"Will the passengers please fasten their seat belts," said a soft voice over the intercom. And I slid one end of the belt into the heavy metallic slot, sat back, and peered through the window of the Nepalese jet.
The runway was clear and there was an Airbus 310, three Russian-made helicopters and a Dornier-aircraft near the control tower of Kathmandu's Tribhuvan International Airport. Some people waved from the tower. It was one of those early-morning mountain flights that are run 'provided-the-weather-is-good' as they say in tourist-brochures.
My seat was right near the port wing and I could get a fairly good view of the engines coming noisily to life. The jet taxied lazily down the southern end of the runway, swerved around and sped towards the north gathering momentum till I could finally feel a hollow in my stomach. We were airborne.
It was a steep climb and the blue mountain front was looming close. You could even spot the trees growing on the mountainside. But in a moment we left it behind. I was thrilled at the picturesque panorama of Kathmandu Valley with its pretty brown terracotta houses and prominent pagodas, which receded beneath as the jet banked almost languidly in an easterly direction.
The first mountain that caught my eyes, was the conical snowbound Langtang Peak, which was gleaming in the early morning sunlight. By the time Dorje Lakpa loomed on my window, the aircraft had attained its ceiling height of 30,000 feet. Dorje Lakhpa in Tibetan means "thunderbolt hand". Nearby was another splendid peak, the 19,550 ft. Choba Bamare, reigning in splendid isolation. Choba Bamare rose in the distance and seemed to fizzle out towards the east.
I sat tight in my seat, oblivious of the 50-odd passengers in the aircraft's cabin, lost in a world of snowy fantasy, and marveling at the thought that we were less than fourteen miles away from those Himalayan giants, and feeling snug inside the pressurized cabin. Over the monotonous whirr of the Yeti's engines, the captains voice boomed through the intercom: "Attention ladies and gentlemen, the big peak to your left is Gauri Shanker."
The 23,442 feet Gauri Shanker, which is part of the Rowaling Himal Chain, was bathed in a ghostly mantle of snow and dominated the scene. This was indeed the Mount Olympus of the Orient, I said to myself. Gauri Shanker, the legendary abode of the Hindu God Shiva and his consort Parvati.
The Melungstse massif appeared to be blanketed with snow and looked smooth and even: like a tent covered with snow, except that a depression existed between Melungtse and its sister peak Chobutse.
Chugmago, Pigferago and Numbur impressed me with their virgin and silvery summits--looking placid and serene.
My thoughts drifted to the ageless Himalayas and their eternal silence. But my Himalayan reverie came to a momentary stop, when a tall and petite air-hostess came offering orange juice at a cruising height of 30,000 feet. It was a toast to the Himalayas.
From the 26,750 ft. Cho Oyo onwards, the Khumbu Range began to show their undisputed supremacy, since this range boasted of the mightiest of the mighty among mountains. As the jet flew past the 25,990 ft. Gyachungkang Peak, I was pleasantly surprised to find the steward come over to my window, point out small dotted structures against a rugged mountainside and say, "There's Namche Bazaar." I was amazed. Namche of the mountaineer's delight, and the home of the Sherpas. Namche, the village that has become a byword in mountaineering and trekking circles throughout the world--lay below us.
The jet lost height gracefully to give the passengers a closer view, and the snows looked hauntingly beautiful from the port side windows. The warm sunlight filtered through smack on my face. Its warmth was reassuring.
The 23,443 ft. Pumori Peak seemed to be soaring in the distance, and that was when I began to ogle at the familiar 25,850 ft. Nuptse peak. Then suddenly, like a revelation, I spotted the giant amongst them all: the grey, imposing triangular massif that was Mount Everest to the outside world, Sagarmatha to the Nepalese and Chomolungma 'the Goddess Mother of the Earth' to the Tibetans. There were flecks of snow to be seen along the ridge of the highest peak in the world. A trail of vapor was emanating from its limestone summit.
Far below the magnificent Ama Dablam peak struck me as trying to reach for the sky. But I had eyes only for the mysterious, grey and foreboding Everest massif. I recalled Mallory's words: "There was no complication for the eye. The highest of the world's mountains had to make but a single gesture of magnificence to be lord of all, vast in unchallenged and isolated supremacy.
The peaks Lhotse, Chamlang and Makalu continued to fascinate me. I felt thrilled to my marrow as the knowledge that we were flying over the highest mountains in the world sank into my head. I noticed that the Himalayas occurred as narrow ranges, prominently longitudinal and that the highest Himalayan chains below us were not massive elevations but narrow ridges.
Towards the north, as far as the eye could see, was the barren Tibetan Plateau: rightly dubbed the Roof of the World. I was astonished to note that beyond the Everest massif's central chain there were no Himalayan ranges. It was the limit--the last frontier. The bleak Tibetan Plateau seemed to blend with the horizon towards the north.
I could not help feeling nostalgic as the jet turned for the homeward flight. I peered at the blue Mahabharat Mountains below and the Siwalik Hills a little further south--and the extensive, fertile Terai, which blended with the azure sky. While the major 'snows' were still visible on the starboard , it was fascinating to see the hanging-valleys, aretes, cwms and magnificent glaciers directly beneath the port windows. It reminded me of a trip I had made to the Swiss alpine town of Grindelwald, where the tongue of the glacier licks almost the town. Occasionally, as the jetliner sped by, the mountain-tarns would catch the sun's rays on their crystalline surface, thereby imparting blinding flashes of reflected light.
It must have snowed the previous night, since the neighboring hills, which were normally beyond the zone of perpetual snow, were also covered in varying degrees with fluffy blankets of virgin snow. One couldn't help being overwhelmed by the ecstatic and exotic beauty of these high snowbound wilderness areas that we were over-flying.
Continental music began to seep into the pressurized cabin and the lithe and beautifully swarthy air-hostess came down the aisle gracefully handing the passengers miniature khurkis (curved Gurkha knives) as souvenirs, with the usual compliment of sweets.
I could feel the captain easing off the throttles and saw the spoilers on the top surface of the port wind rising up slowly, in a row inducing a drag and causing the jet to slow as it touched town at Kathmandu's Tribhuvan Airport.