After two-night stays at Nuwakok (Famous Farm), Pokhara (Lakefront Hotel), Dhampus (Annapurna Eco-Village), Bandipur (The Old Inn), and Chitwin National Park (Rhino Lodge), three of my Dragoman colleagues and I returned to Kathmandu on Wednesday afternoon. We had one final group dinner – Steak Béarnaise and a few glasses of Chilean wine at a French restaurant – before saying our goodbyes.
The 10-day Dragoman trip gave me a brief glimpse into rural life in this incredibly beautiful and extremely diverse country. We hiked into the Himalayas for a two-night stay at the Annapurna Eco-Village and drove the truck up an exceptionally treacherous road to visit a remote guesthouse known as Famous Farm. It’s neither famous or what I would call a farm, but rather a nice base from which to relax and do a few day hikes. The early morning view from my window was nothing short of stunning!
With just two days in Chitwin National Park there was barely time for two half-day treks, a few hours in a very unstable dugout canoe (surrounded by freshwater crocodiles) and half-day Jeep safari. The official record will show that we failed to see a rhino but in my mind we did see the next best thing. After four hours we hadn’t spotted anything lager than a peacock when Catherine, the fun-loving and perhaps slightly tipsy Irish woman who I was seated beside suddenly exclaimed “TIGER!!!!” A split second later I caught a glimpse of it skulking through the underbrush about 20 meters to our right. The Nepalese eco-guide laughed and said “white tailed deer.”
Let’s get one thing clear: I know a white tailed deer when I see one and this was definitely not a white tailed deer. Although highly unlikely, it may have been a very large striped dog who just happened to be wandering in a National Park that is home to Bengal tigers and miles from civilization, but I believe that nose-stretcher about as much as I believe the white tailed deer line. So, it has been decided. A Bengal tiger it was!
Once back in the heart of Kathmandu I fell into my old schedule of sleeping in, going for a late breakfast at a very nice Western cafe, then exploring the city on foot. I had spent 12 days and nights in Kathmandu before the Dragoman trip so I really didn’t need to return for a second look. However, the one part of Nepal that I had not seen was perhaps her most famous attraction: Mount Everest.
I could have hiked out to Everest and climbed to the pinnacle – honest, I could – but everyone that I consulted said that a one-hour flight around the world’s highest mountain might be a slightly more realistic option for a 200 pound 54-year-old. I had seen brochures advertising these flights but to be honest, getting up at 4:00 for a sunrise flight in a sputtering single engine plane wasn’t that appealing. And then I spotted this notice posted in the lobby of my Kathamandu hotel:
“The best time for Mountain Flight in Nepal is the morning when the weather is clear for adverse weather conditions greatly affects mountain flight with poor visibility. As the Flight moves towards East, you do not have to wait any longer as the beautiful mountains are standing with glorifying our nation as well come you with dazzling smile. The attention-grabbing thing is that you can visualize the Kathmandu City besides with the Mountains like Shishna Pangma, Dorjie Lakpa and many more. So, it sounds interesting and exciting when you heard thus, be ready to get know-how energetic is it. During the Mountain Flight, Gauri Shankar is very prominent mountain. So, most of the tourists are fascinated towards Mountain Flight as it saves time and helps to explore more within a short span of time.”
As you can imagine, I was sold!
Fast forward to Christmas morning (Sunday) and I’m writing from a sunny window seat at Markham Bistro. Yesterday’s Everest flight was even better than I had expected but I have to admit that my photos don’t do it justice. Below I have posted a few photos as well as the notes that I made at the time.
5:40. I generally walk everywhere in Kathmandu but today I will fork over 500 rupees ($6) for a 15 minute ride to the airport. The taxi driver who sleeps in his cab parked outside my hotel tries to charge me 1000 rupees but I protest and he quickly chops the price in half. I don’t feel great about denying him the extra $5 but rules are rules and the Number One rule of Asia is: Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever pay full retail.
5:45. A bus just cut right in front of us. I would not have noticed the dark blue bus in the pre-dawn light had it not been for the screeching of its worn-out breaks. (Headlights, tail lights, running lights and even doors are optional equipment in Kathmandu.)
5:46. Traffic circles are particularly fun in the dark. With no street lights and very few electrical signs, the only light is from the moon and the odd fire that burns in the gutter.
5:50. Well, that’s the second pushcart vendor who owes his life to the fact that I was riding in the taxi and not driving it. The latest near-miss was a guy pushing a cart laden with oranges. I didn’t see him until his knuckles brushed my door. When I turned around to see if he was okay he was picking oranges out of the fetid gutter.
5:52. The car we were following has just made a right turn onto another road. Prior to turning, a strange flashing red light appeared near the back right corner of the car. It was the strangest thing. After more than two months on the crazy roads of India and Nepal, it’s the first time I’ve seen anything like it.
5:54. We have arrived at the domestic terminal. The parking lot might hold 100 cars and the entrance to the terminal has four doors marked “arrivals” and four doors marked “departures.” Flashback to Saskatoon, circa 1982. I love it!
6:01. I’m in line to check in when I hear a commotion to my left. It was over in a flash but it appears that a rather short little dude has darted past security and is headed for the tarmac. The security guard doesn’t seem too worried.
6:06. I’m handed a boarding pass indicating that my flight departs at 7:30 rather than 6:30 as I had been told. I head to the lone concession stand for a $1 Americano and a Snickers bar.
6:45. The plane meets my approval. I don’t know what kind it is (maybe US-made Beechcraft) but it has 34 seats for 17 passengers which means that everyone gets a window seat. The pilot explains that people on the other side of the plane will get the best view first, but when we turn around and head back to Kathmandu the mountains will be visible from my side of the plane.
7:03. We’re in the air!
7:15. It’s my turn to visit the cockpit.
7:16. Captain Manish points out Everest which is straight ahead! We will do a fly past on the right before turning around and giving the people on my side of the plane the million dollar view.
7:17. My 45 seconds in the cockpit is up. At least all 17 passengers will get a turn.
7:40. I’ll always prize this shot of my nose totally blocking the highest mountain in the world.
8:08. With 8 of the world’s 10 highest mountains just off to my left, and most of them looking pretty much alike, I was glad they handed out a printed card to help you identify your Lhotse from your Makalu. The flight attendants also made the rounds pointing out various mountains, although I could never tell which one they were actually pointing toward.
8:09. We have landed and taxied up to a bus that will take us back to the terminal. It would be a one minute walk without the bus.
8:32. I’m back at the hotel and for once I will get the free breakfast that is offered until 9:00. Bonus!
1. This flight reminded of the importance of being Number One! Have you ever heard of Kangchenjuna, Lhotse, Makalu, Cho Oyu, Dhaulagiri, Manaslu, Nanga Parbat or Annapurna? They’re the third though 10th highest mountains in the world and they’re all in the Himalayas. (K-2 is the second highest but it’s in the Karakoram range on the border between China and Pakistan.)
2. The flight attendants on Buddha Air have a pretty sweet job. They get to sleep in their own bed every night, they never fly at night, passengers often give them tips, they serve one mint per person and they never have to deal with drinks or drunks.
3. Cows may be sacred but monkeys fly free in Nepal.