I have no idea how to hike to the World Peace Pagoda, AKA “the stupa,” so I arrange for a taxi to take me there and bring me back. Sunset is supposed to be the best time to go.
The driver picks me up at the Harvest Moon at 4:30pm in another tiny clown car. I have to duck my head so as not to hit it on the roof of the cab, but my efforts are in vain – we plummet through the city, and I’m jostled and tossed in the backseat like a sack of potatoes, my head thumping upon the car roof every few seconds.
I end up pressing my hands against the ceiling so I won’t be completely brain-damaged by the time I arrive. I am, quite literally, raising the roof.
We ascend a steep hill, and the road changes from kind of paved, kind of not, to most decidedly not. It twists and winds ever upwards, and the cab driver slows to a crawl in order to make the sharp turns without sending us flying out over the city below.
I can see brush and tangled grass and rock. A young couple walks together through the dust, their motorbikes parked alongside the road like a pair of waiting steeds.
Other taxi cabs descend as we climb, and we’re forced to dance an awkward do-see-do in order to get around each other. Higher and higher we go, the ascent is alarmingly swift, until the city below begins to reveal its true size – this is not a tiny town at all! It’s only the tourist area that’s tiny.
The rest of Pokhara scrambles toward the lake, choking, like a crowd of frightened movie goers bottlenecking for the exit door. The lake sparkles far below like an elixir of life – it is the sun, and every crumbling building in the city stretches toward it like a starving palm.
The taxi, now sweating and sputtering with the effort of climbing a mountain not meant to be climbed by a tiny clown car, lurches itself onto a parking lot plateau like an exhausted trekker.
He parks, I get out, and manage to communicate that I expect he’ll be waiting for me when I return. I don’t know how long I have here, but the sun is threatening to walk if I don’t pay him the attention he deserves, and soon.
Although we’ve spent the better part of 20 minutes driving a winding path up the mountain, the car tilted at a 45 degree angle the entire time, there are still more steps to climb in order to reach the stupa itself.
Several houses, shops and restaurants have sprung up around the steps leading to the World Peace Pagoda, and I can see the homes of mountain rice farmers resting in contradiction along adjacent peaks – small shacks with thatched roofs, the tiniest ramshackle abodes set atop the entire world. Humble peasants made rich with a king’s view.
My breath escapes me in fits and spurts, and I can’t keep myself steady. By now I’m used to this game, my lungs playing chicken with the paper thin mountain air.
I emerge atop a flat, wide green with a single, straight path leading to the stupa.
A great, white monument with a rounded dome, the World Peace Pagoda was only built in 1973. The wide yard split by a single, straight path conjures images of the Taj Mahal. There is nothing to do and nowhere to go except straight toward the monument steps, which pull the viewer in as if they were magnetic.
But I’ve come so far to finally be here, to finally reach the top. It’s too much to just march straight up and look the stupa in the eye. I wander around the grounds, reading plaques set next various statues and relics. The sun continues to pout, refusing to stick around longer just for me.
I want to eat the view. The entire Annapurna range stretches before me, more massive and higher than my mind can possibly conceive of.
It’s the first time in my life when I truly can’t believe my eyes. The mountains are so high, so white, that if you looked quickly you’d mistake them for clouds. And yet the peaks float above the clouds, which hang around their necks like fuzzy clown collars.
I am overwhelmed in the most wonderful way. It feels like meeting a celebrity who turns out to be super down to earth and who has taken it upon himself to fall in love with you. It’s like Maid in Manhattan, or one of those princess movies where Anne Hathaway turns out to be royalty.
It’s too much, it’s too good, and I wonder for a second if all of my relationships have failed because of too much love. Maybe I was too good to him, too patient, too kind, too understanding. Maybe we simply can’t handle too much of a good thing, or don’t think we deserve it.
Maybe that’s why everyone around me is rushing straight for the stupa steps as if the view was a mirage, as if they weren’t tackled by the 360-degree painting that’s threatening to turn tears of anger into tears of joy.
I stroll from one side of the yard to the other – there truly is a panoramic view of the city, the lake, the mountains, the never-ending fields of green and brown that stretch across the earth in undisturbed patchwork.
I see that the lake is not in fact round, as I’d imagined, but that it curves quite sharply to the west, creating a bottleneck where boats cannot pass through.
I see pinks and oranges flickering on the white mountain peaks as the sun gives me one final chance to drink in its blessed light.
The stupa itself is unimpressive; modern and white-washed with the occasional golden relic presented upon a shelf that has been carved out of the building’s foundation. I’m somewhat incensed that one can’t “go inside” the stupa – it’s really just a monument, not a building that can be entered.
Shoes must be removed before ascending the steps, and I grin remembering the scene in Slumdog Millionaire when Jamal helps himself to fine footwear outside the Taj Mahal.
A man begins speaking to me in rapid Nepali, forcing me back down the stairs. At first I think I’ve missed a ticket booth somewhere and am supposed to have paid, but I quickly realize that I’ve climbed too many stairs.
There are two levels to the stupa, and after some hand-gesturing I realize that I must circle the lower level first before I can ascend the final staircase and circle the upper level. I must walk clockwise around the stupa as I go.
Women kneel and pray at each golden incarnation of the Buddha. My thoughts turn to the strangeness of religion in Nepal – I thought it would be filled with Tibetan Buddhist monks, yet everywhere I look are altars to Ganesh and Shiva. Hari and Shova are Hindu.
The people who “look Indian” seem to be Hindu, while the people who “look Tibetan” or Chinese seem to be Buddhist. It feels like a Hindu country to me, so I find it ironic that the defining monument of Pokhara itself is a Buddhist stupa, and that Nepal is the birthplace of the Buddha himself.
I beg the sun for a few more minutes but he’s stubborn, slipping behind the horizon and leaving nothing but streaks of fading twilight.
My cab driver is waiting for me as promised, and we begin the treacherous descent back to town.
I brace my hands against the car ceiling to shield my head from further blows, and relish one of my favorite feelings in the world: I see the evening stretching out before me in all its glory.
Though it doesn’t feel like it, it’s the Christmas season and my heart is warmed to imagine the twinkling lights of home. Each fire burning in the town below becomes a lantern lit upon my family’s hearth; each street lamp the bulb upon a fragrant wreath of pine.
I’m in a festive mood, the sheer awesomeness of the mountain range infusing me with energy and anticipation.
I have been in Nepal for less than a week, 6 days in which God might as well have recreated the world.
I decide that tonight will be my Christmas miracle. I feel Mariah Carey carols swirling around inside me, I am lighting a candle at 13 years old and praying for the boy I love, I am 17 and being touched for the first time in the backseat of a car as moonlight streams in through the windows, I am 7 years old and studying myself in the mirror and deciding that I like what I see.
Tonight, I give myself permission to fall in love without reason, without cause, without fear.
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!
SUBSCRIBE now for solo female travel tips and get your FREE copy of 175 WAYS TO TRAVEL TODAY! Enter your email address below to download your copy of the book now.
1. You can take a taxi up to the World Peace Pagoda, or you can hike.
2. If you take a taxi, you should be able to get there and back for less than 1000 rupees ($10). Make sure the driver waits for you while you explore the grounds.
3. If you hike, you'll have to take a boat across the lake to the trail head. It's a climb to 1000 meters and should take about an hour.
4. There are plenty of shops and restaurants at the top if you want to have lunch on top of the world.
5. The stupa must be entered by first walking clockwise around the first level platform. After you've circled once you may then ascend to the second level platform and complete another clockwise circle.
Want to dig deeper? Go for it!