I’m weary of this city after only 72 hours and am itching to board the waiting bus from Kathmandu to Pokhara – if only I could find it.
I’m in a foul mood because a) it’s some ungodly single-digit-o’clock in the morning, a b) some street vendor just seriously tested my patience when he tried to sell me a Snickers bar for five times what it should’ve cost. I talked him down though – to four times what it should’ve cost. Doh.
Pissed that he so openly and willingly tried to scam me, and pissed at myself for letting him do it, I resolve to no longer trust anyone-I-meet-in-Nepal ever. (This is the way my mind operates when the sun isn’t yet up and I haven’t had any coffee.)
So while pacing back and forth along the metal necklace of waiting buses, desperately trying to find my rusty diamond in the rough, I ignore every single driver who tries to help me. When they ask which bus I’m looking for, I assume they’re trying to sell me something, and walk straight past them in silent protest.
My badittude is such a hazard of traveling – having a single bad experience, or a handful of them, and projecting that experience onto everyone you meet in the future.
The third time I pace past the waiting buses, rusty bullet shells gurgling and choking smoke into the street, a driver grabs my crumpled ticket out of my hand and reads it.
“You here!” he cries, very upset with me. “I tell you come my bus, why you no listen?”
Because I’m a crabby bitch, that’s why.
Our seats are assigned and I’m all the way in the very back, where a long, raised bench watches over the other inferior bus seats like a king on a throne. He’s a rickety king, though – this diamond in the rough is looking, well, a little rough.
The bus slowly fills and I’m joined on the throne by a devastatingly handsome German guy named Gabriel and a jovial Korean hipster named Kim.
Our bus charm breaks its link with the necklace, and we’re off, puttering through the traffic-clogged streets of Kathmandu, winding around parks where morning exercisers twist and shake, passing second-story bright orange restaurants with names like “Facebook Restaurant” and “Cafe Google.”
I don’t know how or when it happened, but suddenly we’re perched on the top of a very steep, winding road that cuts through an enormous gorge. A valley spreads out before me for miles, its rolling hills giving way to ever-growing mountain peaks in the distance.
There are no guard rails on the snaking path, and buses crawl like beetles down the rocky, two-lane road. We’re tilted at a 45-degree angle and when I peer through the bus window to the valley floor, I can see the metallic curve of a minivan bumper – a gravestone marker for some poor passengers unlucky enough to get a speed demon for a driver.
No guard rails, a 200-metre drop to the valley floor below, and direct evidence of the very real possibility of my impending death in the very near future.
And I feel no fear.
I don’t understand why I’m not afraid when there is a crunched minibus and probably a bunch of decomposing dead bodies right there to prove that I should be majorly freaking out right now.
And yet, just like my ride in the cab-o-terror from the airport, I’m eerily calm. Perhaps I know intuitively that everything is going to be ok. Perhaps I have a death wish. Perhaps traveling to the other side of the world was enough, and if God is in the mood to obliterate me now, I will go willingly, gratefully.
Whatever it is, I spend the next 7 hours being shaken like a rag doll and loving every minute of it.
“Not just anyone gets to go to Pokhara,” I think. Pokhara, that magical, mountainous town whose pictures made me want to come to Nepal in the first place.
No, if you want to see Pokhara, to drink in her brilliant blue lake, to be wrapped up in her snow-capped peaks, you have to earn it. You have to endure trials and tribulations and Gabriel falling asleep on your shoulder and drooling incessantly if you want to be rewarded with Pokhara at the end. (Not that Gabriel asleep on my shoulder is a trial – siiiigh.)
A lone dog guards a lone mountain shop
We head northwest slowly, steadily, and as the Annapurna range of the Himalayas grows taller in the distance, I’m ransacked by a seemingly random flashback of Denver.
It’s seven years earlier and I’m driving across the United States from Wisconsin to California. The flat, bashful cornfields of the Midwest serve as a red carpet that’s been reverently laid out to announce the growing proximity of Colorado’s Emerald City – the promise of Denver looms lush and electric in the distance.
My ‘98 Civic traverses the cornfield carpet until, unexpectedly, the first glimpse of the Rockies appears on the horizon. The mountains are proud and headstrong, rising up from the earth like a hit and run car accident – no warning, no explanation, no apology.
How could I have known then, seven years earlier, that in the time it takes for a marriage to get itchy I’d be quite literally halfway around the world, traveling in the same northwesterly direction, ingesting my first glimpses of the Rockies’ sister peaks?
It’s like the world used to be one of those collapsible, sphere-shaped plastic frames that children play with at carnivals. A billion years ago, these two disconnected mountain ranges had formed as a single rocky beast in the mother belly of the earth.
And then everything expanded and the jagged embryo was pulled apart, leaving two reflected ranges longing for the day when the earth would once again collapse and they could be together.
I can’t take my eyes off the road and what lies below it. Dark-skinned women in long skirts and bare feet climb upwards toward our bus from the valley below, enormous bushels of grass and leaves strapped to their backs.
The first glimpse of snowy peaks en route from Kathmandu to Pokhara
A zip line stretches across an expansive river gorge, connecting the road with an isolated mountain village. A man pulls himself along the thin, swaying wire with the strength of his arms and the help of a rickety wooden passenger cage. He must be hanging about 200 meters above the earth.
Young boys strut between mud huts, their wrists weighed down by dozens of dead chickens swaying gently in the mountain air.
A toddler, barely able to walk, bounds down the middle of the road, her joyful, bouncing ponytail in stark contrast to the look of determination on her face. There is no parent in sight.
We weave through tiny town after tiny town, and something makes me feel like this road is the only road in Nepal. We follow a rushing river that is sometimes wide and fast, and other times small and pathetic.
Innumerable Turborg Beer signs work hard to convince me that the one-room shacks and convenience stores lining the highway are great places to party. The burning garbage and naked children and bent-backed grandmothers convince me otherwise.
A beautiful young girl in a red dress and high heels emerges from the hillside, having climbed from the valley below with an enormous bundle of 6 foot-long sticks balanced on her shoulder.
She is in full makeup, and I get the impression that she must finish her morning chores before she can leave the house to attend whatever fabulousness she’s dressed herself for.
Nepali woman working in the field that line the road from Kathmandu to Pokhara
We stop at a tourist restaurant, one of those enormous, impersonal affairs that pay the bus companies to bring passengers so they’ll spend money and buy souvenirs.
I eat samosas and curry with Gabriel, who’s beginning a trek in Pokhara, and Kim, who used to live in Pokhara and returns each year to see friends. The guys chat with each other more than with me, and for some reason their lack of attention makes me feel old and ugly and fat.
I excuse myself to take pictures, and peer across the road at a small, humble farmstead.
A woman washes dishes in the yard while her infant daughter plays in a small patch of grass that’s trying to grow amidst chunks of rock and dirt.
And then I see her. A Chinese woman breaks apart from her tour group, a rebel fish in a school of cackling amateur photographers.
She marches across the road, enters the farmstead yard, and without so much as a glance at the dish-washing mom, crouches down next to the infant and begins taking photographs.
Not every bus is a tourist bus.
The mother stops scrubbing and watches the tourist as my jaw slowly unhinges in open astonishment.
Click, click, click. She snaps photo after photo, getting up in the baby’s face as if she were a statue. Or an animal. Or an alien – anything but a human being, and a very young, very terrified human being at that.
I wait for the mother to say something, to yell, to run across the yard and snatch her baby away and spit on the Chinese lady in disgust. Or maybe that’s just what I want to do.
But the mother does nothing. After losing interest in the infant, whose scowl and subsequent tears surely ruined every single picture, the Chinese woman turns her camera on the house, the struggling grass, the munching goats, and finally the mother herself.
She seems to think that this private yard of a Nepali citizen has been placed here to serve as some sort of zoo, the primary purpose of which is to provide subject matter for her photography habit.
Finally satisfied, the woman yells something in Chinese to her waiting group, laughs uproariously, and marches back across the road to show off her images to 45 of her closest friends.
Market outside the tourist restaurant
The mother watches her go, crosses slowly to her child, and lifts the crying baby into her arms. She kisses her, rearranges the kid comfortably on her hip, crosses back to her makeshift kitchen, and continues scrubbing her dishes.
In this moment, I understand that it’s possible to experience love and hate simultaneously.
I also know that Nepal has a lot to teach me about acceptance.
Back on the bus, rolling green and gray hills begin to reveal the occasional spark of snowy white against the brilliant blue sky. The sparks morph into static cut outs, like pointy paper dolls bobbing on an azure sea.
Narrow, brightly colored houses strive to neutralize the surrounding ugliness – brown and rust-colored dirt, piles of rocks, garbage and debris, abandoned shacks, and soiled, thin men crowded onto the rooftops of ancient buses.
I hold my hand in front of my face, trying to block everything except the pristine, spiked tufts that are starting to overtake the horizon with cancerous abandon.
We are close now, perhaps 10 kilometers outside of the promised land, and I wait for the dirt and poverty to magically transform into the steel, sanitized cleanliness of commercialism and mass tourism.
An enormous, cone-shaped peak suddenly explodes across the sky, soaring above all the others and declaring “In case there is any doubt left in your mind, this is Pokhara. You have arrived.”
This cheeky peak is Fishtail Mountain, and it’s so striking and absolute and definitive and surreal that it seems more like the idea of a mountain than an actual mountain. Looking at Fishtail Mountain is like dating a really good-looking guy who’s also rich. And funny. And nice to you.
First view of Fishtail Mountain when entering Pokhara
It’s too much, it’s too good, and I scoff at the look on Gabriel’s face when we pull into the disappointing bus station. For Gabriel, Fishtail Mountain isn’t enough to neutralize everything else that exists below the horizon. The snow-capped peaks can’t seem to whitewash the wet plastic bags and scuffling cab drivers and rampant poverty.
But I’m unafraid. I know this is only the bus station, and that in every town on earth, the bus station – like the airport – is never in the nice part of town.
Instead I look at Kim – the guy who’s lived in this town. The guy who journeys thousands of miles every year just to visit again and again. He’s happily greeting the Nepalese friend who’s come to pick him up, and the look in his eyes is enough to quell any remaining fears about my destination choice – it’s the look of someone who’s just come home.
This post is an excerpt from My Week With Deepak: A memoir of Nepal, available February 2015 from THP Publishing. To pre-order your copy, click here!
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1. The bus ride from Kathmandu to Pokhara takes about 7+ hours
2. Most tourist buses leave Kathmandu around 7am and arrive in Pokhara after 2pm.
3. Don't plan on reading a book or sleeping on the bus - the ride is waaaay too bumpy. Luckily there's plenty of breathtaking scenery to keep yourself entertained.
4. A snickers bar should NOT cost 120 rupees no matter what anyone says.
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