Sunday, March 29, 2015

Nepal: Kathmandu Airport (KTM)

During Chinese New Year, the bustling city of Shanghai empties out.  The sky fills with fireworks above quiet streets while booming explosions reverberate off the apartment towers.  Having spent the past two Chinese New Years with friends in Shanghai, we decided to join the exodus this year and headed west to Nepal.

We flew in and out of Kathmandu (KTM), Nepal's only international airport, but spent no time in the city itself.  The urban area of Kathmandu*, which is the capital and largest city in Nepal, is home to about 2.5 million people -- one twelfth of the nation's total population.  (The population of Nepal is about the same as that of Shanghai.)  From my very brief impression, Kathmandu is dusty and polluted -- suffering the inevitable fate of an area with more people than its infrastructure and electrical and water resources can support, especially one relying on "dirty" energy sources like wood, coal, and diesel.  Nepal has continuous rolling brownouts throughout the country, which they call "load shedding".

This post, however, is not about Kathmandu, the city.  It's about the domestic terminal of the Kathmandu airport, which charmed us to no end.  

We were dropped us off by a fence and pointed to a broken sidewalk leading into a construction site.  "Go that way," said the driver.  A collection of baggage carts sat by the corner; a sign tacked to the fence said "Domestic Terminal Building".  Monkeys scampered overhead.  Several other foreigners headed up the path. We followed.

The path led us through the bones of what will be the new domestic terminal at KTM, currently very much under construction.  The air traffic control tower and international terminal were visible across the way.

Another doorway led us into the current domestic terminal, a warehouse-type room where check-in desks for each airline (Yeti Air, Buddha Air, Sita Air, Nepal Air -- all little domestic carriers) sat side-by-side. Yeti Airlines issued us handwritten paper tickets and sent us through the security check (separated by gender, as in India) to wait.

And wait we did.  Due to prevailing weather conditions (morning fog), pollution (haze), and challenging terrain (due to its location in the Himalayas), lengthy delays are not uncommon.  Still, in a mountainous country with winding roads, our 25 minute flight would have meant a 6+ hour bus ride.  The waiting crowd grew as we all waited for flights to begin taking off.  Most were foreigners, decked out in hardcore outdoor gear and hiking boots.  Several groups were waiting for flights to a destination marked only as "Mountain" -- the small airport closest to Everest base camp.  That airport, in Lukla, is famously one of the most perilous in the world.


After twenty-five minutes in the air on a little prop plane, we deplaned in Pokhara.  Pokhara, the second largest city in Nepal (population: 260,000), features another adorable airport and stunning scenery -- more posts to come!

* The Kathmandu urban area is technically an agglomeration of Kathmandu, Lalitpur, and Bhaktapur, which all sit in the Kathmandu valley. 

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