I wake at ten minutes to five and get up to check the weather. It’s not raining but the clouds are hanging around the hills. There is a 50/50 chance that we will see the snow covered peaks surrounding Pokhara, many of which we have just spent more than two weeks circumnavigating. Everyone tells us yesterday was clear as a bell and the views fantastic. So I am hoping this day will deliver the same clarity. A bus turns up at 5.30 and we bumble up to Sarankot, a spire of a hill on the outskirts of town, with a lookout on top. The thirty minute bus ride is followed by a twenty minute climb, nothing after the last two weeks of jumping around Annapurna Circuit. As we climb, the sun highlights two of the jagged peaks, including ‘Fishtail’, but that is all we see. By the time we reach the top the clouds have moved in and the best we get is the sun speckling across Pokhara and the lake. It’s a gorgeous view but not really why we rose as early as we have. Eventually we are completely clouded in so after an hour of waiting we make our way back to breakfast.
We are camped at Sacred Valley Inn, a very tidy pile of marble and stone and a very pleasant way to conclude two weeks of walking. Our host is a friendly and helpful fellow who went so far as to be up to check the weather at five am – he was surprised though that I was up before him. Now we are all sitting around reading and playing cards on the front verandah as Pokhara slowly wakes up and we wait for our host to deliver breakfast.
Lila appeared mid morning and we all took the time to farewell this gentle, sharp, kindly, humble man whose impish humour we quickly tuned into and who made this trek a great one. Our connection with the locals was all the sweeter for his infusion and we quickly grew to love him. I have a fleeting insight into why Hillary had such an affinity with these people and for that I can thank Lila.
Some of us took lunch downtown. It’s a bustling Asian mess which I always love and through which I comfortably sail even if I do say so myself. South Asia is always about a life so precarious that it is grasped by its inhabitants with both hands. And in that grasping they convey a zest for life that is infectious. Its in your face, to be sure. But you can’t deny its contagion. I was actually looking for a new power converter for my laptop (yes it came with me over Thorung La) but it’s a futile hunt. Actually no hunt is ever futile for the going, the prowling, the scenting, the seeking after spoor, the ‘being out there’ are all the rewards of the hunt, not just the reaching of the target. I will find one one of those power units somewhere else but in the meantime we have had an adventure we would not have experienced otherwise.
It’s a hot and muggy day with monsoon clouds boiling up over us as we head down to Phewa Lake. We hire a couple of timber plank ‘long’ boats and our small fleet of three vessels makes its way past the temple adorned island and heads to the other side of the lake. I am keen to swim but the launch point is home to filthy water and want to be some distance from it before I leap in. The clouds rupture and we are quickly soaked as we caught out in the open but its warm rain and we appreciate the hosing.
Nonetheless I pull us under a young mahogany on the far bank and we sit out some of the downpour before I push us out from the bank, discard boots, abandon my engine room role, stand up and dive into a warm, green bath. As I swim back to the surface through that green tint I imagine all the ear, eye and throat infections I am up for and think of all the threadworm and hookwarm potential as well. Too late. Besides, its deliciously refreshing and I surface to the sight of some heads shaking and others grinning. It doesn’t take long before I am followed in and there is general mayhem, much to the surprise and bemusement of a boatload of Chinese who float past, every passenger heavily suited up with a life jacket. They are aghast that we are so freely and willingly abandoning ship. I leave the others to fool around in the water, reboard and our vessel breaks away for the small island we passed earlier, the one home to a cluster of Hindi shrines. We join numerous pilgrims who load down their boats to the gunnels to get there – we were only allowed four to a boat. I assume that ratio is for the financial benefit of the operators. We all finally return to shore after an hour and have a tub of ice cream and some dubious Coke which I ended up tipping out the window of the café. Some (many) have mould growing under the metal caps so we try and buy plastic capped drinks where we can.
The thunder cracks and rumbles and the sky flashes its fair warning – down comes the rain. We wait for 45 minutes but it does not let up and hammers down in a ceaseless beat so we march out under umbrellas into knee deep water streaming down the street. Its warm but that is not the point – there are numerous roadworks and who knows where the holes are? So we slide along, feeling our way with each step. The Terminator is ahead but suddenly a black sandal floats past in the other direction with Pete chasing after it, holes in the road be damned. We make it to our restaurant and settle into dinner.
I fear I am very poor company this evening. I am weighed down by a very deep melancholy and the frivolity of the group is hard to get into. They are looking forward to getting home but I am so very ready to walk that circuit again, by myself. My head is absolutely in the right place to do that. A rambling twelve months on the road has a lot of appeal right now. The conversation that swirls around me as I scribble this touches on the internet, online games, movies, cars and all sorts of things that in and of themselves are fine but which fail to resonate with me in any way at all. Nothing a good fish curry and a solid night’s sleep can’t fix I guess. I hope. The sky still flashes and the heavens still bang and the sheet of water out the front door still dances with diamonds of smashed water trying to decide if they are rising or falling. Falling, mainly, methinks.
During dinner I duck out to pick up a pre-ordered, made to measure, custom built piece of cheap bauble that carries its own local significance for me and won’t cause customs officers any heartburn. Returning from there I drop into a bookshop to grab a volume I have been searching for. Two Chinese tourists are sheltering there from the rain the only other customers in the shop. As is their wont, they are squatting in the doorway and chatting. Neither of them seem to be over fifteen but they are university students taking a short break. She is dressed like a doll – goodness knows where she got her clothing advice. But they are extremely chatty. She from Shanghai, he from Beijing. The are endlessly fascinated with the idea of something that exists outside of China and tease from me an account of what we have been doing here for nearly three weeks. The concept of trekking is absolutely beyond them. I try and explain but they only seek Nepal as an exotic and remote place to the one week of holidays they have been given. A place to visit, not a place in which to be immersed. But at least they have taken the trouble to come here. I credit them courage and admire their inquisitiveness. Squatting on a pile of newspapers they try and comprehend what I am saying about continuously walking for sixteen days. She shakes her head and grins up at me from under her perfect black fringe and I know she is saying ‘yes’ but without comprehending anything I am saying. Her breasts are nigh on falling out of her lacy bodice (and I wonder again at where they got their dress advice for this Buddhist country) but I am rescued, before things get completely out of control, by the Nepalese store owner who tells me he has found the book I am looking for. I am able to disengage from them with some measure of decorum. I have met a few of these Chinese travelers and find them far more curious and naturally inquisitive about what they are discovering than the average Aussie, European or Yank. Indeed, as a general rule I have learned these latter types are generally to be avoided in remote places.
I return to the restaurant, take dessert, while watching some old Cricket matches on the big screen, then return with the whole crew to our quarters. It takes a while for me to settle into sleep. I am surprised this is over so soon. And wonder what the experience has really been about. I start to sketch some notes, put down the notebook and reach for the light. They can wait until tomorrow.
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