We land, and a few minutes later, lumber out of a shuttle-bus into the airport. Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport is a low-slung, red-brick building with ornate wooden cornices and beams. The establishment retains a shabby, old-world charm unlike the glass-and-steel airports of the world. Once inside, we form a line that snakes around a wall. Finally, we walk through a wooden metal detector and an ancient X-ray unit for our hand luggage. And then, we are spit out into the maw of chaos.
The luggage area is chock-a-block with people. Many are squatting in groups, while others are milling around. It turns out that the conveyor belts are unmarked. Television screens that should be announcing the plane-load they would disgorge are without power. The only electronic screen pulsating with energy advertises Samsung’s latest smartphone. I look around, and find the besieged luggage retrieval office. A couple of people — a competent-looking lady in uniform and a beleaguered underling — are running the desk. As I walk up to it, the lady gets up and walks past me. I look at the underling and I know the answer to my question: we have to wait. We find a corner and wait for the conveyor belt TVs to light up. It is surprisingly warm — almost as warm as Hyderabad.
Many of my fellow passengers are workers coming back home for “Dushain” — Dussera. A Nepali colleague tells me that if one is not back home for Dushain, one is as good as dead. Many of them are lugging massive LED TV screens, sometimes two. One man opens up his large suitcase and it’s full of electronic gadgets — an electric cooker, a mixer, a hair-dryer. There are three sets of people: worker-groups coming in from the Gulf states — Doha, Muscat. They remind me of the many Telugu workers arriving in Hyderabad from the Gulf states. The second set are from the East — Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore. Finally, the smorgasbord of tourists — first, the business travellers. Then, dishevelled backpackers with the Everest Base camp route-map tee-shirts (doubtless from the world’s highest souvenir store). Finally, seasoned travellers who switch to Nepali when speaking to airport staff.
We learn that some of the Gulf passengers have been waiting for their bags for two days! Later in the day at our hotel, I get to meet quite a few of my event’s delegates whose luggage didn’t arrive with them. It was easy to pick them out: lounging in smelly tee-shirts at the bar, throwing their hands up every now and then. After a long wait, the TV screens atop the conveyor belts flicker awake and one of them flashes my flight number. Soon, I walk out of the airport clutching my small suitcase and event material.
Outside Tribhuvan’s main gate, our taxi joins a steady stream of traffic. Eerily, for a Hyderabadi, there is no honking despite the big jams (the law prohibits honking). Kathmandu’s municipal authorities have laid down massive water pipes around the city. My visit is after this herculean effort, thankfully. But, the roads have not been topped with tar yet, and so, there is a pall of dust all over the city. Surgical masks are now a must-have South Asian fashion accessory.
Our taxi crosses the Bhagmati river, with the Pashupatinath temple to our right. As you cross a small bridge over the river, you can also see the burning funeral pyres on its banks. Apart from shepherding Hindu souls to the after-life, the river is the main source of drinking water to the Kathmandu valley. Demand has outstripped supply and borewells are sucking the valley dry. A massive project to bring snow-melt from the Melamchi river through a 20-odd km tunnel is underway — the pipelines in the city are part of this effort. I love big engineering projects and hope to see the tunnel system one day.
Our taxi winds its way through the traffic, and we finally arrive at the Yak and Yeti. The economics of five-star hotels are fascinating. You walk in, and your eyes will water at the asking rate. You bring 300 people along, and everything changes. They even throw in some meeting halls and a lunch or two — and trot out a Yak for your entertainment. If you are good, you can also wrangle some free wi-fi. In the three days we spent there, the hotel staff took every request we threw at them with a smile. Meetings in the morning, catch-up and reviews in the evening and group dinners at night. In no time, we were back at good old Tribhuvan.
There is something magical about travel. An atavistic prod, something in the bones that propels people onward. There are, of course, those who strike deep roots under their sofa and refuse to heed that siren call. I’m of the latter group. Anything further than our neighbourhood grocery requires mental preparation. And yet, I realise that travel is good for the mind and soul, and I’m thankful for the opportunities.