Following the departure of our classmate Yahu, Mahu and I decided to cheer ourselves up by retreating to Pokhara. We’d only heard good things about the town and were in desperate need of a change of scene.
Getting to Pokhara from Kathmandu was straightforward despite a chaotic morning at the bus depot. Vendors in the backstreets of Thamel usually arrange bus tickets a day in advance. We paid about NPR 600 (AUD $8) for comfortable seats on a coach with wifi. To Mahu’s and my surprise, the wifi connection actually worked, even if the internet was slow.
The highlight of the seven-hour journey was stopping for a break along the Trisuli river. On the roadside were tiny makeshift restaurants, centered around clay ovens and stacks of crispy prawns on skewers. The air was thick with the smell of smoking oil, fiery spices and fish. I was undeterred by the fact that we were hundreds of kilometres from the sea. The crispy prawns were sensational, as was our rather generous serve of dhal bhat (a traditional Nepali dish involving rice, lentils [dhal], fried vegetables [torkari], pickle [achaar] and sometimes chicken curry [masu]).
After the hustle and bustle of Kathmandu, the serenity of Pokhara and the Lakeside district was amazing. The air is much cleaner and the lifestyle more laid back. Mahu and I stayed at the Oju Guesthouse, which is also a French bakery. Chiran (the owner) and his wife learned how to make pastries and bread by a French guest many years ago. They wake up at 5 am every morning to bake a sumptuous array of olive, cheese and walnut bread which they serve with chutney, dollops of butter and thick, organic black coffee. Chiran and his daughter are also excellent guitarists and can be found playing Eagles’ classics in the afternoon.
The only negative of Lakeside – the collection of shops and streets along the Fewa lake (Phewa Tal) – is that it’s touristy. It was disorienting at first to see so many white faces and hear predominantly European and American accents. More disconcerting were some of the conversations we’d overheard. A Swedish guy at our hostel was being an absolute prat. He bragged about how he was able to haggle down the price of a banana with a street vendor. Considering he was quibbling over a few cents, I found his smugness bizarre. Another weird comment from an American was about ‘handling’ non-European countries. “If you can’t handle Kathmandu, there’s no way you can handle New Delhi.” Say what?
We did meet our fair share of lovely people, including a really fun English guy (he hitched a lift on our canoe) who we saw giving out head massages at a hair salon later in the week (#Pokhara). Also, many of the locals were exceptionally welcoming after we busted out rudimentary sentences in Nepali. The owner of the Am/Pm organic cafe gave us Baileys milkshakes on the house, and the waitstaff at Moon Dance rewarded us with a free jug for our unwavering loyalty (we ate the same dinner-river trout in beurre blanc sauce-four days in a row).
The most memorable of the people we’d met was this Nepalese dad and his three kids. The dad ran a hair salon that also did henna tattoos. While we waited for the henna to dry, we spoke to the man’s children and they showed us their report cards. One of the kids hadn’t done so well (I think he got a D overall) and the dad said that that he was equally proud of them, and that he would never pressure his children to excel academically. I thought that was a lovely approach to parenting, especially for a South Asian family.
Aside from mingling with trekkers, hippies and expats at Busy Bee cafe (live music and shisha y’all!), there is no shortage of things to do in Pokhara. On our first day, we canoed across Phewa Tal, singing classic Disney songs (‘Just around the river bend’), to the bottom of Ananda hill. From there we hiked to the World Peace Pagoda, a scenic Bhuddist prayer site. The hike takes about an hour and passes through some lovely villages en route. The Peace Pagoda is stunning with its gold statues and pristine white walls. Visitors have to be silent upon entry which really adds to the ambience. For me, the sight of the Annapurna range from the top of the hill stole the show.
That said, I wouldn’t recommend boating during rainy weather. When we arrived, a Polish girl out on the lake had disappeared in a freak storm. Mahu and I had our own harrowing experience when attempting to cross the lake by canoe. As soon as the storm clouds rolled in, the water became too choppy to navigate and we abandoned ship at Lakeside North. We walked all the way back to Lakeside South (with our oars!) to tell the rental guys what had happened. They laughed at us, but we preferred paying the extra NPR 400 ($5 AUD) to avoid being caught out.
Seeing the sun rise over the village of Sarangkot was apparently a must-see. It also required a 5 am start. We woke up at a more respectable hour (6:30 am) and followed the long winding main road to the top of Sarangkot (a good five-hour walk uphill). Every time we thought we were closer to our destination, we were told by a local that we had another hour to go, which was hilarious but also demoralising.
We finally arrived at the nondescript village of Sarangkot in the afternoon to find most of the shops closed. Utterly exhausted, we managed to get a plate of piping-hot dhal bat made-to-order by the sweetest elderly lady. Morale boosted and bellies full, we walked to the look-out at Sarangkot which had yet another flight of stairs. The sign suggested that it would take about half an hour to get to the top. For the first time, this was an over-estimation and it took us less than fifteen minutes. It was amazing to cast our eyes over the panoramic views of Pokhara, and there was a real sense of accomplishment that we were able to walk for so long and not flake out.
On our return journey, we took the advice of a taxi driver to follow a roughly hewn stone path down the side of the mountain instead of the main road. “It’ll take an hour,” he said. Our confidence rose when we saw other tourists clambering up the path. After a while, however, the trail just disappeared. Without much signage or other travellers to guide us, we literally had to walk to the edge of the cliff-face and peer down to find the rest of the trail. On one occasion, we were both stuck on a near vertical incline, with the path giving away to a sheer drop. Luckily, passing school children stopped to give us directions, though I wouldn’t say the route was any less difficult after that! I’d definitely recommend the shorter goat track up to Sarangkot, but would advise extra caution in wet weather.
On our last day, we bought a ‘white water rafting and paragliding’ package costing around AUD 80. The rafting was excellent, especially as we were looked after by a group of really funny Nepali guys in their early twenties, who introduced us to Nepali rap. Having never rafted before, I found it exhilarating. As there were only four of us in the boat, our skipper gave us a thorough demonstration and placed the onus on us to get through the rough patches. I enjoyed steering at the front and seeing our tiny boat about to crash into huge boulders was a surefire way to get my adrenaline racing.
Paragliding was not as eventful. I didn’t enjoy it mainly because of the attitude of some of the gliders, who were rude towards the Chinese tourists in our vehicle. Luckily, I had a calm and friendly Turkish guide. This made the whole experience of sitting on a random guy’s crotch for a good fifteen minutes less awkward (though it was still weird). While the views of Pokhara from the air were great, and it was interesting to hear that India and Nepal apparently have some of the best vistas for gliding, the whole thing felt a bit like walking around a retirement village after a rollercoaster ride.
We had an absolute blast in Pokhara (considering we extended our original stay by about four days) and even though the sights of Lakeside get a bit samey after a while, I could see myself returning – maybe to do the Annapurna Circuit. The food was really diverse (Japanese, Koren, Italian, fine dining) and affordably priced. It was also an excellent location just to chill out, read and write essays.