Thursday, November 10, 2011

Pokhara, Nepal – Where are the Mountains?

Himalayas from our Room

After 5 days of disheartening rain, haze and clouds that masked even the closest mountains, the sun finally broke through. We were starting to believe that the photos of snowcapped mountains were fake.

We had paid extra for a rooftop room at the Sacred Valley Inn in Pokhara partly because it was quieter, but mainly for the view. And it was a beautiful room, with windows on three sides and a private washroom, all for $25. The only problem was the rain and the haze that even hid from our view the bright white stuppa on top of the large hill across the lake.

Of course we were the fortunate ones. We, at least, had a room. Over 2,000 people were stranded up in the Himalayas by the same unusual weather system that had socked in all of Nepal and luckily had delayed our own trekking. Flights were cancelled across the country and no one could get in or out of the mountains for days. Some tourists were forced to sleep in tents, food was running out and vendors were charging exorbitant prices for basics. Had we started our trek on schedule, we would not only have seen nothing, but we might have been stranded on the mountain.

Finally the weather system broke and rescue efforts began, first by helicopter and then by plane. Desperate to make connecting flights, tourists were charged up to $2,000 by the government to be ferried down to Kathmandu.

Downtown Pokhara
In the meantime, we were disappointed by the weather, but were in the relative luxury of Pokhara, a surprisingly large “town” of close to a million inhabitants (if you include the surrounding areas). It was probably quite pleasant 20 years ago, but now it’s just a smaller version of Kathmandu with noise, pollution and the usual tourist traps. That was a bit of a surprise to us, as we were expecting something more “rustic.” The odd cow was a nice touch of rustic, but not what we were looking for.

Tourist Strip in Pokhara
The tourist area runs all along the lakeside with shabby hotels and shops selling trekking gear, souvenirs and tours. Some nice restaurants and even a few nice hotels dot the strip, but basically it’s one long string of boring, tacky sameness. Behind the strip is a large, dull and dirty city like any other in Asia. There are a few tourist attractions in town, including paddling on the lake, parasailing off one of the mountains (when you can see it), a Buddhist stuppa, and a Gurkha museum, but for the most part the town is just a jumping off point for trekking around Jomsom or closer around Ghandruk in the Annapurna Range.

Oh, wait a minute, I forgot about the river rafting.  It’s quite popular here, as are a lot of the “adventure” activities. We met a couple who had been river rafting on the way between Kathmandu and Pokhara. They flipped twice and the wife lost her glasses. I'll stick to kayaking on Georgian Bay!

Of course the big attraction is that three out the ten highest mountains in the world can be viewed closely from Pokhara. Nowhere else do you see mountains rising so quickly – from 800 metres to over 7,500 metres within a 30-km area. It truly is a wow!
Lakeside in Pokhara
Nepal is Warm!
The biggest surprise so far, however, has been the temperature. We were expecting the Himalayas, and Nepal in general, to be cold at this time of year. But even with the bad weather, it has been quite warm – warmer even than Bhutan. Temperatures have been in the mid to high 20s during the day and dropping down a bit at night. Nepal has five seasons: summer, monsoon, autumn, winter and spring. The Himalayas protect the valleys to the south from the cold winter winds of Central Asia and so the climate in the lower regions can be either tropical, sub-tropical or temperate.

Hence the profusion of flowers in bloom everywhere in town and in the wild. Poinsettias, marigolds, coleus, ageratum, glorious Bougainvillea, and flowering trees brighten up the landscape even now in November. They don’t get snow here except at high elevations. Local mythology is that they might get snow on the tree-covered mountains once every seven years, but it rarely snows in Kathmandu or Pokhara.

By day four I was getting tired of the gloomy weather and I decided to hire a bird watching guide to do a bit of hiking up the mountain across the lake from our hotel. It was grey out and I couldn’t even see the white stuppa, but visibility was good enough to see the brightly coloured birds that make this part of Nepal home.

Lake Phewa Tal in Pokhara
I hired a small local boat to take the guide and me across the lake to the starting point for the climb up to the stuppa. Within the first hour, we had already spotted over 20 species of birds, many of them “lifers” for me.  Red Vented Bulbuls, Yellow Cheeked Tits, Blue Whistling Thrushes and Greater Yellownapes, among others were flitting around the chestnut trees and other fruiting trees. A large troupe of monkeys was noisily feeding on the fallen ripe chestnuts.

My legs had recovered from our climb up to the Tiger’s Nest in Bhutan, but it was still a struggle to hike up to the top of the mountain because of the rain soaked mud trail and slippery rocks.

At the very top, we met a local woman collecting firewood and she warned my guide in Nepalese that some tourists had been robbed a few days earlier. I hid my extra money in a secret pocket and joked with my slightly overweight guide that I would be okay because I could run faster than he could. “Not on this muddy trail,” he replied.

A little further on, we encountered a patrol of five uniformed police, three men and two women, who were scouting the area for the robbers. At this point, my guide kindly, but belatedly, informed me that he knew them quite well because some of the police often accompany him on hikes wearing plain clothes to try to catch crooks. Thanks for telling me now, I thought.

Strange Procession
Then I heard the sound of horns and drums and, looking down into the valley from my vantage point, I saw a procession of people carrying two large towers of marigolds down to the river. My guide explained that local villagers were helping a widow in a special ceremony for the departed.

This event occurs at a certain time of the month following a death. They take the flowers to the river, where cremations occur, and cross back and forth on bridges stringing garlands of the flowers over the river as they go. The purpose is to assist the soul of her dead husband to cross over the "rivers of vices." The music was haunting and I stood and watched for a long time as the procession made its way down to the river far below.

Back at the hotel at the end of the day, I scanned a few weather websites our friend Chuck in Detroit had given us and learned that the weather was going to improve in two days. So we quickly planned a two-day trek up into the Annapurna Range of the Himalayas.

Annapurna South and Fishtail Mountain from our Hotel
Weather Finally Breaks
Sure enough the next day, the sun burned off the haze and lit up the mountains like beacons calling out to us. Finally we had our first glimpse of the Himalayas from our hotel room. It was astonishing to see how close they actually were for five days and we couldn’t even see them.

Close Up of Annapurna South
People in the other rooms came up to our rooftop patio to stare in awe at the marvelous sight that suddenly revealed itself. What a splendid display of jagged peaks, glaciers and stunningly bright snow!
Our mood changed from depression to elation. We’re pumped up and ready to trek!

The next morning we started our 2-day trek up into the Annapurna Range to get up close and personal with these gorgeous mountains.


bigginsfish said...

Gorgeous photos, Dan. I'm glad the sun came out.
Cheers, Margaret

Dusteedee said...

Just gorgeous! Love travelling vicariously with you :)