Friday 20 December
The taxi arrives early and I rush down the steps with my bags, confusing the driver a little when I then dart up the steps to my neighbour’s house. But it’s only to post a Christmas card through her letterbox. As the driver turns around, I realise I’ve left my favourite hat sitting on the dining room table, and make him wait while I go back to retrieve it. “Going anywhere nice for Christmas then?” he asks. “Well, just to Everest.” I reply nonchalantly. He almost crashes the taxi. I really must be careful when replying to this question in future. It’s funny how different the reactions are to this statement. The driver chuckles: “Good job you remembered you hat then, it’ll be chilly up there.” Quite. He then asks (in all seriousness) if I plan to go skiing while I’m on Everest. Now I know I’m renowned for being quite adventurous, but I’m not sure that Everest is a top ski destination.
Saturday 21 December
In the middle of the night, it occurred to me what was odd. It’s 4 days before Christmas, and yet there’s not a sign of it anywhere. Being on an Etihad flight, it made sense that the plane didn’t feel very Christmassy, but even so. The flight was actually very uneventful, apart from being offered an “eye sandwich” for breakfast. Since I’m always up for new experiences, I decided not to question it and thought I’d try whatever delicacy this was. It turned out to be egg. Actually the food on both flights was excellent, as was pretty much everything about Etihad. I’d definitely fly with them again.
Arriving at Abu Dhabi airport at 7am local time (2am according to my body clock) and having managed less than 2 hours’ sleep, I felt decidedly disoriented and claustrophobic as I threaded my way through the heaving masses. I don’t know if it’s always this busy, or if it was just because of Christmas, but I certainly wasn’t expecting this hive of activitiy at 7am. Luckily the good thing about international airports is you can always get a coffee, so I was able to chill out with my book and idly ponder what the next 2 weeks would bring. I was also a little excited about my first timei n the UAE, even if I didn’t get to see anything except a large swathe of tarmac with palm trees, pictures of tribal horsemen on the walls, and lots of men in dresses.
Kathmandu Airport, in contrast, was exceedingly dull, but after a 90 minute queue for my visa (which it turned out later was actually stamped with the wrong date), I was on my way and met by a smiling guide in the carpark. By the time I arrived at the hotel, I was shattered, and the group briefing went straight over my head after the first 2 minutes. Having met the group, it was soon time for dinner, and we headed into Kathmandu, led by Jangbu, our guide. I hadn’t really been expecting such dim street lights and for the pavements to be so broken, so it was quite a challenging walk for me in the dark! Electricity lines ran parallel to neck height above the pavement, threatening to decapitate unsuspecting pedestrians at every step.
The food was a set Nepalese menu and delicious – hot, spicy and filling – just what I needed after a long and tiring flight. It was accompanied by some traditional Nepalese dancers, some of whom were more proficient than others. Since we were the only people in the restaurant, the whole thing was rather surreal.
Very few of us slept well the first night – despite our tiredness, reverse jetlag seemed to hit, and most of us were awake at 3am. As I lay awake cursing the oppressive heat of the room, I had to keep reminding myself to enjoy the warmth as I knew the next 11 nights would be in subzero temperatures.
Sunday 22 December
An early 6.15am wakeup call for our 9.30 flight to Lukla, we all hurriedly packed our bags, had a hasty breakfast (in my case, porridge with banana, followed by pancakes with banana and honey, and 3 cups of coffee in an attempt to wake up). Little did I know that it would be the last time I saw a banana for 2 weeks. Bag weighing followed, and more frantic repacking to fit the 10kg weight limit for hold baggage and 5kg for hand luggage. I was quite proud of my 10.04 kg bag and 4.45kg rucksack! Then the bad news — Lukla airport was closed due to fog, so we would have to wait. Most of us went back for more breakfast, or at least more coffee, cursing the weather gods that had cut our beauty sleep unnecessarily short. Certainly none of us felt very beautiful that morning. There was lots of discussion about what would happen if our flight was delayed for long, but since Jangbu seemed totally unconcerned, I figured he had plenty of backup plans in store.
The next few hours were pretty chaotic – once Lukla airport had finally reopened, Kathmandu airport then closed due to fog, then eventually reopened. When we arrived at Kathmandu airpotr, there were hordes of travellers milling around Domestic Departures, which resembled a grotty and very cold bus station. After approximately 3 hours, and an incredibly grim long drop loo I had to use twice after all the coffee, we finally had our bags weighed again and boarded a bus to the plane. We then sat on the tarmac for 30 minutes while the pilot had a cup of tea. Still, knowing the perilous nature of the flight in store, we decided it was wise not to grumble at this.
I’d read many things about the scariness of the flight to Lukla (“the world’s most dangerous airport”), but to me it was nothing short of incredible. We were lucky to have no wind, and had a beautifully smooth flight with stunning views of the mountain ranges, the tops of which were still 1000m higher than our plane. Then before we knew it, there was a bump and we had landed. The oddest thing was that we barely descended in altitude before landing, unlike a normal flight, and once we hit the ground, we actually ascended, since the runway is on a 12 degree slope, which apparently is one of the steepest runways in the world, with a sheer drop at the end of it.
In contrast, Lukla itself I found rather disappointing – the fog descended rapidly on arrival and it was decidedly chilly. Far from the bright sunshine and temperatures in the high teens that I’d been expecting! It was already time to dig out the gloves and woolly hat, although I thought the people who donned down jackets were taking things a little to extremes. I was definitely keeping my down jacket for when it got really cold! The arrivals at Lukla airport didn’t do much to raise my spirits – there wasn’t even a hall, just a sort of bus stop with a table for the bags, and a pretty grim long drop loo. Luckily, our bags arrived quickly (they only had to be carried a few yards after all) and we hurriedly made our way to the first of the many teahouses we would experience.