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THE INCREDIBLE JOURNEY

I never saw Mutka sober during the entire two weeks of his group's Nepal visit. He was a member of the specially constituted Finnish media group for the promotion of Nepal in the early nineties. Nepal Finland Society had helped me organize an educational trip for about a dozen travel writers. I personally escorted the group to various parts of the country; included in the itinerary were inspection visits to a few Finnish development aid projects like aforestation, drinking water and sanitation. Pokhara and Butwal were included in the itinerary. Driving in the bus while covering a particularly treacherous part of the national "highway" Mutka opened his bleary eyes and asked me a very pertinent question, "Why do people pay all this money to get a sore ass?"

Yes, why indeed! Travel in the developing world is fraught with difficulty in many fronts but in our own region it reaches a crescendo; the state of the infrastructure or the lack thereof, confrontational politics raging in all countries from Afghanistan to Myanmar and the awesome topography of the highest region on planet earth can deter even the most intrepid among travellers.

This story of a particular group I handled a couple of years back illustrates the enormous challenge our region coughs up time and time again. I attended solo the travel fair called IMEX annually held in Frankfurt and specializing in incentive travel back in May 2007 when the adverse security situation in the country and the attendant falling demand for Nepal deterred all my colleagues from attending. I remember David coming up to me and asking me to propose a program covering Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan for a group of 190 persons! The whole project seemed so farfetched that at first I thought it bordered on insanity. Was I wasting my time?

Returning to Nepal I did due diligence on the possibilities of giving service to such a large group at a time; how do we transport them, feed them, accommodate them? Does Bhutan have enough hotel rooms, what about flight capacity between Kathmandu and Lhasa and also between Kathmandu and Paro in Bhutan? What interesting programs could we tailor make for this large group? I found out that the group would consist of dealers of automobile tyres who were rewarded by BF Goodrich for achieving their given sales targets. Wow, I thought, this Spanish company must be rich!

Even settling for the most optimal period to visit all these countries at one time was like playing Russian roulette. Goodrich wanted to organize it for November 2007. Nepal announced the Consituent Assembly elections on 22nd November 2007, so with mutual consultation they decided to postpone it to April 2008. This was back in June 2007. Lo and behold the election was postponed by the Election Commission citing lack of sufficient homework and, hold your breath, it was re-scheduled for 10 April 2008, smack in the middle of the group's Nepal portion of the visit. We dared not postpone the trip a second time, lest the group move to another destination.

Decision was made to fly in the group with Thai Airways in two sub-groups of 95 persons each group arriving within two days of one another. Both sub-groups would be together in Kathmandu and Pokhara while alternating between Machan Wildlife Resort and Chitwan Jungle Lodge in Chitwan National Park before departing for Lhasa together. Bhutan visit was scheduled for the last leg of the trip. Hyatt Regency Kathmandu and Fulbari Resort and Spa were selected as the hotels of stay in Nepal. The newly built Brahmaputra Hotel was selected in Lhasa and the brand new Tashi Taj Hotel was selected for Thimphu, Bhutan. Incidentally the new Taj there was not yet complete and we booked the hotel after getting assurance from the management that it would be ready to take our group in the spring.

Then there was the question of the election in Nepal, what could be done on that day? I decided to have the whole group of 190 persons stay at Fulbari Resort and Spa in Pokhara and participate in recreational activities and short hikes. Transporting them to view monuments and scenic places would not be allowed on that day as movement was restricted. As the days drew nearer to the departure of the Spanish group from Madrid we were getting prepared while checking the political pulse of the nation. Disaster always looms from the least expected quarter.


Two weeks before the group's departure, after having finalized all the nitty gritty of travel in the three countries, we were shocked to discover the Chinese would close its frontier with Nepal indefinitely. Anniversary of the Dalai Lama's flight from Tibet is always an occasion for the rallying cry of Free Tibet activists and they had taken the anniversary of 2008 as their Holy Grail. Foreigners entering Tibet from Nepal had been found to indulge in anti-Chinese activities and there was also widespread unrest among the population including the otherwise peaceful Buddhist monks. China clamped down hard. The group was to visit Lhasa and other important towns for a period of 5 days, what could be done instead?

Both I and the Spanish incentive house Meta had to find a viable alternative and fast! Our logical conclusion was to offer the North India triangle of New Delhi, Jaipur and Agra instead. Meta concurred and I did the exercise of planning a route, taking hotel room allotments and booking flight seats. Within days I got news that the group spread all over Spain would not be able to secure the Indian Visa on time, so this choice of destination was still-born. India's tit-for-tat visa policy is always a bone of contention among my Indian counterparts.

Would it be possible to offer another 5 days in Nepal? This was not a mouth-watering prospect as we did not know what would come in the aftermath of the election. We also have a capacity crunch outside Kathmandu, Chitwan and Pokhara! Sergio of Meta is a cool customer; he suddenly came up with the idea of visiting Myanmar instead. No doubt the group would be excited to tackle this insular and Orwellian kleptocracy. But the destination would also give us logistical nightmares, how were we to fly the group to Yangon?

After talking to Thai Airways International the case seemed hopeless; at such short notice we could never secure so many seats on the Bangkok-Yangon and return leg for this journey. There are no other credible connections besides Thai Airways. Suddenly I remembered that a few years back the Nepalese domestic carrier Cosmic Air had done some exercise of mounting scheduled flight service to Yangon when my friend Lawrence Liew was managing the show. He had tried hard but the inscrutable generals would not give Cosmic the permit. So at least a window of opportunity was now open with Cosmic; could we charter their F-100 hundred seat aircraft to fly our group in two batches? Sergio was getting frantic and I, sleepless.

Cosmic Air took up this challenge with alacrity as this was both a business opportunity as well as a test case to uncharted territory. Promptly the managers decided to send a representative to apply for the permits and coordinate with our local ground-handling agent in Myanmar. Upendra left for Yangon and for the next few days disappeared from view. The group would be leaving Spain and we still did not have a viable option for them!

The group arrived in Nepal in two groups as pre-arranged and embarked on their remakable journey unbeknownst to them that we still did not have the Myanmar charter permit, although Upendra had come back to us after a nail-biting gap of a few days as Burma internet had gone on the blink! An incentive group is always a joy to receive but it is also as painful as a root canal job when it comes to taking care of the minutiae. We had to totally concentrate on the considerable challenges on the ground while still keeping a weary eye on e-mails from Yangon. The group finished its Kathmandu sojourn and proceeded to Chitwan, no news yet from Myanmar. The group arrived in Pokhara, no news yet from Myanmar! The Constituent Assembly election took place amidst an eerie atmosphere of dawn to dusk security clampdown perhaps presaging the even eerier result it would throw up! I remember that evening Sergio calling me from Pokhara with an anguished voice. He would need to break the bad news to the group at the eleventh hour if the news from Myanmar was negative!

It was during the days following the election when the disbelieving world of politicians and pundits, pollsters and rights activists was mulling over the improbable and even apocalyptic result of an overwhelming CPN (Maoist) victory over Nepali Congress, United Marxist-Leninist and other parties that we got the good news from Myanmar that, yes, the charter permission to fly from Kathmandu and land in Mandalay was secured by Cosmic Air. They could take 2 flights of F-100 and transport our group. Rest was easy; after a few days of visiting Mandalay and Bagan, they would drive to Yangon and fly to Bangkok.

Nepal, Tibet, Myanmar, the very mention of these destinations soars the imagination of intrepid travellers. BF Goodrich did dish out a king's ransom to organize this trip and, yes, there were many sore asses. But where Mutka got it wrong was that the 'high' of participating successfully in such a trip is well worth the challenge our region frequently throws up.

Comments

  1. A great read, on this muggy evening with no electricity and the limited comfort of inverters - especially the suspense of whether the group would get to Burma. "Orwellian kleptocracy" - fantastic! Describes the Burmese government perfectly.
    Looking forward to the next blog already.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Nail biting finish -this is in the real sense "adventure tourism"!
    Well written and presented.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Sergio was getting frantic and I, sleepless. That to me was the best line in this fantastic travel essay. Crisp writing. Amazing how man vies with nature( the volcanic ash over European skies) to make things difficult for travellers. Ke Garne.

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