With the Civil War now over, Nepal is once again one of the best short-break destinations to visit. From the capital Kathmandu and Nepalese jungle tours to trips over Mount Everest itself, it’s like nowhere else on earth. Words Matt Pomroy
As soon as you leave Tribhuvan International Airport you’re right into Kathmandu’s shantytown, all carved up by winding roads scarred by potholes like bomb craters and full of buildings that look as if the architect was a child with a set of wax crayons. And it’s dark. The only illumination is the flickering of candles that offer an eerie half-light to the open-fronted and ramshackle huts that pass for shops. Swap cars for horses and you’re halfway to Mordor, but this is normal for the locals because today it’s not their turn to have electricity – It’s Thursday. The other side of town currently has that luxury. Following the wagon trail of Suzuki mini vans that wheeze up the hills like asthmatic tin donkeys (with additional passengers hanging off the back and sides) you get to the centre of Kathmandu where there’s the sodium glow of streetlights and symmetrical buildings. But that doesn’t mean it’s normal, because nothing is normal in Kathmandu. That’s why it’s becoming one of the best getaway cities in the world.
Nepal boasts eight of the world’s 14 highest mountains, including Mount Everest, so it’s somewhat ingrained in your psyche to expect a desolate outpost with little in the way of inhabitants bar a few sherpas, mountain climbers and weather-beaten locals copied-and-pasted from the cover of National Geographic, but there are 1.5million people living and working in this city. There are 23.1million living here in the country and until late last year they were fighting here too, with a civil war between monarchist government forces and Maoist rebels that cost over 13,000 people their lives. In 2001 the royal family were slaughtered and officially the heir apparent, crown prince Dipendra, was blamed. As he was also one of the dead he’s not around to refute that, but many locals believe it was the current king that had them all killed. ‘The only ones who were unharmed were him and his allies – everyone else was dead,’ one local man tells me. ‘But how can you arrest your king?’ In 2005 the king dismissed the entire government and assumed full executive powers – in the name of combating the Maoist movement. But talks were held and agreements made.
There’s now a feeling that a new era has begun and the capital is heading back to the times of peace. The days of Kathmandu as a hippy Shangri-La, however, are largely over but down Freak Street there are still reminders of the 60s and 70s, when hordes of Westerners dropped out and dropped in to this city, often as the final stop on the global hippy trail. Judging by the murals still on some café walls they dropped a lot of something else too, thanks to then non-existent drug laws. Those drugs are now illegal, the opium dens and hash houses have gone although offers are common, marijuana plants grow wild alongside the roads and the place is still a draw for new-age hippies and trustafarians from the outer rings of the right-on-osphere.
Just off the former hippy enclave is the central Durbar Square where you can buy salvation from a wandering holy man (sadhu) who believes he can heal you, and local hawkers hassle you in the belief you’ll eventually want what they’re selling. If you like comfortable headwear and uncomfortable coupling it’s a good place to visit, as you’ll be offered woollen hats and foldout copies of the Karma Sutra wherever you go – the winters are cold and long here and television was only introduced in the 1980s. But if you just wave your hand in a ‘these-aren’t-the-droids-you’re looking- for’ manner they move on like locusts looking for another crop of tourists to devour with smiles and offers of their best price.
Further on and up the hill watching over the city is the most famous Buddhist temple, Swayambhunath, and if you visit just one cultural site make it here. It’s more commonly called Monkey Temple after the many primates that that reside there, uninhibited by the proximity of humans and jumping from roof to roof or tugging at your leg like needy children. Occasionally, when the alpha male decides to head off, a pack of up to 20 will bound past you like wingless variants of those the Wicked Witch of the West would deploy. But we’re not in Kansas anymore – from the temple on the hill the views over the cramped and cracked city stretches as far as the smog pollution will allow, but despite the dirt and discordance there’s a romance to the place. It’s got a spiritual depth that’s as deep as the Himalayas are high and when people smile here they seem to meant it. It’s none more evident that at the huge dome of the Kathesimbhu Stupa, one of the largest stupas in the world and a Tibetan pilgrimage site. There are thousands of Tibetan refugees living in the city and this huge, solid monument covered in prayer flags is a stunning sight, especially when crowds of worshippers are walking around it spinning the prayer wheels in hope of guidance and divine intervention. I asked one local man why they didn’t make it hollow so people could go inside to worship. ‘It doesn’t have to be,’ he replied and pointed to his chest, ‘it’s all about inside here, not inside a building.’
There are some welcoming rooftop cafés in the area with well-priced meals and a great view out over the lower valley, but we highly recommend the Nanglo Café and Pub(+977 1 422 2636) in Durbar Marg near Hotel De L’Annapurna which has been feeding visitors and locals alike since the end of the hippy era. The Nepali national dish is daal bhaat tarkaari (lentils, rice, vegetable curry) and this is a good place to try it, especially if you can get a seat in front of the open fire or on the roof terrace in the summer.
For nightlife, Thamel is the area to head, it’s the modern equivalent of Freak Street and if you’re visiting on the cheap it’s where you’ll probably be staying as lodging options are affordable and numerous. You can organise tours from here, but there’s never any shortage of tour guides in Thamel. At night there’s little shortage of anything and it’s a constant sensory attack with flashing lights, fumes, the ping of bicycle bells and smells ranging from the best food you’ve never tasted to burning rubber to something you just can’t place. Uneven pavements are covered with children building small fires, sleeping Indians or occasionally something quite unexpected like a crumpled Wayne Rooney poster or half a motorbike.
The bars are basic but friendly and the Go Go Bar showcases some of the most bizarre live dance action you’ll see. At one point a man dressed like a PC World sales clerk (complete with thick glasses) was dancing like a dad at a wedding for our entertainment. It was more comical than erotic but the crowd cheer him on, as they do all the fully dressed performers. Nepalese Nerd dancing aside, this is the area for fun as many of the city’s bars and restaurants close down as early as 10.30pm and Thamel’s a good spot to find regional delicacies. ‘This stuff is great – how much to buy a bottle?’ I ask our host after downing some local rakshi from a small, unfired, clay cup. He shakes his head: ‘It’s not made for sale. Just for drinking here.’
Their local moonshine tastes like Japanese sake and Italian in the region and through little villages that have not so much stood the test of time as simply stood still as time passed them by. The people outside of the city are often desperately poor, with almost half of them unemployed and 79 per cent of those who work, doing so in basic agriculture. It soon becomes evident that they certainly can’t afford driving lessons so backseat drivers may want to concentrate on the spectacular flanking views rather than oncoming traffic.
Once there, however, the Chitwan Adventure Resort(+977 1 423 0501 / http://www.chitwanresort.com) is a haven of calm. Tours are organised from here and with almost 1,000 square km of protected land there’s a suitably wild feel. Wildlife roaming the area includes the elusive Royal Bengal tiger, rare one-horned rhinoceros, several species of deer, sloth bear, leopard, wild boar, elephant, four horned antelope, striped hyena, monitor lizard and pythons. Riding an elephant though the jungle (including water crossings) is highly recommended as is the opportunity to take them bathing in the mornings where these huge beasts will lift you up on their trunks and take you swimming with them. While the tigers are shy and spottings are rare, encounters with crocodiles are frequent and at close proximity. As you glide down the river in a wobbly canoe made from a hollowed-out log the crocs watch from the banks or right there in the water next to you, as if you’re a tray of canapés drifting into their aquatic dining room. ‘Has the canoe ever capsized?’ I asked our guide later that night.
‘Oh yes, many times but mostly only when people are getting in or out, not so often in the middle of the river.’
The jungle walk offers the same voyage into the wild inhabitants’ homes, with leeches occasionally needing to be burned off with a lighter or lit cigarette and rhinos on the loose. There’s a primeval adrenaline surge when rhinos come stomping your way and your group has to break into the jungle equivalent of musical chairs and scramble for the nearest tree to climb. It’s a proper adventure rather than the sugar-coated safaris in other places and a chance to go face-to-face with genuinely wild wildlife. On the morning we headed back to Kathmandu the pre-dawn sky was being torn apart by prehistoric-looking forked lightning as elephants trumpeted defiantly in the distance. It felt a million miles from the concrete overpasses and air-conditioned malls of the UAE.
As we headed along the only mountain road back into the city we hit a roadblock of burning tyres and protesters. For some reason we sent the guy from Syria to help negotiate and the woman from Australia to try and calm things down, while the Parisian woman from our group was helping give reversing advice to our driver. We just needed an Egyptian to safely drive us and a brave Italian to stand up to their antics and our triumphant defiance of national stereotypes would be complete. As a Brit my duties appeared to be tutting and commenting on the state of the weather. It was drizzling heavily so I wasn’t going outside because it was the kind of drizzle that soaks you to the bone. That’s just asking to catch a cold. But despite Maoist thought that ‘political power comes from the barrel of the gun’ it turned out that the protesters were unarmed and mostly students. While some students in other countries spend their time watching cartoons or hosting frat parties, these spend their afternoons covering their faces with scarves and fighting for justice. And it’s certainly a place worth fighting for.
Nepal is no longer the preserve of bearded explorers, or foul-smelling hippies – you can fly to Kathmandu from the UAE for the price of a meal for two in a half-decent restaurant. But it is one of the few places that is yet to be repainted with the broad brushstrokes of globalisation and corporate branding. I fear this will happen in time but right now it’s still different and retains its unique identity in a world that’s looking increasingly the same. It’s not just a different place; it’s also from a different time. Despite the recent troubles, Kathmandu remains friendly and seems close, cosy, and at times even small. But under the jagged shadow of Everest, most things do. •