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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 November 2018

Homespun luxury in Nepal’s Dwarika’s lifestyle resort

Overlooking the Langtang mountains in Nepal in the foothills of the Himalayas, just an hour from the capital, is the country's first luxury lifestyle retreat, created by the daughter of the family that runs Dwarika's boutique hotel in Kathmandu.
The colourful Kathmandu valley has bazaars, monasteries and makeshift momo stalls all at once. Ian Trower / Robert Harding World Imagery / Corbis
The colourful Kathmandu valley has bazaars, monasteries and makeshift momo stalls all at once. Ian Trower / Robert Harding World Imagery / Corbis

How to explain the confusion of landing in Kathmandu? A city with a name of such musicality and intrigue, it must surely incite covetousness in the humdrum hearts of cities with less wondrous names. Kathmandu. A city spread over a valley with a history as complex and circular as you would imagine, with a culture recognising gods in their millions. A city immortalised in so many poems and pop songs you could tap dance your way there in your dreams. And when you finally land there, as I did, after so many years of dreaming, the inevitability of a discrepancy between what’s real and what’s imagined is almost too much to bear.

Still, I strike out boldly. Walk through the elaborate, wooden doorways of the Dwarika’s Hotel and hail my first Suzuki taxi. The thing you notice immediately in Kathmandu is not the fabulous juxtaposition of old and new, or the layered textures of tradition and modernity. No. You look out into the haphazard mass of moving humanity and think: Why don’t I have one of those nifty face masks that everyone who cares about their respiratory system is wearing? All around there are men in topis, women in tikas, donning the face mask, as if it were this season’s latest fashion accessory. I make do with a scarf flipped loosely across my nose.

It begins to rain. Shopkeepers and policemen exclaim how the monsoon has overstayed its usual visit. The beautiful centuries-old temples of the Durbar Square offer shelter to schoolchildren, birds, sleeping dogs. Launching over puddles, I make my way to Thamel, the touristic nerve centre of the capital, in search of a pair of trekking shoes. I’ve been warned to watch out for North Fakes, which fall apart as easily as the country’s constitution (Nepal has been ruled by an interim constitution since 2007). From Thamel I venture through the old bazaar where vendors sell a kaleidoscopic variety of spices, brass pots, beads, flowers. Rickshaw-wallahs pedal their passengers through this colourful chaos with umbrellas tied to their handlebars. Around every corner there are secret courtyards and hidden shrines for goddesses.

I finish the day’s sightseeing with a visit to Pashupatinath on the banks of the Bagmati River - replete as it is with burning corpses along the ghats, ash-smeared sadhus striking poses, monkeys, tourists and onlookers. By the time I return to the hotel, I feel I’ve lived several lives in a day. The postscript, appropriately, is a six-course meal at the Nepali restaurant Krishnarpan, at once decadent and solemn.

The next morning I seek out cleaner air at the Dwarika’s Resort in Dhulikhel, 45 minutes away. As we drive eastward, through winding roads and terraced fields, I feel I’m shedding layers of noise and skin. We pass a water park and the world’s tallest Shiva statue, which overlooks the world from atop a hillside. The contrast between the city and the countryside blurs until there is only a plethora of green and almost no face masks.

Once inside the resort it takes a mere half hour for me to arrive at an epiphany: this is where I should have come for my honeymoon instead of that rigorous scuba-diving adventure in crocodile-infested waters. This: these glorious Himalayas in 360-degree view, this tasteful homespun jute and cotton luxury, these palatial bungalows built of lime and brick dust – each element building upon the other to create 20 acres of space that is at once holistic and authentic, constructed impeccably to allow a view on to the world, while keeping the heaving, steaming mess of it at bay.

It rains for two days and I’m happy to be immobilised, to not have to rush out to the organic farm where most of the resort’s produce is grown, to not have to engage in the dizzying list of karma yogic activities such as pottery, block printing, mandala making. I’m content to luxuriate in my room instead, which feels like an immense glass-windowed tree house looking out into immediate jungle, and farther, onto a line of white-capped mountains; to soak in a king-size bathtub and contemplate the sounds of insects vigorously rubbing their wings.

For a sea person, such as myself, all this fresh air at altitude has a heady effect. I move like a blissed-out automaton between my room and the meditation room at the apex of the property. To get there I must pass the spa village, the Himalayan salt house, the singing bowl room, the infinity swimming pool, the Zero Zone lounge, a meditation maze of 84 Shiva lingams, a prayer pavilion, and a garden of the nine planets. I sit cross-legged, spine bolstered with a barrage of pillows, and follow the guruji’s gentle meditation techniques. Gradually, the tingling sensation along my legs and arms subsides, chakras realign, and everything stills. My favourite part is to cover my eyes and forehead with my fingers, stop up my ears, and listen to the sound of “Om” ricochet from deep inside me to the outside, and back again.

Much of the resort’s triumph is that it utilises this inside-outside effect with great panache. Whether it’s in the function of the architecture, which is designed to keep the borders between living space and nature as permeable as possible, or more metaphysically, the yoga and spa therapies, which are based on the pancha kosha (the five layers of being, as laid down by Vedic philosophy), which encourages a stripping away of stress and impurities in the body, a concentration on breath (prana), and a move towards greater mindfulness and joy.

When the sun finally makes an appearance, I decide to venture out of the property because those hard-sought brand-new trekking shoes are begging for an outing. I ambitiously aim for the Namo Buddha monastery, a three-hour hike away. Prahlad, my guide, is knowledgeable and as deft as a mountain goat. He leads me through the forest pathways, patiently waiting for my plodding sea-heart to acclimatise. Along the way he points out plants that leave tattoos on your skin, plants from which they make beedis, police batons, rope, iodine, cough medicines and cures for a rotten tooth. Most wondrously, he shows me thirst-quenching plants, which have little globs in their roots that taste faintly of cucumber and can grow to the size of water balloons. I’m convinced that everything a human being needs to survive, including the tools required to assemble an iPhone, can be found in a Nepali forest.

From afar, the Namo Buddha monastery, also called Thrangu Tashi Yangtse, glitters – its golden roofs sheathed with acres of colourful fluttering prayer flags. The more purposefully I walk, the farther it seems, until, suddenly, we are under the archway of flags, at its golden entrance. We spend a few hours walking up level by level, spinning prayer wheels, making circumambulations, and -contemplating the story that explains the monastery’s existence. Six thousand years ago, a young prince (in some versions, a prior incarnation of Buddha) encountered a -hungry tigress and her cubs and offered them the meat of his thighs, the flesh of his skin, sacrificing his life to save the tigers’.

In the spirit of compassion I share my cake with a stray dog, who then follows me down the hill, past bustling hamlets and Buddhist trees of the dead, which hold portraits of the dead and bundles of their hair. The dog and I part ways at the stupa where the bones of the sacrificing prince are supposedly ­buried. Prahlad and I take a taxi back to Dwarika’s along a bumpy, mountainous path.

I re-enter the resort changed from my tryst with the outside world. Recalibration is required immediately. A robust Himalayan Trekker’s massage in the spa therapy room, followed by a momo-making session with chef Pramod, who is a guruji in his own right – a compact, ebullient man whose eyes flash with happiness when he talks about food and farming. He can wax eloquent about the luxury of picking spinach from your own garden and the grandeur of garam masala, and he is the person responsible for any extra kilos you might tack on. Between the seemingly endless supply of aforesaid mouth-watering momos, to the choices between Nepali, continental or vegetarian Zen Japanese cuisine – there is no cause for food indecision here. You have the time – and appetite – to try it all.

Later, I walk to the terrace of the Zero Zone lounge, which offers the most stunning view of the mountains, and I spend hours sipping tea and watching the clouds change shape in the sky. I see bears and llamas, a Venetian winged lion, leaping fish. My body is already in two places, aware that it must go home soon. I stow away rolls of prayer flags, crystals and rudrakshas (prayer beads) in my luggage to remind me of these mountains when I am back in the flatlands. When all this will be as real as a fable in a faraway land.