Asia | Nepal | Western Hills | Pokhara – Around Annapurna
The plane is delayed for an hour or so, but when it becomes airborne, we fly above the clouds for 35 minutes with the most magnificent views of the Himalayas. Landing in the launch point for Annapurna trekking, the owner of the Lakeside area New Solitary Lodge in Pokhara, is at the airport to greet me and drive me to the family run hotel. Out of twenty rooms, I have my pick of them all, thanks to the troubles in Nepal that have had a significant impact on tourism in the worlds 12th poorest country. The average annual income in Nepal is $245 USD/year.
Some could blame these troubles on the current king, who killed the previous king and his entire family, who just happened to be the current kings brother. Some could say its the fact that the current king threw out the elected government, who although they were democratically elected (so people say), were also renowned for scandals and corruption. The government/king of Nepal, places the blame entirely on the Maoist rebels/insurgents/terrorists. Everything that is wrong in the country somehow ends up with their name attached. Their name even gets attached to events outside the country. I wont be surprised if theyre responsible for the war in Iraq in another couple of months.
The Maoists are no angels, but then again, neither are the Royal Nepalese Army(RNA). The Maoists have been accused of forcing people to join their ranks, and Ive heard reports from individuals that they have demanded sums of up to 8000 Nepalese rupees ($100 USD) per month as a fine if someone refused to join. Roadblocks, and enforced general strikes inconvenience and stifle economic activity for millions. Landmines targeted at security forces frequently blow up innocent people. There have also been reports of forced recruitment at gunpoint, murders of uncooperative individuals, disappearances (approx. 400 according to the UN Human Rights Commission UNHRC), and recently the horrific torture of individuals that involved screwing wooden and metal objects into their abdomens. Apparently, they did this to seven people last week, including the pregnant wife of a government representative.
The RNA, according to the UNHRC, are responsible for over 1600 disappearances, including almost 600 in 2004. They are also renowned, along with the Nepalese Police, of forcing contributions from citizens as they pass through the numerous roadway checkpoints. Theres also the gang rape of a 15 year-old in the news and countless beatings. One of the statistics in the newspaper is the fact that almost 500 people have been killed for being suspected Maoists.
Nepal receives the highest per-capita foreign aid in the world. That comes in the form of government funding, NGO projects including schools, orphanages and fair trade initiatives, guns like the 20,000 M-16s for the recently tripled in size RNA (although there are complaints that the US has only coughed up 17,000 so far), and funding for AIDS awareness, prevention, and care (of 11 million USD committed for the period 03 – 08, only $10,000 has been spent so far).
Obviously, Nepal has its problems, but as was mentioned in the last chapter, If you didnt read the newspaper and spent your time in Kathmandu, you would never know. It doesnt seem that poor, and life goes on as usual at least for the many. From my experience, Nepal has some of the highest quality workmanship for the highest export quality cotton, wool, and cashmere products in the world. It also has the highest percentage of ordinary English speaking people of any non-English speaking nation, including Thailand and India where English is an official language. If it gets its politics in order, the other countries in Asia will have a new Celtic Tiger economy.
Anyway a word that means lets carry on anyways.
So anyways Mr. Beckendra picks me up at Pokhara airport. Hes a cheerful man and a friend of Raj from the Kathmandu Peace Guesthouse. The gardens at the New Solitary Lodge are beautiful a cross between formal French and tropical splendor. The rooms are almost immaculate, coming with a TV, tub bath, shower, and sitting area for $10. But Im the only New Solitary guest. The staff are supremely bored, and want to wait on me hand and foot to the point of being bothersome. It also seems a bit weird to order some food knowing that you are the only guest and the restaurant has to open just to make you a pot of coffee or whatever you like. Ive rented a bike for a few days to take me around town, including down to the lake. On the second day, I find the most beautiful cottage with a fireplace and a front window just one meter from the waters edge. Im going upscale for my last two days in Nepal. Although Mr. Beckendra almost pleads with me to stay, including off
ering to reduce the price and drive me almost wherever I want to go, the food at Mikes restaurant, the fireplace and location of Hotel Fewa, the proximity to the traveler services, and the weirdness of being the only guest in a twenty-something room lodge, have me convinced to change. The lodge is great value, the family are nice people, and maybe Ill stay there again. Hopefully when the troubles in Nepal are over and its a busy place once more.
On returning from a sunrise trip to Sarangkot to view the Annapurna Range at dawn, I pack my stuff and throw it on the bike for the trip to Lakeside Central. It doesnt take long to settle in. I rent a boat and paddle out on the lake to enjoy the sunset, before delicious Mexican food while enjoying a roaring fire in my cottage. At a discounted price of $30/night, C-1 has a loft style bedroom above a very large sitting room area. It has free firewood and its own water heater that seems to provide instant hot water. I wish I had another week in Nepal to enjoy it.
The next day, I take a kayak out in the early morning, before heading off by bicycle to the Mahendra Buj area of town. There are some bat caves out there, but Im really just going for the ride. I come across so much along the way, that I never get to the caves. There’s a picture in my mind of the goats tied up in front of the shop that happens to have goat (the kind you eat), hanging right above them. There’s no doubt in my mind regarding their fate. There’s also the beautiful views of the poinsetta plants that tower over me with the snowcapped mountains of the Annapurna range in the background. And there’s the local festival where traditional Nepali music is being played and people are dancing (the men and women seperated off by signed and roped off areas. Thousands of people are watching and singing along. There are shops with special Newari goods and foods for sale, and soon enough the sun is setting – time to go home.
It’s all downhill, and once again, I’m on a bike. Mexican dinner on the patio at Mike’s restaurant, one more fire in the cottage, and I’m ready for bed. Good night. Sleep Well.