Pokhara, Nepal…Some views are good, and others not so much
March 31, 2017
Road to Pokhara
We had 10 days in Nepal and after 4 days in Kathmandu, we decided to take several people’s advice and go to Pokhara. It’s a city about 200 km to the west. I was told it was pristine and tranquil. There is a big lake and the International Mountain Museum to visit. After the noise, pollution and energy of Kathmandu, it sounded like a perfect trip.
Our hotel, the Tibet Peace Inn, organized it all for us. We decided to book a car and driver so we could see some of the countryside. He would also be available to take us to all the sites once we got there. His hotel costs would be covered by us, but it would be less expensive than flying there. In all it cost us about $300 for the transportation for 3 days.
At home, 200 km would take about 2 hours on a calm, organized highway. In the mountains, it might take 3 hours with traffic. Our trip to Pokhara took 6 hours with a half hour lunch stop! The road travelled down into the valley and then mostly curved along the agricultural land and through small villages. Where mud or rocks slid onto the toad, they were left and traffic just had to go around.
Hundreds of buses and large, brightly decorated trucks all tried to pass each other on every curve. The honking was constant, but along with flashing light signals, everyone seemed to know how to make it through. I was going to say safely, but there were many close calls. I stopped watching. Our driver knew the road and didn’t drive as aggressively as he could have.
The villages obviously did not expect to have that much traffic as they built there homes along old trade routes. Houses were built close to the roads with terraced fields taking up most of the land along the valley floor and up the sides. There were a few suspension bridges that crossed the river to allow access to more homes up on the slopes. There didn’t appear to be any roads on the other side so most people would have to walk up and down steep slopes to get to their homes.
Water standpipes were in front of about every 6th house. Women gathered here to wash clothes and children. Men played games of chance on tables with cards or throwing coins at a target. Families sat in the shade outside small shops. Children kicked tattered soccer balls around. Farmers were already planting rice in the fields using cattle to pull a plow. We saw one mechanical plow in our travels in Nepal.
We went to Pokhara on a Thursday and saw many children waiting with their parents for the school bus to pick them up. Their traditional British uniforms seemed so out of place in these tiny, dusty villages. Most of the women here dress in pants and Indian tunics in beautiful colours. They really contrasted against the mostly blues and greys of the children’s clothing. These bright sweaters were unusual.
Our arrival in Pokhara was quite disappointing. It was cloudy and smoggy. It is a large city (250 000) but the tourist area of Lakeside was admittedly tranquil, but certainly not pristine. We checked into the Family Home Hotel which had been booked by our hotel in Kathmandu. The room was large and even had a balcony to sit on and watch the goings-on of the community. The hotels in Nepal advertise 24 hour hot water and we would agree that this shower had the best heat and pressure of any in Asia. At breakfast the manager told us to ask for anything we wanted because we were to feel like we were at home. From our experience, they “get” customer service here.
We walked by the lake. I had my second surprise to see a scrum of photographers on the shore snapping pics of a woman standing in one of the boats, dressed in a lovely saree. There was a fog machine nearby trying to create a misty scene. I don’t know the story, but I took a picture too. While Peter was waiting, he met a family from India who were visiting. After a short conversation, they wanted to take our picture with their little girl. As India is close to Nepal, there were mostly Indians and Caucasians in Pokhara. We didn’t see many Asian visitors.
Our driver picked us up at 5 am and drove us to the top of a sunrise lookout. People were waiting to be hired to show us the best place to stand. We declined. As I was the first there, I had to choose the best place to set up my tripod. The spot was great, but was difficult to protect once all the tour vans and buses began to arrive. We did meet a very nice man from South Korea who was well-travelled and showed us some of his incredible mountain pictures.
The hills were still shrouded in mist and a few clouds had formed. The sunrise looked nice and you could see several terraced fields. Suddenly the top of a mountain appeared, way above the surrounding hills. It had snow on the top and was barely pink in the sunrise. This was Annapurna. This is why people come to Pokhara. It is the starting point of the Annapurna Circuit, a trek up the mountain. Now I knew what all the excitement was about. The tip of Fishtail Mountain also appeared for a few moments. The smog and clouds soon covered all the spectacular views and left us with just hills.
We spent the rest of the day touring the area. We saw the White Pagoda on another viewpoint. It was built by a Japanese Buddhist who wanted there to be 100 of these built around the world to honor the birth of Buddha in Nepal. It was begun in 1974, but when it reached 35 feet high it was torn down by the government of the time but was finally completed in 1998. The 4 Buddhas face the cardinal directions and were donated by countries like Thailand and Sri Lanka. If you are not sure the expectations at a temple, look for signs. They will usually tell you. There was a great little coffee shop with views on the way down.
In the town itself is Devi’s Falls. It is the dry season, and you have to pay to get in to see the falls. There are fences and walkways all around this area that is a little bigger than our back yard. However, there is only on spot you can actually see the falls so it was a little underwhelming.
Across the street is Gupteshwor Mahadev cave. These were much better. The river from the falls flows under the street and runs through a cave. You enter through a newly (as in the cement was still being shaped) renovated entrance, past a shrine, and down many steps to see a waterfall entering the cave. There is an opening in the rock behind the water so it was quite beautiful.
International Mountain Museum
After lunch we visited the International Mountain Museum. It is a large, modern building. We saw photographs and statistics on all the important mountains and when they had been climbed, including quotes from those who were the first to ascend to the peak. There were profiles on some of the most prolific climbers and samples of some of the gear used in the past. Descriptions of the culture of the tribes of the mountains were displayed. Pictures comparing the glaciers in the mountains from 50 years ago to know show that the climate is changing.
There was also a display of photographs taken by Toni Hagen in the 1950’s. He was a Swiss geologist who came to Nepal with the United Nations to survey and map the area. His pictures show Pokhara and the mountains at a time when there were no roads to this area. Supplies were delivered by a DC-3 plane in those days. There is an interesting documentary about his time in Nepal that would be easier to watch with English subtitles, but the pictures and views are still worth seeing.
After breakfast, we watched the neighbors across the street remove a tin addition to their small house and begin digging the dirt out from that area. When we returned in the afternoon, the dirt had all been bagged and replaced with large stones and smaller rocks and bricks as a foundation. A load of large cement blocks had been delivered and was waiting on the street.
The workers were resting, but 2 men on bicycles arrived. They bagged up all the metal pieces and loaded them onto the bikes. Even the tin walls and roof were balanced onto the bike using good knowledge of levers and balance. They pushed the loaded bikes away from the site.
After being led astray by Google Maps to the wrong, but okay restaurant we planned on an early night. A big lightning storm passed north of town for a couple of hours. The sound of the thunder echoing around the peaks was more evidence that big mountains really do exist in this area. We hoped some rain might clear the skies for another try at sunrise, although I worried for some friends who were trekking on the mountain at the time.
At 5 am the stars and moon were bright overhead so we were optimistic. While the sunrise was quite lovely, and the tall peaks did appear in their entirety, the smog quickly swallowed them up so there was not much left for us to than return to Kathmandu. Our friends who were on the mountain in the storm had arrived at their guest house early in the afternoon and got to watch the storm. They arrived in Pokhara 3 days after we left and thought it was the beautiful place. Click the link to see what they saw. Pokhara Images.
A local guide to tour some Nepal villages…so worth it
March 27, 2017
We hired a taxi and a guide (Ranjan Mishra) for a day and headed south out of the city. The village didn’t look much different at first, but it didn’t take long to realize that we were in a separate community. It was noticeably quieter with few vehicles. More people were just sitting outside but there were many people hard at work. We started in Khokana, walked through the fields to Bungamati, then drove to the monastery in Pharphing, and finished in Kuripur.
Mustard Seed Oil
Ranjan led us into a small dark building that had 2 people working inside. The owner joined us soon after. They were making mustard seed oil from local crops. The seeds had to be dried then roasted. They were put into a long narrow mesh bag then squeezed through rollers several times. A tin bowl on the floor collected the oil.
Since Nepal only had 6 hours of electrical power per day up until recently, this operation works with an electrical motor for the rolling, but can also be operated with a large wheel that turns a series of gears to tighten the rollers and make them turn. It took one of the workers, using his whole body weight to make this possible.
Another worker crushed, stacked and bagged the remaining material which becomes compost for the fields. Our guide suggested we give them a little money for showing us how this operation worked and taking their pictures. He said they could use it.
The mustard seed oil is used to massage moms and babies in the sun after birth, cooking special Nepalese dishes, and rubbed into the hair to make it shine. We had a little bit and it tasted like some of the local dishes we’d eaten.
We stepped into another building and found a rug factory. There were groups of 2 women sitting on benches together working on wool rugs. Some rugs were single colors while others had elaborate designs. The women were so fast, although the man in charge would come by and mark their expected progress along the side of the threads.
There were many other women in the village supporting this. They spun wool using a hand powered wheel. Others combined the spun wool into 3 ply using some special wheel that wool people would know the name of. The wool was rolled into balls as part of this process. These jobs were all completed while sitting on the ground on a mat. The women sat in small groups while they worked.
The usual weaving room was closed but Ranjan knew of another. There were 4 looms in the room and on one they were creating some fine white material from bamboo fibres. It had a white on white pattern that was controlled with cards punched with holes. The young women sat on a fabric wrapped 2 X 4 and ran the loom with a foot pedal and shuttle.
The woman who seemed in charge was very knowledgeable and did her best to explain how the process worked. When her English was too limited, she had a catalogue containing pictures that she shared with us. She was very proud of what she was accomplishing in their little room. Another lady was working on a more rustic cotton fabric in shades of blue and brown. She was repairing a broken thread while we were there.
According to our guide, women are working more outside the home now to help support their family income. It didn’t sound like their incomes were very much, but they were doing beautiful work in this “factory”.
The villages to the south and west of Kathmandu were most heavily hit by the earthquake in April of 2014. Not only was there one large tremor of 7.6, but the aftershocks over the next few days were nearly as strong. Most of the houses are built of brick, but they are often 3-4 stories high. Those built in the villages were older and the building techniques less stable. Many of them lost the upper stories of the house.
As you walk through these villages today, they are in various states of tearing down and building up. There are piles of bricks and gravel on every street. The brick factories in the valley are working full-time. This provides many jobs but also fills the valley with more smoke. There is no place to remove the rubble so it piles up in a corner, or behind the new home.
This construction is also providing lots of work for the locals. It surprised me to see how many women were hauling bricks and gravel in baskets on their backs. The building plans have engineer approval for earthquake resistance, but the workers did not all appear to be skilled for the job. We didn’t see any machines like bobcats or even many wheelbarrows for moving materials. Most of the work was done by hand.
We did see a couple of men using chisels to cut mortise and tenons into window frames. We saw another man putting them together. There were also several men we saw carving designs into wooden lintels that were spectacular.
There are many families still living in temporary shelters beside the fields as they wait for the homes to be rebuilt. I’ve put a few pictures here and the rest in another page in the travel section.
The flat land in the bottom of the valley and the terraced hillsides are used for growing a variety of crops. We walked down to the bottom of the village Khokana and back up the other side to Bungamati. What a workout! The farmers were using terraced land to grow wheat, potatoes and mustard for now. Rice will be planted in this area in May.
We saw workers in the fields when we were there. They were weeding the crops by hand or with a deep, narrow metal hoe. We saw cows being used to pull a plow that was managed by a man in flip-flops. At the end of the day they all walk back up the big hill to the village. It is a very difficult life.
We bought some pop from a woman who had a little store in the front of her house. She wanted about $1.05 for 3 bottles. Peter insisted that was not enough and gave her double that.
As we sat on a bench outside, we watched her doing the family laundry. She hauled the water in buckets from the inside. At least she didn’t have to go to the nearby water pipe. She had several pails and basins that she used to wash and rinse the clothing. As the rinse water deteriorated, she would replace the dirtiest and continue rinsing from most soapy to least. We saw many women in Nepal washing clothes in buckets on the ground near an available water source.
We visited a man who creates designs on metal statues sold in the market and to people who want Hindu deities in their homes. Women were weaving rice straw into floor mats and corn stalks into table mats. A couple were shelling what they called chick peas, that looked and tasted very much like regular peas. They also had harvested a mat full of turmeric roots.
We saw many schoolchildren in their uniforms off to school as usual.
We crossed the valley over terrible road but our taxi got us safely to the Pharping Yanglesho Monastery. We saw several differences from the ones in Thailand. There seems to be a closer link to Hindu here. Since both religions come from India it is not so surprising. It also has lots of influence from Tibet.
The Tibetan prayer flags that epitomize the hike to Everest are in 5 colours. They represent earth, air, fire, water and Buddha himself. Read up on Pharping if you want to know more. We climbed lots of stairs and had some good views. A blessing was ending as we arrived at the top and some novices shared some oranges with us to share their blessing.
We finished our day with a drive to Kuripur, just south of Kathmandu. We walked through a quiet, old community to get to the Pagoda. Children were playing. Women were sitting under an enormous tree. Men were sitting on the stoops of their homes. The buildings were mostly old, but there were also several more modern homes. A large water containment area was built into the square. It was the size of a swimming pool with steps down to accommodate varying water levels.
The pagoda is from the 16th century and is a tribute to the Hindu god Bhagh Bhairab who is the destructive form of Shiva. It has a row of knives and swords hanging from the upper level. If the sky were clear, there would be wonderful views of the city.
We saw a woman with a crowd gathered around her in Bungamati. I realized she was white. I then realized that we had been the only white people in the village up until that point. Our guide told us that she was a donor working with an NGO. Until then I hadn’t noticed that we were the only non-asian people. That is quite unfamiliar to us, although I didn’t feel like anyone acted like they noticed. How lucky we are to be oblivious to the colour of our skins most of the time.
I am feeling more positive about Nepal after a few more days in this country. It doesn’t work the way I think it should and I can see how difficult it is for the citizens to survive each day here. They do have a strong sense of community, however, and that seems to just make things work for here. Stay tuned for more comments as we continue our journey.
Having a guide for the day was priceless. We paid him 5000 rp or about $50 and he led the way for the whole day and 15000 steps. He said his usual rate was 4000 rp but we could pay him whatever we thought he was worth. Without him we would not have found all the hidden treasures within the villages. He also provided us with a local perspective on education, family, religion and how the government handles things in Nepal. He was so knowledgeable on Hinduism, Buddhism and life in the village. We are so glad he found us in Durbar Square and gave us the opportunity to write a reference in his little black notebook.
Nepal…to visit or not to visit?
March 23, 2017
Visit to Nepal
Before getting ready to head back to Canada we took a last holiday from our holiday. We decided on Nepal for a few reasons
- Peter had wanted to go there for 40 years.
- It was much less expensive to fly to Kathmandu from Thailand than from Canada
- We needed to leave the country one more time before our visa expired
- Tourism is down in Nepal since the earthquakes 3 years ago. We wanted our tourism dollars to help make a difference.
- We thought it would be a good place to escape the burning season of bad air in Chiang Mai.
Four of the five reasons were good reasons. The last one proved false as the air in Nepal is even more polluted than when we left Thailand. Fortunately, we had bought Vogmasks to filter out the most dangerous particles and wore them most of the time we were away.
Reasons to visit
- The people of this country are happy and kind. They work very hard to make a living. Even before the earthquake though, 1/3 of the economy is from local efforts, 1/3 comes from money sent home by those who leave to make a living, and 1/3 is from tourism.
- There is a wonderful energy here. I am glad we had time in Thailand to have some experience with city living or this might have overwhelmed us.
- Our hotel, The Tibet Peace Inn, was very good value at about $35/night. They could not have been more helpful. They picked us up at the airport, provided a hot breakfast for $3 a day and arranged our itinerary for the time we were there. The manager booked our flight and driver for our trip to fly by Everest. He also booked a driver and hotel for our trip to Pokhara for 2 nights and even let us leave some of our things in our room in Kathmandu when we were gone. And not only that, but they had the best hot, high-pressured shower we have had since we left Canada.
- You can hire a private guide and driver for a whole day of touring the villages near the city for about $80. We had a great day with Ranjan Mishra, our guide.
- You can buy any knock off clothing gear that you want, all made in Nepal. I got a mid-weight down jacket for $20 and waterproof duffel bags for our camping gear for $35.
- We stayed in the Thamel area. It is the tourist area and has lots of restaurants serving food from every country, including Nepal. Local beer is also cheap. $4 for 620 ml.
- The country is primarily Hindu with many Buddhist and some Muslim. They have a strong influence from India which we could see in the women’s dress. Having heard many Hindu stories at Angkor Wat was a big help to understanding the culture here.
- There is a very strong sense of community here. Children hold hands as they walk to school. They play in the streets with whatever they can find. People smile and welcome you. Parents play with their children and laugh with them. I saw lots of dads carrying their children around
Reasons you might not want to visit
- Air quality. It is not only very dusty, but the skies register over 150 ppm of 2.5 micron particles which is above the dangerous level.
- Traffic-There is too much traffic for the roads. There are no traffic lights at all in the Kathmandu valley. Many streets are not paved due to mismanagement or because of the earthquake. These roads are full of holes. If a mudslide occurs in the mountains, the traffic must drive around it. The unpaved roads also result in lots of the dust.
- There are many people who walk here, especially compared to Thailand although are almost no sidewalks in our neighborhood. 40% of traffic fatalities are pedestrians.
- There is not a central government that knows how to help its citizens. Although building techniques must be adhered to when rebuilding homes after the earthquake, money that was promised has not arrived. They dig up roads to add someone to a water line, but don’t replace the road. There are power poles that are half a meter into the road because roads people and and power peope don’t work together.
- Local people we talked to feel that too much of the country’s money goes to corrupt officials. If you want a certificate stating you are a trained plumber, you can just buy one.
- It is hard to see so many poor people living in tents and shelters. Children say to visitors, “Give me a chocolate.” Many people in the smaller villages share a community water well or spigot.
- Garbage is often dumped into the river or pushed down a hill or piled up in a yard. Infrastructure is very limited
- Public school is only free up to grade 5. The children look great in their uniforms of skirts or pants and sweaters with ties, but their education is very much like ours was in the 50’s. Punishment for creativity and very much rote learning with workbooks of homework.
Hope for Nepal
We met a couple of locals who want a better future for Nepal. Our guide wanted to share what he loved about his land, but wants a government that is accountable to the people.
Our driver lived in a village that was mostly destroyed. He left his brother behind to look after their old father and moved to Kathmandu with his and his brother’s children so they could continue to go to school.
A young man running a nightly movie on the upper level of an Irish pub, Cinema under the moon, has many ideas for Nepal. He wants a trades school that is accountable to the employers that the students will have needed skills. He wants to use the hydroelectric power available in Nepal for electric cars and has read up on Elon Musk’s Tesla battery. Depak lets tourists message him on Facebook if they feel they are being taken advantage of by anyone in Kathmandu.
These thinkers make me feel positive. They also get me thinking much more about, “What should I be doing? What is my role as a citizen of the world? We are here for a few more days. I will continue to ponder my responsibility as we see and learn more about Nepal.
I will include some more pictures of the devastation and rebuilding from the earthquake in a travel subheading in the next couple of days , as well as some photos from our flight by Everest. Check back.