Absolute chaos plagues the Kathmandu airport as flights are cancelled and delayed. Our flight is scheduled to depart at 0830 hrs … which was one hour ago. Dinesh, our Intrepid guide, has honestly informed us that the weather in Lukla is not looking good for today. I can’t help but wonder how this is going to affect our trip. We’re currently on a tight schedule, requiring eight days to properly acclimatize during the 62 km ascent, leaving only four days to descend back to Lukla. If we’re bumped today, our group goes to the bottom of the list for tomorrow’s flights, which will make our chances of reaching Everest Base Camp even slimmer with every passing day.
As I sit on the floor, leaned up against our group’s stack of red duffel bags, I stare at my surroundings in despair. The terminal is filled with a dense, frantic crowd consisting of various ages and ethnicities. From what I can decipher, there seem to be three main categories: travel groups, solo trekkers, and, mainly, local Nepalese people trying to get back to their home in the mountains.
I suddenly notice Dinesh tunneling his way through the crowd towards us. “Grab all of your stuff and follow me!!” Stunned, we do as he says. We pick up our bags and push our way through to a small, green kiosk which reads “Tara Air”. Dinesh instructs us to pass all of our bags forward. I feel slightly anxious, as this seems like a very time-sensitive task so I quickly start grabbing bags and throwing them forward without question. The man behind the kiosk begins tagging our duffel bags as he stacks them on the scale and weighs them collectively. Afterwards, he tosses them behind him and then quickly weighs and tags our backpacks and returns them to us. Once this is done, Dinesh hands us our boarding passes and leads us to the security, which is divided between men and women. We rush through security and enter into a calmer waiting area, which looks like a standard departure gate at an airport.
As our group sits, facing one another, I quietly stare at Dinesh, awaiting further instructions. He’s a tall, slim man, in about his late 20’s, with tan skin, a black goatee, and thick black hair, which is hidden under a flat-billed baseball cap. His hat is black and white with a patch which reads “Sun Bear Sunscreen. Seriously Protective” and there’s a picture of a bear – I’m quite captivated by this hat. His ears are both pieced, which seems to be a common style for Nepalese men, and he wears two rings on his right hand. He appears slightly anxious as he frequently checks his phone, which I’m assuming is to be able to anticipate three steps ahead. All of his belongings for the next two weeks are carried in a medium-sized, lime-green backpack, which is leaned up against his seat.
“Now boarding Flight TA 159” is announced over the intercom in broken English. I glance at my boarding pass … that’s us! We make our way to the gate, exit the building, and board a bus. As soon as the last person is seated, the bus takes off as if it has just stolen something. Confused that we’re heading in the opposite direction of the airport, I just quietly sit and stare out the window. We drive past by grounded aircrafts, military cargo planes, and helicopters, until we reach a vacant runway at the very end of the airport. Uh … now what? Dinesh notices the bewildered look on our faces and informs us that we’re waiting for our plane to land. I can feel that our group is becoming more relaxed – with every step forward we take, we become more confident that we’ll be able to depart to Lukla today.
After thirty minutes of watching the sky, a small plane comes into view and lands close to us with such finesse. It is nearly the same size as our bus. As soon as it’s stationary, it quickly refuels and reloads. Our bags are tossed into a small hatch in the back. Once given permission to board the plane, I walk up the five, flimsy steps and duck my head to get into the small doorway. To my surprise, the inside of the plane is lined with two rows of six seats along the windows. Wahoo! Window seats for everyone! As soon as we’re seated, a flight attendant makes her way up the narrow isle, which runs directly into the cockpit, and begins handing out mints and cotton balls. I’m unsure what the cotton balls are for until I see Sieu stuffing them into his ears. As the pilot fires up the engine, the smell of fumes fill this small vessel. I watch the pilot flick switches and push buttons as he runs through his safety checks. The flight attendant tries to give the emergency instructions over the deafening sound of the engine.
Less than ten minutes after boarding, the small plane bumps along the runway in preparation for takeoff. I begin doubting if the plane is even powerful enough to get us off the ground; however, like the physics-defying bumblebee, this plane, too, is somehow able to lift off and fly! A wave of giddiness overcomes me, in complete disbelief, that we’re actually going to Lukla as scheduled! Our biggest concern leading up to this trip was this flight. Lukla’s airport is notorious for being the most dangerous in the world due to its short runway and high altitude; therefore, it’s common to have flights cancelled. After a few days of repeated cancellations, some groups opt to hire a helicopter. If not, then an alternative route has to be decided.
I stare out the window, eager to get into the mountains and start our new adventure! Once we move away from the densely populated city of Kathmandu, which looks like a bowl of Lego pieces, we reach the vacant, outstretched mountains of the Himalayas. It’s a gloomy looking day, with thick grey and white rain-laden clouds draping over the peaks. Our plane occasionally jerks as it fights to resist the crosswinds. I occasionally spot a small villages in the most unthinkable locations with no road leading to or from. It’s only noticeable by its plantations, which pour down along the mountainside. I began dreaming about what life must be like for these people living in such a remote area…
My thoughts are interrupted by our plane taking a sudden and sharp turn to the left. I’m not sure what’s going on but I can see out the cockpit that we’re heading directly into the side of a mountain! Looking around for answers, there are none. As I anticipate a fiery crash, in what felt like the very last moment, the plane straightens out and tucks down unthinkably low into a hidden valley. Once stabilized, the fight attendant tells us one-by-one that we’re not able to land in Lukla, which is only 10 minutes away, and will instead be making an emergency stop. As we turn the bend of the mountain base, the 671 m long runway of Phaplu comes into view. As soon as the plane thumps down onto this short landing strip, the breaks jam on, and we’re all pulled forward from the sudden change in velocity.
Phaplu is an ‘off the beaten path’ village with a population of approximately 175 residents. The roads leading out of this village have been washed away by a landslide and it’s about a 3-4 day trek on foot to Lukla; therefore, our only option is to hope for a rescue tomorrow by plane. We carry our duffel bags down the middle of a narrow dirt road, dodging water buffalos, as we look for accommodations. The air is damp and cool. Ducks bathe in the mud puddles and chickens roam in a clueless manner. There are no other tourists in sight. The locals seem shy and modest, as they carry on with their business, manning their small shops and tending to their crops. I smile and greet them with a “Namaste” and they nod and return a sincere smile. The doors on most of the houses are open, with children running in and out freely.
We stop in front of a building, with a sign which reads “Lodging and Fooding”. It looks like we’ve found everything that we need! As we entered the building, we follow Dinesh up the rickety, narrow stairs to the second floor. Nepal is known for their lodging consisting of tea houses, which have basic amenities; however, this one resembles more of a treehouse. We are given a room, as the remainder of the group proceeds to the third floor. Our room is small, lacking even a window. There are two, single beds laying perpendicular to one another, with just enough room to place our bags down. On the bed is a single pillow, with a worn, floral comforter. The paneling on the wall is varnished and seems to be lacking insulation by how easily the sound is carried from room to room. I plop down on the bed with an alarming thud. “Ouff … these mattresses are a lot thinner than they look!”, I say to Sieu, who is laying out his sleeping bag. Although the accommodations are simple, the hospitality is warm and welcoming – which is everything that I need!