Makeover day was yesterday, today is a new day in Pokhara as the footpaths are swept and the city wakes to the repetitive tune of a tourist town mixed with local heart and clashed cultures. We’re scrubbed and pretty sauntering morning streets awash with people carrying laden trays of pastries surrounded by fresh fruit and veg being unloaded from baskets and trucks alike. But don’t let this fool you, Pokhara isn’t just sidewalk momo’s and lakeside beers, there’s a serious side to pokhara, very serious indeed. While we float through the incense induced haze of another indulgent day, Pokhara simultaneously rolls into another day of fierce combat Gurka style. Gorka province has been the most hard hit by the earthquake and it’s from the name of the hill town of Gorka that the world is blessed with the Gurka name, the fiercest soldiers on the planet.
Pokhara is the recruitment and initiation hub for the Gurkas identifiable by their iconic heavy curved Kukri knives. Forget Navy Seals, discount the SAS or Girl Guides, the Nepalese soldiers in the British army are the kings and it takes just one look at the recruitment to understand why. In the poorest nation in Asia, four main ethnic groups make up the bulk of the Gurkas: Gurungs, Magars, Rais and Limbus, all of which live in the high mountains of east and west Nepal. Any Nepali who qualifies for the Gurkas is entitled to retire in England on a British pension offering an avenue to support a family beyond what many Nepalis could ever hope for, motivations run high. In a mix of fanatic military devotion and the typically flexible human rights of a poor nation Gurkas are put through their paces like no other. One test sees the hopefuls run 5km up a mountain with 25kg strapped over their foreheads. Participants often carry on with broken bones such is the desire to become a Gurka where only the absolute finest and fittest are selected.
Sitting here with my yoghurt banana muesli and macchiato that’s very nice to know yet so far away, a fleeting image of men and women carrying immense loads up mountains only reinforces the mystical toughness of the Nepali. I’ll stick with my coffee and muesli thanks. Far from the torturous fight to become a Gurka a bus will take us to the top of a mountain ourselves today, Saringkot overlooks Pokhara like a silent sentry ever on duty. A little argy-bargy sees us on a bus and heading up roads that unerringly seem a little small for what they’re asked to channel on our way to a pinnacle view of the Annapurnas. It’s the back side of the range this time and no less stunning burning under the morning gaze of a new days sun.
Running all the way down to the sprawling Pokhara city the mountainsides are carved with terraced mini-farms and ramshackle homes in a scene of humble life that by Nepali standards is probably quite well off. It might be on a steep slope just like this that potential Gurkas from the ranks of people below throw themselves into fervent torture to be one of the precious few. Such adversity and desperation seems so out of place from this perch that is simply quite pretty, elegant even. But we’ve seen it over and over again, Nepal has many facets but none more so than the twin bastions of breathtaking scenery and tough humble people; If I were to think an accurate summary vision of Nepal, I could do a lot worse than this.
Watch the paragliding video.
As the Nepali throw themselves with no regard for their physical bodies into Gurka initiation we also now throw ourselves to the wind in our own way. It’s a smooth but steep run down to the city; so inspired by the bravest of people and the mountains that promise us any possibility we begin our walk to the steeper drop off before us. Filled with the mystique of this land of drama and the sacrifice and toil of these people we walk to the edge and so incongruously begin to run; faster, filled with the desire of those gurkas surging impossibly uphill on broken bones we run to the edge. The mountains promise impossibility as the edge draws nearer, still we run blinded by that promise.
We fill our hearts with the desires of a Gurka and launch our bodies to the promise of a mountain; an act of faith maybe. The canopy opens and we are lifted, soaring to the skies like a fable of centuries past: a test of true faith rewarded in divine flight. Ok possibly there’s no act of faith at all and there might not even be a divine godly hand reaching down from the sky, we’re paragliding but for an instant all these rushing emotions take hold in the uplift of a parachute. Charlie slices the sky directly above me while a vulture borne on massive wings eyes me curiously on a pass that is too close to believe. The strings from the stage rigging above holding us just above the crowd as the heavy canvas artwork of an overly dramatic mountain range fills the back of stage. It feels like an over the top stage production but it’s real, we’re flying in the Himalayas and it’s hard not to feel like the promise of a mountain has been bestowed upon us.
My expected adrenaline rush is nowhere to be found; in its place a sense of serenity, peace and wonder for this world of great mountains, tough people and gracious birds. We soar, we float, we fly seated as easily as those great birds of prey. I skim so close to a tree near the landing I kick the branches sending a bird fluttering for safety before a spiral of acrobatics to deliver an adrenaline rush to round out the experience. We touch down on the flats of the city; the mountains make no promises any more as we sit now below those that might be fighting their way up the hill to become brave Gurkas. On the promised flight of a mountain we’ve been taken from the view of a Gurka to the dreams of a potential one. The view uphill is immense and one these people take in their stride so stoically, life for most Nepali has so much uphill. From here it’s clear that the Gurkas aren’t the only brave Nepalis but a mere expression of the whole, a nation of Gurkas lifted like birds by the promise of mountains.