Since January when I posted this I have preparing to travel to Nepal and Tibet for a photography workshop. I plan on documenting my complete trip on here and you, the reader, can find all of the entries by following this link. The workshop starts in Kathmandu, Nepal and then works it's way north and west into Tibet by vehicle (probably Land Cruisers or other rugged SUV) with a goal to trek clockwise around Mount Kailash for 3-4 days. Then we planned to return to Kathmandu the same way we came. The full details are at Himalayan Workshops in the Kailash 2011 trip. All journeys begin with a single step and my first step was into the SUV of my friend Dan who was kind enough to take me to the Orlando International airport on a Friday, April 15th, in the late afternoon. We arrived at the airport with about 3 hours before takeoff which was fine by me. I was flying internationally with checked luggage on a Friday late afternoon. Anything could go wrong and probably would so I wanted extra time to deal with the challenges.
My flight was booked with Qatar Airways but the first leg of my journey was on a United codeshare flight to Dulles International, just outside of Washington D.C. I proceeded to the United ticket counter where I acquired my boarding passes and I checked my purple duffel. The ticket agent told me that due to the way the ticket was handled by two different airlines that he could only check my bag through to Doha airport and not all of the way through to Kathmandu. He said that I would have to deal with the bag through Qatar Airways once I got to Doha.
From there I walked over to the security lines that lie between me and my destination. I have many thoughts on the "security theater" that exists at US airports but I don't want to divert this story. So on this day my experience with Orlando International Airport's TSA contingent was rather painless. The lines were a bit longer than when I typically pass through (on Sunday evenings) for work travel but they moved quite quickly.
After passing through security I went to wait for the trams that shuttle passengers from the main building to the gate terminals. There was a young guy there that looked a little pissed so in order to inject a little levity into his situation, hoping not to make it worse, I stated something like "isn't traveling fun" or "it looks like your traveling is starting off well". His response was sarcastic as well but the only reason I bring him up is what he said next.
"Sarcasm is the body's defense against stupidity"
I made it to my gate with plenty of time to kill. I listened to the current audio book in iPhone which was Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars. I also surfed the net, Facebook, twitter, etc in order to make the time pass. It ended up that the plane arrived late which means that we would be delayed. I had a 2 hour layover so 15 minutes of a delay was no big deal. If it continued to get delayed then I might start to sweat it but alas we boarded and took off.
The flight to Dulles International was a rather uneventful 2 hours. We actually caught up our time in the air and landed on time in D.C. This was a pleasant surprise. I exited the the plane and made my way to my next gate. I was completely unsure of what the procedure was for changing airlines for international travel so I went directly to my next gate and into the line to talk to the gate agent. What's interesting about Dulles is that to go from one gate terminal to another you have to board these odd looking two-headed shuttle buses that drive between the planes to get from one terminal to the next. You enter these shuttles through something that looks like an airlock and when they dock at the other end you exit through similar airlocks on the other side. I guess this works for them but it seems inefficient.
I made it to my next gate and I made it through the queue to the gate agent. He took my passport and current boarding passes. He re-printed my boarding passes and gave me a new sleeve to keep them in. It was yellow (this will become important later). He then noticed that my bags were only checked through to Doha and he told me that he would correct this. I was so relieved to hear that I wouldn't have to deal with this when I was in Doha. He informed me that the current tag on my bag would be sufficient enough to get it all of the way to Kathmandu and when I asked if I needed to do anything else to insure that everything went smoothly he confirmed that I was done and I had no need to worry.
I wasn't super hungry but I had no idea what kind of food I would be getting on my flight so I decided to take this last opportunity in the US to eat something recognizable. There was a Fuddruckers about 100 feet from my gate so I choose to have a burger. I ended up having a buffalo burger with fries. It wasn't great but it was ok enough and filling. It was after 9pm and shortly after I received my order they closed down. So I'm going to chalk this one up to bad timing and not mediocre airport facsimiles of common chains.
About an hour before the take off the passengers started to get into lines corresponding to importance and seat numbers. There was even an individual being escorted by police/special agent type people but he wasn't in handcuffs and he seemed to be having a pleasant time so I assume he was a VIP of some sort.
Since I was in the middle to front of the economy class I was in the last group to board. That didn't bother me too much as I knew that I had about 14 hours of flight to look forward to. My last longest flight was to Italy and I believe that was only 8 hours. Anyway, I got on board the plane and got myself situated. The plane was a Boeing 777-300ER which has rather cramped economy seats but has a decent entertainment system as well as A/C power and USB jack. I had the window seat which for me is always nice on domestic flights but it doesn't seem that great on long haul international flights. The kind when both people in the seats next to you are asleep and you urgently need to use the restroom. Luckily I was able to time my bathroom needs with the guys that were in my row which worked out very well. We would all get up and stretch and use the facilities before piling back into our seats. But in future flights I hope to get at least business class so that I don't need to depend on such coincidences.
I attempted to get some sleep but it really eluded me. Instead I spent a lot of time watching movies on the entertainment system installed in the chair back in front of me. I watched Little Fockers, True Grit, The Tourist, and 6 episodes of The Big Bang Theory. This kept me relatively entertained although it didn't let me sleep. True Grit I was watching as we were about to land in Doha and it had about 15 minutes left when it stopped playing so I didn't see how it ended.
Throughout the flight I was elbow fighting with the guy in the middle seat for control of the armrest. I typically let him have it because he was stuck in the middle seat for Pete's sake. But sometimes I wanted to change positions and it required some armrest duals.
The inflight meals were edible if not completely identifiable. For "dinner", I question this because it was about 2am EDT, I had the "chicken", it was really chicken but I don't recall what kind of dish it was. This came with a cold bean salad of some sort, a yoghurt dish, crackers and cheese, a roll and butter, and something like chocolate cake. For "breakfast", about 6 hours later I had the "cheese omelet". This was actually like an fruit roll-up made of egg. This came with turkey sausage, hash browns, more beans (I guess the flight attendants enjoy flatulent passengers), and fruit.
There was some drama in the middle column of seats near me. I guess a woman wanted to put her seat back but the guy behind here didn't want it back. So on more than one occasion there was verbal exchanges that became disruptive enough to warrant the flight attendants to step in. I think the guy even started to bang on the seat back to annoy the woman. I didn't catch the whole situation so I don't know what really was going on but it was definitely interesting and a break in the monotony of a 14 hour flight.
When the announcement came over the PA that we were beginning our descent into Qatar I couldn't wait to be on the ground. Fourteen hours cooped up in an economy seat is just too long. We landed without incident and taxied around and then stopped in the middle of the airfield. At least it seemed that way. It was already dark outside as it was approximately 6:30pm (April 16th) local time. We disembarked using the old school method. That's right, they pulled up stairs right up to this ultra-modern 777 so that we could walk off of the plane. Then we, and by we I mean the economy passengers, boarded buses that were at the end of the stairs in order to be driven the circuit around the whole airport until we got to the arrival stop. The individuals with blue boarding pass envelopes debarked from the bus. As I had a yellow envelope (I told you it was important) I stayed on the bus until the next stop which was the transfer terminal. Just about everyone hopped off the bus at this point and we were funneled through to security. You didn't have to take off anything (unless it was metal) and you didn't have to remove anything from your carry-on bag such as removing your laptop.
Based on my itinerary I now had over 20 hours to kill in Doha. My first goal was to find some internet access so that I could inform my family and friends that I was alive and I made it as far as Qatar. I lucked out and there was some open wifi connections. After completing that task I decided to explore the terminal. There really wasn't too much. The Duty-Free shop was huge. There were cars on display but I don't think they were for sale. I had absolutely no interest in buying anything from the store. They had signs everywhere for a lottery where you could win a million dollars. Of course the ticket to enter the lottery was $260 dollars. I did not participate in that either.
Being a Middle Eastern country as well as an international hub there were people from all over the world but the majority seem to Muslims of all different types. It was an interesting cultural experience as I don't think I've ever seen that many Muslims in a single location. There were multiple mosques in the terminal but I only came across one that only allowed "gents" and had a sign forbidding sleeping in the mosque.
I also found the quiet rooms which were next to this mosque but were for sleeping/resting. I decided to attempt to get some shut-eye but after about 30 minutes of resting I just couldn't get all of the way into the dream state. I collected myself and continued to explore the terminal some more. On a whim I decided to go chat with the agents at the transfer desk. I waited in a short line and when I got to the front I handed the agent my boarding pass and passport. He began typing stuff into the computer and told me that he couldn't get me into the hotel (I didn't know I had that option) but that he possibly could get me onto an earlier flight (I definitely didn't think that was an option). He then informed me that it was too early to attempt the flight change and that I would have to return in a bit over 2 hours in order to change flights. I asked if my checked luggage was ok and if it would go through on the same flight. He said everything was OK and my bag would be on the same flight. Then he said that I could go get a free meal at the cafeteria (again I had no knowledge that I had this option). I thanked him and walked to the cafeteria.
I noticed that people were handing vouchers to the cafeteria staff and I asked how I could obtain a voucher. The staff pointed toward a lonely looking man sitting at a table across the seating area. I walked over and presented my boarding pass and he filled out some paperwork, in a very bored way, and handed me my pass and food voucher. I then walked back over to the cafeteria line, handed over my voucher, and proceeded to choose something that looked like it would pass as edible. This is what I ended up with.
It was definitely good enough to eat. It took all of about 10 minutes to go through the process and consume this food. So I had well over an hour and a half before I could return to the transfer desk and attempt to change flights.
I walked through the Duty-Free shop again and still I had no desire to purchase anything plus everything seemed to be marked up at least 20% more than it would be in the US. I then found a small cafe at the far end, in relation to the cafeteria, of the terminal. I was able to purchase a Diet Coke [Coca-cola Light].
Yes, that is a pull tab resting on top. I was surprised that they still existed. I thoroughly enjoyed this simple pleasure. Although I had had plenty to drink on the plane it always seemed like a pain for the flight attendant to give me Diet Coke. So having a full one in a can was great. Plus I needed the caffeine to keep myself sane after so many hours without decent sleep.
After the allotted time and a lot of killing of that time I returned to the transfer desk. The man that I had talked to before was gone and I was helped by a lady. She had no idea of the discussion that I had had with the previous man. I attempted to convey as much of the information that I had received/recalled. She then said that there would probably be a charge but the previous agent had told me that it would be free. Anyway, after a bunch of scurrying, conversations with other agents, and a phone call or two she was able to get me on the earlier flight. I thanked her profusely for helping me to get to Kathmandu earlier and I took my new boarding pass over to the gate for the earlier flight.
The new flight was supposed to leave at 1:05am and it was already midnight (April 17th), I had successfully killed five and a half hours in Doha, but when I arrived at the gate it was delayed until at least 2:35am due to weather in Kathmandu that was slowing incoming traffic.
This just meant more time to kill. I was getting really sick of killing time. I don't recall when we started the boarding process but it involved the gate agent taking our boarding passes then we moved down stairs to a holding room until a bus showed up. Then we were shuttled out to our plane where the bus stopped at the foot of the stairs.
I wasn't really happy to be getting onto another plane but I was happy that I was going to be leaving Doha more than 12 hours earlier than scheduled and that would translate to more time in Kathmandu.
With that I think I have written way too much for today. I will continue my travel stories tomorrow.