I must confess a disappointment in not being able to take the airplane tour around Mount Everest. I had planned for it months in advance. Some of the other people that were scheduled to take the tour with me opted to try to take the tour the next day. However, I had already checked the weather for the following day and realized that there was little chance for improvement. The storm front was going to be here at least one more day. To cancel the already scheduled tour to see if the weather would improve was a bad gamble. While others took that chance, I opted to get my refund and continue with my planned schedule.
The free day was spent reading and organizing. Additionally, I discovered that the hotel had made a significant billing error. Normally, when a person checks into a hotel, the management will freeze an amount on the credit card equivalent to a couple of nights room rates. This is used to cover incidental expenses. The amount is usually a couple of hundred dollars. However, the front desk clerk made a significant error when freezing the amount on my account. Instead of freezing $500, she froze $5,000. To compound the error, they did not immediately inform me of the error when they discovered it. To their misfortune, I had to discover the error during one of my routine checks of my bank account. I immediately informed the hotel manager and expressed my displeasure not only for the error but, more importantly, their failure to inform me of the problem. Needless to say, I spent the rest of the day in intense discussions with the hotel’s management staff. Thus, I could see a good reason why I didn’t go on the Everest flight. Several days later, the error was corrected and the hotel’s manager assured me that this would be a topic of their staff training. Note, be sure to check the bill, even at check in. Fortunately, my line of credit easily absorbed the outlandish charge. However, for a smaller line of credit, the error could have been devastating, resulting in a violation of the limits of credit and the hassles associated with such problems.
My intuition was correct. The weather on the following day was no better than the weather of the day that I had my Everest flight tour cancelled. Thus, if I had tried to go the second day, I would have suffered the same results. Furthermore, I would have missed out on the scheduled Chandragiri Cable Car tour. I was waiting in the hotel lobby when my guide Kumyd arrived with his driver. You may remember that he was my guide on the Kathmandu city tour. Once again, we had the same cramped car. However, by this time, I was becoming adept at getting in and out of the tiny vehicle.
We departed the hotel compound with the military guard giving me a proper salute and I returning it in a proper military fashion. Thus, earning a broad grin from the soldier. We sped down the muddy and dusty roads in a different direction than we had taken on the earlier tour. We headed in a southwesterly direction from the Kathmandu Valley to the Chandragiri Hills near the village of Thankot. Once again, we experienced some of the
worst road conditions on the entire Around-the-World Adventure. I was amazed at how modern and passable the roads in Tibet were compared to the deplorable road conditions in Nepal. Regardless of the restrictions that the Chinese put on the people of Tibet, the Chinese built good roads for them. The same can’t be said for Nepal. I’ve included pictures of roads that are considered to be main thoroughfares. I’ve seen off-road trails in better conditions.
The rain had stopped. However, the sky was overcast. Our destination was the Thankot region of Kathmandu. There, we would take a modern cable car to the top of the Chandragiri Hills and be treated to a spectacular view of the City of Kathmandu, the surrounding valley, and the majestic Mount Everest! Wrong! Although the rain had stopped, the thick, gray cloud cover continued to hang low. Maybe the ride in the cable car would take us above the clouds to the bright, clear blue sky and a spectacular view of Mt Everest, towering in all of its grandeur above the clouds? Wrong again!
The cable car system was opened in December of 2016. Thus, it was modern and considered reasonably safe. Kumyd purchased our tickets and we joined the orderly procession waiting our turn to board the red gondola for the 9-minute ride that took us along a 2.5 km route to the top of Chandragiri Hill. We traversed over dense jungle as we made our way from the village of Thankot to the top of the hill. This was at an elevation of 8,268 ft. As we climbed toward the top of the hill, we passed through some clouds. Unfortunately, the clouds remained when we reached the top, giving an eerie overcast quality to the whole scene.
Once off the gondola, we still had to walk uphill for several hundred feet in order to reach the temple at the top. Along the way was a beautiful brass statue of Prithvi Narayan Shah, the first King of Nepal. He first noticed, in 1743, the beautiful Kathmandu Valley from on top of the Chandragiri Hills and vowed to conquer the region. Further along the pathway to the hilltop, I noticed a large panoramic photograph of the region facing what was supposed to be the Himalayan mountain range stretching from west to east. Pictured was Mount Everest, which was supposed to be totally visible on a clear day. However, today, the picture had a backdrop of dense fog. In fact, I barely could see 100 ft beyond the picture. I had to take them at their word that somewhere in that general direction stood Mount Everest. Would I ever see the tallest mountain in the world?
Perched on top of the hill was the Bhaleshwar Mahadev Temple. This sacred Hindu site was built to honor Sati Devi, the first wife of Lord Shiva. The temple is a popular destination of Hindu Pilgrims. Shiva, perhaps the most complex of Hindu deities, is the most powerful god of the Hindu pantheon and one of
the god heads in the Hindu Trinity. Followers of the Hindu faith believed that those who worshiped at this temple would attain what they wished and would be blessed into Lord Shiva’s world in their afterlife. The temple was surrounded by numerous gold statues of Hindu gods and the large golden statue of a cow, a sacred animal in the Hindu faith. Flanking the entrance of the temple were two large bells. Even though the weather wasn’t cooperating, the inclement drizzle did not prevent an almost constant stream of visitors to the temple, each removing their shoes, out of respect and tradition, to walk on the wet pavement onto the dry floors of the temple. They rang the bell for good fortune as they entered and/or exited their Hindu house of worship. Even Kumyd rang the bell before we departed.
The weather wasn’t improving. In fact, the drizzle was turning into a steady downpour. Since we had seen all that we could see due to the poor weather, we opted to return to the cable car for the 10-minute ride down to the valley and the village of Thankot. While descending, Kumyd called our driver to have the car ready. Then, he began to apologize for the tour not being as good as it could have been. I told him that neither he nor I are God and we cannot control the weather, nor can we be responsible for the poor weather conditions. I told him how much I appreciated his efforts to show me all that he could and to explain the meanings of the Hindu sites that we had visited. I assured him that I was totally happy with his tour and all of his efforts.
The rain made the return journey to the hotel even slower and more treacherous. The dusty, dirty, rocky road had become a muddy trench. At times, traffic would be at a standstill for at least 15 minutes without offering any apparent reason for the delay. Calm and patience were the rule of the day. I was totally amazed that the roads of Kathmandu were so primitive compared to what I saw in Lhasa, Tibet and, later, throughout the entire country of Bhutan. These conditions in and of themselves could have been grounds for an uprising or a revolution. After an hour of torturous travel, we finally entered the compound of my hotel. Once again, the guard popped me a salute which I returned with the usual military fashion, which caused him to have a wide grin. I reiterated my sincere pleasure with the tour and all of his efforts and tipped Kumyd and our driver appropriately. Their profound gratitude implied that my tip was generous, but well-deserved.
The rest of the day was spent resting and preparing for my flight to Paro, Bhutan in the early morning. I planned for the car to take me to the airport at 05:45. The concierge noted that such an early departure wasn’t necessary for a 08:45 flight. I assured him that I preferred to be at the airport early in case there were any issues.
Prior to my departure, I had separated most of my luggage and equipment. I was flying to Paro, Bhutan on Royal Bhutan Airlines which was commonly referred to as Drukair. Bhutan is called Druk in Dzongkha, the official language of Bhutan. Druk means “Thunder Dragon,” which is their national symbol. Thus, I was flying on Thunder Dragon Airlines. However, this airline was not a member of the Star Alliance and I was not afforded my usual perks and privileges. That meant I had luggage restrictions imposed. Since I was only going to spend 3 days and 2 nights in Bhutan, I decided to store the majority of my luggage at my hotel in Kathmandu. I would be returning there to spend the night after my trip to Bhutan and before my flight to Shanghai. I was happy that the hotel agreed to store my luggage at no charge and I watched them put it into safe storage.
Preparing for my trip to Bhutan had been an unusual experience. Prior to entering the land of the Thunder Dragon, I had to make my travel arrangements through a state-approved travel agent. I found Druk Asia Pte Ltd, an approved agent, through the internet. Once I gave them my tour requirements, Druk Asia arranged for permission for me to visit the country, my visa, my air travel, and my tour itinerary, which included airport transfers and an English-speaking guide and driver. They would have arranged my hotel accommodations, too. However, I had decided stay at Le Meridian, a Starwood property, because it was highly recommended by my son, who is in the hotel industry, and because I would get Marriott – Starwood reward points. Unfortunately, there were no International Hotel Group properties in Bhutan.
I was happy to see that my car for the airport was ready as scheduled. With one more salute from the grinning guard, we quickly departed the hotel’s compound. I was surprised to see how comparatively empty the streets were at that early hour. The streets were actually passable and the traffic was tolerable. Our trip to the airport took only a fraction of the time it did in earlier trips to that area.
Once at the airport, I had to run the typical security gauntlet that seems to be prevalent in all Asian countries. I had to have my baggage x-rayed before I entered the airport and I had to process through a security screening even before I went to the airline desk for check-in. Once I had checked-in, my bags were x-rayed again. I would go through another security checkpoint before boarding the aircraft. However, at the moment, I was first in line to check-in for my flight to Bhutan. My pre-planning and early arrival at the airport paid off! All seats were assigned at check-in. Since I was first, I had my choice of seats. Knowing that we would be traveling East, my sense of geography told me that Mt. Everest was going to be on the left side of the aircraft. I asked for a seat on the left side of the plane. The airline agent said, “Excellent choice! You should have a nice view of Mt. Everest.” “That was my plan,” I responded. Even though there was potential for a bumpy ride, I asked for a seat at the rear of the plane. That way I could look ahead and see the mountains as they approached and have time to ready my camera. By the time I was ready to take a photo, the wing would not be in the way. And, I would have time to take additional pictures as our plane moved away from the mountain. The agent gave me the last seat on the left side. I was very happy!
I made it through the security checkpoints and found the Drukair waiting area. Once in the waiting room, I realized that I was the only American on the plane. Of course, the announcements were not in English. However, as soon as everyone else jumped up and proceeded to the gate, I quickly joined them. Since the Katmandu airport is small, it took only a short bus ride from the terminal to the plane. We boarded the French-built ATR-42 aircraft on time. It was a twin-engine turbo prop used in several Asian countries for local flights.
I was grateful that the weather was reasonably clear as we lumbered down the runway and slowly climbed into the air. I was able to get a few photos of the Kathmandu airport, which would come in handy for comparison when I took pictures of the Paro, Bhutan Airport. Traveling at a speed of about 188 MPH, we set an eastward course for the 250-mile flight to Paro. Soon after take-off, a box lunch was distributed. Having seen the undesirable cleanliness conditions of the Kathmandu airport, I opted not to sample the food that was prepared there. However, I did take the sealed juice box.
We climbed through thick overcast to reach our flight altitude. I began to be concerned that this attempt to see Mt Everest would be another bust. Suddenly, we broke through the clouds and the massive Himalayan Mountain Range was passing parallel with us on the left side of the aircraft – just as I predicted! Now the problem was, “Which peak was Mt Everest?” The solution soon came over the plane’s intercom. Our pilot graciously felt it was his duty to announce the main points of interest and, lucky for me, they were all on the left side of the airplane!
Mount Everest, as most of you already know, is the highest mountain above sea level on our planet. The mountain was named after Sir George Everest, a former British Surveyor General of India. It was first climbed
by Sir Edmond Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953. Its grey, snow-capped, granite peak towered majestically 29,029 feet above sea level. Information sources always say the “Current official elevation is….” Apparently, there is an argument between China and Nepal over what should be used to determine the height. China wants to use the rock height and Nepal wants to use the snow height. In 2010, an agreement was made that the height of Mt Everest is 29,029 (the Nepal height) while recognizing China’s claim which is 4 meters shorter. The next thing they argued about was whether Mt Everest was “Majestic” or “Magnificent.”
Rising above a vast ocean of pure white clouds, the Himalayan Mountains provided a stark contrast with their august, granite grandeur. At first, it was difficult to determine which one was Mt Everest. We were flying at almost the same elevation as the mountain tops. While I suspected that I had found Everest, I wasn’t absolutely sure. Then, the pilot confirmed my suspicion. One mountain seemed to be just a bit higher, more impressive, and dominated the other mountains. The glimmering granite of Mt Everest sparkled in the mid-morning sun. I had finally found Mt. Everest and it was right outside my window! I began to realize that this was the reason why I made this journey to Nepal. The opportunity to climb Mt Everest or even trek up to the base camp had long since been overcome by my age. The best I could do was get as close as I could from the air. The disappointment of missed opportunities due to
cancelled tours had now been replaced by the excitement of having Everest seeming so close that I could almost touch it. I also realized that the entire base of the mountain range was socked-in with thick cloud cover as you will see in my photos. Thus, this plane trip to Bhutan was about the best anyone could have for taking pictures of Mt. Everest. I used all of my limited camera knowledge to take the best photos possible. I have included several of my shots.
A good friend from church, Jim Cooper, who is an expert in photo reduction and touch-up, took my photos and reduced their size to permit easier transmission of the photos over the internet. He also reduced the haze in some of the pictures. Thus, in my opinion, the quality of the photos was dramatically improved. I hope you can see the difference and enjoy them. I would appreciate your comments.
All too soon, our “Tour” of Mt. Everest was over and we made our way toward Paro, Bhutan. Paro is the only airport in Bhutan and is located in a deep valley at an elevation of 7,300 ft above sea level. The surrounding hills were as high as 18,000 ft and the approach into Paro airport is entirely by visual flight rules (VFR). Only daylight flight operations are allowed. Paro Airport is considered one of the world’s most challenging airports. Thus, only a select number of pilots are certified to land at this airport.
Making our approach to Paro, I noticed that we were flying close to hills with houses on them and seemed to be winding our way through a valley. Now, I understood why only VFR conditions applied and why there were no night time flight operations. It was thrilling enough to land there on a clear day in broad daylight. Flying past the airport and terminal, I noticed a stark contrast between the Paro and the Kathmandu airports. I’ve included pictures of the two airports. I wonder if you can see the difference?
In my next segment, I will talk about the tour of Paro, Bhutan; the visit to Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan; and my return to Kathmandu. I hope you have enjoyed this travelogue of my trip to the Chandragiri Hills and my flight from Kathmandu, Nepal to Paro, Bhutan via Mt. Everest. Please let me know if you have any comments or questions.