Nepal’s domestic network includes some of the most remote and spectacular airstrips in the world. Many are on mountainsides surrounded by high peaks. The approaches to these airstrips are difficult, so if there are clouds or high winds, the pilot cannot land.
The classic remark by RNAC’s Captain Emil Wick explains the situation perfectly: ‘We don’t fly through clouds because in Nepal the clouds have rocks in them’. Domestic service in Nepal is famous for delayed or cancelled flights to remote regions because of bad weather.
If your trek involves a flight into or out of a remote airstrip, you will probably experience a delay of several hours or, more often, several days. Delays are the price you pay for the convenience of flights in Nepal and the time they save. Pack a good book into your hand luggage to make the inevitable airport wait a little more tolerable.
Numerous private airlines operate alongside the long-running, government-owned Royal Nepal Airlines Corporation (RNAC). Private airlines have more frequent flights and are generally more reliable than RNAC, but charge higher fares. RNAC offers a 25% discount to students aged under 26 with valid ID.
New private airlines spring up and disappear frequently, while existing airlines keep changing their office premises. It’s best to let a travel agent do the chasing around Kathmandu to find you a seat to your selected destination. Kathmandu airport charges a domestic departure tax of Rs 110 for plane flights and Rs 165 for helicopter flights. Domestic Airlines All domestic airlines serve Pokhara and also operate mountain flights in the morning. If you’re flying from Kathmandu you will probably have to wait until the airline finishes its morning quota of mountain flights before it begins its domestic service.
There is no comprehensive domestic airline timetable, although the free tourist magazine Travellers Nepal lists the latest schedules and airlines occasionally publish their ever-changing list of destinations and flight times in English-language newspapers. Schedules are not always accurate because airlines add flights to make up for those cancelled because of bad weather or other problems. It’s not worth calling all 16 airlines trying to find a seat on a flight. Most local travel agents can do the job for you in a very short time.
It is best to book domestic flights in person because the airline will confirm seats only after you pay the fare and it has actually issued the ticket. You must pay for tickets in foreign currency. Because few domestic airlines take credit cards, bring cash or travellers cheques – and exact change, if possible. If you are using a trekking company or travel agency, it can make the flight booking for you and expedite the payment process, sometimes with a credit card. Local people pay a lower fare than foreigners on most flights.
There are many obstacles to booking a seat on a domestic flight, but the most common problem is ‘no seats’. Local agents in Nepal book seats to Lukla, Jomsom and Pokhara up to two years in advance for their groups. There is a lot of seat swapping among local agencies in Kathmandu. Tickets are not exchangeable between airlines. Once you purchase a ticket, you’re committed to that airline.
In the Hills
There are no airline computers or telexes in the hills. Each airline operates a manual system with handwritten reservation lists for outlying stations. Once the reservation list leaves Kathmandu, only the outlying station can confirm a seat, although sometimes it’s possible to make a reservation by telephone to the remote airstrip.
If you are planning to fly out from Lukla or Jomsom it would be prudent to confirm your flight back to Kathmandu before starting the trek. The trouble is that you must then buy a ticket. If your flight does not operate and you decide to walk or take a different airline, you can only obtain a refund for the ticket in Kathmandu.
On domestic flights there is always a cancellation charge. If you do not fly, be sure to cancel your reservation on time and have it recorded on your ticket as proof. If you cancel a reservation more than 24 hours before the flight there is a 10% cancellation charge. If you cancel less than 24 hours before the flight, the charge is 33% of the ticket cost. For ‘no shows’ there is no refund at all. An interesting loophole is that if a flight is delayed by more than one hour, there is no cancellation charge if you decide not to fly.
Once you have a ticket and a confirmed seat, the fun is just beginning. If you are lucky, your flight will still exist when you get to the airport, your name will still be on the seating chart, your baggage will have been accepted, the flight will depart and it will land at its destination. This sometimes happens, but bad weather and other complications frequently force the cancellation or delay of flights.
Check-in for domestic flights begins an hour before the flight. It is wise to be in line when the counter opens in case of some snag. In the morning there are often Sherpa business people at Kathmandu airport trying to send cargo to Lukla and other remote destinations. They often offer to assist you with checking in so that they can use your unused baggage allowance. It’s usually safe to accept the offer and also let them try to solve any glitches that occur.
If you have a lot of trekking gear, try to have someone with you who can send it later if it is off-loaded from the flight. The allowance on Lukla flights is nominally 25kg, but sometimes this limit is reduced. On other domestic flights the limit is 15kg. Sometimes space is at such a premium that extra baggage cannot be carried even if you pay an excess charge.
Both checked luggage and hand luggage are subject to a security check. Be sure to put your pocketknife in your checked baggage so that airport security does not confiscate it. Theoretically you should get the knife back on arrival, but it’s one more delay.
When a flight is cancelled, you start again. Having a confirmed seat on a flight that did not operate usually does not gain you any priority for the next flight. In Lukla and Jomsom you will go from having a boarding pass in hand to the bottom of the waiting list. If your plane does come, you will go ahead of those who may have been waiting a week or more.
In Kathmandu there is no such system, but most airlines operate a complex program of ‘delayed schedule’, ‘nonscheduled’ and ‘charter’ flights. Unlike RNAC, the private airlines make a lot of effort to accommodate backlogged passengers. If you bought your ticket from an agent, go back and ask it to check all the airlines for seats, not just the one on which they originally ticketed you.
Most of the tourist buses depart from locations near Thamel in Kathmandu, saving you the hassle of getting a taxi to the public bus terminal on the Ring Road.
If you are sensitive about being branded a tourist, are headed for Langtang or Jiri, or you are a masochist, then you can take a Nepali public bus. The public bus service is very much designed to accommodate the Nepali people. The buses are rickety, slow, tremendously crowded and noisy; the seats are narrow and closely spaced; and the roads are dreadful. Tickets are written only in Nepali script and departure announcements are made only in Nepali.
Nearly all buses for destinations outside the Kathmandu valley depart from the new bus terminal (known to Nepalis as the ‘bus park’) at Gongabu, on the Ring Road about 5km north of the city centre. The exceptions are buses to Jiri, which leave from the old bus station in the centre of Kathmandu, and tourist buses. Tickets are sold from a row of counters, each labelled (in Nepali only) with a number and a destination (see the table opposite). Several companies operate on each route so tickets are sold on a rotating system. For this reason, it’s fairly arbitrary which company’s bus you will travel on, though this probably doesn’t make much difference. Seats are assigned when you purchase a ticket; if possible try to get a front seat, or a seat near the door, as these have a bit of legroom.
Tickets go on sale the day before departure, so if you are prepared to make two trips to the bus station, you might have a choice of seats. Otherwise it’s fairly safe to assume that you can arrive a few hours before departure and get a seat on one of the many buses that operate to each destination. A notable exception to this is during the Dasain holiday in autumn, when all seats are at a premium.
When budgeting your expenses, allow for the extra charges for luggage. Large pieces of baggage go on the roof. You must either drag them up the ladder on the back of the bus or pay a few rupees to have someone do it for you. The baggage charge is often negotiable with the conductor and is higher for the so-called express and deluxe services. If you have a lot of gear, the baggage costs can add up to more than the price of the bus seat. There are frequent reports of thefts of luggage placed on the roofs of local buses, especially on the road to Jiri. Buses stop frequently and there is always someone climbing up and down to the roof, so it’s impossible to watch your gear all the time. Some people suggest padlocking your bag to the top of the bus.
An ‘express’ bus is anything but express, but it certainly beats a local bus. Local buses can take twice (or more) as long as an express. An express bus, in turn, takes about twice as long as a private vehicle.
Unlike planes, which depart with a minimum of ceremony, buses in Nepal make a great drama of their departure. Honking horns, racing engines, last-minute baggage loading and attempts to cram a few extra passengers, chickens and goats on board make for a huge production that can often delay departures. Bring a book to read.
Occasionally it is possible to sit on the roof of the bus after it leaves Kathmandu. This is often an attractive spot if the weather is warm, and it gets you out of the smoke- filled bus. The roof is either a more or a less dangerous place to be in an accident, depending on the circumstances. Buses have a nasty habit of rolling over, driving off steep embankments or colliding head-on. One place on the bus is probably as safe as another.
Buses stop for a multitude of reasons – breakdowns (mostly), police checkposts, road tolls, tea breaks, meal stops and chats with the drivers of other buses.
CAR & 4WD
It’s expensive to hire a car or 4WD to get to the start of a trek, but it’s more comfortable and can save a lot of time.
You can rent a car in Nepal, but traffic is chaotic, everyone ignores the rules, and an accident puts the driver in jail until the situation is resolved. It’s not a good idea to drive in Nepal unless you are familiar with the country and used to dodging the cows, chickens, kids, bicycles and rickshaws that pop out of nowhere. Traffic is supposed to stay on the left side of the road, although this is not obvious when you watch vehicle movements.
Taxis can reach the starting points for many of the treks, including Pokhara, Besi Sahar, Jiri and Dhunche, and are much cheaper to hire than a 4WD. You can negotiate with one of the private taxis available through the Tourist Service office in a lane just off Durbar Marg behind the Hotel Sherpa. Be careful when selecting a taxi for a long-distance trip. Most Kathmandu taxi drivers are not experienced in driving on winding mountain roads.
Hitching is unheard-of in Nepal. Even the poorest Nepali pays for a ride in a bus or truck, so you will almost certainly be expected to pay for any ride you get, unless you are picked up by a kindly expatriate.