“Just cos I’m Julie Andrews'”

2014-09-02T18:07:56+00:00 September 2nd, 2014|HVP, Nepal, Travel Diary|1 Comment

The good thing about having a blog is that I write about things after the event, which in turn means that in doing the things I describe, I haven’t died or been seriously injured. This means that mum doesn’t need to worry because I’ve already done the thing that she probably wouldn’t approve of, so she can just shudder retrospectively at all the things that could have gone wrong, but didn’t. So a weekend of flying off hilltops and driving mopeds round dodgy Nepali roads has already happened, and we are all still here to tell the tale. Sorry, mum.

Pokhara is an amazing, amazing place. It’s a welcome break from dirty, dusty Kathmandu; the air is fresh and clean, and the mountains are an excellent backdrop for the multitude of selfies that have been taken. We were incredibly lucky with the weather: bright sunshine pretty much all day, and clear views of the Annapurna mountain range, which is pretty awesome.

Rewind back to Kathmandu. 5am, Thursday morning, we wake up to darkness on Bibek’s instructions. It’s Teej, and I’ve decided to fast, and I’m hungry already. We dress and get ready as quickly as our befuddled minds can manage (some of us lugging our entire wardrobe with us), then head out of the room to meet Bibek, who (as has probably been made clear before) is the nicest human ever and had woken up early to help us get to the bus stop. He quickly disappeared to go and arrange taxis for us, and we all waited about looking gloomily at the horrible rain outside and wondering whether he’d just abandoned us and gone back to bed. Eventually he returned (we never doubted him really), taxis in tow, and waved us off to Kelunki, where we were meeting Rosie, Georgina’s friend, and where we were getting our bus from.

We had decided to get a local bus largely because we couldn’t be bothered to go to Thamel and book a tourist bus, so we were mildly apprehensive as we approached the ‘bus stop’ (aka the side of the road). It all turned out OK in the end though: we hopped into the first minibus that said it was going to Pokhara, and after a bit of faffing and a quick enforced downsizing of buses we were on our way. We commented that in the UK it would probably considered quite risky behaviour to hop into a battered white minibus with some strangers who said they were going where we wanted to go, but when in Nepal…

The bus journey went surprisingly smoothly (metaphorically speaking): a mere 5 and a half hours after setting off we arrived in Pokhara in the dazzling sunshine, somewhat sweaty and very ready for a shower, but all in one piece. We quickly found a taxi, who probably significantly overcharged us to get to the place we’d booked for the duration of our stay – Butterfly Lodge, recommended by Ben who’d stayed there last year. We were a little bit bemused by the fact that when we arrived we were faced with a building site (a future restaurant, apparently), but we soon got over that, because we owe our very reasonable room price to it. It was very exciting that we’d arrived so far ahead of schedule: we had time enough to have a shower each (hot showers on demand! Imagine!) and relax a bit before heading out to explore. It was still early afternoon so we decided that we would go and have a wander round, and went to hire boats out on the lake.

This was a very good idea. In the boiling hot sun, there is nothing nicer than launching yourself off a boat (a doogan, as they are more accurately called) into the water. Even if Georgina did insist that there were eels everywhere. We had a wicked afternoon splashing about and taking many many posed pictures, pretending to be on the Titanic etc. etc. Naturally we went over the hour that we’d hired them for, but it was so worth it, though rowing back to shore seemed to take several millenia, even with the help of Nathan’s finely honed biceps. In the two hours we hired the boats for, we never did manage to get the rowing technique down, so we sort of zigzagged our way across the lake, drifting too far one way and then too far the other and incidentally also going forward a bit. By the time we got back to the rental place we were completely knackered.

We spent a relaxed evening browsing shops and going for dinner at one of the hundreds of very similar restaurants along Lakeside. I was very very hungry at this point and couldn’t be bothered to faff around trying to find this one specific restaurant that a friend of a  friend had been to one time, so we went to a place called Maya and I had a burrito and it was heaven. Not eating all day makes you learn to appreciate the food you are uncontrollably scoffing. The beer went down very well as well – unsurprisingly, almost a bit too well.

We headed back to the lodge after dinner and just chilled out and chatted for a bit, and listened to a quick Nathan history story before bed. We had no concrete plans for the next day, so we drifted off with no thought of alarms and wake-up times, and it was bliss.

Early the next morning we were awoken with a knock at the door: Rosie had got up early and decided to take charge of sorting out paragliding, so she was coming round to check who wanted to do it. I was wholeheartedly in favour, Cat not so much. That sorted, she disappeared back to the company she organised it through, and a few hours later after a leisurely breakfast and a quick shop, Matt, Clare, Georgina and I were sat in the back of a jeep, trundling up the winding roads to Sarangkot to jump off a big hill. Dan and Rosie had already done their paragliding, and we bumped into them just before we set off. They were reassuringly full of praise for the experience (at 8500 rupees, it would be an expensive half an hour to hate), so excitement mounted as we neared our destination. Eventually we pulled up to it: a rough expanse of green hillside, not as large as you would expect, sharply falling away to trees and plants below.

I quickly claimed first go, and Georgina wanted to go second, so we paired up with an instructor each and had our brief instructional demonstration before launching ourselves into the open skies, with Clare and Matt waiting behind for the next pair of instructors to arrive. It was almost too comfortable once you were actually in the air: I was hoping for some sense of impending doom as I hung suspended beneath nothing more than a sheet of canvas, but actually it was just like sitting in a comfy (if slightly strangely positioned) chair in the sky. The take off was one of the best bits: you have to just run forwards until the ground is no longer beneath your feet and suddenly you’re airborne.

My instructor was a weather-beaten Austrian called Jochen, who made me feel incredibly comfortable about the fact that I was defying nature. We had a good chat as we were flying, about how on earth you get into paragliding in Nepal as a career choice, amongst other things. He also recommended a place that we should go on our prospective moped expedition; somewhere called Kaski, where you could reportedly catch some trout and have fish for lunch.

Once we’d done some aerial acrobatics and landed by the lake, we headed back to the office, where we saw some horrendously unattractive photos of ourselves mid-flight, which we politely declined to pay 1700 rupees for. We met Clare and Matt back at the hotel and all gushed over how fun it had been and swapped pictures and compared how good our instructors had been. The afternoon was given over to shopping and being pampered (there was a massage parlour in the grounds of the hotel, and naturally Dan had to take advantage), and we also began to concoct a kind of vague plan based on a romantic notion that I had about seeing the sunrise at the top of Sarangkot.

This plan eventually escalated into an epic trip that was in equal parts wonderful and disastrous – but we’ll get to that later.

So we hired mopeds that evening, and the four of us who were planning on driving early the next morning had a little scoot about to get a bit of practice in before going up a steep hill in the dark at 4am. I was surprised at how easy it was to translate driving my Vespa round quiet Cambridge roads to pounding the Pokhara highways, juddering over potholes and swerving around cows. It was great fun. And the morning trip up to Sarangkot was genuinely magical. We went to bed very late the night before, having stayed up listening to Nathan’s history stories about the post-war world and doing henna, so only had about 3 hours sleep before getting up for 4.30. We managed to get up and out reasonably quickly, retrieve our scooters from where they had been parked, and meet the guy who Dan had hired to drive him up (understandably not trusting himself to do so).

Though we had agreed to all stick together, and try to go slowly to accommodate those of us who hadn’t driven before or in a long time, Dan and I managed to accidentally leave the others behind pretty early on. After a few phone calls we realised that we probably weren’t going to be able to regroup, so Cat and Matt relied upon asking people along the way for directions, while I followed Dan and his pal who actually knew the way. In the event it was actually not too difficult a journey: the roads weren’t as awful as I had envisioned, the traffic was nonexistent, and the dawn was already breaking as we wound our way up the slope to Sarangkot. Dan and I arrived first, in time to see the sun’s first rays emerging from behind the Himalayas, and the others arrived shortly afterward. We all congratulated ourselves on how well the plan had worked out: it was a beautiful morning, the air was clear and the view magnificent. We spent a good twenty minutes repeatedly taking pictures of the same scene as the sun rose further and further (all of which will no doubt completely fail to capture the beauty of the moment), and Dan had a Maria Von Trapp moment (the hills were alive with the sound of Dan taking multiple snapchats).

We treated ourselves to a cup of tea (I had a moment where I suddenly thought, “oh God it’s sunrise and I’m having a cuppa with the Himalayas as my backdrop”) before beginning the descent, and quickly lost Cat and Matt again. We all arrived back to the hotel triumphant, with the others still asleep in bed. After a very necessary shower, people gradually began to emerge from their rooms, and we reconvened out the front to form some kind of plan for the day.

After much discussion, it was decided that we would all take the mopeds out for a ride, as we had them for the day anyway. I took Nathan on the back of mine (he was the most nervous and I am the most experienced driver), Clare hired one and took Rosie on hers, and Georgina went on the back of Cat’s. This was where the fun really began.

We consulted the guys in the lodge (who, by the way, were incredibly helpful and friendly for the whole duration of our stay), and they showed us a few places that were relatively nearby where we could go and visit. Three of them were quite close together, so it made sense to go there before venturing further afield: Devi’s falls, a cave behind the waterfalls, and a Tibetan refugee camp. I dubiously agreed to lead the expedition (I have the worse sense of direction in the history of ever), but surprisingly our little convoy managed to make it there with relatively few stops to ask for directions, and only one incident of having to drive down the wrong side of the road because of a recently crashed car.

All three of our intended sightseeing stops were within walking distance, so we parked up at the side of the road and went to explore. Devi’s falls is an impressive and particularly aggressive waterfall, apparently named after a bloke who fell in it once. We had a pleasant conversation as to whether you would die from the pounding water  before you reached the bottom of the falls, before meandering over to the wishing pool, where Matt spent a whole 3 rupees trying to get his wish granted (and failing). After we’d had our fill of taking daft photos and browsing round the shops which seem to spring up exclusively around places that attract Western tourists, we went across the road to visit the cave which supposedly backed onto Devi’s falls. The first clue as to how worth a visit this cave was likely to be should have been the sign above the ticket booth saying ‘no refunds will be given’. We paid our 30 rupees entry fee and descended the spiral staircase (which looked to be in the middle of a refurb), only to be massively disappointed by what was essentially an extended hole in the wall which dripped water onto your head and had a temple at the end of it. There was also a sign proclaiming, “Cow Shed,” which you had to pay for the privilege of entering.

Thoroughly bemused by the whole experience, we emerged back into the scorching sun, thinking that at least we had had a ten minute shaded respite from the heat, and decided to march swiftly onwards to the promised Tibetan refugee village nearby. This was generally a much more pleasant experience; the camp was off the main road so it was a lot more peaceful, and although the thrilling sounding ‘carpet showroom’ was closed for lunch (and we didn’t much fancy waiting for it to reopen), we had a nice sit down outside the monastery drinking much needed refrigerated Sprites. We spent a bit of time there buying tat before deciding that we’d had enough of sweating everywhere up to our eyeballs, and drove back to the hotel for a quick siesta.

The last thing to tick off the checklist was the mysterious fish farms that we had been informed about by my Austrian pal. After consulting with the hostel people we were armed with a name and a general direction, and assumed that we could probably navigate our way there without too much trouble. Obviously we were wrong; everyone we asked thought suggested that we probably meant Sarangkot when we asked for Kaski, and we spent quite a frustrating half hour trying to figure out whether we’d got the wrong place and if so where the right place might be. It turned out that Kaski was also the name of the region we were already in, which obviously only served to confuse matters further.

In the end we decided to abandon the tempting notion of fresh fish for dinner, and instead just follow our noses and go for a nice drive just to make the most of the scooter rental. It was after this that things started to go downhill.

We found ourselves up in the hills after a short time, and came across a beautiful little village with a view of the river, and we decided this would be a good place to stop and rest and take some smug pictures of our intrepid explorations. This was all fine and lovely. Then Daniel decided that a safe place to put his moped keys would be inside the seat storage, which is self-locking. The lid got shut, the keys trapped inside, and Daniel was heartily abused (and laughed at, a lot, by me) for his idiocy. A dilemma was thus presented. How were we to make sure the mopeds got back in time for the end of the day, with one of us lacking the ability to actually start his engine?

This is where the power of local kindness and generosity towards hapless tourists comes into play. Nepali people are the best.

So the others headed back in the general direction of Lakeside, with their 7pm deadline in mind, and Nathan and I stayed with Dan, none of us exactly sure of how to get out of this predicament. We asked everyone around, and stopped everyone that went past, and eventually a family of three pulled up on a motorbike who were more than willing to try and help. They got on the phone to a mechanic, and about twenty minutes later a skinny lad who looked about 15 showed up. Dan explained the situation to him through a combination of slow English, Nepali translation by the nice family, and mime, and he came up with a solution that was almost annoyingly simple. He used a screwdriver to jemmy up the seat just far enough so that he could fit his hand inside, and began to pull out the entire contents of the under seat storage. Dan’s bumbag, several hundred rupees of loose change, Clare’s passport; everything but what we needed emerged from under the seat. Then Nathan came to the rescue with his skinny arms and managed to reach further than the mechanic could manage, and at last he retrieved the keys. It was a beautiful moment.

Dan almost cried with relief, and tried to give all his money to the mechanic. The nice family tried to tell him that he’d made the mechanic happy, and that he didn’t need money. Eventually a happy medium was reached: he paid the boy 200 rupees and thanked our newfound Nepali friends profusely, and we headed back home, glad to have avoided disaster so very successfully.

When we arrived back we assumed that the rest of the group would be waiting with bated breath to learn of our fate, but as it turned out we were the first to make it back. We dropped off our bikes (neglecting to mention the trauma of the last hour), and went back to the rooms to await the others.

Cat and Matt were the first to arrive back, and they had a traumatic story of their own to share. They had gone back to the place from which they rented their mopeds before the allotted time of 7pm, pleased that the whole key fiasco hadn’t caused them to be late. Unfortunately, Cat had committed one of the basic rookie mistakes of hiring anything from a shop: she took it for granted that everything would be OK. There was a scratch on her moped when she gave it back in, which they claimed had been made in the time she had hired it out, and because she had no way of proving otherwise, she had no choice but to pay up. Matt had made a big show earlier of taking pictures of his moped in front of the shop owners, to make sure they knew that he couldn’t be scammed – it was just a shame that Cat hadn’t been made aware of this very sensible scheme.

So Matt got his passport back (which he had left as a deposit), and Cat left the shop with her purse 2000 rupees lighter, disappointed with a bitter end to a beautiful day. In the grand scheme of things though, paying $30 for a whole day’s worth of moped rental is really not that bad.

Moving on to the next pair: Clare and Georgina arrived back last, having taken a detour on the way home to attempt to see Sarangkot at sunset. However, Clare’s moped was not a particularly powerful beast, the unfortunate side effect of which was that it was not able to cope with transporting two people up steep mountain roads. Essentially, every time they approached a slope, Georgina had to get off and walk. In telling this story, it sounded hilarious, but at the time I imagine it was somewhat frustrating.

They didn’t make it up for sunset. But they saw some nice views, and also made it back alive, and that was the main thing.

So we had an awesome day, but the joy of it was slightly dampened by its disappointing end. That being said, when we got back to the school the next day and relayed the story to George, the lone remaining Cambridge volunteer from the first half, he told us that when he had been in Pokhara they had managed to crash their ped into a telegraph pole, and had paid 10000 rupees for their trouble. And then we felt a lot better.

So anyway, the next day we ended up having a leisurely morning finalising some purchases (I impulse bought a shirt and yet another pair of gap yah trousers) and buying snacks for the journey home. We arranged the bus (perhaps naively) through the travel agency opposite the hotel, from whom Dan and I had rented our bikes the day before. We paid 600 rupees in order that we could get picked up directly from the hostel and go straight to Kathmandu, which of course only happened in the loosest terms. There is no such thing as a direct local bus in Nepal.

However, it was quite an entertaining bus journey. Any bus journey involving 5 separate police checks makes for a funny experience. There was one point where the conductors tried to construct three extra seats, wedging wooden boards between the seats already available and putting cushions on top. Five minutes later there was a police check and said boards were confiscated. At another point, the bus conductors mysteriously disembarked for a bit, and later we realised why: they had temporarily jumped aboard another – emptier – bus in anticipation of the next imminent police check, and once the checkpoint had been passed they hopped back on, laughing at their own genius. Great fun.

We made it home in time for dinner, and it was wonderful. It was only when we arrived back to the school and walked through the gates that I realised how attached I’ve already become to this place. We went up to the kitchen and said hi to Bibek and hugged Vishnu and ate delicious chips (and also met the new addition to the group, David). It was blissful.

And so it continues.

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  1. […] to visit the Taj Mahal, browse the markets of Jaipur, spot elephants in Kruger National Park and watch the sunrise at Sarangkot in Nepal, amongst other […]

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