Kathmandu - Gateway to the Mountains
Written by Steve Davey
You don't need to be super-fit to enjoy many of the stunning walks around Nepal. Photojournalist Steve Davey drags his tired old knees off to enjoy some of the less-challenging treks this mountainous country has to offer.
Nepal is synonymous with trekking, and boasts some of the best trekking routes in the world. Some of these, such as the Annapurna or Everest Base Camp treks, take many days of arduous high-altitude walking, but you don’t have to be so fit, or so determined, to enjoy walking in the country.
The bustling city of Kathmandu is the gateway to some less-challenging treks, where you can enjoy atmospheric hikes, often through steeply terraced farmland and traditional villages, enjoying the company of friendly locals.
There are a few advantages of opting for an easier trek at lower altitude. Firstly, you will be walking through pleasant farmland, with more chances to interact with local people. Amidst the steeply terraced fields, old men toothlessly grin, as they struggle to steer ploughing oxen, young children swarm to school carrying stacks of books while breathlessly practising their English, and women in bright red tunics and skirts thresh rice rhythmically. Although treks may sometimes be steep, the lower altitude means that you don’t need to be quite so fit, leaving the door open for families to walk together. Distances are shorter, so it is possible to walk during the day and spend the night in comfortable accommodation. Finally, by not actually walking in the mountains, the grand peaks can form a permanent backdrop to photographs of verdant terraces or portraits of local farmers!
In the farmland near the village of Nuwakot my guide introduced me to a small boy, who could not have been more than eight years old. “He can sing like a songbird,” I was assured as he was pressed to sing a traditional folk song in front of our small group of walkers. The boy looked shy and stumbled falteringly through the start of the song, but as he grew in confidence his eyes closed and his voice grew stronger as he lost himself in the song. His mother, standing a little way off, glowed with pride. Before the smattering of applause had finished, he started a second song. At first so unwilling to start singing, he was now enjoying the audience and couldn’t bring himself to stop.
Nuwakot is a small village around 75km from Kathmandu that was formerly on the trade route between India and China. Bizarrely for such a small and sleepy village, it is topped by a tall 18th-century palace, harking back to the days when this was the capital of the entire region, before the unification of the country.
The former wealth of the area can be seen in the detail of some of the buildings, most obviously in the Famous Farm (rural-heritage.com), a former manor house and two cottages set around a courtyard. Atmospheric and relaxing, this unique guesthouse boasts a series of rooms with low ceilings, hideaway nooks, and sometimes even tiny, rickety balconies that look out over the surrounding countryside as far as the snow-capped peaks of the Langtang Himal. The gardens of the farm drop sharply down the steep hillside and are planted with flowers and fresh produce that is used by the kitchen.
If you are looking for a longer trek, stretching up to a few days, then the Royal Trek near the town of Pokhara is a perfect option. The entire trek takes four days, but smaller sections can be just as rewarding. The route was conceived for Great Britain’s Prince Charles in the 1980s and passes through farmland in the foothills of the Annapurna range, on clear days giving stunning views of the range, including the iconic Machhapuchhre (Fishtail) mountain.
The trek ends up at the freshwater Begnas Lake, the second largest in the entire Pokhara Valley. On the shores of the lake, the Begnas Lake Resort (begnaslakeresort.com) is a comfortable place to rest aching legs.
Walking in this region is never dull, presenting a series of tableaux of local life, especially at harvest time when the rice fields are dry and locals are cutting and threshing rice and constructing haystacks ready for the winter.
At the hilltop village of Chisapani, my arrival corresponded with break time at the local school. The largest open space in the village was just outside of the school, and hundreds of children were running around, shrieking with excitement, and completely ignoring an exasperated teacher who attempted to herd them back through the gates. Some of the older boys were playing football on a strikingly uneven pitch, while younger children barked out formulaic questions in English, their desire to talk to the foreigner overcoming their shyness.
Every village has a rest-stop for the porters who have been carrying goods on the stepped paths between the villages for countless generations. These are also found at key points between villages; often at the top of ascents, for porters to rest after they have climbed. Built around an old, shady tree, a raised platform of stones lets porters sit, while a higher step of stones takes the weight of their load.
Once the children had finally been herded into the school, this main space fell quiet. Amid a small row of tiny shops was a tea shop selling glasses of sweet Indian-style chai and samosas. Outside an old man squatted on his haunches drinking tea. He smiled as I attempted to copy his pose, in order to take a portrait, amused at my inability to comfortably squat!
Near the village of Talbeshi, at the end of a long flat valley, I stumbled across a young man ploughing a field with two cows dragging an old wooden plough. I have always found that a good way to engage with people is to join in and have a go at what they are doing. My usual bumbling inefficiency tends to break down any boundaries between us. This was no exception: the cows went one way, the plough the other, and the furrow I left in the ground seemingly zig-zagged between the two – much to the cackling enjoyment of the small clutch of workers, eating their lunch in the nearby shade.
You don’t have to travel so far from Kathmandu to enjoy a good trek. Just a few kilometres from the popular tourist area of Thamel lies the Nagarjun Hill. Also known as the Rani Ban, or Queen’s Forest, a motorable road leads to the 2,095m summit, giving views of the Kathmandu Valley as well as the Annapurna mountains further afield. If you don’t fancy exerting yourself, it is even possible to ride an elephant here.
Slightly further again, the Shivapuri Nagarjun National Park is one of the last unspoilt areas of forest in the entire Kathmandu Valley. Indian and clouded leopards, as well as Himalayan black bears, have been identified here in recent studies, but you are more likely to encounter rhesus macaques chattering overhead, or even shy langur monkeys hiding in the branches. Over 300 species of bird have also been recorded in the park, competing to provide a pleasant background of birdsong on the long hike to the 2,732m summit of the Shivapuri Peak.
Two-thirds of the way from Kathmandu to Pokhara, the town of Bandipur lies on a high ridge, surrounded by stunning mountain peaks. The town centres on a main street, running along the top of the ridge. Originally on the trade route between India and China, the town enjoyed great importance, even gaining the right to have its own library. It is currently a pleasant backwater and a relaxed place to spend a few days. There are a number of attractive walks around the town, yet it is hard to walk far before the path starts to drop quickly off the ridge, meaning a steep walk home. At the edge of town, a steep path leads to the top of a hill, giving commanding views at sunrise and sunset.
Stay at the Old Inn (rural-heritage.com), a converted Newari townhouse that has been restored by travel company Himalayan Encounters, maintaining all of the charm, carved wood, and very low ceilings and doorways. Mind your head!
Although people refer to Kathmandu, the city is made up of a series of towns and districts lying in the Kathmandu Valley. The three largest, Kathmandu, Patan, and Bhaktapur, were the former capitals of ruling Newar kingdoms dating back to medieval times. The old towns are built around the Durbar Squares: sprawling plazas that were built adjacent to the Newar Royal Palaces. My favourite of all the royal towns is Bhaktapur. Atmospheric and bustling, Bhaktapur is noted for the Golden Gate and the Palace of Fifty-Five Windows, built during the reign of King Yaksha Malla in 1427 CE. Bhaktapur seems to be a city of squares. Some are tiny and tucked away, others larger and more bustling. In Taumadhi Square, adjacent to Durbar Square, a dawn market takes place every morning under the shadow of a soaring five-storey pagoda. Further afield, the so-called Potter’s Square is packed with handmade clay pots, drying in the sun. Stay at the Bhadgaon Guest House (bhadgaon.com.np) on Taumadhi Square. Set around a secluded courtyard, the roof terrace gives some of the best views over the square and the rest of the city.
Chitwan National Park
Chitwan is a beautiful park in the lowland Terai region of Nepal. Noted for the population of Indian one-horned rhinos, there are also Royal Bengal tigers here, although you would be very lucky to see one of those. Jungle camps in the heart of the park have recently been closed by the government, but you can stay in the buffer-zone and still enjoy that real jungle experience. Green Jungle Resort (greenjungleresort.com) offers atmospheric jungle huts and can organise your sightseeing of the park, including jungle walks, game drives, elephant safaris, and boat trips on the Narayani River.
With a part of Nepal being the low-lying Terai region bordering India and part the mountainous Himalayas bordering China, it is no wonder that Nepalese food is a varied blend arising from these two cultures.
The most popular dish is dal-bhat (lentil soup with boiled rice) or dal-bhat tarkari, served with the addition of a vegetable curry. Traditionally this will come served on a large metal thali dish and will be eaten with the right hand. Spicy pickles are sometimes added, along with a greater selection of dishes, but always based on the dal-bhat staple.
Momos, dumplings stuffed with vegetables or buffalo meat, are popular in the higher-altitude parts of Nepal. This is often washed down with butter tea, which is a bit of an acquired taste, although not as much as yak butter tea.
Pickles and spicy chutneys are a big part of Nepalese cuisine. One particular recipe for chilli paste was given to me at Begnas Lake. This is a perfect accompaniment to any curry, bringing a real taste of Nepal to any dish. The paste is quite solid, but can be mixed with olive oil, which allows it to be drizzled over pizzas.
Begnas chilli paste
- 100g finely chopped garlic
- 250ml sesame oil
- 125g red chilli powder
- 25g chilli flakes
- 50ml soy sauce
Finely chop the garlic, and fry in the oil until it is golden brown, which gives it a nutty taste. Set this aside to cool, and mix the chilli powder, flakes, and soy sauce together before adding the oil and garlic and mixing well.
Distance: 3,368 km
Flight Time: 4 hours, 40 mins
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