POKHARA & THE ANNAPURNAS

IMG_8350During the short drive from Pokhara airport to our guesthouse, we strained to make out some landmark familiar to us from our trip in 1974. Phewa Lake is still there — other than that — nothing. In what was farm land where we struggled to find an extremely basic “room” at the end of someone’s house, between them and the cow shelter, and remember only a pie shop where we ate when we didn’t cook for ourselves, there are now 400 hotels and heaven only knows how many restaurants clustered along the shores of the lake. Para–sailers take off from a nearby hillside and float overhead. Though nothing like Kathmandu, there are far more taxis and motorbikes than any sane person would consider tolerable, and the streets are thronged with foreigners of all ages and provenances, trolling through shops selling Kashmiri and local crafts, garish jewellery aimed at the Chinese tourists, and all manner of trekking gear. Fortunately the lovely Mum’s Garden Guesthouse was located up a side street and at the end of a quiet lane, an oasis of calm.

IMG_8255When I emailed the affable host, Deepak, about reserving a room, he suggested we IMG_8276take a 4 day 3 night trek “suitable for all levels” and we had agreed to discuss it with the guide when we arrived. Sunil, a young fellow of 25, but already an experienced guide, showed up and suggested we take a hike to the Peace Pagoda above the lake with him so that we could gauge how we did with the climb. However, at that point, the most tremendous thunder and lightening storm broke out with torrents of rain, even hail at one point, and went on for two days. So of course we delayed the trek until better weather was forecast. We had to borrow an umbrella and splash out to a trekking shop and buy rain ponchos so we could get out to eat!

We enjoyed having a few peaceful days of eating lovely food and rambling in Pokhara Lakeside as they call it, and did do the Pagoda trail with Sunil when the weather broke, after which he pronounced us fit enough for the trek we had planned. Duly he turned up with his younger brother Amrik to act as our porter. We took all the warm clothing we had which wasn’t enough, our little pack was not heavy but we were happy not to have to carry it.

We set off by vehicle to reach the trail head about half an hour outside Pokhara. The first day was very steep, up and up hundreds of stone steps set into the hillside. The stone trails are the route for the villagers to procure goods and take their produce to market in the absence of roads, and many of them are 1000 years old. The effort and craftsmanship of making them was what I tried to concentrate on as we laboured up and up. Pokhara is at 700 metres and our first stop for the night, Australia Camp, is at 2400 metres, so a fair climb in just over 2 hours. When we emerged from the last set of stairs, the mountains were right in our faces, a jaw dropping sight.

IMG_8467Australia Camp was our first “teahouse” experience, and by far the best equipped of the three we stayed in. It was named for a group of Austrian (not Australian) surveyors who were mapping the trails in the early ’60s and camped there for a number of seasons. It is hard to describe the grandeur of the Annapurna Range and adjacent mountains that faced us from the camp. It was already cold when we arrived but we huddled outside as long as we could to take in the view.

At Australia Camp we actually had a toilet in our tiny little bare cell, and the owner brought us a couple of extra quilts since, as we did not plan on trekking, we did not have sleeping bags or warm jackets like most trekkers. Here we learned that the terrific storm we had had in Pokhara had caused blizzard and white out conditions at the Annapurna Base Camp, a popular 7-10 day trek. One hundred twenty hikers had to be taken out by helicopter so the route had been closed. Hence there were more trekkers using our lower, but known to be spectacular, route. A similar freak storm 3 years ago resulted in 340 rescues and 42 deaths so weather is not a minor consideration in these mountains despite the number of people who go trekking.

Next day we climbed a long way down and then a very long way up to a place called Bhadaure. Despite the ups, we enjoyed the walk as the surroundings were all the little farms and villages that dot this rather inhospitable land. Farming is done on zillions of tiny terraces, and farmers were out with yoked oxen ploughing fields as they had been waiting months for rain to moisten the heavy earth. We kept encountering men and women burdened with impossibly heavy loads of manure, cow fodder, farm produce, or goods from “town” which they carry in baskets on head straps. Quite enough to make us shut up about how steep the steps were for us!

Along the way there are sort of dais-like structures made of stone with 2 or 3 levels. The first level is the right height for the very short Nepalis to back up to, and then they set their loads against the second tier as they slip off their harnesses and rest for a few minutes. On the top is planted a bodi (sacred) tree, or as the altitude got higher and it was too cold for bodi trees, some other type of tree, and a small shrine to Shiva with a couple of tridents poked into the ground. The loads are so heavy that the porters cannot set them on the ground as they could not get them up again without two people helping them. Thus they can rest the load, walk away, then back up to it again and get it up without assistance. We learned to stop and rest our non-existent loads at every one we came too.

The teahouse at Bhadaure was very basic, only an outside toilet and a sink on a wall, we got Sunil to beg for a room beside the toilet and one of the young trekkers, obviously knowing he had no need of a toilet during the night, was glad to oblige. Food pretty minimal, but we met a lovely English couple, late 50’s who come to Nepal every year to visit a charity they are interested in and always take a couple of treks. We spent the next 2 days with them and enjoyed them very much. Fiona taught us to rest WAY more than we had been doing!

In the morning I heard people leaving their rooms at 5:45 and knew they were going to watch the sun rise. I heaved out of my nest of quilts, already clad in everything I possessed, including my black shawl wound around my head and crept to the door to look out. The mountains had been obscured by a sudden downpour of rain just as we arrived the night before, and it was a stunning sight to see the whole range in all its glory from the doorway. The camera fiend quickly jumped up too, and we joined two German girls who were in lotus position on the edge of the porch, swathed in blankets, meditating while they observed the dawn. Now and then their cameras emerged from the blankets and they snapped a quick photo. I was dying to see them do a selfie, but they restrained themselves.

IMG_8619That day we climbed a bit higher, starting to get used to the stairs now and following Fiona’s example, resting more frequently, and ended up at 2500 metres at Panchase. Again amazing mountains right on top of us. Dashed cold though, about 5 degrees in the evening, and we all huddled in a room beside the kitchen where the heat and smoke from the cooking fire warmed us slightly while the hostess cooked us Dahl Bhat, the ubiquitous mountain meal of rice, dahl, and a blob of vegetable, in this case spinach from the front yard . Even more basic bathroom arrangements, and the rooms were on the top floor so we had to negotiate a difficult stone staircase at night. Lived to tell the tale anyway. Washing arrangements a simple tap in the water collection barrel, totally icy water, so by the time we left I was wearing 4 layers of sunscreen and sweat, face like sandpaper! Good fun.

We loved the hike up there, Fiona and Fred told us all sorts of stories of previous treks they’d gone on and we walked through villages and farmland. Their guide and porter were brothers too and come from the village the charity they visit is in. All 4 of the boys were so kind and looked after us so well. I felt like Sunil and Amrit were becoming sons as we knew their life stories and their plans for the future and all about their families..!

IMG_8732Down from Panchase at 2500 to Pokhara at 700 was a long 4 1/2 hours and super hard on the legs. We were all jelly legs by the bottom, and the ill effects lasted 2 days. Funny that all the ups didn’t make us sore, but just as at Palitana the downs were killers. We were sorry to bid all our hiking companions good-bye but the hot shower at Mum’s and a trout dinner at our favourite restaurant were pretty great.

Deepak and his wife and their little boys made us dinner on our last night, such a lovely family. They built the stone Nepali style guesthouse 15 years ago in an area of fields, and are dismayed that the swarm of Lakeside is coming closer and closer. We cannot imagine what the next few years will bring.

Our memories of Pokhara 1974 are not entirely idyllic though. The road was atrocious, actually dangerous with landslides and washouts all the way. The room we had was little better than a barn and not at all comfortable as it was the rainy season, chilly, and we saw the mountains only once when the clouds briefly cleared. We had no source of clean water and cooked for ourselves out of necessity. No guidebook to suggest a guesthouse, there apparently was one on the lake that Kurt stayed in in 1973, then a backpacker place now a very upscale resort, but we didn’t remember it. But our memories of Nepali people are as positive as the experiences we’ve had on this trip — friendly, helpful, and above all cheerful in the face it adversity.

IMG_8270The lake still is beautiful and there is no motorized traffic on it, small flat bottomed boats with one paddler ply it and we rode across in one to get to the Pagoda trail head. The streets of Pokhara are spotless, the hotels and restaurants all supply boiled filtered water to avoid plastic bottles as much as possible, and plastic bags are banned, they use recycled material to make re-usable bags. The businesses and townspeople co-operate to keep the streets clean. Oddly though, no one pays attention to the shoreline of the lake which is littered with juice boxes and candy wrappers, not to mention dozens of decayed and sunken boats. Signs beg people to “Save Phewa Lake” but Deepak says they haven’t had municipal elections for years and money contributed for lakeshore cleanup goes into pockets — sadly too common here.

All said and done, Pokhara is beautiful and the treks that start from here will remain immensely popular and rightfully so. I hope we get back before another 43 years passes! From the “ardors” of the trek to the lap of luxury, next stop Begnas Tal, a pristine lake high in the hills. Worthy of another instalment.

Advertisements