Nepal Part 2 - September 2014
The buses here are an adventure in themselves. Imagine hurtling down a windy river road for several hours, on the wrong side of the road half the time as you pass slower vehicles. I'm glad I wasn't sitting in the front, I would have been terrified. And I've been in local transport in quite a few countries now. I saw two overturned buses on the road to Pokhara, one truck with it's front completely smashed in, and three cars off the road at various angles. So my bus makes it to Pokhara in one piece, and I'm looking forward to getting off as the erratic driving and air pollution from EVERY vehicle passed have combined to make me slightly carsick. Then the bus pulls over at a gas station to fill up (10 minutes from the terminus), just to keep us on the bus just that little bit longer...
I do think I've chosen the perfect place to chill out in here. Pokhara's tourist district is one of those fully-evolved-for-foreign-visitor places, which I'm slightly embarrassed to say, is exactly what I feel like for the next few days. Enough restaurants so I can visit a different place each time, all with fully western menus with a small sidebar of Nepali dishes.
This is an example of 90% of conversations at the front of a Pokhara restaurant:
Restaurant tout: Namaste [sir/madam]
Restaurant tout: Would you like to see the menu?
Tourist: Maybe. You have free wifi?
Restaurant tout: Yes, of course [sir/madam]
Tourist: OK, could I have the password please?
… and then the tourist sits down and pulls out their smartphone for the next five to sixty minutes. If they're a group, then it's quiet time as they each tell the rest of the world what an amazing time they're having with their friends at this restaurant.
Anyway, this is a town that caters to any activity you wish to indulge in. For the active, this is a popular starting point for trekking, or mountain biking, rafting, or serious white water kayaking. For the non-active, you can eat and drink to your heart's content, have a local paddle you around Phewa Lake, or just sleep in one of the lakeside restaurant's loungers. I myself have done a whole lot of nothing, mostly. I did squeeze in a round of 18 holes at the Himalayan Golf Club, on a very unique course layout situated in a deep gorge. Highlights include the 3rd hole where you tee off a clifftop trying to hit a fairway maybe 180 metres away and about 40m below the tee box. From the tee box, with the elevation, it really looks a LONG way away. The other best hole is the 18th, where you have to hit 150m straight across a chasm from tee to green. If you miss right or are short at all, you've lost your ball. Best bit was my caddie asking me if I was nervous about the shot, to which my reply was knocking it onto the green, followed shortly after by his slice into the canyon. Another highlight was having a ball boy, a young fella who acts as your aiming point in the distance on longer holes, then goes chasing after your ball if you accidentally put too much english on it. An amazing golf experience, playing here. No photos sorry, but it will feature in the Nepal video.
One of the other non-physical activities to do here is to go paragliding or for a flight up to the mountains. I opted for the ultralight (essentially a two man, powered hangglider), but my route relied on having good weather in order to go up near the mountains. Each day, cloudy conditions have offered either no view, or only the merest tantalising glimpse of the nearby mountain range. Finally, after postponing each morning for 3 days, the weather finally cleared on the last morning of my stay in Pokhara, with perfect flying conditions. And I have to say it was definitely worth the price and the wait. My pilot took me up for an hour and it was the most exhilarating way to see the mountains for the first time in Nepal.
Back on the scary bus tomorrow, to head back to dirty old Kathmandu. I'm slightly sad to move on from Pokhara and the awesome staff at my resort, but I'll be back another day.
Nepal Part 1 - September 2014
The very first impression of Nepal is of flying over Kathmandu late at night. There are no lights! Well, very few lights. The only lights visible are the small glow of windows from residences. There are no streetlights, and very few vehicles out on the road. This is a surreal picture out the back row window of my plane, a cityscape showing glimpses of shapes without any real clarity. I wish I had a camera to hand then.
The arrival at the airport itself is the next impression. The monsoon rains decided to welcome us as we taxied in and there are no aerobridges here. A couple buses pull up to both the front and back doors of the plane, which quickly fill up with locals disembarking. They don't do row by row like when you get off most planes – this is more like a Ryan Air boarding, made extra confusing by people trying to go 2 different directions. The bus driver says “five more people” as I'm walking down the stairs, which is fine, I'm number one of five. Except that he drives off before I've reached the bottom. Then I spend the next 10min talking to one of the flight attendants about how random things can be in Nepal. Getting a visa can be a chore that takes hours at this airport. You fill out a form, get in line to pay the fee, then get in line to go through immigration. Except that they just wave me through a separate immigration gate without having to line up? Through immigration in just 20 minutes? I'm not complaining, just mildly confused.
The next day brings on the first walkabout in a new place. At 0730, there's not much happening in the tourist area of Thamel. A few local shops are sleepily opening up and some restaurants are starting to open their doors, but it's pretty quiet. Some random street urchins come up and try to sell me random rubbish and they're pretty persistent. Despite my completely ignoring them, they latch on like remora fish and tail me for ages until I go into a shop. Day one is just about organising myself for the next few days so I organise some trekking out to the east of the city and then go for a general wander. The heat puts an end to that and I end up in an amazing coffee shop with stunning wifi speeds (hello new Dr Who episodes). Thamel is all hotels, restaurants, and knock-off outdoor gear shops. I buy some cheapo shirts to hike in, but can't find proper cool-max socks to save my life. The rest of the evening is spent with a crew of folks heading to Base Camp, talking some toot and drinking Gorkha beer.
A trekking guide arrives nice and early to take me out of town for some hill trekking not too far out of Kathmandu. We start in the Shivapuri Nagajun national park (1415m altitude) then proceed to hike straight up for the next 8km to a height of 2400m, then coming back down slightly to a village called Chisapani (2200m). Chisapani is well in the clouds and unfortunately, the clouds are here this day. My corner room would have a decent view, but all I can see is cloud white. Not much else to do on the mountain top either, so good job I take my e-reader everywhere.
The next morning, the clouds part briefly to give me some photo opportunities. The clouds and mountain tops make for some dramatic lighting, but my guide Sanka assures me it's not a patch on what it could be. This day is a longer distance, 20km of descent then ascent, ending in a larger town called Nagarkot (1900m elevation). Part of today's hike involves traversing leech infested bush, and I end up feeding at least four of them. The one in the photo above fell down inside my shirt and very likely fed for 2 hours to get to that size of half my forefinger. We get to our hotel on the highest point of the town (yay), where I find my room doesn't have a view (boooo), so I spend the next few hours in the restaurant wishing for the clouds to unveil the landscape. Drank a lot of beer and masala tea that arvo. MASALA CHAI. I wish everywhere back home has this.
Day 3 of the trek takes us back down the “hills” to the world heritage site of Changu Narayan, a Hindu temple on a hilltop. This temple has been around since the 3rd century and sits 1541m high. This former city now comprises of the temple complex, and you have to run the gauntlet of tourist souvenir shops leading up to it. Luckily, there's a group of white tourists arrived at the same time and they are the more obvious target.
From there, I travel via local bus back towards the city, with a stop off at the the Nepali district of Bhaktapur. This is another world heritage area, a large neighbourhood where buildings and temples dating back centuries are maintained to preserve their impressive stone and wood work. This area is mainly Hindu, with temples of all sizes everywhere and a large city square dominating the entrance. A palace also sits on one corner of the square, where one of the former three kings of Nepal used to reside. I hired Raju, a local guide, to show me around and he was actually very good, doing his spiel in both English for me, and also in Nepalese for my trekking guide. He led us into a number of places that I wouldn't have thought it was OK for us to go, so was well worth the few bucks.
Back to KTM now, where I'm writing this in the same awesome coffee shop. First thing tomorrow morning, I head out west on a bus looking for a new adventure.