Floating Over Kathmandu

On 9N-AFV,there is nothing between you and the Valley below and the Himalaya upfront.

Silence… That is what hits you. Silence almost eerie as you hang from a hot-air balloon 5000 feet above the slightly misty landscape. Underneath, a Kathmandu Valley that is slowly waking up to a spring morning. Suddenly there is a roar from the propane gas burners and the VHF radio that communicates with the control tower crackles. But then it is back to floating quietude and calm.

Equally amazing as the silence is the stillness. Anyone with the 'wind-on-your-face' idea of a balloon ride will be taken by surprise at how calm it is. Because the balloon goes with the air flow, you do not feel movement. In fact, other than when the balloon is rising or descending, it almost seems as if the balloon is stationary. We seem to be stuck in one place, like an eagle frozen in mid-flight, no flapping of wings, no gliding in circles, no obvious movement at all. An unobtrusive eye in the sky.

And then the view. Unparalleled. So much to observe, and in so relaxed a manner. It actually takes some time to get used to the 360 degrees 'spherical' view of the Valley and surroundings. There is the Himalayan panorama to the north, the ancient city-centre and the modern sprawl of Kathmandu below, and hills that fold and unfold themselves into the horizon. There is something for everyone to see from up there—the mountain addict, the naturalist, the environmentalist, the sociologist, the geologist, the poet, the artist…

It is early in the morning in late March. The air is crisp and clear, just as mornings a day after the rains are supposed to be. As we arrived at the lift-off site at Gatthaghar, just east of Tribhuvan International Airport, the eastern sky was already glowing orange. Sprawled on the dew-laden field was the canopy of our craft, call-sign 9N-AFV. It is owned by Balloon Sunrise, Nepal's and South Asia's only commercial balloon operator, which pioneered this extraordinary early-morning floating tour over Kathmandu Valley.

As the passengers sipped on coffee, pilot Chris Shorten, an Australian from Alice Springs in the centre of the Outback, was trying to make contact with the air-traffic controller at TIA in order to prepare for lift-off. Meanwhile, his copilot Sunil N. S. Thapa, a Kathmandu raithane(local), was directing the ground crew to fan hot air from the gas burners into the 'sleeping' beauty. Slowly, the balloon with the signature Buddha-eyes unfolded, expanded and stood upright eight-storeys' tall, plump and ready to take flight.

The queen-size cane basket with standingroom space for nine-seven passengers and two crew—and with propane gas cylinders attached to the sides, is not a confidence-building sight at first. No rudders, no handles, no steering wheel. The only navigational aids on board are a tiny Global Positioning System meter, a VHF radio for contact with the tower, and a UHF radio to keep in touch with the ground crew and catch-up vehicles.

The only means to control this craft are the burners and vents, which allow vertical ascent and descent. Doubts nibble at the corner of the mind about the wisdom of suspending oneself half way to the heavens in this open basket.

But all doubts vanish with the receding ground.Says co-pilot Thapa. "Passengers worry as they get into the basket, but all apprehension wears off the moment we head for the skies!" Lifting off is memorable mainly because it is so imperceptible. The sights below gradually begin to shrink, accompanied by a simultaneous enlarging of the landscape.

As the 7-o'clock sun whitens the sky, the balloon levels at 9000 ft. The neat-rowed potato patches and the irrigated wheat fields below us have nearly blended themselves intogeneral green expanse. The smoke coming from the numerous brick kilns billow westwards—as polluting as they are to the residents on the ground, they help the pilots monitor the wind direction.

"We're completely at the mercy of the windsfor the direction we take," says Thapa. "The only control we have is on the elevation, and the rotation of the balloon. We have to constantly adapt our flight path to the direction of the air flow at each level." Shooting a burst of propane into the canopy, Capt. Shorten adds that flying in Kathmandu is a breeze as far as the wind is concerned. "There are very light winds, and virtually no ground winds, which makes for very smooth landings.

Himals across Nepal

For the passengers, the view is absolutely astounding. All across the northern horizon is the Himalayan range resplendent in the fresh powdering of yesterday's snow. They loom large and regal, above the navy blue hills. The Himals east of Phurbi Ghyachu can just be seen outlined against the white morning sunlight. The nose-up Chhoba Bhamare, the twin embrace ofthe Gauri Shanker, and Cho Oyu, Melungste and Everest with its signature plume of snow. It is the mountains directly to the north of the Valley, the reclining Langtang, the pyramidal Gangchempo, and the towering hump of Tibet's Shishapangma, that put their best face forward to the slanting sun. Over to the northwest, there is the conglomeration of the Ganesh Himal peaks, majestic Himalchuli and Manasulu a little further on, and across theMarsyangdi the crescent of the Annapurna Himal, wearing the 'topi' of the windswept massif of Annapurna II.

"The mountains never seem the same," says Thapa, as he democratically rotates the balloon to grant an unrestricted northern view to passengers who are facing south. "Every season, they have a different shading, sometimes dark and daring, and at other times dazzling with snow. From one harvest season to the next, the valley below metamorphoses from green to yellow to golden.

"As we glide silently along, thousands of feet over the airport, we can make out the large number of aircraft queuing up by the side of the runway for the 'mountain flight'. As the planes take off one by one, the voices of the air traffic controller can be heard over the VHF, warning them to avoid the balloon at 9000 ft. Which they thankfully do. Royal Nepal's large white Boeing then takes off for Delhi, starting on the runway below us, but ending up high above in the sky by the time it leaves the Valley via Chandragiri Pass.

Increasing air traffic in the valley's skies, is one of the challenges that this sightseeing balloon faces. An average of 16 flights leave in a rush for the mountain flight towards Everest in the mornings, and then there is the other rush of STOL aircraft flying to Lukla and other mountain airstrips.

The small planes all circle and mostly fly east, while we silently skim westward, over the shoulder-to-shoulder houses and temples of Kathmandu city. The clusters are only broken here and there by algaed ponds, some open grounds (too few), and dark meandering streams. With permission to descend a thousand feet, the balloon catches a swifter wind layer and we are soon heading towards the distinctive Swayambhu stupa, with the Nagarjun hill sprawling behind it like a great green dragon. We come close enough for Swayambhu's all-seeing Buddha eyes to take in the balloon's own unblinking eyes. All too soon, the encounter is over and we are past the stupa, and beginning our final descent.

The other distinct challenge to the pilot of Ballon Sunrise is making a landing in a rapidly urbanising Valley where power lines, concrete pylons, half-made buildings and boundary walls are sprouting everywhere, even in the remote kaanth(the rural areas). Capt. Shorten cautions, "Folks, we'll now have to keep a watch for power lines, and please don't hesitate to tell us if you see something we've not." He and co-pilot Thapa lean over the side of the basket to look out for power lines and other obstacles. The passengers enthusiastically join in the lookout.

The balloonists have to be equally careful about landing on farmlands and crops. If forced to land on fields, the company reimburses the farmers for the crop damaged. The crew says that, in this the fourth season of their operation in Kathmandu Valley, they have always had safe landings, with no untoward incident other than the slightly bumpy landing when they were blown over the hills into windy Panuati, one valley over to the east.

As the ground draws nearer, the sounds of the city pierce through the silence, firstly as amuffled roar of the Ring Road traffic, then by the barking dogs of the villages below, warning of the great looming orange bulb over their heads. Lower still, and the barks are overtaken by the chatter of the youngsters who have abandoned a nearby government school to swarm over the terraces following the balloon in its westward glide. There is also a sudden stream of maroon amongst the youngsters—these are pupils from the monasteries which dot this area behind Swayambhu.

The company jeeps have followed the balloon as far as the roads will allow, and thereafter the crew gives chase on foot and finally is able to grab the guy wire dropped by the pilots. The balloon is guided into a postage stamp patch of green next to a graveyard of old vehicles on one side and a small pond on the other. The touchdown is the gentlest ever, and after the passengers alight, the air is released and the balloon is slowly laid on its side. Its day's work done.

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Himal Southasian