June 09, 2010

Prisoner of Pokhara

Some people come to Pokhara, a small Nepalese city some 130 miles west of Kathmandu, for trekking adventures on and around the Annapurna massif, a broad and stunning grouping of Himalayan peaks that rise to about 27,000 feet.

Trekking wasn't on our itinerary when Mike and I visited Pokhara years ago, but we did have our share of adventure, much of it unpleasant. The nasty things that happened were tempered, though, by the killer view of full-in-your-face Himalayas. We spent a lot of our Pokhara time on the roof of our fleabag hotel -- a concrete cellblock called the Hotel Asia -- drinking bottles of Star Beer and gawking at the Annapurna range. I shot the photo above from the hotel roof.

Besides being a trekking gateway, Pokhara bills itself as a lakeside resort, with Phewa Lake touted as a recreational beauty spot. Following a hand-drawn map in my Lonely Planet guidebook, I dragged Mike on a long, hot walk from central Pokhara through mustard and wheat fields and apple orchards to Phewa, where I thought we might sit on the shore in the sun or even take a swim.

What we found when we reached Phewa was a sad, polluted body of water and a depressing collection of dilapidated shops. And there was nowhere to sit, as the "beach" was a garbage-strewn strip of mud. Deflated, we trudged back to our hotel and repaired to the roof to contemplate Annapurna and suck down a few more Stars.

The next day we rented bikes and tooled around the city and surrounding countryside. We had fun until the sun's UV rays, intense and unfiltered at this altitude, began to burn my un-sunblocked skin to a red crisp. My hands were screaming, and I couldn't hold onto the bike's handlebars, so Mike took off his socks, wet them in a stream and gave them to me to wear as gloves. When we got back to our gulag-with-a-view, Mike went to the roof alone: sun poisoning, complete with fever, chills and mild delirium, laid me low for the next 24 hours.

The morning of our departure we got up before dawn to catch the bus to Kathmandu. The daily bus, a first-come, first-served operation, was scheduled to leave Pokhara's main street at 8 AM, and we knew the seats for the 6-hour journey would fill fast, so we'd best be early. We washed and dressed, threw on our packs and headed to the Hotel Asia's front door.

Locked. From the outside. And the crude reception area was dark and unmanned. We darted around the place looking for another exit and found none. We called for staff, but they were home, sleeping, while their guests were locked inside the Hotel Asia.

A backpacker bound for the same bus came down the unlit steps to the ersatz lobby. When we told him we were locked in, we three panicked. The day's only bus to the capital -- and to our international flights home -- was filling up as we stood there. We were prisoners of Pokhara. For a half-hour, we ran up and down the concrete staircases, shouting for help and looking for any egress -- a window would do at this point. Finally, our fellow prisoner found a maintenance man asleep in a basement broom closet, and the maintenance man had a key to the front door. As he let us out, he shook his head like we were crazy, and I thought, Man! Had there been a fire in this dump last night we would have died. Who's crazy?

We made it to Main Street and found the parked Kathmandu-bound bus, seats still available. We paid and settled in, the scheduled 8 AM launch less than an hour away.

At 10 AM, there we still sat on Main Street as the driver worked to cram three times the number of passengers that vehicle was built to safely hold, obviously pocketing the fares of every passenger over the company-ordained and legal load limit. We were three or four to a seat, grandmas sitting in the aisle, men standing on the rubbery exit door steps. I couldn't breathe. Up top, on the roof, were bundles and bags, thin Nepali men, and a giant blond Swede. Before we ever set off from Pokhara, I was terrified. We would die, I was sure, on the high, Himalayan Prithvi Highway that connects Pokhara and Kathmandu. The bus was so overloaded and top-heavy that it swayed even while we were still and unmoving on Main Street. And we were about to spend half a day driving on a narrow, twisting, high-altitude road. I felt sick.

Sometime after 10, the 8 AM bus left Pokhara. The advertised 6-hour ride would become a 9-hour nightmare.

The bus lurched and groaned. The Swede vomited intermittently from the roof. About an hour in, we stopped to look down an embankment at the still-spinning wheels of a truck that had gone off the road, driver's condition unknown. Then we ran out of gas and sat on a hillock on the side of the road until a trucker stopped and siphoned enough petrol into our tank to get us to Mugling, the main stopover point on the Pokhara-Kathmandu highway.

After he filled the tank at a Mugling gas station, our driver announced we'd be stopping in Mugling for a half-hour.

I watched him make his way to a restaurant with a Star Beer sign and wished I were still a prisoner of Pokhara.