Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Pokhara, Peace and Politics


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Since arriving back in Pokhara we have had an easy few days of it. On our first day back in town we rose late, and really did not do much other than wander around, eat, and drink. Our afternoon was spent on the top floor of a cafe, basking in the soft warmth of the sun and watching the world go by. The coffee (organic Himalayan) was excellent, and we greedily accompanied it with ice cream. As if we hadn't eaten enough, we went out in the evening for pizzas at the delightful Cafe Concerto. In general, we have found that Western food is best avoided in Nepal, as it is invariably a little odd. However, this was a pretty decent pizza, and made a nice change.

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Although we had hugely enjoyed the place we were staying (The North Face Inn), it was a little expensive and we fancied a change of scene. We decided therefore to spend the rest of our Pokhara days staying at the Peace Eye Guest House, a popular hangout with a lovely and atmospheric veggie cafe downstairs. For the equivalent of around £9 a night we have a beautiful en-suite room on the top floor, recently renovated and delightfully bright and airy.

After the effort of moving across town, we enjoyed another relaxing day. We pretty much organised our activities around eating and drinking, but managed to make headway on our list of jobs (getting flights booked etc.). It had by all measures been a successful day.

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Whilst we were enjoying doing nothing, we decided to spend the next day walking from Pokhara town up to the World Peace Pagoda. This monument sits serenely at the peak of a lushly forested hill, on the opposite side of the lake. Construction originally began in 1973, but was subsequently destroyed by the government at the time, ostensibly due to 'planning laws'. Not to be defeated, it was eventually rebuilt, and was finished in 1999. The date of our visit was the fourteenth anniversary of its completion.

We had only vaguely researched how to get there, and had both neglected to double check with our hotel for further advice prior to setting off. Armed only with a few vague ideas and Oli's homing pigeon like sense of direction, we followed a tiny lane. We harboured only the slightest of hopes that this was actually the correct way, but it seemed a pretty and interesting enough route, so thought at the very worst we would just have a nice walk. Miraculously, this would actually turn out to be the path we were looking for.

Our route took us past small farmsteads, and up to a fast flowing river. The river itself was a hub of morning activity, with many people using it as both a bathing house and an area in which to wash clothes. The river was crossed with the aid of a wooden suspension bridge. This was a terrifying experience in itself, as it was a busy thoroughfare and wobbled alarmingly as people walked across it. Many of the boards were loose or had come away completely. I trod carefully, as it was a long way down. The bridge was in sharp contrast to its stable and newer looking mountain cousins. Oli had been wondering whilst we were in Jomsom whether the bridges in that area had all been upgraded for the trekking market, and this appeared to confirm his suspicions, as such super-fancy crossings are maybe not the norm elsewhere.

As we strolled along past sunny rice paddies, we were quickly accosted by a couple of kids. They chatted to us a little in English, before offering to show us the way up to the Pagoda. We thanked them, but said we would walk alone. They pointed to the start of a path, saying it was this way but very confusing, again pressing on us that they would show us the way. After we again insisted that we would find it ourselves, they followed along for a while, before giving up any pretences of doing us a favour and just asking for money. Slightly irritated by this point, we just said goodbye and walked on unhindered, eventually finding the main path after a short scramble up a steep slope.

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From here, we enjoyed a long and easy climb up the hill through the forest. For the most part we hardly saw another soul, and enjoyed the peace and quiet of the woodland setting. The sun shone through the leafy canopy, and butterflies casually fluttered everywhere we looked, never settling in one place for more than a second. The path remained easy to follow for the majority of the walk, before splitting in two as we neared the top of the hill. We took what appeared to be the main branch, but after a while this narrowed considerably. The dense woodland made it difficult to see if we were still headed in the correct direction, but we pushed on, safe in the knowledge we could always turn back. Eventually the path cut up the hill, steep, slippery and narrow, before emerging into the open and rejoining the main route. Happily, we were now at the top of the ridge, and had succeeded in not getting too lost.

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The Peace Pagoda itself cuts a majestic and serene figure, and overlooks the Fewa lake and the mountains beyond. It was indeed a very relaxing setting and a place that would easily lend itself to peaceful reflection. Despite a few loud families merrily ignoring the signs asking people to respect the silence, the overall atmosphere remained serene and calm. We strolled around for a while, pausing frequently to enjoy the incredible views over the valleys to both sides.

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There is a shorter alternative route down from the site, descending some steep steps and involving a short boat ride across the lake. Feeling energetic however, we decided to walk back (almost) the way we had come. This time, we followed the main path back from the top. Coming down the hill, the surface was even more slippery than on our ascent. Hard packed, smooth earth covered with moss was not easy to negotiate. Just as Oli was reassuring me and telling me to trust my boots, he hit a particularly treacherous patch and went crashing down onto hard rock. After establishing that he was okay we panickedly checked our SLR camera, which thankfully was also unscathed. The difficult section did not last long, and we happily continued our easy stroll through the woodland. We barely saw another soul, save for a lone monkey chilling out in a clearing.

As we neared the bottom of the hill, we came to the realisation that the main path was really not difficult to locate. The kids who had been so keen to “help” had in fact directed us the wrong way. We usually try not to be cynical, but I guess they usually take tourists the most confusing and convoluted way possible in order to get more money out of them. Enterprising to be sure, but not particularly nice. Oli picked up a sandstone like rock, and used it to draw a huge arrow on a boulder. I'm sure it won't remain there for long, but hopefully it will stop somebody else from getting lost or taking an unnecessarily difficult route.

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Tired but satisfied with our hike, we arrived at one of our favourite Pokhara hangouts. Hungry, we chowed down on delicious pots of dal and refreshed ourselves with lemon sodas. We have become a little obsessed with this drink whilst we have been here. A nice alternative to regular fizzy drinks or plain water, it is made with a good squirt lemon juice and plain soda water. It may sound dull, but it is actually brilliant. We finished the day off with endless pots of tea in our guest house cafe, before going out for more lovely curries in the evening. All this walking had been hungry work.

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We have spent the last few days doing very little. Oli has a slight cold so is taking it easy, but it has been really nice to kick back and fully relax. Just outside our room is a lovely terrace, with stunning mountain views, which we have enjoyed admiring in the sunshine. Our bike is not arriving in Thailand until the 25th – 27th, so we have a little time to pass before we will be reunited. We will leave the easy comfort of Pokhara on Thursday, before flying from Kathmandu to Bangkok on the 19th.

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We have picked an interesting day to fly out, as the 19th is actually the date of the upcoming election. There has certainly been a lot of political movement where we are, with the Communist party being incredibly active. We see sizable marches almost every day, and there have been a few strike days, meaning that all public buses etc. essentially cease. One shop owner told us they were under pressure to close, but this seemed to have been largely ignored.

Up to 1990 Nepal was an absolute monarchy, and was then a constitutional monarchy until 2008, with a lot of turmoil in the years between. Democracy is still young here, and the situation remains turbulent. Apparently more strikes are planned for the coming week, so hopefully we will get back to Kathmandu and onwards to Thailand without much trouble. Despite the upheaval, all seems relatively calm, and we are glad to have been able to come here at such an interesting time.

As much as we have enjoyed Nepal so far, we are very much looking forward to getting to Thailand. Oli is desperate to be reunited with December (our motorbike), and I have to say I have also missed having our own transport. After so long enjoying the freedom it affords us, it is not easy to get used to being a “normal” tourist again! For now though, we will continue to enjoy relaxing, eating and drinking. It's tough work, but somebody has to do it...

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