A brain-numbing 5 o’clock start after a few hours sleep, as I had an early bus to Pokhara. It’s a city to the northwest of Kathmandu and is the hub for a lot of trekking and other activities, including the famous Annapurna mountain treks (which I’d never heard of before I came to Nepal!).
I met Bikrant, the younger guy from Fantastic Nepal at 6am in Thamel. He had brought my bus ticket and we took a cup of sweet tea from a street vendor before I hopped on the back of his motorbike and we rumbled to the bus stops nearby. Over twenty tourist buses were lined up at the side of the road. The street was lined with food sellers for the long journey ahead, tourists with huge packs and a few old beggars harassing everyone. I bought a hard-boiled egg and some extortionate fruit for breakfast and treated myself to a Snickers. I don’t think I’ve had chocolate for a month, it was gooood!
The tourist bus was basic but comfy enough, all seats booked, and we left Kathmandu’s outskirts within an hour. We climbed narrow roads up the green valley, past lots of terrace farming surrounded by wooded hills. The road was full of big trucks and buses. Traffic jams impeded our progress whenever other vehicles broke down, common on this steeper section, the narrow two-lane road getting easily blocked. The views across the valley became impressive as we wound up and up the forested hillsides. The road was occasionally lined with flimsy looking barriers along steep drops. I doubt they’d stop a bus at full pelt. We went through small towns and villages, and stopped at a shack for a loo break. I have the curse of being pee shy so despite really needing to relieve myself I couldn’t go! It’s something I am going to have to fix (no idea how) if I’m going to survive these long bus journeys!
A big river emerged from the trees to the right and we followed it, skirting the valley edge for the next few hours. At a rocky section we pulled to a stop. The bus had broken down. As the buses are old and rickety this wasn’t too surprising and I was already accustomed to “Nepali time” – things get done when they get done, you get there when you get there. Just go with it. We piled off into the baking heat, we’d stopped in a wee village with a shop and garage. The staff jacked up the bus and took off the left double-wheels, changing one of them out. The garage staff took off the tyres and beat away at the rims with a hammer. On top of the garage shack were scattered inner tubes of all shapes and sizes, clearly they get a lot of business on this busy highway.
I walked towards the river, at the bottom of a steep bank was a stony beach below, the wide, fast river was dotted with big rocks and a cliff on the far side. Soon some local guys came running over to me and jogged down the slope. One of them dived into the river and started swimming across. The current was strong but he swam fast, making it over to the rocks on the other side. A big group of locals came over to watch. I wondered what was going on, and soon a large cylindrical object came floating down the river. The swimmer dived in ahead of it, swam out to it and managed to intercept it. He dragged it behind him with one hand, and clambered out. The object was a drum of some kind. Must have been important to be worth the effort, I wondered how it got there in the first place? The locals peeled away, the drama over.
I got chatting to a fellow passenger, a balding Israeli man in his 40s who was travelling with his 10 year old son. He was taking him on an easy trek up at Pokhara. We talked about the compulsory military service in Israel. This guy had been in plenty of combat, been under fire, sounded like he’d shot people himself, in the height of the troubles. He’d been an artillery officer. He was such a nice guy it was hard to imagine him dealing out death. He said he’d actively sought a combat role, you don’t want to see combat it’s easy to secure a desk job for your compulsory service.
The bus wheel was changed and we got underway. The girl I was next to was a 24 year old Norwegian named Christine. She’s a travelling veteran who despite her age has already backpacked around a good chunk of the world in-between studying. She’s been to loads of cool places and was afraid of nothing travelling-wise except animals, her first trip had been solo around the Ukraine, hardly an easy beginners choice! We stopped at a buffet restaurant overlooking the river for a late lunch. The Israeli’s son, Rafi, was thrilled to hear about my background in computer games and thrilled in telling me everything he knew on the subject. I saw some locals along the road, dressed distinctively differently to anyone I’d seen in Kathmandu.
We continued, the valley opening out to big mud flats by the river. The towns we passed through were rural and filled with tractors chugging along. Painted adverts on building walls by the roadside were everywhere, reminding me a lot of Africa. Man-carved cliffs by the river stood alongside mining operations. As we entered Pokhara, the road got a lot worse and we jolted around all over the place. The city seemed busy though not as much as Kathmandu. The familiar vehicle horns and bustle of street stalls assaulted the senses. We arrived at the bus park and my Israeli friend suggested we walk to Lakeside, the tourist area, rather than get a taxi. Christine joined us.
I lumbered along behind the others with my bags and duff arm, as Rafi relentlessly babbled about video games. He’s a nice kid but he couldn’t stop! After 15 minutes we reached the edge of the Pokhara’s lake. Dense forest rose on the other side and rowing boats paddled around as the sun went down.
We entered Lakeside, a very long and busy tourist strip. In the distance you could see big hills and above them a cluster of paragliders, at least 20, swooping around in circles. By this point I had to ask Rafi to let up on his one-sided conversation, I couldn’t concentrate! It didn’t deter him much and he continued. I followed the others to their hotel, Rafi’s dad had decided to stay at Christine’s choice. We climbed to its roof garden and admired the sunset view. Over the rooftops you could see the Peace Pagoda, a big monument perched atop the forested ridge over the lake, and the hills surrounding Pokhara to the other side. Then the clouds beyond the hills drifted away for a few minutes and we got our first glimpse of the *real* mountains. The huge white caps poked out from the clouds and we were awed. It was great, my first look at the Annapurnas!
I said my goodbyes, this place was beyond my budget and found myself a decent hotel after an hour of hunting. Every side street off the main strip is packed with accommodation. The prices in Lakeside compared to Kathmandu are a bargain. I was in relative luxury for me, with a hot shower, carpeted floor, double bed and private bathroom. Lakeside was more chilled out than Kathmandu but there were a lot of building sites, wherever you were you could hear hammering and buzz saws, destroying the relative peace. Tourists were everywhere, most toting hiking gear. A lot of them were Asian. There were also a lot of Indian tourists who took particular interest in shopping.
I met Christine for dinner and then we went to a cool bar called Moon Dance. Lots of trekking parties were eating here. We enjoyed some good happy hour cocktails, but as everything closed down in the strip at only 10pm we were forced to go home early, arranging to meet in the morning to do some exploring together.