The mountains of Nepal can be shy, hiding behind clouds for much of the time. But when the sky clears it is as if a huge curtain has been opened to reveal one of the world’s most spectacular natural wonders. The Himal Massif stretches 800 kilometers across the nation’s entire northern border and is crowned, of course, by Mount Everest at 8, 848 meters. Sandwiched between China and India, Nepal is home to eight of the world’s top ten mountain peaks, as well as Kali Gandaki, the deepest gorge on earth.
Despite an abundance of natural beauty, Nepal is not a destination for the faint-hearted. It is ranked as one of the world’s poorest nations. The population suffers daily electricity cuts of up to 18 hours, minimal water supply, lack of heating and an appalling road infrastructure. If you visit in winter, bring warm clothing as you may well find yourself wearing it in bed, reading your book by candlelight. However, these facts certainly do not deter the intrepid 600,000 visitors each year, particularly during the spring and autumn peak seasons. Summer should be avoided as monsoon rains pound down daily.
What the country lacks in decent governance, it more than makes up for in backdrop, adventure and an upliftingly cheerful populace, no matter the hardship. Nepal is truly an outdoor fanatic’s playground where months can be spent climbing and trekking over the mountains and through the valleys. There is one über-trek, known as the Great Himalayan Trail. This 157-day and 2,500 km hike spans the entire length of the range, its only drawback being a $30,000 (SR 112,500) price tag.
That trek is at the extreme end of choices on offer. In less than a week, a fascinating, yet gentle 20-km trek can be made uphill out of the capital, along the eastern ridge of Katmandu valley. It is great exercise, because the higher you climb, the purer the air.
Starting in Boudha, Nepal’s Buddhist shrine, walkers can follow an ancient trade route between Katmandu and Lhasa in Tibet. Crossing the sacred Baghmati River, which later joins the Ganges in India, the path runs up to Changu Narayan, a hand-carved hilltop Hindu temple with relics dating back to the third century A.D. From here it is a painless trek through villages and fields cut into the hillsides and then a 2-km clamber up to Nagarkot at 2,195 meters, where the famed Himalayan views are seen at their best.
Tourists can find hotels in Nepal that cost anything from $ 1 to $ 500 (SR 1,875), but, for sheer value for money, the Club Himalaya Nagarkot is hard to beat. It boasts panoramic balcony vistas, a spa, pool, sublime kitchen and, most importantly, heating in winter. Complimentary hot water bottles in the evening are a nice touch, too.
Alongside trekking, there is such an array of adventure sports to get the adrenaline pumping that you need to be superman to give them all a go: White water rafting, kayaking, abseiling, paragliding, hot-air ballooning, caving, mountain biking, as well as a new pursuit known as parahawking. This recent addition to the array of flying possibilities entails birds of prey leading gliders to the best air currents, where they are then fed from gloved hands.
Huge brown birds float high in the sky above Katmandu, three-meter wingspans like broad paddles steering them across the Himalayan breeze.
“What is that bird?” I asked a waiter.
“It’s a tchill,” he answered. “A kind of eagle. You want a plane ride?”
One-hour light aircraft trips circling eight kilometer from the peak of Mount Everest have become popular amongst the better-heeled visitor to Nepal, but at $ 180 (SR 675) a flight, albeit with a guaranteed window seat, you’d better pray for good weather and bear in mind that accidents do happen. Needless to say, travel insurance is a must.
Katmandu certainly has its attractions. There is medieval Durbar Square, the harmony of the Garden of Dreams, the hubbub of Thamel Market (pashmina, saffron, elephant dung paper and leather saddles are local specialties) and the wide-open spaces of Ratna Park. Nevertheless, a seriously high level of pollution soon drives the visitor out into the breathtaking Nepalese countryside, bedecked with buttercup, clematis, marigold and chrysanthemum hanging over precipitous gorges and fast, emerald-green rivers, cherry orchards flowering below dense rhododendron (the national emblem) and oak forest climbing the slopes.
Chitwan National Park lies 120 km south-west of Katmandu and can be reached by either bus (6 hours of cheap, hard traveling) or plane (30 minutes of ease and cost). The park is dotted with high-end lodges located in the heart of the jungle or more modest accommodation in the villages along the Rapti River. The waterway abounds with bird life and is also home to Marsh Mugger and Gharial crocodiles, of which 110-million-year-old fossils have been found.
There are Bengal tigers out past the savanna, 120 on last count, roaming the jungle hills that straddle the border with Uttar Pradesh in India. The tigers, as shy as the mountains, are 100 times more likely to see you than you are them, and when herds of deer race out of the undergrowth and gather on paths, you can be sure there is a tiger about. A large population of rhinos are much more likely to be seen, as are pythons, leopards, sloth bears and wild elephants.
Elephants get angry when hungry or when their babies are at risk. It will shake its head from side to side and snort. The Nepalese people hold them in reverence similar to Saudis and camels. Riders steer an elephant by placing their bare feet behind the elephant’s ears, pressing gently to go right or left, with a tap on the top of the head to indicate straight on.
These facts were passed on by a mahout (driver) who guides up to four people on the back of his elephant, Sharingar, a three-meter-high female who lives in a stable in his garden. The safari is an early morning, lumbering plod through the jungle trees and foliage. It is already too late to see tigers. They are already snoozing off their breakfast. Having spent the morning grazing, by lunchtime the elephants are ready for a bath and they casually amble down to the river for a good soak, using their trunk as a shower. Nobody can stop them.
From the jungle in the south it is only 90 km to Pokhara, Nepal’s tranquil lakeside setting with the Annapurna range so close you feel you can touch it. Pokhara is where many treks start and finish so the town has a relaxed, yet energy-driven vibe with any number of hotels, bookshops, gift shops and international restaurants serving cuisine from sushi to momo, a Nepalese dish of stuffed steamed dumplings. For those visitors of a more genteel nature, just lounging by the pool or paddling about on the lake with a mountain view can be enough. An old oarsman, who has rowed Pokhara Lake all his life, reminisced that only 40 years ago he had often seen tigers come down to the water to drink.
The people here have also earned fame. They are the Sherpa, as at ease on the mountainside as a goat, for their spirit, stamina and expertise in leading trekkers and climbers up to some of the planet’s most dangerous viewpoints. The Ghurkha’s courage, strength and honesty have made them a highly valued regiment in the British army. Last year a one-legged Sherpa scaled the Everest, as did an 85-year-old Japanese lady. Both chased the record of eight hours to reach the summit.
Many Tibetan refugees, escaping the 1959 Chinese invasion, found refuge in this region, tending to their yaks on vast Himalayan pastures. One lady, selling handmade cloth bracelets, told me how, as a two-year-old, her parents had carried her across the mountains to escape the People’s Liberation Army. Many Tibetan villages are now scattered throughout Nepal.
A trip to Nepal is an unforgettable experience, hence the reason many people return again and again. If you do visit, make sure to keep an eye out for the legendary Yeti, also known as the ‘abominable snowman’. If you don’t find this creatur, know you will find your wallet full of animals. One rupee is a sheep, five is a yak, 10 an antelope, 20 a stag, 50 a goat, 100 a rhino, 500 a tiger, and an elephant, the king of them all, is worth 1,000 rupees, about SR48. Those animals can take you a long way in Nepal.
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