Like other journalists who have written at times about travel, I get many offers for press junkets from travel agencies. Many of them involve a luxurious stay, often in the Bahamas for some reason. I am not usually tempted.
In April 2014, however, a much subtler offering arrived in my Inbox: a trip to Nepal courtesy of Yeti Holidays, arranged by an old family friend, Steve Powers, an adventure trekker who years ago had dragged my parents and me through the Himalayas and sent us tumbling down white water rapids and past bobbing corpses in the Ganges River. I trust Steve. And Nepal (unlike, say, the Bahamas) had been in the news recently: An avalanche had just killed sixteen Sherpa mountain guides and they were refusing to climb for the rest of the season.
Tourism is one of the only sources of hard currency
The strike was unusual. Tourism is one of the only sources of hard currency for the Nepalese and they are usually careful not to alienate deep-pocketed Western climbers. A strike could also mean a resurgent Maoist rebellion; Nepal had endured a regicide and a ten-year-long civil war, and as recently as 2011, soldiers defending rhinos from poachers in Chitwan National Park were being redeployed to the country’s barren East to mop up a growing insurgency.
I had another ulterior motive for wanting to leave Oklahoma for a brief trip to Nepal: I grew up in South Asia and have written three novels, all thinly veiled autobiographies about my seven years in New Delhi as a pampered Western teenager. But they are all unpublished, and in some ways my understanding of my time there was also gathering dust. I hadn’t been back since 1997. I wanted to see it again.
Yeti Holidays—and their partner in this venture, Turkish Airlines—had powerful agendas of their own. Yeti had just finished building a series of comfortable lodges along its most popular hiking trails (before you were forced to stay in a tent or at best a skuzzy tea house) and was eager to drum up business.
“Turkish” as they call themselves, had just extended service from Istanbul to Kathmandu. But they had a problem. Customs in Kathmandu didn’t open until 8am, which meant that because of scheduling, flights leaving the United States would have to endure an eleven-hour layover in Istanbul en route to Kathmandu.
Yeti runs a domestic airline and has deep connections to the Nepalese government. They were able to convince customs officials to open up earlier than usual, shaving several hours off the Istanbul layover, which in turn made it a much more compelling option for tourists and therefore made Kathmandu a much more lucrative destination for Turkish.
May is not an ideal time to visit Nepal. There is a pre-Monsoon haze that boils up from the streams and fields and occludes the mountains, and it’s very, very hot and muggy. Up in the air, this means you see nothing for ages and then pierce the cloud cover and suddenly come out right over Kathmandu. It looks like Alpine Bladerunner: thousands of blocky little houses protruding rebar and brightly painted temples, stuppa and billings that all go zipping by.
There were five of us—two journalists and three travel agents—plus Steve and a Turkish Airlines representative, and we landed softly, and said goodbye to the doting, if rather gruff Turkish Airlines flight crew. I spotted a taxiing U.S. government issue Boeing 727, and felt a stab of old envy: the diplomats at my high school used to get a monthly cargo of goodies that were unobtainable in Asia. We were whisked through customs and taken on the 20-minute ride out of town to the Gokarna Forest Resort. This was to be our home base for the trip.
Once the royal family’s hunting lodge, Gokarna Forest Resort is now a combination of a game reserve and a golf course; monkeys and deer and duffers roam the grounds. I settled in, unpacked and went down to meet the rest of the group. As I came down the stairs, I heard a blood-curdling screech. It was one of the travel agents. She had earlier claimed to have a scent that was “irresistible to monkeys,” and there she was, caught beneath the Little Buddha banyan, menaced by primates, clutching a can of Diet Mountain Dew soda, a case of which she always arranges to have sent to her hotel ahead of time. A uniformed guard jogged up, clutching a slingshot. The monkeys scattered. He fired shots at the stragglers, alpha males with fuzzier faces than the rest who chittered angrily and snickered, but a few more shots dispersed them too, and they scampered up tree trunks and leapt out of sight.
Mother and child safely contained behind barbed wire at the cremation center, Kathmandu, Nepal. Photo: James McGirk
At an orientation meeting, Yeti Holidays managing director Daman Pradhan explained to us that there were two choices for the trip: soft or adventure. Soft meant gentle half-hour treks through shady glades, and the closest you came to Mount Everest was by airplane. The adventure option called for “flying like an insect” to the Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla, the world’s most dangerous airport for a hearty trek at high altitude to see the Himalayas while staying at Yeti’s high mountain lodges. I opted for the adventure trip.
The Tenzing Hillary Airport is a sliver of flattened land on a terrace between a steep cliff and a mountainside. There’s no margin for error. A pilot can’t double-back if he or she comes in too fast or at the wrong angle. The radar isn’t first-rate either, so instrument landings are impossible. We arrived at Kathmandu airport at dawn and went through security to our departure gate, only to find that there was too much cloud cover above Lukla to fly, or, more specifically, to land. The departure lounge was filled with moping climbers and their huge rucksacks, festooned with climbing axes and crampons. Fashions ranged from bedraggled hippy interpretations of the local garb to a Swiss woman in her 50s who wore boy’s lederhosen shorts (suspenders and all) over a bright blue blouse with matching socks and Tyrolean hat (complete with a matching blue feather).