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The bus leaves us outside Thamel

Saturday 22nd April

After our shopping spree we retire to the Marhaba lounge, for a drink and a snack. It's in the early hours of the morning, I'm tired, and I'm irritated by the poor attitude of the staff in the lounge. I assume the role of a grumpy old man. My face tells the story, and a supervisor hands me a customer satisfaction survey, with the words "We'd love to know what you are thinking", printed on the front. I tell her that I am indeed thinking of the Marhaba Lounge, but what I'm thinking wouldn't be suitable for entering into her customer survey form! "We'd love to know what you are thinking", my arse! You only printed those things, because some lunatic quality control scheme told you that you had to. I have a Gin and Tonic and calm down.

Liz joins me and we compare purchases. Bottled water! Liz goes off to get something to eat and drink, from the self-service bar. I suddenly notice that our flight is showing as delayed, on the enormous plasma monitor to my right; one of hundreds that are scattered around this dismal airport. I break the bad news to Liz, and she hesitates to believe me. I begin to hope that I've misread the message, as we wait for the monitor to scroll through the half dozen or so, information pages. Sadly, there's no mistake, and instead of one hour, we've now got four hours to wait, before boarding begins. I now begin to wonder whether this means that the flight has actually been cancelled, and that in true Nepali style they are trying to break it to us gently!

We are both feeling very sleepy. Liz goes off to buy a book, and I struggle to stay awake and keep an eye on our belongings. When Liz returns, I decide to kill some time by going for a walk around the shops, hoping that I can pick up a jar of Vegemite to replace the one that I left in our fridge in Abu Dhabi. I return empty handed apart from a jumbo bag of nuts & raisins.

We try to get some sleep, even though the seats were obviously designed to prevent it. Liz remembers, too late, that you can rent a room by the hour here at Dubai Airport. This conjures up a vision of a place infested with Russian hostesses, and I'm immediately glad that we didn't think of it earlier.

We do eventually manage some sleep, but awake with numb limbs, and this soon transforms into pins and needles. We make our way to the departure lounge, which is filled with Nepalese, mostly men, and a handful of western tourists. Before long, the cabin-crew and pilots board the aircraft, laden with bags full of duty-free goods. Chivas Regal seems to be a popular choice!

Soon, we also board, and make our way to seats 1a and 1b; right behind the driver, and just across the aisle from where Colin Montgomery, the golfer, sat on one of our previous flights many years ago. Yes, we know all of the RNAC planes, even by name. (Sad but true!) This one is a Boeing 757, and it is named Gandaki, and just like us, it's showing its age. I look out of the window at the wings and the engines. We can put up with a table that doesn't work, but I hope the flying bits have been serviced properly.

The atmosphere is more like smart Himalayan tea-house, than your usual business class cabin, however this is much nicer. The stewardess pours me a wicked Gin & Tonic. Maybe she's a friend of the staff in the Marhaba lounge, and is trying to keep me calm! The meal is simple, but has a dash of spice, making it taste a lot better than it looks. We notice that the attractive little china condiment set that you used to get, has been replaced by boring little tear-open packets of salt and pepper. They must have all been stolen. I seem to remember that we used to get a little gift Yeti ornament or some such. That has disappeared too.

We reminisce about a flight we once took to Nepalganj, at the start of a Dolpo trek. The in-flight meal came in cardboard boxes, but in terms of taste it could have rivalled many we have had on other airlines. They also held an on-board raffle for a free flight! Liz was chosen to pick the lucky ticket being the only blond passenger on board and thus the obvious choice. The embarrassing moment came, when it transpired that the ticket she'd drawn was that of our friend Nurbu. I could foresee a lynch-mob forming, incensed at the possibility of fraud, but the result was accepted by all with good humour, and we lived to tell the tale.

The flight-path takes us over part of Pakistan, and out of the window we can see some amazing coastal, and mountain scenery. There is a natural harbour of a very distinctive shape that we've noticed on previous flights. It must be used as a navigation check by the pilots. I have my GPS unit to hand, and amuse myself by identifying some of the towns that we fly over. Liz impresses me by correctly identifying Lucknow, before the GPS has a chance to even lock onto the satellites.

We are soon on our descent to Kathmandu. As I'd feared there is too much cloud around and we are unable to see any sign of the mountain peaks, apart from the enormous cumulous clouds above them. As we touch down we can see signs of the demonstrations; a large unruly gathering here and a burning tyre there. What have we let ourselves in for?

A nice advantage of so few tourists on the plane is the ease with which our visa is processed. We are first in the short queue and the whole thing takes just a few minutes. More security checks, with baggage through an x-ray machine and us through metal detectors. My belt stays on this time, and I suspect that the metal detector doesn't even notice!

A short wait before our luggage appears on the conveyor belt, and we are on our way out of the airport. There are many 'meeters and greeters' but alarmingly no sign of Nurbu. I suddenly remember that I left his phone number on a piece of paper next to my PC at home. I'm beginning to be thankful that I took the trouble to get the hotel phone number, from the internet terminal, in the Marhaba lounge.

Just before we reach the hoards of people waiting outside the airport a man with a Rai hat, and a welcoming smile, holds up a piece of a corn-flakes box with "ROY AND LIZ" written on it. It turns out that because of the flight delay, Nurbu has had to leave the airport, and is using the time to complete the organisation for our trek. If he'd stayed at the airport for too long, he could have become stranded there until the curfew was over. The Rai-hatted man has had to wait out the delay as we'd had to in Dubai, and he didn't have a Marhaba lounge. As we introduce ourselves we just miss a tourist bus going into Thamel, the tourist district of Kathmandu. We have to wait another hour before cramming onto the next bus. The locals are complaining that the bus crew have skived off for a quick bite of lunch. The wait passes quickly because there is so much going on.

Another flight has just landed from Bangkok, with a full load of Nepalese, and a few more tourists. A pick-up with half a dozen armed soldiers in the back is parked next to us, waiting to pick up some fat VIP gentleman. I try to manoeuvre us out of the line of sight of their automatic weapons that they keep waving around. They are smiling and seem to be in good humour. A western guy with a pony-tail and a TV camera is wandering around doing interviews, and filming the general scene outside the airport. He points it at us for a while and I try not to let on that I've noticed.

It's standing room only on the tourist bus. "Move on down the aisle, ladies and gentlemen. Please!" Our luggage doesn't fit in the bus luggage compartment and ends up in a great pile next to the driver, where it becomes a seat for six or seven passengers. The bus is pretty full, although by Nepali standards there's probably room for a hundred more passengers!

As the bus leaves the airport perimeter, we start to see the effect of the curfew. There are heavily armed soldiers, stationed at every crossroads. The soldiers stop the bus frequently for cursory checks. The streets are pretty much deserted, and all the shutters are down on the shops, but there are still signs of life down the alleyways. It's strange to see these normally busy roads, devoid of all traffic; including bicycles and rickshaws. This has had a pleasing effect on the usually heavy pollution; as I discovered when I blew my nose the next morning!

The bus stops a little way short of the old immigration building in Thamel. This is as far as the bus goes, and everyone has to be extracted from the people pate inside. However, before we can step down, we have to cough up Rp100 for our fare. Then all the baggage has to be offloaded, and matched up to the passengers. Enter a bunch of young, macho, Israeli guys, waiting for this bus to take them to the airport, to catch a plane which apparently left yesterday! They are short of time because getting up early was just not an option! They leave behind a couple of tearful girlfriends. Cries of "Hurry up we have a plane to catch!" falls upon deaf ears as we struggle to extricate ourselves from the overcrowded bus.

Miraculously, we are able to find all our baggage in time, before the bus departs with the fretting Israelis. Now we have the challenge of transporting our rucksacks, plus four heavy duffels, to the hotel, a kilometre away. I should explain that we've used our extra baggage allowance to bring some gifts of clothing and footwear for Nurbu and the porters. A friendly Sherpa guy named Gombo has been delegated to help us with our excess baggage, and soon we are on our way.

We have our rucksacks on our backs, and are dragging along the two bigger duffels, which fortunately are equipped with wheels. Gombo has shouldered the other two bags. Up ahead are two lines of soldiers separated by about ten metres. They are dressed in full riot gear, and look like a bunch of ninja turtles. My first thought is one of relief that the government has deployed these guys to protect the tourist area of Thamel. As we jostle our way through the soldiers, dragging our wheelie-bags behind, it becomes apparent that they are actually facing towards Thamel, and are in fact protecting the area we have come from, rather than where we're heading! "Over the top!" is the phrase that comes to mind as we pass the second row of combatants, and the noise of the demonstrators in the distance grows louder! We're getting ready to run the gauntlet of demonstrators as Gombo ducks into a side alley, and beckons us to follow. The wheelie bags, designed to glide across the smooth paving of an airport concourse, are now well into four-wheel-drive territory, and splashing through puddles. I grimace as I run mine over the carcass of a dead rat!

We enter a side road, and run into a crowd of demonstrators heading in the opposite direction. One man with a handkerchief tied across his mouth and nose looks at me. I can see from his eyes that he is smiling at me. I smile back and we simultaneously salute each other with a spontaneous 'thumbs-up'! A lump rises in my throat. At the end of the procession are a couple of Western tourists. I don't like the idea of tourists getting mixed up in this thing. I support what the people are doing, but I don't think we should treat it as some sort of sightseeing spectacle.

We reach the hotel, which is ideally situated, just up a short side alley, and off the main street. It is off the beaten track, but not too far from the centre of Thamel. Trust Nurbu to have chosen wisely for us. He is not at the hotel, but we are made welcome and soon installed in a comfortable room, on the second floor. I phone Nurbu, and he explains that he can't get across town to the Hotel during the curfew. He lives on the other side of town near Boudinath. He tells me that he'll try to get across to see us after the curfew. I tell him that we'll stick around. What am I saying; we couldn't leave if we wanted to. This is beginning to sound like the 'Hotel California'. Incidentally there is indeed a Hotel California on the other side of Thamel. If you've ever been to Kathmandu then that wouldn't surprise you.

It starts to rain quite heavily reminding us that this is the pre monsoon season. All of our previous visits have been post monsoon, when it rarely rains. We have dinner in the hotel restaurant and then retire to our room, to catch up a bit on all the sleep we've lost.

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Updated Jan 2010

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