I have no idea how to hike to the World Peace Pagoda, AKA “the stupa,” so I arrange for a taxi to take me there and bring me back. Sunset is supposed to be the best time to go. The driver picks me up at the Harvest Moonat at 4:30pm in another tiny clown car. I have to duck my head so as not to hit it on the roof of the cab, but my efforts are in vain – we plummet through the city, and I’m jostled and tossed in the backseat like a sack of potatoes, my head thumping upon the car roof every few seconds. I end up pressing my hands against the ceiling so I won’t be completely brain-damaged by the time I arrive.
We ascend a steep hill, and the road changes from kind of paved, kind of not, to most decidedly not. It twists and winds ever upwards, and the cab driver slows to a crawl in order to make the sharp turns without sending us flying out over the city below. I can see brush and tangled grass and rock. A young couple walks together through the dust, their motorbikes parked alongside the road like a pair of waiting steeds. Higher and higher we go, the ascent is alarmingly swift, until the city below begins to reveal its true size – this is not a tiny town at all! It’s only the tourist area that’s tiny. The rest of Pokhara scrambles toward the lake, choking, like a crowd of frightened movie goers bottlenecking for the exit door. The lake sparkles far below like an elixir of life – it is the sun, and every crumbling building in the city stretches toward it like a starving palm.
The taxi, now sweating and sputtering with the effort of climbing a mountain not meant to be climbed by a tiny clown car, lurches itself onto a parking lot plateau like an exhausted trekker. He parks, I get out, and manage to communicate that I expect he’ll be waiting for me when I return. I don’t know how long I have here, but the sun is threatening to walk if I don’t pay him the attention he deserves, and soon.
Several houses, shops and restaurants have sprung up around the steps leading to the World Peace Pagoda, and I can see the homes of mountain rice farmers resting in contradiction along adjacent peaks – small shacks with thatched roofs, the tiniest ramshackle abodes set atop the entire world. Humble peasants made rich with a king’s view. I emerge atop a flat, wide green with a single, straight path leading to the stupa.
A great, white monument with a rounded dome, the World Peace Pagoda was only built in 1973. The wide yard split by a single, straight path conjures images of the Taj Mahal. But I’ve come so far to finally be here, to finally reach the top. It’s too much to just march straight up and look the stupa in the eye. I wander around the grounds, reading plaques set next various statues and relics. The sun continues to pout, refusing to stick around longer just for me.
The entire Annapurna range stretches before me, more massive and higher than my mind can possibly conceive of. It’s the first time in my life when I truly can’t believe my eyes. The mountains are so high, so white, that if you looked quickly you’d mistake them for clouds. And yet the peaks float above the clouds, which hang around their necks like fuzzy clown collars. I am overwhelmed in the most wonderful way. I stroll from one side of the yard to the other – there truly is a panoramic view of the city, the lake, the mountains, the never-ending fields of green and brown that stretch across the earth in undisturbed patchwork. I see that the lake is not in fact round, as I’d imagined, but that it curves quite sharply to the west, creating a bottleneck where boats cannot pass through. I see pinks and oranges flickering on the white mountain peaks as the sun gives me one final chance to drink in its blessed light.
The stupa itself is unimpressive; modern and white-washed with the occasional golden relic presented upon a shelf that has been carved out of the building’s foundation. I’m somewhat incensed that one can’t “go inside” the stupa – it’s really just a monument, not a building that can be entered. Shoes must be removed before ascending the steps. A man begins speaking to me in rapid Nepali, forcing me back down the stairs. At first I think I’ve missed a ticket booth somewhere and am supposed to have paid, but I quickly realize that I’ve climbed too many stairs.
Women kneel and pray at each golden incarnation of the Buddha. My thoughts turn to the strangeness of religion in Nepal – I thought it would be filled with Tibetan Buddhist monks, yet everywhere I look are altars to Ganesh and Shiva. Hari and Shova are Hindu. The people who “look Indian” seem to be Hindu, while the people who “look Tibetan” or Chinese seem to be Buddhist. It feels like a Hindu country to me, so I find it ironic that the defining monument of Pokhara itself is a Buddhist stupa, and that Nepal is the birthplace of the Buddha himself.
I beg the sun for a few more minutes but he’s stubborn, slipping behind the horizon and leaving nothing but streaks of fading twilight. My cab driver is waiting for me as promised, and we begin the treacherous descent back to town. I brace my hands against the car ceiling to shield my head from further blows, and relish one of my favorite feelings in the world: I see the evening stretching out before me in all its glory. I’m in a festive mood, the sheer awesomeness of the mountain range infusing me with energy and anticipation.