Monday, 10 October 2016

TRAVELLOGUE – PART 1 THE PLANE THAT COULDN’T LAND

We were 15 of us, from as varied sphere of life as we possibly could have imagined! The only common thing amongst us was that we were of Indian origin and we all wanted to go to Kailash and Mansarovar. Our friend Sudipta had planned this trip in very great details with Mr. Prasad Ruparel of Yatra.com and we had mulled over all the possibilities and routes. Finally it was decided democratically that we will not take the Hilsa, Simikot route because it involved some scary rides on twin engine planes and helicopters and Sudipta, our ‘fearless leader’ as he was often called by us, finally decided on the Lhasa route. So it was planned that we will all gather in New Delhi on
September 16, 2016 and proceed to Kathmandu. From Kathmandu we will fly by a Sichuan Airlines commercial flight to Lhasa and then after acclimatizing in the higher altitude of Lhasa for two days we will proceed by road to Mansarovar. This route was much longer but we were thrilled with the prospect of staying two days in Lhasa as we wondered if we will ever be able to visit this city at a later date as it is not easy to obtain a visa for the Tibetan Autonomous Region.

Ghule, Sri Mirle, Nagu, Shyam, Smita, Tanmay, Sanjay, Ravi and Sudipta
Our journey started from various places in the world as we were truly scattered all over. Sudipta flew in from Houston, Texas, Sri Mirle from Cincinnati, Tanmay from Toronto, Canada, Smita Ravishanker and Rajiv Arora from London, and Ravi Uchil, Nagbhushan Gubbi, Nandkumar Ghule, Shyam Nihalani, Sanjay Bhalla, Sharmila and yours truly from different parts of India. Our immediate destination was New Delhi. On September 16, 2016 all of us except me took the morning flight to Kathmandu. The hotel we had chosen was Geje Suite. It was in Thamel and it had thankfully arranged for an airport pick-up. While our friends utilized the afternoon visiting Sri Pashupati Nath temple and shopping in the lanes and bylanes of Thamel, our fearless leader with the local representatives of Yatra.com arranged for our group visa for the Tibetan Autonomous Region. I had an evening Royal Nepal flight from New Delhi to Kathmandu and I joined the group at around 11 PM. The first person I met was my room partner in the hotel Sri Mirle. Tired after a hectic day, he was fast asleep when I knocked the door. He got up rubbing his eyes and introduced himself, gave me my duffel bag, raincoat and Dawn jacket and promptly went back to sleep. I quickly re-packed my stuff in the duffel bag and after a refreshing shower too retired for the day as it was already 12.30 AM.

September 17, 2016. I got up in the morning only to find my partner Sri Mirle in deep meditation. This was followed by a prolong yoga session and all this while I brushed, shaved, showered and got prepared to meet the rest of the team. But the morning did not start well. My friend Sudipta and Tanmay rushed me to a room where one of our team mate Sanjay was very sick all night and was in pain. The fact that he was from Delhi, a place which has recently been in the news for many Dengue and Chikangunia morbidities raised my clinical antennae. He had pain in joints and profound malaise and after an eventful night had already decided that he was returning home. I too felt that he had one of these viral fevers and so his return flight was hastily arranged. Though this was an inauspicious start but the silver lining was that we were still one stop away from Delhi and not in the wilderness of Tibet!

In the breakfast that was laid out on the 5th floor restaurant of our hotel, I got the opportunity to meet all the other members of our group. The mood was a mix of excitement of the forthcoming trip and somberness as one of us won’t be accompanying us but returning home. I personally wanted to meet Sanjay and talk at length about his passion of growing organic food stuff and breeding a better variety of cattle in his farm in Noida. He is a wellness advisor and has a very interesting website http://thewaywewere.in/Wellness_Advisor.aspx#. I guess this will have to wait for now!

Our travel to Lhasa was by Sichuan Airlines flight 3U 8720 scheduled to leave Tribhuvan International Airport, Kathmandu at 11.10AM and so we all reached the airport at around 9 AM, only to be told that the flight was late by two hours. But during these 2 hours we met three new teammates from Hyderabad who were joining us in the expedition and they simply mesmerized us by their infectious enthusiasm! Bhasker Pendyala, Shyamsunder Reddy and Venu Vavilala were all younger to us and infused the much needed zeal, zest and exuberance of youth in us, who were feeling really down and out after the unfortunate exit of Sanjay Bhalla from the scene.
Sri Mirle talking to a French guy, Sharmila,Venu, Bhaskar and Shyamsunder
We spent some quality time in the airport lounge sipping coffee, interacting with each other, knowing about each other’s families back home. Mirle and Ghule even managed to do some yoga and meditation! We discussed about altitude sickness and how to avoid it by Diamox or a homeopathy medicine Coca. Soon the flight was announced and we were ready to go.

Our plane left at around 2PM and it was a 1 hour 50 minutes flight to Lhasa. Lunch was served and consumed in no time and we were ready to land in Lhasa…………but something was not going right. We had been flying for more than two and a half hours and the flight had been quite turbulent and still there were no landing announcements! Suddenly the captain’s voice boomed in the public address system and he said something in Chinese which was followed by a huge cheer from the plane full of people. His subsequent announcement in English however was a huge disappointment to us – the climate in Lhasa was not conducive for safe landing and so the plane was going straight to its next destination Chengdu, which is the capital of Sichuan province and the hub of Sichuan Airlines. No wonder the Chengdu passengers were all thrilled, they would reach early! Our onwards plan seemed all topsy-turvy.

We landed in Chengdu at around 7 PM and were promptly escorted to immigration. We had a group visa for Tibetan Autonomous Region and not for China, and our visa was in a separate sheet and not stamped on our passports. We were made to stand in a line according to the order our names appeared on the group visa and one by one we were checked in to China. The airlines staff was extremely courteous and despite a language barrier we were assured that we will be sent to Lhasa by a 4PM flight the next day. A bus transported us to a luxurious hotel- Haotian Guotai Hotel where we were treated to a delicious multi course Sichuan dinner.
A sumptuous Sichuan dinner 
The vegetarians amongst us were happy. The non-vegetarians were over the moon with the fish, chicken and pork extravaganza! Our fearless leader was busy on his phone with our tour operator, trying to reschedule our trip as we would now land in Lhasa one day late. It was unanimously decided that we are not cutting down on our Lhasa stay and jeopardizing our acclimatization schedule but would adjust the lost day on our return leg from Kailas.

A Tibetan travel agent, Lepka was also stranded along with us but his company was invaluable. He knew both English and Chinese and that made our life easy. We had in Chengdu airport seen a large signboard saying ‘Welcome to Chengdu – the Giant Panda capital of the World’ and this was our chance to see some pandas. We expressed our desire to Lepka and he arranged for a bus for all of us next day to visit Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.

Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding
Two Giant pandas
The giant panda is a rare and beloved animal that only inhabits the six major mountain ranges in Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu provinces of China. With a population of less than 2000, the species is included on the endangered list by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora and is protected by China’s Wildlife Protective Law as the special-class protected animal. In order to rescue and protect the endangered giant panda species, the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding was established in March 1987 with the mission to further the research and conservation carried out by the Chengdu Zoo. The Base’s geographic location and excellent technological and professional resources allow it to carry out the ex-situ (off-site) conservation efforts and to improve the artificial reproduction procedures to increase the giant panda population. Ours was a very well organized visit and with battery operated vehicles we had the privilege of viewing many pandas in their natural habitat as well as baby pandas in their nursery. This set up was involved in preservation of endangered wildlife, integrating scientific research and breeding of giant pandas, conservation education, tourism education, and panda cultural events. If you want to know about this centre please visit their official website: http://www.panda.org.cn/english/about/about/2013-09-11/2416.html
Panda nursery

 After returning to our hotel we were treated to a sumptuous lunch, almost as enjoyable as our dinner the previous night, and were sent to the airport in a bus. In Chengdu airport we were whisked to Counter No. 78 and the display board on the counter read ‘Sichuan Airlines flight 3U 8720 Kathmandu to Lhasa’! The plane was late by an hour but once on board we were happy to know that the weather in Lhasa was favorable. At around 8PM we landed in Lhasa.

So, this is how our journey to Kailash & Mansarovar started in a thrilling and exiting note. I will be back with the next part of the travelogue soon.