It was still dark when we left the hotel, the air filled with a tropical bedlam of pre dawn bird calls. I’m not what you’d call a good flyer; when I flew for the first time (at the grand old age of thirty!) I felt as excited and awestruck as if I was being shot into the moon. That was then – now, I feel as if the odds against survival are just getting shorter every time and the thrill is tempered with dread. So walking out onto the runway to board our tiny twin propeller aircraft I was doing pretty well at staying calm. This route is cancelled at the slightest hint of bad weather, because if bad weather hits during the flight the pilot will have to coax the plane over some of the highest mountains in the world in some of the worst conditions imaginable – there is no margin for error. Flights in or out of Jomosom have to be completed by 11.00 -11.30 am, because after that the weather changes for the worst and the fearsome gales that spring up between the peaks would dash a plane to smithereens. If a flight is cancelled, you KNOW you wouldn’t have wanted to be on it.
We were the last to board, with me in a seat near the tail and R sitting by the door. Look at the picture at the top of this post. That’s my view of sunrise through the open door as the plane stood on the runway. See that rope going diagonally, bottom left to top right? That’s the rope they use to open and close the door. No, really. The stewardess whose seat was in front of mine gave me a reassuring smile, passed a tray of bonbons around the cabin (which I in my nervousness tipped up all over the place) ensured we were all strapped in, and yanked the door shut seconds before the tiny plane roared up the runway.
The plane banked and set it’s course over forested foothills studded by tiny villages and steep terraced croplands. Some villages had visible switchback roads leading to them, but the further in you got the thicker the forests became, and you began to see less and less dwellings in more remote and unlikely places, without even a trail for access. The plane seemed to almost graze the tops of the trees and then it felt as if I could, if my window were unglazed, reach out and brush my fingers through their leaves as the hills became mountains, their sides growing up around us.
And then suddenly, no more lush forests, no more tiny villages. The plane was climbing steadily, but if I looked out of the window I could no longer see the foot of the mountains… and their peaks were so high that I could barely see the tops. At last the plane climbed free, and this is what we saw.
I think I may have been making whimpering noises; I’m not sure, but the stewardess gave me a big reassuring grin and pointed out the astonishing peak pictured below – Machapuchare, or the Fishtail. Sacred, unclimbed and brilliant white it is a mountain as a child would draw it, it’s graceful twin summit hidden by a tiny cap cloud. I despair of the photo – it gives no sense of grandeur or scale. It’s a snapshot taken by an over excited woman through a grubby aircraft window, there’s barely any relation between it and what I actually saw.
Once past the highest peaks we began to descend immediately, following the Kali Gandaki river valley and through the deepest gorge on earth.
The river valley is subject to screaming gales which spring up from eleven am and continue all day – so all flights in and out have to be completed before this astonishingly dramatic change. That’s on a good day – inclement weather means no flights at all. A good thing too. If something goes wrong during the flight there’s no-where to go but into the river or the side of a mountain.
One of the most spectacular twenty five minutes I’ve ever experienced finished with our zippy little plane touching down on the short Jomosom airstrip while the other plane which works the route loaded up with passengers. These planes have an incredibly fast turnaround due to having to be safe back on the apron at Pokhora airport before the weather closes in for the day. As the plane taxied, I was able to see that the sky was pretty much taken up by mountains on all sides and that the landing strip was only a few hundred yards long.
Our plane taxied right up to the airport door and I marvelled that not many departures and arrivals can boast this kind of view. The mountain is called Nilgiri, and dominates the Jomosom skyline. Notice the other plane’s propellers? We’ve only just taxied off the airstrip and it’s already getting ready to go. No time to waste in these conditions!
So here I am, in the middle of Himalayas. You can barely see the sky for mountains.
If you want to read more about this journey click on Nepali Adventure to see all the posts!
For more beautiful and fascinating images of the sky around the world, visit Skywatch Friday!
We weren’t in Godavary for long. Just a day to change some money, purchase tickets and travel permits and then we were on our way to Pokhara. We would only be staying one night on the banks of Phewa lake – and we had a dawn start to look forward to.
So this was our brief glimpse of Pokhara, a seductively tranquil lakeside resort beloved of lotus eating hippy travellers since the sixties. Many years ago an old friend of mine who travelled to Nepal, full of ideas of what she would do and see there, visited Pokhara in her first week and never left for over a month. “How could I”? she said, “everything I needed was there – sunshine, a backgammon board, a glass of cold beer and the mountains reflected in the lake – there could be no better place “. I can see how easily you could think that. But we already had our flight booked to Jomosom, and so the lake for us was just a fleeting pleasure. A good thing – we might have been there still…
For more beautiful and fascinating images of the sky around the world, visit Skywatch Friday!
Before I go any further I think I need to introduce you to the major characters on our Nepali adventure. Here in no particular order are the cast… they are not the only people we spent time or travelled with, but they feature prominently in the story.
This is Richard, or R for short, my best mate and love of my life. Ok, enough of the soppy stuff.
This is Naomi, or Na for short, a sweet of voice, multi instrumentalist bee expert and adventurer extraordinaire – and the major reason we got to go to Nepal.
And this is Narayan. How to describe Narayan? He is THE man, a multi tasking organising whirlwind who knows everybody, can get anything (at less than half price) and runs marathons in his spare time. And when I say he runs marathons, he runs them casually, for fun, and at very high altitudes.
Na and Narayan’s oldest kid Erica, a girl of extraordinary imagination and story telling prowess. She’s trekked in the high Himalayas and isn’t yet seven years old.
Here’s Emily, a cheerful funny girl with a foghorn voice and searchlight eyes who will charm – or talk you into – complete surrender.
And here’s Tanuska, the baby of the family. She might be small but don’t be fooled – she has the strongest will and a fiery temper, a big personality in a little body.
This is Na’s mum Di, otherwise known to all as granny. Kind, warm, wise and intrepid, she’s a real globetrotter.
Na is one of Richards oldest and best friends, and we’d been wanting to visit her and her family in Nepal for years. We spent a jetlagged day or two in Na and Narayan’s house in Godavary (a suburb of Kathmandu) but it wasn’t long before we started out on the first part of our journey – to Pokhara, and from there, Jomosom.
I’ve not been around… not around here anyway. I’ve been busy on other projects, neglecting the part of me that wants to get down in the mud to look at earthworms, or wants to sit beside a mosquito infested pond waiting for bats. I’ve been inclining toward my more urban self. But that’s not the only reason I haven’t been around. Last autumn, when we realised that the time was right, the finances were (kinda, sorta) ok, that everyone involved could spare the time and that the weather would be perfect, we began planning a spring journey to Nepal. One of R’s oldest friends lives there – she married a Nepali guy and now they live in a beautiful house with their three lovely children just outside Kathmandu. We would go to visit them.
I can’t say I wasn’t nervous. On a previous trip to India eleven years ago I had been constantly ill, never quite shook off my culture shock and found the inquisitive crowds that would constantly gather around us incredibly tiring. I had a great time there, but was ill and exhausted for months on our return. Would Nepal be as gruelling?
I’ve written myself into a corner here; I can’t very well tell you how Nepal was for me in a short blog post, and that’s been one of the major problems I’ve experienced since getting back – how could anyone find the words? “So, how was Nepal?” a friend asks. “Ummmm… BRILLIANT” I reply, my eyes glazed and somewhat absent. The friend loses interest; it’s all they are going to get out of me. Because the truth is no matter how much I wanted to tell everyone what Nepal was like, no matter how much I wanted to start blogging the moment I got home, IT’S JUST WAY TOO BIG.
Anyway, I’ve finally bitten the bullet. I have thousands of pictures, and choosing which ones to post here is going to be torture – this project is going to take me months to complete. But I have to get a move on – I need to write while it’s still all fresh. I really don’t want to forget a thing.