Fewer than 3,000 people have climbed to the summit of Mount Everest. I am not one of them, and I had thought that the Nepalese capital, Kathmandu, was as close as I was ever likely to get
I’m not talking about levitation here, but it took Buddha to prove me wrong.
The Air India flight’s approach to the city’s airport was one of the most dramatic I have experienced. Kathmandu’s location, in a fertile valley between the Mahabharat and Himalaya mountain ranges, necessitated an alarmingly steep descent to the airport after clearing the peaks. It was fortunate that I had been forewarned about this.
During the flight, from Varanasi in Northern India, we had been advised to adjust our watches forward by fifteen minutes in accordance with Nepalese time. In every other time zone I have ever crossed, the variation with Greenwich Mean Time has been in multiples of complete hours. A time difference of five hours and fifteen minutes ahead of GMT seemed bizarre to the point of perversity. In view of the country’s size and location, I could see no possible justification for the rogue quarter hour, unless to deliberately put the world’s only Hindu kingdom out of synch with the rest of the planet.
After the oppressively overpopulated and stifling big cities of India, Kathmandu was cool, uncluttered and moved at an almost sedate pace by comparison. The population, of around 600,000, was much more on a level with what I was accustomed to than the teeming millions of Delhi and Agra. Even the sacred cows were less obtrusive.
The medieval old part of the city had streets too narrow for cars and ancient ornate temples seemed to adorn almost every corner. The strangely named “Freak Street” was formerly the hangout of the flower children who had travelled the hippie trail to Kathmandu in the 1960s. The name had been coined, and retained, in their memory. Ragged holy men with long, colourfully dyed hair and painted faces sat on the temple steps and posed for tourist photographs. A few of them had suspiciously European looking features and I wondered if some of the hippies had stayed behind to take up a new life in the Orient or if I had inadvertently discovered Lord Lucan.
My hotel, the Annapurna, was centrally located between the old city and the Royal Palace (scene of the infamous slaying of Royal Family members by the Crown Prince a few years beforehand). Reputedly the best hotel in Kathmandu, it boasted luxurious bedrooms and public areas, but was inexpensive enough to be included in a Kuoni package tour. There was also an outdoor swimming pool with water substantially cooler, but also substantially cleaner, than its counterparts in Indian hotels had been.
Nepal’s main claim to fame is that eight of the ten highest mountains on Earth, including the highest, Mount Everest, are within, or on, its borders. As I was in the country for only five days, as a finale to my main India trip, climbing it was even more out of the question than it would have been in any case. Several local airlines, including Buddha Air, which I opted for, provided an unenergetic alternative in the shape of a one hour flight around the summit. This cost around £100 and involved an additional hair raising take off from and descent into Kathmandu airport, on a 25 seater plane carrying only 12 passengers to ensure that everyone had a window seat.
It wasn’t long before the green valleys and terraced hillsides below gave way to snow covered mountain slopes as our guide pointed out and identified the lesser peaks of the Himalaya range. When we reached Everest, around 100 miles from the capital, the plane circled the top a couple of times, allowing us to take photographs, before heading back. It was all over very quickly and, in terms of pounds per mile or per minute, must have been the most expensive flight I’ve ever been on.
Several travel companies’ India tours include a few days in Nepal as an optional add on. Despite their shared Hindu heritage and geographical proximity, they are very different countries, not least because Nepal was never colonised and has a population much more suited to its size and resources. Any short visit there will almost certainly be based in Kathmandu. The Everest flights, considering that they arrive back where they started, are certainly not cheap. Unless you’re actually intending to climb it, however, they’re probably the only chance you’ll have to see the highest point on Earth with your own eyes.