I am desperate for fresh air the moment I land in Kathmandu.
Airport. Airplane. Airport. Airplane. And finally, airport. All of them, except the last, enclosed habit-trails of recycled breath. Others. Mine. A few token plants thrown in to hand out five molecules of pure oxygen for the 250,000 humans transiting the Pacific travel corridor.
My end point, Kathmandu, an unlikely place to find clean air and my checked luggage. It isn’t clean so I’ll call it fresh air that greets me at the top stair leading to terra firma below beige skies which were ocean blue just 15,000 feet higher and 30 minutes ago. Those skies allowed a view to the chiseled Himalayas stacked to the horizon, like a drawer full of knives, standing on edge. Clear, crisp, unreal. Unreal and unseen from the tarmac as the heat of my airplane’s port engine sucks in the exhaust laden soup of the city, belching its own unique mix to those of us exiting the rear of the plane. Welcome to Nepal. Now please hold your breath.
I’m in Nepal to climb a little known peak. That’s not to make it sound exotic or me mysterious for trying. It’s a simple fact that most people know one, maybe two, mountain names in Nepal. And no, K2 is not one of them. Everest gets all the attention but not from a rank novice like me. I want something realistic, something practical, something doable. Kyajo Ri (pronounced Kigh-ah-zo Ree). Thirty feet shorter than Denali in Alaska but with no airlift to the basecamp.
“How long in Nepal?” the balding clerk behind the chest-high Immigration desk asks without looking up.
I know my mistake. I saw the signs plastered on pillars while waiting in line.
The clerk lets out a disappointed hum, his brown eyes peering over the rims of bifocals, finally making contact with the unlucky American about to fork over $60 more than he needs to. An earnest, unhappy smile comes to his lips. “Sorry. $100, please.” If I had made my stay one day less, only 30 instead of 31, my visa would be $40. While his hands are tied, the clerk’s sorrow at my unfortunate choice of travel dates is some comfort as he covers an entire page of my passport with a colorful sticker allowing me to enter Nepal as many times as I like for the next 90 days. 60 extra days for 60 extra dollars. A bargain for most. Annoyingly expensive for me.
This is my second trip to Nepal and I know the routine. I know the heat inside the baggage claim arena, spotted with ineffectual ceiling fans, their movement a casual distraction as I wait for my checked bags. Sitting on my luggage cart, I scan the crowd. A Hindu family gathers around one pillar, excited and chatty. Businessmen in their dark suits and day-old stubble appear disinterested and their eyes dart away quickly when I return their gaze. Only to meet again two minutes later on another scan of the room. Trekkers, some giddy, some reserved, all dressed in synthetic clothes and heavy boots, reach for the first bags on the conveyor, blazoned with the same tour company name. Some confusion ensues as they check tags to find owners.
My 70lb pound behemoth pokes its nose out of the mysterious luggage room, followed shortly by its 60lb sidekick, both lurching past the eager crowd at a snail’s pace. I shove through the phalanx of travelers, reminding myself that, “excuse me” is not often used here and retrieve both bags with a clean and jerk worthy of a bronze in the next Olympics. If only Nepal fielded a Visiting Westerner’s Luggage Team.
I shuttle my heavily stacked cart around slower travelers still confused on how to exit the airport. I know my way. I’m an experienced veteran on his second trip. The heat has made my hands sweaty as I deliver my customs form to a stout agent standing in the middle of our human and luggage cart river. His pen quickly scribbles an indecipherable note that I am free to enter the Federal Democratic Republic Of Nepal and my pace quickens when I spot the one-way doors opening to Kathmandu.
Kathmandu. Not the object of my affection in Nepal. That lies beyond the smog, beyond the horns and heat and humidity. Beyond the traffic which puts LA freeways to shame and the garbage flowing over curbs and swirling on an unlikely breeze. I don’t despise the drudgery of city life in Kathmandu. But the moment I step through the airport doors and into a throng of relatives waiting for loved ones in the slow, rolling crowd behind me, I find myself desperate again for a breath of fresh air.