Hiking in Pokhara: A Trade in the Jewels of Kande
The day breaks with news
that my gold and silver are thieved.
The same morn the clouds part
to the sight
of a jewel peak gleaming white
A golden beetle alighting
with sapphire wings
and I walk upon steps silver bright.
From Kande to Dhampus I muse
if my silver and gold are gone
and whether I should grieve.
Going on a Pokhara day hike
During my acclimatisation days in Pokhara, I thought I should put myself through a test hike before I begin the trek to Annapurna Base Camp.
It would be a 10-day trek altogether. I did sort of try to keep some level of fitness up by doing light hikes in Malaysia before the trip.
Nonetheless, my most preferred form of exercise tends to be aquatic in nature. It has a different demand than trekking across a mountain range. And, this was my first time being at altitude. It would be good to do a day hike to feel any differences even at the relatively lower starting altitudes.
So I asked my guesthouse about options to do a Pokhara day hike. They proposed to take me hiking around Kande.
The clouds part to the sight...
The morning of the hike my guesthouse host excitedly rushed me and the other guests into the garden.
We were in Pokhara in the monsoon season. The famous Fishtail Peak (Macchapucchre in Nepali) had until then been disappointingly shrouded in cloud. But that day they parted at breakfast time, and revealed the peak.
It was beautiful, impressing me more than I thought it would. In the peak of summer, snow no longer covered it in entirety, but there was enough to reflect the sun in a brilliant jewelled glare. I felt a welling of consciousness - of my great fortune to be granted the sight of the peak.
The hike in Kande
We began the hike passing through a village, skirting the terraced rice fields and into the wood.
It was a fairly easy start, and didn't feel different from the forest hikes I'm used to. The Pokhara climate in August was also actually quite warm, and not very different from Malaysia. (This will not be true on the ABC trek at much higher altitudes).
The trail started to ascend and we began to pass by some scattered village houses by the trail.
The stones laid as ballast on the zinc roofs - the place must get some pretty high winds.
The alternating colour bricks making up the walls of the Nepali square houses - that seems quite specific to the Pokhara region.
I saw a great big squat urn that seems to function as a water tank (header image). We Malays have such vessels too, but we traditionally used it to collect rainwater. Our word for it is tempayan. But a slender pipe snaking out of the neck suggests that the locals pipe water into it - perhaps from a spring.
The day broke with news, from home...
I hiked silently, following behind my guide, stopping now and then to take a photo or scrutinise something that caught my fancy. As I walked I thought back to the news that reached me from home, the Telegram texts from my parents in the family chat group.
They told me that the house was broken into the night before. And that the valuables that I still had there rather than moved to my new home in the city, are gone. All of them - every jewellery box was empty, or was itself taken.
Now it's not that I have heaps of treasure. My taste in jewelry tends to the elegant, intricate, offbeat, skilful - and genuine. Still, my collection is very personal. Most are carefully chosen pieces, not interchangeable bling. The many damascene pieces, the vintage cloisonne, the Edwardian lavaliere, the taille d'epargne bangle, the gold Welsh dragon, the Arab tassled gold pendant, the Victorian garnet brooch... So I felt the dull hollowness of loss when I read the news.
But oddly, I was not angry.
Somehow I gazed at the material loss in a kind of peaceful submission.
I was travelling, out in the world. I was in Nepal, at the feet of the sky. With the same phone in my hand I took a shot of the lucky break in the monsoon clouds that revealed Macchapucchre to me.
And somehow, the theft seemed faraway and petty against that jewel. Even though (or precisely because?) I could not own the jewel of the peak in a box.
Animals on the trail!
Rural life in the highlands of Annapurna is still very much shared with animals - mostly domestic but sometimes wild. So the trails around this region are shared with the various animals associated with village life.
The clanging bells were my first introduction. I paused, listening, wondering what it portends.
My guide reached out and motioned me to the side of the trail, and I realised that the bells are attached to mules. I had read this in the briefing pack e-mailed to me by my ABC trekking guide.
Later on in the trail I would encounter others - like these water buffalo wallowing in the pond! It amused me a great deal, because I always associated them with the lowlands. Yet here they are, wallowing the same as always even though it was much higher up!
A golden beetle alighting...
We paused for a breather at a small teahouse around midmorning. I welcomed it, although I was not feeling too fatigued yet. The inclines are steep, and I suspect that my leg muscles were probably not sufficiently prepared for mountains. No matter, it's not like I've not soldiered on through that before.
I drank some water and sat next to some greenery. Now that I'm not walking I thought back to my lost treasures. I thought first of the irreplaceable ones. My gold baby anklet. The gold ring my late grandmother gave me. And an item I have mixed feelings about - a beautiful Australian black opal engagement ring from my marriage that has dissolved, easily the most valuable piece in my collection in more ways than one.
And there on a leaf by my side, a beetle alighted. A bright sort of antique gold in colour, and dark sapphire wings that it flicked open and shut.
It was as if God immediately tossed me another of His gems to remind me which is the greater abundance between the wealth that I lost, and the wealth being opened to me.
...and I walk upon steps silver bright.
The remarkable thing I found about some of the stones in this region, is how shining bright they are under the sunlight.
They are literally as reflective white as silver, but I'm sure they're not actually silver (as otherwise they wouldn't be simply cast aside in pieces or used as mere trail paving).
I marvelled at this, because of the beautiful brilliant cast - and yet it isn't a stone used in building or decorating buildings.
It felt to me that the people had an innocent sort of wealth, to have so much of this beautiful stone that it is indifferently used for all to tread upon.
The Australian Camp
I began the hike in a haze of anticipation for the exoticness of my location. Charmed by the strangeness of the names of things and places, I vowed I would read all the signs. They would direct me to destinations whose names would roll strangely on my tongue, to be sure.
Here is the first direction sign I encountered:
These Australians sure get everywhere!
I was amused when my guide told me later on that we were close to the very best vantage point along the trail. And when I asked him what it was called, no prizes for guessing - 'Australian Camp'.
So what is Australian Camp? Just what it says.
Some time back a bunch of Australians came hiking and they liked it so much they picked the best camping spot in the area and just kept coming back there. Over time it became kinda permanent and now there's a guesthouse too.
We went beyond the guesthouse to the original grassy meadow that is still used as a camping ground. Indeed, you get a wide angle to view the valleys around.
From Kande to Dhampus I muse...
We walked on, my guide and I, along the narrowing trails topping ridges and skirting the edges of slopes. We were beginning to head towards Dhampus now.
Online, the Annapurnas usually appears in her winter dress, sere and snowy, which is when most trekkers come to see her. But I looked upon her in the summer monsoon. Her summer dress is green.
The lovely views distracted me a bit from my footing, so that a few times I slipped on the loose chips of stone on the trail.
My guide clucked disapprovingly, the more so after he took a look at the sole of my favourite hiking boots. Not good enough, he said. Need a better sort of sole to do the ABC trek. He fretted that I might slip and injure myself in the upcoming endeavour, and offered to get me at least secondhand ones that better met his approval.
Indeed I suppose although the soles were great for maximum flexibility and climbing, they weren't the best in terms of grip while trekking on a loose surface.
But those boots were broken in, whereas I didn't have time to break in a different pair. My trek starts the next day. I chose to keep to my own boots.
The irony of prejudice.
But it did make me think back on the repeated conversations I had with my mother, before I went to Nepal. For some strange reason she worried more about the Nepal rather than the India part of this trip.
She was so worried that Nepal would be dangerous to me. That I may be lost in the wilderness of Annapurna, or threatened by criminals. Even though I was trekking with a guide and a porter, both of whom would be female and local. Then also her friends kept feeding her horror stories of trekkers becoming lost to their deaths (note: invariably because they left their guide), and implying carelessness and professional indifference about the Nepali people.
(Im?)Patiently, I reminded her that these were the same Nepalis who are so sought after as security personnel by these same Malaysian people, precisely for their reliability and integrity.
I mused on this, while my guide fussed paternally over my boots. I could not help but contrast the decency, safety and care in the hospitality I've received from Pokhara, with the news of the break-in that morning. All of us in the family had been immediately grateful that my parents weren't home. 'Who knows what could have happened'. We couldn't take for granted anymore, these days, that even elderly people would be left unmolested.
What is 'backward'?
Yes, in many ways Nepal is 'behind'. But not in the character of its people.
Ironically, by going to Nepal instead of remaining in Malaysia, I may have actually moved from the more dangerous to the safer place.
The trail leads to Dhampus
The end of this trail is near a different area, called Dhampus. My guide gave me the choice of the longer or shorter trail back. I deliberated.
On the one hand I wanted to see more of the area. On the other hand, the clouds were gathering ominously. Besides, I thought maybe it would be prudent to take a good rest to start the ABC trek as fresh as I could.
So I chose the shorter trail. It descends more steeply and therefore quickly down some steps and what are possibly paved water channels.
Along the way we met with more village animals - goats this time. They were all over the steps, and weren't as disciplined as the mules that simply passed us by. I hesitated, wondering how docile they were. This was like the Monsal Dale cows all over again...
But eventually I gingerly moved forward and picked my way around them as they grazed on.
A different route
Either way seemed equally a long trek to the base camp, though. So I was suitably impressed when my ABC trekking guide told me that when she was a bit younger, she had participated in a race down the mountain from ABC, with Dhampus as the finish line.
She ran it in just a few hours.
The end of the trail
We passed through and around more grain fields once again, near the end of the trail. Fields of rice, as well as maize. Some of the maize have been harvested, and hung in rows on the rafters of huts and sheds to dry.
When we reached the end, we weren't to be picked up by a car. Instead we were to take the bus system back to the guesthouse. I relied on my guide to tell me which bus was the correct one, where to get off to change buses, and what the fares were - since I could not read Nepali and hadn't prepared for this.
Nonetheless that means I did have the opportunity to experience bus rides in Pokhara! Which is... interesting. By that I mean: speeding merrily along, jouncing and bouncing as the driver tries to miss potholes and curves at the same time, to loud Bollywood music.
And the bling! Pokhara buses are blingin' !
Postscript: Whether I should grieve.
I do have some things left. They are those items that I've brought to my new house when I moved out from my parents', in case I needed to dress up.
Sure, I've lost all my silver and gold but one - the small anchor that marked my navy reservist commissioning. But I still have my pearls and agates. A few brooches and ethnic bits and bobs. My wedding ring, which I brought over because people kept advising me to wear it while travelling to avoid being harassed as a lone female traveller.
And maybe that's enough.
To be honest, I hardly ever find the occasion to wear my finery anymore. Perhaps it is God's way of right-sizing me for the life I'm moving towards, jettisoning the trappings and reminders of the life I'm leaving behind. Perhaps He is asking me to trade yet more attachments, for the true jewels of the earth.
Preparing me for the people and the life that lie somewhere further along this path I have consented to be on.