The Himalayas make the greatest rise from subtropical valley floor to icy summit of any mountain range on earth, and the contrast is stunningly apparent at POKHARA. Basking beside its verdant lakeshore, on clear mornings it boasts a nearly unobstructed view of the 8000m-plus Annapurna and Manaslu ranges, looming almost touchably 25km to the north.
Pokhara’s tourist scene lolls beside Phewa Tal (Phewa Lake), which turns an indifferent back to the modern Nepali city of Pokhara – in fact, if it wasn’t for the smog that increasingly obscures the mountains on most afternoons, you’d hardly know the city was there. “Lakeside”, as it’s known, may not be the rustic travellers’ haven it once was, but it remains Nepal’s little tourist paradise: carefree and culturally undemanding, with a steaks-and-cakes scene that almost rivals Thamel’s, and a pocket version of the same nightlife, to match. It’s significantly more laidback than Kathmandu’s Thamel, however – and relatively horizontal, if you’ve come up from North India.
Pokhara is the first place many travellers venture to after Kathmandu. It may be short on A-list sights, apart from the lake itself, but it’s very long on activities: for trekkers, it’s the gateway to Nepal’s most popular trails; for rafters and kayakers, it’s Nepal’s river-running headquarters; for paragliders and mountain bikers it’s one of the best spots on earth. The climate is balmy: at 800m above sea level it’s both cooler than the plains in summer and warmer than Kathmandu in winter. (It may be significantly wetter than the capital, but most of the rain falls outside the tourist season, so the only sign of water many visitors see is the lake, and the lush subtropical greenery.)Read More
The legend of the lake
The legend of the lake
According to a local legend, Phewa Tal covers the area of a once-prosperous valley, whose inhabitants one day scorned a wandering beggar. Finding only one sympathetic woman, the beggar warned her of an impending flood: as the woman and her family fled to higher ground, a torrent roared down from the mountains and submerged the town – the “beggar” having been none other than the goddess Barahi Bhagwati. The woman’s descendants settled beside the new lake and erected the island shrine of Tal Barahi.
The other, geological, explanation is that the entire Pokhara Valley, like the Kathmandu Valley, was submerged about 200,000 years ago when the fast-rising Mahabharat ridge dammed up the Seti Nadi. Over time, the Seti eroded an ever-deeper outlet, lowering the water level and leaving Phewa Tal and several smaller lakes as remnants.
An elite Nepali corps within the British and Indian armies for almost two centuries, the Gurkha regiments have long been rated among the finest fighting units in the world. Ironically, the regiments were born out of the 1814–16 war between Nepal and Britain’s East India Company: so impressed were the British by the men of “Goorkha” (Gorkha, the ancestral home of Nepal’s rulers) that they began recruiting Nepalis into the Indian Army before the peace was even signed.
In the century that followed, Gurkhas fought in every major British military operation, including the 1857 Indian Mutiny. More than 200,000 Gurkhas served in the two world wars, (often earmarked for “high-wastage” roles – sixteen thousand have died in British service) earning respect for their bravery: ten of the one hundred Victoria Crosses awarded in World War II went to Gurkhas. Following India’s independence, Britain kept four of the ten regiments and India retained the rest. More recently, Gurkhas have distinguished themselves in Iraq and Afghanistan and as UN peacekeepers. In 2011 Sergeant Dipprasad Pun was awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross for single-handedly fighting off two dozen Taliban fighters.
Recruits hail mainly from the Magar, Gurung, Rai and Limbu ethnic groups, from Nepal’s middle hills. Most boys from these groups have traditionally dreamt of making it into the Gurkhas, not only for the money, but also for a rare chance to see the world and return with prestige and a comfortable pension. Those who fail can always try in the lower-paid Indian regiments; the Nepali army is considered the last resort.
Gurkhas used to be Nepal’s major source of foreign remittances, sending home $40 million annually, but the achievement of pension equality and, in 2009, the final acceptance of the right to reside in the UK, have changed the long-standing and culturally influential lifestyle pattern. Many Gurkha families have now moved to the UK, and in addition, the Gurkhas’ long and faithful service to Britain is winding down. The only remaining training centre is in Pokhara, where thousands of would-be recruits still try out for places. It remains to be seen how the removal of the Gurkhas’ cash injection will affect the economy of cities like Pokhara and Dharan, though the increase in other work migration (mostly to the Middle East) has made up for the remittance shortfall at a national level, at least.
Basundhara Park, Lakeside’s biggest patch of open space, is the venue for the annual Annapurna Festival (usually held in April), a cultural event featuring music, dance and food. Every year, from 28 December to 1 January, Lakeside is invaded by an infinity of food stalls for the Street festival. Various cultural events take place for the New Year under the name of the Phewa Festival: there are more food and handicraft stalls, plus fairground rides and street dancing and singing.
Meditation and yoga
Meditation and yoga
Many spiritual centres last only a season or two in Lakeside, and your best bet is to get personal recommendations from people who’ve just come back from a retreat (while bearing in mind that people seek very different kinds of experiences in this area). Courses can easily be found by checking notice boards or online, and yoga enthusiasts are fairly easily found in Lakeside’s chatty guesthouses and cafés – especially if you head north towards Khahare, where many of the more serious meditation centres are found. There’s little doubt that some Lakeside places are fairly commercial, but then that’s true of many yoga centres back home, too. Introductory classes are sometimes free.
Ganden Yiga Chozin Buddhist Centre Khahare, Lakeside t 061 462 923 or t 061 522 923, w pokharabuddhistcentre.com. A peaceful and serious Buddhist facility with its own modest prayer hall. It’s a short walk north of Lakeside, set up and back from the main drag – albeit in an area where construction is fast taking away the rural atmosphere. They run regular three-day weekend courses (starting on Friday afternoons), as well as daily meditation and yoga classes, and simple accommodation (see Lakeside South). Buddhist monks come up in season from Kopan monastery, outside Kathmandu, to run teachings and meditations.
Nepali Yoga Centre Phewa Marg, Lakeside t 984 604 1879, w nepaliyoga.com. Run by Devika Gurung, a yoga teacher originally from Jomosom, in the Annapurna region, this small, friendly, female-staffed and central Lakeside place offers well-regarded hatha yoga classes mornings and afternoons (90min; Rs400), as well as longer residential courses.
Pokhara Vipassana Centre Pachabhaiya, Lekhnath-11, Kaski t 061 691 972, w www.pokhara.dhamma.org. In a stunning, utterly tranquil setting in the woods that rise steeply out of Begnas Tal’s southern bank, 15km east of Pokhara and close to Begnas Lake Resort, this rustic complex of buildings is taken over for ten-day courses (starting on the 1st of every month) and day-long courses (on the last Sat of every month). It’s highly regarded, but not for the tentative: the day starts at 4am and the rules designed to keep minds focused include no reading, no talking, no drinking and no sex. Relies entirely on donations.
Sadhana Yoga Ashram Sedi Bagar, north of Lakeside t 061 694 041 or t 984 607 8117, w sadhana-asanga-yoga.com. This four-storey, no-frills building sits atop a hilltock fifteen minutes above the Lakeside road, close to the path up to Sarangkot. The owners run popular ashram-style residential yoga courses – bells ring to keep you on your toes, hour by hour; you’ll have “karma yoga” domestic chores to do, and it’s more about breathing than anything athletic. You pay a premium for the secluded location and international reputation: Rs8000 for a three-day, four-night stay. Longer stays, cookery courses and sunrise tours up Sarangkot are also on offer.
Tibetans in exile
Tibetans in exile
Thirty years ago, travel writer Dervla Murphy worked as a volunteer among Tibetan refugees in Pokhara, and called the account she wrote about her experiences The Waiting Land. Pokhara’s Tibetans are still waiting: three former refugee camps, now largely self-sufficient, have settled into a pattern of permanent transience. Because Pokhara has no Buddhist holy places, many older Tibetans have remained in the camps, regarding them as havens where they can keep their culture and language alive.
At the time of the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950, the Tibetans now living in Pokhara were mainly peasants and nomads inhabiting the border areas of western Tibet. After the Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959 and the Chinese occupation turned violent, thousands streamed south through the Himalayas to safety. They gathered first at Jomosom, but the area soon became overcrowded and conditions desperate, and three transit camps were established around Pokhara.
The first five years in the camps were marked by rationing, sickness and unemployment. Relief came in the late 1960s, when the construction of Pardi Dam and the Prithvi and Siddhartha highways provided work. A second wave of refugees began around the same time, after the United States’ detente with China ended a CIA operation supporting Tibetan freedom-fighters based in Mustang. Since then, the fortunes of Pokhara’s Tibetans have risen with the tourism, carpet-weaving and Buddhism industries – the latter is a big earner, due to foreign donations. A small but visible minority have become smooth-talking curio salespeople, plying the cafés of Lakeside and Damside, but whereas Tibetans have by now set up substantial businesses in Kathmandu, opportunities are fewer in Pokhara, and prosperity has come more slowly.
The settlements – Tashi Palkhel, Tashiling and Paljorling – are open to the public, and a wander around one is an experience of workaday reality that contrasts with the otherworldliness of, say, Boudha or Swayambhu. You’ll get a lot more out of a visit if you can get someone to show you around.