Pokhara is Nepal’s second city, but it is more like a large village, with ramshackle brick and wood buildings and wide, dusty streets. Before the construction of the Prithivi Highway, travelling to Pokhara was a 10-day pony trek. It was a perilous journey. Rivers swollen with snow-melt, rushing from the surrounding Himalayas, claimed many lives. When Swiss explorer Toni Hagen finally reached Pokhara in 1952 (Nepal was opened to foreigners only two years before), he found buffalo carts and streets of brick Newari houses.
Buffalo still amble down the main road. Their shoulder blades protrude from their thick, muscular backs. Their horns curve into lethal points. The massive hulk of their bodies sways with each step. Their calmness is deceiving. They stand up to my shoulder, outweigh me by a ton and can kill me with one unprovoked charge. I steer well clear.
Today the streets of Pokhara are lined with all the paraphernalia of rampant tourism – hotels, restaurants, trekking equipment stores, internet cafes, travel agents and souvenir stores. It’s an eye-widening mass of colour and sound, set against the spectacular backdrop of the highest mountains in the world.
Tibetan chants of “om mani padme hum” (hail to the jewel in the lotus) blare from loudspeakers. Packs of middle-aged Tibetan women walk the streets selling handmade jewellery out of grubby backpacks. Young men hang around on street corners. They wear System of a Down t-shirts, swish their shoulder-length hair, and strike up a conversation with every passing tourist. In a country where the average wage is Rs100 a day, tourism in Pokhara is big business. “You want trekking? I can show you trekking? You need porter? You want bungee? Rafting? Hotel? I know nice restaurant?”
Foreigners come here for the trekking. The Himalayan range here is the Annapurna. The perfectly triangular peak of Mount Machhapuchhare, the sacred mountain, looms over the town. The peak is forever covered in snow. All the mountains surrounding Pokhara are more than 6,000m-high. All are perfectly reflected in the steel-grey, ice-still waters of Phewa Tal (lake).
About 50 million years ago, the Indian plate drifted north from Africa and smashed into the Eurasian plate. The force pushed one plate over the other and forced both up out of the ocean, forming the Himalayas. The Himalaya range is the only mountain range in the world that does not get smaller every year. The Indian plate is still forcing its way into Asia, slowly sliding over into the continent at a rate of 6cm a year. The force pushes the Himalayas up by 2mm every year.
Phewa Tal, the lake of Pokhara
The scenery is spectacular.
But today the mountains are covered in a fine grey mist. We have been here for 13 days. Every day I wake up expecting the mist of the monsoon to clear. It hangs grey and cold and wet over the dark green of the mountains. The grey is absorbed by the lake, making the water dark and cold. My partner and I naively expected the monsoon to be humid and warm. Instead we sleep under thick blankets at night, and wear warm woollen socks during the day.
Day number 14 dawns bright and sunny. Ominous grey clouds, heavy with rain, hang over the peak of Mt Machhapuchhare and the glaring white of the World Peace Pagoda, built on the top of a hill overlooking the lake. We ignore the clouds, grab our daypacks, and head out for a much-needed long walk around the lake edge.
Phewa Tal is the second largest lake in Nepal. It spreads westwards from Pokhara, the far banks of the other side just in sight. It is a clear day, despite the looming grey clouds. The Annapurnas are perfectly reflected in the lake. A dense green forest breaks the terraced, bright green rice fields.
It is beautiful. The lake is quiet. There are few tourists here. The dusty roads are quiet. Even the buffalo seem to be taking advantage of the sun; they wallow in deep thick-brown pools, only their black nostrils and blacker eyes above the muck.
Store holders also take advantage of the fine weather. Colourful trinkets hang outside windows, tables and wooden benches are laden with Tibetan prayer wheels, incense holders, statutes of the Hindu elephant-headed god of Ganesh. The metal gleams gold in the bright sun. We pause to browse, succumb to a mobile of bright, gaudy elephants hanging around an Oriental umbrella, and quickly move on.
Pokhara is a place where you can spend a lot of money on very beautiful things.
The far side of the lake is strewn with wooden doongas (boats). The paint is peeling off the hulls and stagnant water lies deep into the rotting wood. We watch two courageous South Koreans balance in a boat, already sagging deep into the water. The oarsman is an elderly Newari. A younger man gets in. We assume he is the bailer. They slowly row their way to a forested island. We can see the roof of an ancient Hindu temple just above the trees.
The way further is blocked with mud and fallen mountain debris. We decide to walk back, through Pokhara, and around the other side. We can see the bright green of rice fields, terraced into the mountains, and a sliver of brown, untarred road as it winds around the lake and up the mountains. A ramshackle bus, decorated with Christmas tinsel, makes its way up the mountains. Young men crowd onto the roof. We decide to follow the road.
Lakeside, the tourist area of Pokhara, slowly makes its way into Damside, a less touristy – and cheaper – option to the rampant commercialism of trekking equipment and souvenir stores. Shanty restaurants line the dirt road. On one side of the road, the dark green hills slowly make their way into mountains. On the other side of the road, the waters of Phewa Tal stretch and glitter to the shores of mountains covered in dark green forest.
I feel very small here, dwarfed by a colossal of rock. The Nepalis have a god or goddess associated with every peak. Each deity, they believe, must be appeased so the mountains do not claim human life. I can imagine that the winters are very cold here. A cold seeps down the mountains and off the lake. If I lived here, I would appease the gods too.
The dusty dirt road, more a track with ruts than a road, runs through the luminous green of rice paddies. A Newari woman, bright gold hoops running down her earlobes and hoops through her nose, sits quietly on the side of the road. She holds a long stick with fishing line into a pool of water on the side of the road. She gives the impression of waiting patiently. She does not look up.
Further on we watch women planting rice into the water of the surrounding paddy fields. Their colourful saris and head scarves, wrapped to keep their hair out the way, make beautiful patterns against the green.
The occasional vehicle passes, but mostly all is quiet here. The houses are made of brick and wood, banana trees dot the green of the rice fields. Wallowing buffalo low distantly. We find a restaurant with a terrace overlooking the lake. The terrace is wood and stretches out over the water. Below us the silver-grey of Phewa Tal glitters cold and clear. We watch boats rock calmly on the steel water as fishermen the fix the bulging nets hooked across the lake.
When the grey clouds blow over the blue of the sky we are walking through rows of bright green trees beside wooden huts along the lake shore. When the rain comes it is monsoon-cold. The downpour washes everything in the grey of the surrounding lake, the lushness of the surrounding mountains, the highest in the world. It is beautiful.