Monday, January 16, 2012

Nepal- Pokhara

So we left India and its population of 1.1 billion into Nepal with a meer 29.5 million people (still over 7 million more than the entire population of Australia) and a place where 82% of Nepali’s live on less than $2US per day.

We bought a ticket from Varanassi in India to get a bus straight across the border. The bus ticket was only 800 Indian rupees ($16AUD) and included an egg sandwich (surprisingly!), the bus to the Nepal border at Sanauli, accommodation that night and a local bus to Pokhara. The whole trip took 20 hours on two different buses.

After a hectic few weeks in India we wanted to spoil ourselves and get a nice accommodation for a few nights in Pokhara to relax. We first stayed in a place that was a hefty $10 euros a night for a basic room (for some reason the owner of the guest house thought we were European- maybe because of Hannah’s haircut, and so decided to charge us in Euros), where the hot water had often run out. Our second guesthouse, however, was possibly the best value for our trip so far.

Gautama Guest House is located in Dam side. We got a beautiful room with a huge, wall sized window with a blooming vine draping down in front. The morning sunshine beams through the windows, making it a lovely way to wake up each morning. The family that run it are all so nice. Always smiling and enjoying the sunshine outside in the garden. The downstairs restaurant is slightly pricey but the food is good. There is free wifi also that works most of the time, even when there are power cuts, which is very handy. But the best thing about this place is the price! For our double room we are paying 300 rupees ($4.50AUD) per night, between the two of us!

The place was very conveniently situated nearby to a $2 AUD woodfired pizza shop called Pokhara Pizza and other great cheap little cafes where you can get a breakfast with toast, eggs, hash brown potatoes and tea for as little as one dollar.

Pokhara is situated next to a beautiful serene lake that reflects the Himalayan Annapurna range perfectly. It isn’t exactly what you would call an “authentic taste of Nepal,” as this has mainly lost due to the huge influx of tourism, but it does have a plethora of cute cheap local eateries and nice cafes perfect to let days slip by in reading a book or playing cards with fellow vagabonds.
The only problem with Pokhara, although it is a nation wide problem, is that there are power cuts everyday. The power cut schedule changes everyday. Some days there is a power cut from 9am to 2pm and then from 5pm to 10pm. This means that you can only use the power before 9am or for 3 hours between 2 and 5 in the afternoon, which is always inconvenient at first, but you begin to get used to it after a couple of weeks.
These power cuts happen all over the country because of a major electricity shortage. The country itself generates less than half of the power supplied to Nepal, the rest is imported from India. Although according to BBC news barely 40% of the Nepali population have access to power, the rest of the population depend on wood, or the higher up the mountains you go they also rely on cow poo that they dry up and use for fuel as well. 

After talking to local Nepalise we found out that they are increasing the blackout times soon from the 16 hour power cuts to 22 hour power cuts and even whole assigned days in the week without any power at all. Local shop keepers, restaurants and hotels have all learnt to deal with the power cuts and some have their own generators to at least keep some lights on during the cuts. But the porblem with these generators is that they charge whilst the power is on, from the main power source. So when the power cuts are increased then they will not have enough time to charge their generators, which is a growing concern amongst the locals. Nepal is now looking into renewable energy sources- maybe there will be a job for Daniel here once he finishes his degree?

There are options in Pokhara for any budget type. There are more pricey resorts boasting amazing views of the mountain, only accessible by a boat ride across the lake, or on the other end of the scale you can get by in Pokhara by just spending money for food each day. Right near the lake’s edge there are the camping grounds.  We have heard of people who have set up quite comfortable semi-permanent establishments there, like a Japanese man who has built a small shack there to live in.  As we have heard from some locals there are also farms that tourists can work on to earn their lodging and food. For this you wouldn’t need a work visa as you are technically not getting paid.

In Pokhara the main area is called Lakeside. It is a tourist hub and scattered around the area are many restaurants, bars and of course trekking stores that sell loads of fake north face down jackets, ski pants and everything else you will need if you decide to leave the comfort of pokhara and enter the vast, cold, breathtaking expanse of the Himalayas.

Around Pokhara there are many things to keep you occupied. It is famous for white water rafting, boasts a bat cave and other magnificent sights along the way. Nearby to where we are staying is a huge beautiful lake of which the town Pokhara was built around. For as little as 300 rp ($4AUD) an hour / 500 rp for two hours or/ 700 rp for the day, you can rent a little row boat to explore the lake for yourself. Whilst on the lake it offers a magnificent, uninterrupted view of the mountain range and in the centre of the lake is a little buddhist gompa on a little island covered in colourful prayer flags. 

One thing not to miss in Pokhara is the light show at sunrise from Sarangkot, a nearby town about 45 mins away. The view is something worth getting up for at 5 in the morning. Sarangkot is perched up on a hill and is shadowed by the massive Himalayas above and overlooks Pokhara and the lake below. 
As the sun rises over the mountains they change colours from bright yellows to fluorescent oranges, the sights are unreal and look as though someone has painted the mountains into the sky.
You can get taxis early in the morning to Sarangkot for 600rp ($8AUD) one way, but we went the cheapest option and rented our own scooter, braving the busy Nepal streets and tried to navigate our way there in the dark.
After the amazing light show at Sarangkot we decided to brave Pokhara’s famous Bat Cave and it is well worth the visit. Luckily we got there early to beat the crowds. We have been in our share of caves throughout south asia, but never has it felt so eerie. You enter down a staircase that turns into a steep passage of wet slippery rocks. After being initially small and cramped the cave opens out into a massive cavern. This is where you start to hear the flapping of nearby wings and smell the stench of stale bat droppings. At this point we shone my torch upwards to see literally thousands of bats hanging from the roof, it was a sight that was like nothing we had seen before. 

After the main cave, the exit is somewhat of a challenge. We climb up a ramp and come to a dead end at which point we realise the only way out is up. We scramble up a 5 foot ledge and then horizontally through a ridiculously tight space until we burst through a small opening into the fresh air. 
After the bat cave we decided to get away from the touristy area even more and went in search of other nearby lakes, such as Begnas Tal, which also boasted amazing mountain views. We even tried a spot of fishing whilst there, but with our limited skills (or lack-there-of) were disappointingly unsuccessful.

After having our accommodation sorted we set out on the task of preparing for a trek and deciding which one to embark on. Pokhara is a great launch point for a number of treks. It offers smaller 3 day treks all the way to 19 day treks. We decided to bite off the biggest chunk of the mountains we could. This was the Annapurna circuit trek. 19 days, over 200km and a maximum elevation of 5400m (only 100 metres less than the Everest trek). We picked the Annapurna circuit over other popular treks such as Everest as it offers walks through 5 different regions from tropical to artic and because the views were meant to be much better. You walk through valleys, old Sherpa villages, over bridges and snow passes, gazing up at the magnificent Annapurna range whilst passing yak and buffalo herders.

The main season for trekking the Annapurna range is October to early December, when the temperatures are bearable and the crowds can reach up to 200 trekkers crossing Thorang Pass (the highest point of the trek) everyday. Of course, knowing our luck of timing, we arrived just outside of the peak season and in the coldest possible time to go trekking. We dismissed people’s warnings of how cold it would be and decided to brave the conditions and give it a try anyway.

Coming from India we realised our comfortable hippie pant wardrobe would not be suitable for -20C temperatures in the Himalayas so we set out shopping. After acquiring all our fake Chinese made goods we were set to go. Many people going on the treks tend to hire porters to carry their bags for $15 per day and a guide for the same price. While it’s really good to support local employment we had heard that the trek was easy to navigate and we felt it would be cheating if we didn’t carry our own gear, so with that decided it only left a few things to sort.

To trek in the Annapurna’s conservation area you must get an ACAP permit for $20 US dollars and can be purchased at any of the travel shops. This permit not only allows you to trek in the region but also helps to fund the different communities you trek through helping to aid education and infrastructure. The other permit is your TIMS card, apparently you can get this for free at the immigration office in Pokhara (the same place you can extend visas). This is the best option for TIMS as some travel shops will try and charge you a fee for the TIMS, like we had.

While we were at the immigration office we decided to extend our visa as we realized the possibility of being snowed in. It was extremely easy as the maximum visa for Nepal is 5 months but it renews on the 1st day of every year so if your clever enough you can come in October for 5 months and then renew in the new year giving you 10 months in this lovely country. The cost for renewing is 3 dollars per day which can prove to be a bit pricey if your looking to extend for a couple of months so you are better off paying $US 90 and getting the 3 month visa to start with and then extending it.

With the visas, trekking permits and trekking gear all organized we could kick back for 4 or 5 days and enjoy a Christmas in Nepal. Even though Nepal, being predominantly Hindu and Buddhist, doesn’t traditionally celebrate Christmas we still made our efforts. We bought little gifts for each other from the local markets and Dan managed to find a little Christmas tree. We treated ourselves to a nice Australian turkey roast that night and we managed to find another Aussie couple to share it with, which was a lot of fun. 
As an extra Christmas gift Hannah bought Daniel a parahawking flight as a surprise, which he didn’t find out until about half an hour before the flight. Parahawking is like paragliding except you feed an eygptian vulture mid-flight. It is only run by one company in two places in the world: Spain and Pokhara. So it really was almost a once in a lifetime opportunity. 

The feeling of flying around 500metres above Pokhara, following the bird through the thermals in the atmosphere, rising up and down feeding the beautiful creature cut up bits of buffalo meat mid flight certainly was on to remember. All up the flight cost $168AUD and an additional $15AUD for the pictures and video of the flight, taken on a little GoPro camera during the flight. Even though usually this would be a little out of our budget, it was worth it. It wasn’t a thrill seekers ride, but rather a calm relaxing flight were you can soak up the amazing views of the Himalayas and of Pokhara below, whist feeding a vulture! We would recommend it to anyone.

Dan had been wanting to get tattooed somewhere in India but after failing to find a decent shop and artist he set out to see what the quality in Nepal was like. He found a very decent professional shop and booked in for a consult. The shop used good American hardware and ink and had a very affordable price of $AUD 25 per hour. This compared to $150 per hour back home was also a definite positive. The staff at Gangans are very nice and helpful and flexible with designs, it’s the kind of shop where the artists can actually draw and not just paste a stencil on you and needle away. After six hours Dan was very happy with the result, and to be out of the chair. The design came from numerous designs he’d found and liked and then, with the help of the staff pieced together something new, with all the styles he liked.

He was so happy in fact that he returned after trekking to get another piece. This time an old school ship.

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