Pokhara & the Himalayan hippie trail

Kathmandu may be the first city that comes to mind when you mention Nepal. But when it comes to retracing the infamous ‘Hippie Trail’ of the 1960s, there is no better place than Pokhara. Little known outside the hard-core travel circuit, Pokhara is Nepal’s 3rd largest city, and – more importantly – lies in the shadow of three of the ten tallest mountains in the world.

On Friday, Gadling presented 48 hours in Kathmandu as a brief introduction to the mountain kingdom. But to truly come face-to-face with the majesty and grandeur of Nepal, you have to climb up into the Himalayas.

Prior to the construction of a major highway in 1968, the only way to access Pokhara was to hike in. Difficult access meant that travelers were in no rush to go anywhere else. The stories of bygone sex, drugs and rock n’ roll in Pokhara are absolutely legendary.

With jet-setting flashpackers becoming more of the norm rather than the exception, things are certainly more PG-13 these days. But that doesn’t mean that Pokhara is any less magical. Have we peaked your interest yet? Read on to find out more about the last vestiges of the Himalayan Hippie Trail.Everest is the unquestionable rooftop of the world, but the Annapurna circuit has no less than three mountains that break the 8,000 meter (26,246 feet) mark. Considering that Pokhara and the surrounding valley bottom out at 1,500 meters (4,921 feet), the contrast scale is epic.

And then there’s the vegetation. Lying in sub-tropical climes, Pokhara is flush with flowering plants, leafy vines and towering trees. Outside the city limits, the jungle quickly takes root. Not long ago, tiger sightings were quite common, though sadly their numbers are on the decline.

With so much stunning nature, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that hiking and trekking are the two main activities on hand. In town, every other shop will sell you North Face-branded gear (most of dubious origins), and offer guiding services, chartered expeditions or simply friendly advice.

If you’re inexperienced with high-altitude alpine conditions, consider an overnight hike to the hill station at Sarangkot. Although you’re just a smidgen above 2,000 meters (6,561 feet), you’re still high enough to escape from the urban confines.

You’re also in the shadow of the Annapurna range, and well-positioned for one of the most spectacular sunrises of your life. In the wee hours of the morning, the sun crosses the horizon on the opposite end of the valley, slowly enveloping the Himalayas in a blanket of soft orange light.

Got weak knees? Apprehensive about the down-climb to Pokhara? There happens to be a well-respected paragliding school at Sarangkot, which means that tandem jumps are safe and relatively affordable (around US$100).

Up for a more serious challenge? Consider the 14-day roundtrip trek from Pokhara to Annapurna Base Camp (4131 m; 13,553 ft). You will need to be properly outfitted for this trek, and altitude sickness is a minor risk worth mentioning.

With that said, the relaxed pace gives you plenty of time to acclimatize, and there is no technical climbing required to reach the top. Along the way, you can also keep your energy levels high by stopping at remote tea shacks staffed by local villagers.

At such great heights, never underestimate the rejuvenative power of a good cuppa’ tea!

For technical climbers in search of death-defying challenges, tackling the peaks of the so-called ‘eight-thousanders’ is unmatched. Rising more than 8,000 meters (26,246 feet), Annapurna I, II and III are amongst the deadliest mountains in the world. It’s estimated that 40% of expeditions result in fatalities. In comparison, Everest claims the lives of less than 5% of climbers.

Not in a rush to meet your maker?

One of the most enchanting aspects of Pokhara is that the city wraps around the edges of a tranquil lake. Rowboats can be rented for a few dollars, and you can paddle out to an island shrine. Overhead, flocks of hungry swallows do an admirable job of insect control.

Much like Kathmandu,Pokhara is also home to a very large Tibetan refugee population. Momo (Tibetan-style dumplings) are great for a quick fix, especially when washed down with Nepali millet beer and rice brandy. If you like your alcohol in bottles, the commercially brewed Everest lager also hits the spot.

Believe it or not, Pokhara also has something of a thriving Italian food sector. Wood-fired pizzas and handmade pastas are ubiquitous – it’s not Sicily, but the quality is much better than you’d think. Carbo-loading is also the order of the day if you’re planning on heading up into the mountains.

And now, for a bit of the nitty-gritty details…

The best time to visit Pokhara is during the dry season (October to May) when the skies are clear and sunny. In the wet season (June to September), Asia gets pounded by monsoon rains. During this time, you will not be able to see the mountains through the grey gloom, and transportation will grind to a halt.

Speaking of transportation, the modern era has opened up Pokhara to the world. Rather than hiking into Pokhara like the hippies of yore, you can take the bus from Kathmandu. Advertised time is seven hours, but the reality is often closer to ten. Accidents are sadly all too commonplace, so be advised that personal safety is no guarantee.

Those wary of long bus rides can fly on one of Nepal’s domestic airlines: Yeti Air, Buddha Air or Agri Air. Flight time is less than one hour, and the views below are nothing less than stunning. As a disclaimer however, all three airlines have less than stellar crash records. Getting to Pokhara may be an adventure in itself, but trust us – the journey is entirely worth the risks.

The 1960s are long gone, but there are still vestiges of the hippie dream flourishing in the Himalayas.

Namaste. Pokhara awaits.

** All images are original photographs produced by this blogger **