‘So you are off to Kathmandu,’ a friend said. ‘That’s a magical place, isn’t it? Right up in the Himalayas? You really are a lucky guy. And you say it is work – well, I reckon you must have the best job in the world!’
Yes, he was right on both counts – about Kathmandu and about my job. But even when I told him that things are very tense there these days – with the Maoist insurgency suspended only recently and a critical election only a few weeks away – my friend didn’t change his mind about my luck.
Then, just a couple of days before I left Nairobi for Nepal, I heard on the radio that the Maoist party had left the interim government and that thousands of their supporters were demonstrating on the streets of the capital.
But this was nothing as un-nerving as the actual flight into Kathmandu. Between the big powers of China to the north and India to the south, Nepal lies like a short, wide skirt across the slopes of the Himalayas. As we neared, we could see some of the snow peaks – one of them must have been Everest – poking above the clouds. Then we descended and lost all vision.
I had made this trip twice before, so I knew what kind of jagged mountainscape we were flying over. And as we broke through the clouds, it was an awesome sight. Kathmandu lies in a high, hanging valley, hemmed in by craggy ridges, against a backcloth of the white-clad mountains. It must be one of the most spectacular – and risky – approaches to any airport anywhere in the world.
Until then it had been a comfortable and restful flight, privileged in the Business Class of Qatar Airways, the airline recently advertised so much on Sky TV as the sponsor of the weather forecast. (‘Sunshine – as seen by passengers on Qatar Airways!’ And, as the camera zooms out, the yellow orb of the sun becomes a perfectly fried egg – the yolk runny and the white firm – of the kind it is so difficult to find at breakfast time in Kenyan hotels.)
It was a journey broken by an all-too-brief overnight sleep in a downtown Doha hotel. The bus-ride to and from the airport took almost as long as the sleep. But it was my first chance to glimpse how far Qatar – home of Aljazeera – is along the road of rivalling its neighbour Dubai.
Judging by the number of cranes working on construction sites, even after dark, Qatar takes the rivalry seriously. But the airport is not nearly as lavish or well organised, and none of Doha’s buildings that I saw could match the so flamboyant profiles of Dubai.
Qatar Airline, though, tries very hard to live up to the image of its advertisements. Its multi-ethnic crews are just as attentive, it seems, as those on Emirates. The food is varied, elegantly served and very tasty – though I wasn’t given one of those perfectly fried and shaped, sunny-side-up eggs.
And the pilots threaded the narrow valley and landed us smoothly at Kathmandu Airport.
It was good to be back and pleasing to be in the company of so many tourists and mountain trekkers queuing for their entry visas. A colleague had told me that three years ago, at the height of the Maoist insurgency and when a few bombs had exploded right in the city, the hotels, guest houses and bazaars of the Thamel tourist quarter had emptied. Yet many shopkeepers stayed open, waiting patiently for the end to the troubles.
I was staying at the Yak and Yeti Hotel, which is a very special place – a place of character. But it deserves its own story. I will just say now that it had been closed for three years when the tourist trade collapsed, and it had opened again earlier this year.
The Yak and Yeti vehicle was waiting at the airport. The scenes along the road were just as I remembered them from four years ago, before the violence reached the city. Small taxis zigzagged along the crowded streets; motorcycles weaved among the pedestrians; open-fronted shops displayed their brightly coloured cloths; and monks in saffron robes walked their serene ways.
Then we got held up at a junction – held up for thirty minutes or so, as hundreds of people marched slowly across our road. Many of them were flying red flags.
‘What’s this?’ I asked the driver.
‘Oh, it is just another Maoist demonstration,’ he said. ‘They are going to the Parliament. For us – no problem.’
And, judging by the calm mood of all the waiting vehicles, there was no reason not to believe him.