Wednesday, March 16, 2005

I’m still here!

Last weekend (read: Saturday - they don't have Sunday off here!), Nhish and i had a mountain flight booked.

Having heard about it from a travel agent advertising his wares on the street, we asked Ang Rita (who runs his own trekking company and can apparently organise any touristy stuff), and he made all the arrangements for us.

We went out on Friday night to K-Too (see previous, rather inebriated post!), but, anticipating an early start, and because we have to ring the bell to be let in to the house at night and the family retire early, we weren't too late back: about ten 0'clock or so. It was at this time that Ang Rita finalised the arrangements: we were to be collected by car at 0530hrs, delivered to the airport, where the car would wait for us and take us either back to the house or on to a destination of our choice in Kathmandu.

So with little over 4 and a half hours sleep, i drag myself out of bed - always much easier when i have something interesting to do that day! It is still dark outside, but more worryingly, there is a thick fog limiting visibility to 20ft! Having not been up at this hour before, i am unsure whether this is normal or if we have chosen the worst day imaginable for our expensive, weather dependent and non-refundable mountain flight experience?!

The driver and travel agent who collect us don't even make reference to the weather, so Nhish and I assume it is nothing to worry about, and we head off to the airport. During the half hour, the fog appears to improve significantly, though we are not sure if this is just the effect of the rising sun. We arrive to the airport early, and are turned away by the armed guards - the day just gets better and better! After waiting at the side of the road for 15 mins or so, we re-approach the main gates to the airport and, this time, are waved through. By now it is past 0600hrs and the sun has risen. The fog, however, persists and visibility remains poor (20-30ft I’d guess). Security at the airport departure gate is significantly more stringent than at arrivals and we are scanned and searched and our bags are x-rayed with someone actually looking at the screen!

The check-in gates are quite busy, with a particularly big queue for the Lukla flight - the start of the trek up to Everest. The queue comprises of an interestingly moustached group with an array of expensive-looking equipment - you have to wear as much of your gear as possible because the weight restrictions on luggage are tight, and mountaineering equipment is heavy! A couple are wearing some neon yellow, solid plastic grade 1 mountaineering boots, and i come to the conclusion that either this is a group of Americans with more money than sense, or a serious group of mountaineers attempting the summit of something big and cold (there are 10 or so other decent peaks accessible from Lukla).

Our travel agent has accompanied us into the building and is now checking us onto the flight - this is the way to do it: we are left to wander around admiring other people's footwear while someone pushes to the front of the queues for us.

A woman sitting on the floor in the corner with several big thermos(R) flasks seems to be the departure cafe, so we approach her to enquire about cups of tea. Our travel agent materialises at this point, and insists on paying (only a few rupees, but not included in our flight, I’m sure)! The tea is served black, but is not your regular "English breakfast" - this stuff is ginger tea, and while being quite sweet and pleasant, is a little too spicy for me so early in the morning and gives me reflux! It is also incredibly hot - as i found out when i spilt it all over my hand and scalded myself badly!

Our travel agent approaches with the boarding cards and we are ushered through to the departure lounge (with another body search on the way for good luck).

The lounge is relatively quiet, we must be among the first 20 here - that’s the advantage of having someone push in queues for you i guess! But there is no sign of a departure time for our flight, and we can't see more than a few feet towards the runway out of the windows. The security guards are sitting reading the paper and so we gather we won’t be leaving any time soon. It is now nearly 0700 and the departure lounge is filling rapidly. We peruse the three tea/coffee/biscuits-cum-bookshop stalls for things to read or drink. Eventually i buy a novel and some coffee to keep me occupied!

Our flight is eventually called at 0900, and by this time visibility is much improved and the sun has some warmth to it. We are directed towards a bus, which drops us off in front of a tiny little twin prop plane. Eventually we are allowed to board one at a time up the little fold out stairs. The fuselage is only big enough for one seat either side of a very narrow aisle - at least this means everyone gets a window seat! The headroom walking down the aisle is only about 5 feet, so we have to stoop very low. One of the American women is apparently claustrophobic and after 10 minutes of umming and aahing, decides she will stay behind and a scramble ensues to swap seats (one guy with 2 very big cameras didn't have a window)!

After lots of revving of engines we pull onto the runway and take off smoothly, and the stewardess, who is small enough to walk down the aisle comfortably, hands out cotton wool and boiled sweets.

After less than ten minutes or so of fantastic views over the city and surrounding 'hills' (most of which being bigger than the highest peaks in the UK), with beautiful terraced landscapes to allow cultivation, we sea our first himal (permanently snow-covered mountain) vistas out of the plane's left side (i am sitting on the right and hope that we will turn around at some point!). The stewardess revisits every one in turn and helps us identify the visible peaks and gives us their names (we have a diagram supplied with our boarding cards, which identifies the prominent peaks). Much camera snapping ensues, and each person in turn is sent off to the cockpit. The views from the cockpit are by far the best, with polarised single-layer and clean glass! From here, Everest is already visible!

We get nearly as far as Everest before turning around, and finally i can get some unobscured pictures. There is a tiny airport at the foot of the mountains, which I assume, is either Lukla or the other smaller one closer in (whose name i have forgotten), but we pass too quickly for me to get a picture.

The view is fantastic - well worth both the money and the delay - and i take about 65 photos! In every direction there is another snow-covered peak with amazing ravines and valleys. The photos really can't do it justice. I'd recommend this to anyone visiting Nepal - it really gives you a sense of the grandiosity of the Himalayas (i think they do flights through the Annapurnas too).


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