Nepal operates with its own dynamic energy, characterized by unhurried everyday life, an unmatched determination, and a reverence to its mountains.
What is most remarkable about it, is its capacity to hold sharp colour, like a cheerful, eternal sponge.
Right from the time of its establishment in 700 A.D., through a rolling succession of different rulers, Nepal hums along in complete harmony between its Buddhist and Hindu believers. The two faiths are uniquely intertwined in their culture, certain tenants, and generously sharing temples and deities. It’s only in Nepal, that you will find the one-of-its-kind tribe of Sanskrit speaking Buddhists, the Newaris.
It’s valley city, Kathmandu, is a trilogy of the three royal historic cities of Kathmandhu, Patan and Bhaktapur,
When in Kathmandu, make sure to visit its iconic testaments to temple architecture. You should fully expect crowds, and long lines, at the Swambhunath temple or Pashupatinath temple. Make it a point to add Boudhanath Stupa to your agenda. Our visit was a rain-soaked day, but the sight of the hundreds of ghee lamps, and rows of prayer lamps was worth it.
(The scores of shops dedicated to beads surrounding the gleaming white Stupa, was just an added bonus!)
The best way to discover Kathmandu, like any other historic city, is losing yourself in it’s narrow, spidery streets. A good district to explore is Thamel. Start anywhere and walk in the general direction of the Durbar Square.
Walking under a canopy of tangled cables, that unravel in all direction like balls of black yarn, you will discover some lesser-known marvels of the capital city. Take your time to peek into shops, their low doorways concealing a treasure trove of wares – a store that exclusively sells handmade puppets, one dedicated to percussion instruments, & one with mountains and mountains of cotton and hemp clothing. And above all, the sweets! Syrupy sweet Jalebis or Jerry, Yomari, laddus and pedas. The riot of colour pouring onto the streets, will make you feel like you’re on the set of a Bollywood wedding.
When you want to refuel, pick any of the plump cafes in the area, packed with generous servings of character and whimsy per square inch. I would specifically recommend Rosemary Kitchen, Blueberry Coffee shop and Himalayan Java (yes, I went to every single one in the course of six hours!)
The main Durbar Square is the front the Royal Palace, and hosts some the oldest structures in the world, all declared world heritage sites. You will see an amalgamation of architectural styles, temples dedicated to different deities, and different palace buildings.
Pick up a leaflet at the entrance to help you navigate through each of the landmarks and if you have time take a paid, guided tour.
One of the more unique things is the Kumari Ghar -reportedly the only building that was unharmed during the devastating earthquake of 2015 – that houses the current living goddess of Nepal
The centuries - old custom born in the Kathmandu valley of worshipping Kumaris, revered by Hindus and Buddhists alike, is a much controversial belief, but nonetheless, magical to witness the faith and folklore surrounding the practice
The other significant square is at Patan. We spent a rainy evening in the Patan square, resplendent in its yellow lights, twinkling and winking in the rain. This square is known for hosting various events and performances. As we walked around, tiptoeing around muddy rivulets, we stumbled onto a celebration of World Dance Day.
Evenings in Kathmandu are very colourful, a quick recce around Thamel, will quickly tell you where the crowds are headed. Unlike most urban downtown areas that are usually infested with tourists , Kathmandu’s streets life come alive in the local flamboyance, with Nepalese music proudly taking center stage. An informal pub crawl almost always creates itself, especially on Friday and Saturday nights, and people are more than happy to let strangers tag along.
When in Kathmandu, dip into a Thakali meal, a wholesome feast of greens, dal, rice and meat or vegetable curries, laced generously with ghee.
The crowd at Kathmandu’s domestic airport can easily be divided into groups, as different as chalk and cheese. One group is the locals, tourists that scutters about aimlessly, persistently hounding the airport staff. And the other is of serious, weather-beaten mountaineers. Dressed in seasoned outdoor gear (degree of wear and tear directly proportional to level of expertise), they calmly sit through delayed flights, in a quiet regal composure.
One of the things you can do at the airport, is go for a “Mountain safari”! For a minimal fee, a 60-minute plane ride will fly you by some of the most prominent peaks of the Himalayas, including the mighty SagrMatha (Everest). Be sure to take the earliest slot, before cloud cover sets in. The best time for clear peak spotting is between November and February.
A quick plane ride away from the bustling capital, is the gorgeous resort town of Pokhara. Dominated by the Phewa lake, Pokhara is the seat of Newari culture. Easily home to the cutest and smallest airport I have seen, Pokhara valley is perfect for a three-day visit. You can split your time between Raniban forest – aptly named for being the private playground gifted to a 19th century princess and Phewa lake. A relatively new entrant to Nepal’s archaeological landmarks, the world Peace Pagoda contains statues of Buddha from across the world. When in Raniban, pencil in some time to trek up this stupa, for quiet, uninterrupted views of the valley and the Annapurna range.
There are innumerable cafes on the fringes of the waters of Phewa lake, sheltered from view of the bustling main street that hugs the edges of the lake. You must spend a few animated evenings, soaking up the local spirit, while watching the colours of a tired sun bounce off the lake.
Pokhara is host to a plethora of adventure sports, like paragliding, ziplining and even ultralight flying, be sure to check timings before you plan your day, since the mountain winds and rains are unpredictable and hold schedules up to ransom.
One of the best things to do in Pokhara is to experience a Newari Thali. Ask your server for options on Nepali drinks and be prepared to enter fully unknown territory with traditional brews like Tongba, Raksi and Jhaikhatte made from millets and rice, in addition to the usual suspects of wheat and barley.
Trekking in Nepal
Nepal is the frontier for all mountaineering expeditions. There is an abundance of walking trails and treks and hikes, around valleys, peaks, lakes, and forests that can give you either a two- minute teaser version of the grandeur of Nepal or a three- hour feature length experience. Depending on how serious a climber you are, how much time you have to spare, there is something for everyone. If you are queasy about tenting (no one else? Just me? Okaay then!), then consider teahouses trails This particular style of trekking is very popular in Nepal. Your guide will help you plan a route that is punctuated by stays in local teahouses – basic accommodation, usually accessorized with wi-fi, scrumptious food, and a fair share of mountain dogs.
Dhampus is one of the shorter trails from Pokhara. 45 minutes outside the city, the picturesque village of Kande is the starting point of this trail. You will make your way up to the Australian base camp, through a steep well laid out path. On your way, you will some absolutely stunning vistas of the Annapurna Circuit.
The Australian base camp is best for catching an early sunset before the clouds come out to play (spoilsport). From here, it is onwards to the village of Dhampus, for a lunch stop to experience the hospitality of the Gurungs who inhabit this village. The path back, is long and treacherous, despite the distractions afforded by bright Rhododendrons blooms and waving rice fields, so undertake the hike only if you’re in fairly good shape. Because most of the path is rock-cut steps, it can be quite rough on the knees.
Throughout this trail, you will catch a glimpse of the mysterious Macchapuchare – named after its twin peak resembling a fishtail. The second-highest mountain in the Annapurna range, Macchapuchare, looks down upon the Pokhara valley in its isolated benevolence. It’s special significance in mythology, as one of the abodes of Lord Shiva, has helped preserve the pristine snow-capped peaks from being accessible to tourists and climbers, and in a time where even the loftiest of peaks, Mt Everest is grappling with garbage disposal, Macchapuchare remains unspoilt.
The pristine beauty of Nepal deserves atleast two full weeks, to do due justice. Be prepared to be overwhelmed by the hospitality of the people and the terrain, and you will take back bags full of warm memories (and new clothes)!