KATMANDU: Thanks to Nepal’s notoriously underfunded infrastructure, the 200 km journey from the capital of Katmandu to the sedate town of Pokhara can often take a torturous eight hours or more, but don’t even think about flying. The breathtaking vistas that journey affords — winding round quease-inducing mountain-edge tracks and rubber-necking tiny rustic villages — will open your eyes wider than even the most brazen check-in queue interventions.
And whatever the GPS says, you’ll emerge foggily, feeling like you have arrived in another continent — and possibly era — altogether. Pokhara’s restorative charms are entirely unlike Katmandu’s abrasive hustle, bustle, smog and clutter, which is why thousands of tourists take this perilous path every week.
The calming, meditative Phewa Lake has long acted as a magnet for worn-out trekkers, burned-out hippies and other directionless souls sucked in by Pokhara’s peaceful vibe. Yet despite the lakeside community’s decades-old tourist takeover, the neighborhood still manages to maintain an anachronistic element of ethnic identity, chilled collectivism and hassle-free calm. The omnipresent tie-dye stalls feel like a quaint throwback to smartphone-free travel.
The modern town center sits some six km northeast, but it’s this waterside locale that makes Pokhara such a hard place to leave. Days can drift dreamily by as one epic sunset bleeds into another around this eerily cosmic body of water. Many a pleasant afternoon can be idled away on a gently rocking rowing boat, floating out in the hazy sunshine, the mighty Annapurna Range looming in the distance. Amid a tiny island opposite the lakeside sits the compact Tal Barahi Temple, a kind constant reminder to be mindful.
Growing signs of gentrification include the many modern three-story hotels, and more moneyed travelers are increasingly enticed to remote luxury yoga retreats on the town’s outskirts. But while it might now be possible to order a decent espresso in Pokhara, much of the central lakeside area feels as though it has been unchanged for decades, the waterfront lined by tiny alfresco café hangouts which have been booming the same Bob Marley “Best of…” since the 1980s.
One imagines little has changed in the menu, or methods, of the friendly street-food hawkers jostling for trade alongside the waterside’s dirt path — except perhaps the prices. The most popular specialty seems to be chaat masala, a moreish Indian street food regular of crushed samosas topped with yogurt, onions, chilies, coriander and multiple colorful chutneys.
As well as lazing and daydreaming, Pokhara is also known as a logistical hub for serious trekkers hitting Nepal’s world-famous peaks. Yet a beginner’s trail that no visitor should miss is ascending Anadu Hill, which sits invitingly just across the lake. Beat the heat by starting early, take a communal rowboat over to the opposite bank and follow the well-marked trail. It can be climbed in an hour. At the peak you will find Shanti Stupa — one of the world’s 80 “Peace Pagodas”— a tranquil white dome topped with a golden spire. Sitting some 1,100 meters up, it offers stunning views both of Pokhara below, and the Annapurnas cresting into the distance.
Soak up the view from one of the two competing rustic restaurants, and recharge with a traditional dal bhat — steamed rice, a cooked lentil soup and a basic vegetable curry.
From here hikers can descend the southern aspect and join the main road heading back east toward town. After roughly three km, stop at the delightful Devi’s Falls — a popular spot for selfies — and from there it’s about four km back to the lakeside.
Sitting just inshore, the more-developed Lakeside Road is where you will find many of Pokhara’s best accommodation options and a plethora of dining offerings to suit every palate and budget.
When it comes to after-dark entertainment, a few classier joints program versatile covers acts and passable acoustic troubadours. However, more curious visitors can check out the handful of hit-and-miss cultural shows on offer, such as the twee traditional folk dancing and music ensembles programmed under the stars at Fewa Paradise Restaurant.