The Western Hills are Nepal at its most quintessentially, outstandingly Nepalese. There are roaring gorges, precariously perched villages and terraced fields reaching to improbable heights, and some of the most graceful and accessible peaks of the Himalayas for a backdrop. Yet in this, Nepal’s most populous hill region, people are the dominant feature. Magars and Gurungs, the most visible ethnic groups, live in their own villages or side by side with Tamangs, caste Hindus, Newari merchants and Tibetans. Life is traditional and close to the land, but relatively prosperous: houses are tidy and spacious, and hill women are festooned with the family gold.
The chief destination of the Western Hills is the laidback lakeside resort of Pokhara, Nepal’s major hub for trekking – the Annapurna range lies immediately to the north – plus paragliding, yoga and almost everything else. Many visitors are understandably intent on heading straight for Pokhara, but it’s well worth sidestepping from the road to visit a trio of hilltop sights: the historic fortress of Gorkha, the pilgrimage site of Manakamana and the lofty old bazaar of Bandipur. Continuing on to Pokhara from all of these by public bus along the Prithvi Highway is an experience in itself, and easily bearable given the short distances involved. Beyond Pokhara, on the magnificent Siddhartha Highway to the Indian border, the charming town of Tansen lies at the southern edge of the hills. All of these make excellent bases for day hikes.
Confusingly enough, the Western Hills are actually in the geographic centre of Nepal – these hills are only “western” in relation to Kathmandu. The relatively remote and poor mid-western and far-western regions are covered in Trekking.
Along the Prithvi Highway to Pokhara
The Prithvi Highway – the road from Kathmandu to Pokhara – offers many visitors to Nepal their first vision of the middle hills. It remains a fabulous vision, even if it is through a bus window clouded by the grit-laden exhaust smoke of the overloaded lorry in front. Once you’ve struggled out of the Kathmandu Valley through the notch in the rim at Thankot, the first shock is the epic scale and steepness of the hills beyond. The second is the evident danger of the road, which for its first half is also the main trunk route between Kathmandu and India. Despite being the best road in the country, it is littered with broken-down lorries and the evidence of crashes. Most cyclists wisely put their bikes on the bus roof.
From Thankot, the long, switchbacking descent to Naubise, where the Tribhuwan Rajpath breaks off, continues down to the Trisuli at Baireni, one of several put-in points along this popular rafting river. From here, the road mostly follows the valley bottoms: keep an eye out for spidery suspension bridges, precarious ropeways, and funeral pyres on the sandy banks. You can’t miss the scores of lorries parked in the riverbed; they’re used for collecting stones, which are broken up by hand by families of workers attracted by the chance of earning $2 a day. There are rice terraces and sugar cane plantations to gaze at, perhaps complete with local farmers ploughing or harvesting by hand. The scraps of forest are mostly heavily pruned for fodder or firewood, though you can spot the odd, stately simal, the symmetrically branching silk-cotton or kapok tree, which produces red flowers in early March and pods of cotton-like seeds in May.
Most tourist buses make a mid-morning pit stop for daal bhaat at fancy resorts. Green Lines halts at River Side Springs Resort, which is easily the most attractive accommodation along the road. Public buses break for lunch at Mugling, a ghastly crossroads at the junction of the Trisuli and Marsyangdi rivers that exists mainly to provide daal bhaat and prostitutes to long-distance drivers.
Traffic bound for the Terai turns south here for the gradual 34km descent to Narayangadh, while the Prithvi Highway crosses the Trisuli and heads upstream along the Marsyangdi, passing the massive Marsyangdi Hydroelectric Project powerhouse. The spur road to Gorkha leaves the highway at Abu Khaireni, 7km west of Mugling, while Dumre, 11km beyond, is the turning for two side roads: one north to Lamjung’s Besisahar, the starting point of the Annapurna Circuit, and one south to Bandipur. Damauli, 8km west of Dumre, is marked out by its position overlooking the confluence of the Madi and Seti rivers. In reverence of this union, there is a complex of shrines set back from the road, and to the left of them is Byas Gupha, a cave where Byas (or Vyasa), the sage of the Mahabharat, is supposed to have been born and lived.
After crossing the Madi, the Prithvi Highway rises and then descends gradually to rejoin the broad Seti Valley, finally reaching Pokhara’s ever-spreading conurbation. Lakes Begnas and Rupa are off to the right of the highway on the approach to Pokhara.
The miniature bazaar of BANDIPUR perches improbably on a ridge, beneath steep limestone peaks that rear up romantically, as if they’d tumbled out of a Chinese brush painting, and facing breathtaking views of the Himalayas. Originally a simple Magar village, it was colonized in the 1800s by Newars from Bhaktapur and became a prosperous centre for garment-making and a trading stop along the India–Tibet route. The eradication of malaria from the Terai in the 1950s, and the completion of the Prithvi Highway in 1973, strangled business, however, and today the town is little more than a single, sleepy high street where children play and unhurried locals sell imported goods. Still, the town’s nineteenth-century mansions, with their grand Neoclassical facades and shuttered windows, speak of past glories, and tourism is providing a new economic mini-boom – the town has become a popular tourist stopover between Kathmandu and Pokhara, and there are numeous boutique hotels and homestays.
Hikes to and around Bandipur
The historic trail to Bandipur was immortalized in a poem by King Mahendra, who observed how remarkably long and steep it was. In fact, it takes two to three hours, beginning 500m east of the main Dumre intersection, and climbing through shady forest punctuated by very civilized rest shelters and waterspouts. It arrives at the tudikhel (if you’re heading down, note that the path drops to the left of the tudikhel’s avenue of trees as you approach from the bazaar). An alternative route starting from Bimalnagar, on the Prithvi Highway 1km east of Dumre, takes you past the Siddha Gupha cave complex after about half an hour.
Other, longer hikes go through pretty, cultivated hills and traditional Magar villages, and are worth considering as alternatives to leaving Bandipur by bus. The Magar village of Rankot, two hours’ hike from Bandipur, is one of the most scenic, with its wooden balconied houses – and even a few, rare thatched roundhouses. You can walk on to Damauli via the pilgrimage place of Chabda Barahi Mandir, two hours from Ramkot – with panoramic views of the Annapurnas from the crest of the hill along the way. The last hour to Damauli is on a paved road.
Despite its status as the cradle of the nation, GORKHA remains strangely untouristed, even though the 24km paved road up from Abu Khaireni makes it a relatively painless half-day’s ride from Pokhara, Kathmandu or Chitwan. Conscious of its tourist potential, the government has spruced up Gorkha’s main monuments, but the lower town remains a fairly ordinary roadhead bazaar.
As the ancestral home of the Nepali royal family, Gorkha occupies a central place in Nepali history. Hunched on the hilltop above the bazaar is its link with that splendid past, the Gorkha Durbar, an architectural tour de force worthy of the flamboyant Gorkha kings and the dynasty they founded. Unless you’re setting straight off on a trek or just finishing one, you’ll have to spend the night here. The Durbar and its agreeable surroundings can easily soak up a day, and hikes around the area could keep you busy for another couple.
In a sense, Gorkha’s history is not its own. A petty hill state in medieval times, it was occupied and transformed into a Himalayan Sparta by outsiders who used it as a base for a dogged campaign against Kathmandu and then, having won their prize, restored Gorkha to obscurity. Yet during those two centuries of occupation, it raised the nation’s most famous son, Prithvi Narayan Shah, and somehow bred in him the audacity to conquer all of Nepal.
Prithvi Narayan’s ancestors came to Gorkha in the mid-sixteenth century, having been driven into the hills from their native Rajasthan by Muslim invaders, and soon gained a reputation as a single-mindedly martial lot. His father launched the first unsuccessful raid on the Kathmandu Valley in the early eighteenth century, and when Prithvi Narayan himself ascended to the throne in 1743, at the age of twenty, he already had his father’s obsession fixed in his mind. Within a year, he was leading Gorkha in a war of expansion that was eventually to unify all of present-day Nepal, plus parts of India and Tibet. Looking at the meagre terraces of Gorkha today, you can imagine what a drain it must have been to keep a standing army fed and supplied for 27 years of continuous campaigning. The hardy peasants of Gorkha got little more than a handshake for their efforts. After conquering the valley in 1769, Prithvi Narayan moved his capital to the bright lights of Kathmandu, relegating Gorkha to a mere garrison from which the later western campaign was directed. By the early nineteenth century, Gorkha had been all but forgotten, even as an alternative spelling of the name – Gurkha – was becoming a household name around the world.
The Gorkha Durbar
It’s a half-hour-plus 300m slog up a stone stairway to the Gorkha Durbar from Pokharithok, the junction just east of Tallo Durbar. With a 4WD vehicle, it is possible to drive most of the way up, circling round via the western side, but the walk is half the pleasure – and provides a properly testing approach. After a landmark swami (weeping fig) tree, the path forks: the most direct route ascends steeply through the old, pleasantly rural village, where there are opportunities to buy cold drinks and cups of tea; the longer, gentler left fork leads towards the ridgetop a short distance to the west of the palace.
The twin buildings of the palace sit atop the steepest, highest point of the ridge, buttressed by serried ranks of stone walls, and approached by a royal staircase worthy of any prince. It must have cowed visiting vassals into submission – a neat trick for a tin-pot realm that could barely muster 150 soldiers at the time of Prithvi Narayan’s first campaign. Entrance to the Durbar is through a doorway towards the western side, reached by a path to the left of the retaining wall. No leather is allowed in the compound.
The Kalika Mandir
Conceived as a dwelling for kings and gods, the fortress remains a religious place, and first stop in any visit is the revered Kalika Mandir, occupying the left (western) half of the Durbar building. Its interior is closed to all but priests – who say that any others would die upon beholding Kali’s terrible image. Sacrifices are made in the alcove in front of the entrance daily except on ekadasi (which falls every fourteen days, following the lunar calendar). After the observance of astami (again, twice monthly on the lunar month), which is celebrated with special gusto in Gorkha, the paving stones are sticky with blood. Most worshippers arrive cradling a trembling goat or chicken and leave swinging a headless carcass. Chait Dasain, Gorkha’s biggest annual festival, brings processions and more blood-letting in late March or early April, as does the tenth day of Dasain in October.
The right (east) wing of the Durbar is the historic palace, site of Prithvi Narayan’s birthplace and, by extension, the ancestral shrine of the Shah kings. Though pre-dating the Gorkhali conquest of Kathmandu, the exceptional eighteenth-century brick- and woodwork palace bears the unmistakeable stamp of Newari craftsmanship. You can peer through the latticework of the door at the eastern facade and see the flank of what is claimed to be Prithvi Narayan’s throne.
The cave of Gorakhnath
The space within the fortress walls is fairly littered with other Hindu shrines. By the eastern exit is a small temple built around the holy cave of Gorakhnath, the centre for worship of the shadowy Indian guru who gave Gorkha its name and is regarded as a kind of guardian angel by the Shah kings. Sadhus of the Gorakhnath cult are known as kaanphata (“split-ears”), after an initiation ceremony in which they insert sticks in their ear lobes – a walk in the park compared to some of the other things they get up to in the name of their guru. Kaanphata priests sometimes administer ashen tika from the shelter above the cave.
Walks around Gorkha
The obvious destination from Gorkha is Manakamana. The old walking trail is increasingly ignored, now there’s a road, but you can still find the trail, starting from the unpaved side road off the main Gorkha road, 7km down from the town. It takes four hours to walk to Manakamana, and it’s easily possible to return via the cable car and bus the same day.
Longer routes can be found by taking the high trail through Hanuman Bhanjyang – this is the traditional start of the Manaslu Circuit trek. From the little pass, you descend gently for about ninety minutes to Ali Bhanjyang (where you can find tea and snack food); from here you can ascend along a ridge with fabulous views to Khanchok (about 2hr 30min). This would be about the limit for a day hike, but given an early start you could continue down to the subtropical banks of the Budhi Gandaki at Arughat, a long day’s 20km from Gorkha – and a third of the way to Trisuli. A rough road now connects Arughat to the town of Dhading, which is 21km up a surfaced side road from Malekhu, on the Prithvi Highway.
Why Prithvi Narayan didn’t conquer the world
As a young man, Prithvi Narayan Shah is said to have prayed to the guru for success, and was answered in a dream (some say he came in person, and at this spot) by an old man who offered the young prince a bowl of curd. Haughtily, Prithvi Narayan let it fall to his feet (though some say he spilled it by accident), whereupon Gorakhnath revealed himself, saying that the future king would conquer everywhere he set his foot. If he had accepted and eaten the curd, the guru admonished, he would have conquered the world.
Just about every Nepali has either been to MANAKAMANA or hopes one day to go. Located on a prominent ridge high above the confluence of the Trisuli and Marsyangdi rivers, the village is home to Nepal’s famous wish-granting temple. Each year more than half a million people make the journey, the wealthier of them speeding up the hillside with a bird’s-eye view from the swish cable car. Sadhus, poorer pilgrims and the odd, more contemplative tourist still toil up the walking route on the other side of the hill, starting from Abu Khaireni. If you’re here in the November and December season, be sure to buy the famous local oranges. Their green skins are not a sign of unripeness, but entirely natural in the subtropics: oranges need almost frosty temperatures to acquire the colour that northerners are used to.
In addition to its temple, Manakamana is also famous for its mountain views: from various high points around the village you can see a limited panorama from Annapurna II and Lamjung Himal across to Peak 29 and Baudha of the Manaslu Himal. The nearest viewpoint is the new bus park, a fifteen-minute walk up from the temple. If you’re game for more, you can continue 45 minutes further up the ridge to another temple, the Bakeshwar Mahadev Mandir, and then another fifteen minutes to Lakhan Thapa Gupha, a holy cave near the highest point, from where the views are tremendous on clear mornings. The cave is named after the founder of the Manakamana temple, a seventeenth-century royal priest whose descendant is still the chief temple pujari today.
The best thing about Tansen is getting out of it to explore the outlying hill country and Magar villages, where people still greet visitors with delighted smiles and the full palms-together namaste. The paths around Tansen all pass through farmland and are heavily used by villagers, so it’s fairly easy to find your way with just enough Nepali to ask directions. You may prefer to take a guide – ask your innkeeper – or the excellent maps provided by the GETUP Palpa information service. Numerous other hikes are possible from Tansen, including taking the old trading route to Butwal, which passes the ruins of the old Sen palace at Nuwakot in one long day’s walking (the path is not well maintained these days, though, so you’d need a guide). You can also follow the airy ridge-line east of Srinagar Hill through Bagnaskot to Arya Bhanjyang (11km; 2–3hr), on the Siddhartha Highway – where you can pick up transport back to town; on clear days you can see the Himalayas along the way.
The most rewarding day-trip from Tansen is to RANI GHAT, the site of a fantastically derelict palace set atop a rocky outcrop overlooking the turquoise Kali Gandaki. Rani Ghat is the site of occasional cremations, and has a couple of chiya pasal that offer basic food and lodging, but the main attraction is the porticoed, columned and romantically crumbling palace of Rani Durbar. It was built in the late nineteenth century by a Rana commander, Khadga Shamsher, who was exiled to Palpa after a failed coup against his brother, and feels like a place of melancholy isolation. You get a great view of it from the distressingly long (222m) suspension bridge that crosses the river here – the second longest in Nepal. At the time of writing, a resort was being built on the far side; otherwise, if you need to stay overnight, head for the one very simple lodge with a couple of beds, immediately below the palace.
The hike to Rani Ghat
To get to Rani Ghat, you can hire transport on a dirt road (via Chandi Bhanjyang and Baugha Gumha), but at the time of writing it still stopped ninety minutes’ walk short, at Chherlung. In any case, the 14km (4–7hr) hike is superb. The route begins at Kailash Nagar, on the ridge just beside Hotel Srinagar, and descends a ridge before following the sometimes jungly Barangdi valley (bring a torch if you want to visit the narrow, stalactite-hung Siddha Gupha cave, beyond Aule, about a third of the way along) to the Kali Gandaki. You can make a longer circuit walk (22km; 7–9hr) by heading out via Gorkhekot, on the Srinagar ridge a short way east of town (you can get there from a path leading behind the United Mission Hospital), and descending through an immensely satisfying landscape of farmland, trailside hamlets and sections of airy ridge, before the final switchback down to the Kali Gandaki and Rani Ghat.
Gurungs and Magars
Once active trans-Himalayan traders – the Chinese occupation of Tibet put paid to that – Gurungs are a common sight around Gorkha and Pokhara, where many have invested their Gurkha pensions in guesthouses and retirement homes. The majority of Gurungs who don’t serve in the military keep sheep for their wool, driving them to pastures high on the flanks of the Himalayas, and raise wheat, maize, millet and potatoes.
Traditional pursuits such as hunting and honey-gathering are being encroached upon by overpopulation, while the Gurung form of shamanism is coming under pressure from the advance of Hinduism and Buddhism. Gurungs employ shamans to appease ghosts, reclaim possessed souls from the underworld, and guide dead souls to the land of their ancestors – rituals that contain clear echoes of “classic” Siberian shamanism and are believed to resemble those of pre-Buddhist Tibet.
A somewhat less cohesive group, Magars are scattered throughout the lower elevations of the Western Hills and in some parts of the east. A network of Magar kingdoms once controlled the entire region, but the arrival of Hindus in the fifteenth century brought swift political decline and steady cultural assimilation. After centuries of coexistence with Hindu castes, most Magars employ Baahun priests and worship Hindu gods just like their Chhetri neighbours, differing only in that they’re not allowed to wear the sacred thread of the “twice-born” castes. Despite the lack of unifying traits, group identity is still strong, and will probably remain so as long as Magars keep marrying only within the clan.
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.)
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Once the seat of a powerful kingdom, the hill town of TANSEN (Palpa) now seems little more than a bazaar town stranded in the hills. Tourism comes a low second to trading, yet slowly, almost reluctantly, Tansen yields its secrets: clacking dhaka looms glimpsed though doorways; the Himalayan view from Srinagar Hill; the fine day hikes and bike rides in the surrounding countryside. If you’re coming from India, Tansen makes a far more authentic introduction to Nepal than Pokhara, and at an altitude of 1370m, it’s usually pleasantly cool after the heat of the plains. From Pokhara, the 120 tortuous kilometres of the Siddhartha Highway provide a splendid show-opener.
Under its old name of Palpa (by which many Nepalis still refer to it today), Tansen was one of the seats of the Sen princes, who may have been a local Magar clan or possibly Rajput princes fleeing the Muslim invasions of India. Either way, it was from his base in Palpa, that the dynasty’s fabled second king, Mukunda Sen, raided Kathmandu in the early sixteenth century. He is said to have carried off two sacred Bhairab masks, only to be cut down by a plague sent by the Pashupatinath linga. After Mukunda Sen’s death, in around 1533, his kingdom was divided between his sons, and weakened. Successors formed an alliance with Gorkha, which bought them breathing space when the latter began conquering territory in the mid-eighteenth century. Aided by the friendly Indian rajah of Oudh, to which it held itself feudally subject, Palpa staved off the inevitable until 1806, when it became the last territory to be annexed to modern Nepal. Tansen remains the headquarters of Palpa District, however, and retains a strong sense of its own dignity.
The Pokhara Valley
Day-trips around the Pokhara Valley make excellent training for a trek. Start early to make the most of the views before the clouds move in and the heat builds, and bring lunch and water. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can stay overnight at Sarangkot, Tashi Palkhel or Begnas Tal.
From the peaklet of Sarangkot (1590m), the high point of the ridge that rises north of Phewa Tal, the Himalayas spread themselves in a stomach-lurchingly splendid panorama – it almost feels as if you could reach over across the green gulf of the Seti Nadi, at your feet, and touch them. The lake views behind you are pretty special too, making this the most popular mountain viewpoint around Pokhara. Not quite as many peaks are visible here as at the World Peace Stupa, but they feel bigger and closer. Dominating the skyline, in beauty if not in height, is the 6997m summit of Machhapuchhare (“Fish-Tailed”), so named for its twin-peaked summit, though only one peak is visible from Pokhara.
Many people hike up in the afternoon, spend the night in one of the lodges that cling to the slopes ten minutes below the top, then catch the dawn views. Others get up in the dark, take a taxi up to the car park and then walk the final half-hour to the summit. Others still come to paraglide, taking in the panorama then circling down to the lakeshore in the later morning.
Sarangkot to Naudaada
A road connects Sarangkot with Naudaada, about 10km further west on the Baglung Highway, making all sorts of longer trips beyond Sarangkot possible. A few villages are located along the way, notably Maula, the starting point of a flagstoned path up to Kaskikot, seat of the kingdom that once ruled the Pokhara Valley, perched on a craggy brow of the ridge with views as big as Sarangkot’s. A stone enclosure and a house-like Kali temple are all that remain of the citadel of the Kaski kings, which fell to the Gorkhalis without a fight in 1781. Naudaada is another 4.5km west of Maula, and the first place from which Machhapuchhre’s true fishtail profile can be seen. Two or three simple but attractive lodges offer trekking-style accommodation along the road between Maula and Naudaada. You’ll probably catch a bus from Naudaada back to Pokhara, but other interesting variations are possible, including walking down from Maula to Pame or heading west along the main road from Naudaada to Kande, and then taking the foot trail south up to Panchaase Daada.
The Siddhartha Highway
The Siddhartha Highway (Siddhartha Rajmarg) offers the most direct route from Pokhara to the Indian border at Sunauli, 180km away. It’s a relentlessly twisting road, however, so most buses and lorries travel via Narayangadh, to the east, and traffic is deliciously light – cyclists and motorbikers in particular will relish it. The scenery is certainly dramatic. After the first climb from Pokhara southwest to Naudanda (confusingly, not the Naudanda that lies northwest of Pokhara), the road clings to the side of the Adhi Khola valley. Around the old-fashioned town of Syangja, the valley closes in and the hills rear up spectacularly. Beyond Waling, the highway descends to the deep, steamy gorge floor of the mighty Kali Gandaki, first passing the access road to the vast Kali Gandaki “A” Hydropower Project – which is now the finishing point for rafting trips on the river. Crossing the river at Ramdi Ghat, the site of many caves, the highway climbs almost 1000m to its highest point just short of the turn-off for Tansen at Bartung. From there it’s a 35km, hour-long, brake-testing descent to Butwal and the Terai, on a landslide-prone stretch, then a further 24km to the border crossing of Sunauli – 120 glorious kilometres from Pokhara.
The World Peace Stupa
The World Peace Stupa, a local landmark that crowns the ridge across the lake at an elevation of 1113m, provides one of the most satisfying short hikes in the Pokhara Valley. The views from the top are phenomenal, and since there are several routes up and back, you can work this into a loop that includes boating on the lake and/or visiting Chhorepatan. A basic up-and-back trip can be done in two to three hours, so you can leave after breakfast and be back in time for lunch.
Standing more than 40m tall, the stupa (sometimes entirely erroneously called the pagoda) looks as if it has been cross-bred with a lighthouse. It seems rather grandiose for a religious shrine, but the view from here is just about the best wide-angle panorama you can get of this part of the Himalayas, and certainly the only one with Phewa Tal and Pokhara in the foreground. Over on the far left you’ll see the towering hump of Dhaulagiri and its more westerly sisters, in the middle rises the Annapurna Himal and the graceful pyramid of Machhapuchhare, and off to the right are Manaslu, Himalchuli and Baudha. Small cafés provide refreshment, and the Japanese Buddhist organization that funded the monument’s construction maintains an adjacent monastery.