Travel writing: ‘On the wings of a dragon’ Kathmandu to Paro

“Passengers on the left hand side; please look out of your windows,” the pilot announced officiously over the loudspeaker.  It was the most eagerly awaited departure from Kathmandu’s quaint airport on that crisp morning, and barely ten minutes after take-off aboard flight KB401 I was staring straight at Everest, with its snow-capped peak piercing imperially through the hazy mist.

The check-in line was deserted. Druk Air’s orange emblem with its fire-breathing dragon, or druk, Bhutan’s national symbol, roared through the rustic woody decor of the Nepalese capital’s only airport terminal. Standing behind the counter a regally dressed woman with a neatly powdered face gave out a beaming smile.  “Are you sure; heard only eight pilots are trained to land there,” jested a man laden with hiking gear. I was too entranced by the enigma of Bhutan to take heed of the stranger’s concern. The ticket initiated me into a select club of individuals willing to pay the extravagant visa fee to enter the unknowns of the last Himalayan Kingdom.

A cacophony of nerves and excitement swelled through the teeming departure lounge as the flight to Paro was announced. The airport’s shuttle bus comically transported us ten feet forward to our narrow-bodied jet airliner.  On board the shiny purple traditional dress, or kira, fashioned by the air hostesses, glistened through the plane’s whitened interior.  A passenger asks one, “are you from Bhutan?” in fascination. “Yes, I am sir” she replied politely.

Following the thundering thrust of the engines we were air bound, heading eastwards and soaring majestically over white-tipped roof of the world. We basked amongst the Kanchenjunga and Everest peaks while tucking into Drukair’s choice of snack; a cheesy pastry with a subtle green chilli inside. It was a tourist compromise on the Bhutanese’s beloved ema datshi dish comprising of melted cheese with vigorous chillies, but sufficient enough to kick the senses in preparation for the much anticipated descent into Paro.

Soon the white carpeted mountains below began to take on a greener complexion. The tiny nodes of glacial rivers became ever more evident, carving through the landscape.  “Please do not be worried by our descent, this is normal” announced the pilot, releasing an ambivalent hush throughout the cabin.  We began rapidly angling from left to right through the valley, as if upon a rollercoaster, and dramatically hurtled toward the ground. The earthy hues soon turned to tall conifers and the intricate woodwork of Himalayan rooftops with drying red chillies atop became visible.

The plane darted theatrically across the runway and the passengers burst out like a carbonated beverage from a container, with cameras clicking at everything in sight. The luscious valley side we had flown in from shaded the simple airport and a large billboard of Bhutan’s King and Queen signposted the ornate arrival lounge. Each breath drew in the cleansing effects of the unusually pure mountain air. At the exit a herd of men clad in the elaborate gho local dress greeted us cheerfully. “Tashi delek. Welcome to Bhutan.” We had entered a different world.

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