We arrived in Pokhara on the back of a bus from Kathmandu a week ago. I’d heard stories about the journey and expected the worst. Long, uncomfortable, bumpy, vomit-inducing. I loaded up on anti-travel sickness meds and resigned myself to a 7-10 hour journey. We were promised seats at the front of the bus when we booked tickets. I didn’t hold my breath. We stood at a local petrol station and watched as bus after bus with the word “TOURIST” plastered across their front drove past, none of them the bus company we were booked with. A total of 45 different bus companies leave Kathmandu for Pokhara every morning and as our wait approached the 1hr mark, it felt like we’d seen them all. Finally a bus pulled up, not the one we were supposed to be on, but the one we were apparently getting on regardless. We were told our bus wasn’t leaving today for an unspecified reason, so we’d be taking this one instead. They tried, unsuccessfully, to ram our rucksacks into the already full luggage area. They gave up. It seemed we’d be sharing our footwells with our rucksacks for the journey. We got into the last four seats on the bus, near the back, and were finally on our way. They handed out water bottles and sick bags. Always a good sign, that.
In the end, despite a few enormous pot-holes that threw us around like fairground bumper cars and several sections that felt like we were in an olympics slalom race, the journey was ok. We had rest stops to get out, use the toilet and stretch our legs, and stopped for breakfast and lunch. I kept myself dosed-up and didn’t feel sick at all. The kids played on screens and slept. The portable battery pack was a god-send.
The views out the windows were of a dry and dusty landscape. Lorries hurled themselves up and down the road along with the buses, spewing exhaust fumes into the air. Factories and brickworks housed chimney stacks billowing black smoke. Everything near the road – living or otherwise – was covered in a film of sandy-coloured dust, muting it’s vibrancy. A brown haze hung over the valley, obscuring the distant views of the Himalayas and robbing them of their majesty, making their pristine white peaks look dingy and dull.
We were still so far away, I felt sure that as we neared Pokhara the views would improve. We were visiting in the winter when the air is cool but the views are supposed to be distant and clear. I’d seen pictures of Pokhara after all, its pristine lake reflecting the clear mountainous peaks surrounding the city. But I of all people should know that pictures don’t always show the whole truth. And what was true in the past may no longer be true in the present. My disappointment grew with our proximity to the city. We drove into Pokhara mid-afternoon and the mountains surrounding it were still barely visible through the thick haze that hung in the air. Perhaps it was just a bad day?
When I woke to the same views the next day I feared not. I turned to Google. I asked it, “Why is the haze in Pokhara so bad?” and one of the first results was a recent article titled “Air Pollution Problem Could Disrupt Nepal’s Tourism Industry“. It went on to describe how South Asia’s apparently notorious “Asian Brown Cloud” has become a problem in Nepal in recent years. This cloud forms as a result of smoke from slash and burn agriculture, emissions from vehicles, and industrial pollution and comprises a mixture of pollutants including toxic ash, black carbon, sulphate, nitrates, and aerosols. The prevailing winter westerly winds then distribute this toxic, hazy concoction across Nepal’s hills and mountains from November to April. So, it seems the haze is here to stay.
When I read that article, my heart sank. I’d been holding onto the hope that in a few days it might clear up, an aberrant weather system that just settled in briefly. Alas, no. And the haze can persist up to about 3,000m, a height that we aren’t planning to go above while trekking the Annapurnas, because of the kids. I hold out slim hope that maybe up in the mountains the weather system and valleys might somehow hold off the haze, and we’ll get good views; my gut sinks at the possibility that we’ve come all the way to the Himalayas and may never get a clear view of them. I need some time to readjust, the get used to disappointment and focus on other aspects of the trip. Truth be told, I didn’t realise how much I’d be upset about this, but the photographer in me can’t bloody stand it!
I stand along the shore of Fewa lake, where once mirror-like reflections of Machapuchare, Daulagiri and other mountains from the Annapurna range could be seen atop its aquamarine surface. Now the lake waters are cloudy and turned green from silt and pollution. I stare up at the mountain peaks through the haze, and wonder how much more of the world’s beauty humankind will consume, if anything truly pristine will be left for our children, our grandchildren.