June 23, 2009
It was another early morning today. Well, not quite as early as yesterday, but considering the late night after my sister’s arrival, I didn’t get the beauty sleep I normally require. Sarah raves about the breakfast at the Novotel at the airport, though apparently all that is needed for a quality morning meal for her is a bowl of miso soup and some lychees. That sounded a bit on the revolting side for me, but I was willing to give it a shot. Its not quite as weird as I expected, but I won’t be having it again. I thought that overall it looked like any standard nice hotel breakfast buffet. Certainly not as good as the Hilton Sentral Kuala Lumpur, but good enough.
Perhaps the more interesting part of the breakfast was the argument we had with the waitress about the cost. We thought it was included in the room, she thought it was not. The manager of the restaurant came over, and he stood by his employee. Someone from the front desk came over and agreed with the manager. All this over a 10 dollar dispute. We left the desk without paying, but the desk attendant made it clear that he would be charging our cards the extra amount. It turns out that for this trip I am a little more prepared than usual. Not only do I have a copy of my entire itinerary, including confirmation numbers, stuck inside my notebook, I also have all emails from hotels printed out. The email from Novotel clearly stated that breakfast was included. We showed that to the desk as we checked out a few minutes later and, while a bit confused over the whole affair, they apologized to us for the mix up and removed the charges from our bill.
Apparently one of the benefits of the Novotel is that it is walking distance to the hotel. This may be true under a few very special circumstances. First, you have to be dressed in very light clothing. Second, you have to have no baggage with you to sap your energy (I didn’t notice any sherpas up front). And third, you have to be willing to stink up your entire airplane cabin from the smell of sweat that has dried into your clothes from the steaming hot walk you just completed across several football fields to get there. Since we were not willing or able to comply with those three requirements, we took the free hotel shuttle. The first stop was ours.
Thai Business Class. Ahh, yes, this is a better way to travel. I sometimes get to fly business on United because I use my miles to upgrade. The only time I ever paid for business was when Piedmont Airlines would occasionally ask for only 10 dollars extra to upgrade. Once, due to a travel approval snafu, Captaris had to pay for a business class flight on KLM to somewhere (the customer had already paid for me to be there, plus it got me one of those cool KLM houses, my only one). But the flight from Bangkok to Kathmandu is so ridiculously cheap that the business fare is really quite affordable.
The benefits of the upper class were pretty good. First there was the massive check-in area for the 16 or so people in that cabin. Then came the attendant who ran off with your airport tax money and returned with the receipt while we lounged on some little stools. Then the dedicated immigration officer who reviewed our passports and visas. One escalator below we relaxed in the lovely Thai Business lounge. OK, not sure how much relaxing we could do in 20 minutes, but this was a benefit and dammit we are going to take advantage of it. I wandered around a bit with my camera to take a few shots of the building, but then it was time to move on to the flight.
We boarded and waited for the flight to start moving. It gave me a chance to pull out my laptop, transfer photos from my camera, and see what I got. I much prefer this over the routine from the last trip to Nepal. I took one after another roll of film and waited 3 weeks until I returned home to Manhattan to see if I had anything good. That was with 25 rolls, multiplied times 36 exposures, that gave me about 900 pictures, total. This time I have a 12 MP camera. An 8GB CF card lets me take about 550 pictures, and I have 4 of those cards, plus some older 4, 2, and 1 GB cards as an extra backup. I can offload all of those to my computer and 2 backup drives, enabling me to have three copies of each picture just in case any drive fails. A little Powershell script takes the pictures off my cards as soon as I attach the reader, and Robocopy easily synchronizes all of the disks. I have no realistic limit to the number of pics I can take, though if I really push it, I guess I am stuck with less than 41 thousand. Whew, I think it will be a good thing if I can manage to take up to 8 – 10 thousand images. Though I expect many of those to be components of HDR and Panoramic photos. You are already starting to see the results of some of the 5-exposure HDR (High Dynamic Range) compilations on my flickr account.
The pictures from the airport looked pretty good. I am especially excited by one of the handheld HDRs of the airport architecture. The handheld HDR is something I often tried but rarely had good luck with. First on the D70, it only auto-bracketed 3 exposures. Then the motor drive could only handle 3 frames per second or so. The D700 could do brackets of up to 9 exposures, though I am sticking with 5 so far. Plus, the drive is 8 frames per second. That extra half second makes a world of difference when it comes to keeping the camera still enough to get this effect.
A movie later (something with Renne Zelleweger about her moving to Minnesota from Miami, pretty good), and we were approaching Nepali airspace. Unfortunately we were on the left side of the plane and the Himalayas are on the right. Usually this is not a problem since you cannot see anything anyway, but today, Everest was peeking out. I grabbed my gear and got a few shots off. None are all that good since it was so far off and the airplane window obscures quite a bit at that distance. But the image in my head is wonderful.
I headed back to my seat for approach and landing. Coming in is pretty amazing. These are foothills, yet the plane is flying below their peaks for the last few minutes. And we are down. Like in Doha, we all walked down the steps from the plane onto the tarmac and into the terminal. Just like Bangkok, there was a medical team waiting for us to take temperatures and assess us. I passed! Whew!! We waited in line for the immigration official to stamp our passports. Since Sarah comes through this airport so many times, I followed her, but I had to ask why we were standing in the diplomats line. I figured she had some special clearance due to her clinic. For some reason right about then we moved to the regular tourist line, while she quietly giggled.
There are lots of forms that they review. Who knows if they actually make any use of them. But a few minutes later we were through. Either Thai recognizes me as a very special person or I just got lucky, but my bag was the second off the plane. My sister, who gives so much to this country in the form of free health care to many of its people towards its east had to wait a while. A long while. Last time I was here, John panicked when I told him in Portland that the gate agent at JFK could only check my bags to Tokyo. The agent was apparently supposed to be able to check them all the way to Kathmandu. I heard for much of the flight about how I would have to shop for clothes in Nepal since I would not be seeing my bag. At Narita, a small Japanese flight attendant scribbled some notes on the back of a napkin with a pencil and assured me the bag would make it. Just like this time, my bag was among the first off. John, the Nepal expert waited…till there was no one else left in the terminal. They left his bag in Tokyo. A few days later it arrived, but not before he had to pick up a few clothing items in Kathmandu.
Fortunately her bag did arrive. They do weigh your bags in Bangkok but apparently if you have only a suitcase or two, they have no problem with it. The reason for that was obvious looking at the baggage belt. Sony, Pioneer, Philips, Samsung. Box after box of electronics went round. Some boxes just held smaller radios, others were 42-inch TVs. Bangkok is much cheaper for these kinds of electronics and it is a popular quick trip for the locals.
At the airport, Pravesh picked us up and drove us to the hotel. We had just a few hours before a meeting she had with another colleague. So we walked to Thamel, stopping off at a money changer. This particular money changer on the right from the Radisson has some of the best rates in case you are looking. Sometime around then the “walk” turned into a quick taxi ride due to the heat. And there we were, in Thamel. This is a place filled with trekker shops, artist shops, and more. It seems a bit more touristy than last time. Pilgrims Bookstore is still there, filled with interesting books and crafts at a fixed price. Go there to figure out what the slightly expensive price is for something, then venture elsewhere to practice your haggling skills. Or just cave in on paying 50 cents too much and buy it there.
At another store I found some of those wonderful prayer flags that you so often see everywhere. Just over a Euro for 25 flags on a string. Sold! I may need some more later. Sarah had to make her usual stop at her favorite Thamel jeweler. She has been coming here every time for years and trusts the proprietor to not scam her. That said, there was plenty of haggling to bring the price down…sometimes below half the initial asking price. She has practiced this skill quite a bit. For my patience, I was given a beautiful crystal spire for my desk at home.
And then it was time for her meeting, so we headed back to the hotel. This gave me a chance to review the photos and again I am pretty pleased. Dinner was up at the top of the hotel. There aren’t many tall buildings in Kathmandu, and at 5 stories, the Radisson peaks out over most. The rooftop cafe was a wonderful place for the sunset, but I heard of some changes to our travel plans. Apparently the Maoist groups will occasionally call a bandh. When this happens nothing is allowed to move on the roads. These can last a day or a week. If we head out to Jiri, we could easily be stuck and miss our flights. We are thinking of heading out to the west instead for a few days (not to Chitwan since that is apparently very dangerous right now), and maybe a couple more at a monkey colony. That means I also have a bit more time in Kathmandu to see all I want to see. Unfortunately this also means that much of the trip becomes a personal trip rather than a business trip for my sister.
After dinner, I was able to get my packages from her. Before the trip I had a few items shipped to her in the US which she brought along to me here. So the final components of my photo bag are complete: A Really Right Stuff BH-25 QR ballhead, an L-plate for the D700, the PCL-1 panning clamp and the MPR-CL II nodal slide. This stuff is amazing. I hope to get some great pano’s with this and the ballhead is much lighter than the Gitzo head I have now. Plus, I can leave it on the tripod and it almost folds up completely.
Well, the day is over now, and its off to bed. 10PM and my eyes are drooping…goodnight.