Of Mountains and Magic

The last few days were spent exploring the lakeside city of Pokhora; adventure capital of Nepal and startingpoint for many treks into the Himalayas. We departed Kathmandu on Saturday, taking what wound up being an almost 8 hour bus ride across the country. Even though, when looking on a map, Pokhora is only a short distance from Kathmandu, one has to drive through many switchbacks and underdeveloped roads (in monsoon season) to get there. It wasn’t the worst ride I’ve ever taken, but it wasn’t pleasant. Then again, it was only $9….$11, if you include our $2 lunch, which would cost more in stomache problems in the days to come.

Bus to Pokhara
Rest Stop along the Trisuli River
In Case one gets lost

Although we both pride ourselves on being budget travelers and were glad to have the experience of bussing across the country, we both agreed we would book a flight for our return trip to Kathmandu, which costs only $75 and takes approximately 25 minutes. Time is more valuable than money.

We arrived in Pokhara in the late afternoon, just in time to find a place to sleep, throw down our bags, and head to the waterside where we hired a boatman to paddle us across Phewa Tal (Phewa Lake) to the village of Anadu for the trail up to the World Peace Stupa.

Paddling Across the Lake
Michelle taking it all in

Because it was late in the afternoon, our boatman told us he would only wait two hours for us to return from ascending to the stupa and back. If we took longer it would be dark. The steep ascent to the top is only supposed to take 45 minutes, but judging from our past performances when hiking, I knew we would take longer. The pressure of trying to make it up to the top and back down before being left alone on the mountain, coupled with a slippery rocked trail with no other hikers in sight, made our climb up to the stupa less than enjoyable. (It didn’t help that I fell seven times!) Still, when we arrived at the top of the hill, it was hard not to be impressed by the giant white stupa that stands more than 40 meters tall and offers panaramic views of Pokhara and the surrounding mountains. From our understanding, the stupa was a gift from a monastery in Japan.

World Peace Stupa
Pokhara

After a precarious descent where I fell four times, we finally made it back to our boat just in time. We found our way back to our hostel, and headed to Cafe Concerto; an authentic Italian restaurant serving homemade pasta and pizza and wine. After an 8 hour bus ride followed by our stressful hike up to the stupa and some wine with dinner, by the time we made it back to our hostel, we were ready to pass out. Unfortunately, just as I went to put on my PJs I saw a big black bug go crawling across my bed. When it popped out again, I asked Michelle what it was and sure enough, she responded “cockroach”. That was enough for us to decide we would only stay the night, but being it was so late and we were so tired, we didn’t want to move until the following day. We called the reception desk and Michelle explained “There are bugs in the room, can you come with the ‘medicine'”? Five minutes later, the front gate guard knocked on the door, and when we opened it, he came in holding a gun! Trying not to laugh in the moment, we were wondering what the heck “Elmer Fudd” thought he was going to shoot? After some struggled communication, it was clear he didn’t understand us and he went and returned with somebody else who asked us “where is it”? When we replied, we didn’t know, he said “Okay, it is okay to sleep, if you find it just put it outside” What?!?! Okay, no. After he left, we dediced, or rather I should say, Michelle convinced me it was okay to stay the night, then find a new place the next morning. As I laid down my sleep sack to go into bed however, an ant went crawling across my pillow. That was the last straw for me. We packed up our belongings, paid the front desk for the one night which we didn’t stay there, and walked a few blocks in the rain to find Hotel Middle Path, a “budget” hotel that for only $15 more a night, which included the luxuries of AC, breakfast, and an on-site spa….Sold!

The next day, we arranged for a paragliding tour over the lake, which, if visiting during the fall or spring, one could have a clear view of the Annapurna Mountains in the Himalayas. Due to the fact that we will be traveling to Tibet afterwards and will likely see them there, we were not too disapointed to learn that during the Monsoon season, the range is covered in clouds. We were picked up early by a car, proceeded to pick up a few nepali men, and were eventually taking to a local shop, where men came in and out of the car, loading it with bags and equipment as we sat waiting in confusion. In additon to the two Nepali men in the car with us, there were 4 western men who hopped in at the office, one of whom was an older gentlemen, and 3 younger guys. There was also two chinese couples, who we late found out were clients. We had no idea who or where our guides were, but did not ask as we drove north towards Sarangkot; a peak that overlooks all of Pokhara. When we made it to the launching area, we found out that the 4 western men were actually a paragliding team that our company contracts as guides. The 3 younger ones were from Venezuela, and the older gentlement, who has lived in Nepal for over 8 years, is originially from Australia. Michelle struck conversation with them in Espanol and learned that one of the guys from Venezuela was actually Uruguayan. Small world. As we waited around at the top of the mountain, we met a couple of Nepalis who now live in Queens, NY, and said they knew we were New Yorkers the second we opened our mouths.

Once everything was set up, we were instructed to run towards the cliff and “keep running, do not lean back or it will be very bad.” Being afraid of heights, the thought of running over the ledge of a mountain with my hands behind my back did not sit well with me. When the wind finally arrived and we were able to take off, one by one, and treated to panoramic views of the lake and its surrounding areas, all my fears floated away. The Austalian man told Michelle he was up on the launching hill when the earthquake hit two years ago.

Getting ready to jump off a mountain

The rest of the day, we didn’t do much. We wandered through the main drag by the lakeside, and grabbed lunch at the Moondance Cafe, and strolled the lakeside park.

 

Our third day in Pokhara was definitely our best, and perhaps, our best day in all of Nepal. The day before, we had arranged for Thupten Gaysto to be our guide as we visited the three Tibetan refugee settlements in the area. After the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959, Tibetans fled across the Himalayas into India to follow the Dalai Lama. Many of them stopped in Nepal and the first “transit” camp was built in 1962. Thupten was born in Mustang, a Tibetan community high in the Himalayas, but his family was forced to leave there because his father had fought China with the help of the CIA. At the time of China’s invasion, the CIA was training and supporting Tibetan guerillas fighters. This policy stopped however, with Nixon’s attempt to open econonic ties with China. As a result, the CIA called the guerilla Tibetan refugees to India for a “special meeting” and suggested that, instead of fighting to reclaim Tibet, that they should settle in Nepal. Hence, the “transit” settlements have been inhabited since the 1960s.

After greeting us at the hotel at 530 am with the traditional white greeting scarf, Thupten took us to the first settlement, Tashi Palkhiel. On our way, he informed us that the number of Tibetans living in Nepal has decreased from about 20,000 in the 1960s to 13,500 in 2005. There are two reasons for the decrease. First, Tibetans living in Nepal are not given citizenship and are not allowed to get professional jobs, such as doctors, teachers, lawyers, etc. Thupten’s own business as a tour operator has be to registered in his Nepali friend’s name, and he can only hope that his friend never turns on him or else he will lose everything. As a result of this economic instability, many of the younger generation of Tibetans do not get married or have children because they believe their future is dim. Hence, the number of Tibetans in Nepal is declining.

Arriving at the settlement around 6am, we escaped the drizzle and visited the monastery to watch the morning pooja (chanting) with the monks. Monks are sent here at the age of 5 or 6, separated fron their families, hence teaching them the first lesson of Buddhism, detachment. Thupten told us that many times, a family will send one of their children to the monastery if they think they are “dumb”. He seemed annoyed by this fact, insinuating that it meant people did not think much of monks, or rather, that the process of becoming a monk was easy. In fact, many of these children who start off as monks decide to de-robe themselves and become lay people when they get older. Once one leaves the monastery, they can never go back.

 

Walking us around the monastery, Thupten explained that inside each of the little prayer wheels there are 100,000 mantras (prayers) written on paper, so by just turning it once, you are saying that many mantras. We also learned about stupas, which are the focal point of many Buddhist sights throughout Asia. Inside each stupa are relics (bones) that are left over after the cremation of a lhama. In addition to relics, some stupas contain buddhist statues, which are donated by people upon their death. The idea is that if Buddhism is to ever die, these treasures can be dug up to continue the religion.

After the monastery, we emerged outside to get our first glimpse of the Himalays peaking out from the clouds. We walkeed further through the camp, passing an “Elderly Home” which is supported financially by a British NGO. From here, we were invited into a home and offered a traditional Tibetan breakfast of butter tea and tsampa (roasted butter flour steamed with milk). Thupten informed us that sometimes, Tibetans would skim the butter off the top of the tea and apply it to their face as cream.

 

During breakfast, we learned about the Exiled Tibetan Goverment, which is what Tibetans living in Nepal, India, the U.S., and other countries consider themselves citizens of. Most countries however, do not recognize this governing entity, and thus, exiled Tibetans are essentially a people without a state. Although the Dalai Lama is often seen by non-Tibetans as the political leader of this exiled government, he in fact gave up this title in 2011 calling for elections of a prime minister. He is still serves as the religious head of Tibetan Buddhism.

Upon finishing breakfast, we traveled to Palgorling, another settlement tucked behind the walls of a busy road within Pokhara. There are 275 people living within this settlement which originally was supported by a carpet workshop until but an international delegation visited in the 1990s and found that there were children involved in the labor to make them. Consequently, there was a massive decline in international clients, leading to the downfall of the industry. As a result, the carpet workshops were transformed into noodle workshops, which they still are today. In addition to being sold to those living within the communities and local Tibetan restaurants, Thupten proudly declared “the noodles are so good, even the Nepalis come here to get them.”

Palgorling Settlement
Palgorling Settlement

After visiting the noodle workshop, we were taken to the general store, which sells everything from noodles to incense, to prayer flags, to scarfs. With another burst of pride, Thumpten explained that the TIbetan flag can be traced back to 1912, wheras the Chinese flag only goes back to 1949, proving that Tibet was independent. He then shared with us the importance of giving scarfs in Tibetan Buddhist culture, explaining that within each scarf there are hidden auspicious signs.

the general store
Thupten explaining the scarfs

From here, we walked across the camp and visited the medical clinic, where a young Tibetan female doctor who was trained in India for six years explained a little bit of Tibetan medicine to us and gave us both a health consultation. Amazingly, just by feeling our pulses, she was able to gauge what was wrong with both of us on her first try. For me, she asked if I was having heart palpitations and circulation problems, and then said “your body seems disturbed on the inside even though fit on the outside.” We were pretty impressed.

After visiting with the doctor, we travelled to the third and final settlement, Tashiling. Much nicer than the two previous settlements we had visited, this one was built in the 1970s and still is supported by carpet workers, as well as providing a guesthouse for tourists should they choose to stay there. In the 1970s, the settlement inhabitants realized they could sell stuff to tourists and began making carpets that were geared for that, as well as keeping the more traditional patterns.

Michelle picking out a carpet

Our next stop was the photo gallery, which provided a visual documentation of the story of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan refugees who followed him out of Tibet. There was also a beautiful mandala, a tibetan piece of art that is painstakingly created out of sand and then blown into the wind, to demonstrate the buddhist principal of impermanence. Before lunch, we visited the settlement’s kindegarten, where we watched children joyously play with one another, and eventually, us.

Mandala

Our visit to the settlement ended with an amazing lunch of “mixed thuptka” which is essentially momos and noodles in a delicous broth. During lunch, we chatted about the Dalai Lama and Tibet’s future, promising Thupten we would share his culture and stories with our friends and family back home.

 

That afternoon, to the excitement of many, the sky cleared and the Himalayas were in view for a solid two hours. As luck would have it however, this occurrence took place at the same time we had decided to take a nap. After a 3 hour mani-pedi in the hotel’s spa, we met up with our Turksih friends, Ehren and Avni for a dinner of fried fish and wine at the Moondance Cafe. A perfect ending to our time in Pokhara.

 

 

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