Gazing across Phewa Lake from Pokhara, it’s the first thing you notice. That is, if you’ve come in the wrong season, as I have, and the stunning views of glacier-covered mountain peaks you’d hoped to see never break through the fog and show themselves. Like fickle gods, unconcerned with the desires of mere mortals such as I, they hide behind layers of gray clouds, and I can only believe that they are out there somewhere and that I might catch a glimpse of them one day.
Without the panoramic mountain views, Pokhara’s World Peace Pagoda (Shanti Stupa), on a tree-covered hill at Phewa Tal’s southwestern side, is the star of the show. Its a gleaming white dome trimmed in gold, and is stunning even in the dull sunlight of a Nepali spring. There are over 80 peace pagodas around the world, many of them in Asia, most of them the inspiration of Nichidatsu Fujii, a renowned Japanese Buddhist monk. I’m surprised that in all my travels, specifically in Japan and India, that this one is the first I’ve ever actually laid eyes on.
I had originally planned on seeing Pokhara at the end of doing an Annapurna Circuit trek, a two- to three-week long teahouse trek around some of the highest mountains in the world. But I gave my ankle a pretty good twist while hiking in Koh Phangan, and the rainy weather more likely than not means the trails will be slippery – not a good combination. So I decided to head here first, where I can try a couple of shorter hikes/treks, and, if all goes well, then do a longer one.
At 1100 meters in altitude, a half-day hike up to Shanti Stupa and back seems to be a good first test of the ankle and the difficulty of the hiking trails. You can take a rowboat across the lake (with or without a rower) to the base of the hill, then hike directly up a worn stone staircase for nearly an hour – the direct route. But, wanting to test my ability to stumble over paths covered with twisted roots and jutting rocks, I instead decide to hike up the back way.
This is going to sound a bit negative – but in Pokhara, no one wants you to enjoy anything for free. In dozens of similar situations around the world, guesthouses offer you hand-drawn maps to locations of interest, or your hosts are happy to point you in the right direction. They know that if you’re enjoying yourself, you’ll stay an extra day of two, and your guesthouse sells you more pancakes and cappuccinos – win-win. However, asking in a number of places here for similar info on a hike up to the stupa, I am repeatedly told that I should hire a guide if I want to do a trek – $10-$20 US, if you please. End of story. No one was willing to even tell me where I might find the trailhead. It seems that the habit tourists have of hiring guides for multi-day trekking affairs has convinced the locals that there’s a dollar to be made holding hands with foreigners wherever they go. I saw groups just walking through the tourist areas – nothing but restaurants and hotels – with a guide.
What’s the difference between a hike and a trek anyway? I just want to walk up to a point atop that hill that I can clearly see from the ground. On what planet do I need paid assistance to do that? So, I turn to the internet, and armed with info from a number of sources, I head out early the next day. (To those of you thinking you’d just use google maps or similar on your cellphone, all I have to say is “hahahahaha.” Even major road info for Nepal is incomplete or inaccurate – assuming you’d maintain a signal in the first place. Please don’t do any trek here any longer than a day hike without a paper map and compass – and know how to use them).
Unfortunately, the info on wikitravel is outdated – it will get you to the trailhead, but only confuse you thereafter. I’m doing this in April 2017, and it’s quite different from descriptions from even a year earlier. Here are instructions – and my experiences – doing the hike in 2017.
Head south along the eastern side of the Phewa Tal where all of the hotels are located, the lake on your right. A large, pleasant park takes place of the lake after a bit. Turn right whenever you have a choice. 10-20 minutes from your hotel, you’ll pass the ACAP/TIMS office (you don’t need a permit for this hike, but if you’re planning on longer ones, it’s pretty convenient to go ahead and get them while you’re here). Follow the road as it veers left after the permits office.
You’ll see a small, run-down park on your right, and a tiny footbridge; cross it, then dogleg left. You’ll now see the lake has become a canal with a sturdy metal bridge crossing it. But you’re not allowed to cross here – the gate will be open and the guard asleep – but continue on until the road turns from paved to dirt. Cross the next footbridge on the right instead.
You probably won’t be the only one heading this way, so follow the crowd when in doubt. You’ll soon see a treacherous swinging bridge in front of you – cross it then take the stone steps up on the right to get to the trailhead.
There is now a huge concrete and steel wall extending westward along the path – surely someone would’ve mentioned this had it existed before – must be relatively new. As I’m pondering which way to go, a wiry, shirtless local approaches and offers me his services as a ‘guide’. He is a rather surly-looking guy, and I’m not altogether certain that he didn’t have a few drinks for breakfast. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – but I politely decline. It seems curious to me that he didn’t bother the group of four in front of me – approaching only me
He asks where I’m from and I tell him I’m American. This seems to make him unhappy. (For my own safety, I might have to start traveling as ‘Australian’ again, as I had to do in the Bush years. Amazing how ‘making America safe’ puts Americans abroad at decidedly greater risk). He follows me.
“Big strong American,” he says, “Do it yourself – maybe you’re not so strong if someone attacks you in the forest.”
This sounds like a threat to me, so I turn around and face him. “Are you saying that if I don’t hire you, you’ll send someone to beat me up?”
He says nothing, just spits at the ground. I pull my phone out of my pocket and photograph him.
“What are you doing?” he asks.
“Sending your photograph to my friends,” I reply. “That way if anything happens to me the police will know who’s responsible.”
“Fuck you! Fuck Americans!” he shouts.
“Namaste, namaste,” I reply, repeating it several times as I walk away. I had worried that my hiking poles were sharp as nails on the ground end – now I’m rather happy they are, just in case. Back to the trail.
Walk along with the wall at your right, rice paddies and tin-roofed villages falling further below on your left as you progress. When the wall ends, you’ll immediately see a trail heading up the mountain – obvious enough, but no signs or markings. There are some young boys hanging out here, playing with their phones and angling for a bit of cash. They repeat the warning that it’s not safe to go up the mountain alone. When I ask why – they seem at a loss, as if they were just repeating what they had heard.
The smallest guy of the lot says, with uncertainty, like his teacher just asked him something he didn’t know, “Maybe it’s easy to fall off?”
This makes me laugh. I want to offer him a couple bucks to point the way, but, wherever I travel, I’ve learned that giving money, pens, or sweets to children is fraught with unintended consequences. Parents may actually pull them out of school and set them to begging – the dollar or two they get from you is a day’s wages for a rice farmer in Nepal. There is often an adult lurking in the shadows somewhere, a ‘minder’ who is the true beneficiary of your gift.
But these kids, with their cellphones, Nikes, and mountain bikes, don’t appear to be in such a dire situation. They just seem like bored teenagers – with really good English – looking to make some pocket money.
“Why aren’t you in school?” I ask.
“Duh, its Sunday,” he replies.
Fair enough. I offer him and his friend a couple bucks each – feel a bit uncomfortable in this day and age to head into the woods alone with a twelve-year old – and they happily agree.
As I said, the trail is fairly obvious – keep heading in the direction of ‘up’, generally to the northwest, and you’ll get there. There are a few places where it would indeed be very easy to fall off, and you’d fall a very long way if you did. But as they say, it’s not the fall that kills you- it’s the very sudden stop at the end. I ask my clever young friend if he knows anyone who’s fallen off the mountain.
“Not anymore,” he answers, apparently unaware how morbidly accurate his answer is
All in, including altercations and negotiations, it takes less than two hours to get from the tourist strip to the pagoda. I pay my guides and buy them a soda, and they’re off to find their next mark – hope I haven’t set a bad precedent.
There are tour groups who’ve driven most of the way up, restaurants, even a couple of hotels – so it’s not exactly an ideal spot for quiet meditation of world peace, but it’s pleasant enough. I imagine I can just see the tops of the Annapurnas from here – but the outline is so faint – it could just be white clouds instead of grey ones. If the rains hadn’t arrived early this year, it would be an incredible view.
Going back down, you can choose to descend the steep stairs down the front side of the mountain or even take a taxi or bus. I decide to go back the way I came, loosen the knees up a bit for the longer treks I’ve planned. It is only now that I notice the trail is clearly blazed, bright red hash marks on trees alongside the path every two hundred meters or so. But there are marks for the descent only, and you wouldn’t notice them on the way up, unless you were walking backwards – which, unless you want to become one of those ‘not anymore’ people, I wouldn’t recommend.
I’m thinking how silly it is to mark only one direction – then it hits me.
Upon closer inspection, I find that every tree blazed has, at one time, been marked on the other side as well – but those marks have been purposely removed! Some are burnt off, others rubbed with tree sap, oil, or dirt, but every last one removed. Why? I suspect because the locals don’t want you to hike up independently – if they make it confusing or unclear, rob a hiker of a few bucks every year or so, you’ll pay someone to lead you up. In fact, I find that the first 300 meters or so from where I met my young fellows, blazes had been removed from both sides of the trees – I’m guessing for those who might wander up a bit, feel unsure, then return to pay someone a few dollars to lead the way.
This kind of activity is often referred to as being ‘clever’ in many parts of Asia – I’d call it leaving a bad taste in the tourist’s mouth. Like hidden service charges, ‘VAT’ fees for which you don’t receive receipts, and charging foreigners far higher prices for everything from flights to museum admission, these chincy little theiveries make it obvious that you are a welcome guest in Nepal only so long as you don’t mind being fleeced. The fellow at the beginning of the hike was only being honest – if I can’t scam you out of a few bucks then fuck you. Makes me sad really as I’ve wanted to see this place for such a long time – I want Nepal to be good
If you just want to see the pagoda, I’d recommend taking a boat across in the cool of the morning (bargain hard – aim for $5 including a rower), and heading straight up the front side – no one will hassle you here with the ‘guide’ routine, as you can obviously see straight up the path. Offer incense at the stupa, snap a few photos. Enjoy the view with breakfast at one of the inns – at time of this writing, reasonably priced. Then head down the clearly marked path I’ve described. Follow the trail east along the outer side of the wall to the swinging footbridge and the main road.
You’ll enjoy the views, get a workout, and avoid the scammers.
Please follow Never Coming Back on Facebook – and feel free to comment!