• Chris Edwards

Poking Around Pokhara, Nepal (1987)

Another 6 am wake up call in order to rush down to the bus company, so we wouldn't be squeezed out of our "reserved" seating. We had the choice of not one, but two buses going to Pokhara that morning, yet both were bangers, to our dismay. We thought we'd paid for a mini-bus, but as usual, when you book in advance in many Asian countries, you get the shaft.

We picked what looked like the better of the two antiques, and waited to depart. Soon, the buses were packed to the gills with westerners and Nepalis, and after gassing up the tank, we were on our way. The journey was to last about six hours, technically arriving in the early afternoon.

After we crossed a river, the bus came to a halt. The driver and his assistant got out to check the brakes - not a good sign. I got off the bus and watched in disbelief as they poured brake fluid over the brake drums! When we got going again, I could see the driver had to put his foot down the floor to get it to stop, and was mostly using the clutch to slow the beast down.

As we had to negotiate the steep escarpment where we'd seen our life flash before our eyes on the way to the Kathmandu valley, we knew braking around the hairpin turns would be critical. Elaine was in panic mode as we rounded the narrow turns down the steep bank.

The driver had to stop on several occasions to see if the brakes were still in working condition.

Somehow, through luck and good fortune, we made it to the valley floor. As the driver was negotiating one more turn at the bottom, he drove the bus right into the narrow bridge. This was the last straw, and when he stopped across the river, I demanded the bag boy get our bags down from the roof rack. Soon, we were joined by the entire contingent of westerners.

Most were eventually persuaded into reboarding by a distraught driver. I wasn't taking anymore chances with my life, and didn't know how many more mountain passes lay ahead (as it turned out, the route was fairly level to Pokhara after descending from the Kathmandu Valley). Sandra, Michelle, Elaine and about seven other travellers watched as the bus pulled away.

"If they make it, good," said Elaine, "but I was having a heart attack when we came down the mountain, and couldn't take it anymore."

"I am sure there's another bus coming soon," I said, "because I can't imagine being in the Third World and not having local bus service."

Despite the driver's prediction that no more buses would pass this route today, within a half an hour, a local bus came by. We all hopped on the roof (except Elaine, who has an aversion to heights), on a bright clear sunny Easter Sunday. We enjoyed a slow pleasant journey passing through green verdant valleys.

The road followed a river into narrow canyons, dotted with newly planted rice paddies, in anticipation of monsoon season, about a month away. Soon, trekking would be impossible in the Himalayas, since the trails get washed out and leeches become a serious concern.

Halfway to Pokhara, at Moguli Bazaar, we transferred to a modern, uncrowded mini-bus, with a lot of leg room and very cheap ticket price. We passed a giant dam project sponsored by the UN, and our driver then decided to see how fast he could push the mini-bus. We rolled at over 100 miles an hour toward our destination.

Near Pokhara, we saw a bus flipped on its side by the edge of the road, and at first, we thought it was our old banger. Our driver told us it had been there for about two months, since there weren't many tow trucks in Nepal. Despite spending twice the money to arrive in Pokhara, we felt it was a good investment for our peace of mind. And, we later learned we'd arrived two hours ahead of the "express" bus.

We were deposited in another traveller's centre on the edge of a very calm lake, quickly surrounded by touts who pitched us on the benefits of their guest house, but we were looking for something a little more secluded than the main road. We'd heard about a place, and saw a sign pointing down a road toward it. Soon, we were comfortably situated at the Snowview Guest House. We had a great room for less than $2, and our porch provided a spectacular view of Machupuchare.

We decided Pokhara would provide the perfect holiday from the stress of our last few journeys. There were many great little restaurants, with menus similar to those in Kathmandu. Trekking was far and away the big business, and every shop offered information, advice, porters, equipment and more on trekking in the mountains.

In Pokhara, we were much closer to the Himalayas than in Kathmandu. I'd only been able to see the mountains a couple of times from our roof at the Venus in the capital, as the dust and smog cloud that had overtaken the valley obscured them. But in Pokhara, one only had to awaken at sunrise to witness the most majestic peaks on earth, beyond the jungle surrounding our compound.

At the lake, we could rent an inexpensive row boat and paddle to the middle of the lake for a cool swim. A small island near the shore sported a beautiful little temple, and we'd often purchase some yak or buff cheese (a German co-op had taught the Nepali had to make this, and it was delicious), a few croissant, and some fruit and enjoy a peaceful picnic. We felt we ‘d earned the serenity of the lake.

Pokhara remained a hippy enclave, like a trip back to the sixties, extremely stoned freaks sitting in the cafés, smoking bang or eating hash brownies. There were plenty of holy cows walking around as well, and one day, we sat at a small cafe and watched a group of burn-outs surrounded by a small enclave of holy cows. Elaine asked the question: which group has more brains?

Amazingly, we managed to trade our tent, sans poles, to a group of Tibetan refugees for some jewellery and trinkets. We threw a hundred rupees to ice the deal, traded on the black market

We initially thought we like to embark on a long trek, but we were starting to run out of time. We did not realize at that time in our lives that we had nothing but time; we'd organized an itinerary with only six weeks travel in India and Nepal - one of the cheapest destinations on earth. Later, we regretted having passed through this exciting never dull part of the world, but we always assumed we would return sometime in the future, not realizing this formed the famous traveler’s conceit. It is necessary to see as much as one can tolerate without burning because you never know if you'll get another chance.

We passed the opportunity to trek the fabled Annapurna section, twenty five days. We'd recently met up with two friends from Thailand who'd just come down off the mountain, and had climbed around the fabled Annapurnas.

They were raving about it like a couple of lunatics, and we were jealous we didn’t have the time. Since trekking in the mountains has become so popular, many trails were suffering from pollution and waste, as trees were felled down to bathe and feed the army of hikers. In fact, we'd read the government was considering closing Everest because there was so much trekking garbage left behind by unthoughtful westerners. It wouldn't take much to spoil this area, either.

We trudged down to the government office to secure trekking permits, much easier than in Kathmandu, where it was rumoured long lines awaited trekkers. With permits in hand, we were ready to give the mountains our best shot.

Next Stop: The Boot Trek

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