Alexander McCall Smith: How Nepal moved me to poetry

A plane flies by the mighty Mount Machhapuchhare (6,997m) in the Annapurna range near Sarangkot, Pokhara (Picture: Jane Barlow)
A plane flies by the mighty Mount Machhapuchhare (6,997m) in the Annapurna range near Sarangkot, Pokhara (Picture: Jane Barlow)
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Airlines can tell you a lot about their home countries and Nepal has some special ones, writes Alexander McCall Smith on his long-awaited first trip.

WH Auden wrote in one of his Bucolics that “the trees encountered on a country stroll, reveal a lot about a country’s soul”. He was right about that: the ruthless cutting down of trees gives the game away as to what really counts in a society – and that, distressingly often, is money. One might look, though, for other indicators of the state of the national psyche and alight, metaphorically of course, on airlines. A people’s airlines tell us a lot about them. What could a Swiss airline be but punctual?

I am writing this from Kathmandu. There – I have at long last been able to say that. Forgive me if it sounds pretentious, but I have always wanted to visit Nepal and when you eventually get to somewhere you really want to get to, you might be allowed to feel like a schoolboy who has just put the final, longed-for stamp in his stamp album.

We flew into Kathmandu from Delhi, leaving behind the pall of choking smog that is currently threatening to make human life in the Indian capital virtually impossible. Kathmandu faces a similar challenge, although its pollution indices are lower than Delhi’s. It faces a more difficult existential threat; more difficult because earthquakes – and another big one is an imminent certainty in this country – cannot be tamed by regulation. You can build more carefully, of course, and minimise damage that way, but you cannot soothe stress in the Earth’s deep plates.

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Like so many cities in this part of the world, Kathmandu is a bustling, noisy warren of traffic-clogged streets. The Nepal that people want to see is outside the city, up in the high Himalayas, where paths wind upwards towards mountains with poetic names. It is quite a moment when you look up and realise that there, in front of you, is Annapurna South or some other high place where few have ventured. Anybody can climb Everest today if you have the thousands of pounds it costs to get a commercial mountaineer to carry you up, but there are still approaches to these high places that are unsullied by human traffic. Loneliness, chill wind, long distances of rock: these are still things that beckon.

Flying within Nepal is notoriously risky – there have been 18 fatal air accidents since the turn of the century. Nonetheless, we flew to Pokhara, a city to the west of Kathmandu, on Yeti Airlines. That there is an airline that calls itself that is a wondrous, marvellous thing. Its symbol, painted on the tail of the aircraft, is a Yeti’s large foot. The choice on that particular route was either Yeti, or – and this was a delightful discovery – Buddha Air, a very fine and efficient Nepalese concern. Yeti was chosen for us, which means that travelling on Buddha Air remains, for me, a fond dream, an ambition yet to be satisfied.

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Yeti Airlines was a splendidly informal affair, and very human in its feel – saying something, in the process, about the friendliness and humanity of this small country. The destination of their flights was proclaimed on a small notice, not unlike a religious icon, that was hung up above a tiny desk. You handed over your luggage there and then, but it did not disappear into the maw of some soulless system, but sat behind the desk until a man came and carried it to the aircraft. I watched my case being put into the plane: suitcase separation anxiety, so common an experience at most modern airports, is a rare thing in Nepal.

I watched the line of people waiting to get on the Buddha Air flight to the same destination. They seemed strikingly calm to me; unaffected by the impatience of those one sees travelling on non-Buddhist airlines. One of them was indeed was dressed as a Buddhist monk. He might have been the pilot, I suppose, but then he was given a boarding pass, which suggests otherwise.

In Pokhara, sitting on the terrace of Tiger Mountain Lodge, looking out over Annapurna IV, a poem came to me. I wrote it down immediately – thoughts, as Buddhist meditation teaches, are fleeting things, and must be captured. This is it:

Travelling on a Buddhist airline

The indignities of air travel – delays, searches,

Technical excuses for machinery

That does not operate in quite the way

We want it to – who amongst us

Has not experienced all that

And wished, quite understandably,

For an airline that embodies

The tenets of Buddhism?

Calm acceptance of the vagaries

Of air and the ways of air;

Understanding of the miracles

That jet propulsion daily works;

Here, on a Buddhist airline,

The plane will fly when the moment

Is right; in their seats, uncluttered

With anxiety, the passengers

Meekly wait the correct moment

To take off; that will come when needed;

Unhurried on the eightfold runway,

The plane taxis when it is time

For it to taxi, not before;

Breathe in, dear passengers,

And should the plane depressurize,

Breathe out, but not too soon;

Aloft we float, supported

In gentle hands of air, a cushion

On which the humblest may sit;

And when we land, spirit

Will take us to the place we

Want to be, wherever that is;

Do not expect your journey

To end in the same place every time;

Be prepared to land elsewhere

And think: it does not matter,

Where you land, or when; this, you see,

Is the place that you should be.