This third day in Pokhara dawned exceedingly clear. The mountains glowed pink at sunrise, then as more sun spilled upon them, turned to porcelain. By 10:00, the feeling of an oncoming cold was growing, but I remembered pal Howard who worked out even then, believing that the body would rally its defenses…or not. I decided to take a chance, and at least walk up to the ridge I saw each morning, the one with a little Shiva temple on it that must have a terrific view.
So I took off, empty headed…minus lunch, sunscreen, a bottle of water and basic physical energy. But I was determined to make it to the temple, and so walked the back streets of Pokhara away from the tourist hub. The contrast between stores full of merchandise for foreigners and those catering to locals was stark but not surprising. One is replete with stuff, the other barebones and highly specialized: snacks here, veggies there, electrical wires, hardware….all staffed by people who looked incredibly bored with their fate on a lovely morning. (Pure projection on my part! But still, how exciting can it be to look out on a dusty, broken up street, and wait for customers who will haggle with you about every purchase?)
After one false trail that led only to an abandoned house where local ravers must have convened (due to the psychedelic art attempting to render hallucinations on the plastered walls)
I cut across terraced fields, jumped a ditch or two, snagged my precious windbreaker on a thorny vine, but eventually found the scraggly little trail. From there it was simply a matter of “up.”
At the Shiva temple, not much bigger than a large outdoor fireplace, I did a bow and kept moving. What I thought was the ochre-walled temple turned out to be a kind of mountain hut that was being well maintained, but no one was there.
Decision time! I felt a bit depleted after having reached my goal and probably should have turned around and gone back. But with the mountains still clear and beckoning, I kept huffing my way upwards. Cresting the ridge and walking through knee-high grass that obscured parts of the trail, I thought there should be monkeys nearby but instead, a middle-aged caucasian woman wearing shorts and giant climbing boots came around a corner. Didn’t seem a good idea for a lone woman to be on that most isolated part of the trail, but I greeted her cheerfully and she did the same. Safe travels, sister.
A few minutes later, I was walking through my first Nepali hillside village (after a 32 year hiatus).
At a junction in the road where I paused to decide which way to go, a young girl from a nearby farmhouse appeared. “Where are you going?” she wanted to know. When I answered, “I don’t know,” she smiled, yelled something to a person inside, and came over. “Where do you want to go?” she asked in a different manner. I pointed to the ridge about 1 km. from the place we stood, and she said “I’ll show you the nice rocks above the village. Good view!”
So off we went, with me worrying a little about what villagers might say about her walking with an older man but she seemed completely at ease. I soon learned she was 15, had a younger brother who drove her crazy, and that she wanted to be a doctor after studying in the medical college we could see far below in the northwest part of Pokhara. “It’s my dream,” she said in an upbeat way that felt a little forced, “but we are poverty people.” She said her father earned only about $130 U.S. a month selling milk and sometimes fruit, and that school expenses were high. “My friends laugh at me because I don’t have good clothes.”
I reminded her that “poverty” is a matter of economics and attitude. I’m sure she was enthralled as I pointed out that she has food, a house to live in, a family that loves and supports her, a school to go to (45 min. walk each way up and down the mountain), good health, a tv, and the opportunity to succeed. Plus she lives in one of the most beautiful places in the world. That little lecture was not what she was expecting, but I didn’t like the unnecessarily negative self-image she was creating for herself (like any teenage girl, perhaps?)
It then hit me she probably gave this spiel to many foreigners walking this trail, perhaps even hitting them up for a donation. She didn’t ask me for anything, much to her credit, and showed me the crags where yes indeed, a fine view was available. But I could see a route even higher and so bid her good luck, good dreams, and pressed a 500 rupee note into her two hands, telling her not to look until she got back to her house. $7 isn’t much but hey, it’s more than her father makes in a day if that earlier figure she gave me is accurate.
I happened to see a couple men snaking their way down the rocks leading up to the high ridge, and watched where they came out. I met them at that trailhead, giving sympathy to the Nepali or Indian tourist who had fallen, getting a gash on his cheek, and now had it bandaged w/ a big swatch of gauze doing little to stem the ooze of blood. The wiry little guide gave me that Indian-Nepali head waggle, as if to say, “Well hell, it’s not my fault this chump can’t walk a simple path through rocks.”
At that point, it was all bliss for me. Machapuchare was right in front of my eyes and growing bigger with each step. A little village with terraced hillsides sprouting brilliantly golden wild mustard was on the left, and to the right was the expansive haze and bustle of Pokhara valley.
And overhead? There must have been at least 50 paragliders in a rainbow of colors riding the updrafts above Lake Phewa. Each one carried a seasoned pilot and a tourist who paid around $90 for the 25 minute ride from the Sarankot ridge to lakeside. Paragliding has become one of Pokhara’s main draws, with many companies offering the same service at the same fixed price. One might expect there to be screaming and whooping but even with all those sails in the sky, it was totally silent. From where I sat, they looked like parts of a giant multicolored Alexander Calder mobile. A couple would sail over where I sat but no one waved back, no doubt focused on the splendors of the sky and landscape rather than the mundane hiker perched on the edge of a cliff.
Just before I reached my destination–a clearing atop the final hill above the village that dropped away dramatically on the other side–I encountered a high chain-link fence with barb wire at the top. This fence went all the way around a squat building with big windows facing the mountains and valley, plus an outdoor pavilion with long tables and many chairs. Not a sign anywhere indicating what kind of facility it was. When a young man appeared, I wheezed out my question: “What kind of place is this? Guest house? Prison? Café?” to which he answered (without missing a beat), “All three.” Enough said.
The sun was so hot by 12 noon that I had to find a little tree with shade to escape and relax. Between watching the mountains, the vultures, hawks, steppe eagles, and crows soaring by, and the paragliders shadows occasionally passing through, I quickly fell sound asleep. When I woke up, I knew I had a major cold coming on, and so started my long descent.
I could have been back 45 minutes sooner, but at the hut was its creator, proprietor, and chief dreamer, Mr. Taniguchi from Sapporo, Japan, hard at work, his hands stained a Hulk green. He was astonished that I greeted him in Japanese, and that I had lived in Sapporo at the same time he did all those many years ago (from 1976-79). Now 63, he had taken early retirement at 55 (after a “life of heavy work”, though I didn’t ask where) and realized that his meager pension wasn’t going to go very far in Japan. So he moved to Nepal, married a Nepalese woman, and practically begged me to come drinking with him that evening.
By the time I dragged my sorry ass back to the Sacred Valley Inn, I knew in my bones that a major crash was in the works. For the next four days I might as well have been a ghost.