My name is David Tait - I'm an NSPCC Trustee and 'charity mountaineer' having now successfully climbed Mount Everest four times - in 2005, 2007, 2009 and 2011. I climb to raise both awareness and money for the many violated kids - one of which was me. This is my first of many dispatches that will accompany my effort to summit for the fifth time. I hope you follow along, find it interesting, and spread the word. There are many children in our society who know only too well that monsters truly do exist.
The smell is unique - jet fuel, wood-smoke, car exhaust, juniper and sweat. Kathmandu Airport.
Nothing seems to have changed - the pollution obscured VFR final approach is still a heart in the mouth experience and the militia, in their ill-fitting, sweat-stained uniforms hefting their scarred 1940s weapons, still look bored and disinterested as they line the painted path across the cracked tarmac to the red-brick terminal. To my right the military aircraft hanger [more a museum] houses ancient cannibalized carcasses of once airworthy Russian helicopters and transports. Beyond that another apron and the now familiar battalion of 15-seater turboprops used to ferry the excited to Lukla - the gateway to the Khumbu.
But it's Kathmandu. Nothing will ever change or improve here, and that's why I love it.
One joins the endless immigration queues slowly shuffling towards ancient wooden cubicles, each housing 3-4 "officials", who's role it seems, is to make a very simple process seem akin to proving the existence of the God Particle. One counts the revolutions of the ceiling fans for entertainment.
Your passport, immigration form, photos, visa application and $100 pass from one set of hands to another, receiving Stalinist scrutiny and a multitude of inky stamps before finally emerging at the end of this human "full employment" conveyer-belt. Onwards to the luggage carousel, trying to remain optimistic that the kit bags will appear.
The 'porters' converge like flies, two, three sometimes four at a time, each with a trolley, jousting with each other to obtain a commission. Accepting and agreeing to one single porter doesn't stop him then sub-contracting the job of rescuing your bags from the melee to an array of his colleagues. Even though you employ one person, you end up tipping half a dozen. These people live hand to mouth and a $5 tip goes an awful long way. I spend freely.
We emerge into the midday, harsh white sunlight, the sun obscured by the ever-present polluted haze - the wood-fired, brick-baking kilns that dot the landscape continue to belch their noxious fumes, which, unable to escape the circular, sunken Kathmandu valley, sit like a toxic duvet on this wondrous city. A hungry crowd surges forward.
My trolley and bags, like jam to wasps, attracts a small swarm of opportunists, each eager to wrest a few rupees form my grasp as we inch towards the ancient waiting Tata van. I watch nervously as my kit is unceremoniously slung and strapped to the narrow roof rack, making this tiny decrepit vehicle almost certainly top-heavy before shrugging and finally squeezing into the filthy, sweltering interior. With the door slammed the appeals for cash continue, dozens of hand outstretched.
The airport's barbed-wire entrance barrier is raised by a camouflaged soldier shouldering a Lee Enfield as his mustached colleagues doze and we are immediately absorbed into the chaotic traffic flow of one of Kathmandu's main arteries. The sights and sounds are mesmeric - I never get used to this moment.
Cars, busses, trucks, tuc-tucs, motorcycles, horses, cows, dogs and pedestrians - you name it, all fight for position in this peculiarly orchestrated chaos. The leaded fuel exhaust is brutal - the trucks and busses belching gigantic clouds into the atmosphere constantly - one feels the pollution coat your teeth. Our van, its tiny overworked engine straining to capacity, screams as we dodge and weave our way through the throng to our hotel. What's noticeable is how calm people are despite the quite obvious cut and thrust of negotiating the roads. I have never seen one loss of temper. One stares in sympathy at a lone policemen directing traffic at a main intersection - his life expectancy, despite his face-mask, must be measured in days.
Diving down tiny, bumpy, narrow streets lined with one miniature enterprise after another, one marvels at children playing in gutters huddled around a small fire, a butchers with the meat displayed in the sun and covered with flies, small super-markets with literally anything you would ever need on sale, to the endless Buddhist shrines and temples that adorn almost every street corner. Your eyes are pulled everywhere - the contrasts vivid and intoxicating - our van eases past a huge cow asleep in the center of the road. The barefoot and destitute share the pavement with the apparently wealthy.
The Kathmandu Hyatt, by comparison, is an oasis of Western calm and luxury - and totally surreal.
We haul our bags into reception and stumble across a few welcome familiar faces - this is a nice time - the few hours before the reality of what lies ahead really dawns. Climbers with whom I have shared previous highs and lows, both physical and metaphorical, wander up, pump hands, bear-hug, exchange stories and inevitably ask "Again?" I smile and shrug.
Two huge blue barrels are delivered to my room - my kit then separated into that which will be flown directly to Khumjung [4200m] from Kathmandu for further uninterrupted yak transfer to BC and the remainder; the equipment and clothing that will be drawn upon to make the 8/9 day trek to BC that bit more comfortable which will travel by Yak alongside me.
Comfortable that our equipment is safely stowed, we elect to wander. We squeeze into the smallest of ancient Micra taxis and ask to be taken to Thamel, the impossibly crowded maze-like shopping district. My first experience of this warren in early 2000's left me dazed. Thousands of tiny enterprises exist shoulder-to-shoulder selling everything you can imagine - however dubious the authenticity. Most are so similar its incredible that the economy can support them all. My sons, follow, eyes like saucers. This isn't Esher.
Onwards to Durbar Square, the spectacular home of the Malla and Shah kings palaces. The tourists wander, assaulted by a multitude of spectacularly adorned Saddhus, or Holy Men, their faces painted magical colours - its easy to see the influence these guys had on the 60's. Now, they too appeal for Rupees in exchange for a blessing and a photo - and we oblige. He has the courtesy to remove his iPod ear-buds for us.
Pashupatinath Temple, the most significant Hindu temple of Lord Shiva in the world, is next and last on or brief agenda. A visit here many years ago where I witnessed one of many daily human funeral pyres left an indelible impression. There are no Western scruples - you are invited to attend and watch the family say their goodbyes, dress the corpse and ignite the pyre. It's a quite stunning sight, made even more extraordinary by the audience gathered at the windows of the adjacent hospice. These people calmly watch and wait their inevitable turn.
We finally turn from this surreal scene are return to our hotel. A very carefully chosen evening meal awaits, followed by a compulsory early night.
Early tomorrow morning a Eurocopter B3 will land on the Hyatt Helipad and whisk us the 45-minute flight to Lukla Airport. I have fixed-wing "crash-landed' at Lukla many times in the past, the plane just managing to veer away from the cliff that marks the runway end. There is nothing quite like being a passenger in a plane that you know simply cannot botch his approach, as there is no "go around" facility. Just a wall of rock.
I much prefer the majesty of helicopter arrival.