Nepal 1986

Swayambhunath Temple, Kathmandu

What journey ever goes off without a hitch? Or two?

When you travel on “space available”, or “subject to load” tickets, as airline personnel do, the hitches tend to be more numerous.

It was ironic, therefore, that the first hitch on our journey to Tibet involved our fully paid, “full revenue” tickets. I don’t know how the system works these days, but in the 1980’s, flights around India were always oversold.

This was why we had taken the precaution of booking proper tickets with guaranteed seats. The problem was that the seats needed to be reconfirmed 72 hours prior to departure. There was no possibility of doing this from New York and by the time we arrived in Delhi, we were under the deadline.

Immediately upon arrival in our hotel, we prevailed upon the concierge to take our tickets along to Indian Airlines, in the hope he would get them re-validated. But he returned not long after with the unwelcome information that we were now numbers 88 and 89 on the wait-list. Fantastic. We needed to be in Kathmandu two days hence.

Would we make it?

Airline staff have the great privilege of travelling either free or at a significant discount, but only if seats become available. Begging and cajoling and being a nuisance to the gate staff is the best way to get left behind, so we were always very disciplined, no matter how anxious we became.

As “proper passengers”, however, all bets were off. Tim got himself fully worked up, ready to do battle with Indian Airlines.

Back once more at the airport next day, we confidently placed our bags on the scale only to be told that we were on standby and to please go away. Tim refused. He announced that no-one else was going to check in until he was issued the seats we had booked in good faith and that Indian Airlines had given away.

“Sir, please, you must move aside!”

“No!” said Tim, “I want to see your manager!”

Meanwhile I cringed in the background.

At the check-in counter across the lobby, a Royal Nepal Airlines flight was finalizing their check-in, so, taking the initiative, I scurried over to see if they had any seats to offer.

“No, Mam!”


At Indian Airlines, Tim was beginning to cause a back-up and eventually some sort of supervisor turned up to deal with the obnoxious passenger.

Next thing you know, our bags were seized from the scale and the supervisor requested:

“Come with me, please!” and marched us across the lobby.

Where, what do you know, two seats became magically available on Royal Nepal Airlines and pretty soon we were seated in their Yeti Service to Kathmandu.

A short flight saw us winging our way through the majestic and magnificent Himalayas.

After installing ourselves in our new hotel, we had time to go for a quick walk before meeting up with the rest of our group who were mostly flying in from London.

Kathmandu was unlike any place I had ever visited. There were a few newer buildings but they tended to blend in with the old and there was a definite feel of the Dark Ages.

Everything, but everything, happened in the middle of the “road”, though I almost hesitate to use the word as it was more just a general thoroughfare.

We saw a woman, for example, washing her hair in a bowl, in the middle of the street, oblivious to cars, cows, tourists or anything else.

In another place, we saw women threshing wheat in the middle of what was what we would have called a “square”, with pyramids of wheat all around.

Everyone seemed very well-tempered. They simply steered their vehicle, bike, walking tractor, whatever it might be, around whatever obstacle was in their path.

There was some tooting of horns as a warning, but no cursing or yelling and there appeared to be no accidents in this great melee. It was amazing.

The women wore long sarong-like skirts made of dark blue cotton, with criss-cross bodices. The men were in long shirts and trousers that were baggy in the thigh area then tapered to the ankle. Men mostly had short spiky hair and some wore a Nehru type cap.The women wore their long hair clasped back behind their neck.

The Nepali people seemed to be a curious mix of North Indian and Chinese. I was charmed by them. Their dark-skinned faces were enchanting. Their high cheek bones, rosy cheeks and dark, smiling eyes struck me as quite beautiful. Their faces reminded me of pictures I had seen of Native Americans. I felt so attracted to them, I had to wonder whether I had perhaps lived here, in another lifetime. It wasn’t the first time this thought had occurred.

A medicine man displayed an interesting selection of items including bird beaks and some rather vicious-looking scorpions. His gluey black potion looked a bit nasty but I read that it smelled of licorice and eucalyptus. I didn’t investigate. For certain symptoms, it was applied to the appropriate foot, leg, or whatever.

My notes tell me that at this point I discovered another small disaster. I became suspicious that my film had not yet run out (this was pre-digital) and realised that I had not even loaded my camera! All the pictures taken at a colourful trade fair in Delhi, – non existent.

Still, I had Tim with me and his photographs were always brilliant. He was in fact travelling with two cameras, which turned out to be fortuitous as my camera ended by refusing to function, period.

Soon we were overcome by a combination of jet lag and altitude, so we repaired to the hotel where we met up with our tour guide Neil, a tall, nice-looking and energetic young English man who assembled the group next morning for a serious pre-departure briefing.

I sat listening in awe, wondering what in hell I had got myself into.

We were to depart by bus at 0730 next day for an arduous 3-day overland journey to Lhasa. Our expected first night stop should be at 1730, at an inn on the border.

Neil warned us again about the seriousness of the altitude, saying that we should not be surprised to awake from sleep gasping for air. Which was something I occasionally did at sea-level! Grand.

He also told us that the condition of the road was uncertain, that our time frame was not guaranteed and that we should be prepared for long, tiring days.

We were also told that edible food might be scarce for the next three days and that we should therefore go shopping for whatever we could find to bring along as personal supplies.

Finally, Neil told us, we should add 1 hour and 20 minutes to our time pieces. This in addition to the 10 hours 45 minutes we had already added from New York. My brain began to seize up at that point. I didn’t plan to adjust my watch at all, as I always remained on New York time to which I could add 5 hours in order to be on GMT, or Zulu time, as the airlines called it. This I could work with. Usually.

After this somewhat stunning briefing, Neil told us that if, after all these considerations, we felt that the journey might be too difficult, now would be the time to speak up. I felt myself tremble, but I held my tongue.

I spent lunchtime writing “farewell” postcards!

Tim went to find a young man who could take us on a short tour, afterwards, to a nearby town and we filled our afternoon exploring and purchasing dried fruit and nuts to supplement our food supply.

We had an interesting time visiting Bhaktapur and the famous temple with eyes, the Swayambhunath temple.

Having worked myself up to quite a state of anxiety, I awoke next day feeling most unwell. The last thing I felt like doing at that point was getting in a bus and going to Lhasa.

I sent Tim off to have breakfast while I tried to get myself together…

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