Monday, 25 July 2011

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With the country gearing up for 2011 Nepal Tourism year, Amanda Statham visits the Himalayan kingdom, where she finds spectacular natural beauty and cultural heritage, and experiences Everest from on high.

The view from Buddha Air’s 16-seater plane was breathtaking. Peeking through the clouds like a snow-capped pyramid was the world’s loftiest peak, the 29,029ft-high Mount Everest. Even though my camera battery gave up the ghost at the precise moment I was invited into the cockpit to get a better look at the mighty peak, I remained on top of the world.
To those who say Everest should only be glimpsed from an icy base camp, which takes at least a week to trek to and lies thousands of feet below the summit, I say “pah”. A mountain flight might not be in the spirit of Sir Edmund Hillary’s ascent in 1953, but it’s a splendid way to see the mother of all mountains.

Until fairly recently Nepal’s main tourists have been trekkers and backpackers, who inevitably pay a visit to Kathmandu — once a key stop on the fabled hippy trail — either at the start or end of their tour. The former will be delighted to hear four new trekking routes are opening next year: the Annapurna Conservation Area, Limi Valley in Humla, Dudhkunda in Solukhumbu and the Panch Pokhari Bhairab Kunda Trek. January also sees the launch of the 2,800-mile Great Himalaya Trail, the world’s highest and longest alpine trekking route.

But as I discovered, Nepal offers plenty of experiences that needn’t end in blisters or hypothermia. With its planned opening of the five-star Kasai hotel in Lumbini (the birthplace of Buddha), an expanding Homestay programme — some way short of five-star but a nice interlude for a couple of nights — and a chain of comfortable lodges, a day’s walk apart, run by US luxury operator Ker and Downey, the country is slowly embracing a different type of traveller.

I flew in to Kathmandu — a sprawling, dusty capital with a near-constant hum of traffic and horns — with a view to moving on as quickly as possible after ticking off the key sights.

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The day began in the city’s ancient Durbar Square at the Kumari Palace where, I am told, it’s possible to catch a glimpse of Nepal’s living goddess, chosen at age four and cast aside when she hits her teens — although I confess I ran out of patience, and hot-footed it to Swayambhunath Temple.
One of the country’s oldest religious sites, legend has it that this colossal 2,000-year-old, white-domed stupa with its glittering gold spire is home to a 1,500-year-old meditating holy man who controls the weather. I didn’t get to meet him either.
It’s the peace and tranquillity of Nepal’s countryside, comprising around 67 per cent of Nepal’s land mass, that really stays in your heart long after you’ve returned home. After 24 hours in Kathmandu, I was more than ready to embrace it. A four-hour bus journey north along winding roads ended at the village of Nuwakot, where I checked into the Famous Farm, a beautifully restored red-brick house with flower-filled gardens.

My room, reached via a wooden staircase and with a four-poster bed and an en suite shower room, was effortlessly romantic, and the owners grow vegetables and keep livestock, so the food, including own-recipe dahl and scrambled eggs for breakfast, is fresh and tasty. It was the ideal base from which to explore with a local guide who led me through meadows, past farms and into villages, where I was welcomed into homes to sample the local brew, Roxy. Be warned, it’s 70 per cent proof.
From Nuwakot it was a bumpy two-hour journey to the Trisuli Centre, a tented camp on Big Fig Beach, on the edge of the snaking Trisuli River. Reached by an Indiana Jones-style bridge, the 12 tents are adorned with prayer flags and contain two camp beds, while food is served in a local café across the bridge. It was simple, but sipping maize wine and bonding with fellow guests around the campfire at night was a highlight of my trip.
There’s no shortage of diversions in Nepal, ranging from helicopter champagne breakfasts at Langtang Valley to tandem paragliding, introduced this year by Himalayan Sky Safaris. But a morning’s rafting on the Trisuli River is a must. Its grade-two to -three rapids are tame enough for first-time paddlers, and the thrilling ride through gorges the following morning heralded another high.
A more laid-back experience awaited in the sleepy town of Bandipur, a two-hour drive away. Locals play chess in the market square and it’s easy to lose an afternoon sipping Nepalese tea and gazing at the forested Marsyangdi River Valley 3,280ft below. I stayed at The Old Inn, a charming three-storey hotel with one priceless addition: a balcony facing the Annapurna range. It was Women’s Festival (Tij) during my September visit, which saw local women, dressed in brilliant red saris, descend from surrounding villages to sing and dance until dusk.
After days in the countryside, the busy but friendly town of Pokhara, sprawled along the vast Phewa Lake, made an interesting contrast.

Aside from excellent gift-shopping opportunities, the other reason to visit Pokhara is its proximity to Sarangkot, a hillside spot where tourists and trekkers gather at 5am to catch a glimpse of the Annapurnas and Machhapuchhres. I may not have walked for three days to be there, but I felt no less emotional as the cloud lifted and the sunlight hit the snow-capped peaks.

That evening, back in Kathmandu via a flight around Everest, I visited the legendary Rum Doodle Bar and
Restaurant to see Sir Edmund Hillary’s signature above the bar and sample the thick steak climbers famously order post-Everest. Did I feel guilty as I tucked in? Not at all. For I, too, had achieved an Everest ascent of sorts.

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