By the time I came down from the mountaintop in Puma, the energy of my journey around Asia had shifted. With more clarity of mind than I’d had in a long time, I realized that in large part, I had been responsible for the frustrations of my recent travel in China. Having been in the U.S. to file taxes and settle a lawsuit two months prior to departing for China, I had fallen into victim mode, but four short days of living with the Gurungs and learning about their simple, nurturing culture had restored my serenity.
At the end of my home stay in the Gurung village I clambered aboard a rattletrap bus for the five hour ride to Pokhara and crammed my too-big butt into a seat made for narrow-hipped Nepalis. The pancake-thin layer of ticking in my seat cushion was soon compressed against the underlying metal and I squirmed, trying to find a comfortable position. Finally, I stuffed my sweatshirt under my tush, but neither the uncomfortable seat nor the waves of gritty brown dust billowing through stuck-open windows could destroy my contentment. Not even when the bus stopped dead in the suburbs of Pokhara, with traffic backed up for miles by a fatal motorcycle accident, did my mood waver.
Initially my buttocks just ached, but when all feeling disappeared, I slung my backpack over my shoulder and hopped out the open door to the ragged street, walking a kilometer down the road to check out the extent of the snarl. Eardrum-splititng horns pierced the air as I zig-zagged through vehicles sprawled helter-skelter down the highway. I skittered out of the way of motorcycles that zipped through chinks in the clogged traffic and stepped gingerly over steaming piles of dung deposited by sacred cows that nonchalantly munched on brittle grass growing alongside an oil-slicked, garbage-strewn canal that paralleled the road. Plastic bottles, orange peels, and scraps of paper were strewn across the landscape. In the midst of the trash sat a beggar woman in tattered rags, her crinkled brown eyes telegraphing depths of despair. Holding an infant to her breast with one arm, she pleaded for small change with her other hand, holding five fingers together at her mouth in the universally understood sign for hunger.
As the buses became unbearably hot and muggy in the midday sun, more and more passengers joined me on the road. I nodded and greeted each with a “Namaste,” pressing my palms together at my heart in the traditional Nepali greeting. Twig thin men with grizzled beards and red-rimmed watery eyes looked out from beneath their topis – the traditional headwear of Nepal that resembles a soft, crushed fez – and returned my greeting with broad, gap-toothed grins. Herringbone vests and striped shirts topped loosely pleated trousers, beneath which protruded dust-clad feet. Those who had served as trekking guides were easily identified by their crunched-up toes, made so by years of gripping rough mountain trails wearing nothing more than thin rubber flip-flops. Contrasting with the muted browns and grays of the men’s garments, women were wrapped in brilliant saris that paired colors and patterns that would be incongruous in the western world, but somehow here seemed to match perfectly.
Asia is an assault on the senses for the uninitiated western visitor. Fortunately, having traveled in Asia for years, I have learned to look beyond the trash and incessant noise and appalling poverty. Instead, I saw a magical landscape bathed in crystalline light where men squatted on their haunches beneath Bodhi trees to exchange the day’s news, sleepy dogs curled in pools of sunshine, half-naked children playing gleefully in dirt patches, and families laughing together in front of clay-plastered houses, their arms thrown about one another as they soaked up late afternoon sun.
Over the next few days, the magic of Pokhara worked its spell on me. Ensconced in the Lakeside district on the shores of Phewa Lake, I walked the three-mile long lakefront road, bantering with the Nepali merchants and fending off offers of marriage from the Kashmiri shop owners. Each morning I bought fresh-picked oranges from insistent Indian boys on bicycles who hawked the sweet, juicy fruit from filled-to-the-brim circular wire baskets mounted to the rear of their bikes. Tibetan refugees, their hand-strung beads and prayer wheels spread on tarps, sat cross-legged on the sidewalk pleading, “Just take a look.” I learned their names and their stories; many of them had fled Tibet during the war in 1959 just ahead of the Chinese army, which destroyed thousands of monasteries and killed hundreds of thousands of monks as they advanced. The Buddhist Om Mani Padme Hum followed me through the streets, fading out as I moved away from one music store and picking up where it had left off as I approached the next one, as if the serene chant was piped throughout Pokhara.
One morning I took a boat across the lake to a tiny island that is home to Barahi Temple, the most important Hindu religious site in Pokhara. The temple represents the force of Shakti, the Hindu mother goddess who is the origin of universal creativity and power. Shakti assumes several forms, including a boar called Barahi that has sharp tusks designed to pierce her enemies and protect the gods from demons. Barahi is pictured with the face of a boar with a cup in one hand and a fish in the other; in deference to the goddess, no fishing is allowed in the waters surrounding the island and the fish, perhaps sensing this protected zone, swarm to the shores of the island. Hindus from around the world climb into colorful wooden boats and are paddled across the lake to receive blessings from the priest and have a “tika” – a red mark made by powdered pigment mixed with water – placed on their forehead.
Another day I arranged for a taxi to pick me up at 4:30 a.m. for the drive to the base of Sarangkot, a vertiginal green hill on the northern end of Phewa Lake that separates Pokhara from the Annapurna Himalaya range. The taxi driver took me as far as he was allowed to go on the rough dirt road and I picked my way up the rocky path by the dim light of my flashlight until I found a stone stairway a few hundred feet further on the right-hand side. Challenged by my poor night vision, I stared at the ground as I mounted the steep steps so as not to trip and fall down the mountain. An hour later, gasping for breath, I reached the small temple at the summit just as the first rays of sun lit up the snowy peaks in shades of orange, gold, and purple, while the river valley below glistened a rich, dewy green.
Though Sarangkot at dawn was stunning, others had insisted the view from the World Peace Pagoda was even better. I rode to the top on a motorcycle, my arms wrapped tightly around my guide as we bounced from boulder to crater, hanging on for dear life. At one point the road was so steep and rocky that I had to dismount and walk up the incline. Near the top, the road ended and we made the final ascent on foot via a well-trod dirt path; 20 minutes later we reached the crest and stepped up onto a broad manicured lawn, at the end of which a brilliant-white Buddhist stupa soared skyward. From its perch on a narrow ridge high above Phewa Lake, the World Peace Pagoda offered the same sweeping panorama of the Annapurnas found at Sarangkot, but with the added beauty of Pokhara and the sapphire blue lake cradled in the valley below.
Despite the adrenaline rush of the motorcycle ride to the World Peace Pagoda, with the wind blowing through my hair as we glided back down the mountain with no brakes or engine running, I still preferred the early morning view at Sarangot, but this trio of sights was just the beginning of a love affair for me…Pokhara had captured my heart in a way that few other places in the world have ever been able to.
…to be continued.
This post is part of the Carnival of Cities for June 1, 2011, a roundup of stories about fascinating cities around the globe from some of the world’s best travel writers.