Pokhara is the second largest city in Nepal, after Kathmandu, but other than that, it is nothing like Kathmandu. While Kathmandu was chaotic, dirty, congested, and a sensory overload waiting to happen, Pokhara is a peaceful (located on a lake), spacious (sidewalks!), and relaxed city nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas. The city is also the jumping-off point for those looking to trek the Annapurna circuit. While the Everest region (where we trekked) might be more well known, the Annapurna region is typically the more popular trekking option due to its lower elevation (no need to spend a week acclimating) and well established teahouses.
Pokhara is also known as being one of the best places in the world for paragliding. I’m not qualified enough to say if this is hyperbole. Prior to arriving, I was considering getting my paragliding certification while we were in town, but then I realized it was surprisingly expensive. One jump runs about $85 USD, which is what I would expect, at least in that ballpark, to pay in the States. From what we read, this is due to some sort of paragliding mafia or labor union (depending on your view of organized labor). Which, hey, if the guides can get $85 USD per jump, then good for them, I just won’t be participating. Our friends C & K, who we met on the trek and saw again in Pokhara, both have their paragliding certification, so they were able to fly relatively inexpensively. They brought their wings and equipment with them and only had to purchase some sort of permit for using the “airspace”. Based on their account, this was basically a payment made directly to some government official in charge of Pokhara airspace (see: corruption). Side note: I bet his business cards are awesome – Director of Airspace? Admiral of Airspace? Airspace ain’t commonplace? Airspace got me out of my parents place? You really can’t go wrong.
Ok, to review. Pokhara is known for Paragliding (which we didn’t do) and good trekking (which we had already done) which leads to the obvious question – what did we do here for eight days? The answer – not much with a side of yoga. Outside of the adventure activities the town is known for, we found it to be a great place to take it easy. Friendly people, good food, good weather, and stunning views.
High Level: Minibus. Worst transit experience on our trip so far.
Detailed: If you are interested in why this was a terrible experience, keep on reading. Otherwise, you can skip all the way down to the ‘Sleep’ section.
If you want to go from Kathmandu to Pokhara, you can either fly or take a bus. The flight is expensive, unsafe (perhaps safer than the bus, but not up to the standards we are used to), and unreliable (they’ll shut down all flights into and out of the airport depending on visibility). Ok, no flying. That leaves the bus.
For buses, there are three options:
- Tourist bus. Cost = 800 rupees/person (or about $8 USD). Set schedule. No ‘local’ experience since the bus is full of tourists.
- Minibus. Cost = 500 rupees/person (or about $5 USD). Middle option expense-wise. Similar speed as the tourist bus, but you get to ride with locals! Biggest con is that the bus doesn’t go until it is full meaning you could be waiting for up to an hour depending on demand.
- Local bus. 300 rupees/person (or about $3 USD, I read this, but did not verify). This is the slowest option as the bus stops anytime somebody wants to jump on (which is a lot). No guaranteed seat. Very much an adventure. Also, the least safe option.
After some consideration we decided to go for the minibus. We wanted to get a little bit off the beaten path (and maybe save a few bucks in the process too). Turns out, this was a bad decision for three reasons:
- We didn’t end up saving money. The minibus terminal was located outside the main tourist areas in Kathmandu and Pokhara meaning we needed to take taxis to get there (whereas we could walk to the tourist bus terminals in both cities). Accounting for taxi fares, taking the minibus ended up being 50 rupees more than the tourist bus.
- The unwelcome bodyguard. See below.
- The carsick grandma. See below.
The unwelcome bodyguard. We are white (see: pale). When we ‘get off the beaten path’ in Asia, our skin color attracts a great deal of attention. When our taxi pulled up to the minibus terminal in Kathmandu, we knew things were about to get interesting. Danielle and I looked at each other, took a deep breath, opened the door, and prepared for the onslaught. Within two seconds of exiting the taxi we were completely surrounded by probably 10 Nepali men. Each of them offering us tickets and who knows what else. We ignored them, of course, because travel rule number three says – only pay for bus fare ON the bus.
Side note – the minibus terminal in Kathmandu isn’t really a terminal. It is a major intersection where minibuses line up on the side of the road and try to flag down passers-by to join them on their trip. When the minibus fills up, it leaves. And there aren’t signs so to speak. Well, maybe there are signs, but we couldn’t see any/read any. We had to ask each bus we saw if they were going to Pokhara (most weren’t) at which point the driver would point up the road indicating we needed to keep walking.
So back to being surrounded by a crowd of Nepali men. Typically in these situations, the crowd of touts disperses after 20-30 feet. Maybe there will be one guy who insists you should buy a ticket from him, but really, if you ignore them they leave you alone rather quickly. Except this time. Except for ‘the bodyguard’. After walking about 50 feet, I realize one of the touts is still walking with us. And by walking with us, I mean walking so close to me that I cannot swing my arm freely because his hip is nearly touching my hip. Dude is all up in my bubble.
Immediately, my mind goes to ‘pickpocket’. So I shove my hands in my pockets to make sure my wallet is in my hand. Try and take it from me now, bud. But nope, he continues to walk with us. Then I realize he doesn’t appear to be all there mentally. He is having trouble walking a straight line so maybe he has been drinking too much or maybe he is mentally challenged. I don’t know for sure, but something is off. He isn’t saying much either. Kind of mumbling and making a few half-hearted gestures with his hands, but it isn’t like he is insisting we buy something from him. Either way, I eventually stop, look him in the eye, and say firmly, ‘NO’. Problem taken care of, I think.
We start walking again and he follows. The longer we walk, I begin to realize he doesn’t care about me so much as Danielle. If I stop and Danielle keeps on walking, he follows Danielle. If Danielle stops and I keep on walking, he stops. In the beginning, he would grab Danielle’s arm in what we think was a form of ‘guiding’ her in some way, at which point she would swat it off and yell, “DON’T TOUCH ME” at him. Further along the walk, a young kid attempts to grab a bag of pastries from Danielle’s hand and ‘the bodyguard’ punches him in the head. No joke, this man punched a five or six year old kid in the head to prevent the kid from taking Danielle’s cinnamon roll. At this point, we have had enough. We stop in the middle of the sidewalk and start yelling “NO! GO AWAY!” at this man for a solid minute all the while he mumbles back the words we are saying. You can argue he had no idea what we were saying since we were speaking in English, but what can you do. Keep in mind, we are in the middle of a pretty busy area while this is going on. The man makes a few gestures towards Danielle and each time I smack his hand away.
I was hoping some passers-by would jump in to help the tourists, but no luck there either. After giving up on the ‘standing in the middle of the sidewalk and yelling’ tactic, we decide our only option is to get to a bus as soon as possible. We spend another three minutes of so walking around until we eventually find a bus to Pokhara. There are already four or five people on the bus, towards the front, so we start climbing in towards the back (this is a minibus which is similar to a conversion van…you enter through a side door). Danielle goes in first, followed by me. At this point our ‘bodyguard’ grabs the strap of my backpack and demands a tip (through the art of sign language). I expect this and am able to yank my bag out of his hands while firmly telling him “NO, GO AWAY” several more time as I get into the bus.
He tries to get into the bus with us, but fortunately the bus driver has none of it and tells him to get lost (or that’s what I imagine he says). As soon as the bodyguard leaves, Danielle looks at me and says, “So that was interesting. I guess that’s our ‘cultural’ experience for the day.” We were only getting started.
The carsick grandma. This story is much simpler. The bus ride to Pokhara was seven hours over some very curvy, rough roads. I had read it is not uncommon for people to get carsickness on the journey. I can say from experience, this is true. We were in the far back, right side of the vehicle (the back row had four seats). Danielle was next to the window, I was on her left side. Immediately in front of Danielle (also next to the window) was an older woman. Half-way through the trip we realized she was not feeling well. How did we realize this? When she stuck her head out the window and vomited while we were stopped. Hmmm. That’s not good.
The bus attendant quickly grabbed a plastic bag and passed it back to the woman while miming to her that she should vomit into the plastic bag. The woman took the plastic bag and immediately threw it out the window. Not a fan of plastic bags (or the environment) it would appear. She continued vomiting out the window for the last 90 minutes of the trip all while the bus was moving. For those of you who rode the bus to and from school growing up you are well aware of what happens when you spit (or in this case vomit) out of a bus window while it is moving, but for those who were not fortunate enough to spend loads of time on a school bus, I’ll fill you in – it comes back into the bus and hits the person behind you. In this situation the person behind the old woman….Danielle!
So for the last 90 minutes of the bus journey the woman continued to vomit out the window and the vomit continued to blow back onto Danielle’s seat. Fortunately, Danielle and I were able to move over to avoid said vomit, but not before Danielle was splattered a few times. All the while, the bus driver continues to hand back plastic bags to the old woman and asks her to puke in the plastic bags, and all the while the old woman continues to throw the plastic bags out the window.
In summary, the minibus ride was terrible. We took the tourist bus back to Kathmandu and it was much better (see: cheaper with no vomit or harassment).
North Face Inn. Private room with ensuite bathroom for $13 USD/night. Also included a little balcony. Major win.
New Beautiful Café. We ate breakfast here four of the days we were in town. Their muesli with fresh fruit and yogurt was amazing. They also had great Western set breakfasts as well as an Indian breakfast set. As an added plus, there was a family of birds nesting in the restaurant so we were able to watch mommy-bird feed her young-uns each morning.
Dark Bean Coffee. Directly across the street from New Beautiful Café, this was a small (see: three tables) shop serving coffee and limited baked goods. I tried almost everything they had (espresso, macchiato, americano, latte, and cappuccino) while Danielle stuck to their latte. Everything was good and cheap ($0.70 USD for espresso, $1.20 USD for a latte).
Neopolitan. Pizza place directly across the street from Godfather’s Pizza. Godfather’s Pizza is the more well known joint in town, but we tried both, and Neopolitan was much better.
OR2K. The Kathmandu location is better.
Europa. Food here was pretty good (huge veggie burgers!). The owner was great. She buys and makes food to order. As in, after you order she’ll run across the street to buy ingredients. Also, when it came time for us to pay the bill she didn’t have change so she just told us to, “pay later.” We came back the next day to settle our bill.
Purna Yoga Retreat. Initially, we planned on doing a three night retreat, but went for the two night option instead. Highlights included: morning yoga sessions, sun/moon salutations, sound immersion meditation (see: facilitator playing Tibetan singing bowls, gongs, and other nice sounding instruments while you lay on the floor under a pashmina blanket), healthy eats, steam bath, salt water foot bath, and amazing views of the city. We really enjoyed it, but it was a bit spendy for our budget (and doing that much yoga is harder than we thought it would be!).
Nothing. And it was great.
Two runs. Both were up the mountains (err.. foothills) towards Sarangot, which is where all of the paragliders launch. We never made it all the way up to Sarangot, though we got close. There are a few small villages on the path which were fun to run through – ducks, dogs, chickens, and other animals hanging out in the street. Strava data HERE and HERE.
Yoga. See above.
Yoga in limited quantities. I think a two night retreat was perfect for us.
Food. The food quality (high) and price (low) were wonderful. If you lose weight on your trek, Pokhara will help you gain it back.
Routine. Pokhara was a great place for us to relax for a week after our trek.
Minibus. Why couldn’t she just puke into the plastic bag?! COME ON!
Air Quality. Unfortunately, during our time here the air quality was terrible due to slash and burn fires in India. There was only one day where we were able to see the Himalayas from town. If you Google image search Pokhara you’ll see how beautiful the views can be. Oh well.
Pashmina blankets. I mentioned this in the yoga retreat section, but it deserves more attention – pashmina wool blankets are phenomenal. Prior to the retreat my thoughts on blankets could be summarized as: a blanket is a blanket is a blanket. And then pashmina happened. You know when you give your dog a bath and they start rolling around on the carpet or towel to dry themselves? That’s me with a pashmina blanket. The day after the retreat ended we bought a large pashmina wool blanket and shipped it home with the rest of our trekking gear. So if you need me next winter, you know where I’ll be.
New shoes! After our trek, my shoes were destroyed. Turns out road running shoes aren’t made to survive a three week trek in the Himalayas. As a result, I ended up heading to a department store to buy new shoes. I ended up with a new pair of 361 Degrees (a Chinese athletic brand) running shoes for $30 USD. Are they good shoes? No. Can you run in them? Yup! Also, the shopping process was entertaining because the largest shoe size carried in Nepal (based on my sample size of three stores) is a US size 10. I typically wear size 10.5 or 11 but, hey, I’ve never really cared for my toes anyway.