Nestled among the highest mountains on Earth, Nepal is an iconic adventure destination with an astonishingly rich culture, friendly people, and spectacular Himalayan treks for a range of abilities.
By Joly Braime
The day began at 5am in Bhaktapur, ‘the City of Devotees’, when locals started making their way through the rust-coloured brick and tile streets, visiting the countless shrines and temples on every corner and courtyard. Standing on my hotel balcony, I could hear hundreds of bells clanging away irregularly in the darkness below, as people called the gods to witness small offerings of rice that would bring luck for the day ahead – or at the very least would keep the pigeons well fed.
I was on a brand-new trekking and sightseeing tour of Nepal with Ramblers Walking Holidays, and our first stop after an overnight flight from Istanbul was this ancient Newari city. Rather gentler than its frenetic neighbour, Kathmandu, it wasn’t a bad place to start getting a feel for this extraordinarily vivid country.
Beneath great birds’ nests of wiring, men wearing the traditional Dhaka topi – a sort of psychedelic Thunderbirds cap – sat in open street-corner loggias playing animated games with pebbles. Hobbit-sized doorways led into mazes of colourful yards and alleyways, where potters pummelled out sheets of grey-black clay, baking their products in hay-fired communal kilns. On Taumadhi Square in the sprawling temple district, paint-daubed statues of animal-headed gods stood beneath banners hung with desiccated buffalo entrails, while friezes of erotic carvings presented an aspirational take on the birds and the bees.
‘Apart from the mountains, a lot of visitors say their favourite thing about Nepal is the people,’ said our group leader, Peter, who first fell in love with the country back in the early 1990s. You can see why. By and large, Nepalis are refreshingly laid-back and friendly, with an appealing culture that ritualises small acts of kindness into daily life.
What’s more, few of us were expecting to find Nepal so remarkably diverse. There are more than 120 different ethnic groups, many of whom have distinct languages, costumes, cultures and religions. From the sweltering jungles of Chitwan to the crowded Kathmandu Valley and the remote hill stations of the high Himalayas, a rich mix of Newaris, Gurungs, Magars and numerous other peoples live side by side, apparently without the usual desire to murder or subjugate each other.
‘In Nepal, we have five different new years, depending on the ethnic group,’ grinned Bipin, our Nepali guide. ‘So there are people around you in the past, present and future.’
During our fortnight in Nepal we roamed quite widely – climbing up to a clustered hilltop community, taking a cooking lesson in a Tibetan refugee village and walking out into the forest to visit a local sadhu (holy man) in his tiny makeshift temple. Inevitably, this involved a bit of road travel, but riding Nepal’s boneshaker highways is a treat in itself.
The view from the bus window is a spooling series of vignettes: an old man stokes a wood-fired still; a rooster stalks past a shotgun-toting guard outside the Agricultural Development Bank; a goat’s disembodied head on a meat stall while a woman butchers the rest of it, flicking the occasional scrap from her blade to the yawning stray dogs. Lorries and battle-scarred Mahindra trucks are stacked high with people and goods, emblazoned with colourful pictures of Shiva’s trident and English names such as Rock Star, Queen of the Hill and True Love Never Found.
The approach of a blind corner is often an invitation to attempt a death-defying overtaking manoeuvre, and death is, in fact, not always defied. On our way to Pokhara we passed two lorries that had played it wrong, cast up like great lifeless beetles with their heads smashed in.
‘Jam jam!’ shouted Bipin. ‘Follow the man with the bulbul haircut!’ Roughly translated, ‘jam jam’ means ‘let’s go’ in Nepali, and it was a phrase we were going to hear a lot as we set off along the trail. While the trip was a nicely curated mix of sightseeing and walking, at its heart was a four-day trek in the foothills of the Annapurna range. Trekking in Nepal is a rather different proposition from your common or garden backpacking trip, and our group of 17 travellers set out from the lively trekking hub of Pokhara with a train of nine porters and two assistant guides (one of whom was Bhivash with the conspicuous crested ‘bulbul haircut’) – plus our lead guide, Bipin. ‘Quite a small team, as these things go,’ observed Peter.
The mountains of Nepal represent the highest points on the planet, and it’s difficult to appreciate quite how tall they are until you actually behold them. Crucially, they are so huge and distant that you often can’t see their lower portions. They just materialise above the clouds – pin-sharp white teeth, like an entirely separate kingdom floating in the sky. The word ‘awesome’ is overused, but that is what they are.
The loftiest point of our own trek was Australian Base Camp at 2,230m/7,320ft, and that was high enough. We wound through humid forest trails and climbed through sun-soaked rice terraces, occasionally taking a break to drink sweet, spiced Nepali tea. In the evenings, we stayed in ‘tea houses’ – simple guesthouses where you could get a beer and a plate of the ubiquitous dhal bat. This national dish is a fairly savoury combination of lentil gravy and rice, normally served with vegetable or chicken curry and spicy pickle. Nepalis adore dhal bat, and they like to imbue it with supernatural nutritional value.
‘Dhal bat power, 24 hour,’ Bipin would say encouragingly, pointing at the hills ahead.
Somewhere up ahead of us, high-pitched voices began singing a now-familiar refrain. ‘Resham fiririiiii…’ Our hearts sank. Another roadblock.
At the time we were there in late October, Nepal was gearing up for the major festival of Tihar. On the main festival evening itself, the streets echoed with music and twinkled with a thousand flickering butter lamps – but almost as much fun was the build-up over the days that preceded it.
One day, offerings were left out on the roofs for the crows, another day, suddenly all the stray dogs had red smears on their foreheads and flower garlands. Elaborate designs were laid out in coloured powder on the pavement outside each house, with trails of red mud to tempt the goddess of prosperity inside.
The downside of Tihar is that during this period roguish gaggles of young children are allowed to link hands and block your path, singing a chirpy little song until you grease their palms with cash. It’s quite cute to start with, but these Munchkin highwaymen strike so frequently that the charm soon begins to wear thin.
Delinquency aside, Tihar was pretty magical. One night in the tiny mountain outpost of Landruk, the villagers held a celebratory dance. Brightly dressed Gurung girls with waist-length dark hair performed coquettish routines while we watched in the half darkness.
‘This song is about a Gurkha trying to impress a girl,’ whispered Bipin. ‘Many of these songs are quite flirty.’
Legacy of an earthquake
‘I really like the English word “MASSIVE”,’ said Bipin one lunchtime over yet more dhal bat, popping his hands open to indicate the scale of the word. ‘I remember seeing BBC News in April 2015: “A massive earthquake has hit Nepal”.’
This spring marks five years since the terrible Gorkha earthquake, which killed the better part of 9,000 people and precipitated a major humanitarian crisis. In the Kathmandu Valley, UNESCO World Heritage Sites suffered catastrophic damage, although the five-storey Nyatapola Temple in Bhaktapur – the tallest temple in the valley – towered invincibly above the devastation, just as it had during the previous big one in 1934.
Even today, reconstruction remains ongoing. Walls are often rent with wide cracks, the narrow alleyways braced open with metal bars. On patches of weed-choked waste ground, men continue to sort through piles of crumbling bricks or timber spars, and many of the country’s most iconic old squares are webbed with scaffolding as the temples gradually climb back up out of the rubble. Encouragingly, the renewed buildings often blend sympathetically into the old – partly thanks to grants that have encouraged the use of traditional materials.
In some ways, the construction boom following the earthquake has also accelerated the pace of development in Nepal, and the road network in particular is improving rapidly. Combined with excellent air connections to continental Europe via Istanbul airport, this makes the country more accessible than ever for visitors, but tourism brings its own set of challenges. Nepal’s international airport – Tribhuvan – isn’t really up to the job, nor are the country’s waste-management systems.
Noticeably, Nepal has an obvious and ugly problem with plastic waste. Great drifts of bottles, crisps packets and sweet wrappers line the roadsides, and foreigners love to get het up about it despite being the ones buying all the bottled water.
In this context, it was nice to see Ramblers Walking Holidays issuing everyone with a filter bottle so we could safely drink the tap water. Over the course of two weeks, a group of 17 people might have used a couple of hundred empty plastic bottles, so it definitely feels worthwhile.
For Nepalis, the development of new international airports is also a serious environmental dilemma. The joke goes that tourism is the country’s third religion after Hinduism and Buddhism, but there are regular protests about the deforestation caused by the new airports, and roadside graffiti declares in English: ‘Save the jungle, save the Earth’.
Long-haul travel to developing countries presents some uncomfortable questions to which there are no straightforward answers, but if you can reconcile yourself to these then there is simply nowhere like Nepal in terms of its staggering natural beauty, its vibrant cultural depth and the charisma of its people.
You will notice that I avoid using the phrase ‘once in a lifetime’ about a trip to Nepal. Nepalis themselves like to say that ‘once is not enough’, and several of us boarded our plane home at Tribhuvan determined to find our way back there as soon as possible. Jam jam!
The trekking element of this holiday lasted four days and was graded ‘moderate’. Most days involved 4-5 hours of walking on good paths, with relatively short distances but some steep gradients. The trip also included some day walks.
Joly travelled with Ramblers Walking Holidays (01707 331133) on their Himalayan Vistas package, which is a mix of sightseeing and trekking. Priced from £2,400 per person, this 13-night trip includes return flights with Turkish Airlines, plus all food, accommodation, bus transfers and tips. Next departures are 16 and 30 October 2020. Turkish Airlines (020 7471 6666) has daily flights to Kathmandu offering free wifi, fully flat beds in business class and fine dining with their on-board flying chefs.