I am not going to write a lot about my old friend Kathmandu because later I am going suggest that you not come here … to skip it for a better option. (that would be Bahktapur a few miles to the east in case ‘later’ is a rhino or an avalanche)
It’s usually a boring travel narrative to talk about ‘the way things used to be’. But Kathmandu is a peculiar story. Nepal was a monarchy the first time I came here. King Birenda, back in the 80’s, was by all appearances respected by his people … ‘revered’ as Kings would have it. One thing I remember about Birenda is that he kicked all the hippies out of Kathmandu in the 70’s by tightening visa laws. (Duuude !?) Once I actually got a limo glimpse of the Queen on her way to her walled lakeside palace in the then little town of Pohkara, her eyes rigidly forward speeding past her Nepali subjects lining the streets as if she might catch something from them. In fact the Nepali royal family tree was loaded with rotten fruit. Birenda’s brother introduced the heroin trade to Nepal addicting hundreds of thousands of his own people. Then of course the Shakespearian grande finale in 2002 when Crown Prince Dipendra opened fire on his family killing the King and Queen and another half dozen family members … over a girl they didn’t like. (Duuude ! ) Dipendra then shot himself in the head but not fatally at first. He lasted a couple of days during which time the confused, traumatized Nepalis actually made him King for his two surviving days since he was, well … next in line.
Now out of all this chaos come the Maoists. While the western countries were wallowing in our financial woes a few years ago Nepal was in a full blown civil war with the murdering, bank-robbing Maoists, now getting traction by virtue of a few reasonable ideas to help the people. Populists but still Maoists …. actual Stalinists if you believe the posters at their rallies. But the opposition was so bad the Maoists for the first time in human history won an election and run around today opposing things like voter registration. The consequence of all the fighting was that tourism was slowed to a trickle and all the hill people flooded the Kathmandu Valley doubling its populations.
Out-of-control expansion has caused concrete to spread like kudzu out-pacing infra-structure so the city is now without electricity for half the day. It’s a bigger and more bizarre story than I can tell but check the picture. The once enjoyably walk-able and bike ride-able streets are clogged with traffic and pollution. The local-market ‘ambience’ of fresh morning produce spread on sidewalk tarps, of good exotic street food, the occasional goat’s head boiling in a sidewalk cauldron has since morphed into a commercial sprawl of trekking shops, Chinese knock-off emporiums, souvenir shops and tourist claptrap. The old medieval sites like Durbar Square, that once charactertized the city, are now isolated into World Heritage sites you now have pay to walk through.
Maybe this explains Kathmandu ?
Nick did a few tourist ‘survey’s for KTM coeds
The city is deranged, enervating, fascinating and, despite the lack of breathable air, we loved every minute.
Eighteen hours later … and, as always, I am awake the entire flight. Lots to do in eighteen hours. First do the in-flight magazine crossword, then check out the models in the SkyMall magazine, then master the entertainment module which, on international flights, offers every movie ever made. I will eat every pretty-good meal they serve and snatch a complimentary chardonnay miniature now and then. You know those little fat guys in Wall-E that float around in Barcaloungers? It’s pretty much like that.
By and by I’m about halfway through Die Hard Another Day and Jacki turns to me and says
“Oh oh. Calcutta”
“Oh Oh Calcutta ? I haven’t seen that one. Is it good ?”
“Not a movie, the city in India … that’s where we’re going.” Jacki likes to watch the flight path screen and peeking over I see our ETA has changed from 20 minutes to 3 hours and the nice straight line coming west from Seoul has morphed into a scribble over Kathmandu. It looks like someone is flying the plane with a Etch-a-Sketch. Despite the fact we are cruising through a towering skyscape of brilliant white clouds we are told we have a weather problem and we are being diverted to Calcutta. Something is broken in Kathmandu. Welcome to Katmandu
One nice thing about trans-pacific flights is that you get fly Asian airlines. In this case Singapore Air to Seoul then Thai Air to Bangkok There is an old school elegance on international carriers, particularly the Asian ones. The flight attendants are generally young, beautifully-attired and coiffed with body styles that … let’s say and risk political incorrectness … don’t knock the coffee out of your hand as the they pass down the aisle. Which brings me … I can’t help it … to United Airlines, whose motto could be: ‘We are the not the World’s Most Exasperating Airline because we don’t try’. On our UAL connector flight from Reno to SF we settle in, the doors close and then (shockingly) nothing happens until a flight attendant hurries down the aisle opening every overhead luggage hatch … the things you are supposed close before take-off, right ? Notwithstanding the troubling impression this created in the absence of any explanation, here is the eventual announcement from the United Airlines flight attendant. This is word-for-word because I wrote it down in my Fun Facts for a United Airlines Class Action Lawsuit notebook … Vol. 3
“We have too much weight in the cargo hold and if we can’t move luggage into the overheads we will have to de-plane passengers”
Since the overheads are barely big enough to hold a box of girl scout cookies, there came this follow-up announcement: “Passenger Ivan Kofsalotsky (?) please report to the flight attendant” … which was easy since she was standing over him like Broomhilda. Mr Kofsalotsky, a befuddled old foreign national whom I am guessing had a stand-by ticket and a language problem, was hustled down the aisle clutching his carry-on to his chest. It looked like that movie scene where the Nazis find the Jew on on the train. Anyway as we sit some time longer on the tarmac, we flash back to our last United connector flight to SF which cost us our overseas flight connection to Paris – and our luggage, when an even more confused Mr Kofalotsky is shuffled back onto the plane with no explanation. I figured they probably just tossed a couple of bags out on the tarmac and off we went with Mr Kofalotsky back in his seat still clutching his carry-on.
This time we were just sitting around in my brother’s North Beach apartment over Christmas discussing travel bucket lists with the family. It was one of those rainy holiday Sundays when you eat and drink yourself into a warm couch potato stupor. The idea just popped out of that part of my wine-soaked brain that controls the involuntary tongue muscles.
“We should do the Annapurna base camp. They call it the Sanctuary you know. It must be really special.
Are we out of brie?”
To ‘do’ the ABC, as it is known, means an eleven day trek in Western Nepal from a steamy hot 3000 ft to snow and ice at 14000 ft. … all to stand in a glacial amphitheater of some the most highest and dramatic mountain peaks in the world.
I was thinking, if that’s what you want to call it, that Nick is fresh put of school with not much of anything to do that he couldn’t interrupt for a few weeks, so the idea of the three of us going to Nepal seemed so … I don’t know … dad-macho ? Dad-macho is where you trash talk your son, who used to be 8 and is now somehow 23, into a game of one-on-one when you haven’t played basketball in 20 years and your first six shots miss the rim entirely and the seventh tears your rotator cuff. But the thing is, you see, Nick has taken to calling me ‘old man’.
I do have some history here. Just enough to give the idea some cred. I had been to the Annapurna region in central Nepal twice before. I trekked on a lower elevation circuit with Jacki twenty-five years ago, which a quick calculation indicates that I was at the time … let’s see … twenty five years younger. Then I went again thirteen years ago with some buddies. On that trip we ‘flinched’ and elected to fly in (and up) to Jomoson and then hike out (and down). A stroll really, and at that time I was teaching martial arts three days week … okay, it was to 10 yr-olds, but I was still in pretty good shape with all the punching and kicking. Nevertheless comparing those two treks with hiking to Annapurna Base Camp is like comparing a full moon party on the beach with actually going tothe moon. Anyway at that point, practically speaking, the likelihood of actually doing this was rather remote. I assumed the conversation would just move on.
But I forgot Jacki was in the room. The planning had already begun when I woke up from my nap.
This picture indicates where Jacki is in her Nepal planning