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
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
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
“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.