The departure lounge at Kathmandu's Triphuvan International Airport was distinctly depressing, we agreed. Once through the security screening process - that had impressively managed to be both aggressive and dismissive - there was a single, sad newsagent-cum-coffee shop and a number of 'gates', divided by smeary glass walls that made it only half way towards the ceiling. Banks of uncomfortable metal benches provided the only furniture for the weary-looking Nepali nationals and Western trekkers who made up the departing passengers. Small flat-screens flashed up the wrong gate number every so often, and a general feeling of confusion was compounded by fuzzy announcements over an inaudible PA system. It was all rather bleak.
My colleague and I lamented the fact we had two whole hours to spend in this miserable place. We passed the time trying to guess whether each announcement was being delivered in Nepali or English, and exchanging stories of other horrible airports we had known and loathed. Had we been stars of a film this second activity would have been a clever, prophetic plot point. But we were merely a pair of tired people returning from a two week business-trip, sleep-deprived and desperate to get home.
Which is why we became more and more frustrated as our plane's departure time approached, and nothing seemed to be happening. Sure, the gate was filling around us and a man who looked vaguely associated with the airport had torn some of our tickets in half as part of what a crackly announcement later grandly referred to as the 'pre-boarding process'. But no one had begun to properly check tickets or to usher people out of the door towards the plane. Rather worryingly we also noted that no planes seemed to have taken off from the airport for the past couple of hours. In fact, passengers appeared to be disembarking back into the departure hall ('lounge' really does make the place sound far more relaxing that it was).
With our plane still stationary several minutes past its departure time, and not a single passenger on board, we began to get somewhat twitchy. We'd been buoyed earlier by the sight of a member of the airline's ground-staff bustling through the hall to the desk by the door, however as the crackling PA struck up yet again she mysteriously vanished. "We must inform passengers that no planes will be leaving Kathmandu airport for another two hours, due to a security problem." Or, that was what it sounded like the announcement had said. My colleague and I traded expletives and sighs, and offered up thanks at least for the tiny coffee shop. But nothing doing there. The sort-of airport official had barricaded us all into Gate #1, and no one was allowed in or out. This was not a good sign.
The airline lady reappeared and was promptly mobbed by a group of disgruntled Swedish climbers. Slowly a few meagre details began to spread through the crowded passengers, like viral flu through an open-plan office. The airport had received a bomb threat - possibly made by a member of staff, depending on who you spoke to - and all planes were being held until the airport was sure they were safe to fly. The holds of each plane were to be unloaded and every passenger already on a plane and also waiting to board would have to disembark and troop out onto the tarmac to identify their checked baggage. Those of us coraled in Gate #1 were finally released (very slowly) from our miserable holding pen and each given a further pat down by security. Squashed onto buses we were then driven out to our waiting plane, all the doors of which were standing open, with the plane's contents being hauled back out onto the landing strip; it looked like the victim of an aeronautical disembowelling.
We piled out of the buses and onto the dark runway. All our suitcases and rucksacks lay in a line in front of us, guarded by a group of policemen with guns and sniffer dogs, and a gaggle of ground crew who looked somewhat bored by the whole affair. We picked over the contents of the luggage hold, confirming ownership of our bags which were then hauled back onto baggage carts. The entire plane-load of passengers then stood back and watched, not quite far enough away from a potential bomb for my liking. I took a couple more steps back, as a pair of yellow labradors scrambled sniffing over our luggage, trailed by their camouflaged handlers.
A large plain black, unclaimed rucksack sat in the middle of the tarmac in front of us. As my colleague called a colleague to consult her organisation's security service, I made a call to the Accidental Father to appraise him of the situation. I rang off and told him I'd speak to him soon. I really hoped I would. The lone black bag was being thoroughly turned over. A luggage label was located. A Nepali voice yelled out what sounded like a British surname. Several times. We all looked around at each other, a couple of passengers yelling the surname at one another too. The tension was finally broken as a scruffy looking student finally realised it was his name being called, and he shambled across the tarmac to witness his bag being unpacked to cheers from his fellow passengers.
After a while longer on the tarmac our plane was declared clear. We were finally allowed on board, but as we climbed the steps towards our seats we could see further huddles of passengers on the dark runway, in front of their own mounds of luggage. A couple of hours late our plane finally taxied away from them and from Kathmandu, to the sound of a hundred sighs of relief. But I didn't relax until I had made my connection in Doha, and was safely on my way home to London. I have never been happier to see Heathrow Airport.