It’s half five in the morning. My alarm is ringing. My head doesn’t hurt.
In fact, I feel great. All the aches and pains of yesterday have disappeared overnight. Better still, through the window I can see a line of snow-covered Himalayan mountaintops that were yesterday completely obscured by cloud. Rebecca and I run outside to fuel up on Snickers bars and hot chocolate while we take in the glorious sunrise, then throw a couple of extra layers on and set off at ten to six on the nose.
We have the trail completely to ourselves. It’s idyllic. As our route winds round the side of Poon Hill our view of the Annapurna mountains, crisp white against pristine blue sky and wisps of fluffy cloud, transforms like the blobs in a lava lamp. We amble through lush green forests speckled with rhododendron flowers and come across a troop of langurs as they start to wake for the day. They’re shy and high in the treetops, and their hoots suggest they’re alarmed by our presence so we move along quickly, but all the same it feels nice to share the forest morning with them.
I’m not a natural early morning person at all, but the experience of travelling through the heat of India and the extremes of weather we’ve experienced in Nepal – very hot mornings followed by savage afternoon storms – have gone some way towards converting me. It is unquestionably the best time of day for trekking. The air is crisp and cool and there are no other trekkers to stop and make small talk with, or to wait for while they cross a single-person bridge, or to make noise and scare off the wildlife. Progress is consequently rapid, and serenely pleasant. It crosses my mind that Maggie will have walked this same stretch in torrential rain yesterday afternoon, with clouds hiding the mountain range so comprehensively she might not have realised they were there at all. I feel sorry for her.
So fast is our progress that by half past eight we reach a sign announcing “Welcome to Gandrukh”. This feels like a momentous achievement; Gandrukh became, in my mind, the holy grail throughout the course of yesterday’s literal and psychological descent. A distant beacon, normally the stopping point for the fourth day of the five-day circuit, and we’d reached it in time for breakfast. This we eat at the relatively plush Simon Guest House, while a group of middle-aged Chinese trekkers take pictures of each other on the veranda around us. Nothing stops the photographer in his relentless pursuit of the right angle, least of all two English tourists eating breakfast on the exact spot he wants to stand. We eat up what remains of our breakfast once the photographer’s elbows have soaked up most of the baked bean juice, and press on.
It’s a mere hour’s hike from Gandrukh to Kimche, and Kimche, crucially, is connected to the road. Once you get to Kimche, you can catch a ride back to Nayapul, and from there a bus to Pokhara, so technically – only technically, mind you – can claim to have completed the circuit. You can then relax in the back of a jeep for a few hours or so, enjoying the decreasingly dramatic vistas out of the window while committed trekkers struggle sweatily on by the windows, and look forward to a hot shower in a hotel too in-the-thick-of-it for any tarantulas to have crawled into the bathroom.
That hour, however, is all downhill, and that’s bad news for my knee. I have to adapt yesterday’s sideways-on crab walk to avoid shooting pain, and it’s incredibly slow-going. A pair of ancient Nepalese women with bags full of heavy-looking stuff on their heads overtake me at one point. In the end it takes us closer to an hour and a half but slowly, surely, the road that started out as a winding snake on the valley floor below edges closer and closer until we find ourselves haggling with a jeep driver for a lift down to Nayapul.
“Six thousand rupees.” That’s more than forty quid, which is our entire daily budget. We laugh and walk on for a few minutes.
The next guy says five thousand. This is still way more than we were expecting. At the outset, the ride from Pokhara to Nayapul, only another few hours’ walk down the hill from here, had cost us three thousand. Why is it nearly double?
“There’s a strike,” we’re informed, meaning it’s very dangerous for the drivers to take us down. If they’re seen operating, they could be attacked by strikers. I look incredulously at the hills around us; it’s almost completely silent, with kilometres separating the isolated, peaceful houses and villages along the valley. The hills are seemingly not alive with the war cries of bandits.
After a few minutes a pair of English girls in a similar boat arrive, and we discuss pooling resources, but feel it’s an inexcusable rip-off for anything more than four thousand. In a car park surrounded by teahouses, Kimche’s chief tout (the eyes of the village’s taxi industry upon him) swears blind that no-one will even consider making the journey for less than five thousand. I test my leg by leaning some weight on it, decide I can hack a couple of hours’ walk to Nayapul, and Rebecca and I decide to carry on. The two girls decide to wait and see if any more trekkers they could share a lift with arrive.
We’re about ten minutes outside the village when we become aware of a man following close behind us. It’s the tout.
“Four thousand,” he offers. I could punch him in the jaw. We’d have snapped that up ten minutes ago but there’s no way I’m walking back up there now, especially with no guarantee the two girls will be there for us to split the cost with. We tell him no and carry on.
Five minutes pass.
I’ve had it. The pain is once again shooting back up my leg, there’s a whole village worth of drivers with nothing to do who, presumably, could really do with the money, and this negotiator-elect happily sent us off down the mountainside with a gammy leg on the assurance that it was too dangerous for any of his colleagues to consider making the journey. This time we don’t bother to reply and just carry on walking.
We arrive at a charming little hamlet called Kliew some time around eleven thirty, with the heat rising and feeling in need of a break, and there we meet a wiry, wizened old man named Gokun.
As with most interactions in South Asia, one of the first things Gokun asks us is where we’re from.
“England,” we tell him.
“Yes, but where in England?” The standard of his English takes me by surprise; it’s less accented even than that spoken by the teahouse managers, who in these remote hills have by far the most contact with foreigners day-to-day.
“London,” we tell him. He nods vigorously.
“Ah, yes. I lived in London for three years. I worked for the Sultan of Brunei.” He seems very proud of this so I hold back on giving him my views on the Sultan of Brunei. Gokun, it turns out, is the last in a long family line of Ghurkas.
This is a good time to point out that the British army has a recruitment office in Pokhara, from where it vigorously selects new recruits for the Gurkha regiment from among the young men of the region. This has been going on since the Anglo-Nepalese war of 1814-16 in which the expansive Nepalese state came up against the colonising East India Company. The conflict ended in victory for the British given that Nepal was forced to concede some territory to Britain in the aftermath, but the British were so impressed with the military feats of their opponents that they began recruiting Gurkha mercenaries into the British army.
Every year only two hundred and thirty out of seventeen thousand applicants are taken. In a materially poor region, almost entirely dependent on tourism for income, becoming a Gurkha is a golden ticket. Those selected earn orders of magnitude more than they could hope to here in Pokhara, and with the added perk of a British army pension thrown in. Until recently, however, Gurkhas weren’t offered the same rights of abode as British and commonwealth soldiers. This is no longer the case thanks to a successful campaign prominently supported by Joanna Lumley. The whole thing went down surprisingly badly with Gokun.
“No-one is coming back to live here,” he explains, gesturing at the hillside. Gokun himself returned to Nepal from London in 2003, but today’s Gurkhas are increasingly taking up residence in Britain after they retire, which from what Gokun tells us seems to be fracturing local communities that never see those selected return. Gokun’s own family are an interesting though slightly different case. His wife remained in London when he returned to Nepal and they haven’t seen each other in the sixteen years since. Of their three children, one is a student in Paris, one works in the Gulf, and only one has returned to Nepal with Gokun.
It’s strange to think of these remote mountain villages, echoing with the clink of donkey bells and the lowing of buffalo, as the centre of a global diaspora. It is equally unfamiliar to stop and think about the impact that offering rewards to people in one country has on the communities they leave behind. Gokun is a man of few words despite his fluent English and doesn’t respond to all our questioning on the subject, so the conversation leaves me with more questions than answers but is thought-provoking nonetheless.
Gokun also explains the political situation to us. Nepalese politics has been a fraught and often violent arena throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. Its monarchy, with a history of sometimes brutal authoritarianism, was only abolished in 2008 and since then rival political parties, including rival Communist party factions, have been engaged in tense conflict over social and political issues ever since, with electoral reforms and ethnic minority rights high on the agenda.
Today, tensions between the Communist party factions as well as between the government and opposition rebels have, according to Gokun, led to a bandh, or strike. Unbeknownst to us, it is incredibly violent; three explosive devices are found in Pokhara alone, and there are multiple instances of vehicles being torched across the country. Our main concern, being unaware of all this, is how to get to Nayapul without my leg falling off. We explain this to Gokun, who nods sagely and disappears for a few minutes.
When he returns, he explains that it’s of course very dangerous for drivers to break the strike today, unless they are driving designated tourist-only jeeps, in which case (apparently) they are permitted by the protestors to keep working. A driver named Kim, he explains, is waiting here to collect a pair of trekkers who have pre-booked the jeep, and there’s space for us on board if we’re prepared to wait an hour and a half for the trekkers to arrive. Kim will take us not just to Nayapul but all the way back to Pokhara for three thousand rupees.
We bite his hand off, and settle down to some lunch. While munching on veg fried rice we decide to offer Gokun a generous finders’ fee, but he’s already disappeared.
It’s been a nice few days recovering after our trek, ominous stomach cramps notwithstanding, but reality is now biting. The two-week visas we were issued on entry to Nepal are nearing expiry and we have no plans – in fact, no real desire – to leave Pokhara, let alone the country. It’s too relaxing and pleasant a town. Lakeside north, with its easy-going bars and cafés spread cosily around the shore of the lake, is one of our favourite spots of our travels so far. My memory of India is coloured by the sweltering, oppressive slog from Varanasi to Sonauli, and neither I nor Rebecca are in any hurry to repeat that journey in reverse.
Rebecca is booked in for a meditation course in McLeod Ganj, 855km away in the far North of Himachal Pradesh, starting on 1st May. However, given that happens to be her birthday and she’s at least as reluctant to leave Pokhara as I am, and the course itself is ten days long and features a lot of restrictions on things like phone access and verbal communication, she’s having second thoughts. We take the collective decision to extend our visas and stay another two weeks in Nepal; Rebecca cancels her place on the retreat and books herself in for a shorter, less intense course in the Pokhara Buddhist centre.
I managed three months travelling around India and didn’t get so much as a whisper of Delhi belly. Something in Nepal has succeeded where India failed. Almost as soon as we got back from the visa centre four days ago the ominous cramps descended into full-blown food poisoning and I’ve been more or less out of action ever since. However, today I manage to keep down two plates of momos and an accidental mouthful of mouthwash, so I think we’re gravy.
Rebecca has checked into her meditation retreat, which runs over the weekend until Monday, and I’ve checked into a hotel more central in Lakeside to experience a bit more of the bustling centre of town. In the event, it turns into something of a reading and writing retreat for me. With occasional evening breaks to sneak off to one of the nearby sports bars and watch the football.
I write an entire chapter of my book. Southampton achieve Premier League safety. A very good day.
Rebecca emerges, very zen, from her meditation retreat. Obviously she’s the epitome of calm and sweetness all the time. Obviously. Just, you know, a few days of sitting still have made her more so.
It’s hard to gauge her thoughts on the course; initially she seems most keen to denigrate the standard of the food and the metaphors used in the Buddhist teachings. Gradually she comes round to talking more positively about the calming, therapeutic environment of the retreat itself, which gives me an idea for what we could do on her birthday in a couple of days.
Pokhara is hit by a wild hailstorm in the afternoon; chunks of ice the size of golf balls hammer the windows onto our balcony and cover the ground outside in the space of a few minutes. I ask the hotel manager if this is the start of monsoon weather and he laughs.
“This is pre-monsoon. This is nothing. That went on for a couple of hours – in monsoon season it’s like that for a week.”
Pokhara does a great line in a traveller favourite; the movie-screening bar. Top spot is Movie Garden; an amphitheatre-esque circle of covered seats around a large open-air screen, with a bar serving drinks and pizza run by a young British ex-pat. Since our arrival in Pokhara we’ve been coming here once or twice a week to see films like BlacKkKlansman and The Darjeeling Ltd (someone there loves Wes Anderson) and sip on local beer and good gin. Last week, we caught up on the first two episodes of the new series of Game of Thrones at another place, Blind Tiger, and tonight Move Garden is showing Moonrise Kingdom followed by episode three of GoT.
It’s a lovely setting for it. The seats face the town and the mountains around, meaning that we’ve previously had the dramatic backdrop of thunderstorms over the surrounding hills while watching, but tonight the weather is calm and quiet. Fireflies hover through the air while I drink a ginger, lemon, honey and rum tea, and the Battle of Winterfell plays out in almost-impenetrably gloomy detail on the big screen. At the climactic moment towards the end of the episode the evidently-dodgy version the manager downloaded skips to the behind-the-scenes interviews, to shrieks and a patter of hands clapping tight over ears from the audience. The manager recovers quickly, pausing the film and switching to his backup download before – thank the lord – any untimely spoilers are revealed.
Rebecca’s birthday had given me much food for thought.
For a while, we’d assumed we’d go to Chitwan National Park – a reserve near the southern border of Nepal through which we entered and are planning to exit the country, where it’s possible to see rhinos, tigers and elephants in the wild. However, since the Spider Incident whilst trekking I’m reticent to stay in rural areas, for fear of being bitten by a tarantula and dying. Also, someone at Rebecca’s course went there last week and said it was awful.
Another option that crossed my mind is paragliding. Pokhara is arguably the best place in the world for paragliding; there are always small clouds of gliders in the skies over Lake Fewa. However, since the Ferris Wheel Incident I’m reticent to do anything that involves going high in the air, for fear of falling to the earth and dying.
As it happens, Rebecca came out of the course craving nothing so much as peace and quiet (except, of course, to watch Game of Thrones). So I decide that what would be best is to spend a day at Fishtail Lodge’s spa and pool.
Fishtail Lodge is a high-end hotel, on the far bank of Lake Fewa from the rest of Pokhara. It’s accessed via a rope-raft, and offers a beautiful, secluded quiet setting – except, of course, for the large family of Indian tourists shouting and taking selfies by the poolside. Nothing is ever quite perfect.
Despite keeping in the shade almost the entire time and applying copious sun cream I somehow manage to burn the upper half of my body. Fortunately, there is almost nothing Rebecca enjoys more than the sight of someone else’s sunburn, so I put this down as my birthday gift to her. By way of thanks she gives me a stinging belly slap. She says its her best birthday ever.