Nepal is a land of extremes. On the one side there’s crazy, chaotic, fun-filled Kathmandu; on the other is the serenity of the Himalayas. Then you’ve got Everest, the world’s tallest peak.
Most visitors fly into Kathmandu before heading out of the traffic-clogged city to see more of the country, which is roughly the size of New Zealand’s South Island. Many beat a path north-east to Everest Base Camp while others trek the Annapurna circuit to the north-west. Chitwan National Park in the sub-tropical lowlands south-west of Kathmandu is also a popular destination thanks to its populations of one-horned rhinos, Royal Bengal tigers and gharial crocodiles, almost as big as Australian ‘salties’.
Yet the most alluring thing about Nepal is easily the people. They’re warm, friendly, helpful, sociable and, just like Australians, they like to laugh a lot.
Food and drink
While in Nepal, expect to eat a lot of mild curries, lentils, rice and momos (steamed dumplings). Tourism plays such a pivotal role in the country’s economy that Western dishes such as pizza, pasta and sandwiches are also widely available. Among the locally brewed beers, try Everest – a refreshing lager with a distinctive Everest mountaineer label. You may also see hardy types trying tongba – a hot millet beer served in large mugs and sipped through a straw. It’s definitely an acquired taste.
If you’re trekking, drop into a tea-house along the trail for a mug of restorative hot lemon tea or refreshing cold drink. While trekking at altitude, remember to stay hydrated by frequently drinking water before you start to feel thirsty.
If you need a caffeine kick in Kathmandu, drop into Chikusa coffee shop in the Thamel district to watch spiced masala tea being brewed from scratch. It also serves great pancakes.
Experience the culture
Religion plays a major role in Nepalese life. In Kathmandu, the must-see Buddhist temples include Boudhanath Stupa, draped with prayer flags and loops of marigolds. Circle it clockwise and then head up to one of the surrounding rooftop cafes for a snack and a drink. For one of the best views over all of Kathmandu Valley, head to Swayambhunath Temple (also known as Monkey Temple) west of the city.
Pashupatinath Temple is Nepal’s most sacred Hindu shrine – non-Hindus can’t enter the temple itself but head cross the holy Bagmati River to view the funeral pyres and associated ceremonies. Here, across the river, there are also many intricately painted and dreadlocked sadhus (or holy men) sitting in the doorways. They will happily pose for a photograph for a donation of about 50 rupees ($AU0.63).
Finally, visit at least one of Kathmandu’s three Durbar Squares filled with intricate, centuries-old architecture. Grab a bird’s-eye view of the rooftops of Kathmandu’s Durbar Square by heading upstairs to Festive Fare Restaurant.
Pashupatinath’s curious monkeys may snatch bags placed on the ground in the hope they will find food inside. Keep hold of your belongings.
For decades, travellers have flocked to the Kathmandu Guest House – it even hosted the Beatles in 1968. Beds start from as little as US$2 a night and range all the way up to a two-bedroom suite for US$200 a night. Even if you’re not a guest, you can drop in for lunch or a beverage in its shaded courtyard restaurant in the heart of Thamel.
A few blocks away from the Guest House is the Garden of Dreams – a restored neo-classical walled garden that provides respite from Kathmandu’s busy streets. It’s also popular with local couples who snuggle on the benches placed around the manicured grounds.
So you want to hike through Nepal’s ridiculously spectacular mountain ranges? Join an organised trek or go for it as an independent trekker. Some people choose to carry their own packs or you can hire a porter for US$10-$20 a day. There are plenty of lodges along the trails where you are also expected to dine (lodge owners make their money through meals rather than beds). If you’re trekking independently, put aside US$15-$30 a day for this expense.
If you have a bit budget to spare, plenty of trekking companies offer group expeditions in Nepal. World Expeditions is a well-regarded company with a permanent campsite set up in Namche Bazaar. Aurora Expeditions offers one of the most luxurious Himalayan treks around. Led by Tashi Tenzing, grandson of Everest pioneer Tenzing Norgay, its Classic Everest trek finishes with a jaw-dropping helicopter ride past the 8848-metre-high peak.
If you need to buy a more suitable pair of hiking boots or rain jacket, Namche Bazaar has outdoor adventure stores that sell trek supplies (although items are more expensive here than in Kathmandu). The Sherpa capital also seems to have a German bakery on every corner – do your carb-loading here! If you want to avoid crowds along this region’s trails, remember that October is the busiest month for trekking.
Altitude sickness can induce severe headaches and loss of appetite. Make sure you see your doctor before departure to ask about preventative medications. It’s also wise to pack anti-diarrhoea pills – it’s no fun to be caught short along the trail. Make sure you wash and sanitise your hands regularly.
Finally, the most important word to use anywhere in Nepal in is “Namaste”. The universal greeting is a sign of respect and will always be returned with a smile.