Nepal – Prithivi Highway, Bus Bugs and Bed Bugs.

Kathmandu, March, 2018: The Prithivi highway for $7 or fly for $87, That’s the choice once faces when travelling to and from Pokhara. I chose the tourist bus for $7, a decision I came to regret. Here’s how the story unfolds….

IMG_55997 am at the tourist bus park in Pokhara and the place is a frenzy of activity. It’s the height of the spring tourist season as trekkers and natives head back to Kathmandu. Despite this, our bus isn’t full, well not yet anyway. So, subject to pickups on route I could be in for a row to myself which is a great bonus on a long journey like this one I’m about to embark upon – 8 to 9 hours!

It’s a journey not for the faint of heart that’s for sure I’ve done this several times and just close my eyes, but first timers may arrive at their destination feeling somewhat thankful to have survived! The road is narrow compared to developed nations like Switzerland and Austria. The surface at best rather bumpy, at worst it’s simply nonexistent as blacktop is replaced by dirt top. Driving standards are dubious to say the least – risky manoeuvres are the norm around here such as overtaking on corners with just an inch or 2 between vehicles. On the positive side, theses drivers are skilled at getting their passengers at least to the first meal stop – breakfast.

Holdups, not uncommon on the Prithivi Highway, but so early in the journey doesn’t bode well. Just after the breakfast stop and it all grinds to a halt. An excellent opportunity for susu, a photo of the hills and another stretch of the legs. And then that sinking feeling when one realises the bus has departed. Yes, without any warning the bus has left the scene minus 2 of its passengers. Oh dear, this isn’t a good situation to be in, with passport and money still on the bus doubtful I’ll ever see them again…..

Oh what luck! by the grace of god the other passenger had a phone number for the bus driver. My angst slowly turned to relief as we jogged along the highway, and sure enough there was the bus after a few minutes, waiting patiently for its 2 idiotic passengers! The relief of being reunited with my belongings is somewhat indescribable. The possibility of being without a passport sends shudders to my core – police reports, missed flight, embassy visits not to mention the cost of it all. I’ve no doubt had this been India or Cambodia my situation now would be very different.

So, settled back on the bus, nerves settled lets hope the journey to Kathmandu continues without further incident….

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Well, to cut a long story short as the saying go’s….

the rest of the journey was stop start all the way to Kathmandu. A journey that originally took 7-8 hours in 2014 now takes 10-11 hours. Its just the shear amount of goods vehicles that travel less than 20 mph causing holdups and bunching. There’s bugs on this bus to – biting bugs, damn it!

And i’m just going to gloss over Kathmandu – not my favourite city and I picked a pretty bad guesthouse too. Noisy till 2 AM with drunk Nepalis and then the bed bugs came out. they’r light brown, about 1 1/2 millimeter long and run fast. they bite with ferocity but can easily be squashed if caught in time. Yes, its fair to say i didn’t get the best nights sleep. Nevermind, Kuala Lumpur tomorrow.

TOP TIP….

Always keep your passport with you when in transit, and secure when not. Its a good idea to take a few images of your visa, and passports front pages too.

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Nepal – Malaysia, Hong Kong, Japan, Hong Kong, Malaysia.

Penang, Malaysia, April 2018: Its been an intense month of travelling through April. Since leaving Nepal at the end of March. A transit stop in Kuala Lumpur before jetting off to Hong Kong where I spent a few days. Then it was off to Japan for more oriental experiences before heading back to Hong Kong for a better, more comprehensive visit. Once I got Hong Kong out of my system it was back to Malaysia where I shall reside for the next 5 weeks catching up on blogging and sorting the good photos form the not so good. So, if you want to see how crazy Hong Kong is or take a look around the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum then then please stay tuned for an exciting account of travels with Backpacking Paul.

Nepal – Best 5 Mountain Views from Pokhara

Pokhara, Nepal, March 2018: As this years Wintering in Nepal comes to an end I’m struggling to come up with a blog subject not already covered on previous visits. So my attention once again turns to mountains. After all, that is what most of us are here for, right – those awesome, magical Himalayan snow capped rocks stretching East, West, North and up!

Its fair to say I’ve taken hundreds of photos of the Annapurna Mountain range. Whittling my collection down to the top 5 was a pretty hard job but with perseverance I have arrived at what I feel are 3 of the best mountain views on the planet!

First the short list…..

Now the final 5…

Number 5:  From the road up to Sarangkot capturing elements of Himalayan life.

 

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Number 4: Taken from the airport runway as a sightseeing plane adds depth and dimension

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Number 3: From the airport, a shot of the Eastern part of the Annapurna range.

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Number 2: The inevitable sunset scene, again taken from the airport.

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Number 1: A picture postcard scene of the central Annapurna range, taken from the road up to Sarangkot.

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And there you have it. Would number 1 have been your top photo too?

Next week I shall be on the move to Kuala Lumpur on route to Hong Kong. Stay tuned for more exciting adventures across Asia!

Nepal – Lakeside Characters, Fewa Lake

Pokhara, Nepal, March 2018: Over the course a few weeks one gets to know of the characters that regularly frequent the Lakeside – characters that rely on the lake and its trappings for their very existence. As the days story unfolds, beggars and tramps will roll up looking eagerly into the eyes of those white tourists. Sellers mooch towards their pitches on the lakes edge – snack sellers, umpteen folk selling plastic beads, fruit ladies ply the lakeside path and then there’s the doughnut man limping past every morning with a dozen or so bags balanced on his head – don’t trip matey!

A reality check perhaps for those of us who can enjoy life without the challenges faced by the local natives here in Pokhara and across Nepal. No government handouts around here, no nanny state to hold the hands of its population. Each and everyone has to survive on their own merits.

Begging, inevitable in an undeveloped country like Nepal. Here on Lakeside about half a dozen regulars pass-by. From characters dressed in orange robes to grandma to the alcoholic barely able to stand.

Hawkers selling stringed beads, snacks fruits and shoe shine. Pitching up from mid morning one gets invited to “come and look, good quality”. Well, a nice enough display of brightly coloured beads and threads of string but the quality aspect  is somewhat debatable! As for the snacks, personally I’d avoid buying theses on the grounds of lack of  hygiene. The fruit, well, id only buy something that needs to be peeled.

Lakeside is evolving. With new shacks popping up every season there’s plenty of work for carpenters and bamboo thatchers as seen below. Then there are the Indian boys with their ‘twangers’. Yes, they wander along tugging at a chord – twang! Exactly why confounds the wildest imagination, but i’m sure there’s a good reason!

Fewa Lake, essential to daily life, washing their laundry, bathing and local transport as the villages on the far side of the lake are only accessible by rowing boat – a new twist on the school run! When the chores a done, a spot of fishing to catch some lunch.

And so life go’s on, with or without tourists. Locals surviving on what natural resources can provide for those that society leaves behind.

Nepal – Himalayan Sundown at Pokhara Airport

Pokhara, Nepal, March 2018: A 10 minute bus ride to Rastrabank Chowk followed by a 15 minute stomp up to the end of the runway at Pokhara airport  – a great spot for some mountain viewing. From here, one can see practically the entire Annapurna mountain range and since the weather has been unusually clear all day then today is an opportunity to catch a Himalayan sunset.

As the sun begins to sink a hue falls upon the glistening mountain peaks. A subtle pink turning into a deeper shade of orange as the sun sinks to the Southwest. A majestic and serene scene indeed. Mesmerizing to begin with then the mists and shadows fall obscuring the Eastern facing slopes until finally its all in the grasp of dusk. Time to head on back to base.

Waiting for the sun to set….

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Changing colours at sundown…

 

In Summary…

Sunset begins at around 5.30 this time of the year and lasts for about 45 minutes. Bus from Barahi (Map) to Rastrabank Chowk (Map) is 15 rupees. From Rastrabank walk up to Mustang Chowk (Map) and the airport is straight ahead. Turn right then next left to find the end of the runway (Map).  A great little expedition requiring almost no effort – great for non-trekkers like me!

Nepal – Boating with Great Scenery, Fewa Lake, Pokhara

Pokhara, Nepal, March 2018: Boating is the principle tourist activity here on the lake Fewa. For around £8, with or without a boatman, one can row around for an hour or so and feel somewhat at peace with Himalayan nature. For about £12 one can hire a boat all day and explore all those nooks and coves on the far-side. Swimming in the middle of the lake is not advised. There’s at least one death a year, blamed on the lake monster if local folklore is to be believed. Personally, Id say over intoxication could be the reason!

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Boat stations are situated conveniently along most of the lakes Northern perimeter so one is never very far from a potential spell of boating.Price’s are the same and rigidly set – there’s no negotiation for a discount – take it or leave it during high season. Low season may be another matter and i’m sure one could bargain on a little extra time for the same price.

So lets go boating and enjoy some scenery…

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In Summary…

If you have the time, wait for a clear day and you’ll see the mountain peaks poking up from behind the hills. Unless you want to go to the Barahi Island temple and back I’d avoid this station altogether – its crazy manic and you”ll have to queue (Google Map). Choose another launching station slightly further along, guaranteed no queuing! Its a great way to spend some time at one with the natural world, on water. Mornings are the best time to go boating when the air is fresh and crisp and scenery is at its best, especially for keen photographers.

 

 

Nepal – Introducing The Fewa Lake

Pokhara, Nepal, March 2018: There’s a sign prominently displayed by the roadside as visitors arrive at Pokhara’s Lakeside – “No Lake, No Lakeside”. A stark reminder of how important this natural freshwater lake is to the local economy. Its also a timely reminder to locals and business owners to keep the place nice and tidy! Cleanliness isn’t a word id associate with Nepal, but as far as lakeside go’s it is pretty clean. Not perfect like we’d see in New Zealand or England but compared to Kathmandu the place is like a sanctuary!

The rustic charms of this rather large tranquil Himalayan lake draw in domestic tourists all year round while international visitors are more of a seasonal entity, passing through on their way to or from the Annapurna mountains. Personally, this is my winter hangout – rustic, tranquil and above all cheap in a like for like comparison with the developed economies of the West.

Tranquility – looking across the Himalayan hills…

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Visitors in search of high-end fine dining along the lake front will be sorely disappointed. The menus are plain, simple and sometimes pricey for what one receives! Recent development has seen a sharp rise in the construction of food shacks – simple bamboo framed structures with a corrugated tin roof to more complicated bamboo structures with thatched roofs. Cheap plastic chairs and tables, sometimes wood slatted benches and stone slabs, all en-alfresco certainly gives this place that rustic feel.  Each shack though emanates its own style and personality. From a plain and simple eat and go to relax and stay for a while.  Personally, I’m opting for the relax and stay a while philosophy since I have bundles of time – yes travelling slow has its advantages.

Simplicity….

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Savouring the peace and tranquility, perhaps take a nap…

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A simple, basic shack…

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Exerciser Caution: While rustic may have its charms it should also come with a degree of caution. First, Nepal has  no quality control – no laws, no rules when it comes to hygiene and food safety. The smaller shack operators are family affairs making a subsistence living at best. Their philosophy for getting rid of garbage is to pile it up in the back yard – out of sight out of mind but an attractive proposition for swarms of flies and rodents. I’d never est anything that looks as if its been standing around, cold food items definitely off my food radar, not just at shacks on Lakeside but anywhere in Nepal!

By contrast, larger concerns are operated on a more professional level with college educated staff well ware of the perils and consequences of food poisoning. While these places are far from even close to matching Western hygiene standards they are somewhat better than some of the shacks. Wherever I eat though, id make sure my food is well cooked and as fresh as possible.

Back yards behind the shacks….

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In Summary…

Here’s a few simple guidelines when dealing with food on Lakeside and anywhere else in Nepal.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions about your food and try to gauge any potential problems. for example, I’ll always ask ‘how long has the rice been cooked for’? Once they hear that, you’ll get freshly cooked food. Try to pick on an establishment where the cooking can be observed. These tend to be the smaller places without the storage space of larger premises. Try to avoid meat and fish – a magnet for flies and may not get cooked right though.

Its a tricky business in Nepal but after 4 seasons of visiting here, sticking to a mainly vegetarian diet with the occasional chicken relapse, I haven’t suffered any food poisoning what so ever!

And that my friends is how it is, Lakeside Pokhara, Nepal.

 

Nepal – Holi Festival in Pokhara

Pokhara, Nepal, March 2018:  Today is Holi and that means its going to be a messy affair, especially later on if last year is anything to go by! Holi is a very big deal here in the Lakeside district of Pokhara with business’s gearing up for a financial windfall as thousands are expected to arrive here around lunchtime. With live music gigs at Centre-point, Camping chowk and at smaller venues along the lake front the scene is set for a very noisy, colourful, crazy afternoon!

The origins of Holi are somewhat lost in history for the most part with a tenuous link to the Hindu Lord Krishna. The modern and updated interpretation of Hloi however is ‘A Day Off Work’ Yes, another public holiday to herald in the Spring across Nepal. Coupled with the fact that everyone at some point in the day will be covered in coloured water and brightly coloured paint powder then defining Holi is pretty straight forward, ‘A Festival of Colours to mark the start of Spring and the season of Love’.

When the festival occurs depends on the Hindu calendars lunar interpretations, but generally speaking its after the full moon between late February and early to Mid March.

From around mid morning sellers are on the streets flogging bags of paint powder for 150 rupees while kids charge up their water guns, fill up buckets of coloured water and fill balloons with water in readiness for some good old fashioned mischief making – all under the guise of Holi of course.

Selling paint powder for Holi…

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Water….water….water…

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So, as thousands of Pokharas residents head on down to lakeside its time to change into something I can discard later, grab some lunch and tease the kids for a while.

Lets get messy….

As the music pumps and the powder flies its a good idea to keep ones mouth shut for the time being. Moving between gigs is when the water also flies with kids bombing tourists and small boys trying to smear powder across girls faces but often just tall enough to reach the breasts – Yes, quite a few slapped faces today I should think!

Thousands gather for Holi celebrations…

In Summary…

Holi day is a great festival for tourists to get involved with. Its a cultural experience like no other. However, with the vast amounts of paint powder flying around and considering that there are next to no reliable quality control measures in Nepal some powders may well be toxic So here’s a few top tips to follow for a happy, healthy Holi.

  1. Asthmatics should probably avoid large crowd concentrations.
  2. Before revelling in Holi buy a face mask or 2.
  3. Girls be prepared for some intimate touching by young boys.
  4. Keep that mouth closed as much as possible – eat and drink later.
  5. Don’t wear those designer jeans or the prized Tee-shirt – obviously.

 

 

 

Nepal – Shivarati Festival in Pokhara

Pokhara, Nepal, February 2018:  A festival celebrating Lord Shiva – a God of the Hindu brand of religion. The origins are somewhat murky depending on what one reads or who one believes, but everyone agrees on one thing – The National Holiday! Yes, a chance for those who are devoutly loyal to Lord Shiva to trot down to the local Temple for prayers, and the giving of garlands and various other offerings according to the belief. The kids are delighted with a day off school and certainly don’t plan on catching up with homework, and who can blame them. In simple terms, everyone’s happy with a day off!

Here in Pokhara, perhaps the most famous temple is that on Barahi Island, situated in the middle of Fewa Lake.Go(ogle Map) The lakefront is heavily populated with locals waiting for their boat to Barahi. Little blue painted rowing boats mostly, and some rather dubious double boat structures serve to triple passenger capacity to the point of no return! Its a 10 minute ride depending on how enthusiastic the boatman is. Price discrimination is alive and well practiced here with white skinned people paying 3 -4 times more than the natives. Nonetheless its an interesting cultural excursion.

Approaching Barahi Island…

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On Barahi Island with the crowds….

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Exploding Sugarcane: The national holiday celebrating Lord Shiva (Shiverati) culminates after dark with the heating of sugarcane before giving it a good wack on the road. A crack followed by a cloud of rising steam amidst cheers from the crowds gathered around the bonfire is the scene repeated at various locations around Pokhara’s Lakeside district.. Exactly what this represents with respect to Lord Shiva is hard to discover, and i’m still non the wiser. I suspect its just a bit of fun, mainly for the younger generations who have a spare 150 rupees for one long cane of sugar. Children are seen gathering the remains of discarded canes and sucking, vigorously extracting the sweet juices.

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In Summary…

Shiverati Festival occurs February to early March according to the Hindu calendar. A boat from Lakeside across to Barahi Island Temple will cost around 500-600 Rupees for non Nepali or Indian for a return journey. I suspect trying to swim there would be frowned upon! Id definitely recommenced getting involved, especially with the exploding sugarcane after dark.

Nepal – Sarangkot, Awesome Mountain Views 3

Pokhara, Nepal, February 2018:  About 3/4 the way up, just before the village,, a guy in an orange vest jumps out from behind a ramshackle structure, with a demand for 50 rupees. He points to a notice board, looks official alright. Says something about being a fee to help the villagers achieve development! Oh well, 50 rupees won’t spoil the budget too much and at least I can get on the viewing platform with it. I’d estimate another 45 minutes of hiking from here, but those damn clouds are beginning to develop, better got a move on!

Sarangkot , not only famous for mountain viewing, but also for jumping off with a parachute – Yes, its the worlds premiere spot for paragliding is to be found here. The good news is that their trail is a handy shortcut to the viewpoint platform, which is clearly visible, almost within touching distance. I’ll loiter here for a few minutes rest though.

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!0.15 and a last ditched effort to reach the summit of Sarangkot Hill. A nicely constructed stone staircase lined either side with everything touristy, only there’s an apparent lack of tourists. So, at last, on top of the hill where in theory the views of the entire Annapurna mountain range should be breathtaking. Instead the clouds have rolled in creating partial views here and there. Strangely enough though the black and white vista adds a completely different dimension to the scene. An air of mystery surrounds the Annapurna mountains hidden in a cloak of mist and fog!

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Half an hour here is long enough for a good rest and suddenly realising I haven’t eaten for some hours, time to find sustenance. Among the plethora of touristy joins, most of which seem closed, one can find a local lunch counter with the simplest of menus – noodles, potato, fry, Dal Bhat and samosas.  1 samosa, a plate of potato fry and a cup of milk tea will cost 200 rupees, more than double in the city. Funny how inflation increases with altitude!

With a few hours to spare until the bus down at 4 pm, lets go and watch those fools jump off the hillside – attached to a parachute of course!

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Well, it may be a quick way down for the adventurous, I’d sooner take the bus. At first the place looks like a scene of chaos but after a while there is a definite queuing system. Quite calming to watch for the most part – that is until someone trips up on the cliff edge or the parachute canape collapses just on the point of launch.  One chap even managed to wrap his entire rig around the windsock post!

And here comes the bus… Yes it’s pretty amazing how they get these buses up the steepest of hills on the narrowest of tracks!

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In Summary…

For those of us not inclined to take long hard treks, a trip to the Sarangkot (Google Map) viewpoint is a great alternative to see the mountains and is only a day trip from Pokhara. Hop on a bus at Hallanchowk (Google Map), get off at Zero (Google Map), take a bus up the Baglung Road and get off at either the Baglung bus park (Google Map) for the Sarangkot bus or the Sarangkot road for the walking up (Google Map). Id recommend the earliest start possible aiming to be on the viewing tower by 9.30 am as the mountains are nearly always obscured by clods from mid-morning. Be sure to catch the scenery on the way up! Plenty of accommodation options exists should one desire to stay overnight and enjoy a sunset and sunrise – take cash since i didn’t spot an ATM up there.

There are 2 public buses heading down between 3 and 5 pm or catch a lift with one of the paragliding vans directly back to Lakeside – negotiate the price well as these boys eyes twinkle with the prospect of some extra cash!

Have I inspired you to go to Sarangkot one day? let me know in the comments below and thanks for reading.

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