Friday 25 September – Saturday 10 October2009 Pokhara & surrounds
Pokhara is a really attractive little town - set on the beautiful Phew Tal Lake and with a stunning backdrop of the Himalayas. We went straight to the tourist information office to pick their brains about where to camp - only to find that they were shut for the next 2 weeks for the duration of the Dasain festival - very good for business!! Luckily the office next door was the tourist police and the nice young policeman said we were very welcome to camp there.
We were in a bit of a hurry as it was Friday night which was the night of the final bash of the Rickshaw Wallahs and we'd been invited to the party at the Boomerang pub in Lakeside the busy tourist hub of Pokhara. It was a good night with a live band and all proceeds going to charity so we were drinking for a good cause! More seriously there was a presentation on the charity which will benefit from the monies raised - child trafficking a big issue in Nepal - which was quite sobering. Over 100,000 GB pounds were raised in total which was amazing. Out of 65 rickshaws 50 made it to the final party the remainder had either fallen by the wayside or were still on the road! Despite the odd broken bone (1 x collarbone 1 x wrist) everyone seemed to have had a good time.
So it was that at 6am the next morning we awoke feeling a bit hung over to the pounding of many boots - giving us a bit of a fear we were in the middle of a Maoist attack! Fortunately this wasn't the case and instead we had camped right next to the army training camp! They didn't seem to mind us being there but we felt a bit surrounded as they jogged past us and square marched around the fields. We also had our first real view of the Annapurna mountain range -through razor wire which lined the perimeters of the army ground and thus our camping area! A passing guide suggested we might prefer the designated camping area at the centre of town and so we moved.
This was unsurprisingly a far more suitable camping area. It is one of the few times on our trip to date that we've actually found an area specifically set out for us - and a sign advertising another overlanders camp just 6 km down the road - so we felt very welcome!
The camp ground was in a gorgeous setting and near the busy Lakeside area close to all the tourist facilities. Whilst we were there - we used Pokhara as a bit of a base camp whilst we did some other trips and kept returning to it - we were the only campers. Apparently in a month or so it gets really busy though we found that hard to imagine. We sat and ate breakfast every morning enjoying a view of the distant mountains on one side and the lake on the other- absolute bliss!
We never got the opportunity to be lonely though- lots of people - locals and other foreigners came over to say hello - and the local kids were very interested in the car. One remarked that we had more facilities in our car (a hot shower and fridge) than he had in his house. Makes you think really! We were also a focus for the attentions of the Tibetan ladies from the nearby refugee villages who walk around with back packs selling Tibetan handicrafts.
The sheer scale of tourism here came as a bit of a shock particularly for Andrew. He was last here 23 years ago and then apparently there were only a very small handful of restaurants and guest houses here. Now down town Lakeside is one long parade of trekkers gear and sovereign shops and cafes bars and restaurants. It made a difference where you shopped as soon as you got a bit away from the real touristy areas prices fell dramatically(i.e.) 30 rupees per hour for the internet vs 100 in the middle of Lakeside.
On a few occasions we felt this influx in tourism hadn't been that great a thing - they weren't as genuinely friendly as the Indians - i.e.) people asked you to take their picture and then wanted photo money and we got the annoying "pen pen, rupee rupee, chocolate chocolate" chorus from kids everywhere. It's all our doing though!
As mentioned before the Dasain festival was upon us and this was evident everywhere. Firstly there were rustic swings and ferris wheels built at the entrance to every village and around town and the local kids were having great fun on them. These were identical to the Hmong ones we'd seen in Laos and northern Thailand which was interesting.
Whilst the Nepalese are generally a mixture of Hinduism and Buddhism - this was a predominantly Hindu festival which celebrates the victory of the goddess Durga over the buffalo demon. We had heard of her before in India and this big festival is one which involves a huge amount of blood letting of goats, buffalo, chickens and anything that breathes really- save sacred cows!! Many Nepalis don't generally eat meat but this month is an exception. There are mass slayings within major temples and often the blood is placed on the wheels of cars to ensure a safe year on the road. Apparently each of the planes in the Royal Nepal Airlines has a goat sacrificed to it !!
Much of the festival is private and celebrated within the family but some aspects -the newly slain or nervous looking animals everywhere, the large red tikkas worn - were clearly evident. There is also a lot of gambling going on and we saw many groups playing cards and Carrom - a board game played by flicking counters across fine sand. Everyone seemed to enjoy the festivals - dressing up in new finery feasting and wining and dining. Not a good time to be a goat though!
As I said we spent quite a while in Pokhara - and as they have better internet connections here we did a real push on updating the new website - but we did manage to fit in a couple of sights too!
On a deceptively hot afternoon we headed up to the World Peace Pagoda. This was set up by the same Japanese Buddhists as the one we'd visited in Lumpini and it is an impressive landmark -its whiteness standing out starkly on the hills of Pokhara.
It was a beautiful but hot and steep climb up the hillside past numerous little settlements with village life continuing - corn drying in stacks, kids playing on wooden swings, buffaloes wallowing and a few lucky goats that have escaped the blood lust so far! Completed in 1993 the stupa is in the worthy cause of world peace. We felt a good sense of achievements when we made it and the views were spectacular.
Next day we took the road to the far end of the Lake where the Overlanders' Camp spot we'd seen advertised was. The day started fine - we drove along past stunning lake views and lush green rice paddies. The camp site itself at the end of the road was near a beautiful clear river. We couldn't stay that night as we'd things to sort out (car registration - the saga continues! ) in town but we really enjoyed having a look. We started heading back and were doing fine when suddenly disaster struck. we There was a stationery bus in front of us, and we were going slowly when suddenly a Nepalese lady on a moped whizzed around the bus and came straight at us - we had to pull over or we'd have hit her and we ended up with one wheel down the ditch in the paddy field. She didn't stop - drunk maybe??
Anyway we've been here before as faithful readers of our site will know! - so we got out, got off our towing straps and tried to flag down a passing truck to pull us out. The next 3 that passed refused to do so!! This is the first time this has happened. A lot of people did gather to help and one of them tried to pull us out with a car. It just didn't have the power and we ended up far worse than we'd been as we came forward a bit then fell back with a vengeance. By this time we had a huge crowd of well meaning helpers who were trying to pull at the car which almost overturned with Andrew in it driving me to hysteria! They were trying to assist but actually making things worse as the car was getting more unbalanced. We asked them to leave us to it - which felt a bit rude - and together we placed a layer of rocks under the wheels so it could get traction - finally another bus passed and (for a fee!) this one stopped and we were out in 2 minutes..WHEW!!! That was as near as we came in 2 years to totally losing the car. Not a pleasant experience!
One of the far better experiences whilst at Pokhara was heading up Sarangkot a famous scenic viewpoint of the Annapurna ranges. We headed out first one afternoon and saw dozens of hang gliders on the way up. We'd missed the sunrise - though the views were wonderful - so we decided to head back up the next day and spend the night and catch both the sunrise and sunset. Sadly we were late leaving Pokhara for various reasons and just missed the sunset. When we'd been before there were quite a few restaurants but as we neared the top it was very dark and we didn't like to drive all the way up as the road is a bit dicey.
We camped near a little village and thankfully a little old lady appeared from one of the neighbouring houses and asked if we'd like a dish of daal bhaat. This is very much the staple diet of much of Nepal and is basically rice curried vegetables and lentils. It has to be said that Nepalese food lacks the excitement and variety of that in India, apart from larger cities like Pokhara where the huge range of international restaurants mean you are spoilt for choice.
Anyway we sat with her and her son by the small cooking fire (it was a bit chilly by now!) and it was a good meal. The people here do live very simply particularly in rural areas and it was amazing to think we were only 8 km from the bright lights of down town Pokhara.
Next morning we got up at 5am and toiled up the rest of the hill for the 6am sunset. Sadly it was not to be. Whilst there was a pleasant panoramic view of hills and cloud, the cloud remained and the sun kissed mountain tops failed to reveal themselves. This was possibly a good thing in some ways as after the 2 or 3 pictures we did take the camera battery died and I realized that in my half asleep state I'd left the spares down (a fairly long steep walk away) in the car. Thus had the perfect sun/snow kissed mountain tops photos revealed themselves Andrew would probably have killed me!!
Anyway rather than heading straight back to Pokhara we drove on towards Beni. 23 years ago Andrew and friends Spud (Chris) and Jip (Richard) had walked the Annapurna circuit which passed through Jonsom. We'd heard you can actually drive there now and this is what we were off to do.
The drive was pretty if a little rough in parts - nothing the car (with RAW shocks and Maxxis tires on our side) couldn't handle. The big delay is often other people's problems as a stuck bus can block the road for hours whilst everyone gathers round to discuss how to proceed! The quality of recovery gear here is a bit hit and miss so a couple of times we- or our gear - were able to come to the rescue and help people out. The drive was ok until the last 20 km which weren't tarred but as at the time it was dry all was ok. We pulled into Beni that evening a tiny village apparently 23 years ago now a bustling market town.
We were approached by a very lively character Bimala the proprietress of Hotel Yeti - who told us firmly that she'd had overlanders before and so we had to camp at her hotel! This was a good secure camping spot and the dinner was very nice but it was down a lot of narrow little lanes so a bit of a drama to get the truck in and out in one piece but Andrew managed! Bimala was quite a character definitely a driven business lady she owned another hotel and her 2 children are doing very well working in finance in New York.
We had a wonder round Beni - as a central market place for the hill towns there were a lot of porters coming and going carrying immense loads on their backs. The baskets with head straps looked quite uncomfortable to us but they are used to carry anything and everything - building materials, kids, chairs - even large loads of live chickens! You also see walking bushes going along the roadside quite often which turn out to be people (mainly women and children) carrying huge loads of grass for animal feed.
Sadly Andrew wasn't able to fulfill his dream to revisit Jonsom on this occasion as we heard there had been 2 quite severe landslides and the roads were closed to vehicles. Instead on Bimala's recommendation - we decided to take a short trip out 9km to Singa Tatopani. Tatopani means hot springs in Nepalese and there is a more famous Tatopani on the main Annapurna circuit - but (Singa meaning small) this was apparently a little village with its own hot spring.
On the way to leave we met some Czech trekkers looking to get the bus to Singa Tatopani (and beyond) and we gave them a lift to where the bus left from. This was a fortuitous thing as we then followed their bus for the 9km out to Singa Tatopani (SP). The view was absolutely wonderful - the guys must have had an even more awesome view from the bus roof! We wound through valleys full of rice crops past beautiful rivers - but it was pretty testing on the suspension! It was lucky we were in convoy as this made other buses back off for us as we frequently met on coming traffic and it really wasn't easy to cross paths without one of you coming to grief!
Anyway we made it just as it was getting dark. The guys stayed on the bus as they were going to the end of the road before they began their trek. We wondered around a bit and couldn't really find anywhere to park - as it was now dark and the hillside was very steep we were a bit concerned about driving on into the unknown. We pulled up at a wider spot in the road and decided to stay there. Numerous people crowded around as ever - but one little boy spoke very good English and he told us we shouldn't stay there- thinking he was just trying to sell something we politely ignored this. A bit later he came back with his dad - who turned out to be the local head master - who told us there had been some very bad rock falls exactly where we had camped so we REALLY shouldn't stay there! As it was the holidays he let us camp outside the school. We camped at the widest part of the road where we could just about open the car door!
We headed into the village to find somewhere to eat (daal bhaat or daal bhaat?) and met the 2 Czech guys and the rest of the occupants of their bus. Apparently they had driven on but got badly stuck just a mile or so down the road so they had all abandoned ship (or bus) for the evening!
The next morning we had a good look around. SP was a really scenic little place. The rice was fat in the fields and we walked around across a bridge over the river through the small village. The traditional architecture - Newari style- was lovely. The houses are built from a mixture of stone and slate and are built with exquisite craftsmanship.
Of course you have to remember this isn't the whole story. The beauty can mask what is quite severe poverty. We met a young lady who took us back to her home to meet what we concluded must be her grandparents. They really had nothing - a dirt floor no appliances. They both were blind (cataracts?) and there was another old lady in the corner moaning in pain throughout our visit. The girl said she couldn't get on the bus to see the doctor. It all seemed a bit grim. We spoke to our head master friend later and he promised to look into it but said often such people refuse to get medical attention. Not a good way to end up.
The parents here are usually at work leaving the siblings to look after each other and often we saw kids no older than 6 or so looking after toddlers and babies. A very tough life! The poor old mules looked like they were doing it tough too - they all looked clapped out and many had awful sores on their backs. In a place where people are human pack horses there's not much room for any animal molly coddling!
We walked up to see the hot springs whichwere very full it being a festival and having a lot of local visitors. It was male /female segregated - 2 hours each i.e.) women 6am - 8am - men 8am - 10am etc …
This made it tough for us as one of us to would have to wait around and as it was a bit full and looked a bit grubby close up we didn't bother. Instead we found a better camp spot near the river and had a relax.
We had a lot of local kids visiting which was nice - what wasn't nice is that at some point my sun glasses were swiped! We think we know which kid it was but no proof. We went for a quick swim in the river and heard something - it was only later I realized the glasses - left on the dash board - were gone.
We've really lost very little on the trip so far and I guess it's a reminder to be careful. Apparently the parts of Nepal which go near the trekking circuit are renowned for theft. I guess in view of the extreme poverty around it is going to happen. I'm very upset though - I really liked these sunnies!
That night the heavens opened and the rains came down. We panicked a bit when we awoke to see the river had risen significantly in the night and was sneaking towards us. We got out sharpish and headed back towards Beni. This area was the scene a few years ago of a lot of Maoist violence and we noticed that the telegraph poles were still riddled with bullets where there had been attempts to shoot down the town's power lines!
The 9km from SP back to Beni took almost 2 hours and was pretty awful and the road on to Pokhara almost as bad. The torrential rain had turned a tricky drive into one long potentially lethal mud slide. We didn't have any problems thankfully but got caught up in 3 or 4 boggings - one with an excavator pushing and shoving a bus out whilst some very muddy back packers sloshed around in its wake!
Some of the road was washed away so you drove by on an angle with a sheer drop to your side - scary! The 100 kms back to Pokhara took us 9 hours!! We were glad we'd got out when we did as the rain continued and there were dreadful landslides throughout much of the country.
We waited out the rain and spent a few final nights in Pokhara and its wonderful restaurants - pizza or pasta take on mystic qualities after a few days of only daal bhaat! We also took in a couple of local museums. The International Mountain Museum - www.mountainmuseum.org - was fascinating. About those who risked their lives to conquer the world's highest mountain - the picture of the top of Everest is as near as we'll get! - it showed equipment from various expeditions. It was nice to see the Sherpas were recognized in many awards - as I've often thought they do more than the westerners as they get to carry all the equipment too - and often don't have professional gear. The real heroes!
Talking of real heroes we also saw the Gurkha Museum - about the history of this regiment. Established in 1815 and drawn from the private army of the King Prithvi Narayan Shah the Gurkha regiment enjoys huge prestige and becoming a Gurkha is still a huge goal for many Nepalese. The recruiting centre still exists just out of Pokhara and once a year a selection process takes place with candidates from all over Nepal. The standards are terrifyingly high - amongst other things they run up hills with 25kg of rocks in traditional baskets on their backs - and only the toughest get in. As well as prestige money is a huge motivation - the army salary is very high compared to local wages and the majority of them get a pension. For this reason locally there has been some concern about the recent decision to grant Gurkhas UK passports. Al though everyone must agree this is deserved, in a country as poor as Nepal it is feared that if the Gurkhas - one of the wealthier groups in society - leave en masse it will badly effect the economy. We later visited Gorkha where the Gurkhas (the name was changed by the English no one could tell us why!) came from and we'll write more about these courageous men then.
As we finally left Pokhara we went via Sarangkot again, and thankfully this time we were rewarded for our 5 am start when we saw a spectacular sunrise over the Annapurna ranges. The sun turned the snow capped mountains to pure gold and it was truly magnificent. Thankfully we actually had the spare battery this time though (of course!) we didn't need it. With that wonderful last view of Pokhara and surrounds on Saturday 10 October we drove on towards our next destination the historical Newari town of Bandipur.