Pokhara…The morning excited me, as I would have my first real glimpse of Kathmandu, one year after the massive series of earthquakes. When I arrived the night before it was darkness and overall impressions were impossible. A recently read story by CNN painted a deep, dreary picture. Today I would be able to form my own opinions, as we drove through the city, on the road to Pokhara.
Kathmandu is a city of contrasts. The richer, commercial sectors show little evidence of earthquake damage with clean streets and bustling trade. It seemed that every available inch of space was utilized for selling something, by someone. Humanity was like a blanket. However, in moments the scene would change to a poor section where rubble, dirt and refuse were strewn on roadside. The dust in these areas was enough to close car windows and many people wore face masks to assist breathing. My perception was that earthquake clean up priority was very unequal between sectors.
Traffic in Kathmandu was insane and the only evidence of some order was at intersections where police somehow exercised control. Motorcycles and scooters far outnumber vehicles. Movement of all goods is totally by large truck and they are everywhere. Traffic jams are constant and snarls are routine. Horns create a symphony as forward movement somehow happens, defying all rules of reality. Everyone must have eyes in the back of their head to stay out of the repair garage. Yet, I saw few damaged vehicles…..amazing !
The road to Pokhara is an interesting 5-6 hours of sheer, gutsy driving. Basically it is an old, one lane, cart road, somehow made into two lanes. Curve after curve, it winds around hills, featuring terraced fields. Transport trucks are bumper to bumper and blind spots are the norm. Nevertheless, my crazy driver Ari, would beep the horn and pass a transport lorry with 50 feet left to a blind corner. If we met another vehicle, I closed my eyes and prayed to the holy cows….by the way did I say Ari was crazy??? Traffic in Nepal is not for the faint heart person, it is an adventure on it’s own.
Reaching Pokhara and then the upper foothills, the mountains rise quickly and the Annapurna range when visible is spectacular. We stopped for a tea break in a shack which was also a chicken shop. It was a moment to ponder as I looked at the shop owner carrying a tray of freshly butchered chicken which he raised. One by one, customers would walk towards the shop bringing their own plastic bag to carry the meat. That is tonight’s dinner I thought. It was so beautiful to watch life unfolding before my eyes.
And then we started the trek. Walking is laborious in the thinner air and my legs and knees tired quickly. This is Nepal at its bare roots; small villages and evidence of people living with the bare necessities. There is always a rule about a trek in the mountains, you always pay attention to your body. After about 45 minutes it became obvious that the day belonged to the mountain and not to me, and we returned to Pokhara, humbled by one of the hills of Nepal. Perhaps it was a mistake to try and attempt a trek less than 48 hours after the long journey from North America. As I walked past the little kids from the village walking home from school ,where they lived on the mountain, I only had envy for their stamina.
The majority of the hotels in Pokhara are 4-6 stories high and all seem nested in small alleys that serve as streets. My impression is that most are of the hostel type, clean but spartan. One walks up and down steps are elevators are a luxury and seemingly not the norm. Of course my room was on the top floor and the electricity was out so the air conditioning did not work. Luckily the windows opened and the air was able to move.
After resting for a couple hours the electricity resumed and a shower was a present from the gods. I was told that the next street had multiple restaurants of many different cuisines, so I was determined to eat local fare again. The streets and restaurants were inhabited by what seemed to be young people under 25 years of age. I recall reading that Pokhara, Nepal is in the top five cheapest places to visit in Asia. Who knows if that is true, or just the opinion of some writer?
I settled on a very small, Indian restaurant run by what seemed to be the older mother as the cook and the daughter as the waitress. I must admit I had very little idea what I ordered, only limited clues came from the ingredients. I felt like the Christopher Columbus of foodie fame. The food came, it was beyond delicious, and the quantity was enormous. Do not ask me the name of the dish, just remember how loud I smacked my lips in delight at each morsel of chicken that entered my mouth and the burst of flavours from coriander, ginger to lemon grass and other spices that danced and teased this North American. Perhaps this is what travel is really all about? It was a Star Trek experience when I went to space totally unknown to me and realized everything alien was exciting. This Nepal experience was nothing like I expected, and yet, I was so greedy and wanted more.
Walking back to the hotel I realized there were no streetlights. The fresh air was infused with the smell of various meals being prepared and eaten. The fusion of fresh air and living was somehow calming.
My second night in Nepal had the same core ideas as the first night. This Nepal was a different country, it had a different mental aroma…this was Asia……I had no idea what to expect tomorrow. And, for once,. I was at peace and excited with the prospect.