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Himalayas from on high

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Flying out of Charles de Gaulle Airport was an emotional affair. Having spent a few weeks on a long-planned, European Alps ski tour with our far-flung adult off-spring, I was not sure when we would see them again… or whether this was my last-ever glimpse of Paris.

Cathay Pacific’s CX 278, B777 300ER aircraft boarded efficiently and we had excellent seats to Hong Kong thanks to the super-friendly, helpful Fahd on the check-in desk in Paris, three seats for the two of us by the window.

There was spacious legroom and a good degree of recline, unlike some seat backs that do not recline at all.

A Kiwi voice came over the PA system and knowing (telepathically) how special this flight was to me, the pilot gave us a spectacular aerial tour of Paris by night.

Paris by night

Paris by night

It was a rare cloudless mid-winter evening as we circled Paris with the wing tip pivoting on the tip of the Eiffel Tower, like a ballerina doing a pirouette on a pointed toe. The powerful tower-top beam swept the city, illuminated with dazzling festive lights. Notre Dame in bright blue, the molten toffee of the Seine and the orange-ringed Île de la Cité where we had stayed before Christmas, were clearly visible below us. Tears streaming down my cheeks, I scrambled for my camera, fumbled the settings and lost the opportunity to capture some epic images.

As we left Paris behind us, the cabin manager with the smoothest, sexiest voice imaginable, announced drinks and dinner. I consoled myself with a brandy over Koblenz, a chardonnay over Berlin or maybe Brandenburg and tasty pesto marinated chicken breast with sautéed gnocchi and chunky peperonata somewhere over Hungary – which seemed appropriate.

Thereafter I watched the surprisingly-hilarious The Grand Seduction about a fishing village in Newfoundland, and The Good Lie, a tear-jerker about the Lost Boys of Sudan, interspersed with checking the flight map information.

I dozed for a short time, then suddenly awoke and broke a cardinal long-haul flight rule. I peeked out the window during the official do-not-raise-your-window-shade period and to make matters much worse, I let out a squeal which was apparently audible above the noise of the jet engines and was met with mutterings in a number of different languages.

I have to look out the window regularly while flying because I am obsessed with high-altitude geography and watching the flight map information. I need to look at the topography of the earth-scape and plot our course as we zip along at 500kmh. What’s the point of requesting a window seat if you don’t gaze in wonder at the sights below from 35,000 feet? It’s not something you get to do every day unless you are an angel or a pilot.

We were over the Himalayas and I was wildly excited to see the roof of the world – but no one else seemed remotely interested.

Himalayas from on high

Himalayas from on high

So I dutifully lowered my window shade, extricated myself from my window seat and went to hang out at the back of the plane where I had free and unfettered, shades-up access to the two rear door windows.

Once the lovely flight attendants Janice and Rita from Hong Kong were confident that I was not intent on nefarious deeds, they were happy for me to flit from one window to the other. It was Janice’s first flight from Paris to Hong Kong and she was so impressed with the view, she began taking photos too. She also phoned the flight deck on my behalf to confirm we were in fact flying over the Himalayas.

Janice and Rita on Cathay Pacific, Paris to Hong Kong, CX 278

Janice and Rita on Cathay Pacific, Paris to Hong Kong, CX 278

It was a crystal clear day with bright sunshine and perfect visibility so I could see right to the curved horizon. It was like looking down at a 3D relief map with all the detail of mountains, lakes, rivers, valleys, deserts, roads and settlements laid out on a giant table below me.

Breathtaking...

Breathtaking…

Mercifully, it was a smooth, calm flight so I stayed down the back of the back for hours, my nose pressed against the frosted windows to get a better view of the staggeringly-beautiful landscape. At one stage we flew over a desert with vast white mountain ranges on either side. The grey-brown, snow-dusted expanse was broken only by the silver sliver of a river, the smooth white surface of a frozen lake, or alluvial aprons spilling from the deep valleys at the foot of the mountains onto the endless plains.

As we flew on, squiggles of colour suggested human habitation, a patch of green land near a battery of solar panels, a glint from a vehicle on a road to nowhere, zigzag tracks up steep mountains sides terraced for cultivation, a cluster of dwellings on the narrow valley floor, a frozen hydro dam in a deep gorge. I couldn’t help but wonder at the harsh life those people must be living as we flew over in our comfortable, air-conditioned capsule.

Another plane whizzed by far below, leaving a vapour trail behind to merge with ours as the mist and cloud stole away my view.

I felt enormously privileged to have witnessed such an extraordinarily beautiful sight and told my cabin crew friends the route should be declared a scenic flight with compulsory window shades up on a clear day. It’s the closest I’ll ever get to the Himalayas.

Himalayas from on high

Before returning to my seat, I watched Janice and Rita preparing to serve the next meal, taking the hot dishes out of the oven and stacking the trays in the trolley. They moved so fast their hands were a blur. I was full of admiration for these petite, capable young women who managed to remain elegant, perfectly-groomed and sweet-natured despite 11 or 12 hours aloft.

Meanwhile other flight attendants were busy cleaning and restocking the bathrooms with hand wash, hand cream, face moisturiser and tissues. I’m sure they cleaned the toilets after every passenger because they were immaculate, fully-stocked and fragrant whenever I visited them as part of my “survey”.

To cap off our scenic flight, the landing in Hong Kong was textbook, the softest, gentlest touch-down I have ever experienced… in fact I did not believe we were actually on the ground until the engine noise and cabin manager with that wonderful mellifluous voice verified the fact. Good old Kiwi pilot!

Once arrived at Hong Kong Airport we enjoyed the Wing Lounge.

Justine Tyerman flew Cathay Pacific from Paris, France to Auckland, New Zealand via Hong Kong.

*Cathay Pacific was voted the World’s Best Airline for the fourth time in the 2014 Skytrax Awards. Cathay Pacific offers daily connections between Paris and Auckland via Hong Kong and will commence flying between Zurich and Hong Kong from 29 March 2015. Visit www.cathaypacific.com for the latest airfares.

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About Author

Justine Tyerman is an award-winning New Zealand journalist, travel writer and sub-editor with 18 years' experience in newspaper and freelance work. She has worked as a news reporter, feature writer, designer of an award-winning Newspapers in Education programme and sub-editor on local, national, business, education and international desks.

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