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Published: April 16th 2013
A stinking hangover prompted us to do the unthinkable: pay for another full night’s accommodation in order to hang onto the room until nearer the train’s departure time. Cheap guesthouses in Kolkata don’t entertain the idea of partial fees for partial days. Checking out at 6.30 p.m. we walked through rush hour to Sealdah station. En-route Ali’s flip-flop broke and I earned admiring (pitying?) looks as I sat on the kerb and performed remedial surgery with weighty needle and dental floss.
The only other westerner amidst the orderly chaos at Sealdah was Roberto, a Brazilian, who was also Nepal bound. A smooth overnight journey, subsequent bus to the border town of Panitanki (our packs emerged covered in a fishy emulsion… why any leakage in bus holds always involves fish products beats me) and a rapid passage through the Indian checkpoint saw us march into the deserted Nepalese immigration post at Kakarbhitta. Formalities were straight forward and 30-day-visas acquired for $40 p.p ($30 if you’re Brazilian… at least we’re not penalized as much as the Americans). Actually here’s something that tickled us… Europeans do not need visas for any South American country which saves a whole whack of money when travelling
there. However, according to Roberto, Citizens of the U.S.A. have to buy single entry visas to every country (at around $100 a pop) which would make you seriously think twice about admiring Iguazu falls from Argentina in the morning and from Brazil in the afternoon. This is of course a reciprocal arrangement, but one in which the South American wins, big time. Yes, all South Americans must obtain a visa to the States, but they (at least the Brazilians) get 15 year multi-entry jobs (longer than their passport longevities – just carry your expired one as well). It only makes me smile as US immigration is such a pain; as one-time ex-pats there we know all about that. Anyway, I digress… Passports (with visas) in hand, the official then requested another 100 Indian rupees from each of us. I inquired what this might be for and was told 1%. Hmmmm, 1% of the visa price would be around 20rps and, regardless, what precisely would this be for? The man gave a knowing smile, to which I said “I think not”, and we walked out into India’s supposedly less corrupt neighbour, Nepal.
Getting to Kathmandu required a 17 hr bus
journey for which we had to wait 5 or 6 hours in the rather pleasant, as far as border towns go, Kakarbhitta. There are no two ways about it, Nepal is just that bit more laid back than India; it’s more genteel; it has a safe, secure vibe and this was – no doubt – my undoing. I let my guard down. Ali and I had seats directly behind the door of the bus and comings and goings were frequent as were loiterers. Still, I had my day pack strapped to my leg for sleeping purposes and then it and ourselves were covered with a sleeping bag. Nevertheless, my usual paranoid vigilance was obviously awry as we arrived in Kathmandu sans the camera. According to our insurance company it was worthless anyway...
One upside to this costly mishap was the location of Kathmandu’s tourist police station (extremely friendly staff, although of questionable efficiency: their less-than-reassuring parting words were “contact us in a month by email in case we’ve forgotten to process your report”). Anyway, outside the police compound is a tea shop that is constantly heaving with locals. It only serves channa daal, rotis, curd and tea, but the
quality is astounding and the bill miniscule. We regularly walked the 4 km round trip from Thamel for the pleasure - the chilled, creamy, lemony curd alone was worth the trek.
Kathmandu itself has expanded hugely since our last visit and the major thoroughfares are now choked with traffic and fumes. Freak Street near Durbar square (whose architectural grandeur is being renovated in places by German money for which they now demand 750rps to pass through – say exactly that: you are merely passing through and you’ll avoid payment) is no longer the backpackers’ epicenter. This has long since moved to the Thamel area a kilometer or so to the north. Here the labyrinthine streets are a western-deprived backpackers’ wet dream: a gaudy mosaic of restaurants, guesthouses, bars, trekking establishments, bakeries, masseurs, ethnic clothes, art and souvenir shops, cafes, wine shops and more, all wedged together and piled atop each other, an overlaid rainbow of signs and hoardings vying for attention. Roaming, eagle-eyed, among the crowds are “Tiger Balm” salesmen who are the men who can do... Kathmandu’s clientele are far more main-stream these days, but the smoking scene is even more nonchalant than in years gone by.
On arrival at the bus station (the new/long distance/on the north of the ring road bus station) we were collared by an amiable old guy who lured us back to his guesthouse (it was actually the one Roberto had targeted anyway). Mountain Peace GH lies in the northwestern corner of Thamel, right at the junction of local and tourist: you can eat and drink in traditional Newari tea houses and restaurants (at local prices) or wander a lane or two for breakfasts of chocolate croissants and freshly ground coffee, or honey & ginger tea and bacon and eggs at German bakeries (admittedly Pumpernickel was rather fine) and then return later for apple crumble/strudel/pie, or chocolate cake, or lemon cheesecake, or whatever your sweet munchie tooth desires...
Our favourite haunt was a tiny, smoky, ramshackle Newari establishment comprising an open-plan kitchen heaped with pre-prepared/in-prep dishes and four small guest tables, all overseen by chef/host/proprietor Bikash and his man Friday. It is famous both for the quality of its raksi (a clear potent sake/arak-like spirit) and its plates of nibbles (think anything edible originating in a buffalo: brain, tongue, raw minced meat, spinal cord, head soup, bone
marrow, blood patties and testes, alongside sekuwa , vegetable dishes and fried belly pork to die for). The friendly locals hanging out there informed us that they wouldn’t consider drinking anywhere else in Kathmandu (others cut or, even worse, dilute their raksi), that the place hasn’t changed in over 30 years and that it is an institution. Like myself, Ali was initially rather partial to the liquor, but overdid it on her very first visit – to such an extent that she swore off it. On our return Bikash stated that Ali’s departing gait had been like watching someone walk on the moon – I don’t quite know what he meant by this as I didn’t recall her taking great leaping bounds, more quick-step sideways staggers.
Whilst in Kathmandu we were delighted to run into a friend, Marie, that we’d met in Sri Lanka. Having someone to hang with didn’t cure our lethargy for action and before you knew it an endless stream of meals, beers and gatherings on roof terraces (lots of jolly Russians around), short wanderings to local sights, the odd bar and quiz night (our bijoux team of three coming a respectable third –
our lead undone by a round on song lyrics) had seen twelve days melt away.
We did finally drag ourselves away, four hours southwest, to the historic town of Bandipur. Peacefully perched high on a ridge with – on a clear day – magnificent views of distant mountains, it is a tranquil haven. We both immediately fell in love. The main street (the only street) is flag-stoned and pedestrian-only, providing eateries with the space and inclination to spill out of their beautiful folding wooden Newari doors onto the narrow plaza. Until fairly recently the road was packed mud and motorbikes would whip up a dust storm. Then a wise person applied some savvy, tradition-respecting, development and left the town with a legacy to make locals and tourists alike, beam. The only complaint could be that it all appears a bit twee, but the wonderful old buildings – some no doubt faithfully restored – stand and there are minimal concessions to tourism: no souvenir shops or western-only menus (there are some great daal bhaats: Nepalese thalis). Off the non-street are dusty lanes that wind down and across the forested hillsides leading to homesteads, even smaller villages and magnificent viewpoints. The
town folk and farmers are delightfully welcoming and those not involved with tourism bear us little mind save the universal “Namaste” greeting and directional aid when required.
Our second day in residence saw “Holi” one of Hinduism’s favourite (at least among children) festivals in which the object of the day is to smear, pelt or smother all-and-sundry in bindi powder. We, foolishly, chose to move rooms. What was wrong with our first? Very little; certainly not the price or the view from our dinky balcony. However, we had found Peepal Chautari Guesthouse that was even better. Fortunately our 7 a.m. dash across “town” preceded the on-set of hostilities.
During the course of the day (dressed in our most expendable clothing) we were shadowed by Namaras, a mischievous but endearing mute boy of 11; a boy who liked to spread the paint, but whom all knew not to reciprocate with. By 10 a.m. most, including Ali and I, resembled 1970’s British tourists to Spain.
Over the next few days, as we’d loiter - post-walk - over a beer, Namaras would flit between us, playing on his own with his homemade spinning top and treasured torches, and
failing to ingratiate himself with local or tourist children alike. One (obviously bilingual) French boy complained to us that Namaras didn’t understand English. In fact his understanding of English is excellent and communication quite possible by explaining yourself and giving him something he can create a definite signal to. Why he doesn’t/can’t speak is apparently a mystery to the whole town. It was never quite made clear whether he was a deserted, rough-living child or whether he merely chose to spend much of his time the not inconsiderable distance from where his mother, might, live. Regardless, he is one self-sufficient little boy who would rarely accept anything from you, but whom the locals could regularly be seen checking up on as to whether he had eaten. One evening we said our goodnights to him and mentioned in passing that we’d be up for dawn the next day to view sunrise from a particular viewpoint. At 5 a.m., walking down a country lane by torchlight, the beam picked out a small figure trying to fix a broken torch: he’d been waiting for us since 4 a.m. After making him don one of my fleeces, he was soon leading us on to
various hidden vantage points that he considered best for mountain views. Later he declined breakfast, wandered off and that, sadly, was the last we saw of him. At the very least we’d wanted to buy him a new torch.
I haven't mentioned the national (for men) hat - it's a peach and we bought a beauty: our teapot will forever be hot.
Pokhara simply has an idyllic location. Set at a balmy altitude and situated on the beautiful tadpole-shaped Phewa Tal Lake, it is ringed by spiraling layers of hills and rising above these to the north is the great jagged white fringe of the Annapurna Himalayas. It is stunning. It is also less than it once was. In 1990 at this time of year (Feb-Mar is second in clarity only to post-monsoon Oct-Nov) the mountains (Annapurna South, Annapurna I-IV and the, majestic, perfect equilateral triangle of Fishtail) were invariably visible in all their glory. Now a grey haze has them hidden almost continuously: the result of development (motor vehicles), industry (mining along the Seti river is rife) and, of course, climate change. Twenty-odd years ago “lake-side”, the tourist hangout,
consisted of a small collection of guesthouses to the north east of the lake and a further cluster, dam-side, to the south - separated by a packed-mud road and a kilometer or so of virgin terrain. In 2013, “Kathmandu-on-the-lake” stretches continuously from north to south and, most tragically, now consists of two concentric arcs: developments now also lining the inner (lake-) side of the now tarmacked road. Today, few guesthouses have the room for associated gardens (although some bar/restaurants do), whilst those lodges set further back from the lake are no-longer dotted among a green paradise of paddies, dusty lanes and pink-walled, thatched-roofed, Nepali round houses. Lake-side is now totally the realm of the tourist; that’s progress and it’s a damned shame. All that said, it is still a wonderful place to hang out and tranquility can still be found along the northern and western shores, especially if you ascend the encircling hills. Accommodation is cheap and of great quality (some promises of hot showers are not myth), although electricity is still erratic everywhere. There are wonderful balconied rooms at Hamlet Lodge (600rps / $7) on the corner of lake- and north-side, and excellent value ones right on
the lake at Fewa View Lodge (300rps) on north-side. The ramshackle affair we once stayed in, Lonely View Guesthouse (300rps / 500rps with kitchenette), still remains but has long since lost its namesake vista or bargain price. Like Kathmandu, all foody desires are catered for and alcohol costs (from shops not bars) can be bartered down to Kathmandu shop prices (170rps for a Gorkha, Everest or Nepal Ice beer). The non-veg daal bhaht at The Laughing Buddha is the best value in town, whilst Lotus Corner is about the most reasonable for western weaknesses: bruchetta, hummus, etc…
The Pokhara visitor is still primarily backpacker, although most lean towards flashpacker status. In addition there are families with children and oldies here on vacation, whilst a few die-hard hippies venture down periodically from the hills. Apparently – according to an old, accommodating, Afghani baba we met whilst walking – the Russians are increasingly landowners and the wealthy Chinese tourist is evermore in evidence. We dropped into Baba ji's shack in the hills a few times to sit, chat and smoke; Ali would go off to collect mother’s
berries (like yellow raspberries) with his nine year old daughter Shiva, whilst the pups (Cashew and Niko) played on the terraces with their aunt Millie (sadly mum was taken by a leopard several months before) and the paragliders and eagles hung lazily overhead.
After a few days of orientation and lazing we headed off on a trek: the most common, readily accessible and shortest at around 4-6 days: the Poon Hill circuit. A full breakdown of timings/splits/costings for both fit and less so wannabes is provided at the foot of the text.
Undertaking any trek necessitates purchasing an ACAP permit (2000rps, two photos, available from offices in Kathmandu or Pokhara dam-side and valid for a single trek – max. duration one month). The resources go towards maintaining trails and the environment and, as we were to discover, appear to be money well spent. However, you also require a TIMS permit (once free, but now $20, 2 more photos, same offices) that supposedly enables some form of monitoring of your progress and hence safety. In reality I wonder quite where the money goes. A guide costs around $20-25/day, a porter slightly less. In hiring one/both you will be contributing
to local employment and these guys certainly know their stuff, but if you pack sensibly there is absolutely no necessity for either (it would be a struggle to get very lost – the few times we strayed the locals soon put us right). Anyway, do not feel too guilty about going independently as the growth in Chinese/Japanese/Korean/Indian tourists is keeping them busy enough thank you very much.
The mountains were stunning (particularly from Ghorepani and Poon Hill, Ghandruk and the southern trail just outside town) and the foregrounds wondrous with swathes of red rhododendrons in bloom; the walking was comfortable (never more than 5 hours in a day) save the dreaded 3000 rough stone steps leading up to Ulleri; the accommodation cheap and the food not. Indeed we had planned on heading up to Chhomrong an prolonging the trek by two or three days, but we simply hadn’t brought enough funds with us.
Back in Pokhara we ran into tongba: hot fermented millet beer. It takes a little getting used to, but is certainly not unpleasant. Once again time just slipped away. We rose pre-dawn on three consecutive days seeking a clear morning on which to hike up
to the World Peace Pagoda on the west rim overlooking Phewa Tal. Thrice thwarted we bit the bullet on day four and headed off anyway. The poor man’s route (a boat across the lake is an exorbitant 350rps one way) means walking out passed dam side, crossing the river after the dam and then winding up through the terraces and forest on the far side of the hill – a hike of about an hour and a half. We had a certain amount of luck, the mountains being just visible through the dusty haze, although the iconic image of the Annapurna range reflected in the lake is a rare occurrence these days. Feeling keen we decided to attempt a circumnavigation of the lake, heading across the hills on the west shore, beyond the head of the lake to the marshes where we hoped to cross and then walk back to north-side. The locals warned us that it was a long way and after two hours of traipsing up, along and down the spliced ridges of hills we stumbled into some farmers with their buffalo at the foot of a great tier of paddies. One man offered his boat
to take us across the lake and insisted that there would be no charge. I’m sure he was genuinely just offering to help, but he had work to attend to and we were now desperate to complete our task. He shrugged and informed us that it was (still) a long walk. Then at the top of another ridge, in the middle of nowhere, we spied a small delicious-smelling eatery where we, along with two women carrying bundles of wood, stopped for a break, a coke and a tea (that turned out to be wonderfully mint-infused). The owner spoke minimal English although it was plain that he was desperate to feed us. We politely refused, but he’d have none of it and disappeared into the smoky shack, emerging with hunks of barbequed pork belly. The pork was sumptuous. We chatted as best we could, gathered some directions, paid (nothing - bless him - for the pork), and pushed onwards. A mere thirty minutes or so later we were bog-side and ahead we saw locals cutting through the marsh, we followed. The path through no-man's land led to a pulley-operated ferry and a further ninety minutes walk brought us back to home.
Not many people walk the lake, the reception you receive on the far side makes that obvious. The breakfast beer on our return (it was now well past 12) made it even more worthwhile. And that's tourist-spoiled Pokhara. We walked for five hours in total isolation - it is still a paradise.
And that brings us up to date. We had intended to venture further westwards to Tansen and then into Uttarakhand, India. However, a blog by another friend Matt (iliveeasy.co.uk) reminded us that we had missed Sikkim - and what's a few thousand miles detour for something special? So now we're back in Kathmandu, tomorrow we head back to Kakarbhitta and onwards to Siliguri and Pelling.
We hadn't been to Nepal in almost a quarter of a century. Again we've found it a magical place; it's difficult to wander simply because it is so easy to sit. Ali says lets live here and that's a distinct possibility.
The next blog will be from Kashmir or Ladakh, but they'll be something of Sikkim in there as well.
Tons (100 plus) of photos from our new, still el-cheapo, replacement Canon camera ($150 in Europe/US or a tadge
over $200 in Nepal) below. Whilst it has served us well thus far we are still extremely ignorant as to most of its capabilities: the instruction manual is on DVD - not very helpful for us (peevishly shoddy). The bastard who knicked my beloved Nikon: bad karma to you.
Information on the Poon Hill loop for potential trekkers.
The times given below are ours and include the odd tea/snack stop, those in parentheses are as suggested on maps. Prices for guesthouses and restaurants are set by ACAP and fixed. Apart from your major expenditure on permits: 2000rps (ACAP) and $20 (TIMS, still payable only in Rps – approx. 1750rps in Apr 2013) your major expenditure will be on food. Prices depend somewhat, not unreasonably, on altitude (distance from towns) and typically rise the further you go up. Guesthouses are cheap: doubles 200-300rps w/o bathroom; 350-800rps with; 1000rps for anything if you do not eat there; 100rps to pitch a tent. All provide blankets/quilts – no need to carry sleeping bags. Food (scary) is double Pokhara prices: think 120rps for 2 eggs, a single piece of pun bread 150rps, 350-400rps for a veg daal baaht
(by far the most filling/value option – free re-fills of daal, rice and potato curry are always available); 350-550rps for a set breakfast; 45-60rps for black tea; 60-75rps for 1 litre water re-fills (available most places) and more for a new bottle; bizarrely beer is Kathmandu bar prices (350rps), although we found one shop selling for 330rps. There are some local bakeries and places selling yak’s cheese (notably Ghorepani): big hearty rolls 80rps; cheese 130rps for 100g) that make for much cheaper/filling breakfast/lunch alternatives. We’d advise breakfasting in Pokhara pre-departure and carrying lunch for day 1. DAY 1. Total travel time 5hrs (8hrs)
Pokhara – Nayapul.
By bus 1.5 hrs (110 rps); they start running at six from the Baglung bus station (about 40 mins walk from lake-side or two bus journeys: to zero kilometer (15 rps, but only 15 mins walk) and then Baglung (15 rps, 25 mins walk), but seven will still see you ahead of the game.
Nayapul (start) – Birethanti.
20 mins walk. Register here at the ACAP and TIMS offices.
Birethanti – Tikhedhungga (a recommended overnight stop: don’t - push on)
1.5 hrs (3 hrs) of easy flattish walking.
Tikhedungga – Ulleri (reasonable mountain view between the hills at dawn).
1.75 hrs (3 hrs) of 3000 tiring stone steps – far better not to start the day with these on day 2. For the less fit, or if the weather dictates (clouds and rain may roll in from the early afternoon), a reasonable stopping point for day 1. A thunderstorm forced us to overnight here. DAY 2. Total walking time 4 hrs (6hrs).
Ulleri – Ghorepani (excellent dawn/early morning views of the Annapurna range).
4 hrs (6hrs) of mainly mild ascent. Choose a guesthouse with the dynamite views to the rear of town. You can buy rolls/cheese/croissant from the German bakery in Ghorepani (they also have the cheapest beer in town). DAY 3. Total walking time 5.5hrs (9-10hrs)
Ghorepani-Tadopani (fantastic views enroute and from Tadopani)
Up Poon Hill for sunrise: 30 mins up/less down ). 2.75hrs (4hrs) with an initial ascent followed by flat/gentle decent. Lovely guesthouse with great view just before Tadopani. Many stop at Tadopani, but far
better to be at Ghandruk for its dawn views.
Tadopani – Ghandruk (Amazing views)
2hrs (4hrs) of easy decent. Lots of great guesthouses in Ghandruk. The best views are probably from the rather rustic Lovely Hill point Lodge as you enter town. In theory you can buy rolls/pastries/cheese in Ghandruk, although there was no cheese when we were there. DAY 4.
Total travel time 4hrs (5.5hrs) 2.5hrs (4hrs) walking and 1.5hrs bus.
Ghandruk – Nayapur – Pokhara
A leisurely stroll down hill and then small climb up to Nayapur.
Whole circuit could easily be completed (with stops at best overnighters for dawn views) by combining days 1 and 2. It would make for a long (ca. 10hrs) first day though.
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