A nice day hike around Pokhara, Nepal.

The skyline above Pokhara is normally dominated by the epic snow and stone bulk of Machapuchare, one of those incredible Himalayan peaks that are unbelievably…themselves.  We caught a look at it one afternoon when the monsoon clouds parted, and the word “breathless” comes to mind.

The rest of the time though we were locked in monsoon downpours, which filled the streets, air, and ear canals with rainwater and its various associated beauties, although day by day the frequency of wafting mildew smells increased.  I fear for the redeemability of my raincoat…

With the skies both high and low filled with gray clouds, the role of landmark switched to a white dome that sits on one of the steep jungle-sided ridges above the lake.  The World Peace Pagoda was built and destroyed and built again over the course of 30 years, and is intended to serve as a focal point and inspiration for peoples of all faiths, races, and creeds to come together and move towards world peace.

Inspired by meeting Gandhi, and after seeing Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a Buddhist monk from Japan named Nichidatsu Fiji decided to build 100 of them to help bring about a prophesied change in consciousness.  The one in Pokhara was number…um…71 I think?  Wikipedia says as of 2000 there were 80 of them worldwide.

There are three ways to get to the one above Pokhara.  The easy way is to take a taxi to just below it.  The middle way is to row (or be rowed) across the lake then climb the stairs/trail up, which takes about an hour.  The scenic route goes through the jungle and takes about two hours.

This week our peace and tranquility received a boost from a nationwide taxi and bus strike (except for those who needed buses and taxi’s, whose tranquility was additionally challenged) so the easy route was out of the question (although we didn’t know it at the time, not looking the gift horse of taxi hustler absence in the mouth).

Some other friends wanted to row around the lake, so we rented a rowboat and crossed together, then I climbed the stairs with two fantabulous Welsh co-volunteers named Gareth and Louise.  The first part was in hard sunshine, and after 45 minutes of steep climbing I was a pretty sweaty fella.  There is a pre-top viewpoint from where we looked down over the valley, and doused ourselves from a hose sticking out of the hillside.

We resumed climbing and quickly met a descending family of intensely likeable Indians.  The lead member was a holy man (I assume) in the full orange robes.  When he saw Gareth’s rugby-player physique, adorned by a tasteful amount of tattooing, he reportedly said “wow, look at you!” and asked to take a picture.  When he came around a corner and met me he said simply “sweaty.”

He sees right to the heart of things.  I responded that some of it was water, and he amiably gave me advice on how much to drink to ensure proper digestive health.  It was an awesome conversation to have with an awesome person in an awesome place.

We finished the last 10 minutes of the ascent, during which it began pouring again (I love a well-timed shower) and viewed the pagoda in warm rain and solitude.  You could dimly see the town below through the rain, and the sky blended into the lake in one thick pewter band.

As we headed for the 2 hour trail back down to town, we met a pair of Japanese men who counseled me to put my sandals back on since they had each been bitten by a leech on their way up.  I put my imitation teva’s on and begged a big scoop of salt from the restaurant up there.

We followed the trail down through beautiful jungle, listening to light rain on the leaves above us, alternating between the slickness of wet clay and the sponginess of water-logged soil and leaf-matter.  The afternoon was getting a tad dim when the trail ended in jungle.  Oops.

We backtracked to a side trail that I had advised against since it looked to me more like the water runoff path than the actual trail.  It soon dissolved into jungle too, but I stubbornly resisted, pushing through verdant growth and remarkably thick and numerous spiderwebs to see if the trail continued below.  I finally admitted that it didn’t and turned around just as the first leech took a bite of my ankle.

I scraped him off and we started backtracking again.  I had a second bite before we regained the original trail, and when I paused to remove it, I could see the jungle floor begin to come alive once I held still, little tubes of bloodsucking intent inchworming their way at the bare skin of my feet with impressive speed.

Louise was less than enthusiastic about the prospect of the little feeders, and I wasn’t too keen myself, so we set off again towards the pagoda at a healthy pace.  The prospect of climbing all the way and spending the night in my wet Tshirt in the sparely appointed guesthouse there wasn’t ideal, so when I saw something maybe possibly resembling a trail again, I offered to explore it to see if it was valid.  I think there was at least one thought behind me along the lines of “WTF are you doing, American, that is jungle, not a path” and was about to give up when I saw the regular line of a real trail a bit ahead.

We forged across and made the trail in time to salt a few more leeches off our ankles.  The bites keep bleeding after the little buggers are gone, and my half dozen holes were making the soles of my sandals sticky with blood.  I had one bite between my second and third toes, and that one in particular was seeping pretty good.

I had my fake teva’s, so had good foot access and visibility, Louise had flip-flops, which made walking difficult and traction impossible, but response-time quick and thorough monitoring much easier, and she escaped fairly close to unscathed.

Gareth had a pair of low canvas shoes, and after walking for a bit said “I think I have one in my shoe.  I can feel something.”  That stretch of trail was relatively clear clay, so we stopped so he could check.  He took off the shoe to reveal a half dozen of the fatest specimens we had yet seen, all contentedly bleeding him dry.

When you put salt on a leech, nothing happens for a second, then they hunch up and you can feel their little stabbing part retract from inside your skin.  You have to flick it off quickly then, or they will simply bite again.  When you do this, they leave enough anti-coagulant gunk in the hole that you keep bleeding for a good little while.

A little blood doesn’t bother a rugby player, and after some foot tilting to give my salt-applying fingers access to his unauthorized passengers, he was bare skin and leaking blood, and we got ready to descend again.  It only took a minute to get rid of his feeders, but when I looked at what had previously been clear clay ground, it was a roil of soft little bodies charging at us from all sides.

We made it out of the jungle eventually, still feeling the phantom tugs and pricks of leeches, especially from places where enough blood had pooled to clot, which then felt as slick and lumpy as the leech who created the phenomenon in the first place.  Luckily none of the spiders seem to have discharged biting plaintiffs.

From the pagoda, there is a path to the southernmost part of the tourist town along the lake, called Damside, and another path to a local town farther in, whose name I don’t remember.  Turns out in our jungle adventure time we crossed from the former to the latter, so when we eventually emerged from the depths of green leaves and gray bodies we still had a good long walk ahead of us.

We managed to kinda sorta get a bit lost again, giving us additional claim to the scenic route, through towns that stared at us as exotics, though after all being placed in host families and local schools, none of us really noticed.

We had made plans with the rowers to meet up at 7:00 PM for dinner, four hours after leaving them on the lake.  When we rocked up almost an hour late, they took one look at us and their irritation dissolved like a blood clot in the shower.  We went back to our respective hostels and guest houses for a quick wash, then went to get a restorative dinner.

Gareth had met the heartiest feeders, and his puncture wounds were still seeping steadily.  The waiter was peering at our bloody feet and ankles, and when he heard the word leeches he said “Leeches?  Did you walk to Peace Pagoda?”