For everything wonderful about Varanasi, and India as a whole, it’s hard work. After nearly a week in the city my legs ache from constantly hopping around cowpats, my throat is sore from insisting to rickshaw drivers that, cowpats notwithstanding, we’re more than happy to walk, and my nostrils are coated in grime from the all the pollution. It’s time to seek fresher climes and quieter streets. We make for Nepal.
It’s a 24-hour journey from Varanasi to Pokhara, our chosen destination. First up is an overnight train to Gorakhpur, a town so singularly charmless that not even the Rough Guide tries to pretend there’s anything to do but board a bus and swat away the mosquitos. The chap on the bunk opposite mine spends the entire train ride ogling Rebecca, conspicuously ignoring his wife and children on the berths below. We arrive in good time, at around 6am, which would obviously set an unrealistic precedent for punctuality so the driver duly sits just outside town for two hours while the carriages heat up to the sort of temperature at which I like to poach an egg, before finally rolling in to the station.
Then there’a a relatively short and pleasant three-hour bus ride from Gorakhpur to the border town of Sonauli, with a break half way at a stand selling tasty samosas. Sonauli itself, though, is blistering hot when we arrive around midday and packed with a legion of touts exploiting the two-way traffic between the countries. We are assured by one gentleman that his brother will give us a better currency exchange rate than any other outlet, for a fee of only five hundred rupees. We ask three bystanders which way to Indian immigration and are pointed variously up the road, back down the road and off to a side road, all three recommending a visit to their brother’s currency exchange on the way. Eventually finding immigration, we wait a tedious and sweaty half hour for the moustachioed men behind the desk to stamp our passports, twenty-nine minutes of which consist of them staring blankly at our visas.
Then, and only then, are we permitted to leave Indian bureaucracy’s stifling sphere of influence. We pass under the grand arch demarking the Nepali border, and soon find ourselves in the visa office. It’s pleasant, air-conditioned, and run by three charming, smiley men who, in less than half the time it took Indian immigration to press six stamps, knock up three bona fide visas (one each for Rebecca, myself and the Dutch girl who was on our bus from Gorakhpur). We change some cash (on the Nepali side of the border), a tout for a private bus company sells us slightly overpriced bus tickets to Pokhara and a mere nine hours’ winding round precarious, crumbling mountain roads later we arrive.
I’ve never, ever been more convinced I’m going to die.
Disney Land Pokhara doesn’t exactly fill you with confidence on the outside. Between you and me, I’m not entirely convinced it’s an official Disney franchise. I’ve never been to one but from the images I’ve seen of them on TV and such they seem to be full of grand replica French castles and drama school graduates in Mickey Mouse costumes. Not rusty, rickety fairground rides and water buffalo wandering aimlessly around gravel pathways. Still, we figure the Ferris wheel will give us a nice view of Lake Fewa. Pokhara, Nepal’s second city, and its sublimely backpackery tourist district “Lakeside” frame the picturesque lake’s eastern shore.
From the ground we can see that most of the carriages on the wheel, which goes a fair bit faster than I remember Ferris wheels going, get a lot of tilt at the apex, but we decide that this is because they’re empty. It doesn’t occur to us to be unnerved by that fact in itself. We confidently board one of the carriages – more of a scant metal cage. There are no walls or even a full floor; just a couple of bars stand between us and hurtling out into the lake. Presumably this is to better enjoy the view.
Manning the ride is a boy of about thirteen who, looking pleased for something to do, takes a handful of notes off us and cranks the speed up to about Mach 1 with a hand-operated lever attached to what looks like a giant rubber band. It’s a curious mechanism which wouldn’t look out of place in a museum dedicated to 17th Century flour milling, but before I can examine it I’m distracted by our rapid ascent into the sky and the ominous creaking of the wheel’s frame. Is it my imagination, or is the whole thing swaying in the wind? And, now that we’re up close, there really is a lot of rust all over the structure.
For what seems like half an hour we’re hurled through the air, swinging freely in a way that makes me think intently about how best to survive if the carriage comes loose and flies off its fittings. I conclude that if we land in the lake I’ll be grateful the carriage is unwalled, but it would probably make matters worse if we land on solid ground. The extra weight doesn’t steady the swing we saw from below but enhances it; at the top of the wheel we are almost horizontal and I have to grip the side bars hard to avoid falling face first onto Rebecca opposite me, or out of the carriage altogether. Both of us scream at the top of our lungs, while the kid operating the contraption grins and chats to his mate, and a Nepalese girl in the carriage behind ours sits calmly enjoying the view. When we finally dismount my arm aches from gripping the frame of the carriage.
It’s good to be alive.
The Plan is to trek the Poon Hill circuit, but since neither of us have done anything that could really be called exercise for about three months we decide to test our mountain legs by hiking up to the Shanti Stupa, AKA the World Peace Pagoda.
Part of a global project to erect monuments to peace that began in 1947, construction of the Pokhara stupa was stop-start through the 70s and 80s and was finally completed in 1999. Sitting atop a hill on the South-West edge of Lake Fewa, the stupa is accessed by a pleasant boat ride across the lake followed by what the signs and guide books describe as an easy forty-five minute climb. It takes Rebecca and I more than an hour and a half, during which a succession of perky-looking folk on the descent cast sympathetic looks at our sweaty, bedraggled faces and assure us that it’s only steep for another few minutes or so, then it flattens out. It never flattens out.
That’s those that pay us any attention; most are too busy cuddling Archie, the fluffy white dog that’s decided to accompany us on the climb. Rebecca, for those who don’t know, is essentially Doctor Doolittle and attracts a cohort of fawning animal companions everywhere she goes. In the flea- and rabies-ridden backstreets of Bangalore and Goa this hasn’t exactly been a blessing, but Archie (as we decide to call him) seems clean enough and frankly, without him to keep morale high, I think our impromptu mountain expedition may have perished.
On a good day the summit affords striking views of snow-capped Himalayan peaks to the North. This is not a good day. Heavy dark clouds are closing in around the valley just as we reach the top, blocking out the sun that scorched us on the way up and grumbling with foreboding thunder. We scoot around the stupa, which is covered in signs saying “Please Respect the Silence” and tourists from across Europe and Asia shouting and laughing loudly at one another. From time to time one of the guards on duty calls half-heartedly for quiet, with the air of a fish resigned to the futility of upstream swimming.
We have lunch at one of the cafés nearby, during which distant thunder becomes torrential downpour becomes raging lightning storm. We sit it out, playing cards, for a few hours, before returning to a town humming in anticipation. Tonight is Nepalese New Year, and Pokhara (particularly the Ferris wheel and pirate ship in Disney Land) is decked out in lights to celebrate.
They never mention the spiders.
Snow-capped peaks, rolling hills, yaks, rhododendrons in full bloom, friendly locals beaming from cosy tea shops are all rightly part of the folklore of trekking in Nepal. But nobody ever mentions the spiders.
Nepal, as it happens, is something of an arachnophile’s paradise. At least four species are thought to be unique to the country and the Himalayas as a whole play host to a wide range of arachnids, including several species of tarantula. The Himalayan jumping spider holds the lofty title of the world’s highest-living animal. I didn’t realise any of this before setting off into the wild of the Poon Hill circuit.
We’re joined by Maggie, an outdoorsy Pennsylvanian based in Sri Lanka as part of a Fulbright scholarship, up in Nepal for a conference in Kathmandu. The previous night we overheard her asking the front desk at our hostel about tips and taxis to the start point for the Poon Hill trek, so we invited her to share ours up to Nayapul, from where we start walking at around 10.30 this morning.
Being American, Maggie is taller than both of us and sets off at a rocketing pace Rebecca and I struggle to match, though we manage to more or less keep up with the assistance of a pair each of those hiking poles people use up in mountains. At our first water break, I manage to break one of mine so that it collapses down to just over a foot long every time I push it into the floor.
After descending into a pretty, alpine valley we complete a gentle climb up to Tikhedungga where we arrive at around 1.30pm. Three hours of more or less constant walking has left us all famished, but because Maggie has to complete the five-day route in four days in order to make her conference we can’t rest up after lunch and must push on to Ulleri, the next village.
As the crow flies, Ulleri is almost directly on top of Tikhedungga. In reality, Ulleri is almost directly on top of Tikhedungga; it’s accessed via an hour and a half of gruelling, almost completely vertical climbing up arrestingly steep steps. Just as we start our climb, the afternoon thunderstorm that is a daily feature at this time of year starts. Stone slabs that would be precarious enough in perfect weather are slick and slippery; for the entirety of the climb my gaze is fixed carefully at the next point I’m stepping onto. These from time to time wobble alarmingly. I muse to myself that Poon Hill is described by just about everyone in and around Pokhara as an easy trek, while my legs threaten to give way and I lose track of which parts of me are wet from sweat or rain, poles sliding precariously on the drenched stones.
But we make it to Ulleri, and after a cursory shop around check in to a cosy tea house on the edge of town called Curious Camels. There are European football team flags all over the place; our room has Man City’s. And a spider the size of a sunflower lurking over the shower.
I’m first alerted to its presence when I hear a yelp from the bathroom.
“Danny, there’s a huge spider in here!”
Trying to keep calm by not really looking up from my book, I reply “How big?”
“Very big. Size of my face big.”
I gulp, but try to bring the conversation back into territory that will lower everyone’s heart rate by asking what I assume will be an easy “No” question.
“Does it look dangerous?”
Crumbs. Maybe it’s time to take a look myself.
It’s the stuff of nightmares. A gruesome, bulbous abdomen reminds me of Halloween decorations and that episode of Black Mirror where the main character plays an immersive game that taps into his deepest fears. Its legs are enormous, and though I only lay eyes on the thing for a couple of seconds before fleeing the bathroom, Rebecca assures me that it moves with electric pace. It eyes us, over a pair of giant fangs, from a corner of the bathroom above the showerhead that it easily dwarfs.
We ask the teashop owner what to do but she is cheerfully blasé about it. Apparently, in lowland Nepal, the saying is “Why worry about spiders when there are snakes?”
Being the mature and level-headed adult that I am, I insist on packing every gap between the bathroom door and its jamb full of clothes to block the monster’s possible route into the bedroom. Despite this I barely sleep a wink, flailing wildly every time I feel a mosquito make contact. It’s a very long night.
When, at breakfast, Rebecca shows Maggie the photo of the spider, I can’t help but think it looks a lot smaller than I remember. Over the course of the night it expanded in my brain until it reached the size of a chihuahua, and I feel a tad ashamed that it had impacted so severely on my sleep. Also, tired. I also feel tired.
We set off at 8am sharp for a pleasant walk in the morning sunshine. About an hour in we pass a crop of what I think might be coffee trees, and I ask a passing Nepali gentleman if I’m correct.
“No,” he says, “rhododendron.”
I’m excited about this. The house I grew up in had a fine rhododendron bush outside and when they’re in bloom – as the man assures me those higher up, around Gorepani where we’re heading, are – they’re a sight to behold. They’re also the favoured habitat of the critically endangered red panda, a species of which Rebecca is very fond. In fairness she is very fond of basically all animals so this isn’t saying much, but still.
As we climb, the trees start to be surrounded by piles of fallen, withered petals, then as we ascend still higher we reach trees in full bloom; bright red and pink flowers dust the landscape around us and the forest we walk through. We traverse through green glades and cross clear springs, rivulets that for all I know flow down into the Ganges many miles south, and hike round trickling waterfalls.
“If we’re lucky, we’ll see red pandas,” I say, but obviously we don’t because the route is thronged with hordes of Chinese tourists trekking in the opposite direction playing music loudly through UE Booms, and a party of chattering Australian schoolkids are hot on our tail.
We pass, a couple of times, a German guy we recognise from the teahouse we stayed in last night. He’s picking up litter as he goes, so we join in; yesterday I’d collected three Snickers wrappers absent-mindedly and with a bit of dedication today quickly fill a small plastic bag. It’s a sad thing that we’ve grown used to in India, but maybe hadn’t expected to be such a feature up in Nepal. At points the otherwise sublime surroundings are ruined by hillsides completely covered in discarded plastic bottles.
Thanks to Maggie’s ambitious pace-setting we reach Lower Gorepani at about 11.30am – not bad going for what’s billed as a four-and-a-half-hour hike from Ulleri. We settle in to a very cosy (and completely spider-free) teahouse that gradually fills with weary trekkers sitting around and drying thick woollen socks on the big wood-burner throughout the afternoon.
For lunch, Rebecca and I go for dal bhat. This is basically Nepal’s equivalent of the Indian thali; a meal of rice, chopped vegetables, dal and curry, so ubiquitous in the area that Pokhara is jam-packed with annoying backpackers reciting the mantra “Dal bhat power, twenty-four hour!” You can even buy t-shirts with the slogan printed across them.
Our progress towards the Himalayas proper is marked by the sight, from outside the teahouse, of a line of snow-capped peaks – the Annapurna circuit, clearly visible despite the light cloud cover.
The climactic point of the Poon Hill trek is the early-morning hike up the eponymous hill from Gorepani, in order to watch the sun rise over the Himalayan peaks. It’s a forty-five minute hike to the viewpoint, and sunrise is pre-6am, so to get a good spot we’re up at 4.30am and swiftly on the road.
The view is amazing – cliffs, rivers, plentiful rhododendrons – and the peaks themselves are only marginally obscured by cloud cover. We’re 3,210m up, and the air is crisp and cool. Combined with the early start, the scene inspires Rebecca and I to get a big day’s trekking in and see if we can continue to match Maggie’s pace as she aims to reach Gandrukh by this evening, to complete the five-day route in four.
On the descent from the Poon Hill summit, however, the signs of a snag start to materialise. My knee has been gradually niggling over the last day or two and now, on a fairly steep decline, it starts stabbing sharply. It grumbles continually during uphill sections and sends constant shards of pain through my leg on the downhills. I end up having to crab delicately down these sideways-on, and as a result it takes us nearly four hours to reach Tadapani – normally where you’d turn in for the day, but our plan had been to carry on to Gandrukh.
Rebecca is tired, and it’s clear that I haven’t got another four hours of mostly downhill walking in me today, so the pair of us concede defeat and bid Maggie, our trekking companion for the last two and a half days, a reluctant goodbye and check in to a teahouse.
We’re shown into a small room, nearly all the space in which is taken up by the bed. Every corner is covered in thick cobwebs, and there are big gaps in the walls and ceiling through which my tired mind immediately pictures hairy tarantulas scuttling hungrily towards the room’s only source of warmth; my sleeping, helpless body. I grimace, but determined to be a grown-up about it begrudgingly take the room.
Over a plate of momos, Rebecca can tell something is up. I’m freezing cold in the teashop’s small, draughty dining area, and have a headache coming on. There doesn’t seem to be anything much to look forward to. My morale is, frankly, at a low point. I mention my worry about all the gaps in the walls. Rebecca nods, and explains she hadn’t really noticed that. I don’t think of myself as fully arachnophobic, certainly not in any medical sense. It’s more that spiders creep me out, and I have an over-active imagination. Since the giant one in the bathroom the other night, I’m checking every room I enter not just for the presence of spiders but for possible entry points, in a way that a normal person – or myself in normal circumstances – wouldn’t think to. And our room is riddled with them.
Rebecca slips off, leaving me to pick at my momos alone, and returns about twenty minutes later saying she’s found a nice, completely sealed room in the guesthouse across the square and checked us in. I could cry with gratitude. My leg and head are both throbbing with pain, I’m knackered from three days’ swift trekking, shivering with cold, and all in all feeling too sorry for myself to worry about how silly and childish it is to check out of a room because you’re scared of non-existent spiders.
The atmosphere in the new place’s dining area is warmer in every sense, but still chilly even next to their wood-burner. A British couple try admirably to engage us in conversation and cards after dinner, but I’m struggling to maintain social interaction while my body feels like it’s succumbing to cold and exhaustion. By the time we turn in I’m still shivering and my headache is now pounding. Three days. Three days’ walking, one stupid spider, and I’m a wreck. I feel completely despondent as I close my eyes, trying not to think about the distance we have to descend tomorrow and how my leg will handle it, and hope like hell my headache goes away.