First, a few words of caution: If you are planning a trip to Nepal, which you should if you love the mountains, you need to have nerves of steel. The infrastructure is woefully lacking and the hygiene leaves a lot to be desired. But other than this, a trip to our neighbouring country is a journey back in time, with the promise of memories for a lifetime. On our six-day trip we covered only two cities — capital Kathmandu and Pokhara, about 200 km to the west.
There is every possibility that your flight to Kathmandu will be delayed. The Nepalese city’s one-runway airport is packed with domestic flights, which means both international and domestic carriers rarely take off or arrive on time. And flying anywhere within Nepal is nothing short of an adventure. Kathmandu’s domestic airport is as crowded as a railway station in Delhi, and you can never be sure how your bags will be checked-in or when your flight will take off.
Our flight to Pokhara is only of 20 minutes but the planes are largely turboprops, which means they are very small, the seats are cramped and the wheels make a lot of noise. However, once you manage to put a lid on your claustrophobia and fear about the age of the plane, your holiday begins. On a clear day, you can see the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas from the aircraft. We managed to see them, but just about. The plane was full of Japanese tourists as the Himalayas and, by extension, Pokhara — a starting point for treks, flights or road trips to the base of the Annapurna peaks — are a big draw for them. They had their iPads, cameras and phones ready even before the flight took off. They crowded all the windows, and there were selfies and oohs-and-aahs galore.
Arrival in Pokhara is like a return to another era. You walk from the aircraft to the terminal and then wait for your bags, which are placed on a cement platform for you to identify and grab on your way out.
Besides its natural beauty — mountain peaks wherever you look, lots of greenery and tiny houses — Pokhara has two main attractions: Phewa tal, or lake, and the Himalayas. We’d been told that winter is the best time to catch the Annapurna and Machapuchre peaks in all their natural glory. Our hotel, The Himalayan Front hotel, is located close to Sarangot, the place known for providing the best view of the ranges. The three days we spent there was an exercise in patience, and prayers for luck. The first day was cloudy, so let alone the Himalayas we couldn’t even see the sun rising.
Sight to behold: The Machapuchre (fishtail mountain) plays hide-and-seek with the clouds - ASHWINI PHADNIS
“It seems to be raining in the mountains, which means that it will be a clear day tomorrow and we should be able to get a clear view of the peaks,” Kiran Khadka, the hotel’s general manager, told us at dinner. He was proved right the next morning — we had a perfectly clear sky, and the first rays of the sun falling on the peaks, including the 6,993-mfishtail mountain (Machapuchre), were breathtakingly beautiful.
The hour we spent in the bitter cold watching the sun’s rays bathing one peak after another is something we are unlikely to forget ever. Our luck held out far longer that day, as we watched the peaks change colour with the sun’s movement as the day progressed.
Sunning in Sarangot
Sarangot is perfect for treks. Although many do walk the short distance from Pokhara to Sarangot, be warned that the climb is steep and the roads are broken or non-existent in many places, owing to the devastating earthquake of 2015.
Signs of destruction are visible in parts of Pokhara and Kathmandu, too, in the form of missing roads and crumbled buildings.
There are plenty of taxis available for the ride to Sarangot. Aside from a viewing platform, the town has a few shops selling locally made woollen gloves and caps, tea, and hot yak milk.
You will find the locals sunning themselves in roadside shacks that sell tea, biscuits, snacks and even beer. Called khwajaghars, they are small houses that have been converted into eating places. Almost all of them also boast facilities for some sport, with carrom and darts being more popular.
Many of the houses have a kitchen garden and a few goats and chicken. It’s amusing to see chicken ambling across the road, while their angry owners give chase, keeping an eye out for the numerous SUVs that ply these narrow and broken roads. Not all the houses have piped water, so it is common to see women queuing at the community taps every morning and evening, lugging their pots uphill. Sarangot is popular among adventure lovers for its parasailing and paragliding options. On a clear day with favourable winds, one can parasail from the top of the mountain to the lake below.
Fake goods and genuine smiles
After three days in Sarangot, we descended to Pokhara to spend time at the lake. Apart from paragliding, parasailing and boating, visitors can hire a horse and trot around the bazaar or even up the not-too-steep hills, which provide scenic views of the surrounding area.
Buy word: Though fakes abound, shopping in Kathmandu can prove irresistible for Indians, thanks to the variety on offer and the delightful exchange rate - ISTOCK.COM
One side of the lake has a string of shops, most of them selling fake brands in clothes, shoes and jackets. There are food shacks selling everything from the local favourites thukpa (spicy soup with lots of vegetables) and ‘chowmein’, to hand-tossed pizza, tandoori chicken, sizzlers, tacos, and even a traditional Nepalese ‘thali’. Nepali cuisine uses a lot of ghee, so we stuck to thukpaand chow mein.
In Pokhara, the focus is on the Himalayas. Helicopter sorties can take you to the base of the Annapurna or around the Himalayas; alternatively, you can travel to these parts in a jeep on a weeklong journey. The cost varies from $350 per person for a helicopter ride to the Annapurnas to several thousand dollars for a private charter. There are plenty of ‘travel agents’ in Pokhara, and haggling for discounts is the norm.
Pokhara is also a popular starting point for the Char Dhams — or four holy sites, of which the most popular is Mukti Kshetra. The best time to visit is from March to June, and from September to November.
The people in Pokhara are very friendly and, soon, we were happily chatting with the women running the stores where we bought water and other essentials, and waving to the children waiting for their school buses in the morning. We also enjoyed buying fruit from women carrying heavily laden baskets of oranges and apples on their back. The oranges were very sweet and the apples, which came from Mustang, were crunchy and delicious.
Our plan to spend a day in Kathmandu on return from Pokhara was scuppered by the delayed flight. Left with just half a day, we skipped the city’s most famous landmark, Pashupatinath Temple. Instead we went to the next most popular place — Thamel, which is a shopper’s paradise. Its narrow alleys sell just about anything — clothes, knick-knacks, jewellery, pashmina shawls and sweaters, snow jackets and even Thangkas. There are plenty of eating places, laundry services, a hotel or two, and shops selling local sim cards.
Though we were put off by the fake ware being sold everywhere, we were tempted to buy many things simply because the exchange rate worked in our favour — ₹100 fetches ₹160 Nepalese rupees. A pretty pashmina stole for 500 Nepalese rupees, or a padded woollen jacket for 700 Nepalese rupees was too good to be resisted. We succumbed gladly.
Kathmandu is well-connected by Jet Airways, Air India and IndiGo. Indians do not need a visa, nor a passport. Domestic airlines including Buddha Air, Yeti Airways and Nepal Airlines are ideal for travel within the country.
Kathmandu has many global chain hotels, besides local ones such as Annapurna and Yak & Yeti. In Pokhara, Kathmandu Guest House is better-known among the local ones.
Nepal is said to have the densest concentration of World Heritage Sites. Kathmandu valley alone has seven within a radius of 15 km.