If you told me when I was younger that I’d backpack through the Himalayas for 10 days in Nepal, I probably would’ve laughed. High elevation, various diseases, extreme conditions…there were more than enough reasons for me to avoid that part of the world. It wasn’t my first time traveling internationally, and it certainly wasn’t my first time going somewhere remote in high elevation, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that this journey would be different. I didn’t know how, but I knew it would be.
It was a bright Sunday afternoon when I stepped into the airport. Some of my friends and family had come to see me off, sharing hugs and well wishes as I stepped into the line for TSA. The first leg of the journey was a simple hop from Minneapolis to Chicago for a short layover. After making my way over to the international terminal, I boarded the plane that would be my home for the next 13 hours.
The flight was long but nice, and the descent over the Persian Gulf was breathtaking as we landed at Doha airport. Multiple man-made islands littered the shoreline, holding massive hotels that exuded luxury. The wealth of this country was apparent, even before we touched down, and I was a little sad that I wouldn’t have the chance to explore Qatar more since I was here. It would definitely be a trip for another time.
Doha airport was immense. Not only that, it was the cleanest and nicest airport I’ve ever been to by far. We happened to land in the middle of a sandstorm, so we weren’t able to see the famous Corinche skyline in the distance, but perhaps we would have the opportunity when we were on our way home.
After wandering around for a few hours and getting over some culture shock (such as men walking around with falcons), we were finally off to our last flight. Destination: Kathmandu.
I’ll never forget the sight of the Himalayas as we approached the airport. I’ve seen a lot of mountains, but there’s something about the enormity of that particular mountain range that makes you wonder how something that big can exist on earth. The sun was just starting to rise as we got closer to those majestic peaks, now glowing in the morning light.
This was it. 40 hours after departing from Minneapolis, I was finally in Kathmandu, Nepal.
Tribhuvan International Airport
Sadly my joy was short lived. Kathmandu airport is considered one of the worst in the world for a reason, and the immigration area lived up to this title. While the process of getting a tourist visa in Nepal was simple in theory, it was a much different story when I was trying to figure it out. There was almost no signage to point me in the right direction, and the process itself has 3 separate steps (with 3 separate lines).
I made my way over to a kiosk, after asking a few people who looked like they knew what they were doing. It took awhile before one opened up, but once I got there, all I had to do was plug in my email address, a scan of my passport, the hotel I’d be staying at, and a phone number. Easy stuff, but confusing to know this was the place I needed to go to first, since I’d never been there before.
Once I got my receipt from the kiosk, it was time to get in line to pay for the visa. By this time, I had already been in the airport for more than an hour, and it took another 30 minutes before I was able to pay. The room was hot and stuffy, and I was getting agitated by how long it was taking.
I received a few sheets of paper to bring to the front of the third and final line, which ended up being the worst out of all of them. There were 4 security officers, each with their own line of people waiting to get their visas certified so they could enter the country. Naturally, I picked the shortest line.
Half an hour later, it became apparent that no one had moved more than a few inches. Security officers would randomly change shifts, or close their station altogether, leaving 20-30 frustrated travelers to shift over into another line that wasn’t moving. One of these travelers happened to be me.
Finally, after 4 hours of waiting, I was able to get through customs. As soon as I made it through, the security officer closed his station again, leaving the entire line of people behind me to switch lines. Needless to say, I breathed a large sigh of relief.
At last, it was time to step foot outside into Kathmandu.
The Bus Ride
The group I was traveling with had already chartered a bus to bring us part way up the mountain to our “base camp” in the village of Chame. As we stepped out of the airport, our guide for the journey directed us to the bus we would be using. For the sake of privacy, I’ll refer to him as “Lokendra.”
Our original plan had been to make it all the way to Chame the same day we landed. However, because it took us so long to get through customs, it was already pushing 5pm, which was far too late to make it to our desired destination. We’d have to spend the night in a hotel, and the unexpected schedule change seemed to put a lot of stress on Lokendra.
I think all of us assumed that we would be staying in Kathmandu, and wondered when we would be stopping at our hotel. The city streets were lively and crowded, but also very dirty and rundown. It happened to be the first day of a festival that was taking place, so it looked like most people were dressed up for the occasion.
Our driver expertly weaved in and out of the crowds, eventually stopping outside of Lokendra’s house. He quickly went inside to grab his camping gear, and other essentials for the journey.
As I sat in that old, uncomfortable bus halfway around the world from home, an odd sense of peace filled me. I expected to feel culture shock, especially in Nepal, a country that was vastly different from any other that I’ve ever traveled to before. But instead, all I felt was confidence that this was where I was supposed to be, and this way of life somehow felt right.
Lokendra came back with his gear, and we were on our way again. What we expected to be nothing more than a 20 minute bus ride to a hotel in Kathmandu ended up being a several hour long journey far west of the city. I was a little confused, but by this time, I was too tired to complain.
Driving on the roads of Nepal was a treacherous experience that raised my heart rate on more than one occasion. Passing other drivers was a common practice, as was laying on the horn to let others know we were trying to get around them. All of this was fine, other than the fact that the only way to pass someone…was to drive into oncoming traffic.
I sat close to the front of the bus, so I had my fair share of headlights shining in my eyes as the bus driver was on his way toward a head on collision. Miraculously, we never had an accident, despite coming within a few feet of buses and motorbikes traveling in the opposite direction.
After the first couple of hours, I gave up on getting to the hotel anytime soon. And with almost 3 full days of travel under my belt with little sleep, I started dozing off. When you’re tired enough, it doesn’t matter if there are headlights coming right at you. It doesn’t matter if your head keeps slamming against the window because of how jarring the bus ride is. It doesn’t even matter that you’re in a strange country where no one seems to have any idea where you’re going, other than the bus driver. Eventually your bodily needs will win out, and you’ll find yourself sleeping in the most unusual and uncomfortable situations.
That’s where I found myself at that moment.
I don’t know how many times I slipped in and out of consciousness before we finally stopped. All I know is that when my eyes opened after what felt like an eternity, we were coming up on a beautifully lit hotel. It was a sight for sore eyes, and it looked like we would actually be able to sleep in a real bed for the first time in several days. Tired though we were, smiles opened up our faces, and we eagerly left the bus.
After 5.5 hours and 110 miles, we made it to the town of Besisahar.