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Wednesday, Aug. 11, 1999
Journeying to the feet of the gods
By JON BURBANK
POKHARA, Nepal -- There are few places where you can relax more completely than Lake Phewa, in the second city of Nepal. You will not be able to resist its tranquil waters, the birds singing in the lush greenery, the cascade of hills and beyond them the snow-covered Himalayas and Mount Machhapuchhare (the name means "fish tail"), certainly one of the most beautiful mountains in the world.
Until recently, there was a drawback to all this. Hotels and services were mostly basic. Mosquitoes buzzed in hotel room showers, electricity was notoriously spotty. Food tended to cater to the pie, cake and brownie crowd. The lake was filthy. Getting to Pokhara required a bone-breaking, all-day bus ride or a hard-to-get airplane ride.
All that has changed, and the only thing lacking now, at least lakeside, is a brake on all that change. Now you can find hotels at all service and price levels. Restaurants serve almost every cuisine in the world. There's live music, fresh-brewed coffee, mountain bikes, sail boats, row boats, day hikes -- and the International Herald Tribune, to boot.
You will hear the usual sour grapes from some old hands. They'll grouse and say how great it used to be, back when stringy figures in flowing tie-dyed cotton sat at restaurant tables feeding banana cake to dogs only slightly scruffier than their new owners.
You can still see these types, and there are plenty of shops still selling tie-dyed cotton clothes. These days they seem to be more an exotic souvenir or nostalgic throwback for baby boomers in Tilley hats and clothes with labels like The North Face, Patagonia and L.L. Bean.
Pokhara is a boom town. The road to Katmandu and the outside world didn't open until the 1970s. People from the surrounding hills started resettling in the valley as government development projects pumped in money. What had been a small relaxed bazaar town of a few thousand has grown to 100,000, with no slowdown in sight.
Only a little of the old bazaar remains. A U.N. agency is assisting preservation work in the area around the Bhimsen Temple, and there are some beautiful 200-year-old brick houses with elaborate wood carving on the window frames and wood struts. The road continues to Binde Basini, Pokhara's main temple, a quiet, tree-shaded spot with lovely views. It's also a starting point for the hike to Sarayankot's stupendous mountain views.
The new bazaar, centered around the Mahendra Pul bridge, defies visitation. It's as if the streets had been bombed, followed by a massive earthquake. You need a four-wheel drive vehicle, a mask for the road dust and patience, because you can't go faster than 10 kph.
The naming of shops and hotels reflects the use of English as entertainment: Omit Supermarket, Twin Peaks Hotel, Mellow Fellow Cafe, Hotel Tropicana, Corn Flakes Restaurant, No Worries Travel Service, Sweet Memories Cafe, The Enlightened Yak.
Hotels are exceptional bargains. A quiet, big clean room, like the one at the Iceland Guest House, with good hot water and prompt friendly management, is a few dollars (per person) a night. A few dollars more, and you can get a TV with CNN and Star.
Pokhara's excellent food owes much to the Thakali, an ethnic group whose home is a few days walk north of Pokhara. Long before foreign tourists started arriving, Thakali were famed as hoteliers. Their Nepali cooking (and home brew) and service is famous. They readily adapted to the demands of tourists, setting a standard that is hard to beat.
For about a dollar a day, you can rent a 12-gear mountain bike, and that's about all you need to get around. South of the lake is Devi Falls, where the Pardi River draining the lake drops through a small gorge and disappears into a large hole. Pokhara's porous limestone geology makes for dramatic river gorges, but poor agriculture.
Next door to Devi Falls is one of several Tibetan refugee camps. The older residents have been here since the 1960s. There's a sort of shopping arcade in the camp with a row of shops selling handicrafts, jewelry and carpets. There's a small Tibetan monastery, too.
The people are friendly and approachable. Happiness and sadness are in equal doses here. The Tibetans have no passports, no right to own land and very limited economic opportunities. It's important to remember that when you see all those smiling faces.
Pokhara is the base for trekking in the Annapurna area. This is the most accessible spot in the whole Himalayas area, and it's possible to hike a few hours, a few days or a few weeks from here. Dozens of shops sell and rent everything needed for trekking, and travel agencies provide guides. Young freelance guides troll the streets, too, but for most treks all you need is your own back and a little intrepidness to do it yourself.
The hike up to Sarayankot is about two hours up and one hour down. (Actually, you can take a taxi.) There are several basic hotels, and your reward for getting up there is a magnificent view no matter where you look: the Himalaya to the north, the Pokhara valleys and the surrounding hills to the south.
The lakeside was the undeveloped, ignored home of a few poor fishermen until the Western tourists started arriving. Development, spreading northward along the lake and inland toward the bazaar, so far has failed to ruin the place, though you can't help wondering where all those new toilets flush.
After sunset, sitting on your hotel terrace, you wonder how far those twinkling lights will spread. Is a casino on the way? Will a Club Med-style resort cling to those black shores?
Quickly you revert to a relaxation mode, though, as the mountains behind and the lake below work their magic once again.