Sarangkot

Sarangkot is a mighty hill that looms directly over Pokhara. It’s known to serve the best views close to the city and is an enormous tourist magnet. Most sensible people take a taxi early in the morning to catch the dazzling sunrise from the view tower on top of the hill but we weren’t sensible people. We had chosen to get there on foot. When BR, SM and I rolled out the map of the Annapurna Base Camp, the first thing we realized was that we were woefully unfit city-slickers. This was patently untrue because both BR and SB were in terrific shape. It was I who needed to exercise and weeks of gentle walking on the flat promenades of Pokhara meant I had lost all the hill legs I had so painstakingly gained in Tansen.

But the next morning, I took one good look at Sarangkot and backed out. There was no way I was going to climb that hill without killing myself with exhaustion. BR and SM had already begun walking up the steep stairs leading to the top. I looked for other ways to get there. The easiest option was a taxi and they were also the easiest to find. But I wanted to see if I could get there by public transport and since everybody wanted to sell taxi-rides no one was willing to tell me if a bus went up there. The guide-books made non-committal noises about a bus or two that went near the place every day. So it’s a good thing I didn’t listen to anybody and just headed straight to Prithvi Chowk where I promptly found a bus headed to Kaskikot via Sarangkot. There’s a thrill in finding a dirt-cheap travel option that only budget-conscious travelers would understand. I felt like that miser who would travel in a crowded second class bogie in a local train in Mumbai despite having enough money to buy a dozen Mercedes Benzes and ride in them for life.

The bus dropped me off 75 percent up the hill leaving the steepest section of the trail for me to climb. I had stupidly packed along my laptop thinking I would spend many days up here and the laptop felt like a huge slab of stone on my back as I struggled up the hill with thick beads of sweat dropping from my brow. At the end of the first section of stairs came the first cluster of lodges, all no doubt hoping tired stragglers like me would enter their hazardously pokey looking homes. A phenomenally drunk man came up to me and offered a room for 200 Rs. When I refused, he drawled, “So maybe you want hash, huh? Come inside. Very cheap.” I was too weary to answer and just soldiered on without dignifying his overtures with a reply.

I took a break at a tea-shop on the way where an old man began advertising his lodge up the hill. His lodge had the best views in Sarangkot, he said. He summoned a little girl, his grand-daughter, to take me to his place. She, in turn, ordered two little boys to go along with her. I was too tired to protest and was planning to stay up there anyway, so I went along, the kids running up the stairs giggling at my sore body grinding its way up. The lodge was decent but highly over-priced for what it was. The lady who was presumably part of the family which ran it wanted 1500 Rupees for a tiny little wood-panelled room. The views overlooking the Pokhara Valley were stupendous but I knew I could find something cheaper if I looked harder. As I walked away, she lowered her price to 1200 but wouldn’t go below. I chose to walk around and get back if I didn’t find anything better, a choice that didn’t go very well with the lady who castigated me for wasting her time.

I kept walking up and the higher I went the better the views became. When I was resting at the foot of another long staircase, a cheerful Nepali guy and his Italian girlfriend started making conversation with me. He ran a resort in Kathmandu and was trying to sell it. Was I from India? Oh, he loved India! Indian people are the best people in the whole world. He knew I was special from a distance and he had built his resort just for eclectic and smart Indian people like me. I must have looked really gullible because he kept throwing mischievous winks at his girlfriend in an attempt to convey that he was having me on. I took his card and made some non-committal assurances that I’ll look into it if I ever made it to Kathmandu. His Italian girlfriend, who I heard braying in the distance, felt her boyfriend had really sold it.

This turned out to be the final staircase and I had traveled all the way to the top without finding a place to stay. It was around 4 in the evening and it was empty barring a few tourists. The panoramic landscape visible from here was spectacular by any standards. The mighty peaks of the Himalayas visible hazily behind huge banks of clouds looked just a few handshakes away. Way down below, the Phewa Lake and the glimmering tenements of the Pokhara Valley felt as tiny as they would on Google Earth. Densely forested hills carved deep green valleys around the Seti River. This was pure landscape magic with the verve of the clouds, the play of the light and the whisper of the wind.

One of Sarangkot's many spectacular views
One of Sarangkot’s many spectacular views

A tap on the shoulder snapped me out of my reveries. It was the hand of a Japanese backpacker who wanted me to take a video of him singing a syllable of a popular Japanese song for a music video that he was doing of himself singing the song in every part of the world. He felt the idea was so outrageous that it was sure to go viral when it hits youtube. There was another boy in a red jacket sitting about 20 feet away smirking at this scene. I initially mistook him for a Nepali but when he started saying certain things in a distinctive accent like – “This place has awesome energy, bro” – I immediately guessed where he was from – Bangalore. His name was KA and he had been traveling with his mother for 3 weeks in Darjeeling and Sikkim. He had one last week in Nepal before he went back to the monotony of his corporate job in Bangalore.

He had found a good place to stay in Sarangkot that was also inexpensive and I tagged along with him to his dwelling. It was right opposite the lodge I had earlier rejected. The owners hadn’t forgotten my rebuff and passed snide remarks in Hindi as I walked into their competitors’ home. The Super View Lodge was fantastic and I found a lovely room with a bathroom for 800 NR. My room had a small verandah that had sprawling views of the Pokhara Valley and creature comforts like hot shower and wifi. But in all this excitement, I had completely forgotten about BR and SM. They were utterly exhausted from the punishing hike up the hill and we rendezvoused at the top of the hill. Here, we were greeted by an astonishing sight – a double rainbow. A double rainbow anywhere is a sight to behold. But this was one with a Himalayan backdrop hitting a gorgeous valley below. As we gaped speechlessly, mesmerized by the view, I couldn’t shake the thought out of my head that if I had walked all the way up like BR and SM, the reward would only have been greater.

The double rainbow
The double rainbow

In the evening, the bright lights of Pokhara twinkled like a million fireflies below. I resolved to sleep early and wake up before dawn the next day to catch the sunrise over the Himalayas. Everyone who knows me knows that I’m a night owl and early mornings don’t agree with me very well. But I was glad I woke up before everyone else in Sarangkot to trundle up the stairs to the view tower above. It was cold and windy and I had to put on all the clothes I had to keep myself warm. Two friendly dogs followed me up and I momentarily suspended my fear of dog-bites to calmly enjoy the rare sight of dawn breaking over mighty snow mountains from the top of a hill. While I had the whole place to myself when I arrived, more people started filling up the place as the day progressed. The dogs were running around and playing with everyone who was there but they freaked out two Chinese girls whose screaming fits lent a certain hilarity to the atmosphere.

As the sun rose, the mighty Himalayan massifs started popping with light, first blue, then orange, then yellow, then white, like huge dollops of multi-coloured ice-creams in space. They looked tantalizingly close and one felt like reaching across the valley and grabbing them with the palm of a hand. The status of Sarangkot as a tourist magnet was well deserved and as I was gaping wide eyed at this stunning scenery enveloping around me, I couldn’t stop the tears. This was a transcendentally beautiful scene the likes of which I’d never seen before. In any other country, this scene is all it would need to get on a tourist brochure to attract people. But the greatness of Nepal lay in the fact that this was but a minor sidelight compared to the remarkable number of pleasures it had in store for the people who walked among its mountains. The harder you walked, the more you were rewarded for your efforts. This sensational view of the mountains was all the inspiration I needed to pack up and begin my long-pending trek into the Annapurna Sanctuary.

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Gluttony in Pokhara

Wake up, breakfast, work, lunch, stroll by the lakeside, work, coffee, work, dinner, sleep. That’s what I did for the 3 and a half weeks I spent in Pokhara. Many people I met in Pokhara asked me with some consternation, “But why would you come to a place like Pokhara and work?” “Well”, I said, “to lead the kind of happy-go-jaunty lifestyle I lead, I need money and to make money, I need to work.” And frankly, sitting and working in a fancy café on the lakeside strip in Pokhara sipping organic coffee while enjoying the fresh breeze from the Himalayas on one side and the serene Phewa Lake on the other, surely beat sitting in a little cubicle in a claustrophobic prison cell/glass building complex in Mumbai.

There are probably more places to eat in Pokhara than there are people to eat in them. So I spent a lot of my time in the city trawling around the lakeside strip looking for a good meal or a quiet place to sit, work and drink coffee. You get possibly every conceivable cuisine on the 3 kilometer road that runs east to west along the Phewa lake. Here’s my attempt to separate the wheat from the chaff.

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Monsoon Café – A small café attached to the Sacred Valley Inn. This one does fairly decent organic all-day breakfasts that are easy on the wallet. The quantities are somewhat pitiful but it’s a good place to spend the afternoons reading a book, drinking coffee and watching people go by.

Almonds – Every time I ran out of GBs on my Ncell datapack, I had to lug myself to their office which was in a part of town that’s very wisely hidden away from touristic eyes. This was the Pokhara of choking traffic, ramshackle shops and dusty streets and where its residents lived and worked. The Almonds on the noisy traffic circle of B.P. Chowk was an Indian restaurant and the less fancy, more authentic branch of the one on Lakeside. It’s the kind of Indian food that you get served in a Shiv Sagar or Kamat’s Hotel in India but it was a welcome change from the dal bhaat and fancy European staples usually available in Lakeside Pokhara. It’s easily the best “Indian” food I ate in Pokhara.

Moondance – I avoided this place for the longest time because it looked too expensive and intimidating for someone as penniless and classless as I felt I was. But one stormy evening, I found myself moored outside during a fearsome thunderstorm without an umbrella with two British classical musicians EB and JB. They weren’t skinflints and I was too proud to make myself sound like one, so we took shelter in its cozy candle-lit confines. It was certainly expensive by Pokhara standards but the food was so delectable that it seemed churlish to complain about the rates. In any case, EB felt it was a steal because steaks of that quality would cost more than 10 times as much in a little joint in London. After that joyful evening of discussing Beethoven, Berlioz and John Cage, I went to Moondance many more times, to sample their eclectic menu of salads, steaks and desserts. The lemon meringue pie was an absolute winner. It’s probably my single favourite restaurant in the whole of Pokhara.

Mike’s Restaurant – Oh, the much heralded Mike’s Breakfast. The potential here is so great that it seems a bit harsh to complain about the mediocre food. Here, the location is everything, as close to the edge of the lake as one could get in Pokhara. Many afternoons, I would just lounge here with a pot or two of lemongrass tea, while reading a book and looking at the tranquil lake. Old Tibetan ladies who strategically placed themselves close by made frequent conversations in an attempt to sell their goods. Boats would take off from the nearby jetty, ferrying locals, fishermen and tourists. People would be taking relaxing strolls on the promenade by the lake. It was a beautiful place to be. So it’s a pity that pretty much every dish on the menu tastes bland and insipid.

The view from Mike's breakfast
The view from Mike’s breakfast

Bella Napoli – One of the numerous faux Italian restaurants on the main strip. The pizzas aren’t too bad but for the price you pay for a meal here, you might as well be spending a little bit more at some of the better Italian places on Lakeside.

Natssul – The best Korean restaurant on Lakeside with generous portions and waiters who can help you decipher what many of the incomprehensible dishes mean. I went there with a Korean friend and he vouched for the quality of the food. We had the bimbimbap and the barbequed pork, both of which were excellent. It’s not inexpensive but a good change from the typical backpacker food that you get here.

Caffe Concerto – Easily the best Italian restaurant I ate in Lakeside. The fresh, wood-fired pizzas, salads garnished with generous dollops of feta cheese and virgin oil and the best apple pies this side of Marpha are totally worth the gasps of anguish that are certain to escape your mouth when the waiter hits you with the bill.

Black & White – This was my haunt on those mornings when I was caught up in World Cup fever. It was the nearest place with a TV showing cricket matches. Inevitably, the most popular matches were the ones starring India and Bangladesh. The Kashmiris, Biharis and Bangladeshis running the nearby shops descended on its largely vacant seats to catch up on the scores. What about the food? The breakfasts were great! They were well presented and filling. The “American Breakfast” with fried eggs, toast bread, hash browns, salad, bacon, sausage, pancakes and cappuccino was so enormous that I made it my breakfast AND lunch.

AM/PM Café – This was a fancy little café that specialized in bagels, salads and organic food. The people running it were friendly to a fault. The customers were largely flashpackers slouching in front of their laptops over mugs of coffee. Everything here was of a standard somewhat higher than you would find in a similar sort of place elsewhere in Pokhara. The coffee was especially awesome.

Metro – This tiny little place with a sprawling roof-top terrace served, by far, the best pancake crepes in Pokhara. There are a wide variety of options to choose from covering the whole gamut from the usual nutella, cinnamon and banana standards to cheese, ham and veggies. They also do some spectacular slushes and coffee. It’s not the easiest place to find, down the alley right next to Adams Tours & Travels. While most places in Pokhara have wifi, the one here was especially fast.

Newari Kitchen – You know times have changed when people come to a restaurant less for the food than for the wifi. I was always the only person eating here watching people turning away when they found out the wifi didn’t work, which is a pity because the food here was absolutely first-rate. Although they serve undeniably good Italian, Indian and Tibetan food, it’s the Newari specialities that stand out. My Newari set was huge and supremely spicy even for my burnt out Indian taste buds and exploded a riot of flavours that I had never experienced before.

Pokhara Thakali Kitchen – If you don’t have the time to go to Mustang to sample the distinctive dal-bhaat of the Thakali people who reside there, this is possibly the next best option. The great thing about Pokhara Thakali Kitchen is that it serves the dal bhaat with all the chutneys that one would find in a meal in a Thakali home. You get a complimentary chang (rice beer) with some of the options. For the kind of authenticity and the ambience it provides, the meals are surprisingly inexpensive.

Tara’s Vegetarian Restaurant – A tiny 4 table café tucked behind a little shopping complex that houses the Fujiyama Japanese restaurant. The menu is refreshingly simple with just a handful of choices that are made fresh in the open kitchen with organic ingredients. It looks particularly well-tuned to yoga afficianados with detox breakfasts and fresh fruit platters. The alu parathas are particularly well-made, greaseless and yummy.

New Marwadi Restaurant – There are a few of these scattered around Pokhara although pretty much all of them are run by Nepalis. This one is close to the Old Lan Hua Restaurant and is inevitably filled with Indian tourists and a few clueless backpackers. The food is cheap but quite terrible. My dosa felt like chewing gum and their idea of sambar was a putrid tasteless mixture of watery dal with chilli powder thrown in. Yuck.

The hippie lounge in Oxygen
The hippie lounge in Oxygen

Oxygen – By sheer coincidence, I ran into BR and SM, while strolling on the lakeside strip. I had met them the previous year in Goa and now that our paths had crossed, we made plans to do a trek to the Annapurna Base Camp. All our “meetings” were held at this chilled out lounge bar with good food, lake-views and lots of beer. We usually had the whole place to ourselves most afternoons and evenings. The place filled up when a football match was on and when there wasn’t a match on, a band was called on to play Nepali folk songs and 80s pop covers to lure customers.

Perky Beans – My favourite coffee shop in Pokhara. The rooftop had the most sought-after seats, with the two chairs facing the lake being the most popular. The other side faced the street, an absolutely terrific place to look at people from up above. Many of my working, reading, writing, idling and socializing hours were spent here thanks to their awesome coffee and ginormous smoothies.

Punjabi Restaurant – Nothing very Punjabi about the food but try telling that to the backpackers who flock here in droves to get an “Indian” taste. The food is significantly spiced down to cater to a Western palette. It’s not the worst imitation Indian food ever but frankly, when you have a branch of Almonds just around the corner, a trip here is easily avoidable.

Café Amsterdam – SM and I hung out in this pub to watch the World Cup semi-finals over a few beers. To our agony, South Africa crashed out depressingly after another nail-biting finish with Dale Steyn giving away 12 runs in his final over. There were more people for the next match and the two of us were full of patriotic jingoism because India was playing Australia. Our enthusiasm quickly died when we saw that we were the only Indians amidst a sea of Australians. The sight of a yuppie backpacker draped in an Australian flag made me want India to win more than ever before. But they were roundly thrashed by a far stronger Australian side and the two of us left before it all ended inevitably painfully.

Café Italiano – This place had just opened and was very close to where I was staying. They had an inaugural discount going and I was welcomed by every waiter who worked there like I was some celebrity. They’re not as good as Caffe Concerto but they aren’t as expensive either. The food is genuinely good and their crunchy thin-crust wood-fired pizzas run a very close second to the ones served in Concerto.

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