The hills bordering Phewa Lake offer incredible views of Pokhara. Picture: Ronan O'Connell

The final steps, strangely enough, are the easiest. Glancing over my left shoulder, the view is so striking it seemingly fuels my body to scale the steep dirt path to my chosen vantage point.

The culmination of a two-hour hike leaves me bereft of both breath and speech. The serrated, snow-draped peaks of the Annapurna range are reflected in the crystalline waters of Phewa Lake as they loom above the city of Pokhara in Nepal.

At a height of 8091m, Annapurna 1 is an imposing and inspiring mountain amid a range which boasts a number of other peaks in excess of 7000m.

This is the sort of view for which people would pay a fortune. Yet it has cost me nothing after crossing the lake from Pokhara, Nepal's second-largest city which was last year named the cheapest travel destination in Asia.

My experience staying in the city supports this ranking, atop the annual Asia Backpacker Index conducted by the priceoftravel.com website.

Accommodation, food and drink, activities, transport, souvenirs, clothes and jewellery are all staggeringly inexpensive in Pokhara.

My single hotel room near Phewa Lake offers a clean, spacious resting place, a basic but filling buffet breakfast each morning and mesmerising views of the Annapurnas from my bed. It costs $13 a night.

Moreover, the main attraction in Pokhara - its stunning surrounds - can be explored free on foot. One day I hike to a lookout which offers an astounding vista of the Annapurnas. The next I traverse the edge of the lake and beyond, cutting through quaint villages.

My final adventure sees me scale a hill cloaked in monkey-filled jungle where I uncover what appear to be ancient ruins.

Pokhara is segmented into the main city and the small and quieter aptly named Lakeside area.

About six hours by bus from Kathmandu, Lakeside's gentle pace is a tonic after the bustle of the Nepalese capital. Spread along the eastern perimeter of Phewa Lake, it's popular with budget travellers and well supplied with restaurants, hostels, souvenir shops and trekking agencies which cater to foreign visitors.

There is, however, none of the pressurised touting common to such backpacker sanctuaries across Asia. Offers of a trekking tour are delivered politely as you walk the streets.

Pokhara is one of Asia's most renowned hiking destinations, with many travellers using it as a starting point for voyages into the Annapurnas.

Guided day treks to viewing locations such as Sarangkot, on the outskirts of the city, can be arranged from $40. Those wishing to travel deep into the nearby mountain range can join organised treks ranging from a week up to a month. The average cost, including food, guides and accommodation, is about $80 per day.

My limited time in Pokhara sees me decline such offers as I wander Lakeside. I rarely buy souvenirs but find the area a pleasant place to shop for presents. For just $4 I buy an intricately carved wooden box of Nepali tea.

The memento will later travel with me to Ireland where it will be given to an aunt, who finds it to be a delightful receptacle for jewellery. Meanwhile, her husband will hang the $3 Nepalese wind chimes by their front door.

After selecting these presents, I tuck them in my backpack and head to the water's edge. Phewa Lake is a brilliant site from which to absorb the serenity and beguiling scenery of Pokhara.

A queue of tourists haggles with vendors over the cost of rowing boats.

Prices range from $4 to cross to the lake's western perimeter to $13 for two hours meandering its waters, including a rower.

Most tourists select the former option, relaxing, chatting and snapping photos as the young rowers power them in a leisurely arc around the lake, stopping briefly at the small island which houses Barahi Temple.

Overhead, the fair sky is painted with the vibrantly coloured wings of paragliders which take off from the surrounding hills.

Although cruising around the lake seems a lovely experience, I have a different plan.

From Lakeside I've spotted a man-made structure, perhaps a lookout point, high atop a hill above the western side of the lake. It's a long hike but it must have extraordinary views.

A row-boat drops me at the foot of the heavily vegetated hill, which appears to have grown in height since I first spied it.

After a 30-minute ascent of roughly-cobbled steps, I pierce the dense forest to reach the Shanti Stupa, also known as the World Peace Pagoda.

From the gardens which enclose the towering religious structure, I get my most unimpeded view of the Annapurnas.

A dozen or so other tourists are being offered a similar reward for their labour.

For most of them, the pagoda is an end point.

For me it is just a signpost on my determined journey onward to that distant, lofty structure which promises mythically marvellous views.

So I push on, following narrow gravel trails which snake around the hill past quaint homes from which stream children intrigued and amused by the large, lumbering foreigner.

One group of teenage boys insist I join them in their game of Carrom. They erupt in laughter each time I make clumsy attempts to take part. It is hard to concentrate on a game played against a backdrop so devastatingly distracting.

I point over their shoulders at the Annapurnas and ask them what it is like to live in such a magnificent location. But they don't speak English and are clearly too invested in the outcome of the game to fritter away time ogling nature.

Eventually, I extract myself from the enthusiastic posse and complete one last difficult trail which leads me to my destination.

Incredibly and thrillingly, I find no other tourists, just a 10m-high viewing platform and three elderly Nepali women perched on its steps.

As I walk between them to scale the tower they wave and chuckle. Moments later I lean on a guard rail, drawing deep breaths as I seem to look down upon one of the highest mountain ranges in the world.

For two hours I stand and stare. I am alone, save for the faint chatter of the women below.

It is a serene experience which far outstrips those for which I have previously paid significant sums of money.

There is no doubt about it - Pokhara is incredible value.

FACT FILE

The best time of year to visit Pokhara is between November and April when it is cool and dry.

There are more than a dozen paragliding companies in Pokhara which offer half-hour tandem flights from about $70.

Yoga is another popular activity in Pokhara and there are several yoga studios in the Lakeside area.

The International Mountain Museum provides an interesting insight into the history of the Annapurna range. It is a 20-minute walk south-east from the Lakeside area.

Ten tips to get the best out of a trek in Nepal

Staff writer MALCOLM QUEKETT has walked the mountains of Nepal, and gives his advice on getting the best out of a trek.

1. Take plenty of spare camera batteries and a charger to plug in along the way. You will take lots of photos. And then a few more.

2. A small face flannel will be useful at morning “washy washy”.

3. Be prepared. Always carry tissues for the toilet stops, and perhaps some baby wipes. Toilet paper is not provided. And some toilets are, well, interesting.

4. Lots of hand sanitiser is a must. See number 3.

5. Take lots of plastic and zip-lock bags to keep things dry. When it rains, it can really rain. And rain.

6. Give yourself plenty of time to pack and unpack and repack each morning. For sure things will not always fit back into your pack as they came out.

7. Take the time to stop and look up every so often. The views are brilliant and it is all too easy to spend the time watching one foot go in front of the other on the rocky trails. But the real action is above eye level.

8. Walking poles? I didn’t use mine but others used one or two to help balance, especially going downhill.

9. When passed by yaks, dzopko, donkeys or horses, stand on the inside of the trail next to the mountainside. While they may judge the distance between you and them well enough, the beasts of burden may not take into account their wide loads. If one of them smacks into you on the outside of the trail, you may find yourself nudged over a cliff face.

10. Drink, drink, drink. Water is essential in the high altitudes.

The West Australian

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