Travel: The secret splendours of Kathmandu
Most visitors to Nepal pass through Kathmandu on their way to Mount Everest.
But spend some time in this vibrant city and its surrounds, says Fiona Wootton, and you’ll discover plenty of treasures.
The rhythmic dip of oars into water is all I hear as I peer out from above my slightly ill-fitting life jacket. In the dusky light, the river banks appear to stretch into infinity. Deer, wild boar and exotic birds are gathering at the water’s edge for an evening drink.
Feeling a breeze on my cheek, I turn to find it’s from the beat of a wing. A small group of birds have joined us, circling and darting alongside our little boat.
We’re in the peaceful Chitwan Valley in southern Nepal. It’s a world away from the sensory assault of capital city Kathmandu, but easily reached on a weekend away.
Many travellers to Nepal fly straight in and out of the capital on their way to a series of well-worn trekking routes around the country. But it’s worth sticking around for a few days and exploring the surrounding area.
On the capital’s periphery I found Buddhist and Hindu temples alive with swinging monkeys, crumbling doorways opening up to reveal magical gardens and hidden courtyards, and a stunning Newari five-star hotel.
Over in nearby city Patan, new patterns of culture are emerging from cross-cultural pollinations of eastern and western music and cuisine. Further afield, the horizon shifts and opens up to the spectacular Himalayan sunsets of Nagarkot and the lumbering elephant safaris of Chitwan’s plains.
The Kathmandu Valley alone is home to seven world heritage sites, more than 3,000 temples and a plethora of spiritual, cultural and surprisingly serene experiences.
Kathmandu itself is a full-throttle city: taxi and rickshaw drivers sound their horns far into the night, and ‘momos’ (delicious Nepalese dumplings) simmer on oversized hot plates in every other doorway.
In tourist-friendly zone Thamel, small dust roads are lined with guest houses, shops, workshops and every imaginable type of food outlet. But despite the heavy, fuel-belching traffic and general hunger for modernisation, symbols of tradition still remain.
Temples, terracotta sculptures, bronze crafts - the results of 2,000 years of habitation - are crammed into a patchwork of medieval buildings and new-builds. Migrating groups from Tibet and India have nourished the place with their rich arts and culture.
Today, most visitors pass through on their way to “greater” adventures, but stick around for a few days and Kathmandu’s magic will quickly take hold.
Where to go
:: Garden of Dreams, Kaiser Mahal, Kathmandu
This vast neo-classical garden is 10 minutes’ walk from the centre of Thamel. An oversized bamboo swing, subtropical plants, lush grass, comfy cotton mats, tea room and bar make for a special retreat. Spend the day reading, relaxing and taking in the sun’s rays. Visit www.gardenofdreams.org.np
:: Monkey Temple, Swayambhunath, Kathmandu outskirts
Climb the 300-something stone steps of the pilgrim’s approach, past the stone animals and birds, to find an impressive stupa, prayer wheels and a wonderful view of the city and its surroundings.
:: Boudhanath, Kathmandu outskirts
Every day, thousands of Buddhist devotees circle the sacred white-washed stupa beneath fluttering prayer flags. As the sun sets, candles are lit, one by one, around its circumference. Watch this enchanting spectacle while drinking a cool Himalayan beer from one of the surrounding open-air roof-top cafes and bars.
To the south of Kathmandu is Patan (or Lalitpur), often described as an extension of the capital. Patan’s Jhamsikhel and Pulchowk areas are home to many embassy ex-pats and UN workers. Visit the hip Moksh music venue and bar, next to a yoga and dance centre, English book shop and a jazz school. Visit pranamaya-yoga.com
Where to stay
:: Dwarika’s Hotel, Kathmandu
Behind a discreet wall of green leaves lies this restored architectural gem, built with reclaimed terracotta bricks. The authentic, family-run five-star hotel offers elegant suites filled with four-poster beds, a pool and a pretty courtyard with daybeds. Visit www.dwarikas.com
:: Tigerland Safari Resort, Chitwan Valley
Set on the edge of Nepal’s Chitwan National Park (a five-hour bus ride from Thamel), Tigerland’s deluxe villas on stilts provide a great base for discovering the wildlife of this region. Days are filled with river boat rides, nature walks, elephant safaris, wildlife lectures and elephant feeding. Visit tigerlandnepal.com
:: Peaceful Cottage, Nagarkort
To the east of Kathmandu lies Nagarkort, a calm local town an hour’s drive from Kathmandu. Visitors come for the soaring views of the Himalayan Langtang mountain range, where eagles circle overhead. Peaceful Cottage is a fun, relaxed hotel, and an excellent viewing point from which to soak up the views. Visit nagarkothotels.blogspot.co.at
Where to eat
:: Dwarika’s Krishnarpan, Kathmandu
Housed in the grandeur of Dwarikas hotel, this is an opulent slow dining experience. Recalling ancient feasting customs, the six to 22-course menu draws on the many different cultural influences in Nepalese cuisine. Vegetables come directly from Dwarika’s own farm. Visit www.dwarikas.com
:: Chez Caroline
The series of courtyards in the Baber Mahal Revisited complex house an array of restaurants, art spaces, and shops selling handicrafts. French-born Caroline runs a cosy bistro spirit serving specialist imported French delicacies alongside fresh local produce. Visit www.babermahal-revisited.com
Travel facts - Kathmandu
Fiona travelled as a guest of Bales Worldwide (0845 057 0600; www.balesworldwide.com) who offer the 10-day Nepal Panorama from £2,270 pp (two adults travelling), including scheduled flights, sightseeing and accommodation encompassing Kathmandu (2 nights), Pokhara (2 nights), Bandipur (1 night), Chitwan National Park (2 nights), Kathmandu (1 night).
Prices are based on February 14, 2014 departure.