I checked into my hotel in Pokhara completely oblivious as to what awaited me just around the corner of time. I had asked for a “deluxe” room and was given on on the corner of the building of the fourth floor. Both walls of the corner had big plate glass windows. The many who showed me to the room proudly showed me how I could see the mountains — mounds of green rising up behind the houses and empty lot that were across the road from the hotel from one of the windows. They were swathed in swirling clouds of what I did not know. Having read that Pokhara is now the second most polluted city after Kathmandu, I didn’t know if what I saw was clouds, fog, or smog. But the air filled fresh, so smog didn’t seem to be the likely candidate, tour book information not withstanding. That side also had a small balcony with two metal chairs and a small table. I could see a cow happily munching on the greenery that was growing along the edges of the empty lot. Plump and preoccupied he — or she — looked happy.
From the other window, I could see the lake for which this town is known. Phewa lake, a quiet idyllic lake with a tiny island in the middle that houses an even tinier temple, one person at a time please! Varahir Mandir is, according to my Lonely Planet guides, is Pokhara‘s most famous Hindu temple. It is dedicated to Vishnu, the preserver of the world, in his boar incarnation. Good to know that even gods of the universe have had to do their time on earth as animals. I had forgotten this. Certainly the line outside the temple the day that I went was a living testament to its fame. Not being a fan of crowds, I opted to only admire it from afar. I did not imagine that it was that much different from the Saraswati mundir, near my house that was about the same thing. I did wonder where all the gift baskets that were going into the door as each person leaned inside for their one moment of blessed time in the temple were going. Then I saw the big plastic trash bags of alms remnants outside and figured that someone must go in periodically and relieve the tiny space of its burgeoning pile of treasures of fruit, plastic ornaments, glittering paper, and all the other tidbits that one can buy from a small shop outside of the temple. Women create small plastic baskets filled with goodies for visitors to buy and leave at Vishnu’s door.
According to my guide, the only actually living residents in the temple are pigeons. You can also buy corn to feed the pigeons, or fish pellets to feed the fish in the lake. Apparently, the enterprise is an equal opportunity venture where all animal species, alive or dead, are nourished with their appropriate foodstuff — actual food if they are living, and the ornamentation that is appropriate for a god-animal if they are not..
The lake was filled with boats, blue and red wooden rowboats and passenger barges made out of row boats. Take two rowboats, place the side-by-side, lash boards across the top of them. Then add a square metal frame with metal benches long the sides and a tarp across the top and presto! You have a lucrative transportation business, especially during festival season when everyone is going to the temple dressed in their very best to offer alms to whoever resides in the temple. It reminded me of the pictures I have seen of people punting down slow moving rivers in movies. Along the edge there is a walking path, with small outdoor restaurants and a juice bar where I later got freshly squeezed pomegranate juice. Sidewalk vendors also sell pre-cut bite-size pieces of fruit but, although my mouth watered just from the sight of it every time I strolled down the path, I did not buy for fear of accidently encountering some delightful microbe who, once in my gut, would wreak havoc on the precious little time I had to wander around, not to mention the three long training days I had a head of me.
It was calming to look out my windows every day and see, on the one side, the peaceful lake and, on the other, the green foothills of the Anapurna range of the Himalayas. The operating word here is foothills.
On the second day of my stay, as I was resting on my bed after a hard day of window-shopping, bargaining and purchasing my way into financial oblivious, I looked out the window overlooking the hills as I had done since I arrived. I noticed that the air was clear and raised my eyes to view the tops of the mountains. Suddenly, I realized that what I was looking at was not clear blue sky but a huge white peak behind the hills. I caught my breath. There is a mountain there! A really really big mountain, craggy and covered in snow! The experience was, and still is for me, similar to what I experience when I look at optical illusion images — anamorphisms — where you can see two different images depending upon how you shift your perspective. This induces what is called “multistable perception” where there is a spontaneous alteration of perception because the sensory input is ambiguous. Well my vision was certainally multistable. I keep seeing the white peak as if nothing else existed, then the green hills without the peak. I mean, until this moment, I hadn’t even known it was there and I have been here for several days. The sharp contrast between the foreground in front of me — green hills — and the background behind — a mountain peak unlike anything I have ever seen in my life — left me speechless, with my vision alternating back and forth unable to fully comprehend what it was seeing for the few few seconds. Finally, the light dawned and I realized what I was looking at: THIS is the Himalayas… It is this that all the fuss is about!
It was my first sighting of the Himalayas and, in that moment, I understood why people had, for centuries, risked life and limb to get as close as they could to what can only be described as sheer magnificence and even that phrase doesn’t do it justice. I stood and stared. Time stood still. Life stopped. Breath was swept away. Nothing mattered but filling my eyes with a sight so grand that nothing else existed. Nothing. Machupuchare — I was meeting fishtail mountain for the first time and I didn’t even know her name.
The curious thing about viewing Himalayan peaks from below the foothills that protect them, and I did see more of the Anapurna sub-range of the Himalayas beyond Pokhara when I traveled to my training sights in the following days, is that they don’t look real. They look like they have been painted on a blue canvas as background to the green hills and towns beneath them. Perhaps it is the sharp contrast between their black edges, draped in white, and the bright blue of the sky that causes the illusion. Perhaps I simply am not used to seeing something like this and so my brain is still unable to accept the image for what it is.
Machabuchare isn’t even considered one of the seven natural wonders of the world. This isn’t even Mount Everest which has the highest summit above sea level of any mountain in the world!
Mt. Everest lies in the Mahalangur Himal sub-range of the Himalayas, southeast of the Annapurna sub-range. I can’t help but wonder: If Machupuchare affects me as it does, will l even live through my first sighting of of Chomolungma?
Leave it to the British to name the top of the world after a male British mountaineer and the arrogance of the Western world to keep it that way.
In Tibetan, her name is Chomolungma, meaning “mother goddess of the world”, or “goddess of the valley”. In Sanskrit, she is Sargamatha, “peak of heaven”. Whether she is heaven or a goddess, or both, which is probably the most likely, she is most certainly not a British man.