Friday, March 25, 2011

Everest: the easy way up

We didn’t know it at the time, but our first morning in Kathmandu was a beauty. The haze that would hang over the city for the rest of our stay was absent, and during breakfast at a rooftop café we could see the Himalayas peeking out over Durbar Square. 

 “So, any desire to climb them?”

“No,” I replied between sips of chai,“as far as I’m concerned, thar be yetis.”

As soon as our trip to Kathmandu was confirmed, the only thing our Singapore friends and colleagues seemed to be interested in was ’are you going trekking?’

With only 10 days in the country and an itinerary heavy on national parks, the answer was ‘not really’. Also, as I imagined and Lonely Planet Nepal confirmed, climbing any mountain in the Himalayas is no easy task.  Not only does it require special equipment, expensive trekking permits, training, lots of motivation, and a Sherpa or two, it requires a fair amount of time.  The trek to Everest Base Camp takes three weeks – two if you fly in and out of Lukla (one of the world’s most dangerous airports). 

But just because I’m too poor, lazy, and out of shape to climb any mountains didn’t mean I wasn’t interested in getting a closer look. And, in this marvelous modern age, any tourist with $160 USD can get a seat on a tiny little plane for Mount Everest sight-seeing flight.

 A handful of Nepali airlines offer one-hour sight-seeing flights, but the consensus among travelers and tour agents seemed to be that Buddha Air was the best. And, for a price difference of $10 USD, why would you risk not taking the best? We booked our flight the afternoon before at a random travel agency on Freak Street.  The price was $160 each (plus 4% credit card fee – the same everywhere!) and, after I asked, they offered free round-trip transportation from our hotel to the airport.
Buddha Air - fly the zen skies
Hearing that the earlier you go the better the views, we chose the second earliest departure –7:00am.  It was still dark outside when we left the hotel, but the domestic terminal at the Kathmandu Airport was already bustling with middle-aged travelers with expensive, bulging backpacks – the trekkers!  We arrived one hour before our flight and, since we obviously didn’t have luggage, it was more than enough time.

Yup - that's everyone on the plane!

 Every passenger on the mountain sight-seeing flights is guaranteed a window seat and, once you see the plane, it makes sense. This was by far the tiniest propeller plane I’ve ever been on – just six seats on each side and a fold-down seat for the sole flight attendant who doubled as our mountain guide.

Everyone was given a fold-out map to help identify the many peaks by their slopes and sizes –from flat-topped Melungtse (7181 meters) to perfectly triangular Sagarmatha (that’s Mount Everest to the western world, 8848 meters).  Another surprise in this age of high security was no door isolating the pilots from the passengers. In fact, each passenger got a chance to visit the cockpit and enjoy the superior front view of the mountains.

Say 'hi' to the pilots - it's just like flying in the 80s!

Glimpsing the summit of a mountain from a smudged plane window obviously can’t compare to the pride and pain of conquering one. However, for us regular humans who don’t consider weeks of grueling trekking and battling altitude sickness a holiday, it’s as close as we’ll ever come!  I'm a budget traveler and $160 USD goes very far in Nepal, but this is the sort of experience that's only going to get more expensive in the future.



    So sad. The Nepalis have enough problems already.

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