Pleasantly from Pokhara

Features Issue 17 Aug, 2010
Text by Daniel B. Haber / Photo: Jill Gocher

It was fitting, I suppose, that my colleague Jill who just “adores” the mountains—which leave me cold—should get a room facing Mt. Machapuchare, while my room looked on the courtyard with a big banana tree laden with pendulous bananas.  She should have been happy with the view when we checked into lakeside Trek-O-Tel for a weekend in Pokhara, however the sky was cloudy most of the time so she could only see the rear neighbor’s untidy backyard!

With occupancy in Pokhara a shadow of its former self and backpacker rooms selling for as low as Rs150/200, many expatriates still prefer to pay a little more for quality and service and stay at more upscale lodging such as Trek-O-Tel under the same management as the Ambassador Hotel and, formerly, The Kathmandu Guest House before the Sakya family split up the family properties.  With Trek-O-Tel under the side of the family that also runs Marco Polo Travels, the GSA for Amsterdam-based Transavia Airlines, it isn’t surprising to run into some Dutch couples in Pokhara on a package tour.

The fairly new hotel, which opened late 2001, ToT is a complex of adjoining octagonal buildings with octagonal-shaped rooms, which those used to four right angles may find a little disorienting. It is located on the lower end of the lake (towards Fishtail Lodge side) at Gaurighat, so it faces the lake with a view unobstructed by the eyesore “kutcha” shacks that blight the other end of this low-budget backpacker’s paradise that seems stuck in a time-warp.

In order to savor the lakeside “scene” we breakfast al fresco at a table overlooking the road in front of Fewa Tal which is as clear as a proverbial mirror.  From our seats we observe a colorful procession of Nepali schoolchildren, water buffaloes, cyclists, snake charmers, Tibetan souvenir hawkers, backpackers and local buses.  The garden is brimming with snapdragons, empurpled varicose-veined petunias and colorful pansies whose black eyes seem to wink at us in the sun. My companions enjoy their breakfast of aloo paratha and puri/bhaji while I stick to scrambled eggs and toasted white bread and orange-flavored lolli-pop jam, but we soon discover the perils of al fresco dining—the pesky flies!

After breakfast we hire mountain bicycles and pedal out to the yet-to-be completed International Mountain Museum near the Shangri-la Village where a puja for world peace is underway, conducted by the Ven. Thulshik Rinpoche who had flown in the previous day. The week before Losar and a few days after the candlelight peace vigil at Bouddhanath, this auspicious event was attended by hundreds of Tibetans, mostly monks, who were chanting away in basso profundo by the time we arrived. I met one friendly Mustangi monk from Marpha who was making small round balls of tsampa that looked like sweet laddus, and he paused to offer me a Pepsi, his email address and his auntie’s telephone number in New York. Later, there was to be a ritual dance by the lamas and the next day a public initiation.

Although it was sweater-peeling hot at mid-day, the weather in Pokhara is quite fickle. It could be sunny and sweltering one minute and cloudy with big drops of cold rain—or even icy hail-stones—the next. So when I detected a cool damp breeze and dark clouds on the horizon, I pedalled quickly back to lakeside for lunch before the rumbling thunder turned into a cloudburst.

At the damside Hotel Nature Land, I notice a sign for “The Gurkha Memorial Museum” and the martial marching-band music emanating from the compound inside almost beguiles me in. But before I could answer the clarion call of the Nature Land, I noticed a sign with the admission fee for foreigners five times that of the price for Nepalis, so I decided to postpone my visit. This two-tiered pricing such as practiced on domestic airlines and Greenlines buses, dear reader, is one of my pet peeves, so bear with me. I know many Nepalis whose income is easily five times or more than mine!

At Mike’s Restaurant—with unsurpassed lakeside dining views—I meet Minnesota Mike’s elderly sister Mary Ellen who gushes about her paragliding adventures the day before, as I scarf down one of Mike’s scrumptious bean burritos, the best this side of the Rio Grande, or at least the Trishuli.

I make it back to Trek-O-Tel before the hailstorm and just in time to see the courtyard filling up with chunks of ice the size of large pebbles and a terrific din from the pelting of hail on the tin-roofed Thakali restaurant next door.

With the heavy rain, we decide to dine on the premises and Anup Shrestha, the ToT manager invites us to try the Thakali restaurant. Just as we prepare to go outside, the housekeeping boy enters to turn down the beds.  As he reeks of onions, I ask him in English if he had been just eating onions, but he doesn’t seem to understand, so I try again in my broken Nepali. He says, “just a minute” and excuses himself only to return in a few minutes with a plate of cut onions! I point to Jill’s room and you can imagine the look of surprise on her face when the room boy offers her a platter of onions!

She takes an onion nibble and we’re greeted downstairs by Niraj Man Sherchan, the Thakali chef, manager and director of the Pokhara Thakali Kitchen.  As with many establishments where the management is hands-on, the standards are impeccable and immaculately clean—both in the kitchen and out. The décor, for one, is amongst the best in lakeside. The natural reddish mud-colored and white stucco walls with local stone and wood and a circular fireplace in the middle give it a homely yet stylish look, as if by a foreign interior designer. But instead of “a foreign hand”, as the Indians say, it is the experienced hand of Niraj Man Sherchan who has cooked both in Germany and Japan and well as being chef at the Fulbari that makes the place successful.

Testimony to his cooking, the dining room quickly fills up with a large group of Thakalis and Tibetans apparently mostly from Mustang.  The Thakalis are known as the inn-keepers of the Kali Gandaki river which runs south from Mustang, and many restaurants and hotels along the highway road-stops are also run by Thakalis. To wet our whistles, Niraj brings glasses of a typical Thakali tipple called “jhwain khatte”. It seems like a cross between raksi and tumba with roasted grains of puffed rice floating in it with a film of ghee on the top. Like Japanese sake, it is also served warm. It takes about a half hour to kick in and any more than two glasses could easily knock you out. It is served with some finger food—dried meat coated with buckwheat.  Unlike other Nepalis, the Thakalis generally do not use buff or beef, explains our host, as these lowland bovine creatures do not thrive in the higher altitudes, as do yaks.  While I would have liked to have tried the dirdo (also spelled “dhindo” on the menu), but which takes more time to prepare, we are served very tasty Thakali thalis which even I, no lover of dal/bhat, relished even without having the relish of achar.  Compared to the lakeside backpacker bistros serving over-priced ersatz dishes, the prices here are quite reasonable for authentic and hygienic home cooking: Rs 150 for a veg thali and 200 for non-veg. And you don’t need to go to Pokhara for a decent Thakali meal as I was told that they also have a branch in Kathmandu on Durbar Marg.

The next day as we got up early for the bus back to Kathmandu, the clouds had finally cleared and while Jill got an unobstructed view of Machapuchare at last, I got a last darshan of the banana tree!