One look out the window and our hopes of getting out of Lukla were dashed.
It was pouring with rain, as it had all night, and the whole town was shrouded in thick cloud. It didn't look promising for the airport opening.
Regardless, we clung to reckless optimism as we ate our breakfast, checked out, and trudged through town.
Grim faced foreigners
Our entrance to the departure hall confirmed our suspicions. It was only 0645am, but already the room was littered with despondent trekkers, collapsed on their bags like dead bugs. We headed to the check in counter to find it unmanned - they weren't even bothering to check people in. It was not looking good for our much anticipated exit from Lukla.
Naturally, there was no information being given. In a repeat performance of our flights from Kathmandu to Lukla, the airline staff were hiding in offices, desperate to avoid any irate tourists. We assumed the airport was closed, based on the rumours going around the hall. Others confirmed that no flights had gone the day before, or the day before that. The place was packed with people who wanted to be anywhere but here.
Within half an hour, we'd struck up a friendship with an American girl who lived in Kathmandu and her flatmate, a Nepalese man. They were scheduled to be on the flight before us, and were pretty keen to get out too.
Shopping for helicopters
As the morning wore on, and there was no sign of the airport opening, people started scouting out the possibility of getting helicopters back to Kathmandu. And then the surprise hit. While it was $250USDpp to get a helicopter up to Lukla, it was now $500USDpp to get one back to Kathmandu. Smelling the desperation of people who have been hiking for weeks, and those that have international flight connections to make, and knowing that no flights have departed for two days, the ruthless helicopter organisers had skyrocketed their prices.
And then there was the administrative madness. Everyone in town had a stake in the chopper business. There was no way to deal directly with the chopper companies, unless you somehow had a contact (which we didn't) - everyone was going through guides, guesthouse owners, travel agents etc etc... And everyone was adding a margin to make sure they were getting their cut. The result was chaos. All the foreigners were trying to get the best deal, and all the locals were trying to get the most money.
Luckily, our new friends had some contacts. He was a guide, so knew some agents who could put us in touch with the helicopter companies. He spent some time on the phone, and came back with good news - he'd found a company that could get us a helicopter for $300USDpp. The only issue was that the helicopter was in Kathmandu, and they didn't want to fly it up empty, so they were trying to arrange passengers to fill it. We'd just have to wait.
We went to the office to confirm that we'd get a refund on our flights if they we went to get a helicopter. The staff member assured us that even if our flight ended up going, as long as we didn't get on it, we'd be able to get a full refund. He also told us that he didn't think there would be any chance of flights taking off that day.
In the meantime, we decided to stay close to the airport on the off chance that a weather miracle occurred. We went to a German bakery right outside the airport and settled in with some hot drinks and snacks to pass the time. While we ate, our Nepalese friend stayed on the phone, calling around everywhere to see if he could find us anything that would get us out sooner - with no luck.
The bad news
After a couple of hours had passed, we got a phone call. The helicopter company couldn't find people to fill the chopper on the way up, and they weren't willing to fly it up empty for us. It was now 2pm, all flights had been cancelled for the third day in a row, and everyone in town was scrambling to get a helicopter.
It was decision time. It looked like the only way we were going to get a helicopter was to pay the obscene $500USDpp that they were asking. The other option, to hike out, was no longer on the table for us. It involved hiking for two days to a nearby town to get a 10 hour bus ride back to Kathmandu. We didn't have time before our flight to do that.
Our first port of call was the airline office in town, to find out exactly what we were supposed to do now. We arrived, and the man at the counter told us that until 4pm, the people for the flights leaving the next day would be arriving to 'check in' - in other words, to confirm that they were in town and that they wanted to go on their scheduled flights the following day. This was interesting to us, because we didn't know we were supposed to do that, so never confirmed our flights when we arrived into town. Another example of stunning communication from the airlines... Next, they told us that in order to go on the waitlist for flights the next day, we needed to come back at 4pm to put our names down on the standby list and be allocated a flight out. Again, no one had told us we needed to do that. If we hadn't gone to the airline office to see what the deal was, we wouldn't have gone on the waitlist for the next day either...
It was 3.20pm, and we were hungry, so we thought we'd go get some food and come back at 4pm. We asked what time they closed. They closed at 4pm. We decided to stay and wait... At 4pm, we asked if the waitlist was open yet. We were told the waitlist opened at 4.30pm. By this point the whole situation was so ridiculous, we didn't even bat an eyelid.
At 4.30pm, our names were put on the waitlist. We were informed that the priority order was as follows:
- People whose flights were booked for tomorrow
- People whose flights were cancelled two days ago
- People whose flights were cancelled yesterday
- People whose flights were cancelled today
So it wasn't looking great for us getting on a flight tomorrow either... We decided that in the morning, we'd look at the weather, and if it wasn't a brilliantly sunny day where all flights would be going, we'd immediately try to book a helicopter, and pay the $500USDpp.
Our new friends decided that they weren't willing to pay for the helicopter, so they packed their bags and started hiking out. Half an hour later they were back. They'd run into someone on the trail who had just hiked in, and told them to turn back - the rain had turned the trail to mush, and it was virtually unhikeable. She said that they would need to add at least a day to their journey just to take into account track conditions. They decided to come back and formulate another plan.
We followed our new friends to Himalayan Lodge, where they had stayed the night before. We checked in and went to our room - we're pretty sure it was the last on available. It stank of turpentine and paint, but otherwise it was okay. I hoped the smell would fade as the night wore on.
Back down in the common room, we ordered some dinner and chatted with people. Our mood was pretty low. We had mentally prepared to be back in Kathmandu, and another night in Lukla really did feel like the end of the world at the time.
The whole common room was buzzing with people making plans for the following day - who was going to wait for flights, who was organising helicopters and how, and who was hiking out. It was all conjecture though - nobody really knew exactly what was going on.
Our new friends set about organising a different plan - they got a group together to share a helicopter to the town where the abuses to Kathmandu left from. Rather than $500USDpp, they paid $200USDpp. While the saving on the helicopter sounded nice, there were a few too many steps for the plan to fall through. Some of the people they had agreed to share with were a little flaky, the lodge owner who was organising the helicopter seemed a little shady, and it was unclear whether the bus would connect with the helicopter, or whether they would have to spend a night in the town. Overall, we thought we were safer to stick with our original plan of crossing our fingers for good weather, and sorting out a helicopter straight back to Kathmandu if that didn't work.
Eventually, we retired to our room. Within half an hour, I had a headache from the fumes. Bugs kept flying into my face. This room sucked. Not long after I finally managed to drift off, I was rudely awoken by a large group of drunk French people returning from the pub just before midnight. Once they'd finally taken themselves off to bed and the lodge had settled down again, I fell back asleep. For two hours. Then the next group of loud French people decided to have a full volume conversation in the hallway. And then, at 4am, another group of people got up and stomped around the hallways. At that point, I gave up on sleep for good.
Another disappointing weather day
I peeked out the window at 6am to see... Nothing. It was fogged in again. Both Zev and I felt like death. A night in the fume room had left us both with sore throats, and we knew we were getting sick again. We had that familiar flu-like ache, and were really just desperate to get out of Lukla. After breakfast, we said our goodbyes to our new friends, and bypassed the airport, knowing that we wouldn't get any useful information there.
Instead, we went straight to the helipad. "All the helicopters are full today. You can hang around and see if we can find you a spot, but we can't book you on anything." Hmmm. A likely story...
With the scent of bullshit in the air, we headed back into town in the search of a travel agent who could help us out. We found a cafe advertising helicopter flights (and who accepted credit card - even better), and went in. The cafe owner assured us he could get us a helicopter, but it might take a little time. He told us to take a seat and wait.
Waiting, waiting, waiting....
About an hour later, he came over to inform us that he'd found us a helicopter, but we'd need to wait 1-2 hours. We were so happy to hear that we were leaving, that we didn't even care about the wait. We were both still feeling pretty lousy, and my kindle had died, so time was passing slowly, but we managed to get in touch with our families to let them know what was going on, and otherwise just settled in, watching the rain and cloud blow in outside.
2 hours later, he came back over. Apparently it was going to be another 2 hours. "Definitely today though?", we asked. "Definitely today", he confirmed.
Another 2 hours later, a man walked in with a helicopter company jacket on, and an EFTPOS machine. This was a promising sign - surely they wouldn't take our money if they weren't confident that they could get us out of here. He confirmed the price. "$500 per person. Plus 10% fee for credit card." Of course. Of COURSE there was another fee. Sigh. We paid the man, and he told us that it would be about another 1-1.5 hours, but then we'd go.
2.5 hours later, there was a flurry of movement, and the cafe owner bustled back in the door from where he was having a cigarette outside. "Let's go". We grabbed our haphazardly packed bags from the 200m walk to the heliport.
It was raining pretty heavily now, and the clouds were coming in in force. We got to the heliport and the cafe owner pointed to a young guy in jeans and a tee shirt. "Go with him."
Immediately, he started telling us we needed to hurry, hurry, hurry. Slightly confused, we scuttled after him on the slippery and uneven stone footpath, trying to keep all our gear together as it hung awkwardly from our shoulders. We followed him straight past the heliport, and down the road...
We followed him past houses and through schools, until we reached a turn off. He pointed and said, "You need to go down there. Follow those people." In the distance, a couple of hundred metres ahead of us, we could make out a group of similarly flustered looking foreigners slipping and sliding down the track. "Where are we going??", I asked. The man huffed, cleary irritated at being asked ridiculous questions like 'Where are we going'. "We have to go this way, not far, just follow them, we need to hurry."
We noticed that the guy who had taken our money in the cafe had now turned up. Thoroughly bewildered, and increasingly pissed off, we set off at a trot down the path, not letting these guys out of our sight.
Another 5 minutes down the path, I'd had enough. I felt like garbage, my bag wasn't packed comfortably, hell, my shoelaces weren't even done up! "Where are you taking us? How far is it?". The guy who took our money answered, with a shit eating grin on his face. "Not far - only an hour."
"Well it would only be half an hour for us, but you guys are slow, so probably an hour."
I was ready to scream. This goddamn country was going to be the death of me.
We continued our down hill scramble, with both us and the other tourists slipping and sliding everywhere, trying to keep up with the blistering pace the Nepalese men (with no packs and done up shoes) were setting.
Over the course of the next little while, Zev managed to catch the name of the helipad they kept mentioning, and looked it up on his phone. It was 4.5kms away.
The rain had really started coming down properly now, and we realised that we were on the path that our friends had started hiking the day before, but had turned back from because they'd been told it was unhikeable.
And they were right. The top layer of soil had more or less disappeared in the rain, and the clay underneath was exposed. It was like walking on glass. Except that the glass was covered in yak shit, so when you fell over, it was both painful and disgusting.
We ended up taking a 'shortcut', which involved mostly sliding on our asses (unintentionally)down a steep, muddy hillside, while swearing loudly at the Nepalese men who gave exactly zero shits about how furious we all were.
Finally, after 45-50mins on the trail we reached the bottom of the hill, and the path levelled out. We could see a field close by filled with 7-8 helicopters, and were informed that at least one of them was ours. Our little group of bedraggled and shellshocked tourists staggered into the field to await further instruction.
One last insult to injury
The field was filled with about 8 helicopters from various companies, and about 50 trekkers looking wild eyed and desperate. We found ourselves put into a group with an Austrian couple (one exhausted girl, and one furious guy, who was demanding that we would be put on the next helicopter), and an american guy, who informed us that he had a fever, and looked ready to pass out.
The Nepalese man pointed to a hill just above us - "That's your helicopter." We nearly died. Surely after all that, we didn't have to walk BACK up a hill to get in?? Thankfully no - minutes later, the chopper took off, swung round, and flew into the field where we were waiting.
We all piled in, everyone looking so relieved to be getting out. We were finally all smiles, and could hardly believe that it was finally over - we were getting out of Lukla!
Suddenly, a Nepalese woman appeared at the door. "200r per person airport tax." UNBELIEVABLE!!!!!
With that final hurdle taken care of, we were off. We learned that our helicopter pilot was a kiwi, which was pretty cool.
The ride back to Kathmandu was a bit more fun that the ride up - we had some music playing, and the pilot chatted to us all a bit, pointing out some of the sights out the window.
45 minutes later, we touched down in Kathmandu, hardly able to believe that we were finally 'home'.
Getting out of Kathmandu
We headed back to our old accommodation, and spent the next few days enjoying the modest luxuries of being back in the capital - good food, laundry, hot showers, working wifi. We returned our rented hiking gear, bought some knock off hiking gear that we didn't need, and generally got our ducks in a row for heading to the US.
Our flight to NY passed largely without incident. I had some difficulty checking in for the flight because they wanted to see a copy of my ESTA, and didn't seem to believe me when I told them that the E in ESTA stood for electronic.
On the first flight, Zev developed sudden onset conjuncitivis, and his eye swelled almost shut. Then he got a mystery ear infection.
Once we got the Abu Dhabi, the flight was delayed for an hour, and we were exhausted, but we made the time up in the air, only landing 20 minutes later than scheduled.
We ended up sat between a husband and wife (her in the window seat, me in the middle, Zev on the aisle, and her husband on the other aisle) who assured us they didn't want to switch seats, and then spent the first 45 minutes of the flight yell-talking to each other over us while we were trying to sleep. When I finally told her (with my eyes) that if she kept this up, I was going to punch her, she moved to sit next to him. We spread out over the three seats and finally settled in for some sleep. 10 minutes later, the wife no longer wanted to sit next to the husband, she wanted to lie down and go to sleep, so he was waking us up to move AGAIN so that he could have Zev's aisle seat. Infuriating. From then on though, it was a pretty quiet flight, and we managed to get a decent amount of sleep and enjoy some inflight entertainment shiny, new Etihad A380.
Our arrival into New York was greatly expedited by the fact that we had already cleared US immigration in Abu Dhabi. After landing in JFK, we just collected our bags, grabbed a taxi, and set out to explore the city that never sleeps!
Lots of love,
S & Z