Sunday 11 January 2015

Days 223-225: Lukla airport - Fuck you, Tara Air

Stuck in Lukla. Funny though, as there're plenty of planes!
Why can't we seem to catch one?
Lukla breeds fantasies of escape but, without resorting to bribery or vast expenditure, those fantasies cannot become reality.

We had booked onto the 11:15 flight from Lukla.  Unfortunately, it didn't exist.  Neither does any other flight run by Tara Airlines.  The problem isn't the weather; the sun shone and planes flew in and out of the airport all day.  The problem is that Tara Airlines sells as many tickets out of Lukla as people will buy, irrespective of how many flights they can operate, and places a fictional time on the ticket.

We were told that our '11:15 flight' would be the twentieth flight of the day.  On a good day, the airline can only operate about fifteen flights.  Fat chance of us going anywhere.

Waiting at Lukla: this is where we spent 2 days
We turned up to the airport anyway, where the staff did not inform us that our flight was cancelled or delayed, nor did they utter a single word of apology, smile at us, speak to us, or otherwise acknowledge that we existed.  A++ for customer service.  I've been treated better by fraudsters.

After spending a day in the airport begging and pleading to turned backs and averted faces we went back to the hotel then returned to Lukla airport for another attempt the next day.  Unfortunately, once your flight has been delayed by 'bad weather' (ie. by Tara selling tickets on non-existent flights), you are then given bottom priority and will only get a seat on a plane once all of that day's customers have flown to Kathmandu.  This means that you are now scheduled on flight number thirty-seven, for example, on an airline that rarely flies more than fifteen planes a day.

As I write this blog (a few weeks later), we are currently scheduled to leave Lukla on flight number three million, eight-hundred and twenty-seven thousand, two hundred and sixty-eight on the 11th December.  Whatever.  Estimated actual departure date: 22nd May 2031?

The remains of a crashed Yeti airlines plane at the Lukla heliport.
Scribbled on the side was "Tara Air"... the joke wasn't lost on us.
Alternatively, we could cancel our flights.  (Tara hasn't cancelled them, of course.  We are simply delayed, for days, months, or decades, while they retain our fee.)  But instead of waiting until 2031, we can cancel if we like.  Fantastic.  Cheers Tara.  A++ again.

I never have much sympathy with people who whinge about flights.  Plenty of people endure a complete lottery when it comes to whether they get education, food, the vote, or anything else for that matter; if you are on holiday and it doesn't quite go to plan then it's not the end of the world.  Yet here am I practically wailing about the non-existence of a forty-minute flight.  Still, it has to be said: fuck you, Tara Air.

As Ian and Paul's flight to London was leaving the next day, our flight to Bangkok was leaving two days later, and none of us had a hope in hell of catching them in the gentle hands of Tara Air, we ended up chartering a chopper.  This was very far from being in the financial plan for the autumn, but it was an awesome way to end the trek.

Guy fantasises about becoming a helicopter pilot
We shared a six-man helicopter with a couple of glaciologists (we seem to meet a lot of them in the Himalaya - funny that).  Guy and I pleaded to sit in the front next to the pilot but he shook his head.  "There's a weight limit of a hundred and fifty kilograms between two people in the front seat," he apologised.  "But I only weight fifty-four kilograms," I told him, "and Guy weighs seventy-three."  He looked at me and smiled.  "You're joking, aren't you?"  I thought this was rather cheeky until I remembered that I was wearing a down jacket, fleece, soft-shell gilet, Icebreaker thermal and t-shirt.  While I truly only weigh fifty-four kilos, I probably looked like Mr Blobby.

When we began removing layers, the pilot took our word and let us clamber into the front seat like two excited children.  Almost without realising it, we were airborne and drifting above the runway, which was empty of planes now that Tara Air flight number thirteen was cancelled for the day (never mind flight thirty-seven).

Take off from Lukla
(with Paul playing "Ride of the Valkyries" in the back seat behind me!)
Farewell Lukla.  May we never meet again.

From here we threaded valleys and skimmed mountain passes, with rice paddy fields and forests and the yellow-green layer-cake of tiered, cultivated hillsides laid out below us.  Nepal looked so fertile, so productive.  I thought again of Uttam's despair at Nepal's economic freefall and wondered how its fortunes have fallen so low.

Back in Kathmandu, we could finally enjoy a farewell meal and a toast to the Tesi Lapcha (and the demise of Tara Air) with thimble-fulls of raksi (rice wine).  We had made it over the glaciers (the easy bit) and out of the airport (the hard bit).  Hoorah!

Farewell Paul and Ian!
Now all that remained was to go shopping in Kathmandu's stores of tie-die clothing in search of the most hideous-looking trousers we could find for our friend, Chris, who has just had a foot operation.  We could not make up our minds which were the most repellent so we bought two pairs; disturbingly Ian and Guy also bought t-shirts to wear for fun, whilst Paul and I stood at the side of the shop trying not to vomit.  This was the real Kathmandu; the world was coloured in a garish combination of green, white, yellow, orange, and indigo swirls; life was fun again.

But time was running out.  Ian and Paul climbed into a taxi to go to the airport and that was the end of the Rolwaling part of our travels.  Good-bye, Snacks and Itch.  We hope you enjoy work on Monday!

We managed to bag the front seat!
Agricultural terraces in the valley below 
Not sure which airport this is on a hilltop south of Lukla... Phaplu maybe?
Skimming passes, the weather seemed to get better as we headed to Kathmandu
Wow... we're in the front seat!!!
More skimming of passes
Brickworks in the Kathmandu valley
Kathmandu slowly appears in view
Approaching the international airport side-on to the runway!
Thanks Manang Air!


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