Nepal to Bhutan

Mt Everest and Lhotse I conquer Mt Everest the comfy way. Lhotse in front.

The itinerary had promised an ‘exciting’ descent into Paro in Bhutan. I thought ‘exciting’ might have been a euphemism for ‘terrifying’, and I daresay in some circumstances it would be. Such as when I can’t see the ground for clouds. Yes, I know the pilots have instruments and all that, but …

Flying into Bhutan

…we got through the clouds in time for me to see the mountains and will them away from the plane.

The pilot had said in advance that we would be making some sharp twists and turns between the mountains on approach to Paro airport but not to be alarmed. It wasn’t until later I learned that Paro is regarded as one of the most dangerous airports in the world, that only Bhutanese pilots are allowed to fly into it, and only nine in the whole country are qualified to do so!

Note proximity of mountainside

Now that I’ve survived the flight, I rejoice in the fact that I got to the airport early and asked nicely for a window seat on the left side of the plane. At least I would have seen Mt Everest before I died. I invited this little poppet to share my space but after taking a few shots at the urging of his Mama, he sat back down to play games on the phone and ignored the unfolding glory of the highest mountains in the world outside. Then he chundered into a sickbag, but Mama was swift and adept and got the lot.

I got to the airport early because I was in Delhi and the flight left at 6.30am. So, a 2.45am – I repeat 2.45am! – wake-up call for a 3.15am pick-up. Why was I in Delhi? That’s what I want to know! The 6.30 flight I caught – KB 205 – touched down in Kathmandu on its way to Paro and picked up passengers, one of whom could have been me and I wouldn’t have had to fly to Delhi the day before, for a one-night stopover and a brutally early awakening. I’ve got my travel angel on the case and I hope that either heads will roll or some compensatory gift of goodies will be made. Preferably the latter, come to think of it.

If I’d just flown from Kathmandu yesterday morning, I could have had an extra day at the Shangri La, which I loved, especially since after I said ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ they moved me to a room overlooking the garden and I didn’t hear a peep, let alone a bark or a toot or a shout, all night. I would also have been able to rise at a more godly hour and not have had to spend most of the day in the worst airport in the world.

I got talking to a Scottish woman on the shuttle bus about how bad things were in Kathmandu. She first went there thirty years ago, before it got clogged with rubbish and traffic and befouled with air pollution. Sad. Ajaya told me earlier that they want to build a huge new airport, which they badly need, but that they want to clear hundreds of acres of unspoiled rainforest in the south of the country to do so. This presents a grave dilemma for enlightened citizens like him who see on the one hand the economic benefits tourism brings and on the other hand the damage it causes, especially when development is unregulated and driven by greed.

I didn’t take any pics; I was feeling too crook and miserable. But Kathmandu airport is woefully inadequate for the volume of traffic and passengers and flights. There was only one food outlet, and I discarded first a white-bread chicken/mayo sandwich after taking one bite, and then the rest of a container of lukewarm microwaved dumplings after eating two. All the flights were delayed, mine for two hours, and in every case the explanations were given over screechy distorted loudspeakers that the delays were due to arrival and departure backlogs. Worse, it was standing room only for much of the time. You had to wait and almost fight for a seat, and you didn’t dare leave it to go the ladies or check the single departures screen outside in the crowded corridor.

That was on Tuesday. Had I stayed in Kathmandu and flown out yesterday morning instead, I would still have had to endure that airport for a while, but it wouldn’t have been as bad in the morning and the plane did leave on time!

I got to Delhi about 6pm and things did proceed smoothly from there – mostly. My overnight was at the Novotel, one of dozens of flash international chain hotels in a specially designed ‘Aerocity’, about ten minutes’ drive from the airport along a multi-laned roadway. Neither the road nor the Aerocity are for the use of poor folks. It’s pay-to-enter everywhere and strict security, although I did see people frolicking on the wide grassy island between opposite sides of the highway. That was parks and gardens for them, I suppose.

The Novotel was absolutely vast and deliciously luxurious. I decided it was to be straight to bed after a quick meal, what with that 2.45am wake-up looming over my happiness, but I did have a nice ‘artisan flat bread’ – don’t call it pizza! – in the below-ground cafe/bar. I washed it down with – and here’s my learn-something-new-every day moment – a very nice Indian viognier. I didn’t know India made wine, but they do, according to waiter Sumit, to whom I got chatting. Wine is made in Mahrashtra province, but he was from Bihar – the birthplace, he reckoned, of many exalted personages including India’s first President Mr Prasad, and the bloke who invented zero and whose name I didn’t quite catch. On hearing my destination he immediately summoned a tiny and beautiful doll-like Bhutanese woman by the name of Phub. I’ve since learned that’s a fairly common Bhutanese name.

He was a cutie.