Take the high road in Nepal
“Everything is changing,” our guide Ram sighs, as he looks down the rough mountain road that trips down the side of the rice terraces towards the town that marks the end of our three-day hike. This has been a familiar refrain as we make our way along a somewhat bypassed Kathmandu Valley trail that has seen scant visitor numbers in recent years. Sitting at around 2,000 metres – mere hills in Nepalese terms – the towns, villages and mountains that ring the chaos of Kathmandu have largely been forgotten as visitors shoot off to Base Camp, Pokhara and the Annapurnas. What has continued in their absence, Ram says, is a march of progress that has replaced long-used tracks with roads, seen regional languages forgotten and raised a generation that spends more time on Facebook than on the mountains.
This sighing regret, he concedes, is not all bad (he later admits to being on Facebook himself), and indeed, much of this change is probably less evident to the visitor from elsewhere. True, our hike had taken us through one or two places where the mass of litter was somewhat depressing, and I’m sure at one time Nepalese youths didn’t gather at mountain peaks on Hondas; but the lasting impression of our mini-trek has been of some truly stunning scenery on a trail where we saw a grand total of five fellow tourists. Even the new “disruptive” road that has set Ram to wistfulness is quiet enough to believe it isn’t seeing much more than the occasional motorbike.
We visited Nepal, as a substantial number of UAE residents have done, noticing that Kathmandu and the mountains of the Himalayas lie at the end of a flight that offers the twin pleasures of being both short (four hours-ish) and cheap. What I have been interested to discover is whether a country that is so associated with “the big adventure” can really be adequately sampled during a long weekend. A quick shimmy up Everest is clearly out, but could you still come away with a sense of the scale of the hulking Himalayas?
Our trip started promisingly, with an hour’s drive offering a fleeting first glimpse of Kathmandu in the daylight. At Sundarijal, just 15 kilometres from the city, we started our trek and gentle hills soon gave way to some intimidating steep inclines to take us over the 2,000-metre mark. Despite our veteran 23-year-old porter Dawa Sherpa nimbly accelerating away from us, Ram seemed impressed by our initial speed and commitment. “I thought you might be in the army,” he tells my wife, who appears irritatingly smug as I gasp for air and contemplate a heart attack. Fortunately it levels out and we are quickly tramping along wooded paths that intermittently open out on to the first real vistas of the mammoth peaks to the north.
This thrill on seeing the white and black might of the mountains appearing from around a corner or over the next rise becomes a regular counter to Ram’s visions of change. As our walk takes us above views – impressive in themselves – of colourful villages perched on hills with barren, rocky expanses above, there is the ever-looming presence of these giants behind, and their sudden appearance has my wife struggling for her camera time and again.
Our stay the first night is in Chisapani, a five-hour uphill hike from where we started and the highest point on our trek at a still-modest 2,194 metres. We stay in a simple guesthouse that serves endless black tea and the first of many dal bhats that I will eat in the next few days. This glorious meze-like mix of rice, curried vegetables, spiced meat and watery dal seems exactly the thing to be eating, as the mountains are illuminated by the late-afternoon sun and the temperature starts to fall. Halfway through our meal the owners decide to bring some smouldering branches into the kitchen next to where we are eating to warm their baby, who seems cheerfully unconcerned about the cold. The consequent smell of wood smoke clings to us later on as we respond rather more delicately by dashing madly to hunker down under sleeping bags and mounds of blankets.
The next morning, grey skies give Ram another opportunity to talk about change, though in a rather more prosaic reference to the weather, which appears to have closed in around us and deprived us of our mountain views. As we head off on a gently rising path around the next hill, it starts to rain and we don jackets that we’d hoped we wouldn’t need. We now can’t see beyond the immediate hills with their soggy looking houses, though the weather has sparked the forests into life – in the space of an hour we startle a deer and get eyed by an eagle that launches into flight as we pass.
The day’s much more gentle 15km walk gives Ram a chance to muse on his 16 years of leading treks around the mountains, and the insights this has given him into the relative worthiness of different national stereotypes. This quickly leads him into a monologue on the effects that the growing tourist numbers have had on gender roles and fashion, which brings him finally on to his favourite subject – Ram’s pride in his 17-year-old son and his absolute aversion to his son’s plans to become a rock star.
We spend the night in the highest room of a rambling hotel that itself claims to be the highest point in the village of Nagarkot, a comparatively touristy spot at 2,020m, 30km east of Kathmandu. The hotel itself appears to have grown organically upwards, rather than being built with a purpose in mind, and the series of creaking external staircases feel like an excessive last trial after walking all day. The views, on the other hand, do somewhat compensate – particularly at five the next morning, when an annoyingly bright Ram knocks on our door and tells us there’s something to see. Crawling up the final trembling stairs to the rooftop, we’re confronted by half the hotel – similarly bleary-eyed, wrapped in blankets and staring. Beyond them is the clearest morning sky I’ve seen, and the most incredible stretch of mountains you could hope for, sharp and crisp in the grey early morning light. Within 15 minutes, the sun is threatening to emerge from behind a distant peak, prompting a truly brilliant moment as a crowd shares a gasp of genuine astonishment on seeing the first rays of the day.
Our last hike takes us on a more undulating path that is made more tiring because the morning sun has stayed shining and the temperature has crept up. We trek to Changunarayan Temple, a quietly pretty Shiva temple perched at the top of numerous and forbiddingly steep steps that we are glad to be descending. The end, we feel, is in sight now, though only after Ram – not for the first time – casually springs “just one more slight rise” for us to conquer.
With fortuitous timing, our final night ends amid the crowds around Boudhanath’s famous stupa on the outskirts of Kathmandu. Here they are celebrating the full-moon festival of Mamla Jatra that sees the place lit by candles and torches, while apparently competing groups of monks and locals chant, sing and play instruments in preparation for the parading of the goddess around the city. As the full moon rises over the dark mountains in the distance, the throng gets tighter, the music louder and we find ourselves crammed between a boisterous crowd of shouting men and a rather more serious group of people intensely trying to ignore everything and chant reverentially.
The air is thick with incense and the mass of revellers are keeping the prayer wheels turning, while a smattering of tourists try to dodge out of the way of the advancing procession. The crowd neatly deposits us at the door of our hotel just as we are tiring, and we go to bed congratulating ourselves on unwittingly arriving back on such an auspicious evening. Even though our limited time left us with Durbar Square, Thamel and the rest of Kathmandu still to discover on another trip, the adventure now feels nicely complete.
Nepal may well be changing as much as Ram says, but so long as they don’t decide to bulldoze the mountains or curb street parties of such brilliant energy, his fears that visitors might be put off are still a little wide of the mark.
If you go
The flight Flights from Dubai to Kathmandu with Flydubai (www.flydubai.com) cost from Dh1,205 return, including taxes
The trip Himalayan Quests (www.himalayanquests.com; 00 977 9849 141067), offers packages from US$300 (Dh1,100) per person, full board, including a guide and porter service
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