Pokhara: Nepal’s peaceful paradise is well worth the trek

Pokhara from above. (Shutterstock)
Updated 05 November 2018
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Pokhara: Nepal’s peaceful paradise is well worth the trek

  • Pokhara’s restorative charms are entirely unlike Kathmandu’s abrasive hustle, bustle, smog and clutter
  • 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

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.

Phewa Lake. (Shutterstock)

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.

 


Influencer invasion as Pakistan launches tourism push

Updated 24 April 2019
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Influencer invasion as Pakistan launches tourism push

  • Cricketer-turned-prime-minister Imran Khan is keen to promote the nation’s tourism potential
  • The push has resulted in an influx of foreign travel bloggers extolling the virtues of its mountains and beaches

ISLAMABAD: They are young, Western, and full of praise for Pakistan: Travel influencers have moved in on the “land of the pure,” but critics warn their rose-tinted filters are irresponsible and sell an inaccurate picture of the conservative, militancy-scarred country.
As security improves, cricketer-turned-prime-minister Imran Khan is keen to promote the nation’s tourism potential, with the government claiming it has eased visa restrictions for many foreign visitors.
The push has resulted in an influx of foreign travel bloggers extolling the virtues of its mountains and beaches, as well as its rich heritage and history, from ancient Indus civilizations to Buddhist shrines and Islamic monuments.
“Pakistan, it was the trip of a lifetime,” food and travel YouTuber Mark Wiens told his four million subscribers.
Polish blogger Eva zu Beck informed her followers it could “become the number one tourist destination in the world,” while Canadian social media influencer Rosie Gabrielle said she wanted her stories to “tell the truth” about the country.
But there are concerns influencer content does not reflect the major challenges, from infrastructure to extremism, that Pakistan is facing as it embraces modern tourism.
Zu Beck, whose clip was even shared by officials, cites government commerce initiative Emerging Pakistan, as well as Pakistan International Airlines as partners she’s worked with, while Wiens credits tourism expo Pakistan Travel Mart for “making the amazing trip happen.”
Gabrielle says her 3,500-kilometer motorcycle trip across the nation was facilitated by a Pakistani association in Oman.
Once seen as an essential stop on the hippie trail, visitor numbers have slumped since the 1970s when the country first underwent sweeping Islamization then descended into a bloody battle with militancy.
Deadly attacks still occur but security concerns are easing, so authorities and businesses are keen to shake the perception it is a hostile and dangerous place.
They are enthusiastic that so-called social media “influencer” advertising, which generally provides glossy snapshots rather than in-depth investigation, can present an alternative vision of Pakistan to a new generation of young and adventurous travelers.
“People believe them,” says Pakistan Travel Mart CEO Ali Hamdani, who helped set up Wiens trip, adding that bloggers’ impressions are regarded as “authentic.”
Yet Pakistanis and seasoned foreign travelers warn such posts on social media do not paint a full and honest picture of Pakistan.
Tourism infrastructure is severely underdeveloped, there are opaque government restrictions on places foreigners can visit, and travelers are often harassed — whether by men bothering women in a patriarchal society; or suspicious intelligence officials detaining curious sight-seers or insisting on security escorts.
“All this ‘Everything is wonderful in Pakistan’ is just irresponsible,” reveals June, an indignant 51-year-old Briton who declined to give her last name, she had been harassed by a police officer during a visit to the northwestern Swat valley.
Influencers are shielded from many issues that ordinary visitors face, adds Zara Zaman, an attendee at a recent tourism summit in Islamabad.
“All of these travelers are also traveling with crews and are protected by more powerful people,” she argues.
Hamdani, for example, acted as a driver for both Wiens and another influencer, Trevor James, during their visits, smoothing out any issues.
Zu Beck and Gabrielle, were able to visit the southwestern province of Balochistan — famed for its spectacular scenery, but also for violent insurgencies, which means few foreigners are able to visit without the blessing of intelligence agencies.
What influencers publish “doesn’t represent the real experience,” warns Alexandra Reynolds, an American blogger on her fifth trip to Pakistan, adding that there is a risk that less experienced travelers will be misled by such content and potentially end up in trouble.
“In a time when Pakistan’s international reputation is so fragile, it is not something that should be risked,” the 27-year-old explains, revealing that she too experienced harassment from security forces during a previous trip.
Another tourist Sebastiaan, 30, says he was detained for 14 hours and questioned by suspicious government agents in the southern city of Mithi last September.
There is also frustration from Pakistanis that Western bloggers have been feted by authorities, while locals with better cultural understanding — especially of sensitive issues such as gender or blasphemy — are sidelined.
“It kinds of makes me angry to have white people represent us. We are not completely done with our post-colonial hangover,” says Zaman.
At the tourism summit a group of the Western bloggers were widely photographed meeting Imran Khan, with no local travel influencers in sight, prompting a backlash on social media.
Despite concerns, the bloggers remain enthusiastic.
Zu Beck, 27, has gained a huge following in Pakistan, where a local phone company has sponsored some of her videos.
She insists: “My job is not to love Pakistan. My job is to make content. But I love Pakistan.”