I just got back from an amazing two days in Pokhara. I went a little crazy with the photographs, so I apologize for the lengthy post.
Pokhara is the second largest tourist destination for Nepal after Kathmandu so there are a number of ways to reach the city. I opted for the Greenline bus company which only runs buses to two or three cities, and as such they do a very efficient job on going to those cities. The return ticket is $45USD for a 6-7 hour bus ride and that includes a stop for a buffet lunch along the way. More about that later. You can also go with a 20 minute flight for about three times the price which is worthwhile if time is your only consideration. However, I generally opt for buses in order to get a sense of the scenery. And it’s funny a 6 hour flight is absolute torture for me but the same length of a bus ride can frankly be pleasant.
That was the case in this particular bus trip. The bus ride down to Pokhara winds its way down steep mountain sides with lovely views of valleys and rice paddies along the way. The pictures really don’t do the scenery justice, but I took a few along the way and on the way back:
Even the roadside stop for a bathroom break was remarkably cute. Here’s a view of the little building and the view directly across the highway from the stop:
As I mentioned earlier, the bus ticket price includes a buffet meal. I frankly didn’t notice that it was included in the price until the morning of my departure, and it was a very pleasant surprise, especially in its execution. I expected some crummy buffet on arrival at the bus station or at some stop by the highway, but instead they took us to a little resort hotel with fantastic views of the mountain and valley.
Not too shabby for a bus company meal (only the beer was extra):
And there are certainly worst places to eat a meal:
Along the way, I also found myself entertained by the wonderfully coloured buses that we passed by. I took a few terrible pictures from the bus, and a better shot once in Pokhara, of these buses:
My one caveat about the roadway is, as I mentioned before, that it as a ton of curves. So much so that it’s pretty much impossible to fall asleep and I would imagine that those prone to motion sickness would not fare well. I also found it slightly terrifying but later amusing that drivers have absolutely no issue overtaking vehicles in totally blind corners. Their foolproof system appears to be to simply honk their horn while doing so. Other drivers seem to anticipate this, so it appears to work. I took a short little video of some of the driving on this road, mind you this is a lot tamer than on my way to Pokhara because we got caught in a bit of traffic that slowed us down on the way back. Here is a snippet of the drive back:
We arrived in Pokhara at 2:00 pm and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the bus station is a 5 minute walk away from my hotel. Based upon a recommendation I stayed at the Fishtail Lodge. The name refers to the famous mountain peak of Mount Machhapuchchhre–a peak which is strictly off-limits to climbers due to its religious significance.
The hotel is one of the nicer ones in the city, and is accessible only by a canoe-like boat or by a covered raft. I initially thought this was a tourist gimmick and that there is an access road along the back, but sure enough you actually have to cross the river to get to the hotel. The side of the hotel is right next to the mountain where the World Peace Pagoda is located, but there is only thick forest, and no access road or path. So much so that when I actually went to the Pagoda, I had to cross the river to access it. Here is what the crossing looks like:
Not too shabby.
I should note that I was told that the colour of the water is rarely that muddy. Normally the water is green, almost matching the forest, but perhaps due to the earthquake, there have been more landslides than usual during the rainfall so the water has been this unusual colour for far longer than any of the locals remember. Usually this only lasts a day or two.
The hotel itself has housed a number of fancy people, including Prince Charles. But looking at the photos, it’s clear that this was quite some time ago, and the hotel has gotten a bit run down in the interim. Still for $75 USD a night it is a relative bargain (i.e. a bargain for North America, not so much for Nepal).
The hotel is divided into 4-5 circular units each housing about 4 rooms. Each has a little area up front where you can have tea and some of the rooms have great views of the water. This is what the hotel and my room in particular looked like from the outside:
After I settled into my room, I went across the river with the intention of taking the long route up the mountain towards the World Peace Pagoda. Here I am crossing the river again, and the view of that:
This time and for my remaining crosses, I went across by the canoe-like boat, which they use when only a few people are crossing at a time. Even when I left with my big pack, I did so on this boat. Here is a picture of the boat and the nice fellow paddling me across:
As I noted earlier, my intention was to go to the World Peace Pagoda. The Pagoda is accessible via three routes. There is an access road so you can get driven up. There is also a direct pathway up directly across from Lakeside (the touristy part of the city), accessible only by boat. The third way is via the other direction, behind my hotel, which is the dam-side route, thus named because you pass by a dam to get there. This route is twice as long as the direct path up but you get to see some rice paddies and more forest along the way.
Here’s a bridge you cross to get on the way to the path:
Once you cross the path, there is a wall limiting access to the mountainside to two entry points. You walk along a pathway that is elevated and has some rice fields to the left. Here is a view of the rice fields along that path:
One of things that I find valuable about travelling is that it helps to put things in perspective. For example, while I was in Pokhara, the electricity went out about 8 or so times in my two day stay, and those were only the times that I noticed because I happened to be in my room. And, just a 20 minute walk from my fancy hotel room, while on this path by the wall, I ran into a bunch of locals carrying containers along the path. I talked to a man along the way who advised that they were on their way to gather water from a nearby stream. He was carrying one of those large water dispenser bottles for that purpose. I did not hear a complaint from him, quite the opposite, he bragged that the water was in fact particularly tasty from this stream.
There are other examples of the simple things we take for granted like running water and a stable supply of electricity (and by the way, the latter has nothing to do with the earthquake given that my guide book which precedes the quake mentions that rolling black-outs are the norm). I’ve yet to see a single public trash can on the streets, because of course that not only requires putting out the can, but also having people regularly collect the trash. Likewise, I’ve yet to see a mailbox. Instead, to send a letter or postcard, you give your letter to the shop that sold you the stamp, or you take it to a post office yourself.
Returning to the topic at hand, once I got to the forest part of the climb, I had to turn back. I was hoping to run into tourists or locals heading up the mountain, but once I passed the stream, there were no more people around. I’m sure that I would have been fine, but there have been reports of people getting mugged when climbing solo and the sign posts along the way dissuade people from going alone.
In any event turning back was fortuitous because I went down and took a closer look at the rice paddies instead. Also, about 30 minutes later (or a fourth of the way up my attempted climb, we got a real torrent of rain so I would have gotten soaked). Here are some photos from the rice paddies:
In that last photo, you can see the wall I was walking along and near the centre left of the photo you can see people gathered at the stream collecting water.
The wind picked up hard around this time signaling the imminent downpour so I booked it back towards my hotel. I didn’t quite make it so I stopped at a cute little place by the side of the water called “Don’t Pass Me By.” I had my first masala chai there. It’s a milky black tea which is a weaker version of Indian chai minus the cardamom, but there are definitely some other spices in there. They usually drink it with sugar, but it’s not automatically served that way and I prefer my tea unsweetened.
Once the rain stopped, I went into Lakeside for some dinner. I ended up at a place called the Olive Cafe where I had one of the best beef curries that I’ve ever tasted in my life. I was sopping up the sauce with my spoon once all the meat and vegetables were gone, it was that good. The decor of the place was also really simple, but extremely tastefully done. Here are a couple of photos of the food and the place:
Here is a photo of me at my hotel bar where I ended the night checking my email:
The next morning I woke up at 5:00 am to catch the sunset up the Sarangat mountain. Unfortunately the day was rather foggy so I did adjust my expectations from the start. It was worth the early wake-up to do the river crossing at dawn:
For about $24 CDN (I actually got ripped off for Nepal standards but I was starting to feel badly for service providers at this point, more about that later) a cab takes you about 8 km away and up the mountain. For that price the driver will also stay with you up there for as long as you’d like and will bring you down as well. I had a nice cup of masala chai with my driver in a little cafe at the top. Ordinarily in the fall, you should be able to see the mountains at a distance but I was still pretty happy with the views up there:
I stayed up there for about 45 minutes with my driver, Dilli, and got to asking him about his family. He has a son who is 8 years old and a daughter who is 15 years old. His son needed an operation for what I gather was a deviated septum when he was little and the driver told me that the operation was supposed to cost around $300 USD which would take him about 3 months to earn. Luckily, when they arrived at the hospital, the doctors offered to do the operation for free. He also told me that his daughter wants to be a doctor and that he is encouraging her to go that route because does not want her to be reliant on her husband. So if her husband turns out to be a drunk or abusive, she won’t have to stay with him. The only impediment is that if she does not get a scholarship medical school costs about $500 CDN a year which he would have a hard time affording. Because of that he is encouraging her to work hard so that she can get a scholarship. We have exchanged emails already and I fully intend to keep in touch.
Here is a photo of some nearby boats when I crossed over back to my hotel for breakfast after visiting Sarangat:
My main task for the morning was to finally make it to the World Peace Pagoda and this time I opted to go up the easy way via taxi, and happily Dilli was available to take me up. The World Peace Pagoda at Pokhara is one of many Peace Pagodas or Shanti Stupas built by Japanese Buddhist monks as shrines to world peace. I think the idea is to create beautiful places for quiet contemplation which would thereby result in feelings of peace– a remarkably optimistic view of human nature. The Pagoda and its surrounding views:
There are some cafes nearby where you can enjoy the view over a cup of tea:
For my way down, I opted to take the shorter path which is frequented by more tourists towards Lakeside. That proved to be the most dangerous part of my journey so far as I have now discovered that my hiking boots are slippery as hell on wet rocks. What was the entire pathway other than the beginning of the path made out of, you ask? Wet stone steps. Let’s just say that it was the longest 1 km walk of my life. Here’s the start of the path:
Here’s a sweaty me, half-way down the way and my view for much of the way down:
Once I miraculously made it to the bottom unscathed, there is a little stand where a boat cooperative company rows you across the water to various destinations of your choice for about $4 CDN. This is where my utter heartbreak at the lack of tourists in Nepal was finally complete. The fellow who rowed me across was a lovely 65 year old man. At one point along the way he asked me, “You happy?” When I said that I was, he replied in broken English. “Good, you happy, makes me happy.”
I asked him what the tourism situation is like these days and he replied that I’ve been his first client in the last three days. That means he’s earned less than $4 CDN in three days, given that he doesn’t even own the boat.
This has been a recurring theme in my trip. When asked absolutely everyone has been telling me that there are no tourists. Those pictures of me in seemingly empty restaurants are no accident, in my time in Pokhara, I was usually one of two clients in the restaurants, if not the only client. My cab driver was available to take me up to the Pagoda because he had no other clients from when he dropped me off three hours earlier.
I have made a previous plea, but I’ll make it again. If you are planning a trip and haven’t settled on a destination, please consider Nepal. The people alone make the trip worthwhile and I’m hoping that my pictures are giving you a good impression of the lovely country.
Here is a picture of my river crossing, some boats along the way and the nice man who paddled me across:
Upon reaching Lakeside, I sought out a great vegetarian place called the Punjab Restaurant which served up some delicious vegetarian butter masala:
After lunch, I headed to the Gurkha museum up the hill. The Gurkhas are Nepali soldiers who serve mostly with the British forces but also serve in special regiments India and Singapore. I think their motto says it all and explains the unusually high number of honours they have received in the past: “It is better to die than be a coward.” Their extraordinary performance is explained in part by the fact that they are paid about $2,000 CDN a month and a significant pension upon retiring, resulting to a huge number of candidates to pick from. They are also given the option of living in England once they retire, but I do not think this is at all a motivation for joining given that the biographies of pretty much every soldier featured in the museum indicated that they ultimately retired in their home town. You can recognize these soldiers from the khukuri, a forward-curving Nepalese knife that they carry and the double khukuri symbol stitched into their uniforms. As luck would have it we had a retired Gurkha on my bus ride down to Pokhara. Apparently they are quite respected in Nepal because the locals greeted him by touching his feet with their hands and then kissing their hands.
For the record, I recognize the irony of visiting both the World Peace Pagoda and the Gurkha museum on the same day.
After visiting the museum, I decided to venture to Old Pokhara which is on the way back to Lakeside. It was a bit of a longer walk than anticipated, not helped by my getting brutally lost along the way but I finally made it. Old Pokhara isn’t in the nicest part of town so I do not imagine that they see a lot of tourists. The neat thing about the place is that amongst a slew of new buildings are these 200 year old little structures and temples all over the place:
I’m not sure if you noticed this ad in one of the pictures above, so it is worth pointing out. I haven’t been able to figure out if the person next to the pad is a famous athlete or whether this is some statement about the ferocious period-fighting power of this particular brand of pad:
I also ran into a market along the way:
And a boy playing next to a randomly wandering cow:
For dinner I ventured down to the Moondance restaurant on Lakeside. They had quite an impressive menu that pretty much covered all of your food wants short of sushi. I opted for a boar stew with vegetables from their own garden:
I then wandered down the street to a cute little placed called the Busy Bee which has live bands every night and very relaxing seating overlooking a courtyard:
As I was walking towards my hotel I heard a very good band playing at another bar next to the road, so I couldn’t help but stop for a quick drink. The place is called the Rice Bowl and appears to feature Nepalese food as its specialty. Here’s what the place looks like:
As a closing bonus for this post, I took out my recording equipment and recorded their last song of the night. Here’s your chance to hear the Nepalese rock band, The Wave: