Pokhara: Safari in Nepal

I am Jamie Mehrotra and I travel with the purpose of stretching my boundaries, to see my small place in the world from a different perspective, which is why Africa felt like the ultimate destination for so many years. The wide open space is mind-blowing; the people, so warm; the contrasts, so grand. In thinking about my last journey to India and Nepal, those are the very reasons I felt so much at home in two countries that share very little with my life in Connecticut.

I’m a scenery freak, a sucker for the scenic outlook. Nothing touches my soul like natural beauty. The safari experience for me is about great beauty, interesting people, good food and accommodation and a disconnect with daily life. Patagonia, the Maasai Mara/Serengeti and Nepal are my ultimate happy places and Nepal’s Tiger Mountain Lodge in Pokhara (where I would have stayed a week if given the chance to do it all over) is my idea of perfection: an intimate, understated, socially responsible lodge in a perfect location. Our driver picked us up from the airport and it took about 45 minutes to wind through town and up the mountain. I made the poor man pull over for a picture every 50 feet as we’d go around another corner and the terraced rice fields, towns below, and bucolic scenery became increasingly enchanting.

My mouth literally fell open when we reached the lodge and Fishtail Peak and the Annapurna Range was splayed out in splendor from the lobby. I thought I was in heaven and then we sat down for lunch-all organically grown from the garden or sourced from local farmers. Yak cheese, tangelo marmalade, passion fruit sorbet. After traditional thali lunch, we needed to stretch our legs so we went out for a village walk with Sam, one of the many amazing guides at Tiger Mountain who also happens to be from the local community.

Once we made it down the mountain, we said hello to a woman who grows coffee, made friends with some kids who loved making peace signs and taking selfies with our phones, and got to take a turn on the world’s best tree swing set up by the community for the Dashain and Diwali holidays.

Crossing behind some houses, we learned about a plant that you could blow bubbles from by snapping the stem and rubbing the two parts together, and flowers that closed as soon as you touched them. We learned about local farming and agriculture and the challenges Nepal faces in trying to hold onto working age people; those who aren’t farmers have few opportunities and many migrate. Sam introduced me to nearly everyone in Nepal it seemed, and then we stumbled across his daughter’s friend Mahananda playing on the trail near her house. We were quickly invited back to meet her family, offered tea, and started chatting about school as though we were neighbors.

The next day, Sam and I set off for a 6 hour trek that I billy-goated in 4-climbing up narrow trails and rice paddies, through villages, and finally to the site of an ancient fort, the highest ground in the area with views over the mountain ranges including 3- 8,000+ meter peaks on the one side, and lake on the other. I got to hold a baby goat along the way and we made friends with a local dog who decided to climb up and back with us. Tiger Mountain had all the makings of a safari camp-attentive staff, lantern lit pathways, coffee and tea service in the morning to watch the sunrise from your deck, fully inclusive treks to your heart’s desire, and a genuine authenticity to share their love of their little corner of the world.

In Kathmandu I suggest a full day exploring historic Durbar Square and the spectacular Swayambhunath Stupa. The short climb up to the stupa is absolutely idyllic-the stone streets are lined with ancient houses, strewn with prayer flags, and scented with incense. A quick look out shows the deep Kathmandu Valley and although you can’t quite see the Himalayas or Annapurna ranges, you know they aren’t far beyond the clouds. The stupa itself is magical-the sun glistening off the golden spire, a gentle breeze ringing the bells, and Buddha’s watchful eyes gazing down. Some pilgrims arrived a little while after us and added to the otherworldliness of the moment, playing their drums and tambourines, chanting as they circled the stupa.

I’m more of the beach bum than mountain climber on the EJ Team so my idea of Everest (other than the beer) was to see it from the air. Buddha Air offers morning scenic flights along the Himalayas and they even let you take photos from the cockpit while the pilots are flying- flashback to my ride in the co-pilot’s seat around Kilimanjaro. The flight attendants pointed out all the major mountains in the range that I highly recommend other people trek, and I ended the morning with a certificate of my achievement. Even though it was the cheater’s version of Everest and I have friends that have great things to say about the tea house treks to base camp, the sheer beauty and magnificence of these mountains is not to be downplayed, regardless of how you see them. Flying at eye level with the peaks and looking down to the valley floor where I stood the day before was simply surreal.

The taste of heaven that I visited combines easily with India’s Golden Triangle (more about that to come) or trekking to see snow leopard, or staying at a game park in India such as Kazaringa (rhino, elephant, tiger and leopard to name just a few of the species found here). Knowing that the wonder and enchantment I treasure about Africa thrives in other parts of the world makes exploring these new corners even more exciting. You just have to know where to look.

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