Steeped in legend for housing eight of the highest mountains in the world, Nepal was once seen as a destination reserved for those who donned beards, ponytails and state of the art – always luminous – mountain climbing attire. Wedged between the wannabe superpowers of India and China, it is also lacks stature compared to its neighbours. But things are changing. Travellers frustrated by the far reaching cosmopolitan brush of globalization are searching for those rare places that have maintained their identity through the ages. Nepal is one such place.
When you land at Tribhuvan International Airport just outside Kathmandu, you will realize right away that you are in a country decades behind the first world in regards to pretty much everything. As you disembark your plane, that probably houses more technology than the entire airport, do not be surprised when you see fellow passengers walking directly beneath the seething jet engines. Immigration consists of a blasé checkpoint after which you hustle your luggage from a chaotic carousal. Make sure you have your wits about you before heading outside into the mosh-pit of overzealous taxi drivers. If you have done your homework regarding the weather patterns, you are likely to arrive somewhere between October and December although the latter month will mean dealing with crowds. Whatever the case, landing during this window will ensure you are met with deep blue skies and amicable temperatures.
The drive into Kathmandu – the airport is about 45 minutes away – reveals sprawling grey buildings thirsty for a lick of paint. The theme of widespread poverty and pollution that is common throughout much of Asia is as apparent as ever, but when you reach the tourist hub, Thamel, the streets suddenly clean up and the derelict sidewalks are replaced by tidy but tiny shops run by local entrepreneurs. The narrow cobblestone roads throng with pedestrians and cyclists benignly weaving through each other. Century old scenes of trade play out in front of you while you peruse the multifaceted merchandise the colourful vendors have on offer – the art of bartering clearly alive and well. When the hunger pangs set in there are a selection of international cuisines to choose from, but there is a better option than eating these foreign imitations. Roof tops of the old colonial buildings have been converted into sun drenched restaurants that double up as panoramic viewing points. Here, you can sit six stories above the ground floor commotion and enjoy delicious local meals while you take in your first sighting of the snow-capped peaks belonging to the fabled Himalayan Mountain Range.
Few people visit Nepal to experience Kathmandu alone. It is what lies beyond the boundaries of the capital, out in the wilderness, which will reignite your smouldering sense of adventure. What should not surprise you is that it all begins with the mountains. 200km west of Kathmandu lies Nepal’s third largest city, Pokhara. The northern peripheries of the city are home to mountains of biblical proportion, known as the Annapurna range. This mass of gigantic rock masquerades as an enormous playground for adventure seekers, but catch this temptress in the wrong mood and you will not be going on any adventures ever again – Annapurna I has the highest fatality rate of all the peaks over 8000 meters with one in every three summit attempts ending in tragedy. Trekking, mountain biking, and paragliding are among the most common activities in Pokhara. Sound like run of the mill? If you have experienced these activities on a grander scale, it was not on our planet. Any sense of bravado or grandeur you might feel towards yourself evaporates when confronted with the enormity of your surrounds.
The sleepy-by-day, vibrant-by-night town of Pokhara will charm even the hardiest of travellers. The main road, which is lucky to see a car before lunch time, is lined with travel agencies, trekking outlets, cafes, restaurants, and bars – engage with the easy-going locals for inside info on the best places to eat, drink, and dance. If you stroll down a side alley with your back to the mountains, very shortly the Phewa Lake comes into view. In the latter months of the year the still air turns this mass of water into a sprawling mirror, with only the wakes of hollowed out tree canoes disturbing the reflection. If you choose to paddle out into the lake yourself, make sure you take your wide angle lens with you; the inverted mountain range beaming off the water is a sight to behold. The raw beauty of this town would fetch a hefty premium in first world countries. For now though, Pokhara is the epitome of third world living and was recently designated as one of the most wallet friendly travel destinations on the globe with simple accommodation costing as little as $3 a night.
Vast amounts of Himalayan snow melt during the summer months in Nepal. Trickles become streams, streams turn to tributaries, and tributaries fuel icy turquoise torrents that feverishly meander through the steep vistas in the foothills of this vast mountain range. These rivers keep the countryside green and are the lifeblood of many a rural village. If you have any adrenaline left, the world-class white-water rafting will sap the rest of it. Prefer a mellower excursion? Go fishing for the enormous Mahseer that lurk in the deep river eddies. The country is also speckled with nature reserves, protecting endangered wild life. The Chitwan National Park is home to a recovering Rhinoceros population, elusive leopards, fleet footed foxes, obstinate honey badgers, and of course the majestic Bengal Tigers.
Nepal remains one of the most aesthetically gifted countries in the world. For an outdoor enthusiast, it is difficult to match the variety and depth of the experiences on offer. Thrown in the friendly locals, tasty food, and cheap beer and you get a full-blooded shakeup of mind, body, and soul.