We started at 8 in the morning from Nyalam. The bus drivers and the Chinese guides who had supported our yatra, were honored by the Swamijis with white sashes and a cash gift before we started our day.
|Honoring the Chinese guides|
|Honoring the bus drivers|
|all set to return to Nepal|
|the beautiful waterfalls in the Tibet countryside as we go towards the Tibet-Nepal border|
|last view of the hundreds of waterfalls falling thousands of feet|
|last view of the hundreds of waterfalls falling thousands of feet|
We were required to line up by number on the group permit. The backpacks and camera equipment had to pass through a scanner, and then each person had the passport checked. The Chinese consulate officer had a few basic questions - what is your name, can you say your name again, where do you live, etc - and looked hard at the picture in the passport and at me a couple of times, before returning my passport. Once outside the consulate, still standing in Tibet, we waited for the rest of the group to come through. Once the last person's passport got processed, we started our walk across the Friendship bridge - halfway across the bridge, we were in Nepal again.
After crossing the Friendship bridge, we walked half a kilometer into Nepal to reach the buses. This was a downhill walk, much easier than the uphill one the other way 10 days ago. There were no buses - what was the travel agency doing? - they have known since morning exactly where we were, and how far we were from the border. We waited for about an hour, a few people who had to leave that night by air from Kathmandu had the additional concern that if we did not leave for the helicopters soon enough, they would miss the flight back to the US.
The Sherpa team asked a bunch of people to sit in a pickup truck, the group who had early flights tonight were asked to jump in, and a few others who would be willing to stand at the back of the truck. Soon, another pickup truck left the same way, with 8-12 people. The rest of us were then asked to sit in a bus that was standing there all along - so basically a second bus that should have been there had not been hired, instead people had been sent in a couple of pickup trucks. There is no end to the number of ways in which a travel agency will shortchange you on services, knowing that people are on a dharma yatra - a pilgrimage, and will put up with hardship.
The bus brought us to the restaurant where some people from the group had lunch before leaving Nepal, 10 days ago. From here, it was a steep upward path to the "helipad". Many children were running around, offering to be porters for the uphill trek, which was probably half a kilometer. I gave my backpack to a boy, 10 years old perhaps, and he patiently walked slowly with me, or walked and waited a few steps ahead for me to catch up. Raju garu carried my flask of Manas sarovar jal. My allergies and altitude sickness had not subsided yet, it was a significant challenge to reach the helipad - a school playground. As we entered the school gate, the security guards started reprimanding my porter. It took a minute to realize what they were saying - apparently he was a student, he had not been seen at school today, but now he was showing up as my porter. The guards started discussing with me how wrong that was. Very impressed by the professional commitment - the personal interest they took in their students, considering the meager earnings one must get for this was a school in a little hill outside of Kathmandu. I agreed, but I was not sure how the little guy would learn his lesson because I was going to pay him what he had asked, which was probably more than what his parents made in a day, unless they were porters for foreign tourists too.
We walked beyond the school grounds to the back of the building, and a slight drop below was the playground that worked as the "helipad". This is where we had landed 10 days ago. After waiting for an hour, we asked Mr.Bharat Trivedi of Travelorg/ Travelorg India to ensure there was food for the group, becuase it would take 6 hours for the entire group to reach the hotel. He said simply there was no meal. Wasn't the restaurant we walked from, just half a kilometer away? I have said before, and I say it again on this page as well - I do not recommend Travelorg/ Travelorg India for any travel because of their shabby customer service.
Finally, a helicopter arrived and the first group left for Dhulikhel. The travel agent left in the next helicopter, saying he would reach the other side because he had some work to complete in the office. It took another hour before the first helicopter showed up again, and some more people left.
|the mule helicopter that stands within a few feet of the steep slope|
|waiting for a helicopter|
|the Nepal countryside near the "helipad"|
|we made a new friend|
|Chinmaya volunteers working in the rain to re-order the bags as the helicopters get delayed|
As the probability of not all of us getting to go over the landslide in a helicopter in time got higher, Swamiji re-ordered the people in each 5-person and 6-person group. Only those who could possibly walk across the mudslide in a rain needed to stay in the last two flights, the rest of us were to be scuttled up in earlier flights. The helicopters did start returning when the rain reduced a bit, but when we took off in clear weather, we still hit rain at some point during the flight. It is a unique experience to be flying, relying on human visibility without seeing much. The picture below still gives an idea of the landscape, but at times, I wanted to reach out and clean the windscreen from outside.
|in the helicopter through the rain|
|landing in Dhulikhel|
We had to wait in the bus for a couple of hours till the rest of the people arrived. Meanwhile, a bunch of local kids stood at the door of our bus and riddled us with questions - Money? Food? Money? Money? Candy? Chocolate? Money? Finally, I told them - why don't you go finish your homework? They said they had already done it, actually there were tests on, so not much homework that day. I told them to go study, they said they had already studied for the next day. Balakrishnanji told them to use the language and say something other than Money? Candy? So each of them said - My name is ..., what is your name? Finally, one of them asked Balakrishnanji - are you married? And then all of them collapsed in giggles. They had exhausted their small talk, and went back to Money? Money? Candy? Money?
The weather held up, everyone had been able to come by helicopter, and we were in the Gokarna Foresh Resort by 7 pm. In the bus, the Sherpa lead, Katak, had told us we would get our passports back in an hour when we reached Gokarna.
Dinner was served at 7, some of the people who had reached earlier had already started dinner. Hungry, but overwhelmed with gratitude for a trip blessed by grace, we sat down for our first full meal since we had our breakfast at Nyalam. The duffel bags had not reached our room yet, so most of us had to sit down for dinner without a shower or change of clothes. The travel agent from Travelorg/ Travelorg India was nowhere to be seen. I had to organize a meeting room for our final satsang with Swamijis. The hotel had one room upstairs that they could open for us.
When I was sitting down to eat, a couple of people from Explore Kailash trek - the Nepali agency that Travelorg/Travelorg India had tied up with, came to me to ask for an airport departure plan for the next day. I told them to ask Bharat Trivedi, the Travelorg/Travelorg India agent who had this information for a month before our trip started, he needed to have consolidated the information he got from people to put a departure plan together. They just stood there, looking sheepish - they did not know where he was. They were just trying to do their job, so I circulated their traveler list in the group to re-submit their flight details. They looked relieved, and went away.
After dinner, we had the satsang with Swamiji - the last few words on this trip, lasting words for life. Everyone lined up to touch their feet and offer guru dakshina - a token of gratitude to the guru for all that he gives us. Besides the trip and the guidance and the direct learning, there are so many imperceptible changes in our thought patterns because of satsanga - the company of the good. And these may not be immediately known to us or immediately shown in our behavior, but the seeds have been sown that will bear fruit through our lifetime.
As we were dispersing, we discussed getting our passports back, the travel agent would probably be in the lobby of the hotel with the passports. Many people returned to the rooms, some representative ones came to the hotel lobby but there was no sign of Katak from Explore Kailash Trek, nor of Bharat Trivedi from Travelorg/ Travelorg India. As it was already past 10, people needed to get back and pack their bags, so we asked the hotel to call the travel agent in his room - they said he was not picking up. After a few minutes, we asked for his room number and went to knock on his door - there was no response. So we asked the hotel to check on him since he was missing with 60+ international passports.
The Gokarna hotel has their own tie-ups with the travel agencies, and it took some convincing for them to finally send someone to the room. He came back and said there was nobody in the room. We had a person standing in the passage to check on the hotel person, and we knew he had not even entered the room, he had just knocked on the door and come back. Another ten minutes of forceful requests to the hotel, and finally someone actually went with a key and opened the room, the travel agent was not there. Some people from the group who had come on the same helicopter as him, had last seen him eating lunch at 3pm. And now he was missing with our passports.
We made several phone calls - Mr Bharat Trivedi of Travelorg/ Travelorg India would not pick up his phone - neither his US mobile nor his Nepal number that he had given us. Someone had Katak, the Sherpa lead's number, and called him - he said he would return the passports at five in the morning and hung up the phone. We called again several times after that, he would not pick up the phone. About twenty people needed to leave for the airport at 6 in the morning, the travel agent was missing, and the Sherpa lead mentioned having the passports but would not bring them till the morning.
Several other people who had packed their bags in their rooms, came into the lobby wondering when they can get their passports, so they would go to sleep after getting their passports. Around a quarter to 11 at night, Mr Bharat Trivedi of Travelorg/ Travelorg India showed up at the hotel, reeking of alcohol. He was surprised to see so many people in the lobby. He did not know where our passports were - this was the guy we were paying to support the 12-day Kailash trek. He called someone, and then told us nonchalantly that the passports were with Katak, we would get our passports at 5 in the morning. We told him that if Katak could not come to the hotel right away for any reason, a couple of us could go and get the passports. He said - Katak had gone home, and nobody knows where he lived.
We were to depend on the word of a drunk man that we would get our passports an hour before leaving for the airport in the morning, to be delivered by another man who is holding 60+ international passports at his home whose address nobody knows.
At the group's insistence, for another half hour, Mr Bharat Trivedi made some phone calls and kept saying that nobody knew where Katak was, or where he lived, and the office had no record of his residential address. Finally, we asked the hotel to call the police, and told Mr. Trivedi that the police was coming. Fifteen minutes later, Katak - the Sherpa lead whom nobody was able to reach for the past two hours and whose residential address was not known to his own employers, reached the hotel with passports even before the police arrived.
We insisted that we would take our passports back in police presence. The policeman did his own processing of information. Katak's story was that he had deposited the passports at the Explore Kailash Trek office, where they were going to photocopy them. But the photocopier went down and he went home. So when we called him, he told us he would bring us the passports at five in the morning. But fifteen minutes ago, he got a call from the office to say that he needed to pick up the passports and deliver them to the hotel, so here he was.
Travel tip for the yatri - Choose your travel agency with care. This is a once-in-a-lifetime trip, but do not let anyone take advantage of you because of your emotional state on a pilgrimage. And, be aware that the authorities of China, Nepal and your home country are there to support you. We did not go in the poor-me mode when stuck without passports six hours before international travel, we called the police on these travel agency folks, and forced them to behave.
The day that had started midnight with gratitude for the Sherpas, and this morning with the gratitude for the bus drivers and the Chinese guides, had ended with calling the police on the travel agency.
Once the passports were distributed to each person, we asked Mr Bharat Trivedi for a departure plan, He obviously had none. He had lunch at 3 in the afternoon and had now returned drunk at 11 at night, thinking everyone would have gone to sleep. How had he planned to give us back our passports and drop us off to the airport? We gave him the sheet on which we had written our flight information and asked him to put together a plan and tell us what time the buses would be at the lobby, he came back with something that did not accommodate everyone, but by now, people had given up on expecting any service from him. Finally he got his act together, a departure time was communicated to all, depending on their outbound flights.
We came to the rooms to pack. One cannot have water in the carry-on bags, one cannot have the rocks either, when leaving Nepal. Someone had their atmalingam confiscated at the airport on our last visit here. The currency needs to meet India requirements in terms of how much a person can carry, and one cannot have denominations of 500 or 1000 rupees - those will be confiscated in the immigration check in Nepal.
And, most importantly for me, there was just too much to fit into the two bags, we would have to pay some penalty to get these bags into India.
AUM Namaha Shivaaya!!