Bad Experiences With Kathmandu Travel Agents On A Trip to Nepal and Tibet
Hermann Härtig, Elisabeth Härtig, Frank Härtig
August, 5th to September, 10th, 1995
To list of contents
The purpose of this paper is to report on our extremely bad experiences with three Nepalese, Kathmandu based trekking resp. travel agencies. They used successfully a number of novel tricks on us that future travellers should be aware of.
To prepare our trip, we made written arrangements with one Nepalese Travel Agency. When we arrived in Kathmandu, we were requested to pay in advance. Then, it turned out that the contract wasn't worth the paper it was written on. When we protested, the representatives disappeared. When our vacation time was about to end, they just waited until we had to leave Nepal. Later written protests to the Nepalese Trekking Workers Association after the trip turned out useless.
Two previous trips, that were organised without the involvement of Trekking Agents, did not bring any major problem. Hence, from our experiences, it must be concluded that trips to Nepal should either be organised without the help of Nepalese Travel Agents or with intermediates of the travellers' countries of residence.
In the following we describe in detail how we proceeded to prepare everything and how the envolved agencies managed to completely spoil our journey which was planned as realisation of a long-time dream. The description of the preparations may read a bit lengthy, however, the details are necessary to understand the later betrayals fully.
Most of the documents mentioned below are still with us.
The Nepalese/Chinese agencies involved
Maharajgunj, Ring Road
Phone: +977 1 415577
Fax: +977 1 229380
Representative: Lakpa Tenje Sherpa
NEPAL VALLY TREKKING [P.] LTD.
G.P.O. Box: 5535
Phone: +977 1 413707
Fax: +977 1 220161
Representatives: Amar Tamang, Prem Lama Tamang
THE TRAIL FINDERS (P.) LTD.
Phone: +977 1 222528
Fax: +977 1 419361
Representative: Manager of THE TRAIL FINDERS (name unknown)
The Tibetan Chinese agencies envolved were:
Hotel: Holiday Inn
Room No 1105
Phone: 891 6332221 1105
Fax: 891 6333598 / 63335796
Representative: Xiao-Chen Chuan
Tourism Bureau of Ngari Gangri Darchen
Representative: Choying Dorje
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Our Trip Plan
Our original plan was to
- fly from Kathmandu to Simikot(West-Nepal),
- trek from Simikot to Shera at the Tibetan border,
- travel by landcruiser to Mt. Kailash and circumambulate it,
- continue overland by landcruiser to Lhasa and spend a few days there and
- finally fly back to Kathmandu and Germany,
all together a trip of 5 weeks, 21 days of them travelling in Tibet.
It was important for us to be our own group of three, since we had done such a trip before and knew each other pretty well. We wanted a 'Pascha-Trip', i.e. we were keen on having all comfort that - as we know - a decent trekking company can provide, such as an experienced guide, porters, good food, camping chairs and table, loo tent, etc.. It was a trip, that we had been discussing for a very long time, planned for well over a year and looked very much forward too. Since we had to be reliably back to our jobs in Germany in time, we wanted everything planned well ahead and well organised by a Kathmandu based agency and we were ready to pay for it.
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Preparations and contract
One of the authors, Hermann, had travelled to Laddak in 1994, where he met Mr. Pasang Tempa Sherpa, SHERPA EXCURSION. Mr. Pasang Tempa left a very honest, trustworthy and reliable impression on Hermann. We were talking about the plans for a Tibet journey and Pasang Tempa promised to check everything out and to send an offer for the trip. The offer indeed arrived in autumn of 1994 in Germany and negotiations for a contract began (exchanging letters). They resulted in a contract between us and SHERPA EXCURSIONS.
In the contract SHERPA EXCURSIONS, represented by their manager Mr. Lakpa Tenja Sherpa, and ourselves agreed on a trip starting at August 6th (arrival at Kathmandu) and ending September 10th. It covered all visa costs, trekking permits etc., the flight to Nepalgunj and on to Simikot, a six days trek to the Tibetan border, 21 days a travel in Tibet (including the circumambulation of Mt. Kailash, the overland journey to Lhasa and a 4 days stay at and near Lhasa) and the remaining days in Kathmandu. We had especially insisted on the 21 days in Tibet, since we did not want to spend all our time in a car while on the way to Lhasa. We knew that hiring a car to go overland from Kailash to Lhasa would be expensive. The prize for the trip was agreed to include everything except lunch and dinner while in Kathmandu and the flight back from Lhasa to Kathmandu. It was agreed to include all the comfortable amenities as mentioned above. The price was US$ 3700 for each person for a three passenger group, i.e. US$ 11100 in total.
Several weeks before commencement of our journey we wired the amount of US$ 3400 as a down payment to Sherpa excursions as we had agreed to in our contract.
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Arrival and first days in Kathmandu
Our first surprise after we arrived at Kathmandu was to learn, that two more members (an Italian couple) were added to our group. This had been done in clear violation of our contract and without our prior agreement. We later learned that the couple paid a very low price compared to ourselves on the grounds of their friendship with some owner of SHERPA EXCURSIONS.
We then heard that our trip to Simikot had to be delayed by one day due to difficulties getting a flight.
Since we still fully trusted Mr. Lakpa Tenje Sherpa we next payed another US$ 7100 to him, now resulting in a complete payment of US$ 10500 (instead of the US$ 11100 we had agreed to). That is, we held back only US$ 600 for the case of any more troubles although Mr. Lakpa had already clearly violated our contract. Later it turned out, that we should have held back a much higher amount.
Next, Hermann joined Mr. Lakpa going to a travel agent, THE TRAIL FINDER, to pay for the air tickets for the later flight from Lhasa back to Kathmandu. Here, a detail must be mentioned that will turn out important later: the receipts for the tickets show the date we were supposed to return from Lhasa to Kathmandu, i.e. September 5th, as agreed upon in our contract. Later it turned out that Mr. Lakpa - again in violation of our contract - had long before planned for a much shorter journey in Tibet, but still did everything to make us believe that he would hold the contract.
We then requested to meet our guide as soon as possible. However, Mr. Lakpa Tenje Sherpa refused this request on the grounds that this would be not possible, we would meet our guide in Simikot. Later, we learned that our guide had had the same request to meet us, but was also hindered to do so. As is turned out later, preventing a meeting with guide is an important part of the trick used on us by Sherpa excursions.
On our own expense, we spent 2 days in Bardia National Park instead of waiting for our flights in Kathmandu. We then flew to Simikot.
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The trek from Simikot to Shera at the Tibetan border
The trek turned out to be incredibly bad organised.
Due to incomplete trekking permits (the visa number was missing in one of the forms), the start of the trek had to be delayed. Also, our visa for entering Tibet, our passports and flight tickets were not with us but were send to us by a messenger some days later. As a minor detail, most of the amenities of the 'Pascha Trek' that we had wanted and paid for, were missing.
However and more important, it turned out that both of our guides (Mr. Nuru and Mr. Prem) never had done that specific trek before. Since, due to the initial delays, the group wanted to make up two days, we pushed to walk some longer day distances. This resulted, due to the incompetence of the guides, in chaos and a very dangerous situation: In the first night after Simikot we had to make an emergency camp with only two tents, one for the five members and another for one guide and some porters. In the same night, a heavy landslide was coming down only 50 meters from our emergency camp site.
On the 4th day, it happened what we had wanted to avoid by being a small group. One of us got sick. Hence, we had to have an extra restday, a possibility that we had taken into account in our time schedule. However, since the new Italian members had a much more tight time schedule, a lot of arguments broke out, which effectively spoiled these days for us.
In addition, it was not clear which of the two guides really was in charge of matters. When we insisted to clarify, they said Mr. Nuru was in charge for the trek to Shera, Mr. Prem for the Tibetan trip. During the trek to Shera, Nuru twice got drunk fully, which resulted once in a critical situation: he went ahead with our passports across the Tibetan border, dropped his pack with the passports somewhere there and was not able to get his pack back to us. Actually, he tried to ride back over the border on horse back, but fell off the horse due to his drunkenness. Finally, one of our porters was allowed to cross the border and reclaim Nuru's pack with our passports and visa.
Then we thought our worst trouble to be over, but that turned out to be a very sad misjudgement as our problems became even worse.
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The trip to Kailash and its circumambulation
After arriving at the border it turned out that the Italian couple had been provided wrong visa by the agency (for reasons we have no reliable information about) and had to return at the border. Then we met our Tibetan guide, Choying Dorje. He immediately mentioned that he would expect trouble for the continuation of our trip to Lhasa for reasons to explain later. Indeed, while clearing customs, the Chinese authorities insisted on letting us stay for only ten days maximum instead of the twenty-one days we had expected to travel in Tibet.
By the first evening, we had to learn that almost no preparations at all were made for our journey in Tibet. There were no tents for the planned circumambulation of Kailash and no food. A car had to be rented on a daily basis since the Chinese Company's cars had been sent away. It took several days for Choying Dorje to get hold of a car of his own agency. In addition, Mr. Prem had brought money in the form of the traveller's checks that we had used to pay Mr. Lakpa. Of course, in such remote places as Purang in West-Tibet, TCs are not any practical form of money. That situation resulted in the begging of our guides to provide cash to enable them to buy food and to rent a car. To remedy this situation, it was us who had to take action. We requested our guides to immediately return across the Nepalese border to the Italian couple to fetch tents, at least one stove, if possible some food, dishes etc., which they did. If we hadn't taken that action, our Tibetan journey would have lasted one day only.
Nevertheless, under these circumstances our trek was extremely uncomfortable. Outside of Purang we were mostly living of a diet of potatoes, rice, noodles and eggpowder. At the same time we observed other groups that were provided with excellent food by their guides. Actually, all of the other organised groups we met explicitly were talking very good about their meals.
At that time we were able to observe, in which way well organised treks treat their guests. Their guides were available to them most of the time, while our Tibetan guide disappeared for hours without leaving any notice. Their cars were waiting where the members were, available at all times, as we also had expected with our car. Hence, when Elisabeth got ill of mountain sickness at Mt. Kailash and needed a short ride back to Lake Manosarowar, Mr. Dorje called in "a rented car" from Purang, used it to transport a lot of things - unrelated to us - from Purang to Darchen, let it do the short drive for Elisabeth, and charged us 100 US-Dollars extra. When I came back from Kailash, I wanted to go to my friends as quickly as possible. Our guide claimed the car is not here yet. Later I found out, that the car we then used was here indeed, he just made me believe it was not coming and rented a "room" for me, that became wet of rain during the night. That is just another example of how comfortable our trek in the vicinity of Kailash was.
So far, we just have had some inconveniences. But soon we were to discover that we also have had been very cleverly betrayed:
We discovered that our guide Mr. Prem was also the manager of another travel agency, called "NEPAL VALLEY TREKKING". SHERPA EXCURSIONS had subcontracted the Tibetan part of our journey to NEPAL VALLEY TREKKING. However, the subcontract covered not 21 days of travel in Tibet as in our contract but only 14 days. We were real surprised since we had a very recent receipt in our hands for a flight back from Lhasa for September 5th, which was approximately 21 days from the beginning of our Tibetan journey. The reader may remember that Mr. Lakpa joined Hermann to pay for the airtickets. At that point it seemed clear to us, that Mr. Lakpa had taken a lot of efforts to make sure we would not learn about the shortened trip before we left Kathmandu for Tibet. As you may start suspecting, we of course were not able to get hold of Mr. Lakpa easily when we returned to Kathmandu.
Something else happened which became of importance for another trick used on us later:
Mr. Prem's agency, NEPAL VALLEY TREKKING, had subcontracted the Tibetan part of our journey to a Chinese agency, KAILASH TRAVEL, for an amount of US$ 6300. Mr. Prem, although knowing that the Chinese would most probably not allow us to continue to Lhasa, handed over the same full amount to Mr. Dorje. Mr. Dorje in turn immediately sent them (at least he said so) to his headquarters in Ali, a town at least 10 hours drive from Purang.
When we returned to the borderpost we tried to convince the Chinese authorities to let us continue to Lhasa. We argued with them for two full days. The forced us to go back the same way we, regardless of Elisabth's altitude sickness which made it rather dangerous for her to go back again over passes up to 4700 meters high. They even denied us to contact our embassy in Beijing.
So we ended up returning after 8 days in Tibet, 3 of them staying in an ugly borderpost called Purang (a neighbor guesthouse - better than ours - charged 12 Yuang, US$ 2.5 per person). For that journey, the manager of NEPAL VALLEY TREKKING, our guide Mr. Prem, paid US$ 6300 to his subcontractor KAILASH TRAVELS. He promised - shaking our hands - to refund us properly when we would return to Kathmandu, regardless of what KAILASH TRAVEL would do. A really honest person we thought. We'll see later!
In the next days, we returned to Simikot. We had to wait for 1 day to get on a heli flight back to Nepalgunj and to Kathmandu. The cost were paid by Mr. Prem what even more increased our trust in him.
However, we had to borrow to Mr. Prem the amount of US$ 250 that he promised to pay back to us, which he never did!!
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Back in Kathmandu
Our plan for Kathmandu then was to try to fly to Lhasa for a week. We expected the two agencies to pay for this trip as compensation for their mistakes.
Back in Kathmandu we met Mr. Lakpa. He tried to feed us off with a visit to Chitwan national park in Nepal as compensation. We were very upset about that sort of compensation since we had already been in a very interesting park (Bardia) and wanted to go to Tibet. (BTW: a trip to Chitwan is - compared to what we had paid for a Tibet journey - almost free.) We demanded that he organise a week's trip to Lhasa as compensation. He somehow managed to get out of the Hotel where we met him. Later on, he refused to meet us any more and virtually disappeared.
We had to use a trick to meet Lakpa again: We requested our hotel staff to call his agency pretending to have somebody interested to go on trek with SHERPA EXCURSION. They immediately came up with the whereabouts of Mr. Lakpa, the airport. Hermann went then immediately to see him.
At the airport Hermann confronted him in front of another trekkers' group. He agreed to refund US$ 800 (to cover flight and a visa for Tibet). Hermann told him also, that we would not pay the remaining US$ 600 due to the catastrophal trek organisation. He agreed for the US$ 800 before we go to Lhasa.
This has been the last time we saw Mr. Lakpa!
We met with Mr. Amar and Mr. Prem, managers of NEPAL VALLEY TREKKING. We requested as compensation for the incompleted travel to Tibet that they organise a one week trip to Lhasa and pay for it.
This seemed very fair. They had been given US$ 6300 for the Tibet trip. Since the trek at Kailash was very bad and not exactly expensive, we suggested that the cost for it and the transport back should be a maximum of US$ 3000 and that US$ 3300 should be available for another 8 day trip to Lhasa. We had to argue with them. After some time, they agreed to cover 5 out of the 8 days in Lhasa and requested that we cover the remaining days. Finally, Mr. Prem agreed to cover the full week He asked for our understanding that he had not had the time to go to bank to repay what we had borrowed him and promised to pay back after our return from Lhasa.
He handed us over a letter to the Kailash Travel agency's subsiduary in Lhasa, in a closed envelope. Stupid as we were, we did not open it to read it before leaving.
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The flight to Lhasa and the TRAIL FINDERS Trick
On recommendation from NEPAL VALLEY TREKKING we went to TRAIL FINDERS again to get tickets for Lhasa. They claimed that only business class flights were available and we paid for that (see enclosure 6) They claimed the tickets would be only available at the airport on the next morning and requested us to be there very early.
At the airport they requested us to wait for the very last minute. Then they produced boarding cards, but refused to give or even show us the tickets. It turned out that only 1 seat was in business class, the other seats were in the very last row of economy section.
We then requested the manager of TRAIL FINDERS to refund the difference of business to economy for the two seats. He agreed by signature. He also agreed to give us the tickets after the Lhasa trip.
Later, we came to think of only one reasonable explanation for the events. The only sensible explanation for coming very early to the airport but having to wait until almost everybody else has checked in, and refusing to show the tickets is: stand by tickets. We assume, TRAIL FINDERS bought standby tickets for us, refused to give the tickets to us, just gave us boarding passes. Hence, we were forced by TRAIL FINDER to risk not to get on the flight to Lhasa, just to to enable them to cheat some money out of us.
When we returned from Lhasa, TRAIL FINDERS's manager refused to give us the refund and the tickets. He sarcastically said to have signed the refund to have us get away. He knew we would not have the time to stay in Kathmandu and pursue the matter, yet another novel trick.
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In Lhasa more surprises were waiting for us.
The tickets we had bought in Kathmandu for the flight back had been reconfirmed for a wrong date (29.08.1995) thus being useless now. To us, this proved that Sherpa excursions had planned from the very beginning only for a 14 days within Tibet, not for the 21 day trip we had a contract and paid for. It is virtually impossible to travel from Purang to Kailash, circumabulate it, go on to Lhasa and stay few days in Lhasa for short time within 14 days. Hence, it became clear to us, they never intended us to do the second half of the trip we had contracted for.
But much worse, we came to see a letter from NEPAL VALLEY TREKKING to KAILASH TRAVEL, the letter that we confidently and trustingly had brought ourselves as the manager of KAILASH TRAVEL told us.
It is worthwhile to read that letter carefully. About the Kailash Trek: '...But while they got everything; they misbehave with us and came up to the point that they do not got to Tibet any more. They made very big issue of the Kailash trek. They complained many many, against the trip arrangement ...', and so forth.
But also notice their trick: 'For the payment, please, collect by them total payment US 3150. And please, say this a payment for 3 days only(or 3x3x350=3150). I hope you would it very sincerely and it may not be leak any more at any [copy given to us by the Kailash manager unreadable]'. They requested that KAILASH TRAVEL manager charges us US$3150 and tell us, it is for three days only. He told us later that US$ 3150 actually is the price for one week for 3 persons. You may remember that Mr. Prem of Nepal Valley had first requested that we cover 3 of 8 days, than agreed they would cover the full trip.
In long telephone calls (spending US$ 200) we tried to reach Kathmandu to "clarify" the situation. Mr. Prem again offered to pay for the full week trip and the extra ticket. On the next day the manager of KAILASH TRAVEL shook hands with us saying that everything will be covered by NEPAL VALLEY TREKKING.
However, NEPAL VALLEY TREKKING sent another fax on September 5, again requesting that we fully pay for the trip.
Again, the fax is a piece of lies and cynism. Why should we expect any refund from NEPAL VALLEY TREKKING, hadn't they spent the US$ 6300 for our Kailash trek? They demanded that we pay for their mistake. In addition, they claim that we got refunds we never saw from Mr. Lakpa. We never got US$ 2100 as claimed in the fax, we did not get the US$ 800 as promised by him, and we did not get NR 35000 as they claim.
Skilfully, the manager of KAILASH TRAVEL held back the fax until Friday 3pm -the day before we had to leave - so that we had no more chance for taking any actions. He knew we had to leave next day for our jobs, the office to buy tickets on our own for the flight to Kathmandu were closed already. So we had no other choice them to pay. After a very angry late night discussion he agreed to "only" US$ 1749 for our part(3 out of 8 days).
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Back in Kathmandu again
We try to meet Mr. Lakpa. No way. We saw Mr. Amar, promising that Mr. Prem and Mr. Lakpa would be coming. Then we saw nobody any more. We saw the manager of TRAIL FINDER. He explained, he would not give us the tickets and nor refund us.
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Novel Tricks Summerized
In essence, 3 novel tricks of nepal travel agents were used on us successfully.
1) Lakpa's trick
He has a contract with us for a 22 day trip, subcontracts to a 14 day trip, skilfully avoids that we find out before the trip and then just disappears, pocketing the surplus money.
2) Prem's trick
He sends a party to Lhasa, a city in a communistic country with all-powerful police, promising to have arranged everything for us. Along with us he sends a letter requesting the Chinese agent to collect the full price and then also disappears.
3) TRAIL FINDER's trick
The managers lets us book and pay for business class on the grounds there are no coach class ticket available. Then lets us waite to the last minute and provide a coach class boarding card. Of course he refuses to give us the tickets and just waites us out.
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We wrote a letter to the manager of the Hotel Utse, which was forwarded to the Trekking Workers Association of Nepal, the authority in charge as we were told. In the letter we requested that some of the money is paid back to us and that the agencies are stopped using their tricks. TWAN indeed contacted the agencies. The end (so far) has been that TWAN invited us to come all the way from Germany to Nepal, to meet with the agents. They would not do anything otherwise.
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By no means we want to suggest that travel to Nepal is any more treachery than in other countries. On the contrary, without direct use of services of Kathmandu based travel agents, its a wonderful country to travel to with very kind people. However, be extremely careful if using Kathmandu travel agents directly. Do not pay in advance!
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