson in “The Shining”). The guesthouse manager assured us that we would be on the second Sita Air flight. We were issued boarding passes, but this was no guarantee, as Manuel and his guide had received boarding passes several days before.
We had breakfast near the airport and went back to check in. Several planes from a few different airlines had landed and there was a massive airlift out of Lukla that day. We were rushed through security and onto the second Sita plane that left that day. Nobody cared where they sat; we were all just relieved to be on the plane. The sky was not as clear as the flight to Lukla, but there still some fantastic mountain views, including Lhotse and Everest.
Manuel decided to take the helicopter and left Lukla shortly before we did. Funny enough, his chopper arrived in Kathmandu right as our plane landed. All this for a 30 minute flight! After one last reunion on the Kathmandu runway with the many people who made our trek so memorable, we all went our separate ways.
By the way, Jim later informed us by email that he made it back to Kathmandu. It took him 4 days to trek to Jiri, and there were “no Maoists, no leeches, no problems.”
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