After trekking the Annapurna Circuit, Clare travelled to Maharashtra state in India to begin a three week meditation and work retreat. My plan was to stay in Nepal, complete another trek and then meet up with her in India in three weeks time.
There were loads of interesting treks listed in Lonely Planet’s guide, but in the end, I decided to do a trek called Annapurna Sanctuary. It was in the same region as the Annapurna Circuit, but approached the mountain range from the other side. Its furthest point was the base camp for climbing the south face of Annapurna I (8091 m) and if the weather was good, it offered spectacular views of numerous high mountains, including the instantly recognisable ‘fishtail’ pyramid of Machhapuchhre (6997 m).
From Kathmandu, I caught the bus to the lakeside city of Pokhara, Nepal’s second largest city, and the main base for activities in the Annapurna region. This time the bus journey wasn’t so pleasant. People travelling as couples or in groups were allocated seats first, including those next to windows. I ended up in the middle of the back seat, sandwiched between a couple on my right and two German lads on my left.
Being close to the rear axle meant a bumpier ride than usual, and I was too far from a window to occupy myself with the visuals of the landscape. Reading or sleeping were impossible, so I listened to some podcasts to help pass the time. The gruelling journey, thankfully broken up with rest stops, lasted a full eight hours.
To add to the tedium of the day, I’d booked a hotel in Pokhara that was way less appealing than booking.com had suggested. The room was small and pokey, the WiFi barely worked and the shower wasn’t hot. That evening I continued what seemed like an inevitable run of bad luck by eating in a restaurant, which despite having a tantalising menu and nice atmosphere, had very mediocre food.
The next morning I promptly cancelled my three-night booking and walked across the road to another hotel where I managed to get a comfortable, bright and spacious, well-lit room with great views over Pokhara and the lake. The shower was hot, the WiFi was excellent, the room had a desk and the service was attentive and sincere. I delighted in the idea that I now had somewhere to relax for a few days and catch up on some writing before starting the trek.
After checking-in to my new room, I handed several bags of washing over to the front desk and went for a walk around the town. I found an excellent place to eat right on the lake. It had delicious food, friendly service and an atmosphere supported by a good selection of music. Most of the bars and restaurants along the lake front, had a similar laid-back, warm climate feel, each with outdoor seating areas, typically styled with bamboo and thatched roofs.
Pokhara is wonderfully situated on the edge of Phewa Lake, surrounded by forested hills and spectacular views of the Annapurna mountain range, lying only thirty kilometres to the north. Although less interesting culturally, I found it far more relaxing than Kathmandu. It felt more spacious and nature-oriented and had much better air quality.
It’s also a popular base for adventure activities. Besides its proximity to a wide variety of trekking trails, the aspiring adventurer could partake in white-water rafting, paragliding, mountain biking, scenic helicopter tours, bungy-jumping and a host of other activities. All of these could be organised in the popular district of Lakeside, where trek and travel agencies competed for tourist dollars along with countless hotels, souvenir and trekking shops, bars, restaurants and nightclubs.
One inexpensive yet thoroughly satisfying activity I discovered in Pokhara was to visit the World Peace Pagoda. It’s a Buddhist monument situated on top of Ananda Hill on the other side of the lake. There are several ways to get there but I took the easiest and possibly most enjoyable option. It involved being rowed across the lake in a small boat before embarking on a steep 45 minute walk up the hill. The gleaming white stupa at the top was just one of many similar structures world wide, all part of an initiative by a Buddhist movement from Japan to promote world peace. The real attraction for me though was not so much the monument, but the walk up and back, the slow and relaxing journey across the lake and the fine views of Pokhara, Phewa Lake and the Annapurna range.
Pokhara Lakeside is a popular destination for Nepalis as well as foreigners and in the evening it really comes alive. Regardless of the day, all the shops stay open until late and live music, both traditional and modern, emanate from the bars and clubs. Most of the tourists at this time of year were from Nepal and other Asian countries. There seemed to be only a smattering of Westerners, dressed in outfits that seemed to place them neatly into one of two camps – either trekkers or hippies.
Beyond the tourist bubble of the Lakeside district, Pokhara was much like any other Nepalese city. It was crowded, chaotic, often run-down and impoverished, yet brimming with life and energy.