At 4:30 in the morning (I wept), I stumbled out of bed and got ready to go. The taxi arrived as arranged and we zoomed along the dark streets of Pokhara towards Sarangkot. Even at 5am people were already up, joggers were out running in the dark, people were walking around, shops were opening and taxis were driving around. Madness. We drove uphill along a narrow, winding road out of Pokhara into the countryside. At each bend the driver honked his horn. Wouldn’t fancy living in the houses on this road! People walked along the side of the road heading upwards, some were jogging. We got stuck in a queue of taxis, buses and motorbikes, all heading for the sunrise view, as the sky got lighter. A guy stopped us on the road for a ticket, I thought it might be a con but the taxi driver swore it was legit – 50 rupees (about 50p) to get into the village. I wonder where the money goes as there are no tourist facilities to speak of up there.
We arrived at the village and I walked in the dim light up a short path following other tourists, whilst Mohan (the taxi driver) waited below. I grabbed a masala tea and surveyed my surroundings. A large, flat topped circular mound offered views of the Annapurnas to the left and the Pokhara valley ahead, though the light was still very dim. There were already around 15 people here and more arriving all the time. To the right of the mound was an open-air restaurant with a roof you could pay 100 rupees to get onto. Christine had been here yesterday and warned that the mound got very crowded, so I tried to negotiate a cheaper price to get into the restaurant, but the man wouldn’t budge. I forked out the cash in the hopes of getting a better photo spot from up there, the roof was higher than the mound.
As the light increased the epic view emerged below, shrouded in haze. I made out Pokhara city, the lake and Lakeside, the Peace Pagoda. Layered hills stretched into the distance. Low fog blanketed parts of the valley. To the left, the silhouettes of the Annapurnas, including the distinctive pointed Fishtail (Machapucchare) towered above us. It was really cold and I cursed my lack of foresight from my zombie-like state – I was only wearing shorts and t-shirt, I was shivering and goosepimples covered my skin.
Unfortunately what should have been a wonderful, peaceful experience was shattered with the arrival of the Chinese tourists. Christine had also warned me about them but it still didn’t prepare me. They were literally shouting at each other (in conversation!), all the time, and kept getting in the way of photos. It destroyed the atmosphere and I felt pretty pissed off. I should point out that I have many Chinese friends and I like China, but the Chinese tourists in Nepal did not do their country proud!
I started taking photos with the tripod but it was quite windy and of course I wasn’t the only person to pay extra to come up here, so there were other people to contend with. The telescope platform was the highest point but as soon as anyone stepped on it, the tripod vibrated and made the photos blurry. There wasn’t much foreground to use in the photos here, and I wished I knew more about the area so I could have had a better place to shoot than the viewing platforms. After fifteen minutes the silhouetted mountains were starting to be shaded with colour, and the glow of pre-dawn light covered the valley. Despite the noise and bustle around me, the view made up for it.
The mound below was now packed solid with tourists and my roof had become photo wars with people constantly getting in the way of each other’s photos. The edges of the Annapurnas lit up, golden. Minutes later, the orange sun peeked up over the hills to audible “awwws” from the audience. It looked great and there was only time to take a few photos before the glowing ball was completely above the horizon. Amazingly, only minutes throngs of people were already leaving, even though it still looked great. Microlights passed overhead and I imagined what an amazing experience it must be to see that sunrise from the air.
I descended to the mound to see the big river valley below the Annapurnas. There was a big town down there and a wide, turquoise river snaking into the distance. It put the epic scale of the mountains into perspective. It was another great view, and on a ledge just below me, a row of Chinese photographers had filled every bit of available space with their tripods, looking pretty comical.
As I took my own photos, I was very entertained by all the ridiculously cheesy poses that the older Chinese and Indian people were acting out for their photos, especially the “game show girl” pose where they held out their arms to the mountains as though showing off the top prize! The younger folks were doing silly jumps on the spot to get mid-air photos. It was all pretty funny!
Half an hour later the sun was too bright for photos and I was starving. Mohan had wandered up and I negotiated a new price with him to take us for breakfast and then to a Tibetan refugee settlement I’d read about. We drove down the hairpins and through sparse terrain in the valley next to the big river I’d seen from the mound. Prayer flags could be seen strung along the shoreline occasionally. We stopped at the Tibetan refugee settlement, which to me looked indistinguishable from any other village.
Mohan led me to a local restaurant, just a bare room with a stove and basic wooden tables and benches. Old men were chatting outside and watched us with interest. As we waited for food, one of them got chatting to me in English, asking me about myself. We watched the chef cooking up noodle soup with egg and served it up. Mohan munched on a big green chilli as an extra, “I like spicy”, he smiled with his mouth full.
I chatted to the chef who spoke a little English and watched as he rolled out and then fried chapattis. Outside, we stopped to watch four men playing a Nepali game I’d seen before on the streets. A large flat square, like a high table was dusted with chalk. On it were small coin-sized plastic disks. The object is to flick the disks with your finger, bouncing them off the walls to get them into the corner holes, and disrupting your opponent by bouncing theirs away. It looked fun. There were two teams of two and these guys were pretty skilled, doing some impressive ricochets.
Mohan led me to the Tibetan refugee settlement down the road. It didn’t look much different to the surrounding area, though some of the buildings were white painted cottages which I hadn’t seen before. A row of jewelry and handicraft vendors lined a path leading to a colourful temple. The Tibetan people had noticeably different dress and most of the women had a multitude of nose and ear rings. Through an ornate gate we entered the courtyard of the Buddhist temple. Inside a side-building was a massive prayer wheel, about 6 meters tall and 3 wide. A dog slept on the floor beneath it. The interior walls were lined with little golden Buddah statues. Despite the wheel’s size it spun fast.
In the main temple the ceiling and walls were colourfully patterned. Big skin drums stood by the entrance and large golden statues stood at the far end. A few monks walked around the complex with their red robes and shaved heads. Around the outside of the complex was a tourist restaurant and the monks quarters, which reminded me of council flats. Colourful flags were hung over each window and we saw monks, young and old, going about their daily business.
Back on the souvenir path I was verbally attacked by the vendors, who insisted I should look at their wares. Some of the women seemed genuinely angry that I wouldn’t stop to look, even when I explained I was alone and travelling for a long time. I hardly ever buy souvenirs. I have no interest in them aside from looking, and there’s no way I’m lugging around souvenirs for months on end. Of course I’m an exception – I’ve met plenty of girls travelling who will stop at any shop to look with glee at all the trinkets on offer and usually walk away with lighter pockets and a full shopping bag! We walked down the main village path past whitewashed buildings but there wasn’t much else to see.
Mohan then drove me back and I got him to stop at the big river for a photo. In his broken English he managed to explain to me that a few years ago a big wave had surged down the river (a result of ice cracking way up in the mountains), and had killed around 20 people who were bathing at the hot springs. Because it happened in the morning the casualties were light, if it had happened later in the day hundreds could have been lost. One of Nepal’s colourful lorries had stopped at the same car park – the drivers were wet from a wash in the river.
On the way back I learned that Mohan, like most guys in their 20s in Nepal, was already married and had kids. He got kicked out of school and then became a taxi driver, which gets his family by. I bid him farewell in Lakeside and went immediately to bed, I was shattered! I slept for about 5 hours. It was nearly dark when I emerged. I grabbed some food and then met the trekking guide from Fantastic Nepal. There seemed to be some miscommunication because the guide, Shiba, was under the impression I would be trekking in the next day or two. However I hadn’t found anyone to join me and share the bill. As I chatted with him about details, I realized that I was just wasting time and money by hanging around hoping to find someone, and I should just go out and do it.
Shiba was 34, Nepali, and lived near Pokhara. He spoke with a high pitched voice and his English was alright. We did have some communication problems, where I couldn’t understand his accent, or I’d have to phrase things in different ways. Despite the language problems his experience couldn’t be faulted, he’d been a guide for 4 years and spent most of it leading treks. He’d done the trek I was interested in over 15 times, he’d also done the big Annapurna circuit and Everest Base Camp many times. He’d had done a degree involving mountain tribal history and had spent plenty of time up there in research.
Accompanying Shiba was a porter – Shiba’s brother in law – an older guy named Krishna who’s 48 and graying. He spoke broken English but understood me well. I had been concerned about my weighty luggage but Shiba lifted it and said it wouldn’t be a problem for Krishna. After I agreed to the trek, we went out to the main strip to buy supplies. Shiba recommended I get a sleeping bag as it gets cold up there, and a raincoat. Although I didn’t want to spend more money, I wasn’t going to ignore the advice of an experienced guide and so bought both (brand fakes of course!). We got trapped at a shop by heavy rain which lasted for half an hour – the first rain I’d seen since I came to Nepal. I took Shiba for a quick coffee and we arranged to meet the next morning to start the trek. We’d be doing the ABC trek – Annapurna Base Camp, an 8-10 day hike up into the mountains, via Poon Hill, another worthwhile destination. It’s one of the best short treks you can do as it has great views and covers a variety of terrain.