Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Pokhara: Trekker’s Oasis, Weekend Getaway, Tourist Hotspot

I unexpectedly had two weeks off of work. I found out about three days before my holiday started that both of my office mates would be leaving—one was going trekking in Manang with his family, one was traveling to Thailand for three weeks to attend/present at a conference on multilingual education. By default, I would have time off too.

This was not completely unexpected: those two weeks were Dashain, the biggest Hindu festival of the year. Everyone takes off of work; shops, businesses and schools are closed, and public transportation is drastically reduced. My Nepali teacher warned me that, by the fourteenth, the city would empty out. No kidding! I attended a songwriting workshop, sponsored by a congregation across town, all week, an on Thursday, my travel buddy and I had a difficult time finding a bus to take us across town! Someone gave me a ride on the back of their motorcycle home that afternoon, and it took ten minutes to get from downtown Kathmandu to my neighborhood—a journey that can take up to thirty minutes depending on traffic!

Apart from the songwriting workshop, I spent an extended weekend in Pokhara with some Nepali friends from the school I taught at last summer. Pokhara is about a 5 to 8 hour bus ride away from Kathmandu (again, depending on traffic, how long rest stops are, and whether or not there is unrest on the road). It’s the beginning/ending point of many trekking expeditions into the Himalayas, especially the Annapurna range, which can be seen from Pokhara. The town also has a lake—Phewa Tal—that reflects the mountain view, making quite a striking vista. While this makes it an obvious spot for foreign tourists, many Nepalis from Kathmandu also go there, mostly for a break from the smog, dirt and population congestion of Kathmandu. That’s what my friends from the school were looking for, as well as an opportunity to visit some members of their ministry team who live up there.

I have been to Pokhara numerous times. When my family lived in Nepal, our agency would regularly have their annual conference there during the winter months (during the tourist off-season, so hotel prices were cheaper). However, I got to experience Pokhara in a lot of new ways this time around. For one, it was quite humid; second, it rained consistently, which prevented us from seeing Mt. Machhapuchhre (Mt. Fishtail), the peak you can see most clearly from Pokhara, flanked by the Annapurna III and Hiunchuli peaks. They were hidden by rain clouds, though, if you were skilled enough, you could distinguish between himal and cloud during clearer times.

Thirdly, I got to hike up the hill on the other side of Phewa Tal, on top of which is a Buddhist Peace Pagoda. What people told us should have been a 45-minute hike one-way took us almost an hour and a half to accomplish! It was quite steep, but the view of the lake, Pokhara, and the surrounding hills was spectacular! I also got to see David’s, or Devi’s, Fall, a waterfall that plummets underground quite impressively.We also got to explore the Gupteshwar Cave, from which you can see the opposite side of the fall.

Because I was “bideshi” (a foreigner), I got to pay 20 rupees instead of 10 for my entrance to the fall, and about 40 rupees to go through the cave. Funny ha-ha: on average, one pays 130 rupees for a plate of daal-bhaat. This includes: lentils, rice, curried vegetables, saag (any green-and-leafy stir-fried vegetable), and up to two kinds of achars (or chutneys, usually chemically hot). If you get meat or roti (a flat bread), then it can be up to 180 rupees. On the trip back, our bus stopped at a touristy restaurant for lunch, where they had a daal-bhaat buffet. When one of the guys in our party and I asked how much the meal was, the cashier said 200 rupees for a vegetable plate, and 250 rupees for a meat plate. We found out later that the guy had charged us both the “bideshi” price—our other Nepali friends had paid 130 rupees and 180 rupees respectively for their plates! We teased this guy—who consistently insists that he has dark skin—that he must have lighter skin than he thinks!