x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

On a Himalayan high in Nepal

Ismat Abidi visits Kathmandu, Pokhara, Bhaktapur and Bandipur - and doesn't want to leave.

Buddhist monks walk round the base of the Bodhnath Stupa in Kathmandu.
Buddhist monks walk round the base of the Bodhnath Stupa in Kathmandu.

"Go, go!" Roma, my paragliding pilot, has judged the wind's direction and has decided it's the right time for us to run off the mountainside. Dragging along the parachute's weight, my feet scurry over grass towards endless blue sky until I can no longer touch the ground. Gradually we soar above Pokhara, Nepal's second-largest city, until the only sound is the cold air sweeping past my ears. Directly ahead of me are the Himalayas, with bright ice-capped peaks reflected in the lake below, while scattered in front of this tremendous backdrop are a mix of multi-coloured parachutes and eagles gliding across the sky.

It's not the first time that Nepal has impressed from the air. A few days earlier, my flight from Varanasi to Kathmandu had provided a dramatic view of the Himalayas, so it was no hardship when our landing was delayed by an hour and we spent the extra time enjoying the views as we circled above the city.

Once on the ground and having haggled a taxi driver down to a reasonable price, I head into the city to a soundtrack of subcontinental pop blaring from the taxi's stereo and with crisp winter air blowing through the windows, carrying with it a combination of smog and the aroma of spices used in the food being sold at roadside stalls.

Soon I've been delivered to a set of guarded medieval doors and, once ushered through them, the noise of the city fades away. I'm greeted ceremoniously by having an ivory-hued khata - a traditional Tibetan scarf - draped over my shoulders.

This isn't a temple but my hotel. In a country rich with characterful accommodation, Dwarika's Hotel stands out: a living, breathing institution of Nepali heritage, culture and hospitality. The hand-carved wooden furniture is produced in Dwarika's workshop using traditional production methods, while smaller items, such as pots and stone slabs, are hand-crafted and locally sourced. Dotted around the hotel are vintage examples of Bagh-Chal, a traditional Nepali boardgame that guests are encouraged to play, and the staff aim to subconsciously educate visitors on Nepali culture and history, making it feel like an inspired conservation project disguised as a hotel.

When I venture back out beyond those medieval doors, I find Kathmandu bursting with fascinating districts. Thamel is a central mishmash of hostels, shops, eateries and travel agencies. Walking through the main backpacker district, the streets are heaving with rickshaws, and I find the most interesting venues are located down quieter side streets. The most memorable of these for me is a music shop run by Arjun Chainpure, who uses a Tibetan singing bowl to demonstrate a meditating "music massage".

To avoid overloading on the plethora of Hindu and Buddhist sights scattered across Kathmandu, I hire a taxi for the day for approximately US$15 (Dh55). Swayambhunath, otherwise known as the Monkey Temple for the troops of primates that live there, is shrouded in the aroma of incense, draped in strings of brightly coloured prayer flags and sited with a beautiful bird's-eye-view over the Kathmandu valley.

The next, the giant stupa of Bodhnath, transcends the hordes of tourists it attracts. Thousands of monks, pilgrims and Tibetan refugees visit Bodhnath daily, offering prayers, circling the stupa clockwise and preparing butter lamps to light at sunset. Craft centres, monasteries and souvenir shops surround Bodnath and the nearby cafe rooftops are ideal for taking in the revered ambience. A short walk away is Pashupatinath, one of the most important Hindu sites in Nepal, located near the cremation terraces along the banks of the holy Bagmati River. The interior of the temple is only for Hindus but a quick and respectful walk around the outside, shunning the constant attention of would-be guides, and along the riverbank is all you need to gain a feel for the spiritual nature of the place.

Back at the hotel, Krishnarpan restaurant offers the traditional cuisine of the Newaris, the indigenous population of the Kathmandu Valley. Details of each of the six courses to come are described on hand-pressed Nepali paper embossed with my name and, as they arrive, my taste buds are treated to a selection of holy ceremonial food, Himalayan herbed lentils, homemade plum pickle and, of course, the region's ubiquitous momo (steamed dumplings). Each course is served in different handmade crockery and the vegetables are sourced from Dwarikas's organic farm. My six-course menu costs $30 (Dh110) but there are options for up to 22 courses, so long as you book in advance.

Moving on from Kathmandu, I head to the largest and most impressive of the medieval city-states in the valley. Bhaktapur is a Unesco World Heritage Site located on an ancient Tibet-India trade route and is full of well-preserved Newari architecture. With a mixture of temples, shops, restaurants and local tradesmen in the grandeur of a 13th-century, traffic-free town, it's easy to spend a day simply wandering around through the old-fashioned surroundings and peculiar alleys. It's a good place to find pure pashmina, depending on your haggling skills and ability to tell the difference between the real thing and synthetic fakes. Entry to Bhaktapur costs $10 (Dh37) for foreigners.

Finally leaving behind the chaos of the Kathmandu Valley, I go on a 20km white-water rafting trip down the Trishuli, a major river originating in Tibet. The varied terrain is unexpected - warm sand on the riverbanks, snowy peaks in the distance and lush green plains between mountainsides ranging in steepness from areas dotted with houses to vertical drops. It's past the peak season for rafting so the Trishuli is not busy and I just about manage to stay aboard the raft, surviving grade four rapids (six being the highest). The warmth of the sunshine is not enough to offset the occasional waves of freezing water but for the adrenaline junkie and nature lover, it's a worthwhile outing. It's reasonably priced too, between $30 to $50 (Dh110 to 184).

Moving farther west, I make the short trek to the village of Bandipur at 1,030m, enticed by a fellow traveller's description of it as a "fairytale". I am surprised at how few visitors pass through this township of 5,000, made up of a few winding lanes leading from a main square with its handful of traditional Newari inns, lodges and cafes. It feels like a mix of a film set and a time capsule.

I settle in to the Bandipur Inn, a restored Newari mansion embedded in the mountainside, decorated like a grandmother's living room and where the staff welcome you like visiting relatives. The modest wooden rooms look out towards the Himalayas. It's hard to drag myself away from the fireplace but I do so to explore the village before its 8pm bedtime. This includes a 40-minute trek to the Gurungche Hill (best done at sunset) for spectacular views across the Annapurna range.

I continue to Pokhara the next day, where I take to the skies for a bird's eye view of the Himalayas. The city has gained a reputation as a centre for tandem paragliding, with the take-off point just outside Pokhara, from where the lake acts as a reflector of the captivating mountain vista to the north. Go early for the best visibility. Tandem flights cost from $100 (Dh367) and vary from half an hour to an hour.

Pokhara itself is refreshing and laid-back - the opposite of Kathmandu's smog and heaving streets. In what is becoming a habit, I start exploring the city from the top-down. The World Peace Pagoda - an impressive white pagoda presented by Japan and sited on a striking viewpoint over Pokhara and Lake Phewa - is reached after a two-hour trek through mustard fields, forest, stone houses and, finally, some shoddy steps. The less-athletically minded can also drive here.

Returning to town, I spend a clear sunny afternoon rowing across the lake enjoying the reflection of Himalayas in the lake for $8 (Dh29).

The main lakeside street is full of hotels, restaurants and bars, and is crowded with travellers and locals. It's a place to hone your haggling skills and I manage to reduce by at least half the first price I'm quoted. Possibly it's from being mistaken for a local but bargaining is essential and prices are generally lowest in the mornings. On my last night in Pokhara, I indulge in a plate of momos at Rice Bowl, a traditional Tibetan restaurant popular with the locals and where dinner costs only $3 to $5 (Dh11 to Dh18) per person). Compared to most of early-to-bed-early-to-rise Nepal, Pokhara is a city of night owls.

This trait makes my 4.30am wake up call the following day a begrudging affair as I don thermal layers to stave off the chilly pre-dawn temperature and trek uphill in darkness for two hours. As the final leg approaches, it's to a soundtrack of giggling local teenagers and panting trekkers. All of them have been drawn here for a seat on the edge of Sarangkot Peak to see the sun rise over the chain of the Himalayas and, after 20 minutes, the lilac haze over the snow-capped peaks dramatically turns golden. As the sun breaches the horizon, the trekkers cheer and we all began feeling the warmth of the sun. If you do any one-day trek while in Nepal, this is the one.

I opt for a 40-minute morning flight back to Kathmandu instead of a long and winding mountain bus journey. As before, there are delays but this one is before the 18-seater propellor plane has even taken off. And, once again, the view from the airport's rooftop cafe make the wait easy to endure. When I finally board the plane, I feel like I don't want to leave and I tell myself Nepal is a place worthy of multiple visits.

 

If you go

The flight Return flights to Kathmandu from Dubai with fly dubai (www.flydubai.com) cost from Dh1,142, including taxes.

The hotels Double rooms at Dwarika's Hotel (www.dwarikas.com; 00 977 1 4479488) in Kathmandu cost from US$345 (Dh1,265) per night. The Old Inn Bandipur (book through www.himalayanencounters.com; 00 977 1 470 0426) has cabins from $20 (Dh73) per night, including meals. Hotel Fewa Lake (www.hotelfewa.com; 00 977 1 442 4303) in Pokhara has lakeside cottages from $45 (Dh165) per night, based on two sharing.