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Photo of Buddha Air airplane with Mt. Everest in background

Mount Everest Via Buddha Air

© 2003 Max Lent


We were stranded in Katmandu and since there was no way for us to leave Katmandu the way we came, we made a conscious decision to turn our adversity into an opportunity.  Mount Everest was at the top of my list of tourist attractions "we" wanted to visit.  We had seen brochures for local airlines offering flights to Mount Everest and there were a couple of airlines listed in our travel guidebooks.  We asked at our hotel for advice about flying to Everest.  They suggested calling a travel agency.  Our friends at the Yeti travel agency made life easy for us by making reservations for us to fly to Everest via Buddha Air.  Tina expressed some concern over flying in small planes amongst big mountains.  They assured us that the aircraft was new and similar American corporate planes.

The reason we were stranded was because of India Air.  We were told on our arrival in Katmandu that we would have to reconfirm our departing India Air airline reservations after we arrived.  We were also told that we could not confirm reservations by phone.  We were told that had to visit the India Air office or go to the airport.  Since we had already tried to confirm our reservations at the airport only to be told we would have to confirm them in town, we knew what we had to do.  Lucky for us, the India Airlines office was just a couple blocks from our hotel.  Duteously, we trekked over the airline office to go through the formality of reconfirming our flight.  The officials at the India Air office were mildly cordial, but mostly uncooperative.  When we asked to reconfirm our return flight to Delhi they said that our flight was not confirmed and that we would be on standby for our return flight.  Nothing we said would persuade them otherwise.  Even a letter from our travel agent clearly showing that our flight was confirmed didnít move them.  At the end of a half hour discussion they repeated their original position and told us to try again the next day.  We were unimpressed and miffed at their behavior, but chalked the experience up as something that one has to endure when traveling in a foreign country.  We decided that we would return the next day and see what would happen.

On our second visit to the India Airlines office we played their game.  We asked if we could leave the next day.  They said no.  The next day?  No.  The next day?  How about the next day?  Yes, no problem.  We confirmed our already confirmed reservation, just a few days later than planned.  Once we selected a day that they wanted us to travel on, they became much more cordial.

Our friends a Yeti Travel came through again.  A car and driver came for us in the morning and drove us to the airport.  Since we werenít on an international flight, we required little preflight processing.  All we had to do is show up at the airport and wait.  Airlines, the world over, seem to delight in having their customers wait excessively.  Buddha Air was no different. 

During our morning at the airport we met another American couple who were signed up for the same flight.  They were obviously wealthy.  They had on too much jewelry and were dressed as though they were on their way to a luncheon in Beverly Hills.  The asked us personal questions about where we were from and about our professions.  When we said ďHow about you?Ē they avoided answering in a practiced way.  It was clear to us that he was a corporate executive and that she was a homemaker.  We made small talk while we waited.  These were not the kind of people one could easily make friends with unless they knew a great deal about your economic status.  It was highly unlikely that we would receive an invitation to meet them at their hotel for drink or that they would accept a similar invitation. 

Other small planes came and left while we waited.  We saw local people in traditional clothing boarding planes to other locations in Nepal, Tibet, and other destinations unfamiliar to us.  We saw Buddhist monks in beautiful saffron colored robes walk to their boarding gates.  And, we saw young foreigners, some American and some European, lugging their backpacks through the airport lobby.  I amused myself thinking how their trips will forever change their lives.  They will never again see the world the way they saw it before they left home.  Few of their friends will comprehend the magnitude of experience these youths have absorbed just getting to Katmandu from wherever they came from.  Most of the youths will seek and find even more exotic experiences before returning home.  Some may never go back.  Some may become eternal vagabonds and hang out on exotic beaches for the rest of their lives.  Itís unlikely that any of them will ever comfortably settle down to eight to five jobs and live in suburbia.  Most will be back.  I know because I was just like them when I started traveling to Mexico.  It was interesting how the uniforms for youths seeking adventure have not changed in the 30 or more years since I was dressed just like them.  The baggy cheap sweaters from Mexico are still popular with both sexes.  Girls still go braless, wear Indian or Afghani skirts, cheap sandals, rucksacks, and cheap jewelry.  Boys still wear worn jeans, cotton anoraks, long hair, scraggly beards, and currently hip sunglasses.  Both sexes maintain a stylishly unkempt look.  The girls still donít shave their armpits or legs.  The boys have dirty backpacks that look professional, but arenít.  They go out of their way to sit on the floor no matter how dirty it is.  In the Katmandu airport the floors are dirty.  They are so dirty that the janitorial staff just sweeps piles of dirt from one place to another without ever removing it, just like in India.  I imagine that by sitting on the floor they are consciously or unconsciously demonstrating their freedom from the tyranny and dogma of middle class accoutrements.  At least that was the excuse I used to provide when all I wanted to be was different.

Our plane departure was finally announced about an hour late.  We were led across the tarmac to our plane, which fit the description of the plane in the brochure.  It was a modern corporate turboprop aircraft that seated about 12 people.  The seats were arranged so that everyone had their own window.  There was only one seat on each side of the narrow isle.  Our flight attendant looked more like a Nepalese model.  She was beautiful, slender and tall.  She was also pleasant, polite and helpful.  Everyone, including the women stared at her because of her beauty.  She explained that we would fly to Mt. Everest and turn around and that each side of the plane would have a clear view of the mountain.  Within minutes our little plane was roaring down the runway and we were airborne.  A few minutes later, as we rose above the haze and low clouds, we could see the Himalayas.  Our flight attendant passed out sweets and offered the same type of useless cotton balls we had been offered on our flight to Katmandu.  She then passed out a silhouette map of the mountains we were flying past.  She made several trips through the plane pointing out major peaks to us. 

It took some imagination to understand that the mountains we were seeing were the tallest on the planet.  From the vantage point of our highflying plane the mountains could have passed for the Rocky Mountains.  It was only when we looked nearly straight down that you could see the terraced tropical farms that descended down into the clouds much further than we could see, that we partially realized the magnitude of scale of the mountains.  Having read nearly every mountain climbing narrative written about the Himalayas I thought I would easily recognize all of the major mountains, especially Everest.  I didnít recognize any of the mountains except for Everest.  We had a problem seeing the mountains as clearly as we would have liked because the windows of the plane were partially fogged.  Seeing the mountains from above or nearly the same altitude made them look smaller than I would have expected.  When I return Katmandu I will sign up for the more spectacular and much more dangerous helicopter flight or the smaller lower flying airplane tours.  My dream is to fly to a destination near Everest base camp.

When the flight turned around so that they other side could see the peaks the flight attendant asked passengers to come forward one at a time to look out the pilotís window.  Several of the Indians aboard the plane made their way to the cockpit uninvited and stayed much longer than would have been courteous.  Still, we all got a great view and had a great time.

On the return to Katmandu, I spent as much time looking down into the emerald green terraced canyons and valleys as I did looking at the mountains.  Everywhere I looked there was human habitation.  There were few trees and no forests visible.  There were terraced farms for as far as I could see.  Seeing so many signs of human habitation was amazing to me.  I am used to flying over huge forests and desserts in the U.S. where it is almost impossible to see signs of human habitation except for a rare highway or dirt track.  What I did not see in the Himalayan foothills were roads.  All of the farms I could see only had small trails leading down into the lower clouds.

The flight to Mount Everest was both exciting and disappointing.  Sure, we got to see Everest on a clear day in great definition.  But seeing it through a partially fogged double layer plastic airplane window from nearly the same height made it look smaller than it was.  A year or so after our return from Nepal we saw an IMAX film on Everest.  Seeing Everest through the lens of an IMAX camera was, in many ways, more exciting than seeing it through the plastic windows of Buddha airlines plane.  The IMAX film contained sections on Katmandu that were fun to see, but recreated almost nothing of the experience of being there.  Missing was the ambience of the place, the hucksters, the other tourists, the slight feeling of danger, the temperature, the smells, the freedom of choice of movement, and so much more.  What I am working toward in my comparisons is the idea that seeing Everest from the confines of a pressurized aircraft is too far removed from the experience of the mountain to seem real and genuine. 

My recommendation is to see Mount Everest in the most real way possible.  If you can, hike to it and climb it.  If that is not possible hike to base camp.  If that is not possible, fly to base camp or near to base camp.  If that is not possible fly to Everest by the smallest lowest flying aircraft available.  If that is not possible take the Buddha Air flight.  But don't leave Nepal without seeing Everest.

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