We board the small 20-seater flight. There are no announcements, no elaborate demonstration of how to wear the oxygen mask or how to crawl to the emergency exit or where the life jacket is. I don’t think the plane even has life jackets or oxygen masks for that matter. The only air hostess for the whole flight, a frail and pale girl, shepherds the passengers to their seats and makes sure the seat belts are clicked in. She distributes a pinch of cotton and a mango juice packet to each passenger, and then finds an empty seat and makes herself comfortable. The plane taxis to a very short runway, accelerate and lifts lazily into the air.
The Kathmandu Valley puts up a splendid show below us. It’s an enormous area encircling the three fabled cities of Kathmandu, Lalitpur (Patan) and Bhaktapur. The Kathmandu Valley is Nepal in many ways with its seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites, sacred temple towns, tradition, culture, and architectural splendor.
The area has a very long history dating back to 300 BCE and until the 15th century, Bhaktapur was its capital. According to mythology, the Kathmandu Valley was once a lake named ‘Nagdaha’ as it was full of snakes. Somebody had to do something about it. Buddhist God Manjusri rose to the occasion. He cut a gorge with a sword called Chandrahrasha and drained away all the water and made it a habitable land. Not everybody agrees with this story, though. For some, it was Lord Krishna who cut the gorge with his Sudarshana Chakra. Who cut the gorge is still up for debate, but an interesting story nevertheless.
The plane jounces along like an auto-rickshaw on bad roads in the direction of Pokhara, drawing concerned glances time and again from the passengers towards the lone air hostess expecting some sort of assurance from her, but she sits expressionless looking out through the window. Her attitude is, ‘If we reach, we reach. If we die, we die’.
Bordering the Kathmandu Valley at the north are the Himalayan giants standing tall in multiple layers. From the flight, it is difficult to make out which peak is which. I look at mountains and think, ‘that could be Everest, no, maybe not, maybe that one with clouds drifting off the top, oh there’s another with clouds…’ Only when the flight nears Pokhara, I’m able to look at a mountain and say with definitive certainty, “That’s Machapuchare.”
Machapuchare is a pyramidal peak resembling the Matterhorn peak in Europe which makes it easy to identify. Next to Machapuchare are the Annapurna giants – Annapurna 1 and 2 and a host of other peaks, but Machapuchare dwarfs all of them with its endearing charm.
Most of the passengers in the flight are here for trekking and this is the very first view of the place we all came to Nepal for. This excitement presents a heart-in-the-mouth moment. The mountains are to the right, so the left-side passengers rise from their seats and lean onto the right-side window to take pictures. The aircraft lurching towards the right. I turn sharply to look at the air hostess. I fear the small plane will spin and spiral down. The young flight attendant is unfazed, her gaze fixed at the nothingness outside her left-side window. Luckily, the encroaching passengers realize the danger themselves and go back to their seats.
I can imagine why the girl is so pale and unmoved. In Nepal, every flight is a near-death experience. The poor girl must have given up hope for long life.
The plane lands in the airport safely bringing a huge sigh of relief to almost everyone inside. I have by now concluded that I hate plane journeys in Nepal. I can walk into a war field but flying in Nepal scares the shit out of me.
Pokhara airport is so small with a tiny apron and a short runway that only propeller flights can land and be accommodated. Yet, it is still busy in its own way. You get the feeling that a flurry of activities is going on around you all at once. The airport is the starting point for Annapurna base camp helicopter rides and ultralight adventure flights over the Pokhara valley. When one flight lands and clears the runway, another one accelerates and takes off. Simultaneously a helicopter lands in one corner, and at another corner, an ultralight flight is ready to fly. The best part is everything happens with a casual calmness.
The airport also has the most spectacular backdrop to any airports I have ever landed. The charming Machapuchare we saw from the sky now looms large behind the terminal.
The trauma of the journey is instantly forgotten. We take pictures and videos on our phones like kids in wonderland.