Air travel in Nepal: The Glamour, the Pathos, the Sheer Terror

Excuse me bhai, but you are not permitted to take livestock on this flight’

‘But it’s only one chicken, jee

‘Stop right there, dammit! You cannot take that chicken on board.’

‘But….’

‘We have a strict no livestock policy, bhai

The young man with the chicken shrugged and stepped out of the queue to board the Twin Otter to Biratnagar, whose propellers were already whirring. He moved a few steps away, and smartly wrung the chicken’s neck.

‘It’s not alive anymore. Can I get on the plane now?’

The chubby Nepal Airlines official nodded, and the queue for the plane moved on, the young man clutching the dead chicken under his arm.

I overheard this conversation while waiting at a tiny airport in the hills to fly back to the plains. The airport was a bombed-out shell, having been blown up during the conflict, and no-one had had the funds or inclination to rebuild it since. This was a district with no roads, so the airport is the only way to get down to the plains quickly – the other option is a two day walk and a one day drive.

This was one of my more extreme experiences of domestic air travel in Nepal. More usually I’m taking a flight from Kathmandu to the Tarai (or my new base, which is now in the hills) for work. This is usually a less – how can I put it – raw experience than landing on a grass STAL (Short Take-off and Landing) runway in the hills, but is usually characterised by a lot of frustration, several cups of bad airport tea, a little touch of old-school glamour (to be explained) and the frisson of mild terror (I am a nervous flyer).

Tarai fog season is thankfully coming to an end, but on a bad day December or January you could find yourself stuck waiting in an airport for up to six hours for the mist to clear if you are flying to or from the plains. However, you can always amuse yourself by drinking syrupy tea, talking to old ladies who find your Nepali hilarious, or reading a copy of Indian Marie Claire from the news stand if you are in one of the Tarai airports.

If you ever get as far as boarding the plane, you will be offered boiled sweets and little balls of cotton wool to stick in your ears to drown out the noise of the engines.  Then we come onto ‘safety’ measures. The air stewardess points languidly at the exit, and indicates that there is a sick bag in the pocket of the seat if you want it (and invariably, someone does). There is often a sign on the back of the seat in front of you informing you that you are to ‘fasten seatbelt’ and ‘use bottom cushion for floatation’. I’ve yet to figure out what the latter actually means. Could this be a life-jacket-type thing, in case the plane happened to crash land in Lake Phewa or Lake Ringmo? In this case you could float gracefully on your bottom cushion in the lake until help arrived.

Thanks for this, Yeti Airlines. I feel a lot safer now.

Amongst all of this chaos, the air stewardesses of domestic flights in Nepal bring a note of grace and refinement to air travel that seems to have been lost on most international airlines. Remember when air travel still had a whiff of glamour, before the days of budget airlines and cheap long haul flights to exotic destinations? Well, somehow, despite the horrible coffee, squalid airports and stomach-churning air turbulence, Nepali air stewardesses bring just a tiny bit of that. No matter how much the plane is shaking, or how many journeys they have made that day back and forth from Kathmandu to delightful Tarai towns such as Birgunj and Bairahawa, they are always immaculately dressed and courteous, if a little over made-up, smiling fake smiles as they do Namaste to the passengers barging and shoving their way onto the plane.

My videshi friends and colleagues (male ones, that is) usually regress to being drooling, giggling adolescents at the site of one of these kumaris of the skies. Interestingly, their very conservative uniform, usually a long, Tibetan-style chuba, seems to be ignite their desire even more.  As for me, I am intrigued by how any woman can look so elegant while relieving a Korean tourist of a loaded sick bag or folding up crumpled copies of the Himalayan Times to redistribute to the fifth planeload of passengers in a day.

The other day I was walking through Thamel with friends when something caught my eye outside a clothes shop – it was a full Yeti Airlines air stewardess uniform, long green skirt and all. For a moment I thought it would be funny to buy it for a fancy dress party (but realistically, when would I go to one of these in the middle of the Western Hills of Nepal) but I thought better of it. I have no doubt whatsoever that that outfit will find a good home somewhere… although on balance I don’t really want to think too much about it.

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7 Responses to “Air travel in Nepal: The Glamour, the Pathos, the Sheer Terror”

  1. Great post! So true so true …

  2. […] ‘We have a strict no livestock policy, bhai’ By elewien The humor of flying in Nepal and other good stuff […]

  3. thanks mate.. i’m still thinking i should have bought that Yeti Airlines outfit

  4. did you really understand that whole conversation on your own?! because if you did, your nepali is rapidly improving mon amie!

    also, the air hostesses are so beautiful, because being thin and pretty is a must (like it was in the 1960s in america and europe). actually, i don’t know it for a fact, but it seems like it would be ; ) also, they are ex-miss nepal this and that as well. but, yes they are a pretty and polite and oh so patient.

  5. I’m afraid i can’t say that i understood all of the conversation in Nepali, especially not the ‘no-livestock policy’ part… but it became obvious what was going on 😉

    Ah, the yeti airlines women… the pathos of these ex miss nepals who dream of working with children/working for world peace/modelling/ or at least getting a damn job with Qatar airlines and then they wind up plying the route between Biratnagar and Kathmandu on a daily basis. But they do it with such style. I think they could all do with eating a few plates of momos and chicken chilly though!!

  6. FYI: chicken chilli is evil (gave me ktm quickstep for a week)

  7. Great post Ajnabee! Now the baby has been born I’m going to be following your adventures much more closely on my long boring commutes to and from work… I want to know everything about life in Nepal… plus you are a really good and funny writer 🙂 Keep up the good work.

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