Nepal, the land of high mountains, secluded valleys and dense jungles, has always held a fascination for mountaineers, trekkers and adventurers seeking an escape from their humdrum daily lives. Geography has indeed blessed this land. It hosts some of the highest peaks in the Himalayas to its north and hot and steamy jungles of the Terai to its south. It has swift clear rivers suitable for rafting, challenging peaks for mountaineering, soaring thermals for paragliding and verdant jungles for wildlife viewing. Having a wild, adventurous streak in me, I had always secretly dreamed of a Nepali adventure. On a trip to Kolkata in December 2014, I finally turned that dream into reality.
What should I see in the limited time at my disposal? After careful deliberation, I decided on Kathmandu, Pokhara and Chitwan National forest. The reasoning was as follows. Kathmandu is the capital and portal into Nepal by air and has several ancient temples and monasteries. Pokhara is a town situated beside beautiful Lake Phewa at the base of the Annapurna range. At 26595 feet, Annapurna I is the tenth highest peak in the world and on a clear day the view of the rising sun reflected off the massif is breathtaking. This was definitely on my “to see” list. Chitwan is home to the unique one horned Indian rhinoceros and the legendary (and very rare) Bengal tiger. The opportunity of an elephant safari at Chitwan was very enticing. I was really looking forward to getting a close up photo of a rhino, and, with luck, maybe a leopard or tiger. I figured this whole trip could be comfortably accomplished in eight days.
I decided to travel inside Nepal by car which would allow me to move at my own pace, give me a close view of local life and a better travel experience. I contacted a travel agent in India who made all the necessary arrangements regarding hotels, car, safari tickets and air travel. With all these necessary details completed, I packed a small suitcase, took my passport and trusted camera and headed off for my Nepali adventure.
I flew into Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu and cleared immigration. US citizens need a visa and this can be obtained at the airport (carry a couple of passport size photos). I was greeted by my designated driver who drove me to my hotel. It was late, I was very tired, had dinner and went to sleep.
Next morning after breakfast, I started on the seven hour drive to Pokhara. Suman, a young Nepali, was my driver. He spoke some English, a little Hindi and we hit off just fine. First order of business was to buy a case of drinking water (a brand with which I was familiar), at a large shopping center. One less thing to worry about.
Soon we left Kathmandu and were headed west. Gradually, the dense housing and choking dust of the city gave way to green terraced fields and cool, clean mountain air. I saw men and women patiently walking beside the road with loaded “dhokos,” the woven basket slung from their foreheads in which they carry goods. There were colorful roadside tea stalls with bunches of little yellow bananas hanging from the rafters and piles of oranges and packets of biscuits on display. The highway runs for a great part along the Trishuli river. It was glass-green and flowing swiftly. From the white wave caps and eddies, I judged at places it would make for great white water rafting. It being winter, the water level was relatively low. One could only imagine the raging torrent it would become during the monsoon. Soon it was time for lunch. Suman stopped at a small roadside eatery with “Sir, this place, good lunch”.
From the outside it was not much to look at; an old lady in a Tibetian shawl stirring a large pot over a wood fire. I thought “why not! When in Rome…” and stepped in. The view from the back was to die for. Tables were set out on a little balcony at the edge of the hill, with a drop of several hundred feet all the way to the Trishuli river. On the other side were intricately carved green terraces for cultivation giving way to wooded hills that rose well above eye level. On the left was a wire suspension foot bridge crossing the river, pretty standard in Nepal. People would be nonchalantly walking across with the river raging far below. Beyond that was a cable car line that led up to a temple. I stood mesmerized for several minutes, camera in hand. Then I heard, “Sir, lunch”.
I turned around and saw two full thalis on a small table. “Thakali Thali” is a standard Nepali lunch not very different from a typical Bengali lunch. There was a mound of warm rice in the middle with several vegetable dishes, curries and condiments around it. There was a bowl of daal (lentils) and another of meat. The journey had worked up an appetite and we dug in. It was delicious. I sat for a little while enjoying the scenery while Suman went for a smoke, and then we continued on towards Pokhara.
Soon we could see the outline of the Annapurna massif. As we got closer, the individual peaks stood out decked in white. The most notable one was Mt. Macchapuchhare (fish tail), aptly named because its triangular shape resembles the tail of a fish. We arrived in Pokhara and I checked into my hotel.
It was located in Lakeside, a touristy area chock full of restaurants, bars, internet cafes, and shops selling everything from jackets and sleeping bags to yak wool shawls and Tibetian prayer beads. Fortunately, it was situated within walking distance of Lake Phewa and from my room I had a good view of the peaks. I sat on the balcony with a cup of tea and gazed raptly at the snow covered mountains. In the distance, the almost perfect isosceles triangle of Machhapuchhare was clearly visible, flanked by Annapurna I and III. I watched several paragliders making good use of the thermals near Pokhara, their brightly colored sails clearly visible against the translucent white of the peaks.
Early next morning, I headed for Sarangkot, a popular spot where one can get a colorful, panoramic view of the peaks during sunrise or sunset. The view, naturally, depends on the weather. Often, these peaks are obscured by clouds in the morning. Unfortunately, that day the mountains were completely covered by a think veil of gray clouds. After a cold, disappointing hour, waiting in vain for the clouds to part, I headed back to the hotel. I spent the remainder of the day seeing the sites in Pokhara, took a leisurely walk by the lake and did some shopping. My favorite item was a Tibetian singing bowl which is a big hit at home.
Next day we were to leave for Chitwan. After a restless night, I got up early. I could not get the disappointment of Sarangkot out of my mind. “Are the mountains shrouded in clouds today”, I wondered? I stepped out on to the balcony and noticed that the peaks were just visible in the faint, predawn light. That meant the weather was clear and I would soon see Annapurna in the light of the rising sun. I got my camera and composed myself to enjoy and photograph the sight I had come for. In a few minutes I could see the first blush of rose tinging the pristine snows. The colors grew in intensity until the peaks were glowing with liquid gold. It was an unforgettable sight. The play of colors persisted for a few more minutes. I was in awe and took several pictures.
I was thinking about my luck during the drive to Chitwan. Even though Sarangkot was a disappointment, I did get to see the mountain range at dawn the next day from the comfort of my hotel balcony. This is one lesson I have learned from my many years of peregrinations. In travel, as is in life, one does not always get everything one wishes for. But there are other compensations for which one should be thankful. The close up photo of Annapurna, robed in red and gold at sunrise is a great picture and an enduring memory. Would my luck hold in Chitwan, I wondered?
This was first published in Du-Kool, May 2015.