We learn at supper briefing in our Kathmandu Hotel that a strike has been called for four days, when no vehicles will be allowed on the roads. The Maoists are threatening the government. So our itinerary is changed, and we have to drive straight to Pokhara the next day for an alternative trail called the Panchase Trek.
The journey is 200 ks and six hours long; a steep winding tarmac road with no potholes, but very heavy traffic. I learn the local horn-blowing system: two peeps = I wish to pass; one peep = thankyou, or get out of my way; right indicator = now you can pass; left indicator = there’s someone coming so don’t pass.
Vehicles miss each other by a hair’s breadth, but there are hardly any accidents. We pass through numerous check points where the buses have to show time cards, to prevent speeding, and the locals have to pile out and have their baggage checked for explosives. We pass hydro-electric stations flanked by sandbagged squares manned by armed soldiers in camouflage uniform.
Beautifully maintained terraces creep in wavy lines down the hill slopes and along the valley floors. Paddy fields, oxen pulling ploughs; brick factories, batteries of hens. People smiling everywhere; houses everywhere, with red brick or crazy paved walls, and flowers in pots. Distinctive stacks of dry rice stalks pile up and up around a tall pole on a wooden slatted platform, providing fodder for the cattle or water-buffalo.
We wind alongside a wide river, which flows in a deep gorge to our right. This is where our white water rafting will happen, although I have no intention of taking part. We stop on the road to watch two rafts negotiate the hardest,class three rapid, while the traffic negotiates patiently round us. Screams, then shouts of triumph reach us from far below as they reach the end of the run.
We check into our Pokhara hotel and then are driven to supper at the lake front. My room-mate is Mary. Our habits our different, so we don’t coincide much: she reads far into the night while I sleep. I get up early to watch a non-sunrise and add to my bird list while she sleeps in as late as possible.
Our first day’s trek takes us south, then westwards to the far side of lake Phewa Tal. Up and up we go for six and a half hours and 2,500 ft, covering just over eight miles as the crow flies. John says we can double that for actual mileage walked. He has a GPS gadget which provides us with the details, plus an impressive graph of our daily achievements.
We pass a Japanese Monastery and stop at the World Peace Pagoda, a shining white monument with four golden images representing Thailand, Nepal, Japan and Sri Lanka, looking gigantically to the four corners of the world. We remove our shoes and keeping the Pagoda to our right (the pure side), circumnavigate the monument. One or two people sit splay-legged against the side, a couple walk round and round, deep in conversation. I say a quiet prayer for peace.
We pass through many villages, say “Namaste” to countless people, and are followed by troops of children saying “hallo pen”, but we’re told not to give anything. We will be donating to a school later. The terraces become steeper and steeper; they grow rice, maize, spinach and cabbages; cows and buffalo get in our way, and the occasional dog sniffs around us. Udaya is a wealth of information, but it is impossible to retain all he tells us of this ancient country with its caste system, rituals, and different religions. One terrace contains a grove of trees with roots encased in mounds of stones, cone-like, about four feet tall. These are monuments to the dead, whose ashes lie deep within the cone. We see an infant one with a small sapling planted at the top; a lovely custom.
It is hot, as we have started late. My solar hat is invaluable and causes the usual interest, especially among the Nepali children. Lunch is a tasty tinned salmon with chips and salad, then bananas, eaten in the sun. We’re camping in luxury. The sherpas have our tents up and ready at the campsite beside a terraced village. Thunder and rain have threatened all day, and now a few drops splat on the canvas. We have nothing to do but refresh ourselves from individual basins of warm water, then troop to the dining tent for supper before early bed.