36,000 feet below me, the ground is patchwork of brown. Brown roads, brown fields. There is nothing to distinguish it from flying over South Australia or the Midwest of the US. A few minutes later, the captain comes over the intercom to inform us we are beginning our descent into Kathmandu. My tired mind is confused; there are no hills, how can we be landing in Kathmandu already?
on landing in kathmandu
It is then that I notice the green hills in the distance, looming larger. The air is smoggy, little is noticeable as we descend into the Kathmandu Valley. As we drop, I see that what I mistook for flat land is in fact steep hills, the foothills of the foothills of the foothills of the Himalayas. Mount Everest lies somewhere out my window. The hills are steep, the river valleys deep.
A jagged peak is visible through the smog, its incline a green shock against the hazy blue sky. Landslide remains cover parts of the hills, the light tan a different brown to the flat, dark beige that was the plains to the east, in India. The hills are a dark green, pines bleeding seamlessly from the summits to the valleys. I see no cars below, no sign of humanity.
It is mid afternoon and there are few clouds, only the ever-present smog and dust particles. As we crest the last of the hills, Kathmandu’s eastern edges appear below me. At first a few large, colourful blocks separated by some brown land. The closer we get to the city, the denser the apartment blocks get; taller, and more under construction. I don’t see the runway, the airport, I only see us falling closer and closer to the ground. Our landing in Kathmandu is bumpy and the wings fly up to slow us down. A door on the engine also flies open; I’m surprised and not a little worried until I see the piston inside, it clearly was meant to happen.
We are hardly stopped at the gate before people begin to stand up. I join them, not eager to be last as the Nepali men have all come forward from the back of the plane. The woman in front of me turns to look at me and we share a slightly terrified glance. What is this place?
We are off the plane and the first on to a bus that takes us to the arrivals terminal. There are no signs in English, no people to direct us to the visa on arrival desk. It is in the distance, when I see it, at the far end of the arrivals terminal. Electronic (the only electronics in the terminal, I note) screens walk us through the process of scanning passports, entering details, then printing a slip of paper to take to the payment counter.
I meant to get US dollars in Kuala Lumpur – having none since I haven’t been there in 18 months – but I never saw a currency exchange counter. Luckily, they take Visa (but he’s not happy about it) until I ask if they take Malaysian Ringgits and he nods. I hand over 120rt and he hands me back my passport and Visa card, along with handwritten slips of paper indicating that I’ve paid.
I wait for Natalia, my new compatriot, to receive her visa and we head to the immigration desk. The man takes an inordinate amount of time looking at my passport, at me, then asks me where I was before landing in Kathmandu. Kuala Lumpur, I say, and before that Singapore, Bali, Australia, New Zealand. He nods, then presses a button on his desk.
What have I said? What have I done? Am I going to be hauled off to some room to be interrogated over my nomadic ways?
He scans my passport again, stares at the computer screen. He looks at me once more and nods. Then he writes something down, I can’t see what it is. He looks at me again, nods, then slides my passport over the counter.
In my passport, now, is a white sticker with a Nepali visa inside. I can stay for 15 days. I follow Natalia down the escalator and we join two British girls as we stand and simply stare at the baggage claim. There is no organisation. There is nothing, in fact, except for hundreds of people clustered right at the edge of the conveyor belt. Plastic-wrapped televisions are everywhere too. But luggage, that is not to be seen. We stare for another minute and then hesitantly step forward. The two British girls get their bags early on, Natalia’s takes another ten minutes, and mine is absent. More televisions come out, large plastic-wrapped suitcases, their destinations, names, and phone numbers on large sheets of paper inside the plastic.
We wait. A shout goes up from someone and fifty people shift to the baggage claim down the hall. Natalia and I set our bags down; there must be half our flight still waiting on luggage. A woman looks at us and asks if it’s our first time, we say yes. She tells us she was hoping to get an early sleep because she has a flight to the start of the Everest Base Camp hike in the morning, but she doesn’t think that she’ll get one. Her bag, like mine, hasn’t arrived yet.
Natalia and I talk intermittently about our travels, our goals, but mostly we are watching the crowds of people. Tribhuvan International Airport is small; there is one arrivals terminal, one baggage claim. People are everywhere. It is hard to pick out nationalities, but we are the only two white women now that the British girls are gone. No one is looking at us, however.
Finally, finally, I spot my bag. We shoulder our packs, go through customs, and are stopped by a man who wants to look at our bag tag stubs. Mine has gone missing – the visa man, or maybe it was immigration, took my boarding pass – so instead I show my passport and he checks my bag tag and asks my name. Cleared, he hands me passport back and I follow Natalia to the pre-paid taxi counter. We ask how much for two drop offs in Thamel, the backpacker/tourist hub of Kathmandu, he says 900 NPR. We know we could get it cheaper but we also are both tired and somewhat clueless in this chaos. He leads us to a taxi, the driver signs a paper, and we get in.
on arriving in the city
A second man jumps in the front seat. I am prepared for this; I read a blog that said these guys will try to sell you on tours and hotels. Natalia looks surprised but I tell her what it is and she shrugs. Whatever. As we leave the airport property, he turns and asks us if we have accommodation booked. We both do. He asks how long we will be in town, we both shrug, we don’t know. It would appear that he gives up on us as potential customers then, as he turns around and chats to the driver. Later, he falls asleep.
We get no tour of the city, no mention of what building is what… although to be honest, there is little of note until we spot a cow in the road. Not standing; in fact I first say, oh, a dead cow. But in fact the cow is very much alive, haughtily lying in the road as though a queen instructing her servants to go around her. We do, slowly. I am too late to get a picture.
Traffic is slow; we make a few turns, go over two large potholes, swerve around a few large trucks, some small motorbikes. At one point we are stopped for nearly fifteen minutes. Nothing is moving, although plenty of cars are coming toward us. To my right is a crumbling white palace, two guards out front. An army truck is trying to merge into traffic, going the way we are, but is unable to get out. We sit.
Dust swirls around us as cars, bikes, and trucks roar past. The roads, while paved, aren’t really paved. They are dusty. It seeps in everywhere. I find – later – that wearing sunglasses, even in the cloudiest of weather, is the best choice unless I want to cry from the pain in my contacts. My clothes, even from sitting in the car, are dusty. It is, presumably, sunny, but the layer of dust and smog above us prevents me from ever seeing the sun. I gather that it is because I can see shadows and from time to time there is a glimmer on a brass drum.
Natalia pulls up google maps so we can see where we are; it surprises us both – we are mere blocks from my hostel. The journey, at most a fifteen minute drive without any traffic, has taken closer to thirty, but still… from landing in Kathmandu to now, we know we are on Nepal-time. As we pull up outside my hostel she waves while I grab my bags from the back. Safe travels, she says. You too, I reply. and we go our separate ways like all travellers do. Kathmandu is already under my skin and I cannot wait to explore.
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