Thursday, March 30, 2017
20 Pools - A Swimming Odyssey: Pool # 12: Himalayan Villa, Pokhara, Nepal
Unlike Atlantis, Shangri-la actually exists. It's called Pokhara and I discovered it in 1991 while traveling through the Himalayas. Pokhara is a vibrant city hugging a mountain lake in the Kaski district of central Nepal. The town is dominated by the 28,000 foot Annapurna Range and is lorded over by the 22,000-foot mountain god, Machipuchare (Mat-sa-poo-ser-ee).
Known by locals as the "Fish Tail" mountain, it is the most stunning site my eyes have ever processed. On my trip in 1991 I went on a thigh-busting three-hour hike, most of it up ancient stairs, to the top of Sarangkot, the highest point inside the city limits. It was cloudy when I started the hike so I didn't have any idea what awaited me on the top. As I reached the summit, huffing and puffing, I was greeted by the gigantic fish tail floating in the distance, yet covering most of the horizon - as if it were part of a separate planet. I'd lived in the Alps for four years and thought nothing could be more stunning than the peaks of Central Swizterland or the Dolomites north of Venice. But this mountain pulverized me to the core. Locals revere it as a god and nobody is allowed to climb it. I sat down on a bench and immediately joined their church. I really didn't have a choice in the matter.
Fast forward to 2016 and I was befriended at a disability festival by a group of wheelers from Pokhara. There were wheelers from all over Asia, but once I saw the image of Machipuchare on their T-shirts, I knew I had found my tribe. After eating and dancing with my new friends, I returned to my hotel to find one of them Sita KC, staying at my hotel. We became fast friends and she invited me to stay at her accessible house in Pokhara . I told her I would come as soon as I could figure out my work schedule at the SIRC.
Unfortunately, it took me much longer than anticipated to get my filming project going at the SIRC. I had messaged a few times with Sita but I just couldn't squeeze out any time to head over. Finally with just two weeks left in my trip and most of my video project in the can, I had time to make my pilgrimage. Sita was returning from a trip to Thailand so the two of us, along with one of her friends, rented a car from Kathmandu and drove west to Pokhara.
The main reason anyone goes to Nepal is to cast their eyes on the biggest mountains in the world. Unfortunately I had only seen the mountains around the Kathmandu Valley a handful of times. Most days pollution blocked their view and the monsoon came a month early meaning it rained constantly towards the end of my trip.
As we got further away from Kathmandu, the clouds showed signs of giving way to the giant peaks to the North. Then just an hour outside of Pokhara, the tips of the Annapurna Range stuck their heads over the veil and there was hope that I might again gain an audience with Machipuchare.
As we arrived in the outskirts of Pokhara, another unfathomable feature of Shangri-la appeared: The city was spotless. This was my fifth trip to the Sub-Continent and one thing that has greeted me everywhere I've been has been mountains of trash. Trash on the roadways; trash in the rivers; trash in the air. It is the single most striking feature of travel in the region and the main reason people vow never to return. It is a civic embarrassment that only recently is being addressed.
But in Pokhara, not only do they have routine garbage pickup, they have a different mentality: It's nothing fancy - they just don't litter. And that's all it takes.
We weaved through the cleanest town in Southeast Asia until we pulled into Sita's home stay. She showed me my room but, before I unpacked my bag, she yelled at me to come back outside. I hurried out the door and there lurking above the mountain mist stood my god. I had been gone for 25 years but the mountain most likely hadn't even recorded the time passing. For me it was a reaffirmation of everything I'd stored in my memory banks during that time. The mountain god was still the most stunning sight I've ever seen.
The next day it was cloudy so we went in search of a swimming pool to pass the time. The Himalayan Villa Resort, one of the most expensive hotels in the country was just a few hundred meters from Sita's house. They had a pool, but it turned out to be the most expensive pool of my trip. It cost $7.00 to get in, but seeing as even educated Nepalis make about $6 a day, it was like paying $80 or $90 in the States.
But to its' credit, it was the most accessible pool of my trip. There were ramps to get to the deck and only one step to get into locker rooms. The pool was empty when we got there (seven of us) so we hopped in and loudly splashed around. I showed Sita how to breathe and swim at the same time and she took to it perfectly. She'd tried swimming before, but this time she really got how it worked.
Eventually I carved out an hour to knock back 80 laps (it was a 20-yard pool) and work off enough calories to deserve the huge served back at the guest house. We had so much fun at the pool that Sita decided we needed to do it again. She looked online and found an even bigger and better pool: Pool # 13: The Penguin Pool, Pokhara