EBC Day 04 – Lukla to Phakding
I had been looking forward to the flight to Lukla for quite a while as all the things that I had both read and had heard from others travelers made the journey not only sound dangerous but also immensely fun. As such, I awoke that day bright and early and very eager to go. I had paid USD282 (NPR29000) for the return flight from Kathmandhu to Lukla with TARA Air and had decided on the return date of the 27th of November which gave me two contingency days to get to Lukla in case anything happened during the hike that might cause me to fall behind schedule, as well as another two days to get to Kathmandhu for my flight home in case there were delays with the flight from Lukla. Delays were apparently (and quite alarmingly) commonplace as the Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla would shut down its operations whenever the weather was inclement.
The guide for Sophie's group, Binod, had told me earlier that when we were to arrive at the Tribhuvan International airport (Nepali : त्रिभुवन अन्तरराष्ट्रिय बिमानस्थल) , we were to expect hoards of porters swarming in to try and 'help' us with our bags and that they would be requesting tips right after. Despite being able to and even preferring to carry my own bag, I had decided to let it just be and to chip in with the tips that they had decided upon which came up to a ridiculous NPR200 per person.The Domestic wing of the Tribhuvan International airport was a relatively small hall with booths occupying its circumference that was rendered claustrophobic by the sheer amount of people that were packed into such a tight space - just pure, raw chaos. This however was overshadowed by the cacophony of those raising their voices above the din of the hall, trying to restore some resemblance of order.At one point the airport officials had decided that my bag was to follow on the next flight as the flight that I was on had reached the weight limit. I had conflicting thoughts when this was made known to me as I was glad that they were abiding to the safety standards but on the other hand, the success of the hike depended on the contents of my backpack. Binod however came to the rescue and managed to sort something out with the airport authorities to ensure that the backpack remained with me.
Shortly after that we entered the departure hall and actually boarded the plane, before being told to our dismay that the airport in Lukla had been shut down due to strong winds. Since the flight was postponed, our only option at that point was to head back to the airport for lunch, which cost NPR670 for dhal bhat and a drink.
The trick to getting the first pick of the seats on the plane is to make sure that you are the last to board the feeder bus. That way you will ensure that you are the first out of the bus door and the first to board the plane. I would normally do this anyway but on this occasion it really worked to my advantage. The plane was a de Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otter which seats 19 passengers, 6 rows of 3 with the single seats on the port side, the doubles on the starboard and the remaining one at the back for the air hostess. The plane is considered a STOL (Short Takeoff and Landing) utility aircraft which makes it perfect for the short runway of the Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla (elevation : 2860m).
The flight itself was ridiculously tame compared to what I had expected. Websites, articles and blogs had lead me to believe that the half-an-hour flight would have been plagued with horrid turbulence and buffeting winds but it was completely to the contrary. Turbulence was of course present for an aircraft of that size with only 300 km/h as the cruising speed, but I think the loud drone from the two Pratt & Whitney turboprop engines would have struck aviophobics (or those who lead somewhat tamer lives) as intimidating. All this paled in comparison to the gorgeous views which had the ability to take anyone's mind off the fact that they were flying, and as I was to find out later, they were to set a precedence for what was to come.The plane spent most of the flight at a relatively high altitude although towards the later part, decreased its altitude to get through some mountain passes that had sheer ridges on either side, in order to begin its approach to the runway. The runway was clearly seen from the cockpit and the fact that it slopes upwards at a 12 degree incline made it even more obvious. The landing itself was remarkably brief and (fortunately) uneventful. So much for what has been labeled as the 'world's most dangerous flight'.