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To Nepal & Back - the view from Seat 2K (LH, TG, TK F & C)

To Nepal & Back - the view from Seat 2K (LH, TG, TK F & C)

Old Mar 25, 14, 12:02 pm
  #1  
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To Nepal & Back - the view from Seat 2K (LH, TG, TK F & C)

Summary
My first ever trip report covers a two-week trip from PDX to KTM and back on LH F & C, TG F & C, TK C and UA Y.

About the title:
I’ve been inspired for years by the Trip Reports of Seat2A, so with that in mind (and because seat 2K is a preferred F seat on the TG A380), I booked myself in the F/K window seat of the second row of the plane wherever possible on an epic trip. For me the view of the earth as you wing across great distances is one of my favorite experiences in life. There is really very little like the perspective of our planet you get from 35K feet – and when you are resting comfortably in a luxury seat with a beverage of choice and on your way toward adventure… it doesn’t get much better. I think many of you would agree.

Compared to some of the amazing reports in this forum, this trip report will not contain comprehensive details about the meals and wines on offer, professional photos of each amuse bouche, a list every single thing I ate and drink, nor timings of the take off, landing and in-flight service. What I tried to do in summarizing my journey was to offer my own memories of the experience, provide some insight about trekking in Nepal, and share some photographs I took along the way. I hope you enjoy.

Sections

1: Introduction & Background
2: Leg 1: PDX to AMS – a return to LH F and making the most of an 18-hour connection
3: Leg 2: AMS to KTM – losing my A380 virginity
4: Nepal – Trekking in Langtang National Park
5: Leg 3: KTM to IST - First time on Turkish and a night in Istanbul
6: Leg 4: IST to PDX – The Longest Flight & United’s Welcome Home

Background

Last fall, with the impending great devaluation of United Mileage Plus looming on the horizon I started putting the pieces in place to burn some of my miles to experience what I’d be unlikely to experience, at least at such a relatively affordable level– international first class on United’s Star Alliance partners. This aligned well with my sabbatical – I’m lucky enough to work for a company that gives all US-based employees a six-week sabbatical every four years. It’s an amazing benefit!

For my first sabbatical in 2009, my wife and I took our then 9 month-old son to South Africa for a month. It was an awesome trip, but now that he is 5 and we also have a 1 year-old daughter, a family trip for four was more difficult to figure out. We played around with a number of different possibilities, but ultimately the ease of the trip won out over any other factors (such as getting maximum value for the miles) and we booked a family trip to Kauai over spring break.

That left another four weeks of sabbatical time, and my wife generously agreed to let me take a solo trip for 2 weeks – an early 40th birthday present – so the only question was where to go and how to fly there. The stars aligned and I was able to arrange time to meet up with two old friends in Nepal – where one (OregonOcean) was in the midst of two consequtive RTW trips and the other would be on trips between Vietnam and India so Nepal made perfect sense.

Next came figuring out my routing. One of the benefits of doing an international MBA program in Europe is that I now have friends scattered around the globe, many of whom I haven’t seen for 10 years, so I threw that into the mix along with optimizing the value of the miles and trying to try some new airlines. What I finally ticketed would bring me to a night in CDG, two nights in HKG, 9 nights in KTM and a night in IST.

Once that was ticketed, in November, I vigilantly watched for schedule changes and opportunities to improve what I’d booked. Unfortunately, Thai significantly reduced their flying to HKG due to the ongoing political turmoil in Bangkok, which meant it was no longer possible for me to get from HKG to KTM in a single day – a 16 hour overnight layover in Bangkok was now necessary. Given that I’d only been planning to be in HKG for 48 hours to visit a friend, I made the sad decision to cut HKG from the itinerary and to focus just on Nepal. On the upside, however, that saved me 40K miles and I was able to move my connection from CDG (a city I love, where I have lived and spent significant time) to AMS where I by coincidence could see some friends who were passing through. On top of that, United unexpectedly allowed carrier and routing changes on awards without changing additional miles after February 1, so I was able to move myself to LH F for the trans-Atlantic routing. This is how where I ended up as my trip began.

PDX-SEA UA Y
SEA-FRA LH F
FRA-AMS LH C
CONNECTION
AMS-FRA LH C
FRA-BKK TG F
BKK-KTM TG C
Destination
KTM-IST TK C
Stopover
IST-IAH TK C
IAH-PDX UA Y
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Old Mar 25, 14, 12:05 pm
  #2  
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Leg 1: PDX to AMS- a return to LH F and making the most of an 18-hour layover

United 5397 PDX-SEA Emb-120, Economy Class, Seat 1C
Lufthansa 491 SEA-FRA A330-300, (New) First Class, Seat 2K
Lufthansa 992 FRA-AMS A319, Business Class, Seat 2F

My record fastest travel time from my house in NE Portland to gate E1 at PDX, including parking and going through pre-check security, is 17 minutes. Luckily I didn’t need to push it so hard today, and my wife dropped me off a leisurely 90 minutes before the quick hop up to Seattle.

I generally try to avoid checking bags whenever possible, but given the gear that I needed to bring to Nepal for a trek, and the various climates I’d be visiting, it was unavoidable this time around. I swung by the check-in counters where there was no line and within about 5 minutes I had my backpack wrapped in a plastic bag, tagged to AMS, and boarding passes for all 3 segments in hand. For reasons that will remain unknown, I was not selected for TSA Pre-check on this trip – which has only happened twice in the past year+ of travel – but it didn’t matter since there was no real line at security and most of my stuff was going under the plane.

While waiting for departure, I visited the United Club. I’ve had Club memberships on and off over the past decade, so as a PDX-based flyer have spent a fair amount of time in this little club above the E-gates United uses at PDX. The main agent, Margi, is extremely helpful and despite their lack of any adult beverages beyond beer and wine (Oregon liquor laws are bizarre) I think its one of the better clubs in the system. On this occasion it provided me with an Oregonian newspaper to pass the time, some yogurt and cereal to tide me over until dinner on my international flight.


After about 40 minutes I walked to the United Express gates in the basement of the E concourse.



Boarding started about 20 minutes before the scheduled 11am departure, and we were loaded with the door closed a few minutes before 11. Due to a service dog-in training riding along with another traveler, I was asked to move up to the bulkhead from my seat (2C), which I was happy to do. The sun was breaking through the clouds as we took off to the east over I-205 and banked to the North to head toward Seattle and climbed up to our 20,000 foot cruising elevation for the 35 minute hop.




The flight was about half full, so it didn’t take long for the FA to provide her “service” – walking down the aisle with a bottle of water and a stack of cups and offering them to passengers. My general rule on planes is to never turn down water, so I had two small glasses to prepare for what I expected would be significant consumption of dehydrating beverages later in the trip. We landed roughly on schedule and taxied past the South terminal where the inbound LH A330 was uploading passengers and cargo from FRA. We de-planed into the A gate area that is now home to UA at SEA, and it took me about 15 minutes to make my way from there to the South terminal.

About two weeks before my trip, extremely unexpectedly I ended up flying FRA-SEA in LH F -- due to a weather waiver while returning to PDX from BHX and a series of ticketing errors (about which I’m not complaining and is a story for another time). I’d already read a lot about the LH F experience from many trip reports (thank you all!!!) and did what I could to get the most out of that flight including visiting the FCT during a 60 minute connection. I had such a great time on that trip, I was excited to return so quickly to LH F, especially with much more time in FRA.

I checked-in to the International Lounge, the contract lounge used by Lufthansa, ANA and a few other carriers at SEA. The agent working the desk re-printed my boarding passes on LH stock, provided me with the nice Lufthansa First envelope and escorted me into the First Class section of the lounge. This was a small area of the lounge with seating for 20 and separated from the rest of the lounge by glass walls. An attendant took drink orders and there was a small snack basket with chips, cookies, cheese, and granola bars. Outside in the general area of the lounge they had similar snacks as well as two soups and a few sandwiches available for self-service.


I had about two hours to kill before the scheduled departure time, and I used it to start this trip report and nurse a Jim Beam and Ginger. I had a feeling that the load in F would be light on tonight’s flight, and only one other passenger joined me in the first lounge. We started chatting and I discovered that she was a UA GS who had been booked to fly SEA-EWR-BOM in BusinessFirst but very similarly to my experience of a few weeks earlier, had been re-routed to avoid EWR and ended up in F SEA-FRA-BOM. I commented how lucky she had been to end up on LH instead of UA. She commented, “well I was in first on my old routing, so this is better because it’s not United -- but still similar I think”. Suffice to say that she learned just how dissimilar to United BusinessFirst it is to fly LH F.

About 45 minutes before departure, the two of us along with one other passenger were escorted to the gate and onto the plane. This A330-300 had been equipped with not just the new First cabin but also the new business seats – it was my first time seeing the new business on LH and at least from seeing (but not sitting or sleeping in) them, it appears to be a significant improvement.. The load on the flight was pretty light – 3/8 in F, probably 50% in C and maybe 40-50% in Y. I was offered a pre-departure beverage, for which they opened a bottle of their new onboard F champagne. I’m fairly certain I was the only person drinking it and managed to finish most of the bottle over the next hour. The amenity kit had changed since my trip in February, and it appears the Rimowa suitcase was replaced with a more generic bag. The contents appeared to be identical.







Shortly after takeoff the purser came to introduce herself, and offered to do, “anything within my power to make this an especially memorable flight”. It was about 40 minutes after takeoff as we crossed from BC into Alberta that the Lufthansa FlyNet service started working (my experience with it overall has been hit or miss) so I used the time to catch up on FlyerTalk, and chat with a few friends via iMessage and Facebook. As the dinner service began, I switched to red wine and then began watching 12 Years a Slave on the inflight entertainment system – appropriate it as it had won the Oscar for Best Picture the previous evening. It was a wonderful movie and having seen about half the nominees I felt the Academy Award was well deserved. This aircraft had a slightly different IFE system than my last LH flight – this was the newer version and I felt it was significantly improved. Not only was the system quite a bit more responsive, but it had a great selection of content as well.

For dinner I took advantage of everything that was on offer – each appetizer, the beef for dinner, and ample servings of cheese and port for desert. It was a solid meal, though I would not say it was exceptional compared to any fine dining on the ground, but I had no complaints as it was well prepared and properly cooked. I then moved onto port for the cheese and desert courses, and finished the meal and the movie with two glasses of Johnny Walker Blue.







Before long it was dark outside, and the crew was making up beds for each of the passengers. The advantage of such a light load is that each passenger gets a seat and a bed – a feature normally reserved for F passengers on the 747-400 only. I changed into the Lufthansa-provided pajamas in the adequately sized restroom, downed an Ambien, and settled in for almost 5 hours of good sleep.





I woke up two hours from FRA – flipped on another movie (this time Blue Jasmine, another winner from the recent Academy Awards) and opted to skip the breakfast because I knew what would be awaiting me on the ground, but did enjoy a cappuccino or two before we landed and taxied to a remote stand.







Typically using at a remote stand at FRA (which is almost the only thing I’ve ever done in the past decade of flying through there) is cause for annoyance, but not when you are flying LH F – the Mercedes S Class was there waiting for the 3 First passengers. I had not made up my mind if I would visit the FCT or the FCL near the A gates since it was conveniently located near my connecting flight and I had already visited the FCT two weeks earlier (albeit for only 30 minutes). One of the other passengers declared his intention to go to the FCT, and the other had never been, so that made it an easy decision. We were dropped at the immigration entrance, and in 10 minutes had passed through passport control and walked the short distance to the FCT. Three attendants met us, escorted us through security, and I found a comfortable spot to base myself for the next few hours.













I’ve seen some comments recently that the FCT has declined in quality, and that it isn’t as exclusive as it once was, but in my book this is truly the best possible place to spend a layover. I had a tasty breakfast, tried several of the waters in the water bar, refreshed myself with a strong shower, and then decided it was time to try some of their incredible selection of single malt whiskies. Three glasses later, some chatting with one of my fellow SEA-FRA flyers, I started to write this trip report and discovered that lunch was being served. I ate another meal (of course taking advantage of the prosciutto cutter) and was then escorted to the Porsche Cayenne that would be my ride to the A concourse and my flight to AMS.



I was walked to my seat to discover a fairly full business cabin (5 rows set-up for C on this flight, and 15 of 20 seats were full). We pulled away from the gate a few minutes past schedule, and were soon airborne. It always amazes me that LH can serve a full meal in the short 45 minutes between FRA and AMS when UA can’t do the same on a three-hour non-mealtime flight. I had no interest in eating given that my body felt like it was the middle of the night and I’d been gorging myself in the FCT, but I still took a photo for the benefit of you my FT readers.





The newest runway at AMS is located quite a fair distance from the terminal, so when we landed here I knew we had some time until we could deplane. 20 minutes later (almost half as long as it took to fly from FRA to AMS) we were parked at the gate. It's a fairly long walk to baggage claim, but we still had to wait about 10 minutes for the bags to start their progression onto the belt. My bag with Star Alliance Priority tag attached was one of the first up the conveyor, and I breezed through customs and out into the central hall at Schiphol.

Since I only had about 18 hours in AMS, I opted to stay at the airport at a great airport hotel – the Citizen M. This hotel is a 5-minute walk from the terminal, and while nothing fancy is an affordable (my rate was €105 a night) way to maximize your time in the city. Check-in was handled through a self-service kiosk, and I was soon dropping my bags, storing my valuables in the in-room safe, and walking back to the airport to catch a train into the city. The NS trains were a bit screwy on this Tuesday afternoon, so I opted to take a train to Amsterdam Sloterdijk and transfer to another train to Centraal. Along the way I helped confused tourists from Japan, Peru and France negotiate their way to one of the world’s busiest train stations.

By 3pm, I was at the designated meeting spot for my friends, and we made the most of the next nine hours in the city. We walked the canals, ate, drank, enjoyed all that Amsterdam had to offer and caught up. It was a great visit. In the years since I’d lived in Amsterdam, the beer scene has improved immeasurably and we sampled a number of Dutch, Danish, American and Belgian offerings at several different beer bars. By the time I caught the train back to Schiphol at 12:15am, I was ready for sleep. By 12:45 I was back in my room at the Citizen M and ready for some rest. Considering that I’d started the day on a plane, spent my morning tasting single malt scotches in the FCT, and made the most of an evening in Amsterdam, I felt remarkably good.









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Old Mar 25, 14, 12:05 pm
  #3  
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Leg 2: AMS to KTM – losing my A380 virginity

Lufthansa 987 AMS-FRA A319, Business Class, Seat 2F
Thai Airways 921 FRA-BKK A380, First Class, Seat 2K
Thai Airways 319 BKK-KTM, Business Class, Seat 12K

The 7am alarm startled me awake – my body didn’t know what time it was or where we were. In the technology-driven rooms at the Citizen M, you set the alarm via the TV, and then it wakes you both with sound and by turning the room lights on. I showered in the odd shower that is in the middle of the room – it won’t turn on until you’ve sealed the plastic doors that surround you and ensures no water escapes.



By 7:45 I was making my way back to Schiphol to check-in with LH for my 8:55 flight to FRA. The LH/LX/OS check-in desks at Schiphol are about as far as you can get from the Citizen M, but one advantage they have is access to a little-used security checkpoint (which may be restricted to business class passengers – I’m not sure) that deposits you not far from the lounge. That gave me about 15 minutes to visit this crowded little room and drink a few glasses of water and some coffee to prepare me for the afternoon of drinking that awaited me on my way to Asia.





Soon I was seated back in the familiar seat 2F on the A319 and dozed as we flew to FRA. Breakfast was served and I nibbled at it, but mostly slept.



We landed and taxied – could it be – straight to the terminal! What, no remote stand? And to make it even better, we were at the B concourse – from where my flight to BKK would depart! I couldn’t believe my luck. As it happened, however, that luck was short-lived. For reasons I’m not quite sure of, we had to deplane using the rear stairs (business class passengers off last) and get onto a bus to the A concourse. Alas. As I entered the terminal, I spotted a gentleman holding a Thai Royal First sign with my name on it, and he escorted me through the tunnel to the B concourse, through passport control, and into the Senator Lounge for my four-hour layover. Through some quirk of United and Lufthansa ticketing, despite the fact that there was a later AMS-FRA flight that showed available in C using miles, and had a UA codeshare flight number, the United agents on the phone couldn’t ever see said flight in their system (even as a revenue flight). I tried multiple times to change it, but it was as if the fight didn’t exist, so I had to settle for a longer layover. After being spoiled by the FCT on the visit the day before, I had to lower my expectations for the SEN lounge, but it was a perfectly fine place to spend a few hours and the bright sun pouring through the windows helped combat the jetlag. One advantage of the SEN lounge over the FCT is that it overlooks the tarmac so I got some nice views of aircraft from many different carriers while I continued work on this report.





About 35 minutes before departure, my Thai Airways handler came to get me and two other passengers in the SEN lounge to escort us to the plane. Boarding had already started and it was at best controlled-chaos with more scrum and less queuing mentality. Economy passengers boarded from one side so they could go downstairs, and F and C passengers to the other to walk up ramps to board the upper level of the plane.





While I had seen a number of A380s over the past few years, I had yet to fly on one, so considered this flight a highlight of my itinerary. I had read many a trip report and seen plenty of photos about TG F, but my first time laying eyes on the enormous suite that would be my home for the next 10 hours was a thrill. Seat 2K had more windows and storage space than I’d ever experienced, the TV was enormous, and settling in set the stage for what would be a very special flight.









As I stowed my bag, the Royal First crew stopped by to introduce themselves (with both Thai and Western names available for my use, “call me Johnny because its easier) and to offer their assistance should I need any help. Soon the multiple jetbridges were detached from the plane and we pushed back. It was clear what a heavy and massive plane this was, as many ground vehicles had to wait and support staff had to help to get us away from the terminal and headed to the taxiway. Soon we were speeding down the runway, this big heavy beast slowly gathering enough speed to take flight and head southeast toward Thailand. When you watch the A380 takeoff from the ground you wonder how such a big bird can fly, but the experience being on board – other than the longer than usual roll – is not so unusual.



I was very impressed with the inflight entertainment system – ample choices including a camera view combined with a large screen and responsive remote. I choose to start Captain Phillips as the crew prepared dinner and set the places. While I had attempted to reserve the Lobster from Thai’s website (an option that allows F and C flyers to select an entrée in advance), the special loaded for me was the Hindu Vegetarian. Given this, I decided to order off the menus, and both the food and drink menus were presented in leather-bound books. The number of spirits and wines on offer were very impressive. I went with the pork.











Overall the meal was good – with some highlights and lowlights. Highlights included the caviar course, the shrimp appetizer and the deserts. Lowlights included the overcooked pork in my entrée. By the time the dinner, desert and the movie concluded, we were over Crimea and despite my best efforts I could see no evidence of the current struggle from out 35K ft. cruising altitude. As other passengers readied to sleep, I visited to the F lav, which was at least twice as large as any other airline bathroom I’ve visited.





The extra space was nice, but it felt almost unnecessarily large. The adjacent “lounge”, as others have pointed out, didn’t only feel unnecessarily large – it felt unnecessary and a waste of space. I appreciate what they were attempting in providing the option, but the vibe didn’t invite hanging out.





I changed into the comfortable pajamas that Thai provided, and returned to my seat which had been made up into a bed. After a Johnny Waker Blue nightcap, I settled in for about five hours of solid sleep. I woke with enough time to served a light breakfast course of a mushroom omlett and fruit, accompanied by a few cappuccinos and an hour of reading to finish The Goldfinch before we landed in Bangkok.







For my first trip on the A380, this was a great time. The service was personable and helpful, the seat incredibly comfortable, and the 10 hours went by far too fast. I regret not trying to take a tour of the aircraft and seeing more than the F cabin! When the cabin crew came by to thank me for flying, I couldn’t resist taking a photo with them



Several Thai Airways handlers with golf carts met the arriving plane, and First passengers were divided based on their destination within the airport. Me and five others boarded a cart, was driven a fair distance down a long, crowded concourse (our A380 arrived within a minute of the A380 from CDG) to a security checkpoint, and after screening were escorted to the Royal First lounge. I requested a visit to the spa for a massage, which as it turned out was available right away, so I walked across the half and in a matter of minutes was led into the Royal First section for a 60 minute massage.



Now massages are not part of my typical connection, but I could get used to this. It left me feeling refreshed, relaxed, and invigorated. I followed it up with a shower, dressed in new clothes, and enjoyed a cup of tea in a private room before I returned to the First lounge. Initially they looked at my onward C boarding pass to KTM and invited me to wait in the business lounge, but when they realized that I’d already been in the First lounge they allowed me to return. A number of the other people I’d arrived with had already departed for their connecting flights, and the lounge was quite quiet at this hour aside from what I think was a Thai governmental delegation that came through for about 30 minutes while I was there. I ordered a congee to nibble on, and passed my time with some FlyerTalk reading and a FaceTime with my family back in Oregon. As luck would have it my daughter even took her first steps (captured on video by my wife) and I was able to watch before shutting down for the walk to my gate for the flight to KTM.







The load in business was quite light – about 40% -- which rose to 50% once a Nepalese government delegation boarded at the last minute (most of whom eventually sat in economy). After my two longhaul flights in F, this 777-200 business class experience wasn’t quite as glamorous. The older angle-flat seat looked a bit worse for the wear, and the plane felt in need of some refurbishment.







Luckily it was only about a 3.5 hour flight, which passed quickly. The chicken was surprisingly good.







Before long we were beginning our descent into KTM, and I noticed many a terraced hillside as we got closer to the runway.



We pulled into a special stand next to the terminal, and the government delegation was allowed to deplane down the front stairs to a waiting limousine in front of awaiting media. Once that ceremony was complete, the stairs were moved to the next door, and passengers were allowed to disembark. I’d noticed a comment in Lonely Planet Nepal about the Visa on Arrival process being lengthy, so I hurried off the plane to the immigration. I purchased my 14 day visa in about 5 minutes, and 20 minutes later had my bag and was walking outside the airport to a waiting car sent by my hotel. I later learned that those in the back of the plane waited up to three hours to complete the Visa on Arrival process and leave the airport – phew!

Last edited by noah; Mar 25, 14 at 2:53 pm
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Old Mar 25, 14, 12:06 pm
  #4  
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Nepal: Trekking Langtang National Park

(A video of the trek is available at this link; I recommend watching in HD for a much better viewing experience).

We spent a few days in Kathmandu preparing for our trek and doing some sightseeing. The majority of tourists, myself included, stay in an area called Thamel which is a densely packed areas of hotels, restaurants and an incalculable number of outdoor gear shops, Tibetan and Nepalese craft businesses, souvenir shops, travel agents on repeat. I stayed at one of the top Trip Advisor Choices, Hotel Friends Home (currently #2, was #1). For $45 a night, I got a double bed in a not terribly large private room with private bath, generator to power lights during “load sheding” blackouts, breakfast, and fairly personal service. The area was noisy, crowded, dirty, but convenient. Unfortinuately that also meant that was not at all tranquil (to say nothing of the four construction projects immediately outside the hotel) so I didn’t sleep very while there. In comparison, for $12 my friends were just outside of Thamel, had private rooms and shared baths and it was much quieter.


Thamel, Kathmandu

Durbar Square Kathmandu


Swayambhunath (Monkey Temple), Kathmandu


Swayambhunath (Monkey Temple), Kathmandu


Bodnath Stupa, Kathmandu

We had a few pieces of gear to procure, so we visited a number of shops in Thamel. Most sell Nepalese copies of other gear, some of it Chinese ("Higher Quality"). Most is branded "North Face", but we also saw "Marmut", "Deuter" and "Patagonia" among others. I bought some down jackets for my kids at $25 each, and my friends picked up adult sizes for $40-$60. Sleeping bags seemed to also be good deals. The backpacks and other similar things were cheap, but we considered buying a few things that had their zippers break *in the store* so that might be something I buy at home.

Next it was time for the trek. The most popular treks in Nepal are in the Annapurna area and Everest Base Camp, but most of those treks take from 10-21 days to complete, and I didn’t have that much time, so we opted instead to do a trek in the Langtang National Park, which is about 120km north of Kathmandu and the third most popular area for trekking in Nepal given the proximity to KTM and that it can easily be completed in less than a week.

While 120 kms is fairly close to Kathmandu, the road conditions in this area means it takes anywhere from 6 to 9 hours to make the trip to the starting point of the Langtang trek, the small town of Syrabu Besi. The three of us shared a porter, who we hired from a company in Kathmandu and met up with to travel together on the bus out of the city. We were lucky enough to secure passage on a 7am express bus, which was made up primarily of tourists, their guides and porters, and unlike most Nepali buses does not take on additional passengers along the way, thus significantly increasing the comfort and speed of the trip. We discovered that our reserved seats were the last row of the bus, which was essentially a wooden board with no padding. As we bumped over the roads, including natural and man-made obstacles, the trip became increasingly painful, but it was a nice comparison to the plush seats from my first class trips earlier in the week and reminder of how most people travel. We puled into Syrabu Besi about 14:30 and we grabbed a room at the trekkers inn ($1 per person for a private triple room) where we also ate dinner and breakfast before heading out the next day.



Our “Super Express Bus”

Our trek took us about 30 kms up the Langtang River Valley, through woods, pastures, small villages and wilderness, averaging about 5-6 hours of walking and 1000 meters (3000 feet) of elevation gain each day. Our porter ($12 a day) carried a shared 20 kilo backpack, and we carried daypacks, as we slowly ascended the valley getting closer and closer to the 7200 meter Luring Langtang peak. At night we stayed in teahouse lodges – sometimes with other trekkers, and other times we had the places to ourselves. As this was not high season, we were able to negotiate at every lodge that we would room for free and pay only for our food and drink. Prices increased the higher we climbed, but an average meal along the trail was $4-8 a person so it was a very cheap way to travel. The menu did not vary very much from lodge to lodge – offering primarily high-carb dishes that typically gave a choice of veggies, yak cheese and/or fried egg combined with your choice of starch (pasta, rice, chow-Mein) . Dal Baht, the Nepalese daily dinner, was a good alternative – providing an endless plate of rice with lentil-based soup, vegetables and the occasional friend Tibetan bread. Breakfasts offered variations on omelets, oat porridge and pancakes. A large bottle of beer ran anywhere from $5-$9 depending on how far it had to be carried in. My daily budget for food and lodging was around $20.

Most of the other travelers walked with guides and porters, and others walked entirely independently. As someone who typically carries my own gear, it felt strange to hire someone to do so, but in this case I am very happy I did. While the trek was not what I’d describe as incredibly challenging, it was a very good workout, especially as we climbed to the higher altitudes. If I’d been carrying 10 kilos on my back, I would have been much slower and much more challenged to make it up some of the steeper sections of the trail. Its also an easy way to contribute to the local economy. I did not feel that we missed out by not having a guide, but YMMV of course.

After the first few hours we lost cell service (though interesting for telecom geeks to note that there was actually a local service, but it was not GSM so nobody else except the locals and their “ancient” dumbphones could access it). It was actually a great treat to be disconnected for the journey. During the day we walked, and rested when we got tired, occasionally stopping for a coffee, tea, hot lemon or lunch at convenient guesthouses. At night we played cards, lingered over our meals, and were typically in bed before 9:30.








Our hosts at one guesthouse


Along the way we met countless friendly Nepalese (primarily of Tibetan origin), travelers from around the world (with the majority representing Netherlands, Denmark, Canada, US, Australia, UK, Germany, France, Singapore, Korea, Malaysia and Japan) and saw truly spectacular scenery at every step of the trail. We visited a 200+ year-old monastery, saw their ancient scrolls, drank a cup of fermented rice wine with local men and met the local Llama.







On our fourth day we summited the peak of Kyanjin Ri, which brought us up to 4773 meters and vistas of jaw dropping peaks in every direction.









Six days after we started, we returned to Syrabu Besi and prepared for a departure back to Kathmandu. The next day was the Hindu holiday of Holi, and the buses were not running, so instead we joined some other travelers to charter a jeep back to the city.


Boarding the jeep (we paid a little extra to get only 3 across our seat rather than 4)

This turned out to be an yet another part of the adventure, as the Nepali guides and porters who accompanied us took advantage of our jeep to engage many people along the road in the small towns we passed during the six hour journey in playful exchanges of colored pigment and water balloons amidst shouts of, “Happy Holi!”. By the time we arrived in KTM, we were all a bit wetter and certainly more colorful than we had been that morning, but it was a day I won’t soon forget.


Our jeep driver

A few cocktails and a large dinner to celebrate of the trip, and soon it was time to get some rest before beginning the 50+hour trip home. 11 days in Nepal passed far to quickly, and I really do look forward to returning another time to do a longer trek and see some of the other epic mountains. Getting to have this adventure with two old, dear friends was truly a gift – and we enjoyed every minute of the adventure.

If you have never been to Nepal and it is not on your travel list, you should consider adding it. It was not really on mine, but a repeat visit is definitely something I’d like to make happen. Getting there is not cheap, but award availability seems to be pretty easy to come by, and once there it is one of the cheaper places on earth. Next time I hope I have more than 10 days, but even that is enough to get into the mountains.

Last edited by noah; Apr 11, 14 at 1:29 pm Reason: Edited video link
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Old Mar 25, 14, 12:07 pm
  #5  
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Leg 3: KTM to IST – First time on Turkish and a night in Istanbul

Turkish Airlines 727 KTM-IST, A330-200, Business Class, Seat 2K

Out of habit I always check the inbound flight for any morning departure before I go to bed, and in doing so discovered that my TK flight the next day would be delayed from 8:45 to 12:20. Luckily I’d been planning a 24 hours top in IST, so a more relaxed morning was worth the delay to me. When I woke they’d moved the departure up to 11:50, about 3 hours late, so I planned to get a taxi to the airport at 9:45am. I did this, but we were diverted by the police to a different route, and ultimately arrived at the airport around 10:25. By this point there was no longer any check-in counter for Turkish, but I was able to find someone to check me in just before they officially closed the flight. For some reason my long-reserved 2K seat had been reassigned to 3A, but upon request they were able to move me back to 2K. I was able to check through my now two bags (items purchased in Nepal and bringing back gear for my friends who were staying on the road) all the way to PDX, saving me the hassle of retrieving them, storing and re-checking in IST.

I quickly passed through customs, immigration, and a lax security set-up and made my way to the gate – no time for their lounge. Here I found a scrum of passengers waiting in a very basic gate area with doors onto the tarmac in front of our A330.



The gate staff seemed to have an incorrect count of boarding passes, which delayed the process a bit, but eventually the doors were opened and the passengers swarmed the two staircases at the front and rear of the plane. I was the first passenger into the business cabin, which gave me a chance to take some photos and settle in. I’d noticed that the KTM-IST flight seemed to have no issues with award availability so was not surprised when only 7 passengers boarded for the 28 seat cabin.



This A330, originally owned by MEA, was only 9 years old and has been in the TK fleet even less time, but it certainly seemed a bit shabby. The A330-200 seems primarily assigned to less important routes and this is the aircraft that KTM typically sees – though I’d been hoping to be victim of an aircraft substitution. While the A330-300 did make it to KTM for a day or two before my flight, it was the older -200 that I got to experience.

I have read a lot about the TK business experience on FlyerTalk so was excited to try it out. Boarding was completed and newspapers (from the day before) were offered from a cart. We taxied down the runway, turned a 180 at the end, and then powered up the engines for the roll and takeoff. It was cloudy and somewhat foggy in KTM, but after about a minute we passed through the clouds and were greeted with the spectacular sight of the Himalaya poking through the clouds to the north, with a great view out my windows. Several other passengers came to my side of the plane to take photos.





Unfortunately the electrical system in the seats wasn't working, so my plan to get a chunk of this trip report out of the way was not to be. Electricity in Nepal was few and far between (in Kathmandu it is regularly shut down for a few hours as part of load shedding) so my batteries on the laptop were out of juice. Instead I settled into some mindless films on the IFE (Runner Runner and Man of Steel), which was at least a month out of date. Oh well, at least you can’t fault an IFE has every Star Trek movie available on demand.



When the first meal came around, I was offered a choice of three hot entrees – a beef, pasta and a chicken. I opted for the beef, which was good – so was surprised when I got the exact same entrée for my second meal. When I asked the flight attendant if it was the same, she said no. I pulled out my camera to review the photos I’d taken a few hours earlier, and sure enough it was identical.


Starter, First Meal


First Hot Meal – Main Course


Second Meal (look familiar?)

Given the extremely light load I’d be surprised if they ran out of entrees – I’d guess the crew ate a few thus the repeat. I had a big dinner in Istanbul ahead, so didn’t really mind the return of the beef, but I find it a disappointing to have such an experience on airline trying to be one of the world’s best in a premium cabin. The FA later did return and apologize for answering incorrectly and confirm that it was the same entrée (though did not apologize for serving it as such).

Service was not terribly polished, and surprisingly inattentive considering the 7 passengers in the 28-seat cabin. While many others slept and I relaxed, the crew relaxed in the galley. It took proactive effort for me to get a drink on several occasions.

One of the parts of the flight I’d been looking forward to was the view out the window, as I was going to traverse a number of areas that I’d either never or previously had only flown over during the night, so didn’t plan to get much sleep. Instead I leisurely enjoyed my meal, read a book on my iPad, drank a few whiskies, caught a few movies, and looked out the window. The seat was completely adequate and it was a comfortable way to pass seven hours. It was fairly clear, so I got a great view of mountains in Turkmenistan and in Georgia as well as a good overhead perspective on Baku.


Hello Istanbul

Eventually we landed in Istanbul and taxied to the terminal. They held economy passengers before the business cabin exited. No line for the Visa on Arrival, a long line for the Business line at immigration. It still took less than 25 minutes from landing to be in a taxi heading towards the old town of Istanbul.

Istanbul is a great city for a layover. I’d first visited two years ago with my family, so I was content to simply wander the neighborhoods. I had a memorable meal with some old friends at an Istanbul institution, Hamdi, grabbed a few hours of sleep at a boutique hotel that was highlight rated on TripAdvisor (The Basileus Hotel) picked up treat at the Spice Bazar, stopped through a mosque or two -- before I knew it, I was in a taxi headed back toward Ataturk airport.






Last edited by noah; Mar 27, 14 at 7:17 pm
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Old Mar 25, 14, 12:07 pm
  #6  
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Leg 4: IST to PDX – The Longest Flight & United’s Welcome Home

Turkish Airlines 33 IST-IAH, 777-300, Business Class, Seat 2K
United Airlines 381 IAH-PDX, A319, Economy Class, Seat 25B

My one visit to the much-praised Turkish Airlines lounge in Istanbul (two years ago) was too short, so I wanted to be sure I had adequate time this round. I was unable to get a boarding pass for the IST-IAH leg in KTM, but it took less than 10 minutes for me to clear special US screening, secure a boarding pass and clear immigration. The agent in IST was unable to print my IAH-PDX boarding pass, which at the time didn’t bother me but in hindsight was something I should have tried harder to procure given my experiences later in the day with United.

The TK lounge has more than doubled in size since my last visit. While crowded upstairs, downstairs had a tremendous number of seats and lots of choices for different areas to pass the time. A huge selection of different foods and drinks, from freshly prepared flatbread and kebabs, to salad bars and coffee stands, could be found around every corner. A special gaming area was located in one corner of the lounge, complete with virtual driving range, a racecar course and Sony Playstations. There was no problem passing three hours before my flight in here!
















After walking to the gate, there was another security check before entering the gate area for the IAH flight, which took about 15 minutes. The aircraft was ready for boarding soon after, and I entered the business cabin before all the other passengers which was good for taking photos. This cabin felt much more modern, and newer than the aircraft the day before. I settled into my seat and eventually the cabin filled to about 21 of 28 passengers. This was the only flight since I’d left PDX (1 of 8) that I’d had someone assigned to the seat next to me!





After distribution of amenity kits, menus and newspapers, we took off about 15 minutes behind schedule and service began shortly thereafter. I was asked for my choice (lamb) and was informed that the other courses would be served by cart so I’d be able to have as many choices as I wanted to try.

Turkish is known for their food, and was not disappointed by either of the meals on this flight. Perhaps it was the “candlelight dining” Do&Co provided, or being served by a chef in chef’s uniform, -- but my expectations were met and exceeded. Each course was extremely well presented, served at proper temperatures, the meats were appropriately cooked, and the choices were flavorful and delicious. While overall the meals may not have been served as crisply, lacked some of the sophistication and complexity of the meals I enjoyed on LH First and Thai First, overall I’d say that the meals in Turkish business were as good if not better than the meals I had on those flight in F.









This flight was a significant step above my experience the previous day. On the hard product side, the seat was much more comfortable, and it went almost completely flat (about 170 degrees). The IFE had newer movies and was more responsive. The map included an exterior camera (always a preferred amenity). The bathroom was larger. The power outlets worked. And the flight had working (and free!) WiFi. In my book that's always a bonus – I completely understand many people’s desire to disconnect and that the airplane is still one of the places where this is possible. To me, however, I like to stay connected and the longer the trip, the stranger it feels to me to not know what is going on elsewhere – so the ability to keep in touch for me is a major help in not having the flight feel so long!





Speaking of long flights, this flight was on the books for 12:50 but ended up taking about 30 minutes extra due to headwinds – making it significantly longer than any other flight. I didn’t really mind, however, because I was comfortable, had a choice of different entertainment options that included watching the world go by below me (why I sit at the window). The flight attendants however had other ideas, and repeatedly asked me to close my window. I had four windows – I was happy to close 3.5 of them, but insisted that I be able to keep one open enough to see out and to get natural light. I can understand asking passengers to close shades on red-eye flights when flying eastbound and getting unnaturally early light, but on daytime flights where I’m not planning to sleep (and want to stay up later to facilitate adjustment to the new time), I refuse to close my shade. I’m sorry if you want to sleep, that's why the airline provided you an eye mask. I don’t feel strongly about a lot of things, but this is one of them. While they were nice enough about it, the FA’s tried to get me to close it, but eventually they relented and I got to keep it open. Rant Off.

I did opt to lie flat to a bed and get a few hours of sleep, which wasn’t too difficult given how long I’d been traveling and the almost completely flat bed. I snagged an extra pillow from a nearby seat that was unassigned and slept about 4 hours. I woke up and watched a few more mindless movies, got a great view of Chicago from 35,000 feet, and we slowly made our way towards IAH.



While we were landing almost 45 minutes behind schedule, this was not mentioned once in the announcements – at least in the English announcements. I found the English proficiency of the Captain and Crew adequate but not as smooth as it could have been – so I admit its entirely possible that they did discuss the delay in Turkish announcements. The economy passengers were held while the business class passengers exited the plane and began the walk towards screening.

I discovered that United had proactively booked me on the next IAH-PDX flight for the following morning, but I still had 70 minutes to make the connection and knew that the inbound aircraft was delayed so I was fairly confident in my ability to make it. Global Entry proved extremely valuable once again as I negotiated zero line at immigration and was the first person at the baggage claim. 10 minutes later the bags started exiting, stopped for another few minutes, and then continued. The two bags I’d checked the previous morning in KTM were among the first 20 off the plane, thanks to the priority tags, and I headed next to the customs counter. There was a long line for customs with a number of flights -- Air China, Turkish and a few United flights from Mexico -- arriving simultaneously, but luckily I noticed an express exit for Global Entry. I was essentially waved through and was in the baggage re-check area less than 20 minutes after landing.

It took about 10 minutes to get in front of a United Agent, who congratulated me on making it through customs through quickly, re-tagged my two bags to PDX, and issued me a boarding pass for – see agent at check-in! My long-reserved seat 7F, IMHO the best seat in domestic Y on a United Airbus – had been given away. I was annoyed, to say the least – I’d tried for months to move this award seat to F but there was never any safer F availability, so had accepted that I’d be finishing this epic award trip in Economy, but to go from TK Business to a yet be assigned seat (or even a bump) was an extremely rude awakening.

I decided to see what I could do at the gate, so made a sweaty dash through security (no Pre-check screening at this late hour at IAH), and a long jog down to gate C-35 where the PDX flight was about to board. The agent there said she thought I’d clear standby but had nowhere but middle seats to assign me. I was soon handed a boarding pass for seat 25B – welcome home! I boarded with group 1, and stowed my bag in the overhead for the 4:45 flight back to PDX. What a change to go from lie-flat to a middle seat in Economy Minus!



The flight was completely full and we took off about 15 minutes late. My extremely jetlagged body was quite confused, and given that I wanted to sleep when getting home, I made the effort to stay awake about 3 hours of the flight, and read while most other passengers snoozed. While not the most comfortable way I could have ended the trip, it was a good return to reality and a reminder that this is how I’d be traveling most of my upcoming trips in my life – far, far away from the glamor and comfort of International First Class.

We made up the delay time in-flight, landed on schedule, taxied to the gate, and about 15 minutes later I was at baggage claim awaiting my bags. A $25 taxi to get me home, and by 1am, more than 50 hours after I’d left KTM, I was finally home.

CONCLUSION:

This was truly a trip of a lifetime, and one I won’t soon forget. The experience of traveling in International First was memorable, fun, and certainly a bit eye-opening – “so this is how the other half lives”. I say that mostly in jest since I know that on many of my international F fights, none or at least very few of the people were actually paying that First fare, and that the majority of trip reports here are about using miles to get into this exclusive world. If you have the cash to spend to buy those tickets, congratulations – but as awesome as it was, I don’t think its where I’d invest an extra $30K I had lying around.

The good life must come to an end, however, but not before our current family vacation (in E+, of course) in LIH. I hope you all enjoyed my first trip report. Comments, criticisms and questions are of course welcome.

Last edited by noah; Mar 27, 14 at 7:18 pm
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Old Mar 25, 14, 1:34 pm
  #7  
 
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Great Start, looking forward to the rest!
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Old Mar 25, 14, 1:53 pm
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Looking forward to the rest of your TR noah. Thanks for sharing ^
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Old Mar 25, 14, 3:37 pm
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Excellent read so far, looking forward to the rest!
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Old Mar 25, 14, 3:47 pm
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Excellent start to the report! Look forward to the rest! Makes me really look forward to my Europe trip in 2 months! Can't get here soon enough!
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Old Mar 25, 14, 5:46 pm
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Looking forward to the rest! A trip to the parts of the world less seen. ^
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Old Mar 26, 14, 7:13 am
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Really enjoying it so far. Thank you.
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Old Mar 26, 14, 10:52 am
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Great post! Your descriptions offer just enough detail to give us a picture without descending into minutiae. I'm looking forward to the rest, especially your trekking experience in Nepal.
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Old Mar 26, 14, 1:15 pm
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Very interesting. Looking forward to seeing Nepal...Thanks for sharing!
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Old Mar 26, 14, 1:52 pm
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Looking forward to reading about your Nepal experience

As someone born and raised in Nepal, I am looking forward to your Nepal trip report.
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