One morning in the middle of Nepalese winter, I woke up to the sound of children singing and playing from a house a few hundred meters behind our hotel. I opened the door to the balcony, stepped outside and let the cold and crisp air caress my naked arms. From here I could see a vegetable garden surrounded by a brick wall. The kids sang louder, occasionally interrupted by bursts of laughter. They were practicing a few children songs in English, probably taught by the staff members of some international NGO for Nepal is a no strange land for foreign humanitarian workers.
The night before, I had showered in the darkness, with a headlamp beaming the only source of light. I would have never thought that not only did it help me during a hike James and I did months earlier, but the headlamp also turned out very handy for taking a shower at night in Nepal as its giant neighbor to the south was imposing an embargo on the Himalayan country during our visit, effectively blockading fuel, medicine, and other necessities from entering the Nepalese market. Hours-long power outages became far too regular, further crippling the already struggling country.
We were in Pokhara – some 200 km west of the nation’s capital, Kathmandu – known for being the hub of adventure tourism in Nepal, as well as the base for the popular Annapurna Circuit trek. Its city center is bordered by the scenic Phewa Lake to the west and multiple hills to its north, east and south. The heart of the city’s tourism industry lies along the eastern banks of the calm and atmospheric lake – perfect to wind down after days of arduous trekking. Strangely, unlike in other heavily-touristed areas across Asia, Pokhara’s Lakeside was tame in comparison, despite the plethora of western restaurants and bars, souvenir shops, budget accommodation, massage parlors, and other typical establishments one can expect from such a place in the region.
We, too, were thinking of doing one of the short treks the city had to offer. But as we were approaching the very end of our months-long journey, we decided to take it easy and slow. The fact that thick clouds and mist stubbornly obscured the otherwise majestic views of the snow-capped peaks of the Annapurna mountain range further discouraged us from doing the trek. Instead, we took full advantage of the availability of a wide variety of dishes from all over the globe in the city. Nepalese thali and thukpa, Japanese gyudon, Tibetan momo, Vietnamese pho, Korean bibimbap, Italian pizza, and even Greek moussaka were among the dishes we tried during our nine-night stay in Pokhara.
One day, suddenly the mist cleared up a little bit, revealing the snow-capped peaks of Machhapuchchhre (Fishtail Mountain) and the adjacent mountains. We immediately headed to Sarangkot, a village on a mountain a few kilometers away from the city center popular for paragliding. From the height of the village, Pokhara’s sprawling houses and other buildings meandered through the high passes, forming Nepal’s second largest city by population. In spite of the lingering thin mist, the view of Machhapuchchhre overlooking Pokhara was truly a sight to behold.
Back in the city, when the mountains were shrouded by clouds and the electricity was cut off, we walked away from the lake toward Pokhara’s old town. A district filled with incongruous commercial and residential buildings divided by dusty roads, the old town surprisingly had a number of houses built in Newari style – similar to the ones found in the Kathmandu Valley. Pokhara itself has been home to the Khas people for centuries, and it was not until the mid-18th century the Newar people from Bhaktapur started migrating to what is today the old town of Pokhara.
In this part of the city, we were the only foreigners as far as my eyes could see. Clearly there were no international restaurants, just local grocery stores. Also conspicuously absent were signboards promoting guided treks and other excursions. With Newari buildings and small shrines set against an unpretentious neighborhood where daily life unfolded, the old town district was itself an interesting excursion.
On the way back to our hotel, cars and trucks formed a long line outside a small gas station, hoping to get however little petrol to run the vehicles regardless of the astronomical price – if there was gasoline at all. On a side walk, dozens – probably even hundreds – of empty LPG canisters were another reminder of the dire shortage the nation was facing. However, this part of Nepal is known as the home of the Gurkhas, soldiers who serve in the Nepalese, British, Indian, Singaporean and Bruneian armies. Perseverance ran in their blood, and it certainly helped them face the most unfortunate situations, including this fuel crisis.
A few days before we left the city, the mist cleared up again, prompting us to go to one more place we had been waiting to visit. A short taxi ride away and we were already on top of Ananda Hill – situated on the southern edge of the lake – where a white Buddhist stupa sat amid a garden filled with colorful blooms. From the stupa’s grounds, Pokhara’s sprawling urban center appeared to effortlessly blend with the calm waters of the lake and the awe-inspiring snow-crowned peaks in the background – a marvelous vista which could help one to forget, albeit briefly, the hardship Nepal was facing.