The Himalayan mountains create their own weather. They change colour and texture with every turn of the light. One day, they’re bright and sunny with a blue sky and the next, dark, gloomy and mysterious.
You need time to appreciate the many moods of these mountains. Most trekkers on the Annapurna Base Camp trek spend a night in a village and move on early next morning. But I was stranded. I broke my knee on the way to Chhromrong. So I had to spend many days recuperating at the Panorama Point trekking lodge in this remote Himalayan hamlet.
Chhromrong is the last inhabited village before the Annapurna Base Camp. Icy Himalayan wildernesses fill the landscape beyond. Landslides and avalanches are a regular feature and some of those have been deadly.
I would, of course, have loved to walk the perilous trails ahead. But I have no complaints. From the rooftop of my trekking lodge, I had a 180 degree view of the entire Annapurna South range. With umpteen cups of tea for company, I sat on a plastic chair on the rooftop to capture the many moods of these mountains in pictures and words.
The family running the Panorama Point trekking lodge were caring and supportive. As soon as the old owner saw my injury, he made a stopgap bandage and tied it around my knee. When another trekker checked out of a corner room with a view of the mountains, he made me shift. It had a western toilet and was bigger than the smaller, darker room I had.
Guides, porters and trekkers stopped through the day for a tea break. When they learnt of my injury, they helped however they could. An American woman gave me a strip of tylenol and a tube of Moov. A Sherpa porter offered me medicinal herbs. A trekking guide gave me half a bottle of whisky.
Evenings would be filled with raucous conversation. Trekkers and guides filled the dining hall. Some bragged about walking for 21 days, some complained about eating dal bhat every day, some would launch into long rants about the being ripped off. But it was never boring.
So I have no regrets about staying in one teahouse for such a long time. Thanks to the injury, the mountains gave me serenity and idyll every day. But I remember Chhomrong primarily for its dal bhat, conversations and the kindness of strangers.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Greenline buses that shuttle between the tourist centers of Nepal are like cocoons that protect you from the everyday realities of travel in the country. The tickets are priced in dollars – the one from Sauraha to Lumbini cost me 23 dollars – and instead of stopping for lunch at the rows of cheap eateries at Mugling, you are taken to the Riverside Springs Resort at Kurintar for a buffet lunch that’s included in the ticket price. The buses are air-conditioned and the drivers are trained to go safely on the notoriously accident-prone roads. Your companions in the bus are going to be predominantly non-Nepalis and you land up in the bus stand near Lakeside, the tourist district of Pokhara instead of the one at Baglung Bus Park or Prithvi Chowk.
When I arrived at the bus stand, an army of hotel owners attacked me with lucrative deals, some with breakfast thrown in, some with bath-tubs, some with wifi. But I was in a tricky situation. DB had given me the address of a home-stay and I had called the owner, KC, the previous evening. His place was fully booked for a couple of nights and he had arranged a room for me at a hotel nearby. But he hadn’t told me where and I couldn’t get through to him. So, I hired a taxi to take me to Hallan Chowk, the main intersection in Lakeside where there was accommodation aplenty. Within a minute of my entering the taxi, KC called back and told me to go to Hotel Asia. This hotel was just a 5 -10 minute walk from the bus stand and we had already overshot it. The taxi driver had an impish smile on his face as he took the 250 Rupees off my hands, probably the most money he’ll ever make and I’ll ever pay for a 2 minute ride.
Hotel Asia looked like a big hotel, something I wasn’t in the mood for in a place like Pokhara. To dampen my enthusiasm even further, there was a big hotel under construction on the opposite side and the only sunny rooms in the complex were facing the abominable drilling going on in that building. I could have ditched KC and gone elsewhere but my conscience was getting prickly because KC had argued a great deal with the owner of the hotel for my stay here. So I took the room, which was bland, dull and business-like but quite clean with an LCD TV, free wifi, hot shower and tea-coffee makers. There was a UN vehicle parked outside the hotel which raised my self-esteem temporarily. KC came to meet me in my room to check if everything was alright and apologized profusely for not being able to accommodate me at his home. In the evening, the hotel was packed to the gills with package tourists from India – big, demanding families from Rajasthan and Gujarat creating much ruckus and noise.
I don’t learn from my mistakes very well and had procrastinated on work yet again. This time, I was up to my neck in deadlines and my laptop punished my lackadaisical attitude by overheating and refusing to boot. I was awake all night trying everything I could – taking the battery out, leaving the device to cool down for hours, refreshing Windows, resetting Windows, formatting the hard disk, reinstalling Windows – and nothing worked. The next morning, I unsuccessfully strolled around Lakeside looking for a place to fix it and then made a despairing call to KC asking for help. I was so screwed that I was ready to buy a new laptop as a last resort. KC knew of a place in Prithvi Chowk that could be of help and arranged for a vehicle to take me there.
The vehicle was a big micro-bus driven by a young Nepali boy dressed in a black leather jacket and ray bans. KC had called him saying he had to pick me up on very urgent business and he took the only vehicle that was available with him at the time to take me around. It felt odd to be the only passenger in such a massive vehicle driven by a guy who looked like a film-star. We vroomed into the computer repair store, which was a small, dusty, garage-like shed with a few laptops arranged haphazardly for sale. They were far more expensive than they ought to have been and I was hoping my laptop could somehow be fixed. The signs didn’t look good. There was a boy in the store who called himself DJ and tripled up as salesman, manager and techie. He confessed to me that he was just out of college and had learnt everything he knew on the job. Nevertheless, he pulled all the tricks he could and after a few hours of unsuccessful tweaking, said he would have to open it up to diagnose the problem. He had never seen my model before, so he went to youtube and took the laptop apart while looking at a video telling him how to do so. It all felt a bit like having a painful dental surgery being done in my molars by a trainee dentist googling for tips and tricks on his mobile phone. Anyway, DJ diagnosed the problem successfully. The heating vents had been clogged with dust and as he painstakingly removed every speck of dirt he could find from the dusty innards, I rued the needless sacrifice of 400 gigabytes of unbackup’d pictures and memories I had made the previous night while formatting my hard drive. DJ could see that I was upset and ordered a round of beers to cool my frayed nerves. Both the film-star driver and I appreciated the gesture, although I had to pay for the whole carton eventually. But I was thankful to DJ for having saved my ass, my laptop and a whole lot of money I would have spent on a grossly overpriced netbook.
The next day, I was supposed to check out of Hotel Asia and into KC’s place but KC had gone incommunicado and all my attempts to reach him were in vain. I did not want to stay in Hotel Asia because it was bland, sterile, sad, soulless and expensive, filled with the same sort of people I sought to escape when I left India. But I didn’t know where KC’s homestay was either. So I checked out and walked around Lakeside past numerous expensive resorts shopping for a decent place to stay. My Rough Guide highly recommended Nirvana Guest House, praising its “huge, thoughtfully decorated and spotless rooms overlooking spacious flower-strewn balconies and a garden”, so that’s where I went first. They offered me a good-sized room on the ground floor with a bathroom outside for 1200 NR. Too much, I said, and moved on. The street was packed with back-to-back hotels hazardously stuck to each other, all looking identical. I settled for the Eagle Nest Hotel for a room with an ensuite bathroom with hot shower and wifi for 700 NR.
As fate would have it, moments after I checked in, KC called me asking where I was. He was waiting for me in his home and had kept a room all mopped up and ready hoping I would arrive in the morning. Would I be coming home for lunch? I must be craving for some good home-cooked food, no? With a heavy heart, I told him about my predicament and he was understandably quite upset, more with the shitty network in Pokhara than my non-arrival. He had refused guests for my sake and the room will have to go vacant the rest of the day. I felt terrible and told him I would come by the next day to stay for a couple of weeks. This pacified him and I went about exploring ways to socialize in my new dwelling. My room was at the end of a narrow corridor near a little balcony. A Chinese guy and a Danish girl were smoking Marlboro’s and we talked about how eerie the buildings in this side of Pokhara looked. There was less than an inch of space between our building and the next and the balconies of two adjacent buildings were stuck together. We wondered what would happen if an earthquake struck here, something I would find out two months later.
There are few places in the world that are better than Pokhara to comfortably linger while reading, writing, working and whiling away your time. The frenetic hotel searching, laptop fixing and proof reading had given me little time to enjoy the true pleasures of this beautiful Himalayan city by the lake but once I arrived in KC’s Shangri La Home Stay, my routine started falling in place. Shangri La was in a little alley in Lakeside South away from the touristic mayhem of Lakeside Central and was largely a quiet and peaceful place to live. I spent three glorious weeks here, eating didi’s delicious home-cooked food, lounging in the airy balcony, engaging with trekkers who often stayed here, reading and writing. Some days, when the sky was clear, KC would wake me up at 5.30 in the morning to look at the mountains in all their glory. From his rooftop, I could catch the sun rising over the mightiest peaks in the world, from the Dhaulagiri in the east through the Machchapuchhare and the Annapurnas to Manaslu way down in the west. The shimmering lake, the predominant feature of the city, was just down the road and on many gentle strolls by its promenade, I wondered if I would ever want to leave such a glorious setting.
There’s a certain inexplicable energy to leaving a place and not knowing where you’re going. When I reached the bus stand in Tansen, my mind was still running over the possibilities ahead. A two bus switch and a 6 hour ride would take me to Pokhara. A three bus switch and 6 hour ride would take me to Chitwan. A quick toss of the coin put me on the way to Chitwan. The Royal Chitwan National Park was Nepal’s oldest national park, a densely forested region with a healthy population of tigers, rhinos, sloth bears, hundreds of species of birds and critically endangered crocs like the gharial. It is one of the handful of wildlife sanctuaries in the world that could be visited independently and relatively inexpensively.
An Italian backpacker I befriended in Tansen had highly recommended an allegedly quiet and beautiful place away from the touristic mayhem of the main town of Sauraha. So I called the place up on the way and booked a “deluxe” room for myself. I didn’t expect the world for 400 NR but even by the standards of slummy accommodations, it was a squalorous dump. GR, the owner, claimed he had to give away the “good” room that he had kept for me to a family of “foreigners” and requested me to “adjust” in a terrifyingly shabby room which was a filthy mud and bamboo shack that was infested with mosquitoes and spiders and had big holes in the mesh screens on the windows. He promised to get a “luxury” room ready the next day when the “foreigners” checked out. I took his word for it, plonked my luggage on the dank, muddy floors of the hut and went for a walk around Sauraha.
If you didn’t know Sauraha was the gateway to a UNESCO listed wildlife reserve, you probably would have thought it was a wild and hopping party town. The sandy banks of the river aka “the beach” were lined with back-to-back “beach” bars supplying an endless number of sun decks for people to chill and down a few beers. It was late evening when I took a stroll by the river and the innumerable copy-paste bars had turned up the volume of EDM and Bollywood dance numbers while flashing Happy Hours discounts to lure safari-weary tourists to their decadent pads. At sunset, I could spot a herd of spotted deer on the wilder side of the river walking back into the forest after quenching their thirst. Having come here to experience the wild, I found much of the blatant commercial enterprise terribly appalling. Like Lumbini, Sauraha existed only because of a UNESCO site and it seemed people came here less for the forests than for having a “good time”.
Back in the guest house, the longer I spent in the room, the worse it became. The mosquito net would rather not have been there at all because much of it had been pockmarked with cigarette butt-holes. The wicker chair in my room was broken in half. None of the electrical sockets were working. When I went to GR to discuss these issues, he looked drunk out of his mind. “The mosquitoes are harmless”, he slurred, “Most of the time I just finish 2 bottles of Vodka and sleep peacefully. If you want, I can give you one.” I was fuming with anger inside but being naturally nonconfrontational, chose not to take him on.
The next morning, the place had run out of water. So I packed my bags and left without having brushed my teeth or taken a dump. The property screamed squandered potential. It had a beautiful setting, very close to the buffer zone, set amidst green fields and organic gardens and came with an added bonus of a resident elephant in the neighbourhood. It seemed to attract primarily shoestring backpackers dressed in colourful pyjamas who probably wouldn’t mind living anywhere as long as it was cheap. I drew a line at the basic lack of running water and the swarm of mosquitoes indoors. With the uncomfortably distressing feeling that I was getting a bit too old for this sort of slumming, I lugged around Sauraha looking for a decent place to live.
Everybody in the town must have gone away for their safaris and forest walks because Sauraha looked like a ghost town at 10 in the morning. I cluelessly marched into a few decent-looking resort hotels that lined the main streets and walked out feeling like a penniless outcast. Thoroughly demoralized, I sat down for breakfast at a tiny road-side café run by a very talkative woman. She, like many people in Nepal, was a big fan of the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi because of a speech he gave in the Nepali Parliament. And because of him, she was back in love with India. Her son was useless, she said, who spent all his evenings singing songs, playing guitar and getting drunk but now hopefully, he would be motivated to finish his studies and get a job in India. The son arrived on cue, all woozy and sluggish, ordering his mother to make some eggs. They got into a fight, she asking him to make them himself, he throwing a mad fit, she censuring him for being jobless and unmarried, he cursing her for being a nag. I sympathized with her predicament, paid for my breakfast and left quietly.
Now that I had some food in my stomach and some conversation and drama to liven up my spirits, I was able to think more clearly and settled quickly for a room at the unimaginatively titled “Sauraha Guest House”. It looked brand new and quite desolate. But the rooms, that would have cost an arm and a leg elsewhere, were bright and clean and came with free wi-fi and a verandah that overlooked a little forested area twittering with birdsong with the Chitwan River gurgling in the distance. I learnt the real reason for the deserted look of the village when I spoke to the owner of the restaurant below. The Kathmandu airport had been shut for a week because a Turkish Airlines flight had moored itself on the runway. So there were too many people waiting anxiously to get out and nobody coming in. Much of the awfully new architecture in Sauraha had been built to accommodate hordes of tourists from abroad and the bullock carts and horse carts lumbering about the empty streets looked like period film props on the wrong day of shoot.
The forests in Chitwan were divine and offered an astounding array of options to explore them – by foot, by canoe, by elephants, by jeep. Like most National Parks, the access and entry inside the park were prohibitively expensive for a solo traveler. So I spent a lot of time wandering about the buffer zone all by myself. Every evening, I would watch the sun go down by the river sitting on one of its wilder unpopulated banks to look at a big herd of spotted deer on the other side. Kingfishers, pipits, robins, minivets, treepies and barbets would flutter around in the meadows. Muggers and critically endangered gharials basked in the sun on rocky patches in the river. Spotted eagles swooped down to catch a meal of fresh fish. A rhino or two slumbered across sending a shiver up my spine. It was everything I hoped for, a wild setting where I was free to roam independently for as long as I wished.
Some of the cafes away from the “beach” had local bands playing acoustic pop songs. One evening the “Acoustic Sheesha” café was particularly lively where a big group of young boys took off their shirts and sang and danced wildly to Nepali folk songs. I recognized the sluggish jobless boy, the son of the talkative woman who ran the breakfast café, among the stragglers. He looked significantly happier now and came up to my table to have beers and a chat. He, too, felt sorry for his mother but they had divergent ideas about his future. He wanted to play music for the rest of his life, a line of work his mother didn’t quite understand. Yes, it didn’t pay a lot of money now but he was confident that he would be able to make it big in the future. In any case, he had been a failure in everything else that he had attempted that far. It was music or nothing. He was 28 years old and his only source of income was gigging in the cafes of Sauraha. He felt his mother was more worried about the pretty girls he brought home frequently than his future. I wondered aloud if the lust for pretty girls was keeping him from building a more secure future for himself. He knew of my vagabonding life and retorted back saying I should probably worry about my lust for aimless travel instead. It was a valid point and there was no easy way to counter this. So we clinked beer mugs and toasted to living happily in the moment.
Despite the beautiful walks in the buffer areas of the forest, I quickly grew tired of the overbearing, vacuous touristiness of Sauraha. But I hadn’t been into the core forest areas and it would be a pity to get out before taking a peek inside. So I booked a seat for myself on a safari to the forest. I felt awkward being the only non-white single solo traveler in the 8-person jeep, my co-passengers being an old British couple, an American couple and a French couple. The British were cantankerous and complained throughout the journey. They’d spent a lot of time in Africa and vocally expressed their disappointments at not being able to “catch any tigers”. Like all my forays into forests, I was happy just being there amid the trees, the bushes and breathing the fresh air in the wide open landscape. It was a more open forest than I expected and the tall grasslands were being trimmed and burnt for them to rejuvenate later in the year. Many rhinos dutifully showed up, sparking some excitement among the Brits. Big herds of spotted deer hopped about and eagles, vultures, cormorants, darters, peacocks and kingfishers were seen in abundance.
Later, we were ejected at the Crocodile Breeding Center, where critically endangered gharials were being force-breeded to save the species from extinction. Gharials look far more photogenic in a more natural setting like a rocky outcrop on a wild river and here, in clusters of different age-groups in big cages, looked like they’d been punished for a crime they hadn’t commitedt. But I guess, when a species has only 120 individuals left on earth, these measures become more necessary than any romantic notions of freedom. And I suppose this was the only way one was ever going to see the young un’s that looked unbearably cute.
Throughout the safari, I couldn’t help thinking that this would have been far more worthwhile if I had just walked. But walking in the forest was both hazardous and expensive on my own. I would have to pay for a guide and a forest guard and since a day trip wouldn’t take one very far into the jungle, I would also have to walk fast enough to reach a village for an overnight stay. More than anything else, I was petrified at the thought of being gored to death by an angry rhino or sloth bear protecting a young one. These budget issues and paranoid fears meant I had a substantially inferior experience of the forest than I would have liked.
Apart from the few interactions I had with the lady at the little breakfast place, her son and a couple of backpackers, Sauraha had been depressing. It was a purely functional place where one came to do a few touristy things and left. The forest walks had been the only attraction to make me linger here longer than I would have liked but once I was back from the walks, it was dispiriting to always be eating alone in a restaurant covering up my alienation with a book in my hand. My mind was numbed into ennui by my loneliness and I knew only one way to cure it. I booked a bus ticket, packed my bags and took the Greenline bus to Pokhara the next morning. There was a girl from Czech Republic sitting next to me. I started talking to her immediately and the sense of motion and the conversation drove my blues away.
Getting to Tansen from Lumbini was somewhat complicated. I had to hop three buses, one to the Buddha Chowk in Bhairahawa, another from Bhairahawa to Butwal and a third from Butwal to Tansen. Just ahead of Butwal, the Siddhartha Highway which provides the most direct route to Pokhara from Bhairahawa twists and curls into the middle hills through scary rock-fall prone sections, terrifying drops down steep gorges and mesmerizing views of the fertile paddy fields of the Madi Valley flanked by green hills on all sides.
I had messaged DB on Facebook the previous evening about a room at the Horizon Homestay that he runs in Tansen but hadn’t received a reply before leaving the free wi-fi confines of Lumbini. Nevertheless, I was determined to seek it out and try my luck. The lanes in Tansen were immensely steep and circuitous and my sense of direction was so awry that I had done many rounds of the lower parts of the town without ever approaching Shitalpati, the center of the bazaar. BS, a garment shop owner, saw me floundering aimlessly about the town and offered to direct me through its maze of alleys. He was a fast walker and my unfit body felt like it had carried 30 tonnes of coal up Mount Everest when we reached Shitalpati.
I was absolutely out of breath by the time I had climbed the near-vertical lane that led to the Horizon Homestay, sweating profusely, ringing one of the more hopeful bells I had rung in a while. A little boy, a friend of the family, opened the door, invited me in, led me to the cleanest rooms I had seen in weeks, showed me how the gas-powered geyser in the bathroom worked and gave me the password for the wi-fi. DB and his family had gone out for a wedding and the boy had been requested to stay in the house just in case I arrived. DB had left a message for me apologizing for the unavailability of home-cooked food that night. I was already impressed. My room was compact and well-kept. The bathroom was tiny yet spotless. The gas shower was scalding hot, which in the freezing temperatures of Tansen was a godsend. There was a small, sunny double terrace up above with a few potted plants, a roundtable, some chairs and great views of the town of Tansen below.
I was famished and a feast was in order. So I went to the fanciest restaurant in Tansen, Nanglo West, which was a branch of the Kathmandu chain of Newari restaurants. It had outdoor seating, splendid old-fashioned architecture, costumed waiters, a bakery and a good menu. The dal bhat was expensive by Nepali standards and wasn’t very different from what you found in an ordinary teahouse, so I certainly was paying for the ambience here. But it did the job by being delicious and filling. It was at Nanglo that I had my first brush with an expat in Nepal, an exquisitely dressed English gentleman in a broad-brimmed hat who was dining with a Nepali woman in the adjoining table, speaking in perfect Nepali. Later, we met at the bakery while shopping for desserts.
“I couldn’t help noticing that you speak great Nepali. Do you live here?”, I said. He replied, with a wink and a smile, “Well, I couldn’t help noticing that you speak good English. I don’t suppose you live in London, do you?” He looked surprised when he learnt that I came from across the border. “Indians don’t usually travel in these parts, do they? They’re quite happy going to Pokhara and Kathmandu.” We sat outside and had a cup of coffee together. He’d been coming to Nepal since the 70s and been learning to speak the language ever since. Tansen had been among his favourite towns in the country but he’d been falling out of love with it recently. “It was a beautiful town with beautiful buildings all over but after the Maoist strife, people have been pulling down the old buildings and putting up these stupid concrete houses that probably aren’t going to last a decade.”
He had been in the town during the extraordinary attack by the Maoist led PLA (People’s Liberation Army) on the town’s barracks and government buildings. The town’s centerpiece, the Tansen Palace which also housed the police station, came in for a particularly vicious assault where the building was burnt to rubble. It has since been rebuilt but was closed to the public when I was there. He spoke of the harrowing time as a turning point in his utopian view of life in Nepal. The experience made him more cynical of life in the country and forced him to temper his enthusiasm for its people and its mountains.
Despite its tumultuous recent history and concretization, Tansen cast a spell on me. This was largely because of DB and JB’s beautiful hospitality at the Horizon Homestay. I hadn’t planned to spend more than 3 or 4 days in Tansen but ended up living there for two weeks. Many mornings, I went for a walk through the pine forests up to the Srinagar Hill to take in the gobsmackingly spectacular 360 degree views of Madi Valley and the Annapurna Range from the under-construction tower on the hill. I was joined by DB on some of these walks and my appalling fitness levels stuck out like a sore spine as DB, who was at least a decade older than me, sprinted up the steep and slippery slopes of the hill while I stopped every few steps to catch my breath. On one of these magical days on the tower, the Madi Valley was enveloped with clouds to form what the locals called the “White Lake”. DB wasn’t very happy with the formation of the “White Lake” because he thought the clouds were leaking beyond some of the nooks and corners spoiling the effect but to my untrained eyes, it looked absolutely divine, like a massive lather of soap frothing between the hills.
Having spent many months on the road eating restaurant food, I was craving for some genuine home-cooked food and JB’s cooking was simple but absolutely delicious. Dinners were served in the kitchen indoors and breakfasts on the terrace outdoors and both were terrific places to eat. DB inevitably opened a bottle of beer every night and we used to chat away for hours while JB made snide remarks about DB’s expanding belly. Horizon was then the no. 1 listed B&B on tripadvisor in Tansen, so DB had a steady stream of guests from all over coming to his place. One night, it was a group of cheerful Italians on the terrace introducing me to Gogol Bordello and underground psychedelic rock, another night, rounds of beer and arthouse film discussion with a big group of very tall Dutch tourists. It was an easy, compact place to get conversations going with anyone and everyone who happened to be there.
Despite JB’s wonderful cooking, I chose to have all my lunches outside and my favourite place to eat was a little momo cafe right next to the City View Guest House. The cook was a friendly and chatty man who’d worked in Delhi for many years of his life and his momos, lollipops and chai were quite delectable. There were many of these little momo café’s littered around the town and some of them turned out to be drinking dens too. Every once in a while, I would stumble into one of them to ask for a cup of tea only to look around and find everyone else getting inebriated on locally made rum while little boys and girls were running around playing hide-and-seek. The only other real restaurant in the town that was unaffiliated to a big hotel was The Royal Inn, which had copied the Nanglo West template, with a smaller outdoor area and a dankier indoor section and served pretty much the same dishes at slightly cheaper rates.
Holi in Tansen was an amusing affair. There are few things I hate more than rowdy kids splashing me with colour when I’m walking on the road minding my own business but it delighted me to know that such loutish behavior was banned in the town. The ban seemed to be having little effect though as the terraces were full of young kids armed with water balloons ready to strike any unsuspecting passerby. Bikers vroomed around the alleys in colourful face masks and right below DB’s house, a group of young kids had strung a rope across two buildings, dangled an earthern pot in the center and were clambering on top of each other in an attempt to build a human pyramid to bring it down. This was familiar but also strange to Indian eyes because Dahi Handi, as it is called in India, is celebrated during Gokulashtami, which was many months away. Nonetheless, it was good fun to watch, with people from the neighbourhood splashing colours and spraying water at the kids while they were perilously perched on top of each other. Roars of laughter went around every time they tumbled down in a heap.
One day, I walked alone to Bagnaskot, a hill about 2 hours which commanded the best views of the surrounding area. There had been a lot of rain for a couple of days and the air was clear and fresh. One of the best things about Tansen was walking out of it into the country around, a green, expansive and spacious region full of little hamlets. This walk was largely on the road but there was very little traffic on the way. A perennial breeze was blowing in the air and the views were stunning wherever I looked. I climbed a little hillock on the way and was rewarded with a spectacular view of the Annapurna range playing hide-and-seek among the clouds. The sunlight streaked between the clouds to hit the snow mountains in their folds to make them look like bright patches of light hanging in the air. The effect was quite extraordinary and I dutifully plonked myself down on the grass, took the Canon 550D out of the bag and clicked a million pictures. The only other human presence in the vicinity was a shepherd whose herd was grazing in the pastures. He offered me a cup of tea from his flask and a joint from his pocket and we sat together, drinking tea and smoking up, silently looking at the unbelievably beautiful play of light and shadow unfolding in front of us.
After this tranquil moment, I went to the momo place near the point where the road slithered steeply up to Bagnaskot. I had already seen the Annapurnas and the sky was getting seriously cloudy. So, instead of climbing up the hill, I sat at the momo place with an elegantly dressed old man sharing a bottle of rum and some plates of momos to go with. His face was exquisitely contoured like the face of a mountain, with deep wrinkles and folds weathered by a long journey through time. He had spent his entire working life in the Indian army, fought in the 17 day war in 1965 and the 1971 war against Pakistan and had been shot thrice in combat, wounds on his shoulder and legs which he showed me delightfully. Because of the violence he had witnessed, he believed in a Gandhian ideology and wished Nepali politicians had the intellectual maturity of the Ambedkars and the Nehrus and the Patels to pen their own Constitution, a burning issue in Nepal that had been raging ever since the Maoist-led civil war had ended. We walked back to Tansen together and he gave me innumerable tips for things to do, trek to Ranighat, the temples at Ridi Bazaar, a bus to the Palpa Bhairab temple renowned for animal sacrifices, a homestay in the village of Baugha Ghumma, a walk up to the bridge at Ramdi, another hike through the old trade route to Butwal and on and on.
I didn’t do any of the trips he suggested, putting them in a bucket-list for things to do on the next trip. DB had warned of a big tourist group that was going to invade his house and while he offered to put me up in another homestay, it was time for me to leave. After two weeks, I had imbibed enough of Tansen to last many years. Yes, I would have rather left after doing more hikes and seen more temples but Tansen was such a stunner of a town that the opportunities were endless and I was certain to return in the future.
The manager at Hotel Mount Everest tried very hard to make me stay and do a day trip to Lumbini when I was checking out of his hotel. “Lumbini is just a village. You’ll get bored there.The hotels are very expensive. You can easily go, see the place and come back in a few hours.” He was desperate because he hadn’t had any customers for a couple of days and a shabby, transit town like Bhairahawa was a truly hard sell. I’d been to Bhairahawa before and if there’s any place I was going to get bored, it was here. So I bid him farewell, thanked him for letting me use his phone and promised I would return some other time.
Buses to Lumbini left from the Buddha Chowk, about a kilometer beyond Bank Road where all the hotels were. I was thrilled to find a bus for Lumbini waiting there ready for departure but my joy was shortlived when I hastily entered the bus and the driver stomped on the accelerator. The coach was packed to the gills and there was no space to breathe. I’m not particularly tall but the buses in Nepal are built for people much shorter and slimmer (and fitter) than I was. The conductor wasn’t happy that I was consuming an amount of space that could squeeze in 3 passengers, so I told him I’d like to get off and take another bus. He laughed, patted me on the back, said he was just kidding and told me I’d get a seat soon as people might get off at the next village. The next village arrived and nobody got off but plenty more got on. I was also irked by the fact that I was made to pay more money than my fellow passengers. Was I paying more because I was bigger than the others? No. This was the “Indian price” which was higher than “local price” and substantially lower than “Foreigner price”. After an hour of banging my head against the ceiling, testing the limits of spinal flexibility, getting stamped on the foot by young Nepali teenage girls in high heels and a crash course in conversational Nepali with a boy from Taulihawa, I got off at the Buddha’s birthplace, Lumbini.
Lumbini was a two-street town whose only raison d’etre is to provide accommodation, food and basic necessities to people who come in droves from around the world to visit the UNESCO Heritage Site. I checked into the Lumbini Garden Lodge, one of the first few lodges in Lumbini Bazaar, the main backpacker lane and got myself a bright, sunny room with free wi-fi and a sparklingly clean shared bathroom with a western toilet and hot shower for 300 NR (roughly 200 Indian Rupees). That was the sort of deal I used to dream about during my early days of shoestring travel. The cross-ventilated windows in my room overlooked vast sugarcane fields and let in an ample supply of fresh air and sunlight. I resolved to stay here for a while to breathe fresh air and soak in the quasi rural pastoral setting.
I came to Lumbini to find peace, tranquility, time and space to read, write, idle and I found all of these wonderful boondocksian pleasures that eluded me in more urban settings. I also found a lot of mosquitoes. Thrilled to bits at having hit a jackpot on first attempt, I unwittingly left the windows open when I went out to take a stroll about Lumbini. By the time I was back, it was late in the evening and my room was swarming with mosquitoes. Ever paranoid about contracting Dengue/Malaria/Japanese Encephalitis/other mosquito related horrors, I closed the windows, dunked myself in Odomos and ran downstairs to ask the manager to spray my room with whatever poisonous repellant he had. He promptly did so but said I had to stay out for a couple of hours if I wished not to die with the mosquitoes.
So I went for an early dinner at Lotus Restaurant, one of the few copy-cat backpacker cafes on the street. This place, too, had a colony of mosquitoes baying for fresh blood but by now, I was positively reeking of Odomos and the little pests didn’t dare come anywhere near me. I ordered a bottle of beer and some bhatmas sandeko (roasted soyabeans) to go with. This was the end of February, certainly not low season but I was the only one eating there apart from a trio of American students rediscovering the power of free speech after a week of Vipassana. But when I ordered a main course of simple vegetarian curry with rice, it took them over two hours to bring it to my table. When needled about the delay, the manager apologized profusely saying they had a big order for 20 meals from an Indian group that could arrive anytime. “You know how some Indians are, they would like everything ready at once”, he said. I didn’t know if this was a sly reverse psychological tactic to make me feel ashamed of my countrymen and refrain from protesting but it worked. I quickly and quietly finished my meal without saying a word.
Lumbini’s UNESCO status is well deserved as here, in the 6th-5th Century BCE (depending on which historical records you believe), the Shakyan Queen Mayadevi, while resting under a sal tree, gave birth to Siddhartha Gautama, who would go on to become the Buddha. The entry to the massive site was flanked by many cycle rickshaws, all of whom banked on tourists wanting to do a whistle stop tour of all the monasteries and “points” within the site. They weren’t expensive and if one only had a day, it made sense to use one to take you around. But I had an infinite amount of time and I needed the exercise. So I marched in, behind a big group of cheerful Sri Lankan nuns from Kandy, all clad in white sarongs.
The first thing that impressed me about Lumbini was the sheer flatness of the terrain. To be in Nepal, the small yet overwhelmingly mountainous country, and able to see an unobstructed horizon in every direction felt magical to me. The mountains weren’t very far away with the mightly foothills of the Himalayas beginning 40 odd kilometers to the north. This was part of the Terai region, the scorching plains that extend from East to West, adjoining Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in India but with remarkably different ethnicities and identities compared to the Indian side.
Within the confines of the work-in-progress “religious park”, there are the Sacred Garden, a monastic zone and a nature park. The Sacred Garden is the oldest and the most revered section of the complex. Its center-piece is the Mayadevi temple, a newer, whitewashed concrete structure built by the Japanese Buddhist Federation around the archaeological ruins of the original temple built during Emperor Ashoka’s time. There’s speculation that some of the lower foundations indicate the sort of architecture that might have existed during pre-Buddha times. There was a long queue of people wanting to have a look at the sculpture depicting Maya Devi and the Buddha, some devotedly lighting candles near an altar-like structure. I didn’t join the queue but spent a long time walking around the foundations stretching my mind imagining the significance of the site’s antiquity.
There was a beauty even in those deformed and decapitated structures, structures built by people who lived many millenia ago. When you remove the embellishments, the articulations, the complexities, all that remains is the foundations built by the simplest and the most uncomplicated of workers and it’s the foundations that survive the longest. Buddhism didn’t originate here but the Buddha did and the first seeds of thought were sowed here, which he would build upon, debate, revise and carry on to Bodhgaya, Sarnath and to his nirvana in Kushinagar, the seeds of a religion and a way of life that’s still expanding and evolving 2600 years later in myriad forms.
Outside, a crowd of package tourists from China were huddled around the badly damaged Ashokan Pillar. I took a cursory look at it, not wanting to jostle for space with fellow tourists and took a walk around the grounds. There were monks everywhere, some giving sermons under a tree a la the Buddha himself, some sitting alone reading or meditating in an isolated corner, some cracking jokes and feeding turtles in the Shakya Tank. There were the obligatory Tibetan prayer flags fluttering everywhere. I spent many hours in the gardens, here talking to a monk from Amdo about Milarepa, there underneath a banyan tree reading some chapters of Nicolas Bouvier’s thrilling travelogue The Way of the World and somewhere near the pond watching people and updating notes. I visited the Maya Temple every afternoon for the next couple of days to either read, write or take a siesta because although it was undeniably a tourist site, its austere grounds offered me the peace and harmony I wasn’t quite getting in Lumbini Bazaar.
The monastic zone was a vast complex of monasteries built by the various sects of Buddhism and they all look depressingly concrete and new. What it didn’t have in antiquity, it made up for in variety with over 15 countries represented by their respective monasteries and plenty more under construction. The eternal flame that burns at the head of the reflecting canal was ignited in 1986 to commemorate what was then the International Year of Peace. The two rows around the canal were flanked by Japanese Buddhists dressed in yellow and topped with straw hats busy making colourful oil lamps for what they called “the floating lamp” festival. I was tremendously impressed by the amount space and the spotless cleanliness of the entire complex. It was quiet, serene, beautiful and spacious as any place of worship and contemplation ought to be.
It was late evening in Lumbini Bazaar and I was sitting in the open air café of Three-Vision Restaurant having beer with XL, a Chinese backpacker and GT, a long-term American traveler I’d met there. XL was an architect who was on a mission to visit every country in Asia and India was among the countries he absolutely loved traveling around. He strongly disagreed when GT told him he wished some of the Indian temple towns would learn from a place like Lumbini and clean up their act. He felt GT didn’t appreciate the true value of what India offered in its unselfconscious and naturalistic approach to devotion with the jagged and unconventional rhythms of chaotic towns, dirty alleys, cows on the roads and the blatant disregard for hygiene and sanitation that GT disapproved of. He was fascinated by the country and detested Lumbini for what he considered cold, sterile and manufactured spirituality, something that reminded him more of China than Nepal. When he learnt that this was my first stop in the country, he implored me to leave immediately and see the rest of Nepal, which he felt was more original and livelier than the “Buddhist Amusement Park”(his words) we were in at the moment.
When I arrived in Lumbini and snagged an inexpensive room, I thought I might stay here for a long time. My routine too, was set. Every morning, I would go for puri bhaji and chai to the grungy local dhaba on the road and chat with monks and pilgrims. Every afternoon, I would go for lunch to the restaurant opposite to the religious park and chat with the tall, pretty Nepali girl who worked there. Every evening, I would go for a walk around the water body in the park and do some bird-watching. But XL was right. The place was somewhat sterile and felt removed from the ordinary realities of everyday life in Nepal. This was a great spot to contemplate and clear out my head but after a point, the emptiness and the hollowness got to me. I was missing the markets, the hustle and bustle of a well-populated town and I was missing the cool air of the mountains in search of which I had come to Nepal in the first place. After 4 days in Lumbini, I packed my bags for Tansen, a hill town a couple of hours north of Lumbini, which promised everything I was looking for.
It was a night of much squirming and turning on the filthy beds of the retiring room at the Gorakhpur railway station and I wasn’t too unhappy when I was woken up from half-slumber by the hoots of a diesel engine. I packed my bags and went to the waiting room where the toilets were marginally cleaner than the one in my room. I was incredibly hungry having not had a proper meal in almost 24 hours. A row of identical dhabas lined the pavement opposite the Gorakhpur railway station and I chose the most patronized among them to hopefully have a decent meal.
A man in a wet, orange banian that stuck tightly to his hairy, paunchy pot belly came to take my order of parathas, egg bhurji and chai. Two small rats ran around the bowls of cut potatoes and onions that the man casually lifted from the ground to make my bhurjis and parathas. I was about to throw a fit and leave when a group of very old men entered the scene. They had a train to catch in the evening and wanted a place to freshen up and crash for the day. Two of them sat on my table and engaged me in conversation. They were ex-armymen who were on their way back from a pilgrimage to Gosainkund, a high altitude lake in the Langtang region, that requires an arduous week-long trek over the Laurebina pass at over 5000 meters. They were all septuagenarians and were proud to have done without much assistance what people half their age weren’t fit to do these days. They traveled simply and frugally and took whatever unpleasant came their way with good humour and put all my thankless whining of the previous night in perspective.
It’s usually relatively straightforward to find a jeep that goes to the Nepal border from Gorakhpur as there’s a long row of share taxis vying for passengers. I took the first one that implored me to get in and was thrilled at snagging the much sought-after front window seat. Taxis don’t take off until they’re full with passengers. So I waited and waited. It started getting bothersome when I saw other taxis being filled up while the driver of my vehicle was casually chewing paan, making small talk with street vendors and putting no effort to look for passengers. I asked him repeatedly if I should change the vehicle and his answer was a resounding no until amazingly an hour later, he ordered me to get my bags out of the dicky and look for another vehicle because he had a private “savaari” to Kanpur. There’s not much to do in these situations but take it on the chin and move on and I learned, if only temporarily, from the old armymen to develop a more benign attitude to ordinary misfortunes.
I hopped into another taxi which took off immediately as it had been just one passenger short. This was a beat-up Alto with a driver, two people squeezed in front and three at the back. There was an old, cranky, paan-chewing man sitting next to me who had to lean across to the window every 10 minutes to spit out the salival ingredients in his mouth. The driver, meanwhile, was whizzing past at the speed of sound, weaving between equally speedy vehicles coming at us and the slightly less speedy vehicles up ahead. My heart was in my mouth every time he tried to overtake a massive truck completely ignoring a speeding SUV cantering towards us with one hand on the steering wheel while chatting cheerfully away on his mobile phone with the other. The cranky old man and the driver did not get along with each other because the old man made him stop every 20 minutes to take a leak. When the driver refused, the old man started creating a huge ruckus accusing the driver of being highly insensitive to his “needs”. The driver was disappointed with us fellow passengers who, in his opinion, were too docile and non-violent in response to the old man and his peculiar demands.
Matters came to a head at a road-side snack stop where the old man was taking his own sweet time to finish 3 cups of tea and an array of snacks while we were waiting for the vehicle to get a move on. The driver protested angrily against the whims of the old man and threatened to evict him out of the vehicle if he continued in his eccentric ways. The old man asked him to go ahead and reminded him that his boss wouldn’t be very happy when he looked at the accounts of the day and noticed that one of his vehicles had done one of the trips with one passenger less. The driver now looked at us for help and implored us to share the fare of one seat between us. I didn’t mind putting in a 50 Rs. more but the rest of them said they would rather wait than pay more. The old man ordered another paan and chewed it victoriously leaving the driver red-faced and helpless.
An eerie silence prevailed through the rest of the journey as the Alto careened towards Sunauli, the heavily dusty and noisy town adjoining the Indo-Nepal border. The great thing about any Indian border town is that, if one had any doubts about leaving the country, the belching trucks, the honking jeeps and the grimy roads quelled them immediately. Crossing the border over to Nepal never feels like moving into another country though. Walking across the no-man’s land between the two countries is easier and less cumbersome than crossing some state borders within India. There were no questions asked, no bags checked and I was as free to roam about in large parts of this country as I was in my own.
A quick cycle rickshaw took me to the town of Bhairahawa and a quicker hotel hunt led me to Hotel Mount Everest. I took a dingy little room on the top floor which had a tiny bathroom and a little TV (for watching IPL, as the manager suggested) This was remarkably inexpensive compared to what I was paying for relatively spartan comfort in cities like Varanasi and Lucknow. I was paying less money for a little room of my own here than I did for a bed in a hostel dormitory in Varanasi. The Hotel promised free Wifi in the restaurant but the manager refused to switch it on saying it encouraged outsiders to lounge about the place without eating.
One of the reasons I manage to keep my long term travel going is because I also work occasionally. All I need to finish my work and send it across is my laptop and wifi that works. A few weeks ago in Kolkata, when I was merrily plonking away on my laptop in my room, I unwittingly spilled beer all over it. It immediately conked off but I had a backup in the form of a bluetooth keyboard. On this fateful day in Bhairahawa, my bluetooth keyboard stopped working too. I was extremely tired and was kicking myself for procrastinating on the script for 2 days. It was a Sunday too and most shops were closed. But some were open and I went into all of them, mobile stores, general stores, electrical shops, electronic stores, trinket sellers. Finally, two young boys in black leather jackets who ran a mobile shop hauled me to another section of the market which had a line of computer stores. Only two shops were open and only one of them had keyboards. I had to choose between a massive multimedia keyboard with keys for things like “email”, “music” and “My Computer” that cost 400 NR and a slim, sleek, classy, minimalistic piece that cost 2000 NR. I chose the former and have been using it to this day!
My situation was further complicated by the fact that the script that I was supposed to proofread and send was in a wrong format. The wifi in the hotel wasn’t working and my Indian numbers were non-functional. The script was due the next day and I had to get the word across to fellow traveholic MM. The manager was having a long flirtatious conversation with his girlfriend and I had no option but to listen to him finish his amorous exchange so I could borrow his phone. After what seemed like a life-time, he lent me his phone with a sheepish grin saying, “Nepali girls, you know. Not easy to manage. He he he.” I got a deservedly good rap on the eardrums from MM for a). delaying the script and b). not getting a local sim card and I recovered from it by having a couple of beers and watching IPL with the manager.
The next morning, I went to the Nepal Telecom office to apply for a local sim card because my Indian numbers stopped working here. I was expecting this to be a huge hassle that took all day but they only needed a photocopy of my passport and a photograph and my application was processed by the efficient staff at the office in a painless 5 minutes. No clueless customer service boys demanding electricity bills and “local address proof”. This thrilled me no end because I could now move on to Lumbini immediately and finally begin traveling in Nepal.