Sunday, May 01, 2011

All hara in Pokhara

No travelogue can do justice to the experiences of a great trip. Yet they outline great memories.

We decided to take advantage of a long weekend break to check out our northern neighbour - Nepal. With Spicejet flying to Kathmandu at costs of a trip down south, we were enthused enough. The early morning view of the Himalayas was breathtaking.

We also had other reasons to lose breadth. We had just realized after boarding the flight that our credit cards indicated they would not be valid in Nepal. And most of our money was in Indian denominations of 500 and 1000, which were supposedly not accepted in the country. Much of the flight was spent trying to figure strategies to sustain in the piddly hundreds we had with us. Thankfully though, we had little to worry. No sooner than we got into Kathmandu, that we realized that not only were our cards fully valid, but all Indian currency can be used freely too. What a relief!

The touts outside Kathmandu airport remind me of those outside the railway station in Varanasi - like mosquitoes waiting to prey on unsuspecting visitors to charge exorbitant rates. The domestic airport is but a few hundred meters away from the international. And if one has but a few bags, can easily be legged to. As we did.

We found seats on the next flight to Pokhara (the visitor assist at the domestic airport is really helpful), and waited to board. Flights start from rates equivalent to 1000 Rs. Indian! The turboprop to Pokhara was really small though - just 2 columns of 10 seats each. With comments from tourists as to whether the flight would actually take off (or land), we were off. The half hour journey was fun, with a beautiful low view of mountains.

Pokhara is a charming small little town, and the starting point for the Annapurna trek. With supposedly 7 lakes around town (the large one near the market is a perpetually glittering shade of blue) and surrounded by mountains, its a beautiful retreat. In addition, its a great back-packer town. The lakeside market area is the coolest I've seen amongst all the backpacker hangouts I've been to: Bangkok, Koh Tao, Kowloon, Leh, and even Goa.

We stayed at a place called the Castle Resort, which is a kilometer or two out of town and atop a hillock overlooking the lake. Castle, is a beautiful resort in itself, and caters to slightly upmarket groups. It has a beautiful swimming pool, a great bar and rooms which offer a stunning view of the lake. In addition, Joe, the proprieter, is a super cool guy. The only downside is the distance from the town center and the approach - a bad broken road up-hill. In hindsight, the best place to stay is near the lakeside market - there are lots of guest houses and hotels, and the environment is amazing.

Sunrise at Sarangkot
Sunrise at Sarangkot, Nepal
There are quite a few points to visit around Pokhara town. The sun-rise at Sarangkot is beautiful, with stunning views of the snow-capped Annapurna and fish-tail peaks. The World Peace Pagoda atop the hill is neat and offers beautiful views of the town. The Devi's falls is freaky, and the cave temple in front is a subterranean adventure. The local town market itself is quaint, with even a Marwadi eatery that served us deliciously hot pooris and jalebis. Yet, the best place in my view is the lakeside market - colourful, lots of variety, cheap even by Indian standards and with a happening night life.

World Peace Pagoda
World Peace Pagoda
After staying at Pokhara for 2 days, we took the flight back to Kathmandu, promising ourselves that we would be back, for longer. Pokhara is clearly a wonderful place to relax on a long week's holiday, with a trek or two thrown in.

Back in Kathmandu, we found a great guest house to stay, right in the center of Thamel, through a friend's recommendation. Thamel is a bustling, colorful backpacker hangout, with crowds from all over the world. A shopper's delight, the food is great too!

Somehow, Kathmandu reminds me of Varanasi. A crowded, dusty, Hindu town, and seemingly lost in a different century. Sadly, they have even taken after us Indians in the widespread lack of sanitation.

The Pashupatinath temple is a large, crowded Hindu temple, with architecture that reminds me of Kerala's. The large Nandi up-front is quite distinctive. The Lingam is quite unique too, with four different facets of Shiva carved on it (unlike Indian ones which are plain). While queues abound, the easiest way to bypass these is to ask one of the 'guide's' to show you around. They know the guards and give you the enough access within 10 minutes to do the works. Beware though, they fleece you too - so be careful of what they tell you.

Boundnath Kathmandu
Boudhnath, Kathmandu
Boudhnath is the most distinct Buddhist shrine in Kathmandu. Unlike Pashupatinath, it admits visitors of all religions (when will we Hindus change?). With beautiful, colorful carvings and shops all around, it's a worthy visit. The eye's painted atop the shrine are, by far, the most common memorabilia in Kathmandu.

We closed the day, checking out Darbar square. Thamel is quite close to the square and a trip atop a cycle-rickshaw is reminiscent of old Delhi. Has quite a market around and feels like Chandni Chowk.

As we had started our trip to Nepal, a lot of people back home had cautioned us about a lot of things - not to stay out at night, not to wander off alone, to beware of hate crimes, etc. Frankly, we saw none of these. If anything, people went out of their way to help us out, at the airports, markets, shops, and in the temples. We definitely plan to go back, for a much longer trip, to see more of beautiful countryside.

To those who seek to follow: Spicejet flies twice a day from Delhi to Kathmandu. So do Jet and Kingfisher. Indian currency can be used all over Nepal, and all Indian credit cards work (despite what's written on them!). Costs overall are lesser than India. Flights are the best way to travel between Nepali cities. Pokhara feels like Goa, with much lesser crowds around.
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