A CAPTIVATING CAPITAL CITY, STUNNING SNOWY SUMMITS, WONDERFUL WILDLIFE AND LANGUID LAKES, NEPAL HAS SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE.
Kathmandu which contains Nepal’s only international airport, is the gateway to this stunning country and its beautiful trails. I first came here on my way to Everest Base Camp twelve years ago, and have visited many times since, lured in by the city's labyrinth of ancient streets and temples, its bustling shops and its cosmopolitan cafés and restaurants.
Every year, ambitious mountaineers flock to Nepal striving to reach Everest’s perilous summit. But this tiny, landlocked country is much more than home to the world’s highest mountain. Despite the terrible earthquake of April 2015, much of this resilient country was unaffected, and it is now once again open for business and ready to welcome you.
Nepal’s capital enthrals me, whether I’m people-watching from a trendy café in modern, touristy Thamel or discovering the dusty beauty of the city’s ancient architecture, still surprisingly evident despite the devastation from last year’s earthquake.
In Durbar Square, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, flower-sellers, orange-clad Sadhus, pilgrims and even cows mingle around crumbling Hindu temples and medieval palaces. Basantpur Temple dominates the square: from here the whole complex looks like a fairy-tale scenario, including the unharmed and intricately carved Taleju Temple and Kumari-ghar, home to living goddess Kumari.
From ancient to modern, in Thamel, we wander around crowded streets into shops selling cheap trekking clothes, books and beads, with the latest hits floating from CD stalls. Nearby, the aptly-named Garden of Dreams provides an elegant escape from the mayhem, full of fountains and flowers. Amid Thamel’s concrete buildings, our hotel, the Kathmandu Guesthouse, is a former Rana palace with marigold-filled gardens. At night, this cosmopolitan area comes alive: restaurants offer Italian, Chinese, Thai and European cuisine. We head to Thamel House, an atmospheric Newari townhouse, choosing delicious Nepalese curry Dhal Bhaat with lentils and spinach.
Next morning, we visit Boudha, one of the world’s largest Buddhist temples, with multi-coloured prayer flags fluttering above its enormous white dome. We watch monks swathed in scarlet shuffling mesmerizingly around the stupa turning prayer wheels. Later, we ascend 400 steps to Swayambhunath, an impressive 5th century Buddhist stupa known as Monkey Temple after its primate residents. Make the climb to see its golden spire and the panoramic views of the city. Both temples were damaged in the earthquake but their charm and beauty remain intact.
A twenty-minute flight to Bharatpur and a half-hour drive take us from the city into the countryside, to Island Jungle Resort near Chitwan National Park. Meaning “Heart of the Jungle,” Chitwan lies in the
Terai, southern Nepal’s subtropical lowlands. With tall Sal forests and open grasslands, it’s home to sloth bears, Royal Bengal tigers and rare Asian one-horned rhinos.
“If a rhino charges, run and climb a tree, discarding clothing as you go,” our guide comments before we embark on a steamy jungle walk. “The smell might distract him.” We meet timid deer grazing peacefully, langur monkeys swinging in trees and myriad multi-colored butterflies, but rarer, more dangerous beasts remain elusive.
The following morning, we sway in rhythm sitting on elephants lolloping through the jungle. Suddenly, we spot a rhino in the grasses, his skin like a coating of armor. He continues grazing, unfazed by elephants, while we watch this increasingly vulnerable creature in unhurried peace. Later, we help bathe our playful elephant in the river and he drenches me with a trunkful of water.
The river comes alive in the dark; jungle nightlife captivates us, too. That evening, hundreds of tiny fireflies twinkle like fairy lights in bushes, to a soundtrack of croaking frogs.
From Chitwan, we take four-hour drive to Pokhara, Nepal’s favorite destination for rest and relaxation. The laid-back Lakeside area hugs Phewa Lake’s eastern edge. Time drifts effortlessly as we amble along the main drag past shops and restaurants like Café Concerto and Moondance. Mellow music beckons us inside.
But Pokhara is also Nepal’s center for adventure sports like kayaking, rafting and mountain biking. Paragliders swoop off the hills like giant birds gliding gracefully above the lake. Choosing more relaxing activities, we walk for hours along the lakeshore, taking in distant views of snow-capped Fishtail Mountain (Machapuchare), then hire a wooden boat to row to the hilltop Tal Barahi Temple on a small island. A stroll through cool woodland takes us to the tiny yet revered temple with views over sparkling Phewa Lake.
After overnighting at our elegant boutique hotel, Mum’s Garden, we return to Kathmandu on a brief but beautiful flight past the jagged Himalayan peaks for which Nepal is justifiably famous. The mountains are certainly beguiling, but once again this tiny country has shown that there is so much more to it than huge peaks. Its jungle and lakes and its chaotic but charismatic capital are reasons enough to visit. But it's often the people that make a place, and here they are as resilient, warm and welcoming as ever.
Suggestions for trekking in Nepal
Short and sweet
Nepal has some excellent short treks. From Pokhara, Australian Camp is a pretty day walk or Poon Hill takes 4-6 days with gorgeous views of sunrise over the Annapurnas. Day walks around Kathmandu Valley include the superb Changu Narayan Temple and the ancient town of Bhaktapur.
Classic Everest treks
Far more exacting, Everest Base Camp is the star of Nepal’s treks. Normally, it’s one of the busiest routes but fewer trekkers have travelled here in recent months. You can see the summit from Kala Pattar (5545m), but head to Gokyo Ri for the best views with three peaks over 8000m –Everest, Cho Oyo and Lhotse– visible among many others, along with spectacular glacial lakes.
Remote and rewarding
From the familiar to the relatively new, the Guerrilla Trek leads through the former no-go Maoist heartlands of West Central Nepal. It’s not high altitude yet it is demanding with minimal facilities and long days. But you’ll have the beautiful trails and welcoming locals to yourself.
Pushing the limits
More challenging but not quite to Everest standards are Nepal’s “Trekking Peaks” classified as below 7,000m, including Mera Peak and Island Peak in the Everest region and Tent Peak in the Annapurnas. You’ll need crampon and ice axe skills, although some companies teach you on the trek.