Saturday, 13 September 2008

hanging out by the lake

The sky is blue, the sun is out, it’s warm and I don’t have anything to do! Welcome to the lakeside town of Pokhara. I’ve been here a few days and until yesterday morning I haven’t done much of anything…

The town itself is large but the tourist bit is small. This is nice because it doesn’t take long to get to all the restaurants and bars. The main draws of the place are the mountains and lakes and the fact that it’s the jumping off point for trekking into the Himalayas.

Yesterday (Tuesday) I actually got off my fat arse and went for a walk but it started out by me sitting down. The small boat glided across the calm waters of Phewa Tal heading to the other side of the lake where the trail to the peace pagoda started, which is perched high up on a mountain ridge. After an hour’s walk up moss covered steps I made it to the top, little bit hot, slightly sweaty and with a right hip that was starting to ache (am i falling apart?). The views were 360 fabulous and through gaps in the clouds I saw huge snow covered mountains looming large whilst still being 60 miles away.

Chilling out in the nearby café, a local pissed up alcoholic kept me amused with his rantings. Even though it was in Nepalese I understood every word!

Fully rested I took a different and longer path along the ridge, down the mountain and into a valley. Many steps and a few hours later I was strolling through paddy fields and by now my right hip had the company of my left knee in whinging…honestly I really am falling apart!!!

The main tourist season doesn’t start till October and as such it’s not hard getting a table in any of the numerous restaurants or bars. However, as it is only a few weeks away the local police are reminding all the bar owners that the local bribe season starts at the same time. The bar I was in tonight was told to shut at 10pm by the police, the night before it stayed open past 1am.

Thursday: today I did something new again! I ran down the side of a mountain and soared into the air on a tandem paraglider like an eagle. For the next 90 minutes I rose high into the sky on the billowing thermals as beneath my dangling feet 100s of metres below me was the very solid looking ground. Do you know what…I loved it!

In fact, I enjoyed it so much that the next day I signed on to do a 10 day paragliding course. As the course doesn’t start till mid November ( currently all the training take off and landing sites are being used to grow rice which they don’t harvest till then) I still have plenty of time to do nothing. Of course, once I am a fully trained paraglider pilot I’ll be spending December and January flying. So here’s the plan…I am able to stay in Nepal till I’m at least 39 years of age so it looks like I am over wintering here in Pokhara. This could become a theme in my travels; I mean everyone needs a break from the day job! I have already looked at one flat which I can rent for less than £30 a week. It’s a two bed apartment, so if anyone needs a holiday

Saturday, 6 September 2008

On the way to Pokhara

It takes several long hours by bus to travel from Kathmandu to Pokhara. If you’re like me and you have time on your hands it can take several days. There are a couple of places I want to visit on the way, the 1st being the village of Gorkha.

The bus took a leisurely 6 hours to reach Gorkha along the way I saw:

• One lorry that hadn’t gone around the bend but instead carried straight on, through the wall and down the side of the mountain.
• A lorry that was lying on its side in the middle of the river (and I have no idea how it managed to end up there).
• A bus (just like the one that I was on) and a lorry that had played a game of chicken which had resulted in a draw.
• A near head on collision with a car overtaking a lorry on a bend. Luckily our bus driver was able to stop just in time!

Oh, I also did see some amazingly beautiful scenery as well.

Scary thought number 749: just because a Nepalese bus driver thinks he is Lewis Hamilton doesn’t mean he needs to have slick tyres on his bus!

The village of Gorkha lies about 1000m above sea level on the side of a mountain ridge. On top of the ridge is the Gorkha Durbar. This place is a temple, fort and palace all rolled into one. There are two ways to reach the entrance:

1. Arrive by helicopter.
2. Walk up the 1500 steps.

Not having access to a helicopter or a pilot it looks like I’ll be walking up there tomorrow morning.

In the evening there was a village wide power cut that lasted for several hours. Having a meal by candle light can be romantic, if however you are by yourself in a restaurant of questionable hygiene it’s not!

The next morning I was up early (thank you very much resident hotel cockerel) and after a cold shower I was very wide awake. Walking through the oldest part of the village I reached the 1st of many many many steps. Because it’s still the monsoon season (although it’s only rained the once since I have been here in Nepal) there are still lots of clouds floating in the sky or in this case floating in the valley below me. It takes the sun a few hours to burn of the low level cloud, so as I was walking up the views across the valley were mostly of clouds…they were still glorious mind you.

Finally…...I reached the western gate to the palace/temple complex. According to the guide book photography is a big No No, well that’s no longer the case …which is nice! The temple structure is of Newari construction and is dedicated to Kali. That explains all the goats and chickens then! Yep, that’s right, animal sacrifice is alive and well (and then quite dead). Once a year a shed load of buffalo (quite literally) takes the long walk up the mountain but they don’t get to walk down again. Could be worse, they still could be doing human sacrifice!

By now the lowest clouds had disappeared and the views across the valleys opened up. Top place, top views!

The walk down was via another set of steps, mostly covered in moss, lichen and algae. So the pace was slow and careful with the occasional frantic arm waving that you do when you’re slipping.

The 2nd place to visit before I reach Pokhara is the mountain top village of Bandipur, straddling a ridge high 1200 metres above the valley town of Dumre.

The bus from Gorkha went as far as Dumre and from there it was an 8km ride in the back of an overcrowded jeep going up a very steep and narrow mountain road. Jumping out of the jeep it was a short walk down to the main street and the 1st guest house I saw. The guest house is compact but charming and for £2 a night I have a bedroom that looks out over a valley and all I can see when lying down on the bed are mountains and clouds. This is the 1st time in the Indian sub continent that I have come across a village as picturesque as this (imagine a small seaside Dorset village but without the sea and on top of a mountain instead).

I arrived at midday and I’ve yet to leave the hotel. I’m just enjoying the afternoon sun, the fresh mountain air, the complete lack of internal combustion engines and just watching the people go by. After all I have days to wander around, so where’s the rush.

During the afternoon I was reading a book by the Dalai Lama that I had brought somewhere in India. One of the chapter headings was “life as a free and fortunate human being”…now that’s a damn fine title for a travel blog book!

I get the feeling that this village is very typical Nepalese; a sign on the bedroom door states that if you are staying out after 10:30 in the evening you will be locked out!

Come the evening… I’m still sitting at the table where I have spent the afternoon, with the food ordered, the candle lit (in case of a power cut) and the beer cap popped its time to kick back and relax some more…and as the light starts to fade the stars come out!

The following day I was, like the locals, up at dawn. After a restful night under a warm blanket I had the refreshment only a cold shower can bring to look forward to. Well that and a huge pot of black coffee. Sitting outside sipping the sweat black nectar of life I watched contemplatively as the mountain mists made their way down the main street slowly swirling around the buildings.

Time for a little bit of history:

Bandipur was an important staging post on one of the main Tibet to India trade routes. The village grew rich and the merchants built fine 3 or 4 storey houses. Along the main bazaar each house had a shop on the ground floor with living quarters above on the various other floors. Only the finest bricks and wood were used the latter carved exquisitely and enhanced with fine detailed lattice work. The tracks, once compacted dirt, were covered with flagstones throughout the village and several small but impressive temples were also constructed. Good times don’t last forever and as roads replaced the tracks the merchants moved out and relocated to the new towns springing up along the roads. Bandipur lost her importance and as the wealth drained away it became just a poor little village on a mountain ridge. Due to the poverty people had to make do with what they had, that included the houses. So now, a few hundred years later the village has become a well preserved example of Newari village life, with authentic and mostly unaltered infrastructure.

There are only a few guesthouses and hotels here and a local village organisation takes a softly softly approach to the tourist trade, doing their best to keep village life the way its always been and trying to minimise the damage that overcrowding with tourist would do if left unchecked and ill informed. The people still seem to view, to some small degree, westerners with naked curiosity and novelty. So please come here because this place is astonishingly beautiful but just don’t all turn up at once okay!

In the morning I took a long and leisurely stroll around the houses and lanes of the village, with my camera in hand. In the afternoon, obviously after my siesta I went up to the old parade ground. It’s the largest piece of flat land in the area and was once used as a seasonal market place and archery tournament place thingy. On one side are 5 large and ancient fig trees said to represent five of the Hindu gods. At the far end are views across the valleys so I came back here for sunset and even more photos. In the evening on the way back to the centre of the village I saw a young kid about knee high struggling with a basket of firewood. Always the gentleman I offered to carry it for her, she was more than happy to allow me to do this but every time she saw a local she grabbed it off me and put it back on her back. When we came into view of her mother, standing on the doorstep of the house nothing in heaven or residing in the depths of hell would have been able to get her to release that grip on the basket. So for the last 50 metres I sat down and watched her stagger under the weight of the wood till triumphantly she crossed over the threshold of her abode. This just proves once again that a woman whatever her age is stronger and more determined than any man!

On the Wednesday, once again I was awake before dawn, lying in bed gazing out through the open window, watching the shadows retreat across the mountains as the golden light of yet another beautiful day marched across the horizon. Sitting outside by 05:30 I watched as up and down the bazaar people from each of the properties came out and started sweeping the paving slabs in front of them.
When I was half way into my large pot of coffee it started to rain. Damn, there went my plan for a days walking. Instead I spent the morning looking at over 400 photos picking out the best ones to upload at a later date. After lunch, several hours of sunshine had passed since the early morning downpour. By now I felt that the mud and stone steps would have dried out enough to attempt the Bandipur trail down the mountain…I was almost right!

The trail down is long passed its heyday but it is still in quite good condition. It was easy to imagine it full of traders, mules and yaks laden down with silks, carpets and other precious goods making their way slowly to India from Tibet. As always I was taking it easy and in several places taking little baby steps across some of the more slippery rocks and shiny compacted mud. Several times the vistas forced me to stop, sit down and contemplate the wonders of nature. As the mountain gave way to the valley slopes I came across a scene that I hadn’t seen since Iran. The unpolluted water course was a small mountain stream; crystal clear waters flowed over smooth rocks and pebbles, cascading down several small but abrupt changes in altitude. The fresh waters of the stream cooled my head and after a short while of repeating the mantra “damn I have a hard life” I continued into the town of Dumre where awaited transport back up the mountain to Bandipur.

Today is Thursday (I think) and I’m planning to leave tomorrow morning but only if my laundry is ready. This meant I only had one day left in Bandipur…maybe!

As it looked like being a nice day I thought a relaxing early morning stroll would suit my mood. I was walking along a dirt road just outside the village when a cheeky looking path caught my eye…as I strolled along it I came to the conclusion that it was a path less travelled and I was the 1st one that day to do so. How did I know this? Well all those big spiders, which are the size of a Marlboro fag packet, had weaved their webs across the path. At one point as I was watching my footing I walked right through one. Cue very loud girly screaming!!! The path snaked around the trees and along the contour lines before disappearing down the mountainside…as did I! An hour or so of very careful walking I appeared somewhere on the valley floor. Before me lay a patchwork of paddy fields, all of them differing in size and height from the ones next to them. Walking along the narrow field boundary walls (sometimes with a drop of several feet only an inch away) I was taking a roundabout route of moving in a certain heading whilst all the while the sound of tinkling water was in my ears as it flowed from field to field. Eventually I came to a shallow but swift flowing stream and once my shoes and socks were off I waded along it for a few hundred metres till a large waterfall checked my progress.

Helpful travel advice number 973: a lit cigarette is a good way to convince a blood sucking leech that dinnertime is over!

Once back on dry(ish) land I carried along what I thought was a goat path. Turns out it was actually a water buffalo path and I was in their way. Soon after that comically melodramatic episode I was back on a dirt road! I passed through a small hamlet where the local “all male heterosexual dance club” were having their lunchtime session. The track started to climb its way up the mountainside as I made my excuses to the club and left the hamlet.

It had been about 4.5 hours since I had started my “relaxing early morning stroll” and I was thinking that maybe it would have been a good idea to bring along some water. As I have had prior experience of dehydration and heatstroke (see a certain Italian blog) I knew that I still had a few hours to go before I would need to worry about it…but damn it was hot and I was thirsty!

90 minutes later I strolled tired but happy back into the village of Bandipur….

…when I finally left the village three things happened. One was cool, one was of great mental relief and the 3rd was annoying.

Cool: the owner of the guest house asked me if he could have copies of the pictures I had taken during my stay. When I was paying my bill I saw that he had already made one of them his pc desktop background.

Mental relief: for the last three days I had been trying to remember a word and failing miserably. Each day the level of my frustration climbed to new heights. When I was on the bus going down the hill to Dumre it came to me….business at the front, party at the back….it’s a Mullet!!!!

Annoying: when I got the bus to Pokhara I was scammed by a “helpful” local and ended up paying twice the amount I should of. I lost £2 so it wasn’t about the money!!!