Annapurna Base Camp trek has been on my bucket list for long time since more than 12 years when I first came to know about it. It was in my subconscious as "tea-house" trek which would conjure up pictures of quaint, thatched roof rural dwellings in hills with wood-fired cooking, a complete rural setting. But in reality it was quite different, more about it later. The trigger for this trip was a newsletter from Indiahikes.com about upcoming treks. The moment I opened the page which had picture of Annapurna-I, I made up my mind to do this trek. Lately, I am on thought process to start fulfilling the wishes and not wait any longer for right time to come or after a certain milestone is achieved. May be I am getting older and feel like time is running out.
A normal route for this trek would be to go to Mumbai from Pune and take flight to Kathmandu but I had other plans. I wanted maximum bang for the time, so on finding Pokhara just ~300km above Gorakhpur, decided to go by train from Pune-Gorakhpur, then roam around Gorakhpur to Buddhist sites and some exploration in Gorakhpur itself. The train was also perfectly timed to leave from Pune on Saturday in the morning. For return, I immediately booked Gorakhpur-Delhi-Pune Air India flight which would take me to Pune in 5-6 hours. However, my onward plan got changed due to some bank work in Delhi. I took a special train from Anand Vihar, Delhi to Gorakhpur on 3rd April evening. To go to Pokhara one has to go up to Sanauli which is a town at the border with Nepal. Then cross over to Nepal by foot or rickshaw and then catch another bus to Pokhara. I barely researched about this route and left to figure things out.
|Map of Gorakhpur - Pokhara|
Reached Gorakhpur at 11:15 AM couple of hours late and thought that I would be in Pokhara by late evening oblivious to what lies ahead. I came out of Gorakhpur station on street which was quintessential chaotic station entry for any town in India. I sighted bus to Sanauli whose conductor was calling people frantically as if he was in hurry. Promising 15 minutes departure, the bus kept crawling around the place trying to get more passengers and finally left only after an hour. There was traffic jam due to vehicles stopped at whims and parked awkwardly with small shops and hawkers all spilling over the road. While waiting for bus to depart, had Bel (Jackfruit) juice which is rare to get.
|Gorakhpur Railway Station|
|Chaotic Gorakhpur street|
Once out of Gorakhpur the road up to Sanauli was good and bus moved fast. But it was just a hail a bus kind of bus with conductor trying to ask everyone on the road where they wanted to go. The towns were all single road towns with all business being carried on the road which led to incessant honking and delays. The countryside was pretty with acres and acres of fields with brown wheat ready to be harvested and occasional greenery. There were brick kilns as well which one doesn't get to see in Maharashtra.
|Brown wheat fields enroute to Sanauli|
|One of the towns enroute Sanauli|
|On the highway to Sanauli from Gorakhpur|
We passed through Campierganj, Pipi Ganj, Nautanwa and finally reached Sanauli. Sanauli was again crowded and dusty. There a rickshaw fellow talked me into utilising his service and prepared me before entering Nepal. He asked me if I was carrying Aadhar card, second whether I have Nepali cash. When answer in negative he asked me to change from a kirana shop. I changed Rs 4000 for which I got NR 6400 with ratio of 1:1.6 which was the case everywhere even in Nepal. The Indo-Nepal borders are fascinating. The chaotic street is there all the way up border. There is a gate on Indian and similarly on Nepali side separated some 20 meters. The buses on either side drop you around half a kilometer from border. One can cross over by foot or take a rickshaws. One can take personal vehicles across border but with extra paper work and trucks keep going either side of border. Note that Nepal is landlocked country and is dependent on India for all its resources which can be transported only by Trucks as they don't have any Railways worth mentioning. On Indian side, the train comes very close to border upto Nautanwa station.
|Sanauli bus stand|
The rickshaw crossed me over to Nepal side where a woman who wore official uniform asked me while I was seated on rickshaw about where I was going. I replied "ghoome ja raha hoon". This answer and a look at backpack later she was satisfied. Some folks approached me about where I was going and on asking about Pokhara they all turned away. One guy said that the bus will leave at 4:30pm. It was just 2 pm now so thought better go to Bhairahawa aka Siddharth Nagar bus stand which is a proper town. I was waiting and a car offered me to drop there for 50 NR. At the bus stand, they told me that bus will leave at 5:30pm and reach by 5pm is the morning! I had booked hotel at Pokhara and wanted to reach today so that I have tomorrow to rest and relax a bit. The bus stand was almost deserted and there wasn't much activity. I was then told that most "day service" buses to Pokhara leave by 1pm and it was 3pm now. Figuring out what to do a rickshaw puller told me to go to Butwal which is 25km away where I may find more buses as it is the junction where other routes meet like buses coming from Kathmandu. To go to Butwal there are rickety old hail a bus private buses. I got a bus immediately but it lousily carried forward. Since I crossed the border there was high wind which turned into a squall of dust and rain. The road from border upto Butwal was being broadened and had dug up road for quite some stretches. This made me all sweaty and covered with dust and mud. Basically, I got into Nepal clueless and welcomed by dust and squall. It rained a bit while on bus to Butwal which calmed the heat a little. Butwal bus stand was lively but on enquiry was told that bus is at 5:30PM which will reach Pokhara by 2AM. The taxi would take NR7000. I settled for fate and adventure and chose to go by bus and bought ticket. Turned out I had seat at the last row. The bus started on time and kept on taking passengers in between till it was full. Unable to sit at the back, came to front of the bus and rode on the steps or sacks belonging to passengers. The bus had old people, mothers with babies. I realised that this it the only economical option they have of travel in Nepal. They don't have railways and private travel could be expensive in hills. The bus stopped for dinner at Narayanganj where got taste of Nepali food which is Daal-Bhat-Tarkari. The driver drove quite fast from here on and we eventually reached Pokhara at 2am with me catching some sleep in between while I laid down on cloth spread by assistant in the alley. After getting down, got into taxi came to the hotel near lakeside. I had called the hotel about my late arrival and thankfully someone escorted to the room. It was a bit cold in Pokhara.
Pokhara is second largest city of Nepal and is base for treks around Annapurna region. Apart from trek there is paragliding, helicopter ride and other outdoor activities. One can come to Pokhara from Kathmandu or Sanauli from India. Nepal has extensive air services within the country but on the mercy of weather. The flight from Kathmandu to Pokhara takes 20 minutes whereas by road it's more than 6 hours. There are services to even smaller towns. From Sanauli or Bhairahawa there is no flight.
Woke up at 9:30am in Pokhara. It was time to take a walk down Pokhara town. Fewa lake is the main natural attraction in Pokhara. One can boat in the lake. Lot of people even do fishing. The tourist area is around the lake. It was late for a jog which is one of the things to do. The moment I stepped out first impression was that place is all properly developed and it is clean. There are hotels and restaurants and eateries and shops very well turned out. There were several western tourists out on the walk. The hotel was lakeside so immediately got to see the green lake. The touristy area is all around the lake for a kilometre or two. The lake itself was beautiful with green water and occasional boat in the lake.
|Nepalese folks enjoying ludo in park|
|Temple on the lake|
The shops were all well turned out and the staff had all manners to cater to westerners. Found a Marwari restaurant which has breakfast menu, paratha, sabzi, tea. I was skeptical but it was really very good. The paratha were crisp and bhaji really tasty. Returned back to hotel, washed up and again came out. There was a bicycle rental which I rented for 100 per hour. Cycled to the end of lake till the tourist area and came back. Went to Dam side and took pictures from different vantage points. Now it was getting hot and I was trying to rope in someone from trekking group for sightseeing. Had Ginger, lemon, honey tea ay German bakery and connected to WiFi which had password "whydoyouneedpassword?" Here every hotel, restaurant has multiple WiFi. The pass time is to go to restaurant, sip some drink and use WiFi. I didn't have phone connection so this was the only option to connect. After waiting for some time I decided to not waste time anymore and go on my own. I had seen a scooter rental so went there. The normal price is 1k for full day (petrol separate) but he agreed on 800 for the day left and 200 for 2 litre petrol. I took it and went first to World peace stupa. The approach is little away from town. Then there is a steep road for 10mins and climb for 10mins. The stupa was good and it gave panoramic view of whole Pokhara. Pokhara is a huge city nestled in valley at 900 meters height. The world peace stupas here and at other places have interesting history which was written in stone slab.
|World Peace Stupa|
|Pokhara view from World Peace Stupa|
|Buddha statue at World Peace Stupa|
Having plenty of time left, I decided just to take a ride in the main city. The traffic in the main city was just like any other indian city but a little in order and traffic policemen were organising the traffic well. Then came to Lakeside area and again took a ride around the lake. Had momos at one of the shops. Then finally returned the vehicle. At 7pm the trekking group was slated to meet not very far from hotel. 8th April to 13th April was going to to be spent with trekking group to Annapurna Base Camp.
We returned safely to Pokhara previous day evening and celebrated it. I checked into same hotel where I stayed earlier and booked morning bus and taxi for Bhairahawa. Started from hotel at 6:00am. The hotel guy dropped me at the bus stop. This time bus was decent with push back seats and LED TV. Today the Annapurna range was clearly visible from Pokhara bus stand. There was tea and snacks shop at bus stand. Found boiled tea for the first time.
|Pokhara bus stand with view of Annapurna Range|
|Bus which I travelled on going to Lumbini|
|UP Roadways bus to Gorakhpur from Sanauli|
|High-class Marwari bhojanalaya|
|High-class Marwari bhojanalaya|
Today woke up at Gorakhpur. In the morning took a stroll to look for breakfast and tea which I found road side. Rs 15 for poori-sabzi and nearby kulhad chai for Rs 5.
|Poori sabzi stall|
|Hall at Gorakhnath Temple|
|Religious books at Gorakhnath Temple|
|Golghar chowk in Gorakhpur|
Apart from Air India, there is Spicejet flight as well to Delhi. After check-in just waited for flight which was delayed by an hour. The security was done diligently and was told strictly not to take any photos due to it being Air Force field. The flight was decent and landed at Delhi T3 just 40 minutes left for my flight. Thankfully, the connecting flight was on time and still boarding when I reached the gate. After 1 hour 45 minutes landed at Pune safe and sound and was home by 9:45pm.