1. A Stranger Arrives In The Night
I’d arrived in Pokhara at rather the last minute following the disaster that was my experience with Hardcore Nepal – a few days before I’d planned to get there, and without any booking or any idea of where anything was.
They’d flagged down a passing car heading in that direction and deposited me in it; he in turn had left me on the main street, where I went to the hostel that I had a booking for a few days later, but they were full. Instead I used their wifi and booked another hostel that had some vacancies – a 15minute walk away.
Late at night in the rain and with a big rucksack are never the circumstances under which you want to be running around in a new town, especially after you’ve just spent the day canyoning and you’re still damp and tired. I went out and flagged down a taxi.
The taxi driver completely rorted me – and was annoyingly stupid. Somehow, ‘down the road’ was not a concept he could understand, despite my showing him a map, pointing down the road, and telling him repeatedly that that was where I was going. (The new guesthouse I was going to was literally down the (very very long) road from the one at which I’d jumped into the taxi.)
Instead, the one thing he recognised on the map was the river and kept talking about how to get there, completely ignoring my repeated entreaties that no, the river was not where I was headed, I just wanted him to drive me down the road.
The whole mess was only settled when he called up my Guesthouse and they assured him that no, they weren’t located at a river miles from Lakeside, but were actually just down the road. A different voice sometimes makes all the difference in convincing someone. This is the bit that people don’t tell you about travel – sometimes the biggest challenges are just that you have to deal with complete fuckwits.
2. Boating, massages, Korean
The new Guesthouse, Hotel Mountain View, was actually pretty nice but at the point that I’d arrived, I resented it pretty strongly. It was all the way down the bottom of Lakeside, and everything I wanted to visit was up the top, which meant that I’d have to walk for about half an hour or longer any time I wanted to visit anything. I tried looking for something in a better location, but everything was full.
I felt pretty hard done by – it was $13 per night (which is cheap by Australian standards, but not by Nepalese standards) and they’d said that the rooms came with televisions, which they didn’t. Not that I particularly wanted to watch television – I just hate being told that I’m paying for something and then not actually getting it.
My low spirits were bought down even further by some rotten quality froyo. I’d walked up Lakeside in the hot, burning sun, feeling like I might just melt and drip down the sidewalk, when I’d spotted a frozen yoghurt shop – one of my favourite desserts in the world and something that I had not expected to find in Pokhara – and suddenly everything felt like it was going to be okay.
I ran into the shop, pulled excitedly on the lever of the yoghurt dispenser, and piled on toppings. It cost me about $5, and I shoved the biggest spoonful into my mouth – and then spat it out again. It was grainy and disgusting. Can froyo go off while still cold? I hate wasting food as a rule, but after forcing down another spoonful and struggling not to just throw it up, I ended up chucking the rest. Lesson learned – test foods in small amounts when you’re in other countries.
My spirits were, however, boosted by Oren – one of the other travellers who’d been at Fireflies – messaging me to let me know that he was going boating with Maia, and asking if I’d like to accompany them. One of the biggest attractions of Pokhara is boating on Phewa Tal, and it’s hardly the thing to do alone. This was perfect.
We idled away a lazy afternoon. Or at least, I idled away a lazy afternoon since I did the least paddling in our little paddleboat. It was measurable more physical for Oren and Maia, who did most of our moving. I lay back contentedly, trailing my fingers through the lake, nibbling on fresh watermelon and enjoying the breathtaking view. We paddled to the other side of the lake, and walked up a quaint little staircase to a tiny, empty little restaurant up on the hill overlooking the water.
We had the place to ourselves and had a fairly glorious lunch of fresh fried fish with a piquant chilli sauce, which worked out very cheap, probably due to how remote the place was. We’d just finished our meal and jumped back in to our paddle boat when it started to rain, so that we ended up paddling furiously back to Lakeside to avoid getting caught in a storm.
The walk from the jetty to my Guesthouse was too long for me to make in the current downpour. Instead I took shelter at this little massage parlour called Seeing Hands. I loved the concept – it was a not-for-profit charity that trained the visually impaired to give massages and then employed them as paid masseuses. It had great reviews too, and was cheaper than any other massage place in Pokhara – 1800rs for an hour.
I was a little disappointed when my masseuse assumed from my voice that I was a 15 year old. I assured her in my most adult voice that I was in fact 24 and a full fledged adult. I’m not sure if she believed me, but she did give me a fantastic massage. I wish I’d gotten her name, but with her accent I just couldn’t figure out what her name was, and after asking her to repeat it three times I figured I just had to give up on ever finding it out.
There are very few things that revitalise you like a good massage, especially when you’ve been hauling a huge rucksack around with you and you’ve gotten to that point where you assume that persistent dull ache in your shoulders, back and hips is just permanent. It’s especially soothing when your massage is accompanied by the gentle pitter-patter sound of the rain falling outside, and the earthy tang of petrichor in the air. My day had definitely turned around.
To top it off, by the time I was done it was definitely dinner time, and I came across a gorgeous little Korean place called Natssul which I was beckoned into by the tantalising aromas wafting out the door. I completely forgot to take any photos but it was fancy – the kind of place I could never afford to eat at back home unless there was a really good Groupon or my parents took me out for a special occassion (constant travelling does not leave me in an enviable financial situation).
Photo by Natssul Management, not by me
There’s something so satisfying when food tastes as good as it smells – and the Bibimbap I ordered both smelled and tasted absolutely divine. It’s probably not what most travellers expect, but I 100% recommend going to Pokhara for the Korean food at Natssul.
3. Hipster Pokhara
Pokhara was, I mused, walking around the next day, quite different to Kathmandu. Lakeside had the air of a beach side town, although once you went further away it was quite different, with a more conservative, urban sprawl, less aesthetically concerned vibe. But as a tourist you kind of avoided those parts because there was nothing to see or do there, and nobody could speak English.
I don’t know if that sounds privileged or ignorant – I’m all for exploring non-touristy areas, but I feel like it would be the equivalent of coming to Australia and visiting Baulkham Hills. There’s just no point unless you know someone who lives there and they invite you over.
But Lakeside was spread out and uncrowded while Kathmandu was built up. The air was cleaner, there were far more trees around, and it just a bit hipster. In some of the little alleyways you’d find cute cafes and juice bars – my favourite one was this little fruit stall all done up in whitewashed wood, where he played music that a bunch of Belgian tourists had given him (really good, chilled techno) and made fresh lassis and fruit juices.
There was also a great little restaurant called Fire On Ice which did cheap food, right across from Pushpa Guesthouse – the second Guesthouse I moved to that I’d made those original reservations at.
All down the road there were little bars with music every night. I’d go eat dinner, mostly on my own, and listen to a pretty great range of musicians. My favourite late night entertainment though was an open air garden cinema – that in true hipster fashion was hidden and hard to find, and you had to be told about it by someone else because they didn’t advertise – where I watched Trainspotting for the first time.
There’s also a multitude of stores and little stalls selling prayer flags and handmade jewellery and souvenirs – courtesy of the Tibetan settlements just outside of Pokhara. It’s obviously really sad that there are all of these Tibetan refugees here – and because of the laws in Nepal I believe they’re not allowed to hold jobs there, own land or get any government recognition at all actually.
Which is why they get around it by making trinkets and carvings and carpets and whatnot, and selling those. They’re very beautiful, and it’s nice to know that when tourists go a bit crazy buying up souvenirs from here, that at least it’s going to a good cause.
But the thing I was most surprised – and heartened – to see in Pokhara were all of these stores that were run as part of development projects. Like the Chetana Women’s Skill Development Project.
They train women to weave, sew and take care of the admin and management side of business, and then employ them, so that they have financial independence. You can buy things from a lot of these places online – it’s nice to buy ethically and know that your choices are directly helping someone in a big way.
4. White Water Rafting and Meeting Tom
I’d been in Pokhara for a few days now and I figured it was time to give White Water Rafting a go, having heard so much about it. I’d done it once before in Iceland, in a glacial river lined with black volcanic sand but while that had been an amazing experience in it’s own right, it had been freezing there – I really wanted to see what it would be like doing it somewhere warm.
I booked it from Pushpa Guesthouse – this is a thing in Nepal, where all the hotels/hostels/other forms of accommodation have a tour desk and they make your bookings with local tour operators, who’ll come pick you up from wherever you’re staying. It sometimes works out cheaper than getting it from a tour company, and it takes the work out of having to do your research on any tour companies yourself. Instead, you just ask around to see if people have found that that hotel/hostel has chosen good local operators – and Pushpa had great reviews for that. The company they’d chosen was called Extreme River Rafting and they were absolutely awesome.
It turned out to be everything I’d hoped for and more. Getting picked up from your accommodation is always nice, and especially when it’s as hot and humid as it was in Pokhara. I was with a couple from Dubai, a couple from England, and a few French people. Everyone was lovely – which I suppose really makes an experience – but the guides were also charismatic and fun and got us all talking to each other and joking, which was fantastic.
The actual rafting was hella fun. We were on the Trisuli River, and the surroundings were lush and green, our path taking us past rice paddies and mountains and strange rock formations. We got thoroughly wet in the rapids, which was exhilarating, and then once we got into a calm section, we jumped into the icy water and had a refreshing swim, and a few water fights between the two rafts. Post rafting they gave us a packed lunch and some water, we changed back, and they dropped us off again at our hostels. 10/10 would absolutely do again.
That afternoon I checked out of Hotel Mountain View and moved to the Pushpa Guesthouse. It turned out that Hotel Mountain View undercharged me for my room (assumedly to make up for the lack of TV) and hadn’t charged me for the juices I’d ordered. They were super lovely and helpful the whole time I was there too, and I actually felt sorry that I was leaving – but I would rather stay further up Lakeside.
As I wandered down the street afterwards looking to purchase more credit for my phone, I had the pleasure of running into a lovely individual named Tom, who was trying to buy some kayak-worthy footwear, and who I inadvertently helped haggle the price down.
You know those semi-funny, semi-awkward instances when you talk to someone in a store a little, then you part ways but bump into each other again a little further down the street? We ended up chatting and Tom invited me along to the Black and White German cafe where he was meeting his friend Sam.
That was fun, but what particularly stuck with me was hearing about how Tom had come to be there – originally from the US, Tom had ended up moving to Thailand so he could focus on writing. He was working on a book, and his American savings obviously went much further in Thailand, so that he was living there indefinitely until he got it all written. Nepal was just a short holiday away from that.
What a brilliant idea – and brave! Isn’t that gutsy, to leave the security of your job and home to go off somewhere completely different and chase your dreams? I think at some point in my life I’d like to do that – take some time off and go write a book in another country, although I think I’d prefer somewhere like Ecuador.
5. Pony Trek, Sarangkot
The other thing I’d decided to give a go while I was in Pokhara was a pony ride, booked with a company called Wishing Will. This was a huge mistake.
There seemed to be a rather large disconnect between what I’d expected a pony trek to be (and what the promo pictures made it look like) and what it actually was. My guide, in particular, was a bit of a tosser. I’d been told to be there at 11 (not a time I’d chosen either, just the one the company had selected), and he was so late that he didn’t get there until just before 12. I didn’t mind too much – I’d bought a book and I sat there reading and was really nice about it all.
When he did get to their office though, I was a little alarmed to see that he had just one pony. In all the pictures it looked like everyone had a pony to themselves, and they were riding along in line. This was not like that. He literally held the pony and was walking – very slowly – along with it, with me on the top. It was not fun at all, and also kind of embarrassing. I felt like a 5 year old, and people kept pointing and giggling at us. I wanted to throw a tantrum – this wasn’t fun, it was boring and uncomfortable!
My guide made it much worse. He was super resentful that he had to do this in the afternoon. He kept grumbling about how it was so hot and how I shouldn’t have chosen this time, and how he was hungry and thirsty and did I have any food on me?
He complained that he was tired and sick and asked if he could ride the pony for a while because the walking was such a struggle. I acquiesced easily. At least if I was the one walking, I walked fast, not as if I had a ball and chain attached to my leg. He was wearing a woollen vest over his shirt and heavy jeans so I wasn’t surprised that he was hot. He also wasn’t very nice to the animals that we passed along the way, which made me feel really bad for the pony.
The only upshot of it all was that the views were lovely. I’d asked to go to Sarangkot, and when we got near, he suggested I just get off the pony, go look at the village for 10 minutes, then come back. He didn’t even want to take the pony the whole way there, even though what I’d paid for had specifically been a ‘Sarangkot Pony Trek’. I was over it. I told him that he could ride the pony back, and that I was going to go climb to the top of Sarangkot, where I could see paragliders taking off. I was so relieved when he left.
The hike up to and through Sarangkot was mesmerising. There’s a lot of stairs, and much of the route is really narrow, but you can see all around you for miles. I put in my headphones, played some Red Hot Chilli Peppers, and sang along out loud to Under The Bridge.
It was a long, hot walk though, and I had to be careful about rationing my water. After getting to the top, I ended up catching a taxi back down into town, too tired to try to negotiate the public buses back. My taxi driver charged me extra for being alone, but then picked up a few more passengers on the way down, and so then let me have a little tour of the Old Bazaar without charging me extra, to make up for it. I was particularly tickled by a soccer game we passed, where they were using prayer flags as field markers.
6. How to keep amused when it’s hailing and you’re stuck indoors
Unfortunately, for the next few days Pokhara was hit by storms and it was constantly raining and occassionally hailing.
I’m never very good at amusing myself cooped up. I could do it with a computer or phone on which I can download books or read or play games on the internet, but because of the load shedding, my phone was perpetually at 19% or so in terms of battery, and the wifi at Pushpa was awful and rarely ever worked in my room. I wished I’d stayed at a hostel so there’d be a common area where I could hang with people. It’s lonely being in your room alone during the rain with nothing to do.
This did mean, however, that I made many trips to the local secondhand bookstore – Mandala, because I could trade books. I got through a lot of PG Wodehouse’s works – one of my favourite authors – but I did end up spending a lot of money and it really made me miss libraries at home – and made me realise how lucky we are that we’ve got such great libraries all over the place.
7. International Mountaineering Museum
The next day offered a brief respite from the rain, and I was eager to seize it. I went and hired a battered old ‘mountain bike’ whose gears were stuck, and decided to ride to the International Mountaineering Museum.
Full disclosure: I probably wouldn’t have put in the effort to go to the Museum if I hadn’t been getting a little bored by this time – but I’m so glad I did, because it was honestly up there as one of the best museums I’ve ever been to – not super high-tech or anything, but with really interesting exhibits and immersive stories.
I got to read all about Herman Buhl, Maurice Herzog, Edmund Hillary and so many other mountaineers, and it really made me understand the excitement and fervour that goes with mountain climbing, as well as about issues like the waste disposal problems, the melting of the permafrost, and the mountain tribes’ changing culture.
It was only a small museum – I took just over 2 hours to get through all of it, but I enjoyed it so much that it felt like only 45 minutes. I’m a fan of small museums though because I think they stop you from getting bored or overwhelmed.
8. Local scenery
While I had the bike, I figured I might as well see some more of the local sights. I’d heard a lot about the Gupteshwor Mahadev cave and Devi’s Falls, and thought I’d go see what all the fuss was about.
The cave was okay, but it was pretty tiny and doesn’t take very long to get through. The falls, however, were incredibly anticlimactic. You just go into a little garden and you can see a tiny little stream of water running over some rocks and a lot of litter. They’re called ‘Devi’s Falls’ because a woman named Devi went swimming there and drowned. Isn’t that a little macabre?
What was super cool though, was the architecture on the way down to the caves. There are all these gorgeous, saucy sculptures on the way down that are totally worth the trip. And, being so far from the more touristy Lakeside area, there are also a bunch of very cheap juice stands around to quench your thirst at once you’re done sightseeing.
I’d recommend skipping the falls, but just doing a bike ride to the caves, enjoying the architecture and the walk, and then having a nice, cold, fresh squeezed lemonade from the street to finish with.
9. Bindhyabasini Temple
On what was meant to be my last day in Pokhara, Tom and I walked to the Bindhyabasini temple, which is one of the oldest temples in Pokhara but is also noteworthy because it’s worshipped by both Hindus and Buddhists. It also happens to be situated near the entry to the Sarangkot Mountains, and it’s so tranquil and peaceful to sit up on the walls and watch the world go by.
The temple grounds were pretty and it was such a relief to finally get there after the long walk from Lakeside in the sun. It is worth doing though, just because you get to see a lot of the backstreets of Pokhara, and you can pause along the way for tea and water – although the shops you pass on the way might not know any English.
We stopped at a little shack en route to replenish our supplies of water and thought we’d sit down and have a break with a cup of tea – which turned out to be way more complicated than we’d expected. We struggled to convey what we wanted, and they then gave us black tea that had ginger in it (I can’t stand ginger) and was saturated with sugar (which Tom wasn’t a fan of). When we finished with the temple we were so hot and exhausted that we had to catch a taxi back into town.
The temple is free, and if you haven’t seen many temples (which I hadn’t) and have lots of time on your hands (which I had), it’s an interesting way to spend the morning. I have heard, however, that they have animal sacrifices at the temple on Saturdays and Tuesdays, which I think is awful, and I’d definitely avoid it on those days.
That was meant to be my last day in Pokhara, but The Earthquake changed that. I’ll write more about that in my next post though!
All in all, Pokhara was very relaxed. It’s probably not the kind of place you want to spend as long as I did though, unless you’re going to read lots of books or have lots of friends to hang out with. It’s a sleepy little place and there’s not that much to do there – but if you do just want to relax and while away your time eating good food and getting through a few books, it’s the perfect setting for it.