The next best thing to climbing mountains on foot while in Nepal is to take the awesome flight that gives you instant Everest. This unique journey-one of the few airline flights in the world that takes off and lands from the same airport-has now become a must-do for most tourists visiting Nepal.
The success of the flights has now spawned an entire sub-sector of Nepal's tourism industry that caters just to giving tourists a quick flypast of the highest mountain in the world. As word spread through tour operators, through the huge box-office success of the IMAX film Everest a couple of years back and by word-of-mouth, air treks have become the rage in 2000.
Tourism arrivals to Nepal may have fallen slightly, but the number of tourists taking the Everest Flypast has quadrupled in the past three years. In the current tourism season (September to December) alone, an estimated 35,000 visitors will take the $109-a-shot flights that wing you past the central and eastern Himalaya. And for the first time this year, the flights were not affected by the monsoons as airlines have acquired higher-flying pressurised aircraft. You may be in the middle of a torrential downpour or in mist at Kathmandu, but the mountain flight will still take off, climb steeply over the Kathmandu Valley to get above the clouds, and give you a majestic fly-past of the world's highest mountains.
Drawn by the bonanza, new airlines specialising in mountain flights have come up. Some like Buddha Air and Mountain Air have introduced large-windowed Beech 1900Cs and Ds, which are much better suited for sightseeing flights than earlier planes. There are no aisle seats, and Mountain Air has even painted a panorama of Mt Everest on its fuselage so passengers get a preview of what they are in for, even before they get airborne!
Actually, most flights in Nepal are mountain flights in one way or another. You pay for the ticket to your destination and the view is a bonus. The regular Kathmandu-Pokhara shuttle gives passengers magnificent views of the central Himalaya from Ganesh, Himalchuli to Annapurna ranges. Pokhara-Jomson really rubs your nose at the close-ups of Nilgiri and Machhapuchhare. The Kathmandu-Nepalgunj flight offers a panorama of the entire Himalaya past Dhaulagiri as well. The flights to Biratnagar and Tumligtar from Kathmandu have great views of Mt Everest and Makalu. Even international flights offer great scenery-some of the best ones being the flights westwards to Delhi, the Gulf or European destinations which fly parallel to the Himalaya for half-an-hour before turning south, or the flights to Dhaka and Hong Kong which overfly Biratnagar and therefore give passengers an unsurpassed view of the entire eastern Himalaya up to even Kangchendzonga and Chomolhari in Bhutan. But the regular airline flight with by far the best views is the thrice-weekly China Southwest flight between Kathmandu and Lhasa. If you are on economy, make sure you get a seat at the back of the plane for unobstructed views of Makalu, Chamlang, Lhotse and Mt Everst gliding past at almost eye-level.
We have come a long way since a Gypsy Moth piloted by LVS Blacker made the first-ever aerial "conquest" of Mt Everest in 1933. Flying up from India, Blacker survived an open cockpit and icy gale-force winds in his flimsy biplane to become the first person to look down at the top of the world. Thus began a glorious tradition of flying up to Mt Everest.
Nepal has also come a long way since the days of rickety, noisy planes with portholes. Gone are the times when passengers were allocated seats next to the engine where all they saw was a reflection of themselves on its thundering aluminium skin. Royal Nepal Airlines began condu-cting mountain flights from the days of the DC-3 in the 1960s, which despite the noisy unpressurised cabin had slow speed, low wings and small engines and were not at all bad for views. Foreign dignitaries visiting Nepal like UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold in 1961 were allowed by King Mahendra to take a DC-3 on a flight to Mt Everest (see box).
Later, Royal Nepal introduced the turboprop HS-748, which flew at 19,000 ft but had large bulbous engine nacelles that made the whole front part of the aircraft fairly useless for views. Then there were the aisle seats, which made many passengers feel short-changed. The state-run airline sometimes even conducted mountain flights using Twin Otters, which gave great views of the river gorges below but not much of the mountains above.
In comparison, today's Mt Everest flights are much more geared to hardcore mountain viewing. The Beech 1900s have brought a virtual revolution in sightseeing, and their cruising altitude of 25,000 ft gives an unsurpassed perspective on the moun-tains: from the violet-brown expanse of the Tibetan plateau to the north punctuated by dark blue lakes, the jagged icy wall of the Himalaya, and the velvet foothills of Nepal that plunge down to the haze-filled plains. The mountains look almost holy in their magnificence and their expanse, and if you are aware of the genesis of the Himalaya you can imagine the enormous tectonic forces that must have caused the Indian landmass to collide head-on with the Eurasian plate resulting in this pile-up. The collision sent the rocks soaring nearly to the stratosphere, to heights of more than 29,000 ft-and looking out of the window, the summits of many of the mountains are even higher than the plane!
It was only after the deregulation of the domestic airline industry in Nepal that private airlines started gearing up for the profitable sightseeing flights. Three airlines, in particular, have made the Mt Everest flights their niche markets: Buddha Air, Mountain Air and Shangri-La Airways. The cost is $109 for foreigners, IRs3,000 for Indians and Rs 4,800 for Nepalis.
Other airlines like Necon Air and Cosmic Air also operate mountain flights, but these make up a smaller proportion of their total revenue. Yeti Airlines is beginning once-daily mountain flights in its 30-seater EMB-120 on 10 November. Cosmic and Yeti have aisle seats and the airlines do not guarantee you a window seat, although Necon says it sells only 23 seats at the back of its ATR-42 and offers a $164 couple discount for a second person sitting on the aisle.
The most frequently asked question aside from which airline offers the best views is which side of the plane it is better to sit on. It is now official: the right-hand window seats are better because the mountains are closer on the flight back, but the return flight is also shorter since the plane is descending. If you are on the right-hand seat, you have to learn to curb your impatie-nce on the outbound leg as the left-hand passengers do their "oohs and aahs".
Another frequently asked question is: how close do we get to Mt Everest? This depends on turbulence and winds at higher altitudes. Later in winter the jet stream makes the flights bumpier, and planes don't venture closer than 20 km from the Lhotse Wall, and generally the earlier morning flights are less bumpy.
Passengers also have to learn to prepare themselves for mammoth tourist jams that occur at the domestic terminal on days when Kathmandu airport is fogbound, and camera-totting passengers from 20 mountain flights and other domestic routes are stuck for hours while the airlines wait for the visibility to improve.
There is no doubt that Everest is the great draw. Some airlines tried out mountain flights from Pokhara on an experimental basis, and Buddha even had a Sunset Himalaya flight last year, but there weren't enough takers. But given the congestion and winter fog at Kathmandu, there is no alternative for airlines than to start thinking of creative new routes like Pokhara-Everest, or extending the regular Kathmandu-Pokhara flight to include a Dhaulagiri fly-past. Buddha has begun on-board merchandising of Mt Everest memorabilia like T-shirts, certificates and even a video of the flight, on the return leg.
The airlines also need to pay greater attention to passenger handling on the ground-to make the long wait at the domestic airport more bearable, distribute clearer and more-precise mountain-identification charts, and treat every
passenger like they are potential repeat customers. Otherwise, like the carpet and pashmina industries, the Everest flight may also end up being a flash in the pan for Nepal.