Pokhara 2.0 & Ultralight Flight

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I absolutely love Pokhara–it is one of the most relaxing and pretty towns that I have ever visited. After finishing up with the Dragoman tour, I decided to spend four days in Pokhara just vegging out after the hectic pace of travel during the previous three months.

I ended up taking the Greenline bus once again, stopping in the same resort down by the river. At the resort, I took pretty much the same picture from three months prior at the same spot. Do I look a lot wiser for my travels?

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In terms of the bus ride over, Greenline is good, but I’ve since found out that for the exact same price there’s a bus company that takes you there in STYLE. They make 1st class plane travel look like amateur hour. So shop around.

Some photos of the lake that I took upon my arrival:

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The hotel I picked this time around was not as fancy as the Fishtail Resort, but it was half the price and I preferred the rooms (a little smaller, but far brighter). The Middle Path hotel is more centrally located, yet it is still a few blocks detached from the main strip so it is quite peaceful. For about $45 CDN a night I got a really nice room with two beds, 24 hour hot water, and breakfast. The family that owns this place is also super nice and really efficient. The only thing to be aware of about this hotel is that the location on Google maps is waaaaay off, we’re talking 1.5 km off. Not a big deal if you’re in a car, but it was a big deal to me because I ended up walking for 45 minutes carrying 30 kg of gear. I will never cease to be baffled by people who live in tiny places such as this who are totally useless when it comes to knowing about the surrounding businesses. I must have asked 10 people if they knew the location of the hotel, and only two ended up knowing where it was. I subsequently found out that the road where the hotel is located, is called Middle Path, which should have made it rather easy for people to point me in the right direction.

I didn’t do all that much in Pokhara with the exception of my last day. I mostly just edited photos, organized my belongings to ship off superfluous things, went on walks, and caught some live music at night.

Some information about shipping things home from Nepal and India:

For some reason, both Nepal and India have restrictions on sending electronics via mail. They do not allow you to send batteries by mail under any circumstances and you have to send electronics off via DHL or a similarly expensive service. In the end it ended up costing me about $300 USD to send some electronics, gifts and souvenirs home so beware of shipping expenses for personal gear. However, the Indian government subsidizes shipping costs for tourist goods purchased in India such as clothing and tapestries, so at the opposite end of the spectrum it would have cost me $15 CDN to send off the same weight in those types of items.

Back to Pokhara. On the last occasion I recorded a fellow at the Rice Bowl. I ran into him again and caught his sets on three of my nights in Pokhara (mostly because he was the best musician around as far as I could tell):

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Here’s a shot of a hippie restaurant near my hotel and the the ginger pork noodles I ate there:

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In my past Kathmandu posts I’ve raved about the awesome Israeli restaurant, Or2K. Turns out that they have a branch of the restaurant in Pokhara. It’s on the third floor of a building overlooking the lake and it’s huge. I spent an afternoon there editing pictures and it was a very relaxing way to spend a day:

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My last day in Pokhara was the most eventful as I booked a one hour ultralight flight. I had the brochure for one company with the description of the flights but I had to go with another operator at the last minute because first company was short on fuel that day. I booked the flight based on duration, not on a description of the flight–mistake number one. I do not regret the flight path I ended up going on but I sure as hell would never have booked it had I known exactly where the plane was going to end up. More about that later.

This was certainly not a cheap experience. You can book a 15 minute flight for about $110 USD, 30 minutes for $210 USD, one hour for $310 USD, and 90 minutes for $430 USD. For some inexplicable reason I booked the one hour flight. I describe my decision to book that flight as inexplicable because I’m not exactly fond of heights. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never had any issues with airplanes, tall buildings or even sketchy bridges. I just do not enjoy being suspended in open air in situations where a motor failure, snapped cable or medical emergency on the part of the pilot would result in plummeting to my death. Trust me, if you have ANY issues with heights, you’ll want to book the 30 minute flight at most.

The company picks you at your hotel and takes you to Pokhara Airport. In my case they picked me up at 6:30 am for a 7:00 am flight. You have to go through airport security as normal and then you get escorted to a small hanger where they have the ultralight planes. You should definitely wear the warmest clothing that you have. I showed up wearing thermal underwear, a shirt, a sweater, thermal socks, and a Gore-tex jacket shell. When you arrive at the hanger they then give you two heavy jackets to put below your wind breaker and heavy snow pants. You top it off with a toque, helmet and two sets of gloves which they also provide. Wearing all that gear, I was just barely warm enough. Apparently it’s just as cold in the summer at those heights. This is me all geared up:

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After getting into the gear, you then have to squeeze into the small fiberglass cockpit. The cockpit is so small that the pilot’s seat is right between your legs. A word about ultralight planes. For some reason I was expecting a miniature plane, but in reality an ultralight plane is essentially a motorized hang-glider with a bit of fiberglass. There is no steering yoke or wheel, the pilot both steers and controls the altitude of the plane by pulling on a cross bar exactly in the same way as he would steer a hang-glider–only that the motor allows these suicidal aircraft to go far higher than a canvas wing should ever go (apparently they have a maximum height of about 3000 metres which is just crazy). I am exaggerating a little bit, the cockpit has GPS, and all of the fancy altitude and wind speed indicators that you would expect, but it’s effectively a glorified hang-glider:

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The take-off was remarkably smooth and fast given the size of the plane. The one thing I did notice was the immediate strength of the wind. It really pushes your head back hard against the head-rest. Stretching your arm out to take a photo is a challenge with that wind.

The take-off:

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Video of the take-off: vimeo.com/147310635

There was a thick layer of haze over the entire city of Pokhara when we took off. On the drive over, I was told not to worry, that it’s always clear up in the air at mountain height, and the driver was certainly correct. As we headed into the layer of haze I was concerned that we would be flying blind for some time, but the amazing thing is that within 1-2 seconds of entering the haze we were in clear blue sky with a majestic view of the Annapurna range and Mount Machhapuchchhre (a.ka. Mount Fishtail) in the distance. And that’s where I would have liked to keep the mountains, in the distance. Little did I know, the one hour flight actually entailed flying through the mountain range.

Entering the mist and the moment of clarity seconds later:

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I was perfectly fine for the first 10 minutes or so, and then I started to realise that this puppy was going to fly MUCH higher than I had anticipated. I heard the pilot get clearance to fly up to 2000 metres, and we certainly reached that altitude at various points in the flight. I know that because we went a lot higher than Mount Sarangkot which is over 1,500 metres in height.

As we got closer and closer to the mountains, I kept hoping at every instant that he would be turning the plane around. And sure enough, he turned it around, several times, only to loop around once again, getting us ever closer and closer to the mountains. What’s worse, we were already freakishly high but he kept climbing higher and higher. At that point we went through the mountain range. On more than one occasion we got to within 300-500 metres of the sides of the mountains. The experience was both exhilarating and absolutely terrifying. Don’t forget, he’s controlling this aircraft by yanking on a bar attached to canvas. Freaky.

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When we were in the middle of the mountain range is when things got especially scary. For one, I kept on hearing something that sounded like Velcro coming loose, which is not a sound you want to hear in those circumstances. The pilot didn’t seem concerned so I imagine the sound was perfectly normal but that freaked me the hell out. But then we got hit by some killer cross-winds. On various occasions the pilot had to jerk at the handle violently and the cockpit did swing around hard for what had to be the longest 5 minutes of my life. It really does feel like a strong gust of wind can easily smash the aircraft against a mountain. Once we cleared the crazy cross-winds, to my utter amazement he looped the ultralight and took us into that part of the mountain range again! Luckily the cross-winds weren’t so bad the second time around.

This is why I felt like a strong gust of wind could have smashed us against a mountain:

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Video clip of us getting really close to the mountains: vimeo.com/147285235

 

Now, I should mention that the pilot has a timer displaying the length of the flight right in front of him. Let’s just say that I looked at that puppy every time I could spot it. I’ll be perfectly honest, on more than one occasion when we were initially entering the mountain range, I contemplated asking the pilot to turn back. Luckily, I’m not the type to make a fuss, but had I been flying that puppy myself, I would have turned back long before entering the mountain range. I would have of course missed out on the amazing experience of actually flying through the Himalayas at mountain-level, an experience that is unlikely to be replicated.

Finally, around the 40 minute mark, we started making our way back to the airport. Unexpectedly, at the point the pilot took the bloody ultralight even higher! I assume he did so in order to make it back faster. On the way back we did an amazing loop over the World Peace Pagoda. Strangely enough, even though the aircraft tilted quite a bit during that loop, I had far less of a problem with that than when we hit the patch of turbulence, even though we tilted less during the turbulence. The loop around the pagoda was obviously smoother:

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From the pagoda it was maybe 2-5 minutes to the airport with a pretty amazing view of the whole valley:

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It’s funny, being out in the open as we were, it’s the first time that I’ve clearly seen a landing strip this well before. It was very easy to spot and the plane made a remarkably tight turn to line-up to the runway:

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The landing was incredibly smooth and I was relieved when the ultralight finally slowed down and we taxied our way back to the hanger.

Overall it was a killer experience and I’m glad that I went, but it was also one of the scariest hours I’ve ever experienced. I mentioned to the pilot that the flight, while fun, also freaked me the hell out, and the pilot noted that we did have abnormally heavy turbulence so I’m happy that it wasn’t all in my head. I would highly recommend the flight, but think hard about how much time you think you can tolerate if you have any problems at all with heights. As should be obvious from my photos, the planes have Gopro cameras mounted on one side. You can purchase a disk with 3-4 videos, and a few dozen photographs for $25 USD. It’s a bit of a rip-off given the negligible cost to them, but it’s also hard to pass up the disk.

The ultralight flight was amazing, but I’ve got to say that the highlight of my visit was on the morning of my departure. If you’ll recall from my Pokhara trip from September, when I was there I met a lovely cab driver by the name of Dilli who took me up the Sarangkot and told me all about his family. I tried to get in touch with him when I arrived but due to sparse email access on his part, he didn’t get my message until the night before I departed. He was kind enough to pick me up from my hotel to take me to the bus stop and we were able to catch up over a cup of tea. I’ll leave you with a shot of our brief reunion:

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2 thoughts on “Pokhara 2.0 & Ultralight Flight

  1. Vaya experiencia. Yo como piloto la verdad lo hubiera pensado dos veces y más tanto tiempo. En los vuelos ante todo me gusta la seguridad. La verdad es que se me antojo comprar un aparatito de esos. Mañana voy a estrenar un dron Sky Hunter con cámara. La cosa es que no estoy acostumbrado a los controles manuales.
    Felicidades por tu aventura y tu valor. En la familia Villarreal hay muchos pilotos, asi que algo llevas en la sangre, solo te cuento que tu abuelita Olga allá por los 30 as quería ser piloto y le encantaba volar conmigo y la dejaba tomar el mando de mi Cesna.

    Like

  2. Holy cow! That sounds like a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I’m doing some flying myself, and I’m glad you got to experience all of those things even with the challenges.

    Best of luck on the rest of your trip. Merry Christmas, buddy!

    Like

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