Nepal: Discovering a Hidden Gem, Pokhara

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Soaring above Pokhara, Nepal.
Soaring above Pokhara, Nepal.

Traveling the skies above Pokhara, Nepal

By Kirsten Smith

A waterway runs past Pokhara and drains into Phewa Lake.
A waterway runs past Pokhara and drains into Phewa Lake.

I arrived in frenzied Kathmandu, Nepal in September without much of a plan, except to ask around and gather suggestions from the locals and fellow travelers. I was bound for Pokhara.

My goal was to fill about two weeks; part of a year-long travel break from my career in the U.S.

On day one, my homestay host recommended I explore Chitwan National Park in the southern, central part of the country. Great! Plan: set.

A few days later, I boarded a bus heading toward Chitwan. As the vehicle weaved and honked its way out of the capital city, I started chatting with three 20-something French girls who had just come from a meditation retreat in Pokhara.

At that point, I knew nothing about the place. But the girls effused about it, painting a picture in words of a lush and serene Eden in my mind.

“You must go, you’ll love it!” cried the first girl. The second nodded furiously, “You cannot come here to Nepal and not go to Pokhara.” The third smiled, “I’ve now been twice, I like it this much.” Wow, I thought. Okay — sold!

When my three days in Chitwan came to an end, I hopped another bus that would careen crazily upward on switchback roads away from the flat jungle region and into the mountainous middle of the country.

Joy Riding

Homes and rice terraces pattern the hillside above Lake Phewa.
Homes and rice terraces pattern the hillside above Lake Phewa.

Nepal has become one of my favorite countries for long bus rides — the terrain may be rough, but the scenery is never dull.

Small rural villages appear frequently along the highway. The residents pay no attention to the unending lines of passing traffic, so it was fascinating to catch tiny snapshots of their everyday lives.

In most villages, there was lathery washing of some sort happening at nearly every communal water pump; washing clothes, soaping hair and body, scrubbing pots and pans.

Occasionally, we passed women lugging enormous baskets of grass for the animals or sticks for fires, and men carrying loads of bananas uphill to a neighboring market, the basket strap slung around their foreheads. Out the window, I took in vistas of golden rice terraces and steep gorges filled with whitewater rivers and laced here and there with perilous rope bridges.

Where Mountains Reign

“Montañas!” exclaimed Agustin, the 50-ish Spanish traveler in the seat beside me, pointing out the dusty bus window. I scanned the horizon and suddenly realized that some of the clouds I was seeing in the hazy distance formed a series of white upside-down V’s — a range in the startlingly beautiful Himalayas. One particular snow-capped triangle stood high above the others.

Groggily, having just woken from a light nap, it was my turn to call out. “Everest!”

“No, no, no,” Agustin chuckled. “No es Everest. Es Montañas de Annapurna.”

Kirsten getting ready to take an ultralight ride above Nepal.
Kirsten getting ready to take an ultralight ride!

The bus headed into Pokhara, Nepal’s second-largest city, which is tucked snugly into the northwestern pocket of the Pokhara Valley.

Finally, we came to a halt in a dirt parking lot for buses large and small. There, I was met by Ekraj, the kind owner of the guest house where I’d be staying, who gave me a ride on the back of his motorbike.

Poking Around in Pokhara Nepal

Once settled in at the guest house, Ekraj pointed me in the direction of Lakeside, the area of downtown Pokhara most popular with tourists.

I walked along the main road, which bends loosely around the north shore of gleaming Phewa Lake.

I stopped in to check out little shops selling traditional carved wooden masks, polished stone Buddha figures, ‘singing’ meditation bowls, prayer beads, and woven bags and purses.

I learned that the city was once an important stop along a trade route between India and China. It had stayed, however, a relatively small, secluded town until about the mid-1960s, when the outside world discovered Pokhara’s intense natural beauty.

During my first evening at the guest house, as I inhaled a delicious, fiery chicken curry prepared by his wife, Ekraj told me how, when he was a boy only 50 years earlier, Pokhara had been a nowhere town.

When hippie hikers from the West began trickling in to set up their trekking tents near the lake, there were no schools, no doctors or hospitals, and the people usually lived in mud huts. Ekraj’s family had no electricity or running water.

The city has all of these things now, and much more. So, though there were also the downsides of modernization, such as pollution and crowding — depending on your point of view, the Western attention focused on Pokhara were fairly helpful.

After the construction of the schools, Ekraj got an education and went on to earn a university degree in geology. His two sons are now a doctor and a pharmacist.

Looking down at Lake Phewa's dazzling color.
Looking down at Lake Phewa’s dazzling color.

Effects of the Gorkha Earthquake

Ever since setting foot in Nepal, I’d kept expecting to see signs of the 7.8 magnitude Gorkha earthquake, which had struck the central district of Lamjung only a few months earlier, in April.

The temblor killed 9,000 people and injured 23,000 — it was the worst disaster to strike Nepal in more than 80 years.

But so far, I had seen nothing; no destruction or rubble, or anything of the sort.

“It affected some places, some buildings in Pokhara and Kathmandu,” Ekraj told me when I tentatively inquired. “But it was mostly the small villages in the mountains.”

He explained that in recent decades, villagers had started using concrete to build their homes. The concrete is brittle and doesn’t flex under that sort of trauma, so the buildings all crumbled like a dry pie crust. Had they been made of mud and tree branches, as in the old days, they’d have been slightly more elastic, enough so that the damage would not have been so terrible.

Heading down the runway at Pokhara Airport.
Heading down the runway at Pokhara Airport.

I told him that the world is concerned. They’re not sure if it’s ok to visit Nepal right now.

Ekraj replied, “Some of the high trails for trekking cannot be used for many years, but most are ok. You can tell your friends to come now.” He smiled warmly.

Then he said something in Nepalese to his sweet and shy wife, who stood and returned moments later with a huge bowl of fresh fruit for dessert, though I was already overstuffed from the tasty curry.

Flight of the Fearful

Ekraj had arranged a rather unique tour for me for the next day. I would be taking a flight in an Ultralight, which looks like a hang glider with a teensy 2-seat airplane body, and an engine.

I wavered — I’ve had a fear of heights my whole life. However, this adventure sounded so fantastic that I was willing to attempt to contain my fear.

Early, at 7 am, I was dropped off at the Pokhara airport and led through security, then walked out along the main tarmac to a warehouse-like building on the side. A sign on the building read Avia Club Nepal .

The city of Pokhara is dwarfed by the snow-capped Annapurna Mountains.
The city of Pokhara is dwarfed by the snow-capped Annapurna Mountains.

Outside were several parked colorful-winged Ultralights. I was directed inside to a folding table and my backpack was taken and stored for me.

I was given a warm jacket and fitted with a thick helmet. A young woman explained how the Ultralight works; a blend of hang glider and airplane.

She instructed me on safety, all fairly obvious points, like keeping my arms and legs inside the vehicle.
Then it was go time.

My stomach churned and my pulse quickened. I tried to suppress the worry.

Clutching my camera, I climbed into the seat behind the pilot and was strapped in. Like a little go-cart, the Ultralight pulled onto the end of the vacant runway — the same one the airplanes use — and put pedal to metal. The vehicle exploded forward, rolling faster and faster. Then the pilot pushed on the metal bar and we lifted smoothly, spiraling up into the sky.

Woaaa… wow… woa… my mind repeated. I forced myself to inhale and exhale slowly, while my heart took on the roar of a runaway train.

Whistling Wind

Aside from wind whistling softly past, everything was quiet. Peaceful. The Ultralight wobbled ever so slightly on occasion, but for the most part remained surprisingly steady. After a few minutes, my heartbeat slowed, my tense body began to relax and I felt secure enough to look around and enjoy the glorious views.

We flew straight toward the snowy peaks of the Annapurna Range. I got a clear look at the tallest peak, which I’d previously mistaken for Everest, but is actually Mt. Machhapuchhre (meaning fishtail).

The city of Pokhara spread out below in a thin haze, expanding further than I’d expected, into the foothills of the Himalayas.

We swung left above a snaking river and sailed over the deep, glittering sapphire of Phewa Lake. I could make out the repeating curves of rice terraces, and their tiny farmhouses. Atop a great hill blanketed in fir trees, the pure white dome of the Pokhara Shanti Stupa, or, World Peace Pagoda, stood regally.

Finally, it was time to come down. The pilot coiled the ultralight ever downward and landed it as gently as a butterfly on the runway. I’d spent only 15 minutes in the air, but it was enough to sear this Eden of a city permanently into my heart and mind.

Sometimes the best plans are the ‘ultralight’ ones.

For more information on taking an ultralight tour in Pokhara, Nepal, visit aviaclubnepal.com or reach them via email at info@aviaclubnepal.com.

Kirsten A. Smith


Kirsten Smith is a freelance writer and photographer from San Francisco, California. Currently, she’s country-hopping and picture-snapping her way around the planet during a year-long career break.