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Friday, June 24, 2011

Kathmandu Essentials: Flying, Breathing, Eating

Look really hard and maybe you'll catch a glimpse of Kathmandu

Did you think I was exaggerating the other day when I mentioned Kathmandu's air is the most polluted of any big city on earth and that it's dangerous to go out without a carbon-filter mask? See that photo above? When I first started visiting Nepal in 1971, you could actually see the Shangri-La-like city from the ridge of mountains that sound it. Now you're just as likely to see... filthy air.

And it turns out that it's even dangerous to fly in the soupy mess. The top story in today's English-language newspaper, Republica is ominously entitled "Smoggy Skies Threaten Aviation in Kathmandu."
Many times, environmental issues are sidelined with the assumption that its consequences will be gradual and hence can be dealt with in the future. The question is, how long though?

“We could’ve been killed in that flight. The air pollution in Kathmandu has gotten so bad that if people don’t act now, we’re putting lives in danger here,” Kevin A. Rushing, the former USAID Mission Director to Nepal, commented in a recent conference.

“Just when our plane was about to land in Kathmandu, due to thick smog over the Valley, we couldn’t see the runway, we couldn’t see anything.

The plane then had to divert all the way around, reroute and keep flying in such a condition despite the turbulence risking the lives of all people on board.” He added, “If things don’t improve, you’d really think twice about flying to Kathmandu.”

Captain Vijay Lama, a pilot with Nepal Airlines who has been flying for more than two decades, says that Rushing’s anxiety is valid.

“The flying conditions in Kathmandu have become terrible, especially during winter”, he says. “In winter, when fog combines with smoke and other pollutants in the air, the resulting smog worsens the visibility, and it’s far worse than when it’s foggy.”

According to Lama, the rising pollution can have drastic effects on visibility on both land and in air. “There’s an increase in the number of flights being backlogged, and there are always delays after delays.

It’s all because of the smog and haze condition,” he says. “As the smog is heavier, it settles in lower altitude, and with the amount of smoke and dust particles that adds on with the moisture in the air, it becomes denser, making it impossible to fly.”

Whereas smog is mostly formed in the winter due to the mixture of smoke and fog, haze often occurs in pre-monsoon seasons that have relatively dry air, combining with the smoke and dust or particulate matters or total suspended particles (TSPs) in the air.

The chemicals which contribute to formation of smog also include harmful man-made and naturally occurring compounds, such as sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, and ozone.

As reported by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), when these components of smog mix up, they can create dust clouds, black soot and gray fog. This can result in a smog cloud that can reduce visibility by 70 percent.

Captain Lama stresses that if the situation in the Kathmandu Valley isn’t addressed soon, the flying conditions will just get worse, and with the risks involved, the future of aviation in Nepal could be very bleak.

According to the 2006 report “Urban Air Quality Management Strategy in Kathmandu Valley” by Jitendra J. Shah and Tanvi Nagpal, atmospheric visibility data from Kathmandu’s airport, analyzed onwards from 1970, show that there’s been a very substantial decrease in the visibility in the Valley since about 1980.

The number of days with good visibility around noon has decreased in the winter months from more than 25 days per month in the 1970s to about five days per month in 1992/93.

“Visibility is the measure of the distance at which an object or light can be clearly distinguished or seen. In aviation, it can differ with the aircraft type,” says Mishri Lal Mandal, Deputy Director of Air Traffic Services (ATS) Division of Tribhuvan International Airport Civil Aviation Office (TIACAO).

Basically, for Visual Flight Rules (VFR) or visually aided flights, the minimum visibility to be maintained is 5km.

This means the pilot has to be able to clearly distinguish an object as far as five kilometers away with his eyes whereas for Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) or instrument aided flights, pilots can fly even with the visibility is 800 meters while taking off and 1,600m for landing, he informs.

As helicopters in Nepal only operate with VFR, it’s more risky for helicopter pilots, according to Captain Nischal KC, helicopter pilot at Air Dynasty.

“When there’s haze or smog, it gets very difficult for pilots not just in terms of visibility but they also get disoriented and nauseous at times,” says KC “As helicopter pilots don’t have an instrument landing aid, we have to fly by considering the artificial horizon, and a lot of experience is required.”

KC adds that it’s the reason why during pre-monsoons and winters, when haze and smog problems are at its peak, new pilots aren’t allowed to fly without experienced co-pilots.

Ratish Chandra Lal Suman, General Manager of TIACAO, says, “Instrument flights for the Kathmandu Valley are more complicated with its hilly terrains. (So) We’re planning to bring Required Navigation Performance Authorization Required (RNPAR) technology that can help flights operate even in poor visibility as it operates through satellite signals and follows a specific path and reduces pilot workload.”

Suman shares that the increasing trends in poor visibility conditions result in flights being diverted or stranded. Then, as soon as the conditions become favorable, flights start piling up, and there’s more load than the capacity of the terminal building.

"Safety is our first concern. So we don’t authorize any flight to operate in poor visibility," says Suman. "Besides that, we also lose out on a lot of revenue when flights have to be cancelled, diverted or rerouted due to poor visibility."

KC, however, points out that flights and helicopters are also given the go ahead if there’s a visibility of more than 1,000m. From then on, it’s the pilot’s decision whether to fly or not.

In the article "Are Nepali Skies Safe?" by Amish Raj Mulmi and published in the Kathmandu Post in August 2010, Lama also mentioned that there is pressure for pilots to fly no matter what the weather condition or visibility is like. And the pressure came from everywhere-- political leaders getting late for a meeting, to airline operators losing out on revenues.

...As air pollution in Kathmandu worsens and its skies become obscure with layers of haze and smog looming in its atmosphere, nothing is being done to assure the safety of the thousands of passengers flying in and out of there everyday. Civil aviation remains at risk, and if these conditions remain unchanged, it can only get worse.

Health impacts, Dr Arjun Karki, Chest Specialist at Patan Hospital, says that the primary effects due to smog or haze would obviously be on respiratory health.

"Lung diseases can become chronic, proportionate to the concentration and density of smog," he says. "And if the gases present in the smog comprise specific toxins, the harm could be even greater."

According to Karki, on one hand, smog and haze can aggravate the health of people who already have respiratory problems, like asthma, it can also trigger lung disease in healthy people as well.

"Besides, it also depends on the length of exposure," he says. "Besides respiratory health problems, it can also cause eye irritation for some people."

However, Dr Mukunda Prasad Kafle, physician and Lecturer at the Teaching Hospital, says that while the unhealthy effects of smog or haze in particular can be many, not enough studies in this regard have been conducted here.

"As smog and haze come under air pollution, we can deduce that the health problems are similar to the ones caused by air pollution, like lung diseases and other respiratory problems. And smog can have its own adverse effects as well."

Safe to fly into Nepal? Not anymore safe than breathing the air when you get here. And this week, the tarmac at Tribhuvan International Airport buckled, "developed" potholes, and collapsed, delaying all international and domestic flights to and from and within the country for at least three hours. There seems to be a consensus that the board of Nepal Airlines is responsible.

Lucknow's nearby & Kathmandu's Kakori offers fabulous Awadhi cuisine

Now what about the restaurants? Nepal isn't a culinary destination. The best that can be said about the restaurants in Kathmandu is that they're pretty good... for Kathmandu. The acclaimed tourist spots in the tourist ghetto of Thamel are universally mediocre, although some are rated less mediocre than others. But there's no reason to ever visit one twice, unless you're just looking for fuel for your body. There were three stand-outs and I'll leave the best for last, since it's the only restaurant in the country that's actually good, not just "good for Kathmandu.

We had dinner twice in what used to be the best Indian restaurant in town, Ghar-e-Kabab in the Hotel de l'Annapurna on Durbar Marg (Kathmandu's sad version of 5th Avenue). It's relatively fancy and formal although, by our Western standards, pretty inexpensive for a quality meal. Like all restaurants we visited, around half the menu catered to vegetarians and they're very aware that most westerners are afraid of spices. If you tell them you like it spicy, they give you a normal Indian meal.

We also ate in a few of the tourist-only Nepali restaurants that serve authenticish Newari food (surprisingly decent with music and dancing). The best one was Bhojan Griha on Dilli Bazaar, a medium walk from Durbar Marg. It's in an historic old house and the hospitality is wonderful. The set meals are fine and they offer an à la carte menu as well. We found the food much better than in Thamel House, an old hippie standard, or the newer Utsav, which-- at least the night we were there-- seems to cater primarily to tourists from China.

Now, the one world-class actually excellent restaurant in the whole city is Kakori, an Indian restaurant in the Soaltee Crowne Plaza Hotel, far the hell away from anywhere else in town-- a 200 rupee taxi ride (less than $3). It was briefly called the Bukhara, having been developed and run by the folks from the restaurant of the same name in New Delhi's Sheraton, probably the best high-end restaurant in India. I reviewed it when I ate there in 2007. Kakori serves Awadhi cuisine (from Lucknow) and the restaurant's menu was developed by Nawab Sayed Nazir Haider Kazmi, grandson of Great Nawab Mir Wazir Ali Kazmi of Kakori, Uttar Pradesh's princely family. We had as good a dinner as we would have had in a fine Indian restaurant in India or London and at a fraction of the price, though expensive by Nepal's standards. And if you read my review of the ultra-rich dahl they serve in the Bukhara in Delhi... yes, it's pretty much the same-- not exactly but at least just as good.

We're staying at the Yak & Yeti and their signature restaurant, The Chimney-- which I remember as Boris'-- serves Russian and "continental" cuisine. The menu didn't appeal to us and we passed it up this time around. My tip: acclimate yourself to the fact that Nepal has other traits than great cuisine (or air) to recommend itself and... bring some of your favorite bars with you as a backup.

UPDATE: Tourist Plane Crashes Near Kathmandu

Both times I went to get a look at the Himalayas, I walked. This last time, we noticed there were flights-- really expensive ones-- that take a couple dozen tourists for a ride around Mount Everest. One of them crashed today, killing everyone on board.
A plane carrying tourists to view Mount Everest crashed while attempting to land in dense fog in Nepal on Sunday, police and eyewitnesses said. A witness said 18 bodies were pulled out of the wreckage of the plane, which was carrying 19 people.

The Beechcraft-made plane belonging to Buddha Air was carrying 16 foreign tourists and three crew members and crashed in Bisankunarayan village, just a few miles (kilometers) south of the capital, Katmandu.

...An eyewitness, Haribol Poudel, told Avenues Television that the plane had hit the roof of a house in the village and that 18 bodies were pulled out. He said a man who appeared to have survived was taken to a hospital.

Poudel said it was foggy, and that visibility was very low in the mountainous area... The plane had taken the tourists to view Mount Everest and other high peaks and was returning to Katmandu. The “mountain flight” takes tourists over the Everest region, and passengers can view some of the world’s highest peaks from the airplane windows.

Most of the tourists on board were Indian-- most tourists in Kathmandu are from India-- but there were two Americans on board as well.

Patan Durbar Square-- before and after

UPDATE: Katmandu Valley Earthquake

April 25, 2015 saw another devastating earthquake in Nepal, right in the Katmandu Valley, where most Nepalis live. Over a 1,200 people died, perhaps many more. Each city in Nepal has a main religious square (Durbar Square). The Katmandu Valley has three: Katmandu's, Bhaktapur's and Patan's. One of the first reports was that Patan's Durban Square was utterly destroyed and that buildings were damaged all over Nepal and in northern India.
Officials in Nepal put the preliminary number of deaths at 1,246, nearly all of them in Katmandu and the surrounding valley, with 4,108 injured. But the quake touched a vast swath of the subcontinent. It set off avalanches around Mount Everest, where several climbers were reported to have died. At least 34 deaths occurred in northern India. Buildings swayed in Tibet and Bangladesh.

The earthquake, with an estimated magnitude of 7.8, struck shortly before noon, and residents of Katmandu ran into the streets and other open spaces as buildings fell, throwing up clouds of dust. Wide cracks opened on paved streets and in the walls of city buildings. Motorcycles tipped over on their sides and slid off the edge of a highway... Though many have worried about the stability of the concrete high-rises that have been hastily erected in Katmandu, the most terrible damage on Saturday was to the oldest part of the city, which is studded with temples and palaces made of wood and unmortared brick.

Four of the area’s seven Unesco World Heritage sites were severely damaged in the earthquake: Bhaktapur Durbar Square, a temple complex built in the shape of a conch shell; Patan Durbar Square, which dates to the third century; Basantapur Durbar Square, which was the residence of Nepal’s royal family until the 19th century; and the Boudhanath Stupa, one of the oldest Buddhist monuments in the Himalayas.

For many, the most breathtaking architectural loss was the nine-story Dharahara Tower, which was built in 1832 on the orders of the queen. The tower had recently reopened to the public, and visitors could ascend a narrow spiral staircase to a viewing platform around 200 feet above the city.

The walls were brick, around one and a half feet thick, and when the earthquake struck they came crashing down.

The police on Saturday said they had pulled around 60 bodies from the rubble of the tower. Kashish Das Shrestha, a photographer and writer, spent much of the day in the old city, but said he still had trouble grasping that the tower was gone.

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