Sunday, May 19, 2013

Tribhuvan International Airport & Elbrus Home

Towards the end of the 1.5 hour flight, as we approached Kathmandu from Delhi, and we watched the airplane's progress on the maps screen on the personal tv while in-flight, it seemed like we were flying directly into a mountain range.  At times I wondered how close we would get to the mountains and it even crossed my mind that we might land in the mountains. But after peering out of the window, we saw that the airport actually lays in a relatively flat, dry, barren area.

Upon landing (on the 2nd attempt - first try was aborted just a few hundred feet above the runway), the jet taxied towards what I thought to be the terminal gate, but I quickly realized that there was no such thing as a jetway and we were about to deplane via staircase onto the tarmac. As we disembarked the aircraft, I couldn't help but feel like we landed in something well short of a first-world country. We watched as our bags were being removed from the belly of the plane and loaded onto a cart that was a trailer to the bus we were ushered towards which would drop us off at the international arrivals gate.

Arriving in Kathmandu's Tribhuvan International Airport (KTM) immediately gives you the impression that you've landed in an old-world, third-world country. It is the only international airport in Nepal and only has 1 domestic and 1 international terminal, which connects the country to Asia, the Middle East, and some of Europe. And it's solitude in the country shows within the arrival terminal, baggage claim, and customs.

Just prior to reaching customs, there is an area where the window sills are lined with forms which you must complete and present to your immigration agent. It is here where people rush to fill out all the necessary information and attach their extra passport photos just to fall into 1 of 3 lines for processing. One line is for Nepalese nationals...empty. The other 2 lines are for foreigners.

As we approach the desk, I notice that there are 3 men sitting at 1 desk. The first man receives you, asks for how long you are staying (15, 30, or 90 days - Tourist Visa) and takes your payment for your Visa ($25 for 15 days, $40 for 30 days, or $100 for 90 days). Our trip was a total of 16 days, but the officer allowed us to pay for 15 days. The next officer receives your passport and scans to confirm that it is real and that there are no alerts on your identity. The last officer reviews the first two officers work, eyes your passport against your face, confirms your identity, returns your stamped passport with Visa and wishes you a pleasant day.

As we proceeded to retrieve our luggage from 1 of 3 old-looking carousels and exit the building, we stopped briefly by the foreign currency exchange counter to buy some Nepalese Rupees (NPR). With an exchange rate of $1 to 86Rs, you're getting a pretty good rate. Next to the forex counter was what ended up being a hassle. Two agents were feverishly trying to gain our attention and offered up lodging, trekking guides, tours, etc. Reluctantly, we stopped by to understand what they had to say.

We had in mind the name of a hostel where our friends had chosen to stay the night before. I inquired about this place, but it seemed that it wasn't on the agents' list of places to promote. I even asked about the Kathmandu Guest House whose owner is the brother of a doctor whom my mom works with at the hospital (3 degrees of separation). The agents kept saying that if we booked with them there would be a 10% discount. Unfortunately, we did not choose any of the options they kept trying to sell.

Instead, we joined our friends at the Elbrus Home, which turned out to be one of the best decisions we made. Although only a hostel, not a hotel, Elbrus Home was welcoming, warm, friendly, accommodating, inexpensive, and in a great location (walking distance to the shops in Thamel and even the Royal Palace; only a 40 minute walk to the Monkey Temple). Khem, one of the managers, and his brother were extremely helpful to us. They provided everything we needed, were so kind, and always encouraged us to take advantage of all the comforts that Elbrus had to offer.

For a reasonable $30 a night for a triple room with en-suite, you cannot go wrong. The rooms were basic but comfortable. A simple breakfast of fried eggs, toast with butter or jam, orange juice, coffee or tea, and bananas was included every morning, which you could take in the common room or more comfortably in the garden under some umbrellas. Rooftop seating that overlooked the Thamel district of Kathmandu was also available which we made use of to share cocktails. And a friendly conversation full of insight to the city and guide-like suggestions from the staff was more than enough to make the stay worth the few dollars we shelled out.

Unfortunately, after our return from the trek, we were unable to be accommodated at Elbrus Home due to capacity (see, they're popular), but they still picked us up from the airport and easily made arrangements for us to stay at their sister hotel, Avalon House, which is a 3 minute walk away from Elbrus Home on a side street away set back from the hustle and bustle of the main road.

Khem made it convenient for us (and financially beneficial to him and his colleagues, I'm sure) by connecting us with his friend Prem of Heian Treks & Expedition, where we eventually organized and purchased our Himalayan trek to Everest Base Camp.

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