Saturday the fourth we began our epic journey to Pokhara. The 7-hour train from Varanasi to Gorakhpur was painless and uncrowded, then we jumped immediately onto a minibus headed for the border town of Sunauli, two hours away. In hindsight the ease of the first legs probably should have made us suspicious. Arriving in Sunauli at 10:30 pm, cocky, we decided to cross into Nepal instead of checking into a guesthouse for the night. The reason escapes me now — possibly just because it was there. We stalked through the dark, sleeping town, eventually happening upon a large stick propped up across the road flanked by a few guys casually slumped in white plastic armchairs. They asked us if we had been stamped out of India; as the answer was clearly no, one guard escorted us back to the boarded-up Indian immigration office. The official emerged bleary-eyed and yawning from the back room, wearing nothing but boxer shorts and a white cotton undershirt pulled up to expose his capacious stomach. He told us severely that he only works until six o’clock (even though all the books say the border is open 24 hours) then began to examine our passports while the guard told us repeatedly what an important man the official was and how lucky we were to be seen. Eric and I swapped glances of ‘how much is this going to cost us and exactly how are we to figure it out’? Luckily at the end of the exchange he became very direct: “You pay me. 50, 50, 50.” We were happy that the ambiguity had been removed but somewhat insulted for him that he had asked us to bribe him three dollars.
Moving on, we checked out of India and passed through the no-man’s land to the Nepali side, which was considerably better staffed with a troupe of soldiers. A young Nepalese man holding a bottle of fanta (but smelling and acting like he’d been into something stronger) chatting with the soldiers invited us to just come on in, no papers necessary.
We demurred, as I didn’t even have a visa yet, so fanta-guy offered to take us back to the Nepalese border office and wake them up for us. This time there was no need for bribery; the officials there seemed to recognize that it was simply their duty to deal with us. As we sat outside the office in the dark slapping at gigantic mosquitoes, fanta-guy began to tell us a long fragmented story about how he was married to a Japanese girl, that they had been lovers for six years and married for a few months, that he really lived in Japan but was back for a visit but that the girl’s mother had a gall-stone problem so she couldn’t come. He showed us a picture of him and a girl against a fake-looking backdrop and even brought out a Japanese business card. None of us believed a word of it. He then proceeded to try to get us into the guesthouse his family runs. Although we were grateful that he’d shepherded us through immigration (and even shooed away a crazy guy who kept trying to write us secret messages on a piece of cardboard) his guesthouse was an absolute tip, and we would rather have slept outside in a pile of garbage. We decided to press on to the next big town to find a better place to sleep.
Right around then I realized that we were missing the small backpack with my laptop that Eric had been carrying for me. The last place we’d seen it was at the Indian immigration office, so he ran back across the border and returned with no challenge, along the way avoiding the crazy guy, who apparently crosses back and forth at will.
We’d seen a few cycle rickshaws next to the Nepalese soldiers; as we woke the dozing drivers we realized we had no Nepalese currency, so Eric returned to fanta-guy’s guesthouse, which doubled as a money-changer. Eric and Holly had plenty of dollars on them, whereas I hadn’t planned so well – my general strategy consists of getting money out of ATMs, which usually works – and I had gotten down to my last few Indian rupees and there were no cash machines to be seen. While Eric hunted for currency, Holly and I chatted with the bored soldiers and struck a deal with the rickshaw drivers: 100 rupees each to the next town, which was about five kilometers away. The drivers we originally talked to wanted us to go in two rickshaws, but with our big bags we reckoned on three. The original two tried to physically restrain the third from coming with us, but the soldiers intervened on our behalf.
Arriving back with cash, Eric got into the third rickshaw and we set off through the dark countryside, laughingly jockeying for place like chariot racers. Very soon, however, Eric’s chariot fell far behind, so far that Holly and I couldn’t even see him. Several times we asked our drivers to wait and let him catch up, then we would lose him again among infrequent street lights and crickets and lines of parked trucks with sleeping drivers. At one point Holly and I came to a band of young men walking along the highway. Her driver rang his bell and pedaled straight through; mine, however, stopped to talk, making me very nervous. I prodded him several times before he agreed to set off again. Eventually we decided to wait for Eric and fire his driver. Apparently Eric had repeatedly offered to pedal but the driver, who was either drunk or asleep, had refused; rather than pedaling, he was simply letting his body weight slowly fall from one side to the other. At around midnight we arrived at Hotel Glasgow, the best hotel in Bhairawa, Nepal, and fell into bed, scandalously omitting to bargain over the room rates, realizing we had absolutely no leverage.
We had intended to leave early the next morning, but getting breakfast took about an hour and a half. At 10:30 we were finally walking to the bus station, albeit with very little money in our pockets: Eric hadn’t wanted to change too much money with fanta-guy’s terrible rates, and none of the ATMs in Bhairawa would take my cards, which worried me. Before we even reached the bus stand we were able to hop on a mini-bus, and eventually carefully attached our backpacks to the roof. Eric was dying to ride on the roof, but all the guidebooks say that Nepali buses are incredibly dangerous to start with. And we did see three bus accidents over the course of the day, burned-out hulks of vehicles left where they fell in steep river gorges. We resolved not to take any night buses. At 5:30 we pulled into a small town called Dumre, where there were about a hundred buses parked next to each other along the main drag. We assumed that it was a quick dinner stop, but as time went on we started to wonder. Did all the bus drivers in Nepal live in this town, and did they stop here to have dinner at home and make love to their wives (and mistresses too, considering how long it was taking)? Was there a secret meeting of the Nepali bus drivers’ cabal? Was there an accident blocking the road farther up?
After an hour and a half we tried asking a few people how long it would be before we moved; the best answer we got was ‘after some time, maybe’. It didn’t help that we had very little cash and no way of procuring more. We bought some plain biscuits and poor bananas and sat on the hot bus. At seven forty five after a few false starts we heard engines starting up all around us and the sweet music of honking horns. It was like a pack of wolves gaining consensus in their howls.
A ways along the road we saw another accident (and a woman waiting at a bus stop with a full-size boxed refrigerator, but that’s another story) and thought we’d cracked it. But when we arrived in Pokhara at ten o’clock, finding dark chaos at the station, we learned that there had been a general bus strike. In the paper the next day Eric read the strikers’ demands: improved road infrastructure in Nepal, better education for children, world peace… umm, yeah.
We spent the next day relaxing in Pokhara, which is a surprisingly tranquil town. It’s built on the shores of a lake and ringed with high hills; you can often see the Annapurnas in the distance, though it was cloudy so we didn’t catch a glimpse of them until we were far up. Lakeside, the area we’re staying in, is full of tourist guesthouses, western-style restaurants and bars, and stores that sell trekking equipment, but it doesn’t seem to have the same sort of hassling culture that I associate with Indian tourist towns. It also doesn’t have nearly as much traffic, which I imagine has to do with the fact that Nepal’s per capita income is about half India’s. It’s not quiet at our guesthouse, but the noise comes from a startling number of birds, the roosters out back, the children next door, and the loudspeakers of the festival that’s starting up down by the lake. (Namaste. Namaste. Namaste. Yes, we can hear you.) One of the biggest differences here is that the towns are much cleaner than I experienced in India. There are also a negligible number of stray dogs and lots of well cared for pet dogs.
Tuesday late morning we set off on a walk. Eric and Holly don’t have much time left and they needed an actual vacation, whereas I this is pretty much my job right now… so we decided to take a very short trek. Looking at the map we bought, we figured it would take us two to three days to do a small circuit in the Annapurna Sanctuary, staying in guesthouses along the way. We did not hire a guide or porter, preferring to bring with us as little as possible (knowing we weren’t climbing to any significant elevation) and we clearly didn’t consult the right people about our route, as we spent a good part of the next day lost. We should have started at Lumle, as we were eventually told by a number of well-meaning people. That would have cut out the first two-hour five hundred meter straight up climb from a place called Nayapul. But although we often deviated from the path marked on our map, we blundered our way to the village of Tolga, which was actually farther than we had originally planned; we seemed to be cruising a lot faster than the suggested times in the guidebooks.
The great thing about taking a non-recommended path was that we didn’t see a single other westerner the first day. And we had plenty of help. Every Nepalese person you see will say Namaste to you and ask where you’re going. At one point a trio of eight-year-old boys decided to be our guides, although they were faster than us and made loud super-hero noises as they jumped down trails. We had only asked them to point us on our way, but it apparently seemed like a great adventure for them to go with us, that is, until an old lady coming down another path asked them (in Nepali, but the meaning was clear) where the hell they thought they were going. We think the answer was Bichuk, the name of the town we were headed for, some two hours away. They watched us pick our way down the next gorge, over the narrow steel suspension bridge, and up the other side, hooting at us for twenty minutes until we finally disappeared from view.
The guesthouse that night was heavenly: spartan rooms, but with comfortable mattresses and warm blankets. The outdoor dining table was cantilevered over an outcropping that afforded 180-degree views and, eventually, a jaw-dropping vista of Annapurna South right above us. We had peered through the clouds to try to see the peaks, then realized the reason we couldn’t was that we hadn’t tilted our heads up; we were simply looking too low. There was beer available, though it was warm and spurted everywhere when we opened it. We all went to bed at eight o’clock, though I couldn’t sleep until the official Nepali bedtime of ten, until which time people vie with each other to make as much noise as possible. Talking to experienced trekkers the next day we learned that the quality of the guesthouses does not decline the farther one gets from the road, but the price of the beer eventually goes up.
Considering the fact that most of these villages are reached solely by steep stone paths, and therefore everything in them get hauled up on porters’ backs, it’s a bit ridiculous that you can still buy a huge bottle of beer for under three dollars. It does make sense, on the other hand, that each beer costs more than the room for the night. New roads are going into the Conservation Area, however. My mom will likely be disappointed to know that there is now a road to the village of Jomson, where my parents trekked in the late seventies long before there was an established tourist trade. ( By the way mom, you’re busted for leaving me in Scotland when I was four: I saw a number of small children being hauled up in porters’ baskets! We also saw the famous stinging nettles that my brother, aged 10, fell into and still remembers well.)
There are apparently more tourists now than in, say, 2002, when the Maoists controlled the entire region and made pains of themselves, but it still seems pretty light. When we got onto the better-traveled track yesterday we did see tour groups, but not nearly the number to fill the guesthouses along the way.
So we’re back in Pokhara, having a lazy day. Our supposed three-day trek took us only a day and a half, which was lucky as Eric’s knee started acting up and both he and Holly have been consistently a little under the weather since they arrived in Delhi. I was disappointed not to stay out longer, but it was a good introduction and it made me realize that I’m ready to do a long trek. Now I have to figure out where: the Annapurna Circuit would be amazing, but it takes about three weeks, which is slightly longer than I want to spend, and I’m also feeling cussed about the fact that I would have to re-pay the fee to get back into the Sanctuary. I’ve heard great things about the Lang Tang area, so I’m about to research going over there. If anyone has suggestions, I’d love to hear them.