Campfire eats, saddle sore seats and soaking wet feets. Life is a cabaret old chum, 206 days in.
Leaving behind Kathmandu and bidding farewell to Pinto, an eight hour bus journey lead us to Pokhara and immediately the difference could be felt. The dust in Kathmandu had set everyone off coughing, Pokhara gave us a glimpse of clearer skies, wide roads and only one offer of hash during our first hour…could we have found a Nepali paradise?
Our arrival coincided with the start of Tihaar, the Nepali version of Diwali, and on day one that meant gambling! The paved lakeside promenade was a bustle of groups of men gathered around a board betting on the roll of half a dozen dice and further down the lane children were doing the same, just with much smaller amounts of Rupees. Later that night we strolled along the high street awash with enticing restaurants and stopped to looked on at the many dance routines being performed by teenagers along the way, some dressed in traditional outfits, some in the latest fashions, but all in time with the music and each other.Pokhara is in the shadows of three of the fourteen 8000 metre summits, Dhaulagiri, Annapurna 1 and Manaslu and so rightly has dedicated a museum to the mountains. The International Mountain Museum was an aircraft carrier sized building filled to the brim with mountain themed exhibits, as well as the slightly more obscure but no less entertaining mannequins representing each of Nepal’s ethnic groups, most pertaining standard Mongoloid features. Standing high above Pokhara is a Japanese peace pagoda and we set out early one day to reach it for the fabulous views of the city and Phewa lake. After a brief stop at yet another disappointing ‘German bakery’ (not the fault of the Hun I must add) and a walk through sweet chestnut woodland containing huge spiders we arrived at the pagoda in time for a mid morning tea break. However, having just seen a young girl from one of the half dozen restaurants surrounding the tourist attraction empty the previous day’s litter down the side of the mountain with all the rest of the villages waste, Mike was adamant that we could not support such a regime so we marched on. With an early start behind us we decided we would attempt the lake circuit as described in the Rough Guide using Google maps for some added assistance. However, with so many unmarked tracks leading in all directions, we were soon heading off piste. As the dirt track became increasingly akin to a jungle a young girl appeared and pointed us around the back of a hut which led to a steep mud slide… also to be our way down! We bumped and bum slid and very quickly descended the final 100 metres to the lake shore, yet we still had to cross it and we were growing hungry. Just as soon as we had got down though, it was a steep uphill pull, but with the reward of a village, or rather two buildings and a volleyball court, but as 50% of all homes in Nepal also double up as small shops we could at least get some biscuits and a cold drink. We were now back on a road of sorts, though more villagers pointed us toward a shortcut that lead to a barrel raft and eventually we reached to other side. After nine hours of hard slog in sweltering temperatures we were back by pizzerias, coffee bars and the lakeside promenade. A further few days were spent exploring Nepals second biggest city by bike, stumbling across a burning pyre on the banks of Ram ghat, exploring the Devi waterfalls and crossing gorges filled with volumes of litter that would even make an Indian blush. Then it was time to prepare for our next big adventure… Being fanatically frugal is an important part of travelling, and few are frugalererer than Sugs. Any hawker, trader, shopkeeper or hotelier this side of Kathmandu will attest to that. So it was inevitable then than when we decided to take advantage of the whitewater rafting opportunities Nepal has to offer that we would end up plumping for the cheap, cheerful and suspiciously charming chap who offered fun and freshwater frolics for half the price of any of his (more reputable) competitors. As we handed over our wad of rupees, I was thoroughly expecting to arrive at the river bank with little more than a piece of driftwood and a good luck message.
But there is a lesson to be learned from this tale dear readers for much to our surprise and relief, it seems that sometimes a bargain really can be exactly that. Far from a half deflated dingy and a frying pan paddle we were welcomed with fully floating rafts, qualified guides, a chef (who later emerged to be a camp cooking guru) and, hitherto unheard of in Nepal, a safety talk which included handy hints on how to wrap your legs around a kayak for the most undignified of rescues. All was going swimmingly, not literally of course.
Our river of choice was the Kali Gandaki, not too far from Pokhara and able to offer us a 70 km long, 3 day 2 night expedition with some tasty class 4 rapids along the way. Lovely stuff! Our raft was crewed by ourselves and 2 Israelis called Mo and Daniel with able riverman Ganu at the helm. Our sister vessel, travelling downstream the right way up for at least some of the time, was paddled by an entirely Israeli force. Day one involved just a few hours of floaty fun, a place where the rafts had to be hauled out of the water and dragged along the rocky bank to avoid dangerous waters and a couple of raucous rapids to get us into the swing of things. Brrr! By dusk our camp on the white, sandy bankside beach was made – old school tents pitched, toilet dug, potatoes peeled and bucket loads of moreish popcorn made…and munched. We passed the evening pondering 2 of life’s great mysteries – just how many stars there are in the universe, and how the chef had managed to knock up such cracking chips and massive deep-fried balls of banana bread on a gas stove. The mind boggles, the gut bulges!
Day two and we swapped Mo and Daniel for 2 latecoming Spaniards (meñana meñana and all that) who emerged into our camp from the surrounding forest just in time for breakfast! After a gentle start things soon got fruity with some bow busting rapids that put the “hold on, get down” command to good use! It was one such situation where our fellow craft came a cropper – charging through one patch of whitewater side on and as a result bouncing off of a huge rock and flipping over, ooo eck! Fortunately we were in a prime position to watch it all, even managing to suppress our giggles to assist with paddle and water bottle rescue. After a quick head count it became clear that a high enough percentage had survived and so on we went…
Our third and final day on the Kali Gandaki was a much more serene affair. With the water largely flat and forgiving we paddled the pleasant final stretch, swam alongside the raft and made the most of the tranquil gorge that had been our retreat from the hustle and bustle of Nepal for the past few days. Time to wrap things up with a five hour bus ride including tyre change as standard.